Chapter 09

fifty-shades-freed-1511912606

Carter blinks, seemingly confused by my question, which is weird because the last time we had regular contact with each other, he was lamenting over the fact that he’d been waitlisted for Harvard Law and how doubtful it seemed that his status would change before the start of term. But here he is, books in hand and the tell-tale signs of exhaustion darkening the skin beneath his eyes.

“What do you mean, ‘what am I doing here’?” he asks. “I go to school here. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, we uh… we’re here with Mia. She got in for next year and it’s orientation weekend.”

“Grey’s sister? Didn’t she want to be a singer or… actress or something?”

“Ballet dancer. But she decided she wants to study law instead, so here we are. And you… I didn’t know that you got off the wait list. That’s amazing! Come here.” I hold out my arms to hug him, and while he does step into my embrace, I note that he’s being overly cautious. Maybe that’s because he has some unresolved feelings over his break up with Kate that are now too much to ignore in the absence of a mad man threatening my life. Or maybe, it’s because I haven’t called him since he was released from the hospital in Georgia. A hospital he was only in because of a great personal sacrifice he made to protect me and my family.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called,” I say, pulling away from him. But he shakes his head dismissively.

“Don’t be. I get it.” He pauses, and the air between us is suddenly ladened with the unspoken events of the past. His hand twitches, almost as though he wants to reach out for me, but thinks better of it almost immediately. “When I heard about what happened to you… I called Kate to try and see how you were doing. She said it was pretty bad.”

“It was, at first. But some time has passed and… We’re moving on. We’re good. Fine.” I force a smile, and he nods.

“Good. I’m really glad to hear that. Do you wanna… get a coffee or something? Catch up?”

“Yeah, I do, but… I’ve gotta get back to my sister before she thinks I abandoned her. Do you want to come over tonight for dinner or something?”

“Come over? You still have your house here?”

“Yeah. We knew we’d back fairly often and the property value is good, so Christian just decided to keep it. It’s pretty empty and boring though, so you’d actually be doing me a huge favor by coming over and keeping me company. I don’t know that I can handle losing another game of Monopoly to anyone named Grey.”

“Yeah, losing out to a Grey sucks.” He laughs, and while I can hear the good humor in his voice, his words make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. My smile falters and, instinctively, Luke steps closer to me. I try to subtly bat him away and laugh.

“So, I’ll see you tonight? I can order in from that sub place you like. What is it called? Al’s?”

“That’s the place. You bring the food, I’ll bring the beer.”

“Best idea I’ve heard all day. Seven o’clock?”

“I’ll be there.”

“Good.” I lean in and give him one last hug before he straightens the books in his arms and continues on up the walkway, towards the parking lot behind the main law building.

“I saw that,” Luke says once we’re alone, and I swallow the growing lump in my throat

“I know.”

“So, what? He’s next on the list now?”

I gnaw on my bottom lip, staring for a long minute in the direction Carter disappeared, contemplating. I haven’t had any questions about anyone Luke and I have dealt with so far. It’s all come so naturally that it’s almost felt like acting on instinct. But as I stand there, repeating Carter’s words in my head over and over again, analyzing them, I feel torn for the very first time.

‘Yeah, losing out to a Grey sucks.’

Is that threatening? Does that mean he’s holding a grudge? Does he blame Elliot or Christian for losing Kate and me and he’s angrier about it than he let on when he came to Seattle after our wedding? I noticed he was awkward when I tried to hug him earlier, maybe I was right. Maybe, now that I’m not being stalked by a man actively trying to kidnap me anymore, he doesn’t have to push his hurt feelings aside for the greater good and can instead let them fester in the resentment that is undoubtedly made worse by the fact that I never even called to check on him after we left Atlanta…

Or maybe, it was just a joke.

“Ana?”

“I don’t know,” I admit. “But he’s coming over tonight. So we’ll see.”

Luke sighs and reaches out to rub my shoulders. “For what it’s worth… I wouldn’t have called Kate to check on you if I was holding any resentment strong enough to make me want to hurt you or your family.”

“And I probably wouldn’t give someone I wanted dead a liver either, but Gia offered.” I turn to look at Luke and swallow. “And Kommer used to drive all way into Boston at two o’clock in the morning to buy the fruit snacks that I liked because the store in Cambridge was closed and I was having a craving. People lie, Luke. Everyone lies. The bad ones and the good ones. Christian lies. And now, so do we.”

“You’re doing it to protect your family. And Christian… he does shady shit sometimes but you know that he means well.”

“We all do. For someone.” Luke’s mouth drops open like he’s going to argue, but suddenly can’t find the words, so I brush him off and take the handle of Calliope’s stroller out of his hands. “Come on, Mia is going to wonder where we are.”

Mia doesn’t answer her phone when I call from the car, trying to figure out where she’s at, so we decide to start at the Old Yard and work out from there. Thankfully, the sheer number of dorms there are to showcase for the incoming freshman means we arrive right at the end of the tour, just as Mia’s group is exiting Grays Hall. I wave at her as she descends the stairs at the middle entrance and try to gauge her excitement, but she’s playing it very cool. I suspect she wants to appear mature and reserved in front of her future classmates, but, just like her brother, it takes me only seconds to find the excited twinkle in her eyes.

“Well?” I ask, handing her a water bottle from the pocket beneath Calliope’s stroller. “How was it?”

“Grays is definitely the best. I can see why you and Christian picked it. It seems less crowded, and it’s definitely the most updated… but if you get a room on the wrong side of the hall, you won’t get that perfect view of the yard. Christian didn’t have a view, right? But maybe that was because he was by himself. I’ll definitely need a roommate… I wonder if that’s something you can request?”

She continues on and on about her future plans for living in Grays Hall as we follow the group away from the dormitories, and listening to her is exactly like listening to Kate five years ago. I can feel the same excited energy radiating off of her that I felt then and, for just one minute, I’m a little jealous of her. Harvard was the greatest, most transformative experience I ever had, except maybe motherhood, and despite how glad I was to finally have the endless nights of studying and brutal weeks of tests and papers behind me when it was all over, I now kind of wish I had just one more year. Except I wouldn’t go through those long months without Christian again for anything in the world. Not even Harvard.

There’s a break in the day’s activities for lunch, which we’ll be having at Annenberg Dining Hall to give the students and parents both a sample of campus cuisine. It’s weird how, years later, they’re still serving the exact same food, right down to the decorations on the little pudding cups at the dessert station. Mia doesn’t know well enough to stay away from the main dishes at the entree station, which are served in mass, but rather than warn her away, I decide its best she learn through trail by fire, just like we all had to. And it’s a little satisfying to watch her wrinkle her nose over her lemon chicken pasta, while I enjoy the salad I made myself at the salad bar.

“I’m going to starve!” she complains, and I giggle but shake my head.

“It’s not all bad. You’ll learn quick what’s good and what to avoid. If it’s hot and comes out of a big metal dish, you don’t want it. But breakfast is good, and so is the soup. And if you go to the deli and get the thin sliced bread, instead of the thick stuff they have behind the grill, you can get a decent grilled cheese sandwich.”

She grimaces and pushes her pasta around with her fork. “I can’t believe Christian actually used to eat here. He’s pickier than I am.”

“He didn’t come because of the food,” I tell her and when she looks up, I wink. “He came for me.”

Luke shakes his head and lets his silverware clink down on top of his plate. “I need you to repeat what you just said to yourself and think very carefully about the way you phrased that.”

I laugh, but Mia tears the corner off the crusty bread on the side of her plate and tosses it at him. “You have a dirty mind.”

“Oh, my sweet summer child…”

“Game of Thrones?” I interject. “And you say I’m the nerd!”

“Game of Thrones is quite possibly the best television show ever created, it’s not nerdy.”

“Meh. The books were better.”

“And that’s why you’re the nerd” I push him, hard enough that he’s knocked slightly off balance and has to catch his weight on the bench, but when he sits up we both devolve into laughter until a beet red Mia threatens to leave and never speak to either of us again. Luke seems fine with that, but I quickly pull it together and hiss for him to knock it off.

“Alright, everyone!” our tour guide says brightly, getting up from her seat at the table where she has been getting grilled by parents for the better part of the last hour. “It’s time we go meet with your academic advisors and get signed up for classes! Who’s excited?”

She gets several responses with varying degrees of enthusiasm as everyone clears their lunch trays and gathers together again. But when Mia gets up from the table, she turns and knocks fairly hard into Calliope’s stroller, jolting her, and causing her to wake. Immediately, she screams. I try to calm her by pulling her from the stroller and holding her close to me, bouncing her, rocking her back and forth, even offering her the pacifier Christian has been adamant she can only have at night. Nothing works. Her gurgly screams echo through the cavernous hall, disturbing the students and drowning out whatever our guide is trying to say. I get several dirty looks from other parents, even a few from the people in Mia’s group, so as we make our way outside, I reach out for Mia’s hand and pull her back so we can talk privately.

“I think we’re going to go.”

“What? No! You can’t go. This is the part that actually matters.”

“I know. But you’re going to have an advisor, Mia. They can help you better that I ever could. Trust me, you’re in good hands.”

“I don’t want to do this by myself.”

Calliope starts digging her fingers into the side of my face, wailing and demanding my attention. “I’m sorry, Mia.”

Her face falls, but she nods. “Alright. I’ll call you when we’re done?”

“Yeah, and text me to let me know how everything goes.” She smiles in agreement and tries to kiss Calliope, but my very red faced baby dodges her and buries her face into my shoulder where she continues to sob and drench my t-shirt in her tears. I give Mia an awkward side hug while Luke wishes her good luck, and then we hurry away back towards the parking lot where we’ve left the car.

It takes some borderline professional level wrestling moves to get Callie back into her car seat and a two ibuprofen I wash down with warm water to get us back to the house. Once we’re inside, I immediately lay her blanket down over the floor so I can change her, but she continues to fight me the entire time.

“Come on, Calli-lilly,” I practically beg as I try to pull a t-shirt down over her head. “Work with me here.”

“No!” she screams. “No! No! No!”

“What do you mean, no? You can’t be a nakie baby!”

“No!” I see the small movement of her mouth that tells me she’s about to start crying again, so I give up. I wad up the shirt and little stretch pants I planned to dress her in and shove them unceremoniously back in her diaper bag. And she revels in her victory. The little monster even has the audacity to giggle at me.

“Oh you think it’s funny?” I ask, tickling her sides. She smiles and cringes away from me, giggling more as I brush the tips of my fingers over her skin. Luke shakes his head.

“Sometimes I think that she’s Grey’s kid, through and through. But then she does something to remind me that she is, in fact, 50% you.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s stubborn and impossible, but then one little smile and all is forgiven.”

“Awh!” I pout my lips at him, but he quickly rolls his eyes before looking back down at Callie and grinning.

“Hey, I got bad news for you, kid. I’m a monster. And I’m gonna get you!” She shrieks as he launches himself from the rocking chair and crawls away from him, and I lie down on the hardwood floor to watch, grateful for a little break. She loves being chased around, and Luke happily gives her what she wants for the better part of an hour. When he’s finally exhausted, Calliope is back to my playful, happy little baby, and she stays that way for the rest of the evening. She doesn’t put up a fight when I feed her or give her a bath later, and as seven o’clock rolls around, she sits quietly in my lap, listening to the story I read to her, until the doorbell rings. Luke gets up to answer it, but she turns wide eyes to me.

“Dada?”

“No, baby. Daddy’s at work.”

“No dada.” The disappointment is clear on her face as she snuggles into me, but Luke opens the door to let in Carter, so I simply cuddle her, rather than try to console her.

“Hey,” he greets us with a broad grin, holding up two six packs of ‘Gansett. “Am I too early?”

“Not at all.” I smile back, then look down at Calliope. “You ready for bed, munchkin?” She doesn’t reply, choosing instead to further bury her face into my t-shirt. So I tighten my hold on her and get out of the rocking chair. The closer I get to Carter, the more she tries to retreat into me.

“Can you say hi?” I ask in an encouraging voice. “Hi, Carter. Hi.”

She mumbles something into my shirt, which I think is mama, so simply hug her and give Carter an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, she’s not usually this shy.”

“That’s okay, we just met. Her name was… um…”

“Calliope.”

“Right.” He smiles and then leans in close to her, trying to get her to look at him. “Hey, Calliope. My name is Carter. I’m a friend of your mom’s.”

Again, she doesn’t respond. I try to shift her so she can’t hide her face against me, but as she moves, she shrieks and throws her body into me, nearly causing me to drop her.

“And that is when I can tell she’s Grey’s kid,” Luke interrupts with a laugh. “She hates Reed.”

Thankfully, Carter laughs too, before breaking off one of the white and red cans in his hand and tossing it Luke. They begin to talk casually with one another, catching up, so I ask Luke to order dinner and then take the opportunity to disappear back upstairs where I can put Calliope down for the night. She’s not keen to let me leave her alone in the room, but after softly singing her a few of her favorite lullabies, she drifts off enough that I can sneak out into the hallway without her making a fuss. By the time I get downstairs, the food has arrived and most of the first six pack Carter brought is gone.

“You have to go pick up Mia,” I warn Luke, narrowing my eyes at the can of beer in his hand.

“It’s not me,” he replies, and I follow my eyes to the two empties sitting on the floor by Carter.

“Hey, I’m just getting a head start,” he says. “Catch up to me, Steele.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything but a glass of wine with dinner. I think it’s safe to say I’ve lost all of my tolerance for alcohol.” I pop the tab on top of the beer can and take my first sip, surprised by how familiar it tastes despite the fact that I haven’t had a cold ‘Gansett since probably my junior year.

“Mmm,” I hum. “Memories.”

“Or the lack of,” Carter laughs. He lifts his can and after tapping the tip of mine against his, we both laugh and drink again.

It doesn’t take long for me to catch him up on everything that’s happened in my life since we last saw each other. I purposefully avoid the topic of Andrew Lincoln, but since that’s really what my entire life has been about over the last six months, I mostly have to talk about Christian and Calliope. There’s a weird moment where he tells me that the last he heard, Calliope had died when I was in labor and he only found out that wasn’t true when he came to warn me about the phone call he’d gotten from Lincoln on what turned out to be my wedding night.

“I really feel like I haven’t thanked you enough for what you did,” I tell him, but he brushes me off.

“Don’t worry about it. Seriously, I know you would have done the same for me.”

I nod. “I would. I was worried that after you and Kate broke up that you’d just kind of fade out of our lives. I’m glad we can still be friends.”

“Me too. How is Kate, anyway? I haven’t heard from her since… you know. After it happened.”

“Oh. Well, she and Elliot supposedly got married.”

“Supposedly?”

I roll my eyes. “They eloped. Went to Vegas, didn’t invite me. Her driver’s license may say ‘Grey’ now, but I refuse to acknowledge the validity of their marriage until I get a damn bridesmaid’s dress.”

“She’s being serious,” Luke says. “Grey has even suggested they do a vow renewal just so Ana will stop complaining about it.”

I turn to glare at him. “You can’t have a vow renewal if you’ve never been married, Lucas.”

He shakes his head. “You see what I mean. I’m just waiting for the day when Ana tries to make a joke about how their baby is a bastard and Kate whacks her upside the head.”

“I would never say something like that!” I say indignantly, but he seems less intimidated and more like he’s trying desperately to stop himself from smiling.

“Why? Because… Calliope is… well… you know.” I reach over to find something to throw at him, and, rather than help me, Carter just looks over at me, confused.

“Kate had a baby?”

“Oh, not yet,” I tell him. “But soon. She’s due April 14th.”

“Wow. So… he really did give her every thing she wanted.” The atmosphere of the room shifts as his words echo through the room and an uncomfortable quiet falls over us. I notice Luke glance over at me out of the corner of my eye, but before I can say anything, we’re interrupted by the shrill ring of my cellphone from the other room.

“I’m sorry, that might be Christian. Hold on.” After untangling my legs and getting up off the floor, I prepare myself to tell Christian I can’t continue our fight from earlier this afternoon because I’m too busy entertaining Carter Reed, which would probably result in him magically showing up here in a seemingly impossible amount of time, but when I get to my phone, it’s not his number I see. It’s Mia’s. And while part of me is relieved, a bigger part is a little upset that Christian hasn’t called me back to talk through our fight this afternoon. It’s not like him to leave things awkward and unresolved between us.

Mia’s ready for Luke to come pick her up, so he ducks out, promising to be right back, while I settle back down on the floor across from Carter. He’s still a little off about the whole Kate revelation thing, so I nervously drag my finger over the lip of my beer can and look up at him.

“Are you okay?” I ask. “About… you know, everything that happened. I know that it was hard for you with Christian and I, and now Kate and Elliot…”

“I’m fine, Ana.”

“You’re sure? No hard feelings?”

He shakes his head. “No. Maybe at first, but not anymore. I think that I’ve had enough time to think about it to realize that… if Kate had accepted my proposal and we’d gotten married, neither one of us would have been happy. I mean, she wouldn’t stay here. You were moving away and she had that job offer from her dad. She was always going to have to go back to Seattle and that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be here. And as much as they drive me crazy, I don’t think I’d want to settle down and start a family so far from my parents. She’d never agree to leave hers. That fight would have never ended and eventually, we’d grow to resent each other and blame each other for everything we missed out on in life. I would have been her biggest mistake, and she would have been mine. In a way, the time we spent together was perfect. Exactly what is was meant to be. Now, I can think back on what we had together and be happy about what we shared instead of letting all those great memories be ruined and tainted because we didn’t let go when we should have.”

I smile and let myself relax into the wall at my back. “Yeah. God, you’re so different.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the Carter Reed I knew was always more concerned about his beer pong record than doing serious introspection on his life. You never made plans past what you were doing that weekend, let alone consider what was going to make you happy long term.”

He laughs. “Yeah, well maybe law school does that to you. Or maybe it was getting waitlisted. I’d never been told no before and, honestly, if your husband hadn’t stepped in, I wouldn’t be here right now. That hit a little close to home.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s just say I wasn’t next on the waitlist. My dad nearly disowned me.”

“No, about Christian… What do you mean he stepped in?”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “He got me in. When I came to talk to him about that phone call last summer, he told me that if I was really there to help him, he wanted to help me. He offered me a job first, but when I turned it down, he said he’d get me into Harvard Law. I thought after what happened to your mom that he’d take it back but he didn’t. He made all the calls and worked whatever magic he had to work and now, here I am.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, I might have been wrong about him. He’s a good guy, your husband. And if I had to lose you to anyone, I’m glad it’s someone like him.”

“Someone like him?”

“Well, I’m never actually going to say I’m glad he stole my girlfriend in college. I’m forgiving, but I’m not a saint.” I laugh, and he reaches over to get us both another beer. From then on, it’s easy to talk to him. I can see just how much he’s grown up this year and I have to say that I’m impressed. He tells me about school and how he thinks he’s going to pull away from the corporate law path his dad wants him on and look into environmental law. Something about a case he read in class involving loggers and indigenous animals really struck a chord with him, and I can hear his passion when he tells me about all the things he can do to help the cause once he graduates. He’s even nearly quit drinking. He’s put all of his energy into being the top of his class, just like Kate. It’s a change, hearing him so dedicated to something that didn’t involve a keg or a bunch of girls bikini tops. He has a whole new lease on life and hearing the ease with which he credits Christian not only calms my nerves, but it makes me really excited for him. Carter is a good guy and I feel in the deepest parts of my soul that we’ll have nothing to worry about from him. Only years of meaningful friendship.

Luke and Mia return about thirty minutes later, but while Mia heads straight upstairs to call her parents, Luke stays behind to hang out a little while longer. Except, a little while kind of turns into a long while. Carter leaves at around eleven and only then because Luke reminds me we have an early morning flight to catch. I hug him goodbye at the door, tell him to stay in touch, and then make him promise he’ll look after my little sister next year. He agrees with a laugh, and then shakes Luke’s hand before he finally turns to go. Then we lock up the house, say goodnight, and head off to our separate rooms.

I’ve been waiting for Christian’s call for the last few hours, but it hasn’t come. Even if we are fighting, I expected him to call when he woke up this morning. I have Calliope with me after all. The fact that he didn’t makes me uneasy, so I decide to bite the bullet and be the first to break our silent cold war. But he doesn’t pick up. The phone rings twice and goes to voicemail.

He’s in meetings, Ana. And he’s with Taylor. He’s fine.

Calliope is sleeping peacefully in her pack n’ play and her small, delicate features look angelic in the muted light. It’s too much to resist. I quickly take a picture, but I don’t send it to our whole family like I normally would. I just send it to Christian, hoping to bait him into a response, even if it’s just a text. Minutes pass though and nothing. I think briefly of slipping into the bathroom and snapping a nude in the mirror, knowing that wouldn’t go unanswered, but that’s not productive either. I’m still mad about what happened and I don’t want him to think he’s just off the hook. Maybe I don’t need to scream at him like I really wanted to this afternoon, maybe I don’t need to call him all the hateful names I now regret even thinking earlier… but I do want to discuss how he hurt me, hear him validate those feelings, and to apologize. If we don’t talk about it, I’ll never know that it won’t happen again. And if I don’t trust him not to interfere with my career, every single victory or defeat I experience from this moment forward is always going to leave me with questions.

So I take my phone into bed with me, convinced he’ll call me once he’s finished with whatever he’s doing. Every few seconds, I tap the screen of my phone to check for missed calls for text messages, but there’s nothing. I fall asleep with nothing.

***

It’s chaos getting ready and out the door in time for our flight the next morning. Somehow, Mia has lost a shoe and she tears through everything trying to find it. She’s made it very clear that she has no intention of leaving this house until it’s packed safely in her bag, so Luke helps her look. Meanwhile, I sit on the floor downstairs with Calliope in my lap, trying to feed her a jar of mashed pears, which she refuses over and over again.

“Dada,” she whines.

“I know, baby. I miss him too. But we’re going to see him tonight, I promise. Just eat for me, please.”

“No, dada! Dada!”

Sighing in defeat, I reach for my phone on the other side of the blanket and try to call Christian again, this time on FaceTime so Calliope can associate his voice with his face. But once again, he doesn’t pick up and the understanding side of me that tried to excuse his rejection yesterday dissipates under the weight of my anguished cries. He has no right to be upset with me. This fight is his fault, and he shouldn’t be ignoring me. Especially when I have his daughter.

“Found it,” Luke says, coming down the stairs. “It was already in her bag, can you believe that?

“You don’t say,” I reply sourly, and he frowns.

“You ready?”

“Yeah. Callie won’t eat so we’ll have to try once we get to the airport.”

“A hungry, cranky baby on a plane? What could possibly go wrong?”

I glare at him, then gather everything I can reach and start stuffing Calliope’s diaper bag so we can go. It’s unorganized and anything I need will undoubtedly be impossible to find, but that’s a problem for future Ana to deal with.

We barely get out the door on time and Luke has to race down the freeway so we’re not late. Thankfully, it’s Sunday, so traffic is fairly light, but the airport itself is packed. There’s a line to return our rental car, there’s a line to wait for the shuttle to the terminal, and there is a line in front of every ticket kiosk at the Delta counter. I fidget uncomfortably with Calliope in my arms, while she points at any man in a suit who passes us, asking for Christian, until I finally am able to insert my credit card in the machine to print out my ticket. And after all of that, a message pops up that tells me I need to speak with a Delta employee.

“You have got to be kidding me!” I exclaim in frustration, and when Mia gets the same message that I did, she shrugs and reaches out to place a comforting hand on my arm.

“Hey, maybe Christian called and got us upgraded.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

We gather all of our luggage together and tell Mia to wait with Calliope while Luke and I go to the counter to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, it’s not an upgrade at all. Our flight home was overbooked and we’ve been bumped to a different flight later in the afternoon. I argue. I ask to speak to a supervisor, and then that person’s supervisor. I even drop Christian’s name and threaten to get the company’s CEO involved, but all to no avail. By the time I speak to anyone who has the authority to help us, the doors have been closed and the plane has left the gate.

“So what do we do?” Luke asks.

“Nothing,” Mia grumbles. “We already gave up our car, its not like we can go anywhere.”

“Let’s just go wait at the gate. There’s food inside and if Calliope will eat, maybe I can do a few laps around the airport with her in the stroller and get her to fall asleep before we finally get on a plane. If we ever get on a plane.”

“Alright,” Luke says. “Lets go.”

Once we get past security, we find our gate and then search out something to eat for breakfast. Unfortunately, the only place in our terminal is a sports bar type restaurant that only serves greasy food and plays Red Sox baseball on the TV. Luke’s game though, and Mia makes it clear that she will very happily go ham on some fries, so I wait for the waitress to take our order and then duck into the Hudson News directly across from us to buy a banana for Calliope. It’s actually the first thing this morning that seems to work out. Luke is content to watch sports and drink Bloody Mary’s, Mia snaps a picture of her food to post on PixC and then calls Tibby to recount every second of her weekend, and hunger has finally won out enough for Calliope to actually want to eat the banana I offer her. Only, she doesn’t want to just take a bite off the end. She wants to hold it. But when I break off the tip and hand it to her, she squishes it in her hand and wipes it all over herself. Then she looks down at the mess and starts to cry again.

“Well, you see, that’s what happens!” I say irritably, picking up a cloth napkin from the table and wiping her down as best I can. Mia fishes out an new shirt we can change her into from the diaper bag, but as I get up to take her to the bathroom, Luke’s phone rings and it diverts my attention.

“Taylor?” I ask. He shakes his head and holds up a finger. Mia gets up and offers to change Calliope, and though I let her, I quickly regret that decision when I realize the phone call Luke takes has nothing to do with Christian.

“Hey, baby,” he says. “We got bumped from our flight, so we’ll be a few hours late. You should just wait for me at home. I’ll make Ana drive me back when we land. Oh, it was fine. How about you? What did you do this weekend?”

I slump back into my chair and feel an unpleasant mixture of irritation and jealousy as I listen to Luke’s phone call. Jade is seemingly very interested in Luke’s trip and wants to talk to him so badly, she won’t let him end the call. I can’t even get Christian to answer the phone.

“Everything alright?” Mia asks, as she sets a now clean Calliope back into the high chair pushed up to the table.

“Yeah, fine.”

“You sure? You seem a little… off today.”

I shake my head. “I’m fine.”

“Do you think that if you tell people that enough, you might start to believe it too?” Her poignant remark, which echoes so many of the thoughts I’ve had over the past few months, strikes a cord. But when I turn to argue with her, she simply raises a challenging eyebrow and I feel the fight drain out of me.

“Christian and I are fighting,” I reply.

“You two are always fighting.”

“No we aren’t!”

“Oh, yeah. You’re right. You being so stubborn and him being so controlling never leads to any arguments in the Grey household. How could I possibly think there could ever be something wrong between the two of you?”

Despite myself, I laugh. “We still don’t fight all the time.”

“Okay, well, what are you fighting about this time?”

“Me being stubborn and him being controlling.”

“You don’t say!” She smiles broadly and then picks up a fry, dips it in ketchup, and hands it to me. “You wanna talk about it?”

“No,” I reply while I chew. “Not in front of Calliope.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s probably not as serious as you think it is. It’s hard to tell what someone is actually feeling over the phone, maybe you two just need to talk in person.”

“Yeah, I hope so.”

“If it helps, he didn’t even seem irritated when I talked to him this morning. So, he can’t be that mad.”

I drop the fry I was reaching over to get and gape back at her. “You talked to him?”

“Yeah, he called me this morning to find out how registration went. I think he said that whatever he and Ros are doing over there was going well, so he’ll probably be in a good mood when he gets home. Might make things easier.”

“Oh, no.” I grit my teeth together and ball up a napkin in my hand. “Easy is not what this is going to be.”

“What do you…?” Her words cut off as a disembodied voice comes over the loud speaker and announces that our flight has begun boarding. Quickly, I pay the bill and then hurry with Luke and Mia to get to our gate. On the plane, Mia takes the same seat across the aisle from Luke, Callie, and I, so our conversation is effectively over. Luke looks at me curiously, as if he too senses that I need to talk, but I don’t. Not to him. Not to Mia. The person that I need to talk to has chosen to be silent and I won’t get the chance to make him talk to me until late tonight.

***

It’s dinner time when we land in Seattle, and Woods is waiting for us at the airport. Our first stop is to drop Luke off at his apartment with Jade, and then to drop Mia off at the apartment downtown that Carrick and Grace now live in full time. They ask me to stay and have dinner with them, even offer to call Kate and Elliot over, but I’m fried and just want to get Calliope to bed, read a book, and drink a large glass of wine.

“Well, why don’t you leave her here with us?” Grace suggests. “You and Christian have been apart all weekend, I’m sure you’d like a night off from parenting to… get reacquainted.”

It’s not a bad idea. It very possible that Christian and I could wake up the entire house screaming at each other tonight and I don’t want Calliope around that. But still…

“Thank you, Grace. But he’s going to want to see her when he gets home.”

She sighs. “Of course he will. Well, we’ll see you all next weekend at the baby shower.”

“Yes, you will.” I smile and accept her warm hug, then wave good-bye to Mia and Carrick before heading back to the car.

At home, all the stress of the day melts away. Gail has dinner ready, even though it’s still her night off, and despite my protests she pours the large glass of wine I’ve been dying for since early this morning. Calliope is excited to get back to all of her toys and I watch her play with them and crawl around the living room until she’s too tired to continue. Then I give her a bath, read her favorite story, and put her to bed. Before I even lay her down in her crib, she’s out for the count.

But once Calliope is asleep for the night, the wait begins. Christian’s flight from Taiwan is much longer than our flight from Boston, and I have no idea when he’s actually going to get here because he didn’t call me when he took off. I probably wouldn’t have waited up for him, but I don’t want to be mad at him anymore. I just want to talk this out and get back to the perfect place that only exists when he and I are in sync with one another. So I wait. I pour a second glass of wine and curl up in front of the fireplace, reading the book I took to Boston with me until I’m fighting my eyelids.

It’s the alarm on the door that tells me he’s arrived. The electronic beep sounds through the empty entryway, and after I listen to him punch the code into the keypad, I hear him dismiss Taylor for the night. He sounds tired, which will either work for me, or against me.

“Christian!” I call, and the voices in the foyer stop. I hear each of his footsteps across the marble floors until he appears through the archway at the front of the living room.

“Why are you awake?” he asks.

“I waited up for you.”

“Why?” His voice is sharp, cold, and it makes all of my muscles tighten defensively.

“Because I want to talk to you.”

“Oh, now you want to talk? When there’s nothing left to talk about? You took that job without consulting me, Anastasia. You made this decision all on your own, what am I supposed to say to that?”

“You’re supposed to say your sorry.”

“Sorry? You expect me to apologize?”

“Yes, I do.”

He shakes his head in disgust and backs away from me. “No. I will not apologize for doing what I thought was best. I will not apologize for the decisions I make to protect you.”

“Protect me? Christian how on earth does this protect me?” I’m screaming loud enough that my words seem to hit him like a physical object. He cringes and then falters back again, though this time not of his own volition. It makes me take pause and when he looks up at me again, his eyes are swimming with pain.

“Anastasia.” The hoarsely whispered word echoes through my ears and then I watch in horror as he collapses to the ground. The impact shifts his jacket and I see a stain of red blood wash over his abdomen, growing darker as his skin grows pale.

“Christian?” I shriek, flying across the room to his side. “Christian, what happened to you?” His blood coats my hands as I look for wound and come up empty handed. There’s nothing for me to apply pressure to, nothing for me to fix and make him better. I can’t find the source of the bleeding, so I reach up and press my red tinted fingers into his throat, searching for a pulse.

Nothing. There’s nothing.

“No!”

“Ana!” I’m jolted awake, gasping for air, and find Christian kneeling next to the couch by my side. He’s no longer pale, no longer writhing in agony, and it takes me several seconds to realize he’s wearing something entirely different.

It was a dream.

“Hey,” he breathes, squeezing my hand in his and rubbing his thumb gently over mine. “Are you okay?”

A sob forces its way out of my chest and I throw my arms around him, hugging him as close to me as I can and breathing in his scent as though it were oxygen after too much deprivation. His strong arms wrap around me and his hand moves soothingly over my back, until I’ve stropped trembling and can speak without the impediment of tears.

I pull back and look him, drinking him in and feeling nothing but appreciation for soft gray that flickers in the light of the low burning fire. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.” He leans in and kisses me, softly, but I once again wrap my arms behind his neck and pull him into me. I pour everything into that kiss. The fear from dream, the anger from our fight, and the longing that I’ve felt for him since the moment we left one another at the airport. It’s suffocating, but in a good way. Like air is not worth being apart from him for even a second. Eventually though, he breaks the kiss and rests his forehead against mine.

“You didn’t call,” I whisper.

“I didn’t want to fight. I’m hate fighting with you, Anastasia.”

“I don’t like fighting with you either, but that doesn’t mean we can just avoid conflict. We have to communicate with each other. That’s how this whole thing started in the first place. No communication.”

“I didn’t know what to say to you. I know that you’re mad and I know that you have every right to be furious with me… but I can’t tell you that I’m sorry. I’m not. If I had it to do over again, I would make the same decision. I promise you that my intentions were good and while you may not agree with me, I did it because I was trying to take care of you. That’s all I want. I’m so scared that you’re not ready for this and we’re going to lose what little progress we’ve made. I can’t watch you break again, Ana. I can’t.”

I chew on my bottom lip and reach out to cup his face in the palm of my hand. He leans into my touch, closing his eyes and reveling in the feeling of it, then looks back up at me, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.

“I’m not going to break, Christian. Not because of this. You’ve got to stop treating me like I’m fragile. I won’t tell you that I’m fine, because I know you don’t believe me when I say that, but if there is any hope of getting back to the person I used to be, then I have to move on. This is what I want to move on to. It gives me purpose and it makes me feel…” I pause trying to find the right word, but I don’t have to. He finds it for me.

“Fulfilled. You like helping others and this enables you to do that. You like solving problems, and this gives you plenty of problems to solve. You like accomplishing things on your own and feeling proud over what you’ve achieved. I know that about you. I love that about you. But the on your own thing… that’s the part that scares me.”

“Why?”

“When you’re here, I know you’re safe. Here, I have security, and gates, and codes, and panic rooms… I don’t have any of that at GSP. Nothing. No control. Sending you out there, beyond the things that I can control feels worse than terrifying. It feels impossible.”

I take a deep breath and nod. “Okay. Then… I’ll come work Grey Publishing. Just like we planned.”

“No.” He shakes his head and I automatically lean back in surprise.

“No?”

“You won’t find what you’re looking for at GP. There’s nothing for you to do there except go to work and carry on with business as usual. That’s not what you want and it was selfish of me to try and force you into it. Especially if this is what you need to heal. I should know better than anyone what it’s like to have people try and make you smaller than you know you were destined to be. So, I think you should go work at Greenwich. At GP, you’d be great. But at Greenwich, you’d be extraordinary.”

I smile. “You think so?”

“No. I know so.”

“I’m going to have to travel.”

“I know, and we’ll find a way to make that work for both of us. And for Calliope.”

“Everything I accomplish going forward is going to be against your best interest. Every author I sign will be one GP didn’t.”

“And I’ll be just proud of you as I would have been had you come to work for me. I’m your husband first, Ana. CEO, second.”

“But what about Carmen? This isn’t just a rival publishing house, this is one of the biggest competitors for your whole business.”

“And there’s something really hot about the idea of sleeping with the enemy.” He smiles, then growls slightly as he leans into me and takes my lips with his, but I quickly squirm away.

“Wait, don’t you want to go see Calliope?”

He considers this for a moment, but ultimately shakes his head. “I’ll get her up in the morning. What I want, right now, is you. Only you.” He kisses me again, and this time, I don’t fight him off. I return his passion with equal fervor and when he lifts me into his arms and carries me off to our bedroom, the only thing I find myself not content with is the all too slow speed with which he moves.

Next Chapter

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