Chapter 16

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September 2011

“Christian, I think it’s time we start considering that Ana might need REAL help. This isn’t healthy,” Carrick says.

“Don’t you think I’ve tried? I’ve flown in doctors from around the world, I’ve shielded her from the news and every mention of what happened. Hell, I’ve asked her to just… go see Flynn every single day since we left Escala, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s not ready.” There’s a soft thud as, I imagine, Christian lets his head fall against the closed door between us. He should be at work now. I’ve heard through the bits of phone conversations he’s had with Ros and Welch as he paced the floor, thinking I was asleep, that GEH is launching a new, top secret energy project that he expects will take up most of his time until it’s complete. But he can’t go to work. He can’t leave the house. Because he won’t leave me.

I curl my fingers around the blankets that cover his childhood bed and pull them up over the top of my head, trying to block out their voices.

“She’s not eating, Son,” Carrick continues. “She’s not sleeping. She’s not taking care of herself…”

“She showered on her own this morning. That’s progress.”

“It’s been six weeks, a shower shouldn’t be a celebration. I think it’s time we thought about sending her to some kind of treatment facility. Somewhere beautiful and relaxing where she can get some separation. Find peace. They’re better equipped to deal with this kind of depression.”

“She’s not depressed. She’s terrified. And, sending her away from Calliope would only make her worse.”

“Christian…”

“She just needs more time, Dad. And if that’s what she needs, that’s what she’s going to get. I can take care of her until she’s ready.”

Carrick sighs. “Alright, I’m sorry I brought it up. Your mother is preparing a bottle downstairs. If you’ll get Calliope for me, I’ll take her down.”

I can hear the metallic grind of the knob as it turns, but Christian opens the door the rest of the way and moves across the bedroom in complete silence. The bassinet Calliope has been sleeping in since we moved in with Grace and Carrick is in the corner closest to the bed I’m lying in, and through sound and some other sense that seems to have been heightened in the aftermath of our ordeal with Andrew Lincoln, I know he’s lifting the baby into his arms and carrying her out of the room. Her small, sweet coos disappear with the click of the door closing and it takes everything in me not to call out for her, refuse to let them take her from my side.

My eyes screw tightly closed. ‘Grace is feeding her. She needs to eat. Grace is safe. This house is safe. We are safe.’

I repeat those words in my head over and over again, willing myself to believe them.

“I know you’re not sleeping,” Christian says, making me jump because I thought the room was empty. I take a deep breath to try and calm my system again, to stop the shaking, and pull the blanket off my head so that I can blink up at his worried face.

“How?” My voice is hoarse.

“You’re not screaming.” He takes a deep breath and sits on the bed beside me. His fingers move up into my hair, rubbing gently against my scalp. It feels nice, but I still involuntarily flinch under his touch, just as I have every time he’s touched me in the last six weeks. I know that it hurts him to see me recoil from his hands and I wish I could stop, but I can’t.

‘This house is safe. We are safe.’

“Ana. Baby…”

“Please don’t send me away,” I croak. “I’m trying. I’m really trying.”

“I know. You’re not going anywhere.”

I nod and then curl my bottom lip under my teeth, trying to hide the tremble from him. There’s heat from impending tears blooming in my eyes. “How long am I going to feel like this, Christian?”

“Baby–”

“I can’t stop seeing it. Every time I close my eyes, I see him. I feel him on top of me. No matter how much time passes, I can’t get out.”

“You are out, Ana. You’re right here, with me. Only me.” His voice is thick now too, and when I glance up to look at him again, I can see the pain etched in every crease in his forehead and around his eyes. As difficult as it is for me to simply press on day after day, I can’t imagine how devastating it is for him to see me this way. To watch me unravel over and over again. To be completely and utterly shattered. To know that every time he tries to pick me up and put me back together, I slip through his fingers and break all over again.

I feel weak, and I hate it. I hate what Lincoln has done to me. I hate that, even in death, he holds power over me. Christian, Carrick, Elliot, Kate, and my dad can all tell me that it’s over, that we’ve won and everything is safe now. But this isn’t victory. This, what I’m living right now, is the very definition of defeat.

“I promise you, Anastasia. I’m never going to let anyone hurt you ever again. No matter what it takes, no matter what I have to do, I’m going to keep you safe. I’m going to keep Calliope safe. No one will come for us ever again.”

“How do you do that?” I whisper. “How do you sound so sure?”

“Because I have to. I can’t fail at this again. I won’t.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Christian. You didn’t fail us. He was…”

“Insane, I know. But the holes in my defenses that he exposed will never be left open again. We’re wiser now. Stronger. I am in control, and no one is going to take that from me again. You’re safe, Ana. Please, let me try to help you.”

The pleading hope that looks down on me is nearly enough to break me in two.

“I love you, Christian,” I tell him, my voice cracking. I reach up and place a hand on his cheek. His eyes close as he leans into my touch and the look of relief that flashes briefly across his face makes my heart beat the first solid thump I’ve felt in weeks. But the warm, wholeness I feel pressing my fingers into his scruff fades as quickly as it came, changing instead into something cold and sharp. My hand recoils and I may as well have slapped him for the look of pain that instantly replaces his moment of serenity. “I just… can’t. Not yet. And I’m sorry. I wish I had your strength. I wish I felt any ounce of the control you do, but I don’t.”

He takes a deep breath through his nose and looks down at me for a long time, like he’s trying to solve a puzzle, but is continually coming up short. “What if…? I mean, maybe you can.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know how you’re feeling, Ana. I know that it feels like no one could ever understand, but I do. I spent a long time feeling like everything around me was out of my control. Like life was happening to you and you were helpless to stop it. I can… I can help you change that. I can help you take back control.” I can’t help but notice the caution in his voice, like he’s not sure he should really do what he’s suggesting. But the lure of his promise is too much to resist.

“Show me.”

He takes another deep breath in preparation and then nods. Slowly, his hands peel the comforter away from my body and the cold air of the room brings goosebumps to the surface of my skin. I want to pull them back. There’s a kind of vulnerability that comes from being exposed that I want to fight against on an instinctual level, but I force myself to bear it. The promise of respite from this constant fear is too strong.

“I love you, Anastasia,” he says, gruffly now. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I know.”

His fingers release the blankets still clutched in his hand, and he moves his palms over my legs. My muscles tense, and every sinew of my body aches to pull away, but I don’t. I stare down at his hands, determined, and watch them trace the curves of my body.

“These are my hands,” Christian says. “Not his. Not anyone else’s. You belong to me, Anastasia, and these are the only hands that will ever touch you again.”

I nod and continue to watch the drag of his fingers over my skin. For months, the parts of me that Andrew Lincoln had groped and molested seem to burn with the imprint of his touch. But when Christian’s hands sweep over them, tender and full of his love, that burn is extinguished for the first time. I feel like he’s swiping an analgesic over my limbs, numbing the guilt and the pain. When he touches me the memory of all other touch dissipates, and the relief is like being able to breathe freely for the first time in months.

“You are mine, Ana,” he repeats.

“Yours,” I whisper back.

“You are safe.”

“Safe.”

His hands move up my body, over my hip, my side, my breast, until his hands cradle either side of my face. Again, he pauses to look deep into my eyes and like a bear awakening from a long winter hibernation, I feel the first stirrings of heat between my legs.

“Christian.”

His hands tighten around the roots of my hair, making me gasp, and then he leans down to kiss me. A real kiss, not the hesitant press of lips I’ve come to know over the past few weeks that always breaks away in rejection and hurt. His mouth is demanding against mine, taking from me what he wants but maintaining an expression of love that cannot be denied. A part of me realizes that his power should frighten me. In the aftermath of everything I’ve experienced, I should cower under his insistent, commanding touch. I should fear the pain and humiliation that is sure to follow, that I felt when Andrew Lincoln touched me. But Christian’s dominance doesn’t frighten me. His certainty, his strength, and his love reassure me in a way that’s different than it’s felt in the past. Somehow, his sovereignty in this moment is also mine. It’s not something I can explain, even to myself, it’s something I can only feel.

“Tell me your safeword,” he growls against my mouth.

“Red,” I pant back.

“Say that word, and I’ll stop. Whether it’s pain or pleasure, all you have to do is use that word, and everything will end. Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” And it’s in that moment that I truly do. Because I think of Christian as the strongest man in the world. The most powerful. The most influential. And for all that he controls, I’m the one who can stop him. Only me.

That’s power. True power. And it’s mine.

“Yes, what?” he asks, voice low and dark.

“Yes, Sir.” And with that, I’m flipped around and his hand comes down hard on my behind, the pain searing all memory of foreign touch from my body. When Christian climbs onto the bed behind me, kneeling between my legs and working quickly to get his belt open, I’m a clean slate. I’m brand new again. Stronger. More Sure. Put back together again by his strength and the power he lets me wield through the guise of submission.

 

“Mrs. Grey?”

I start and blink away the memory, before turning to look at my CPO standing in the doorway to my office. Even through my exhausted state, I can see the hesitance in his eyes. Like he’s unsure whether or not to bother me. I’d attempted to go back to bed once Christian left for work this morning and I’d made sure Calliope was fed and taken care of, but the moment my eyes closed, the nightmares returned, filled with fire and smoke and the whisper of Andrew Lincoln. So, I dragged my tired body into the shower, dressed, and came into work, intent on occupying my mind with chapter submissions and whatever I’m going to say to Scott about Phoenix. Unfortunately, my capacity for critical thinking after my long, sleepless night isn’t as keen as my will. The speech I’ve prepared to convince him feels empty of the conviction that I feel so potently, I’m willing to put my career on the line for it.

“Yes, Woods?” I yawn.

He closes the door and steps into my office, settling down into the chair on the other side of my desk and leaning towards me. “Is there something I can get for you, Ana? Coffee? Food, maybe?”

“No. I’m fine, thank you.” I offer him a weak smile that doesn’t fool him for a second, then sigh. “Did you speak to Andrea?”

“Yeah, he’s been in a meeting with his lawyers and PR team all morning.”

I fight not to roll my eyes. “Yeah, I had about seven different text messages from Jacqueline when I got out of the shower asking me to post a picture of Calliope on PixC to distract from all the media coverage about GEH right now.”

“Which you ignored?”

“Obviously. But I’ve got lots of pictures of Christian and I from my last year at Harvard that I thought would be just as distracting. I’m about six months pregnant in the one I posted, so maybe someone won’t realize it’s old and a new rumor will be started and all this other stuff will be swept under the rug.”

“Do you want it to be?” Woods stares at me, but not as though he’s expecting an answer. His tone and the careful look of empathy behind his eyes tells me he already knows what I want to say. I swallow my doubts and turn away from him. “Look, Ana. Taylor told me when I was assigned to your service that Mr. Grey had been clear about not wanting another CPO to get close to you. That’s why I’ve tried to keep you at arm’s length and stay professional. But… I’m here if you want to talk. I was there yesterday. I saw it. I know how hard that must have been for you.”

I look down at my hands in my lap, blinking away the hot moisture pooling over my lower lids. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” he concedes. “But I’m here if you do.”

“Thanks… Evan.”

“My pleasure, Ana.” He gets out of his chair and grins at me, trying to be reassuring, I think. It’s a different side of him, something I haven’t seen before. I never thought I’d find another CPO like Luke Sawyer, but there’s something genuine his concern, in the almost avuncular gleam in his eyes, that soothes the sense of unease inside of me just a fraction. I smile as he turns to go, but before he exits my office completely, he stops and faces me again.

“He’s doing a press conference this evening.”

“What? Why?” Woods raises an eyebrow, an indication that I should already know. And, after a few seconds thought, I do. By addressing the media himself, he can try to re-shape the narrative. He can express his regret over what happened and reassure the public of all the steps they’re taking to make sure none of this happens again. Offense as the best defense.

“Should I go?” I ask, but Woods just shrugs.

“If you want. But if you don’t, it’s going to be televised.”

Of course it is.

My phone beeps on my desk, interrupting my internal argument over supporting my husband publicly and disagreeing with him privately, and Abby’s voice comes through the speaker.

“Mrs. Grey, Mr. Wallace is on line one for you.”

Shit.

“Thank you, Abby.” I look up at Woods, tell him that I’ll let him know what I decide before this afternoon, and pick up the receiver on the phone. “Hi, Scott.”

“Ana, hey. Are you alright?”

My heart sinks. I guess, if he’s heard about it in New York, yesterday’s incident is now national news. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Is Grey…?”

“He’s fine. Everyone was fine.”

He lets out a sigh of relief that sounds surprisingly real through the phone. “Good. Carmen said this morning she wanted to send you flowers or something, but we weren’t sure if you’d be in the office today, or even if something like that would be welcome.”

“I appreciate the thought, but we’re fine. My immediate concern is what book we’re going to put up for Carmen tomorrow.”

“Really?”

My brows knit together. “Of course. I’m in the office, I’d like to my job.”

“Well, when I saw the news coverage last night, I assumed you’d be out for a few days. I only called because Stevens said you were in today and I was surprised.”

“You talked to Stevens? Why?”

“To let him know that Daves’ contract was sent out this morning. I expect it to be signed and returned by end of business today.”

“What?!” Angry heat rises inside of me, scorching away the exhaustion and dread lingering in my bones. “You approved The Black Rose?”

“Like I said, Ana… I thought you were going to be out.”

“Well, I’m not! I’m here, fully prepared to talk to you about why that very decision absolutely cannot be allowed to happen. Jesus, Scott…” My teeth clench as my continually growing anger renders me speechless.

“Look, I know you don’t agree, and that’s a shame, but this was always the right decision, Ana. Daves is a proven best seller, this is going to float you through the rest of the fiscal year. And once his sales make the right impact on our bottom line, you can go ahead with that other title you want.”

If they make the right impact,” I argue, “which I have serious doubts over, that impact won’t be felt for a year. Maybe more. You expect me to ask my author to sit around for that long, praying this novel doesn’t tank and destroy her chances at being published?”

“I’m sorry, Ana. It’s done.”

“And Carmen just approved this, without even discussing it with me?”

He goes on the defensive. “Like I said, we didn’t think you would be in.”

“Do you think cellphones only work inside this building?”

“I thought you probably had more important things to worry about yesterday than getting whatever book you liked best that week to the top of the frontlist. Decisions had to be made and you left the office early. You’re welcome for running your branch while you were gone, by the way.”

I can’t even dignify that with a response. I pull the phone away from my ear, slam it back down on the receiver, and turn back to my computer. On the screen is an open document I’ve used to create an outline of all of the research I’ve done on the current sales climate and competing titles, which I’d planned to go over with Scott on that call. Instead, I exit out and pull up my email.

 

From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Resignation

Date: April 3rd, 2012, 11:45 AM

To: Carmen Gallagher

Dear Ms. Gallagher,

Please let this letter serve as notification of my resignation from Greenwich Small Press, effective immediately. There is nothing I, nor anyone else, can do to save your publishing house as long as that motherfucking….

 

I stop, take a breath, then let my head fall into my hands. I’m well within my rights to resign. How can I be expected to do what’s asked of me when every time I try to make a change, I’m blocked by the old guard? Scott can preach about how this is the right move until he’s blue in the face but it’s my name that’s on the line here. My credibility. And if this release fails… no, when this release fails, all the blame is going to fall on me.

But I’m not a quitter.

The only thing I’ve ever walked away from my entire life ended up being one my biggest regrets. I’ve spent years now putting what I broke that day back together. And I doubt Scott or Carmen will be as forgiving of me leaving as Christian was. I don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to be seen as the person who throws their hands in the air in defeat every time something gets too difficult. I don’t want to be the girl who things happen to, where everything is outside of my control. This is a shitty hand, but I’m not a novice to this game.

With stubborn determination, I turn for my bag and pull out the beaten up copy of The Black Rose manuscript contained inside. The text on the page seems to mock me as I scan each chapter, picking up mistakes and lazy writing from even just a cursory glance. But this is now my cross to bear. The manuscript has been approved, the contract has been sent, and now I have to find a way to turn this into something remarkable. Or I have to leave.

Maybe it’s a side effect of spending too much time with people named Grey, but, despite how hopeless I feel this manuscript really is, I decide then and there that I’m not going to let it defeat me. I’m not going to throw away the work I’ve put in to fill this seat. Carmen told me when I was hired that she was essentially asking for a miracle, now it’s time for me to produce.

I press my finger into the zero on my phone to page reception.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?” Penny responds.

“Penny, can you get Hailey Lewis on the line for me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Our conversation is brief. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I’ve failed her over the phone. So, instead, I invite her to lunch. The excitement in her voice stabs at my heart as we agree on a time and place, and when I hang up I feel a crushing sense of disappointment warring with my newfound determination. But my path is set now, thanks to Scott, and the only way to go from here is forward.

I gather my things and make my way out of the office to meet Hailey for lunch, texting on my phone as I go. It’s only after I’ve slipped my phone back into my bag and glanced up to find Woods that I notice the shift in the atmosphere amongst my employees. Stevens is leaning far back in his chair, his feet kicked up on his desk and a gloating smile plastered on his face. Those in his close proximity stare at him with admiration, except for Jacki, who shakes her head and focuses her attention on her own screen. Clearly, the word is out. Scott won, and I lost.

“Stevens,” I say sharply, He blinks and glances lazily in my direction, as if the very act of turning to face me is a great expenditure of effort.

“Ana?”

“I just wanted to congratulate you on how hard you fought for your author. It’s that kind of tenacity that the people who put their careers in our hands every day expect from us. Well done.”

He laughs, gloating again. “Sure.”

“And I’ve decided, since you are so sure that this is the novel that’s going to carry us through the rest of the fiscal year and keep us from closing our doors come Christmas time, that I’m going to personally see to its success.”

The smug look on his face vanishes immediately. “What?”

“You won’t be needed going forward.” I give him a saccharine smile. “I’ll take it from here.”

“That’s my commission,” he argues.

“No, it was your commission. Now, this project is moving in a different direction. A direction that does not include you.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Oh, yes I can. You see, I think you’re under the impression that I’m not your boss, but I am. It is my name on that door and as long as that is true, we’re going to do things my way. Try to go over my head to Wallace again, and you won’t be missing out on commissions, you’ll be packing your things.”

His face grows red as his mouth drops open in shock, and his eyes flit around the room as though he’s looking for support from his fellow co-workers. But no one comes to his defense. Eight pairs of eyes turn to their computers, leaving him alone and dumbfounded.

“Oh,” I continue, stopping on my way out the door to face him again. “And it’s Mrs. Grey.”

A series of disjointed sounds escape his lips as he attempts, and fails, to make a coherent argument, but I don’t stay to see if he regains his composure. I have a lunch appointment. So, I motion for Woods to follow, turn on my heel, and walk through the doors

Shaker + Spear is an upscale seafood restaurant located in a hotel a few blocks from my office. It’s quiet and not too busy, the perfect atmosphere for a meeting. I’m the first to arrive and I wait at the table to for Hailey to join me with a cold glass of Chardonnay, one of Christian’s favorites. The taste reminds me of him, and the memory of a kiss that I can’t quite place in time, so I pick up my phone and send him a text.

Thinking of you. I hope everything is going well today.

Is that what I hope, though? It’s a question that’s been running through my mind all day. I know Christian. I know that this investigation being launched by the city and all of the negative media coverage is getting to him. He wouldn’t have gone into the office today if he wasn’t worried that his absence would derail everything he’s spent the last half a year trying to build. Not after seeing me in the aftermath. For the past seven months he’s heard nothing but no. Elliot, Ros, experts brought in from NASA and research groups all over the world have all told him this dream he has of creating sustainable, unlimited energy is impossible. I wanted to be the person that told him yes. I wanted to be the person who believed in him. But after yesterday, after seeing the destruction caused by his intractability and feeling even an iota of the devastation that would plague me forever if I were to lose him, I’m not sure I can be that anymore. I’m not sure that I can stand by his side and give him my full support and faith when I know what’s at risk. Ros worries for the future of GEH. Carrick worries for the sustainability of the city he’s been charged to protect. And I worry for him.

Calliope was in that building.

“Sorry I’m late!”

I’m pulled out of my thoughts by the jolt of the table as Hailey crashes down into the chair across from me. Her eyes are wide with excitement, her smile stretched wide and open across her face. There is no hint of doubt in her expression, no clue that I’m about to crush her dreams.

“You’re not late,” I assure her. “I was early. Shall we order an appetizer? You’re going to die over their oysters.”

“Yum!” she chirps, then picks up her menu. We chat until the food arrives, or rather, she chats and I listen intently. I haven’t had a conversation with her that’s ever lasted more than a few minutes, and I’m surprised to find how light and fun she is. Like Kate was when we first went to Harvard. I thought, after reading her novel, that I knew her on a level more personal than idle conversation. I imagined her to be serious. Wise beyond her years. Introspective and deeply observational. Discovering her almost childlike persona actually has me far more impressed with her writing ability than I was before. It has me aching to further explore her potential, to learn what else lies below the surface of this seemingly ordinary young woman.

“I haven’t gotten my contract by the way,” she says, as if it were simply a continuation of her previous thought. “You said you were going to send it last week, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

I frown. “Yeah, that’s why I asked you here today.”

“Oh?”

“Hailey…” I pause, unsure how to break this news to her without breaking her heart. “I need you to know that I think you’re incredible.”

Her face falls. “Oh no…”

“I tried everything I could, but the stars just wouldn’t align. It was premature for me to call you and make you an offer, and I’m sorry about that. I was confident that the people above me would see everything I see in you, but the timing just wasn’t right. I can make you a future offer, for next year maybe, but…” My words cut off, and she finishes for me.

“But I’d have to wait.”

“And I don’t think you should have to. Especially because anything I offer you for the future can’t be guaranteed. This is about your work, your talent, and your moment. I don’t want to take that away from you. I believe in your work. I believe that it’s going to do good things for you and for the countless people who will read your words and find hope. That kind of power shouldn’t be caught up in something as mundane as budgeting considerations and bureaucratic power plays.”

“So what do I do?”

“Get a lawyer. Someone who will look out for your interests above everything else. Someone who can help you navigate offers being made to you and the contracts you’ll be asked to sign. Don’t let anyone push you into publishing before your book is perfect. You only get one shot at a first release, and that release will make or break your entire career. Never settle. You should demand the best editors, best artists, and the best representation. You’re worth it. Phoenix is worth it. You’re going to be big, Hailey. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

She nods. “Okay. So–” She’s interrupted as another woman slides into the seat next to her, drops her bag on the floor by her feet, and picks up a glass of water on the table.

“Alright, alright, I’m here. What’s the big emergency? And I swear to god if the next words that come out of your mouth aren’t, ‘I’ve finished my manuscript and am ready to send it to the editors,’ I’m leaving.”

“What a surprise! Hailey, this is Lydia,” I say, gesturing to my agent with a smile.

“Pleasure,” Lydia replies with an uninterested glance in Hailey’s direction. “Do you have a manuscript for me or not, Ana?”

“I do, just not mine.” She looks taken aback for a moment, but I simply reach for my own bag and rise from my seat. “Lydia, this is Hailey. I think the two of you will get along just fine.”

“What are you talking about?” Lydia replies. “Where’s your manuscript, Ana?”

I wink at her, then turn to leave without another word. Maybe it was unethical. There’s probably some violation of my non-compete, despite how careful I was to not actually pitch Phoenix to Lydia. But it’s what I could live with. She’ll be in good hands. The best hands. With Lydia representing here, she might even get a contract with a big five publisher, and that’s what her talent deserves.

With a new spring in my step, I make my way through the restaurant, deciding to stop at the restroom before I rejoin Woods, who’s waiting for me at the front door. But just before I step into the hallway that leads to the bathrooms, someone large and hulking moves into my path, blocking me.

“Wait,” Luke hisses.

“Luke? What are you doing here?”

“Shh.” He leans against the wall, trying to look casual while still blocking me from sight of the bathrooms. He stays that way for a long moment, and just as I’m about to push him aside for being ridiculous, I find out why.

Alexis Young steps out of the bathroom and pauses just a few feet away from us, scanning the restaurant. Her eyes land on the table where Lydia is still sitting with Hailey, and her face falls with disappointment.

“Shit.” I hear her hiss. Then she storms out of the restaurant and disappears from view.

“Holy fuck,” I breathe in disbelief. “What is she doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Luke says. “She’s following all of you.”

“All of us?”

“You, Mia, Kate, Grey…. She was at the hospital when Kate went into labor, she trails Mia to every one of her ballet rehearsals, and she spends every morning at the coffee shop across the street from your office. I saw her yesterday, at GEH, and she looked… I don’t know, disappointed?”

My heart stops. “Disappointed? In what? That Christian got out? She wants him dead?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’ve been following her for a few weeks now and I can’t derive any kind of motive. I’ve searched her car, but haven’t found any weapons. I’ve tapped her phone, but she’s not getting calls or instructions from anyone. I’ve got her emails and her browsing history on surveillance, but nothing. She just… follows you. Never getting close enough for you to see her, but always so that whoever she’s tailing is in her line of sight.”

“So she’s keeping tabs on us,” I assume. “She’s keeping track of where we are and relaying that information back to someone. Someone from the police department, someone we haven’t uncovered from the conspiracy…” My voice grows more and more shrill with each word, until Luke reaches out to cover my mouth.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But I’ll find out. In the meantime, I need you to stay with Woods. No more waiting at the door bullshit.”

A familiar feeling creeps over me, the same feeling that encapsulated my entire life last year. The feeling of knowing that Leila was out there, watching me, waiting for a moment of weakness, and feeling it again makes me nauseous.

“No,” I say firmly. “No, we’re not waiting anymore. Every second she’s out there, Calliope, Mia, Kate… they’re all in danger. And I’m not going to sit idly by and wait for our enemies to make the first move anymore.”

“Ana…”

“You’ll set up a meeting. I don’t care how, I don’t care where. I don’t care if she knows I’m coming or if we have to ambush her, but I’m going to confront her. I’m going to find out what she wants and take care of it before it has the chance to fester into something that will come back and destroy us.”

“You know I can’t do that, Ana. This isn’t like Kozlowski or even Harrington. She was Gresham’s submissive, a man we know was dangerous. Who threatened violence against your sister-in-law and who was in the very deepest parts of Lincoln’s circle. This girl could be an actual threat and I’m not going to voluntarily put you in harm’s way.”

“I’m already in harm’s way. As long as she’s out there, she’s a threat, and I will no longer tolerate threats against me or my family. She’s a problem that needs to be taken care of and I will do that with or without your help.”

“Ana–”

“Are you going to get me a meeting, or not?”

His eyes dart between mine, obviously looking for some kind of hesitation he can prey on to change my mind, so I ensure he doesn’t find any. I purposefully exude every ounce of confidence I feel in my gut, and eventually he sighs.

“It’ll take me a few days. Maybe weeks. Once I find a way to do this so that you’re safe, then we’ll talk about setting up a meeting.”

“Good.” I lean forward, feeling slightly guilty for speaking to my best friend the way I just did, and kiss him softly on the cheek. “Thank you, Luke.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now get out of here, and stay with your bodyguard, Anastasia. I mean it. I’ll call Taylor.”

“What are you following me too? How do you know how often I’m apart from Woods?”

“If I told you, you’d try to avoid me, and I can’t have that.”

My eyes narrow. “Don’t you have a girlfriend you could be stalking?”

“Nah, she stays where she’s supposed to, unlike someone I know.” He gives me a look that dares me to challenge him, but I don’t. I simply roll my eyes and turn away.

“I’ll be waiting for your call, Lucas,” I say in a sing song voice as I walk away. For a few more steps, I wait for some biting response, but it never comes. He doesn’t say anything. And when I turn to face him again, he’s gone. Disappeared, like a shadow at high noon.

“How does he do that?” I whisper to myself, and then realize, that’s how he keeps track of people. Me. Alexis. He can probably see me now and is having quite the laugh over me looking like an idiot, searching the restaurant to find him. I won’t give him the satisfaction. I turn and head outside, staying half a step in front of Woods the entire way back to the office.

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