I stare hopelessly at my computer screen, my fingers tapping mindlessly on my mouse button. I’ve read this book so many times now that the words are starting to meld together and it’s getting harder and harder to pinpoint exactly where this story goes off the rails. Every time I think I’m close to making a cut that will tighten the up the plot and make it flow better, I hit a wall because of some minute detail buried the weeds that ends up being crucial evidence to Peter Gillette, detective extraordinaire, solving the crime.
“Ugh, stop being so overly complicated and convoluted!” I shout in frustration at my screen, then burst into a fit of stress induced laughter and let my head fall onto my desk. I’m very seriously considering having a discussion with Christian about changing our names and disappearing into the night, just to escape the torture that has been The Black Rose, until the long droning page from my desk phone interrupts my inner pity party.
“Mrs. Grey, Ms. Gallagher is on line one for you.”
“Thank you, Penny.” With a heavy sigh, I reach forward and pick up the receiver on the phone, then push the button next to the blinking light.
“Good afternoon, Carmen.”
“Hi, Ana. I thought I’d just check in. Are you ready for next week’s big announcement?”
“Oh, I’ve got it circled on my calendar.” I bite my lip as I hope and pray she doesn’t pick up the biting sarcasm behind that statement, but thankfully, if she does, she chooses to ignore it.
“Glad to hear it. Have you been to New York before?”
My heart seems to skip a beat as a quick flash of my memories of New York runs through my mind. The Empire State Building. My run in with Leila and being chased through the streets by the man I now was Anthony Kommer. Jack Hyde in my dressing room at the Today show.
“Yeah.” I swallow. “Yeah, I’ve been there before.”
“Great. And Scott’s got you set up with a hotel? Things to do? Sites to see?”
“Yes, he’s been very helpful.”
“Excellent. I’ve got a really good feelings about next week. I’m glad you and Scott are working better together. It really shows.”
Yeah, because he got is way. “I just hope it all reflects in sales.”
“It will. I’ll see you next week, Anastasia.”
“Looking forward to it, Carmen.” I hang up the phone and let out a heavily burdened breath. Five weeks ago, I was determined to make this book into a success. Today, with my deadline quickly approaching, it feels less like a challenge and more like a suicide mission.
I turn to my screen once more, repeating to myself over and over again that this book is going to make or break my career, and try to get back to work. But as I being hacking my way through the block of overly descriptive text I’m working to make less wordy and flowery, there’s an unexpected knock on my door.
“Come in,” I call, and Woods steps inside.
“Luke Sawyer is here to see you. Should I tell him you’re busy?”
“Uhhhhh…” My eyes flit between the manuscript and the clock before I shake my head. “No, that’s okay. Let him in.”
Woods nods and steps out, and thirty seconds later, Luke slides in through the still open door before closing it behind him.
“How’s it hanging, big shot?” he asks, flopping down into the chair across from me. I exhale, letting my lips flap in a very unlady like manner as I try to release my frustration.
“I have a manuscript that I’m supposed to turn into a bestseller by next week, but I’m afraid it’s going to be dead on arrival.”
“So, why are you pursuing it?”
“The author was previously our biggest seller, he’s got the support of the New York office and apparently that overrides what I think… it’s a long story.”
“Well, I’m glad I don’t have time to hear it.” I narrow my eyes at him and he flashes his signature broad, teasing grin back at me. It never fails to put me in a good mood, but I don’t really want to be cheered up right now. I want to break something and scream as loud as I can.
I turn away to look at my computer again so he won’t be able to tell I’m fighting a smile, but he leans over my desk with his hands folded lazily in front of him. “You wanna go to lunch with me?”
I frown. “I really, really wish I could, but I can’t. This book is going to press next week and there’s going to be a big party in New York over it and Greenwich is pulling out all the stops on marketing… If I fail at this, I’m going to lose my job.”
“Maybe taking a break for a few hours will help clear your mind.”
“I’m sorry, Luke.”
His good humor disappears and his expression turns deadly serious. “Ana. I really think you should come to lunch with me.”
“Wha–” My voice dies off as he raises an eyebrow and his words from Calliope’s party ring through my head.
‘We’re going to have to move quick if we’re going to fool your security. Expect me, all the time. Be ready.’
“Oh, right. Yeah, uh… I can’t take an hour or two. Let me just…” I reach out for my phone and hit zero to call reception. Penny picks up almost instantly.
“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”
“Penny, I’m going to head out for lunch and I won’t be available by phone. Have Abby push anything on my calendar until later this afternoon.”
After hanging up, Luke jumps out of his seat and I reach down with shaking hands for my bag. The truth is, though I knew this moment was coming, I haven’t really thought much about what I was going to do or say to Alexis once it did. We have no idea what her motives are or who she’s working with, so I don’t know if I’m about to walk into something hostile. That doesn’t change my mind about going, though. If anything, the unknown makes all of this more urgent and has me more anxious to nullify whatever threat she poses to my husband or my child. But summoning the courage to put myself back into everything I fought so hard to escape last year doesn’t come easy. I know going into this the way we are, without any help from Taylor, is a calculated risk. If something were to happen, Christian would have no idea where to even look for us.
“Hold on,” I say as Luke reaches for the door. There’s a notepad on my desk that I rip the top sheet of paper from and scribble three words.
Taylor. Ask Mia.
“What’s that for?” Luke asks, and I swallow as it tuck it under my keyboard to hide in case Woods happens to come in and glance over my desk while I’m away.
“Just in case,” I reply, then sling my purse over my shoulder and march out of my office with a straight back and squared shoulders.
Woods stands and fixes his tie as Luke and I make our way across the main floor, but I stop him with a gesture of my hand and sweet smile. Thankfully, when I speak, I’m able to keep my voice calm and level.
“I think we’re going to be okay, Evan. We’re just going to lunch and Luke here has a lot of experience keeping an eye on me.”
“Uh, Mrs. Grey… Mr. Grey–”
“Isn’t here, and what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon. And if he calls for me while I’m out, tell him I said he can talk to me about it tonight.”
“Seriously, Evan. We’ll be fine.” He looks at me uncertainly, clearly warring with the decision, so I squeeze his arm and hurry from the office before he has the chance to argue further. But when Luke opens the door for me, I can see the hint of empathy behind his eyes. He knows full well the wrath Woods will catch from Christian if he finds out I ditched my security, so I make a mental note to ensure I get the brunt of the storm just in case word of my absence gets back to him.
In the car, Luke finally lets down his lunch pretense and turns serious again. He switches off the radio and turns into the light downtown traffic with as much focus as I imagine he once used patrolling the border while he served in the military.
“She works the late morning shift at the Starbucks across the street from GEH,” he explains. “I think because it’s a subtle way to keep tabs on Grey. It’s where Andrea gets his coffee every morning so it tells her when he arrives at the office and she can set up watch, which she usually does…. Over there.”
He points to a delicatessen a little ways down the street with large windows at the front of the store. It’s a place I’m familiar with because it’s where Christian orders his lunch from nearly every day. I’ve even met him there a few times to eat together since I’ve started working downtown again. The tiny, eat-in dining room is always busy, so it’s easy to be overlooked. It’s one of the reasons why Christian likes it so much. Directly behind the windows at the front of the store is a long wooden bar where most people eat their lunches while pouring over laptops. I’ve even seen a few of my authors camped out there with a reuben on rye trying to finish up their manuscripts before I come break down their door. Honestly, if she’s looking for a place to blend in, it’s not a bad strategy. No one would bother her or question why she was there, and GEH would always be firmly in her sights.
Luke pulls into a miraculously open space along the curb just a few store storefronts down from the Starbucks where Alexis should be finishing up work, shifts his car into park, and then turns to me with imploring eyes.
“You’re really sure you want to do this?”
“Dead sure,” I reply, not missing a beat. But my confidence doesn’t seem to have any affect on his.
“If she really is working for someone, Ana, confronting her means that they’re going to know we’re onto them. This could turn into Lincoln all over again.”
I swallow. “If she’s working for someone who plans to come after us, then it’s already Lincoln all over again. Last time, I sat around and waited. I let Leila follow me, I gave Gia the benefit of the doubt even though everything she did set off red flags, and it didn’t keep me, or Christian, or Calliope safe. It only made him stronger. I’m not going to nothing anymore, Luke. If there’s someone else out there, I want to know about it. And I want him to know that I’m coming for him.”
The conflict displayed on Luke’s face is almost painful to witness, but after several seconds deliberation, he sighs, nods, and opens his door. I follow suit and come around the car to meet him, but before I can charge forward for the coffee shop, he grabs me and pulls me into the inlet around the main doors of a thrifty clothing store.
“Do you remember the sting we set up against Elena Lincoln? The night we found out about the club?”
“What did Taylor say to you?”
I search through the vibrant memories of that night for the dull ones of the time I spent with Taylor earlier in the evening. “If I tell you to do something, you do it.”
“Exactly,” Luke replies. “Now stay close.”
He turns around the corner first and walks slowly to the front of the Starbucks. I try the best I can to mirror his causal walk, but it’s difficult in the skin tight skirt and stilettos I wore to work today. After taking a brief look through the front window, he turns to me and nods, then leans against the brick facade and waits. “Keep an eye out for Andrea or Ros or… anyone from GEH that might recognize you,” he warns me.
I nod, then reach into my bag and pull out a pair of oversized sunglasses. The sunshine we enjoyed for Calliope’s birthday party is long gone now and the sky is dark with gloomy looking clouds, so the sunglasses are as out of place as they are unnecessary. But they do their job at concealing my face, at least at a cursory glance.
We wait for several minutes that feel like hours as my nerves mount and my feet start to ache. I glance down at the watch around my wrist probably thirty times, watching the hands tick away five minutes, then ten, until finally the door opens and the girl with the cloud of dark hair we’ve been waiting for saunters out onto the sidewalk. She turns up the block with only a quick look over at the imposing structure across the street, which shows none of the damage it sustained only a few weeks before.
I take a breath and step away from the wall. “Alexis!”
“Ana, no!” Luke hisses, but I ignore him. Alexis stops a few paces away from the front door, and whirls around to face us. I pull the sunglasses from my face and try to immolate the same, intimidating glare I’ve seen Christian use a thousand times. The curiosity behind her eyes vanishes the moment she recognizes me, and after gaping at the two of us for a few minutes she turns to run.
“God damn it,” Luke grumbles. He shoots me a look that tells me just how pissed he is, and takes off after her. Thankfully, running doesn’t seem to be her forté, because he catches up to her quickly, cutting off her route and forcing her to turn around, where I’m already waiting for her.
“Anastasia,” she pants.
“We need to talk,” I reply coolly. “Come with me.”
She turns and looks at Luke, who stands behind her like a brick wall and gestures her to follow after me. I lead her back to car and open the door to the backseat for her. She hesitates before climbing in, but with the crowd of people milling over the sidewalks, blocking her escape route, and my ex-CPO towering tall and intimidating behind her, she doesn’t have much choice to come along with us.
I reach down to flip the switch on the inside of the door to turn on the child locks before I close her inside and meander around the passenger’s side. Luke glares at me over the roof of the car before I can climb in.
“What happened to, if I tell you to do something, you do it?”
“I couldn’t wait.”
He lets out a heavy breath before yanking open the door and angrily stepping inside. I follow suit, and then put on my best poker face as he merges back into traffic.
We drive to a restaurant on the other side of the city. One that’s upscale and that you’d generally need a reservation made weeks in advance to get into. But when the maître d’ recognizes me, he leads us back to a private dining table without hesitation, despite the fact Luke is dressed in jeans and Alexis is still in her Starbucks uniform.
“What can I get for you to drink, Mrs. Grey?” he asks, after passing us the day’s custom menu.
“Iced tea, please. Alexis?”
She blinks at me in shock, then looks down at the menu. “Uh… I guess I’ll have the same.”
He nods, takes Luke’s order for a Coke, and disappears, leaving us alone to talk.
“Order what you want,” I tell Alexis, picking up my menu. “The food here is excellent.”
“What are you doing?” she asks, clearly suspicious.
“Treating you to lunch.” We stare at each other for a long beat. It’s clear she’s trying to figure out my angle, but I give her nothing to read into. I smile pleasantly, then return my attention to the menu. After the waiter returns with our drinks and takes our order, I fold my hands on the table and stare at her with purpose and as much confidence as I can summon.
“I know you’re watching us,” I say calmly. “I know you were following Mia, I know you were at the hospital when my sister had her baby, I know you were at the restaurant during my business lunch the other day, and I know you’ve been keeping tabs on my husband.”
“So you thought you’d bring me to lunch?”
“I want to know why.”
She scoffs, actually scoffs, and picks up her iced tea to take a drink without answering. I wait, not pushing her, not making any demands. Just staring at her expectantly.
“Look, I’m not going to tell you anything,” she says at last. “So you might as well save your money on this grossly overpriced restaurant and take me back. I don’t need all this pomp and circumstance from you.”
“Why? Is someone threatening you?”
“We can protect you, you know. If someone is forcing you to watch us, we can protect you, hide you, set you up with everything could ever need or want. Just tell me who it is, and we’ll take care of it.”
She leans forward, elbow on the table, and rests her cheek on the heel of her hand. “Lincoln really did a number on you, huh?”
“Which should make you desperately want to cooperate with me,” I reply, a vague threat in my voice. “Because one way or another, you’re going to tell me who you’re working for. Whether it’s over lunch, or after my friend here has done whatever it is he has to do to get you to talk.”
“Lincoln’s dead, Anastasia. No one is getting paid anymore, so no one is coming for you. Congratulations, you won.” There’s a bitter bite to each of her words that isn’t lost on me.
“Then why are you following my family?”
She takes another drink and glances through the window behind me, at the panoramic view of the sound which is dark, and murky beneath the clouds. “I’m not a bad person,” she says at last. “I know you think I was part of what happened to you, but I really wasn’t. I never wanted to be. I didn’t spy on you like so many others did or try to sabotage Grey’s company. I’m not the villain you’ve made me out to be.”
“You threatened my sister-in-law. You talked her out of telling us what she knew about Gresham and stood by as he promised to harm each and every one of us.”
“I was trying to protect him.”
“No, Charles.” I sit back, blinking. Charles isn’t a name I recognize until… I do. Charles Gresham. Mia said that Alexis was his favorite girl, that he requested her every time he came into the club, and when Christian finally shut it down, she’d yelled at him for taking away the only steady Dom she’d ever had.
“I know what happened to you that night,” she says, softly. “I’ve read every article and watched every news report about what went down in that apartment. You got the crazy girl and her psycho lover boy to keep you at Escala until he got there to finish what he’d started, but why do you think you had to wait for him at all? Where do you think he was?”
“He was with Gresham.”
“We were trying to leave,” she continues. “Charles never wanted to come after Grey, but he didn’t have a choice. If he didn’t do what Lincoln said, he’d expose him and Charles would have ended up in jail just like Elena. And eventually, he’d have met the same fate. We all would have, that became clear very quickly after… the asian kid, whatever his name was. He wasn’t going to keep any of us around.”
She breaks eye contact then, taking a moment to wipe away the tears pooling in her eyes. I offer her the napkin in my lap, but she shakes her head and continues.
“Our bags were packed. Five more minutes and we would have been long gone. But we didn’t make it. Lincoln had gotten a key from somewhere and forced his way into the apartment. Charles did everything he could to stop him, to plead for our lives, but we both knew there wasn’t any hope. He had a can of gas in his hand and that’s not something you bring if you’re there to be reasoned with. Charles attacked him, but Lincoln was a better fighter than even I would have given him credit for. Still, it was enough for Charles to tell me to run. And I did. I ran from the building and waiting across the street, praying I would see Charles come through the front doors and whisk me away like we’d planned. But he didn’t. A few minutes later, I saw Lincoln walk out and… I knew. Part of me didn’t want to go up there and see it. I think I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it. But, I also knew that if there was any possibility that he was alive, he would be hurt and he would need my help.”
“So, I ran for the building, but I hadn’t even gotten all the way across the street before the apartment windows blew out. Fire and broken glass rained down on the street and, suddenly, there were people everywhere. Trying to get out of the building, trying to get a better look at the damage. Every police car in the city showed up, every fire truck, and I stood there, horrified, watching them pull people covered in burns out of the building on stretchers. I think that I was holding out hope that Charles would be one of them, but he wasn’t. He was gone.”
“He wasn’t just my Dom, Anastasia. He was my everything. I know he did things that were inexcusable, but I made excuses anyway. I looked past the things he had done and the people he had hurt, because none of that mattered to me as much as he did. I did things that will haunt me until the day I die, but I didn’t have a choice. Not because he commanded me to, or even asked. But because I knew that’s what it would take to protect him. Haven’t you ever had someone you loved so much you would do anything to keep them safe? Even if it was wrong?”
I take a breath and nod. She presses her lips together, blinks away the tears that seem determined to leak down her cheeks, and returns the gesture.
“I loved him more than I have ever loved anything in the world, and Lincoln took him from me. Because he was trying to get to you.”
“Alexis, I’m sorry. But you have to know that Christian and I had nothing to do with Gresham’s death. We didn’t even know he was involved until two days before he died.”
“I know. I’m not crazy like that Williams girl or Gia Matteo. I know what happened, I know why it happened, and I know who’s to blame. It was Andrew Lincoln, and he’s dead now too.”
“So why are you following us?”
“Us?” she repeats. “This has nothing to do with you, Anastasia.”
“You watched me from the cafe across the street from where I work. You were at that restaurant I went to last week. I know you were watching me, I heard you. And I know you’re following my husband and both of my sisters. We’ve seen you, Alexis.”
“He’s not easy to find.”
She blinks again and looks away, but this time it’s not to hide her tears. She looks off into the distance, like she’s seeing something that’s not here. “I followed Mia because she’s his favorite. I remember how much she used to talk about him, about how close they were. Wherever she was going, that seemed the most likely place I’d find him. Then the blonde girl who moved into Escala gave birth and I knew he’d be there, but he was never alone. I went to your work thinking he might stop by, but he never did. You live in a gated community, and then there’s another gate at your house, so that was out. The only chance I have left is GEH.”
“Christian?” I ask, too sharply. “You’re trying to get to Christian?”
She nods, and when I look into her eyes, I remember Christian saying something about how angry she had been after Elena’s club was shut down. That she’d yelled at him. Perhaps, since she can’t take revenge on Lincoln, she’s decided to go back to the source. If Christian had never shut down that club, none of this would have happened to her.
“She had his sister, Alexis. Mia was in danger in that club, he couldn’t stand by and let Elena continue on after what she did to Mia. To the other girls who didn’t want to be there. I know you did, and I’m sorry for what you lost, but he didn’t have a choice.”
“Then why are you coming after him?”
“Because he’s a dominant,” she says, and my face goes blank. “I worked very closely with Elena Lincoln, Anastasia. I know all about his past. I saw the girls she’d bring to him. I was in the courtroom the day you put Elena away, I heard him testify that he engaged in the BDSM lifestyle.” She glances down at my hands. “I know exactly what those marks around your wrist are from. Cuffs right? The metal kind that bite if you struggle too hard against them.”
I too look down, then tug the sleeves of my blazer to try and hide the faded marks from the cuffs Christian used to restrain me the night before. “He’s married,” I say firmly.
“And who are you?” she asks. “What makes you so worthy?”
“We love each other.”
She rolls her eyes. “Love is cheap. Every girl in this city could love Christian Grey. He’s hot, rich, successful… He doesn’t need love. He needs someone who will give him everything he actually desires. Power. He needs someone who will let him own them. Who will fulfil every one of his fantasies. Who will mold themselves into exactly what he wants them to be. He needs a submissive.”
“You don’t even know him. You have no idea what he wants or needs.”
“Those marks on your wrist tell a different story. He wants the control, and I’m sure you give it to him up to a certain degree. You play with the idea of BDSM, give him just enough to make him think he’s satisfied, but it’s not your way of life. You won’t let him hurt you, let him use your body in any way he wants. You’ll never give yourself to him, not really, and he’ll come to see that.”
“And you think he’ll take you?”
“Eventually they all do. Men are simple, Anastasia. They only ever want two things. Pleasure, and the women who give it to them.”
Mostly, her confession is a relief. Not because it thrills me to have another woman chasing my husband, but because I know Christian would never betray me. However, there was another woman who once lusted after him, coveted him, and when he turned her away, she did everything she could to destroy our lives. So even if she’s not part of some new conspiracy against my family, she’s still a threat and I won’t leave here until that threat is contained.
“Why Christian?” I ask, crossing my arms and leaning back in my chair. She furrows her brow, but answers anyway.
“He’s perfect. He has the money to truly take care of any girl who serves him. He has the looks and the body to make him desirable. And he’s powerful. Enough so that men and women bend to his every command even without the threat of punishment. You have no idea how much that appeals to a girl like me.”
I shake my head. “This is city is full of men like him. Rich, powerful, wanting. There have to be a dozen Doms just like him around this city. Single, and waiting for a willing submissive.”
“No,” she sighs. “There isn’t. I worked at Kink, remember? I know every player in the Dominant game. Hell, I’ve done scenes with the majority of them. Most couldn’t provide half of what Grey could and the others are weak. Scared. Too timid to fulfil the role I need them to. I thought I’d never find a match like I had in Gresham ever again, until I found an early draft of the book you tried to kill in his final records. Elena’s book. Then I got to read about all the things that he’s done or was willing to do. Even in submission he was strong, and when she’d let him take over…” Her words stop as she shivers, and my muscles tense reflexively. When her eyes flash up at me with unconcealed want, my teeth grind together. “He’s the Holy fucking Grail.”
“Unobtainable. What a fitting metaphor.”
The waiter reappears then, placing our plates of food in front of each of us. I put on a gracious smile as he wishes us a good meal, all while weighing my options. There’s a deep degree of desperation in dedicating your life to stalking someone who could never want you in return. And desperation is more dangerous than malice. This girl can tell me she isn’t the same as Leila or Gia all she wants, but I’ve seen the things she’s willing to do for what she desires. For what she claims to love. Her obsession puts Mia, Kate, Calliope, and myself at risk if she ever chooses to see any one of us as leverage or a way to get to get close to Christian. So, while I know something has to be done, without the threat of immediate violence, I’m not sure what that should look like. Do I leave here and find some way to punish her from the equation, like I did with Kozlowski? Or do I find a way to change her mind? Give her something greater than what she currently seeks.
“What if I helped you?” I blurt out, and she looks at me suspiciously.
“You say you want a Dominant who will meet your needs, I can help you find him.”
“How? You’re not in the lifestyle. You don’t know anyone.”
“Christian’s not the only well connected Grey in this city. I know people, powerful people. I can help you.” That last bit was a bluff, but she seems to take the bait.
“Stay away from my husband, stay away from my family, and I’ll deliver the Dom of your dreams.”
She considers this for a moment, staring cautiously at me while she weighs the decision as though she’s trying to catch me in a double cross.
“This isn’t a trick,” I confess. “I keep my word. If you can keep yours, I’ll help you.”
“Fine,” she says at last. “Find me someone worthy, and you’ll never see or hear from me again.”
Oh, I’ll make sure that.
I reach across the table to shake her hand, then dab my napkin against the corners of my mouth before rising from my seat. Luke follows and for the first time, I glance over and see the way he’s looking at me. The emotion that paints his expression isn’t quite anger, but it’s not far off.
“Order whatever you like,” I tell Alexis as I pick up my bag. “Dessert, drinks… It’s on me.”
“Thank you.” With a curt nod, I move around the table, only stopping to ensure the maître d’ charges everything that’s ordered to my account. Once we’re outside though, Luke grabs me by the arm and drags me down the sidewalk to the car before nearly throwing me inside.
“What the hell was that?” he demands, the moment he’s shut his door behind him.
“What else was I supposed to do? She’s already lost everything, that gives me very little else to work with.”
“So instead you want to play like you’re Elena Lincoln?”
His insinuation hits me like a slap across the face, and if he wasn’t my best friend and closest confidant, I think that’s exactly what he’d have earned in return.
“How dare you!”
“What the fuck else would call what you just promised her?”
“Elena Lincoln was a sexual predator. She pushed girls beyond the boundaries of consent and turned a blind eye to abuse. I’m not forcing Alexis into anything. This is what she wants, Luke.”
He turns away and stares through the front windshield, jaw tight, muscles tense. He’s fuming and if didn’t trust him absolutely, it would be almost terrifying.
“Look, if you’re not comfortable helping me with this anymore, I’m not going to force you to.”
“You already have!” he screams back. “Jesus Christ, Ana, you’ve got me in a box here. We’re in this too deep now for me to go to Taylor and not risk destroying your marriage or your family, so the only option you’ve left me with is to abandon you and you know that’s the one thing I would never do. You’ve put this all on me. I don’t want to go where this is taking us but you have given me no other choice.” His words ring through the car with an echo almost as loud as his shouts. I feel the harsh sting of his castigation and crumple beneath it.
His body deflates as he lets out a long breath and reaches over to pull me into a hug. I try as hard as I can to hold back the wave of emotion that threatens to completely overcome me, but the confrontation I’d just been through and its subsequent revelation demand release. So I cry into his shirt until I’ve gotten it out and I’m able to pull myself together again.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him again, and he nods in acceptance.
“This is it, Ana, okay? She told you straight to your face that there’s no one else out there. Once Carrick’s investigation is done, they’ll know who’s left from Lincoln’s circle and he’ll take care of them the right way.”
“If his investigation is ever done…”
“It will be. Soon. And we’ll let them handle whatever they uncover, okay?”
I take a breath, but nod, and he squeezes my arm reassuringly before he starts the car and takes me back to my office.
As per the new normal, Christian is still at work by the time I get back home that evening. My brain is full of jumbled passages of text and worries over Alexis, but I do my very best not to let any of that show as I feed and play with Calliope. I keep her up a little later than I normally would, wanting Christian to at least see her before I have to put her down, and thankfully, my patience pays off. He comes through the door just as I’m about to give up and take her to bed.
“Good night, Princess,” he whispers, leaning over the bars of her crib to kiss her forehead. She stares up at him and reaches out to touch his face, so he lingers there awhile. I can feel his torment over the hours missed with our daughter radiating off of him as he tries to force himself to leave her side, and it hits me harder than I’m prepared for.
“You really should try to make it home earlier,” I tell him, once we’ve stepped out of the nursery. “I know you’re busy but I think it hurts you to miss this time with her as much as it hurts her.”
“I know. Between our new slate of acquisitions and the fusion project, there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day anymore.”
“Acquisitions? I thought you passed that off to Ros?”
“I did, but we’re coming up on end of year and we’ve got to get more aggressive if we’re going to…” He pauses, obviously changing direction mid-sentence. “This is my strong suit, not Ros’s.”
“So… these late hours are only going to get worse over the next few weeks?”
“I’m going to try my hardest to make sure the don’t.”
I take a deep breath, wrap my arms around him, and gently press my lips to his. He takes my kiss as eagerly as a man dying of thirst reaches for a drink of water. I can feel him change under my touch, his body relaxes, and he seems to breathe more easy. When I pull away and swipe the few loose hairs on his forehead away, he looks years younger than he did when he’d first returned home.
“Everything for the fusion project has been moved to the facility in Kent, hasn’t it?”
“Then maybe… maybe it’s time Calliope went back to daycare.”
The tension in his face relaxes and he stands a little straighter. “Really?”
“Yeah. I know you like having her close and she needs you around more. Besides, she has teachers and opportunities there that she just don’t have at home. I think it’ll be better for everyone.”
“Thank you, Ana.” He leans down and kisses me again, but just as the kiss begins to morph into something more promising, his phone begins vibrating in the pocket of his trousers. He growls in frustration as he pulls away and takes his phone out of his pocket, but when he looks at the screen, the kind of frustration behind his eyes changes. “I’m sorry, I have to take this.”
“That’s fine. I think I’m actually going to go down to my office and do some writing.”
“Writing? You haven’t done any writing for months.”
“Well, maybe being around authors all day has struck my muse.”
“Your Calliope.” He smiles, and I respond with soft laugh that once again draws him to my lips. “I’ll come find you when I’m finished.”
“And I’ll leave a trail of breadcrumbs so you don’t get lost.”
“How about you leave me these?” His fingers toy with the fabric of my shirt, and after giving him a scolding look, I kiss him on the cheek and leave him to his phone call.
On the way to my office, I triple check each room I pass to make sure I’m alone and that no one is left in the house to come looking for me. My paranoia is so peaked that I feel like the eyes of the family photos that litter the back hallway are following me as I close myself inside the one room in the house that is only mine, and yet I remain undeterred. With a steadying breath, I settle down in the padded chair behind my desk, move my mouse to bring my computer out of sleep mode, and pull my keyboard toward me.
In truth, I have no idea what I’m doing, so I start the only way I can fathom. I pull up Google and type, ‘BDSM dating sites’ into the search bar. Unfortunately, the phrase gets millions of hits. I click the first link, type in my city, and begin scrolling through candidates. I’m not wanting for options, the kink is actually more prevalent than I’d anticipated, but pickings are slim in terms of quality. Most of the pictures posted are of balding, middle aged men and mattress with various toys displayed in a sparsely decorated bedroom. Many of the biographies I skim are either vulgar and disgusting, or peppered with romantic idealism. Not what a submissive like Alexis would ever be interested in.
It occurs to me, as I flip to the 17th page on the site I’m browsing, that she’s probably been through these same listings and come up just as I am. I try another site, and another, and once I find that I’m reading the same profiles I’ve seen before, I let out a deep sigh, fold my arms over my desk, and let my head fall down on top of them.
Why did I think I could do this? She was right, I have no ties to this community. I don’t know how a dominant meets a submissive, I lucked into mine. And if it hadn’t been for Elena Lincoln…
I freeze, then sit bolt upright. Elena Lincoln.
With another cautious look at my office door, I exit out of my browser, and click the GEH portal icon that’s only on my desktop because Christian worked out of my office for a few weeks while his office finished undergoing renovation shortly after we moved in. His information is already populated in the sign in box, so I don’t even have to make an attempt at a guess for his password, and after arguing with myself if I really should be doing what I’m about to do, I click the button to sign in.
Instantly, I have access to the entire GEH server. His personal welcome page is littered with neatly organized folders for acquisitions, legal, and each department. My eyes are immediately drawn to the one still highlighted in blue, as if it’s the one that’s been most recently opened, titled Fusion Project, but I ignore my curiosity and instead click through Taylor’s folders.
It takes a while to find what I’m looking for, but eventually I come across the records we’d pulled from Kink, Elena’s club. My mouth goes dry as I open the folder, but my guilt is quickly replaced with victory. Alongside the financial records are client lists and I’m relieved to find that Elena had been very detailed in her record keeping. The data she has on each dominant includes their contact information, hard limits, preferences for submissives, even their net worth. It looks like preferential treatment was given to the clients who came in with the most money in their pockets, so their files are the most detailed. I only only have to find one who Alexis was never paired with but, as I begin weeding through the names with the highest numbers in the income column, my door opens.
“Hey, you almost finished?” Christian asks.
I jump, and my eyes snap to his too quickly. A clear indication of guilt. His brow furrows and he steps inside my office, so I quickly back out of every folder open on my screen and hit the x to kill the program just before he’s able to get a look at what’s on my computer screen. Unfortunately, the window I had open behind the GEH portal, isn’t much better that what I just narrowly avoided him seeing.
“Fetish Life,” he reads aloud, clearly taken aback.
“Research,” I say quickly. “I thought I’d dabble a little in Romance.”
“Really?” His tone suggests I’ve piqued his interest, rather than angered him, and he smiles as he saunters back around my desk and casually sits in the chair across from me. “That book your employee told you to read really made an impression, huh?”
I let out an awkward laugh. “Yeah, I guess. I just… I’m having a fundamental problem with some of the more detailed aspects of the lifestyle.”
“Well, I don’t know why you’re trolling the internet when you have fully invested Dom right here, willing and waiting.”
“I’m not looking for Dom,” I say clearly. “I just… I don’t really understand how people in the lifestyle meet each other since everything is so secret. You know, when they don’t have an Elena Lincoln.”
“Well, it’s not always secret. A lot of people live the lifestyle quite openly. They’re a conventions, clubs… all kinds of ways for people to meet each other. It’s only the ones who would have something to lose if people found out that keep it secret.”
“And how do those people meet each other?”
He shrugs. “Networking.”
“Okay, but how do you network if you don’t want people to find out about what you do?”
“I don’t know, it just happens. It’s a fairly common fetish and it’s fairly easy to spot the indicators if you know what you’re looking for. My world is full of people who privately practice BDSM. Powerful people are drawn to power.”
This is I know from Elena. She’d put herself through college and grad school by being submissive to powerful men. It had been her saving grace at the time, only to end up being her downfall once she tried to get out.
“And you know people?”
“A few. There’s a guy I know in New York, Damien Beaufort. He owns a PR/Marketing firm that’s one of the best in the world. That’s where I got Jacqueline. He’s been in the lifestyle for… eleven years.”
“How do you know?”
“I introduced him to Elena.”
“Oh.” I frown, and he gets out of his seat, walks back to me, and places his hands on each of the arm rests of my chair before leaning down and taking my lips in a deep, long, passionate kiss.
“Anything else you need for your… research?” he asks, playfully.
“Couldn’t hurt,” I whisper back. He smiles again and stands up straight, staring down at me with the commanding look in his eye that makes me want to get to my knees.
“Meet me upstairs in five minutes.”
I nod. “Yes, Sir.”
He turns and goes, leaving me breathless and wanting. I shake my head to clear away the desire fueled fog, and pull up an email to send to Luke.
From: Anastasia Grey
Date: May 14th 2012, 10:43 PM
To: Luke Sawyer
Get in contact with Damien Beaufort in New York. He might be our guy.
Once the email sends, I power down my computer, sweep my hair back away from my face, and begin to braid it as I make my way up the stairs.