Chapter 20

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I hate the color of the carpet in the hallway outside Scott’s office. There’s too much red in the mottled fibers and I find it distracting as I pace back and forth, listening to Jacki’s concerns through the phone.

“My author is getting impatient. Four book stores are now completely sold out and the 2nd print has been delayed again.”

“This is a good problem to have,” I remind her. “You’ve moved over 12,000 units in two weeks, and despite being sold out in the brick and mortar stores, the online sales aren’t slowing down. This is a bestseller, and that is all you need to be telling your author right now. We’ll handle the semantics, she should be focusing on her next book.”

“I’m trying, but people are relentless online. She’s getting hounded on Twitter and people are starting to complain in their Goodreads reviews. Can’t you do something with the printers? She’ll relax if she at least knows something is moving.”

“I’ll make a call.”

“Thank you, Ana.”

“Hey, don’t thank me. You’ve moved more copies this month than GSP has on any other release in the last two years. You’re my superstar right now. Anything you need, I’m here for you.”

“I guess that’s what happens when you’re passionate about a project instead of just going through the motions, huh?”

“Funny how that works. Now go find me more diamonds in the rough. I’ll call the printers.”

“Right away, Mrs. Grey.”

“Bye, Jacki.” I smile as I hang up the phone, feeling a tremendous amount of pride in the first successful release under my tenure at GSP. I knew romance was a huge genre, but even I hadn’t expected numbers like these. It takes a lot of the pressure off of The Black Rose, and has my hopes up about new projects to help GSP expand over the next year.

“Ana?” Scott calls. I frown, then set a reminder on my phone to call the printing press back in Seattle before hurrying back inside.

It’s a little strange how different working in the New York office is from Seattle. Just as Grey Publishing is located in the same building as GEH, GSP NY resides on the eighth floor of the Gallagher Corporation tower in lower Manhattan. As a result, this branch has the best amenities available. Multiple conference rooms with expensive tech to aid in meetings, gourmet coffee in the break rooms to ease the mid-afternoon slump. It’s almost depressing how much better the view is, or how much bigger Scott’s office is than mine, but there are downsides too.

Everyone is on edge. All the time. The few people who have bothered to talk to me at all refuse to address me as Ana for fear of being too informal, and the organic conversations and sharing of ideas I’ve worked tirelessly to promote in my own office are completely absent from the few meetings I’ve attended with Scott. There’s too much fear. Too much competition. And today, that competitive spirit seems to be in full swing between Scott and I, though I can’t fathom why.

It’s been ten hours since the release date for The Black Rose was officially announced to the public, and he hasn’t moved from the computer since. Every thirty seconds, Walter Daves and I watch him refresh the matrix page so he has the most up to date pre-order numbers possible. But no matter how high they climb, he doesn’t seem satisfied. I’m starting to suspect that he won’t be as long as the numbers are less than what was on the report from Jacki’s sales this morning.

“What should we be at?” Walter asks nervously.

“There’s no should,” I say quickly. “These are all pre-sales. Your book hasn’t even been released yet.”

“Still…” Scott mumbles. He begins clicking his tongue as he refreshes the page again, but before the number repopulate Carmen pokes her head through the open door and raps her knuckles against the metal frame.

“I’ve got five minutes before my next meeting,” she says. “Any updates?”

Immediately, Scott’s attitude changes. He sits up straight and beams as brightly as my daughter did the first time she saw her pony. “Over a thousand now, and getting stronger by the hour.”

“Excellent,” Carmen replies. “Hopefully we’ll be over 2,500 by tomorrow’s announcement party. This is great work, team. Take some time to celebrate, you’ve earned it.”

“Thank you, Carmen,” Scott says. “Ana here was skeptical at first, but hopefully now she’ll see that there’s a method to my madness.”

I turn and blink in his direction, somehow managing to keep my mouth from dropping open in shock. There’s a method to his madness? Is he really intending to take sole credit for this? Nevermind that I’m the one who spent the last two months pouring through every single word to make it the best it could possibly be, while he’s never even read the thing in its entirety. The author is sitting right fucking here! And while I might still have some concern over what will happen once pre-sales are over and this book actually hits the shelves, and the hands of the critics, why would he express that doubt in front of Daves when the book has already gone to press and there’s nothing more he can do?

God damn it.

“We all ended up on the same page,” Carmen says. “That’s what’s really important. Congratulations, Mr. Daves.”

“Thank you, Ms. Gallagher.”

She winks, then hurries off to her meeting and I glare at Scott as he reaches down to refresh the page again. The pre-order column jumps another sixty numbers higher, and he lets out a boastful laugh.

“You know this really is excellent, considering these numbers are just for pre-sales. I bet once The Black Rose hits shelves, we’ll move fifteen, twenty thousand units in the first few weeks easily. You’ve done it, Walter. This has best seller written all over it.”

“Really?” There’s an uneasiness in his voice that mirrors my own, which only makes what Scott said to Carmen all the worse.

“Really,” Scott confirms. “In fact, I think Carmen’s right. We should celebrate. Why don’t I take the two of you out to dinner, and then we can head uptown for some drinks?”

“Tonight?” I ask.

“Yeah, tonight. What? You don’t eat dinner on Thursdays?”

“No, of course I do, I just…” Walter leans back in his chair next to me, bouncing his knee with nerves and avoiding eye contact. The truth is, Luke and Alexis should be landing at JFK in a few hours and I’m supposed to be meeting them and Damien Beaufort at ten. But I also am keenly aware that I am the sole person who represents Walter now. It’s my job to be by his side, to champion his work, and to be there when he needs support, just the same as Lydia was there for me only a year ago. And from the look on his face, now is when he needs support.

“You know what? You’re right, Scott. We should be celebrating.” I reach over and place a gentle hand on Daves’ forearm. “The hard part’s over, Walter. Now it’s time to bask in your success.”

He smiles. “Thank you, Mrs. Grey.”

“How many times do I have to ask you to call me Ana?”

“Sorry.” He blushes. “Ana.”

“Well, it sounds like it’s settled then,” Scott says. “Meet for dinner at eight, then we’ll head over to LAVO.”

“LAVO?”

“It’s a place I know. Trust me, you’ll love it.”

“Fine.” I give one last reassuring smile to Walter, then gather my things to go. As I exit Scott’s office, I hurry and fish out my phone to text Luke so that he can change the location of our meeting. Though, if I’m going to sandwich Beaufort in with Walter and Scott, Woods might become a problem.

I find him in the lobby, sitting in the same chair he’s occupied all day. He looks bored out of his mind, tapping his finger on the arm of his chair with each tick of the second hand on the clock.

“I’m so sorry, Evan. I didn’t think I’d be here this long today.”

“Don’t worry about it, Ana. We headed back to the hotel?”

“Mhm.” He reaches for my bag, which I hand over gratefully before leading the way to the elevator and out of the building. We’re not travelling with a car this time, so I reach out into the street to hail a cab, which isn’t an easy task at seven PM on a weeknight. Eventually though, we get a ride and I make it back to the hotel with just enough time to change and freshen up.

“Should I call for a dinner reservation?” Woods asks while I dig through my things for my room key. I bite my lip, and glance up at him with guilt that I hope is better concealed than I imagine it to be. Luke was always able to tell when I was lying, I can only pray that’s not the case for Woods too.

“Actually, I’ve got a lot of work from the Seattle office to deal with still. I think I’ll stay in for the rest of the night.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s been a long day. I’m just going to draw a bath, get my reading done, and order room service.”

“Okay. Can I order something for you?”

“No, I’m good. Seriously, take the night to yourself. I’m sure you need a night off just as badly as I do.”

“Alright. I’m just next door if you need anything.”

“Thanks, Evan.”

“Sure thing, Ana.” He waits until I’m securely in my room before retiring to his, and I watch through the peephole in my door until the hallway is empty. Once I’m sure I’m in the clear, I strip away my work clothes and make my way back to the bathroom to pull out my hair straightener. With traffic, I have only have about fifteen minutes to get ready and into a car if I’m going to make it to the restaurant in time, and I spend the first five of those deciding what I’m going to wear.

Google tells me that LAVO is a nightclub, and finding something appropriate amongst the clothes Gail packed for a business trip is a task all on it’s own. Eventually, I decide on an immaculately cut black dress that makes me feel powerful and in control, then work to get my hair as sleek and straight as possible. My eye shadow is darker and smokier than I normally wear it, and my eyeliner is thicker and jet black. I forgo a bold color on my lips, ensuring my look is strong rather than sexy, then pick up my purse and shoes and make for the door.

I feel a little ridiculous sneaking down the hallway, like the Pink Panther. I even go as far as to duck beneath the peephole to Woods’ door on the off chance he happens to be looking out and bypass the elevator for the stairs to prevent the high pitched ping from drawing attention to my exit. My ears warm with guilt the entire way down the thirteen flights of stairs, which I take in stockinged feet. Countless lessons in the past have me hyper aware of how wrong it is to ditch my CPO like this, but I ignore every instinct that tells me to go back.

I’m not without protection. Luke will be with me.

The pep-talk does little to bolster my confidence, but I get to the lobby and out the main doors all the same. A man is exiting a taxi right in front of my hotel, so there’s no need for me to wait for a car. I simply flash him a grateful smile, slide into the empty back seat, and slip the driver the piece of paper with the address of my destination.

We start with dinner at Perla in the village, then make our way up to midtown for LAVO. To my surprise, I actually recognize the neighborhood where the club is located quite well. It’s only two blocks away from the Plaza Hotel, which is where Christian and I stayed during that first fateful trip to New York.

Seeing the beautiful building standing tall and proud at the end of the street haunts me with memories. They’re not necessarily bad. Despite how that trip ended, there was a lot of good between Christian and I that week. But good or bad, the memories make me feel Christian’s presence, as strongly as if he were standing right next to me. And that presence hangs like a spector over what I’m going to do tonight.

Focus, Ana. You’re doing this for him.

“We can skip the line,” Scott announces. “They know me here.”

“Thank god,” Walter replies. “I thought we were going to be stuck out here for hours.” I follow his gaze over the crowd of people queued up along the side of the building, but when Scott wraps his fingers around my arm to lead me along beside him, I pull out of his grip.

“I actually need to make a phone call really quick. I’ll meet you inside.”

“Grey won’t let you off the leash even one night, huh?”

Whatever warmth I’d managed to fake through my inner turmoil vanishes instantly. I narrow my eyes and take a step back. “I’d be very careful about the way you talk about my husband in front of me, Scott.”

“Oh, come on, Ana–”

“No.” I let the cold refusal lay between us, growing heavier and heavier under my piercing stare, until he finally nods and turns, uncomfortably, back towards the building. I smile at Walter as a way of apology for the awkward exchange, then motion towards an empty part of the sidewalk. “Excuse me.”

Turning, I make my way to the end of the building and duck around the corner where I can lurk in the shadows of the alley. My hands seem to shake as I take out my phone and read the text I missed from Luke an hour ago telling me he and Alexis have arrived and Beaufort has agreed to the venue change. I quickly reply that I’ve arrived at LAVO, but once the text has been sent, a shiver runs up my back and I freeze. I feel him again. Christian. Like he’s standing here with me. Watching me. Warning me. I let my head fall back against the wall and take several steadying breaths.

He’s in Seattle. This is for the good of your family. Get it together, Anastasia.

My phone vibrates in my hand and I glance down to see the text from Luke telling me that he and Alexis are on route, so I quickly make my way back out to the main street and through the front entrance of the club. There is a litany of groans and complaints that follow me as the bouncer opens the velvet rope for me to pass, but it all melds into the music and hum of conversation as I step into the club.

Scott and Walter are already seated at a table when I find them, and Walter seems slightly uncomfortable with the too loud music, dim lighting, and crowds of drunk 20 somethings dancing through the clouds pouring from the strategically placed fog machines. Scott, on the other hand, looks overjoyed as he’s greeted by everyone who passes the table like he’s walked into an episode of Cheers. I sit and let them talk amongst themselves, staring nervously at my phone for the notification that Luke has arrived, praying I won’t see anything from Woods or Christian.

“What’ll you drink, Ana?” Scott shouts over the bumping bass. I glance up and discover a cocktail waitress standing over us, looking expectantly down at me.

“Just a water, please. Thank you.”

“Oh, no,” Scott says. “We’re celebrating, Ana, you’re not having just water. She’ll have a Cosmopolitan.” He leans into me conspiratorially, but speaks loudly enough that I’m sure both Walter and the waitress can hear. “It’s what the girls on Sex and the City drink. You’re going to love it.”

I raise an eyebrow at him, then shake my head and face the waitress. “I’ll have a double Hendricks on the rocks with lime, please.”

She nods, then scribbles my order down on the notepad in her hand. “Coming right up.”

“Tequila, huh?” Scott asks, nodding in approval. “I didn’t realize that’s the kind of night we’re having. Alright.” He bobs his head to the beat of the music until our waitress returns with our drinks, then he holds his above the table for a toast. “Here’s to Walter and The Black Rose!”

I lift my drink in the air, then throw it back in one, burning gulp. Cringing away from the bite of the alcohol, I sink my teeth into the wedge of lime on the side of my glass and then wait for warmth of the alcohol to relax away my trepidation about tonight.

“Let’s do another!” Scott yells, holding up his hand to flag down the waitress again. She nods once she sees him he pointing to our empty glasses, then Scott turns to continue congratulating Walter. When he lowers his hand though, he brings it down to rest on my exposed knee.

“Excuse me,” I say, pushing his hand away and picking up my illuminated phone from the table. “I’ll be back.”

“We’ll be waiting,” Scott says, winking. I grimace, but turn away from the table without another word. Luke’s text says that they’re in a private room, so I make my way towards the entrance of the club, glancing over my shoulder as I go to ensure no one is following me.

“Hi, my name is Anastasia Grey,” I tell the supermodel-thin hostess holding the clipboard at the front doors. “I think my party is already here… reservation under Luke Sawyer.”

She scans the list in her hands, then smiles up at me. “Yes, Mrs. Grey. If you’ll follow me.”

We walk down the one clear path, designated with thick charcoal colored carpet, around the dancefloor to the back of the club. There’s a hallway there that’s darker without the flashing strobes and spotlights, and fairly quiet despite the enormous speakers only few feet away on the other side of the left wall. At the end of the hallway, Luke stands before a closed door, arms folded over his chest. He relaxes his intimidating stance as we approach, but even after the hostess has turned and left us alone, he doesn’t take me inside.

“Where’s Alexis?” I ask.

“Outside. I thought we should feel this guy out before we just send her off with him. She might not be an ally, but if he turns out to be someone who might hurt her, we’re not just going to hand her over and walk away.”

I nod. “Yeah. Of course.”

“You ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“We can still walk away, you know. Just say the word and I’ll get you out of here. I’ll take Alexis back to Seattle tonight and you can go back to Grey without him being any the wiser.” As if to echo his sentiments, my phone begins to vibrate in my hand. I look down and see Christian’s name on the screen. A picture of him from our wedding day smiles back at me, almost as though it’s trying to coerce me away from the room, but I reject the call and slip my phone back into my purse.

“No, I’m going in there. This ends tonight.”

“All of it,” he affirms. “After this we’re done. For good.”

“I know.”

“Then I’m right behind you.” He steps aside to let me pass and after taking one last second to prepare myself, I reach out for the door handle and push my way inside.

Mr. Beaufort is tall. That’s the first thing I notice. He’s leaning over a fireplace at the wall opposite from me, and he doesn’t flinch or look over when I enter. Even with him facing away, there’s something imposing about his presence.

“Mr. Beaufort?” I say.

“Anastasia Grey,” he replies, finally turning to face me. I’m pleased to discover that he’s at least attractive, which should go some way to keep Alexis pleased with this arrangement should it work out. His hair is dark, and his features severe, but his eyes are an almost hypnotizing shade of caramel. There’s undeniable strength in the set of his broad shoulders and chest, but those eyes… they could melt ice in January.

“I’m glad you agreed to meet with me,” I say, standing taller so I don’t feel so small standing before him.

“The pleasure is all mine.” He steps towards me and reaches out for my hand, but when I give it to him he doesn’t close his fingers around mine in a firm handshake. Instead, he takes my hand with unexpected gentility and draws it up to his lips. “Your husband speaks of you often. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for some time.”

“I trust I needn’t remind you that this meeting should be kept between the two of us?”

He smiles. “Don’t worry, Anastasia. Discretion is a very important part of what I do.”

“Good. Then let’s begin, shall we?” I turn and gesture back to the table, then follow him as he takes a seat. Luke moves a chair up close to mine, reaches into the leather case he’s brought along with him, and removes a single file.

“The girl’s name is Alexis Young,” I begin, passing the file across the table. “She’s twenty-four years old, and she’s been in the lifestyle for five years.”

“Previous dominants?” he asks.

“Several. She worked in a club in downtown Seattle for just under a year.”

“With Elena?”

“Yes. She was very popular.”

“Hm.” He flips over the front flap of the file, but I can tell by the set of his jaw that he’s less than enthused by my answer.

“For the last year, though, she did devote herself to only one dominant. I gather that relationship functioned very well.”

“Then why did it end?”

“He, um… he’s deceased.”

“I see.” Beaufort looks down at the paperwork in his hands again, scanning the dossier fairly quickly, until he comes upon something that piques his interest. “Not a lot as far as hard limits goes…”

I shake my head. “She’s very open to the needs of the dominant she serves.”

“That’s good.” He pulls out a photo of Alexis in a position uncomfortable for me to look at, though he inspects the photograph with the same diligence that an artist might use to divine inspiration from a raw lump of clay. I glance over at Luke, who also seems to be doing everything he can to avoid eye contact, and as I see the reflection of my own unease in the man who’s never once shown any sign of disquiet in my presence, the reason for all of the nerves I felt before this meeting becomes glaringly clear. I finally begin to feel the weight of what I’m really doing. Alexis was right before. I don’t know anything about this lifestyle. Not really. And sitting here with this man, talking to him about Alexis like she’s a commodity to be traded while he pours over the most intimate details of her life and sexual desires, feels… wrong.

This is wrong.

“She’s absolutely beautiful,” he purrs with lust. “I’d like to meet her.”

I stare blankly back at his expectant gaze, unable to move and unable to speak. The lump inside my throat refuses to budge, no matter how many times I try to swallow. I’m roiled in conflict over the desire to leave this room and the need to stay. A part of me that’s laid dormant under threats and fear has suddenly awoken, and she’s disgusted with this new me that’s taken a need as pure as protecting my family this far. Now the two halves war against each other for dominion, leaving me impotent in the middle.

“I’ll get her,” Luke says at last. He pushes away from the table and walks to a side door that leads outside. Beaufort stares at me with relative interest, but doesn’t try to further any conversation. That is until Luke opens the door, letting in both Alexis and the cold bite of the night air.

Beaufort stands. “Miss Young.”

I turn to look at her, hoping to gather any sign of her desire to be here from her face so as to ease this new found sense of guilt and shame, but she looks down at the ground.

“Mr. Beaufort. Sir.”

“Come here.” She immediately moves towards him, and Luke shadows her every step until they reach the table. It’s only then that I’m able to get up, and as I step back away from the table, I fight both the overwhelming urge to pull the girl away from Beaufort’s hungry gaze, and the part of me that wants to hold her there at any cost. He paces around her, evaluating her the same way Christian looks over a new sports car. “Kneel.” She does, and he smiles at me, clearly satisfied.

There’s an interview of sorts, though neither Luke nor I take any part. He asks her questions, she answers. He gives her commands, she obeys. Even when he asks her to undress right there in the middle of the room.

“Perfect,” he says, reaching out to tug one of her taut, exposed nipples. “Just perfect.”

I shudder.

“Thank you, Sir,” Alexis replies. His fingers tighten until she whimpers, a small castigation for speaking out of turn. Her lips press together in regret, but when Beaufort turns to look back at me, his eyes are alight with excitement.

“I’ll take her back with me for the rest of this week and put her through a kind of trial run. If this works out, I’ll be happy to send you a finders fee.”

“Finders fee?” I shake my head in disgust. “No… please, don’t.”  

“Surely you must want something, Anastasia.” I shake my head again and he furrows his brow in response, but seems to let it go. “Get dressed, Miss Young. We’ll go now.”

“Yes, Sir.”

She begins to put her clothes back on while Beaufort moves back to the fireplace to collect his jacket and briefcase. It’s the one second he’s even so much as taken his eyes off of her since Luke brought her in, and I pounce on it.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” I whisper.

She raises an eyebrow. “Yeah.”

“You can tell me if it’s not. You don’t have to leave with him if…”

“Ana, I’m good.” She smiles as she pulls her sweater over her head and slings her bag over her shoulder, then grips my arm with gratitude. “I haven’t had anything to be this excited about since I lost Charles. I mean look at him, he’s… he’s perfect.” Her eyes move over to Beaufort as he pulls his coat over his shoulders, and she starts to gnaw at her bottom lip.

I nod, though more out of defeat than acceptance. “If you want to go, then go. But… if you need anything, or if you need a way home, call me. You’re not alone, Alexis.”

“I know. Thank you, Anastasia.”

“Alexis,” Beaufort calls. He tilts his head a half of a degree to the side, a gesture for her to come, and she does. His hand folds posessively over hers and he begins to pull her from the room, but I stop them just before they reach the door.

“Alexis, wait!”

She looks back. “What?”

“The book. That was part of the deal. I want the book.”

“Oh, right. Excuse me, Sir.” Her hand starts digging through her bag as she walks towards me until she fishes out a very worn and beaten copy of a roughly bound manuscript. The title, Monster, is the only word on the cover page that’s visible through the creases in the paper.

“Deals a deal,” she says, passing the book to me.

“And this is it?” I ask. “This is the only copy?”

“Besides the one you already have. This one’s not even complete, so be prepared for a cliffhanger.” She laughs, but I turn and slip the manuscript into my bag without so much as a smile. When I turn back around, she’s already returned to Beaufort’s side.

“Thank you again, Anastasia,” he says. “I hope we’ll meet again soon.”

I nod blankly, actually hoping that once I leave this room I’ll never see him again. My stomach churns as I watch Alexis leave with him, and once the door closes behind them the last threads that hold me together snap. I start gasping as though I’m going to hyperventilate, and Luke quickly pulls me into his arms.

“Yeah,” he says, rubbing a comforting hand over my back and squeezing me tightly against him. “I thought this was coming.”

“What am I doing, Luke? How did I get here?”

“I don’t know.”

“She was dangerous. After what she did to Mia, after what she turned a blind eye to because of Gresham… there’s no telling what she would have done to get close to Christian. Especially with this in her hands.” I hold up the manuscript, then toss it on the table merely because I hate the way it feels in my hands. Luke does me one better. He picks it up, carries it over the fireplace, and tosses it into the flames. I fall back into one of the chairs, elbows on my knees, and let my head fall into my hands. “This is what she said she wanted. She wanted a dominant, I found her a dominant. Is that wrong?”

He ambles towards me, clearly choosing his next words carefully. “No. It’s not that you did something… wrong.”

“Then why do I feel like I just sold her like a piece of livestock?”

“Because this isn’t you.” He pulls me back up to my feet, holding me at arm’s length but keeping both hands on my shoulders. “This isn’t who you are, Anastasia. Don’t you see that? You’re letting your fear push you to do things that you normally would find abhorrent. You’re so scared of the ifs and maybes that you can’t even see where you’re letting these people lead you. That’s not the Anastasia I know. The Anastasia I know doesn’t need to sneak around behind people’s backs because she always does what’s right. She doesn’t need to make deals behind closed doors because she believes in what she’s doing enough to do it out in the open. This meeting, this is what Grey does. What Taylor does. What I do. This isn’t you. I agreed to help you because I didn’t know what else to do. Seeing you the way you were… I thought I was losing my best friend. But this, what we’re doing right now, this is how I actually lose you. This is how we all lose you. Because the person this is turning you into is not the Anastasia we all love.”

I let my head fall in shame. “I don’t know what happened. I just felt like I was trapped, you know? Like I was powerless. I just wanted to feel like I was doing something to protect us. To stop anything like that from happening ever again. I didn’t want to feel helpless anymore.”

“I know. But you’re not, Ana. What happened to you was fucked up, and I can’t even imagine what you’ve been going through since that night, but you are anything but powerless. Look at what you’ve done in the past few years. Look at where you are. Look at where your family is. It’s all because of you, and not because you made deals in the shadows. It’s because you always did it the right way. Hell, you faced down Elena Lincoln and won. You’re a boss-ass-bitch.”

I snort and quickly reach up to cover my smile. “Don’t make this a joke right now, I’m having a breakthrough.”

“Then you need to know that nobody thinks you’re weak. You have a strength that the rest of us who deal in secrets and schemes will never have. You have persistence, and patience, and love. No one can take that from you. Not Kozlowski, or Harrington, or Alexis… Not even Andrew Lincoln.”

I nod. “I’m so sorry, Luke. You tried to tell me before but I was too wrapped up in all of this to understand what you were saying. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Just remember this the next time I try to talk you out of something. You’re always wrong, and I’m always right.”

I laugh again and the cathartic release ends the war between the two versions of myself that has been raging inside of me. I take a deep, easy breath, and release months worth of tension. Peace washes over me and in the absence of uncertainty and unease, I finally feel myself again.

“Ready to go back?” Luke asks.

“Yeah.”  He wraps an arm around me as he leads me from the room, back out into the club. The crowd on the dance floor seems much more rowdy as undoubtedly more and more alcohol is passed around. I stand up on my tiptoes to search through the sea of faces for Scott or Walter, but our table is empty. I guess they could be at the bar, or maybe they had enough and left me behind. But either way, I figure I’ll send a text to tell them I’ve had enough for tonight.

“Can we go back to my hotel?” I ask, looking up at Luke.

“Yeah, I’ll get us a cab.”

 

Twenty minutes later, we pull up outside of The Dominick, and Luke gets out so he can walk me up to the front doors.

“Do you want me to come up?” he asks. “We can talk if you need to.”

“No, thanks. I’m just going to call Christian and get in bed. It’s been a long day.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“Not on the phone. I don’t even know how to tell him… I lied. I’ve been telling him I was fine for months when in reality, I’m anything but fine. How do I explain this to him?”

“Well, it’s Grey, so I’d start by taking your clothes off.”

“Luke!” My lips scrunch together in irritation, and I throw an annoyed punch into his bicep, which he sluffs off with a roll of his eyes.

“The man is in love with you, Anastasia. Like, really in love with you. He’ll forgive you. Just tell him the truth, say your sorry, and move forward.”

“Yeah.” I nod. “You’re right. I’ll uh… I’ll see you back home?”

“Sixteen more watches of It Happened One Night couldn’t stop me.”

I laugh and pull him into a hug. “Thank you, Luke. For everything.”

“Ah, get the fuck out of here with that. You know I’m always here.” I smile, and kiss his cheek before turning and heading into the hotel. It’s late, so the lobby is empty and I take the elevator ride up to the fourteenth floor alone. Woods isn’t outside my door waiting for me, so I assume my absence has gone unnoticed. But once I slip my key into the pad and step inside my room, that assumption proves to be false.

My husband is sitting in a chair by the bed, a half empty bottle of brown liquor at his side.

“Christian,” I gasp.

“Welcome back, Anastasia,” he says without looking at me. He lifts the glass dangling from his fingers and drains it in one long pull. Once his drink is gone, he slams the glass down on the table with too much force and gets out of his seat.

I wince. “What are you doing here?”

“Me? What am I doing? That’s funny, I came here to ask you the same fucking question.”

Shit. He knows.

Next Chapter

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