There are few things in life I find as engrossing as my daughter’s curls. She gets them from me, but I’ve always resented the everpresent wave in my hair. Not quite straight, not quite curly… some unattractive mix in-between that I’ve spent hours of my life straightening out with a flat iron. Calliope’s are beautiful. Everything about her is so beautiful.
God, I miss her.
Mackenzie had already given her dinner and a bath by the time I got home from work. I’d barely got to put her down for bed, and Christian isn’t even home yet. It’s been a long week. A long few weeks. The failure of The Black Rose has been a tough pill to swallow as the reality of our revenue shortages really become apparent. Without Jacki, I don’t think we’d make payroll. I’ve had to significantly cut back production at both the Seattle and the New York Press to keep our overhead low, which a few of my editors have suggested was to keep them from earning their full commissions. The truth is, I don’t want to hinder their sales. I just can’t afford the paper to print their product on.
And Carmen won’t loosen the reins until I find her a unicorn.
I’ve been working long hours trying to figure out how to gap the difference without having to lose anyone and it’s starting to look like I’m going to have to come up with something a whole lot more innovative than one best selling release to dig us out of the hole we’re in. I just wish I could clear my head enough to think about what that might be.
One more reason I need tonight to go exactly the way I hope it will.
With one last longing look at my daughter, I hook the baby monitor on the side of her crib, kiss her cheek, and slowly back out of the room. I pause for a second, waiting for any fussy noises, then follow the sounds of the TV coming from my bedroom. Kate is sitting on the bed, breastfeeding Kennedy one last time before she puts her down with Calliope.
I go into my closet and look at the hangers in front of me. This isn’t a dressy kind of dinner party, I expect everyone to show up in jeans, but I’ve put so much thought into absolutely every other part of tonight that I can’t stop myself from obsessing over this too. I’m like a woman possessed.
“What do you think about this top?” I ask, stepping out of the closet and holding the hanger up for Kate.
“It’s a little low in the front, don’t you think?”
“I thought that if tonight doesn’t go well, it might make it easier to distract Christian.”
She makes a face. “Somehow I think you’re going to have a hard time patching things up between Luke and Chrisitan if you’re sitting at the table with your tits out the whole time. Just a hunch.”
I turn the top back towards me and look at it again, this time more critically. She has a point.
“You’re right,” I concede, heading back into the closet. I settle on jeans and one of Christian’s t-shirts, hoping the subtle claim will put him at ease. After quick touch ups on my hair and makeup, I head back out. Kate is now sans Kennedy and fully dressed again, applying lip gloss in the giant mirror across from the bed. Her reflection makes eye contact with me, and the look she gives me says she knows exactly why Christian had that mirror installed in exactly the place and angle it is. I laugh, then drag her out of the room and downstairs.
The smell hits us before we even make it to the first floor. Garlic, cheese, and the herby aromatic scent of homemade marinara. I’d never thought before what I would serve if I ever had to say… bring the leaders of two warring countries together for a summit at Camp David. But when I found myself planning a dinner that felt exactly of that magnitude, the answer came to me immediately.
It’s the one thing even the security team will steal out of the freezer, so I know Luke loves it. And anytime Christian gets in the kind of mood where he leaves terror and destruction in his wake, this always finds its way onto our table, and Christian is always appeased afterwards.
“It smells delicious, Gail,” I say, inhaling gratefully as we step into the kitchen.
“Well it better do the trick,” she says. “I’ve made a tiramisu to go with dinner to make sure of it. I can’t take his mood anymore.”
Her words should shock me. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard Gail say anything so brazen about Christian before. But, he hasn’t exactly been the easiest person to deal with for the last few weeks.
Just after GEH announced they were indefinitely postponing the project they had previously promised would create thousands of jobs, a promise they had used to leverage tax cuts, Christian’s fiscal year came to an end. Days later, his end of year financial statements leaked to the public and the real backlash began. I refused to call him a failure, but every publication that’s ever reported on him or his company didn’t. It’s like they’ve been waiting, salivating at the chance to prove Chrisitan Grey was just a flash in the pan, and his spectacular fall from grace was something they knew would happen all along. He says he doesn’t care what the press says, but I know better. I can see it in his eyes.
“I’m going to go check on the table,” I tell Gail, feeling again how necessary it is for tonight to go absolutely perfect. She smiles, a promise that I’ll love what I find sparkling in her eyes. And Gail is an honest woman. The table on our veranda has been set for six. A long grapevine spotted with several different herbs weaves it way around each plate and wine glass. There is an amazing charcuterie board already on the table, along with several dishes of olive oil for the bread Gail has spent the last two days making. Overhead, twinkle lights wink happily under the dark overhang of the house. They, along with the fireplace on the other side of the open, outdoor patio space, provide the perfect amount of light for us to see each other comfortably. But, there’s not enough to erase the dancing reflections of light on the water at the end of our property.
It really does look perfect.
I’m just adjusting a fork on the table when I hear the doorbell ring and I dash inside. Kate and Elliot stand together in the main room, already starting on a glass of wine. I move past them so quickly, I nearly beat Taylor to the door.
“Mrs. Grey!” he calls, and I stop immediately. He moves towards me and places a single finger on my shoulder to nudge me back several steps away from the door. Only then does he open it, but the second I see Luke, I rush past Taylor and jump at him.
“Hey, Ana.” He chuckles, but the tightness of his arms around me tells me just how much he’s missed me too. When he lets me go, I turn to Jade and hug her just as eagerly.
“I love your hair,” I tell her when I pull away, capturing the end of a long, wavy tendril. She looks like a mermaid.
“Oh, it’s awful! Luke and I were playing beach volleyball over in West Seattle all day and we swam a bit. I told him not to get my hair wet and he immediately dumped me in the water so… now it looks like this.”
“Luke!” I’m indignant on her behalf. He just rolls his eyes.
“She said she wanted to swim, there was no way she wasn’t going to get her hair wet. This way, we didn’t have to waste any time before the inevitable happened. And look, she’s just as beautiful now as she was when her hair was straight.” He frowns. “It was straight before, wasn’t it?”
I slap him across the chest and Jade laughs. Taylor coughs behind us.
“Mrs. Grey, perhaps you’d like to come into the house and finish this conversation?”
“Yeah,” Luke agrees for me, stepping to the side so we can go in first. “Ladies.”
I sigh, then hook my arm through Jade’s and drag her inside.
“Mr. Sawyer,” Taylor says, so formally the words sound weird coming out of his mouth. “May I take your, uh…”
I follow his gaze to the bottle of tequila in Luke’s hand, which he passes to me.
“I was going to bring wine, but Grey has a whole room full of wine fancier than anything I can afford. So, I brought this just for you.”
“Perfect,” I laugh. We move through the hall to join Kate and Elliot, and the second Taylor disappears into his office, Luke leans in to whisper in my ear.
“Mrs. Grey and Mr. Sawyer, huh? We really are in trouble.”
“You have no idea,” I grumble. I haven’t so much as gone to the bathroom without Taylor shadowing me since the Scott incident, the reminder of which must show up on my face in some way, because Luke gives me a quick, suspicious look. I’m not going to tell him about Scott, though. I’m already having a hard time keeping Christian from finishing the job he started back in New York, and we only just barely avoided legal trouble from that encounter because of some very scary and expensive attorneys Christian hired to respond to the assault charges Scott filed against him. I don’t need Luke getting himself into trouble too. Thankfully, Elliot calls his name so he turns away from me and smiles.
We migrate out onto the veranda, pouring wine between us as we settle into conversation. Luke and Elliot are mad about some call made during the Mariners game the night before, which I couldn’t care less about. So instead, Kate and I steal Jade’s attention. Remembering the concerns my best friend had shared with me over the phone, I take the opportunity to talk him up.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” Jade says after Kate tells her about the kayaking trip she and Elliot are going on later in the summer.
“You should go!” I encourage her.
Jade crinkles her nose. “Luke wouldn’t want to do anything like that. He’s not really an ‘outdoors’ kinda guy.”
“That’s not true. He and I used to do outdoorsy stuff all the time. A couple years ago, he and I went mountain climbing in Vermont.” My voice is a little louder than I mean for it to be, probably because of the wine, so both Elliot and Luke are looking at me now. I call him in for reinforcement. “Right, Luke?”
He furrows his brow. “I remember being tricked up a mountain.”
Clearly, Jade doesn’t talk as loudly as I do.
“You drove, I’d hardly call that tricking you.”
“You said you wanted to go on a hike.”
“It was a hike.” I focus my gaze on him. Let me help you, Luke. He seems to pick up that he should drop it, but apparently not why.
“Whatever you say, Steele.”
“Grey,” a voice says from the door. We all turn to look at the same time and find Chrisitan hovering in the doorway.
“Christian!” I say brightly, inviting him to the seat next to me with a warm smile. He doesn’t come to me. He’s not even looking at me. He’s staring straight at Luke.
“Her name isn’t Steele anymore, it’s Grey,” he says again. Luke nods.
“Yeah, I know. Grey.”
They stare tensely at one another for a long minute until Gail comes through the door around him, carrying her lasagna. Just as I hoped it would, it lures Chritian to the table.
He slides into the chair next to me, scooting it close to mine so he can easily rest his hand on my knee. He leans over to kiss me, letting his lips linger against mine for longer than is appropriate for company. Like the statement I tried to make earlier by wearing his clothes, it’s a claim, and I let him stake it.
It’s the only way I can think to make him feel like he doesn’t have to.
Elliot coughs. “Okay, Christian. Do you wanna pee on her too?”
Christian pulls away, but his eyes stay on mine. “Hi.”
“How was your day?”
He sighs, pushing away from me, and pulls out his phone. I glare at it. The damn thing has been glued to the inside of his palm for weeks. “I’m being sued by an investor,” he says.
My brow crinkles with concern and I reach out to touch him, but he brushes me off.
“It’s fine. It’s not like he flew my wife all the way across the fucking country to have a meeting with Astor Harrington so she could hire him behind my back without saying a goddamn word, so he’s not even the worst person I’ve had to deal with today.”
I blanch and my face heats with humiliation. “Christian, you promised.”
“Yeah, well you can’t always hold me to the things I say in bed, sweetheart. Especially not in the way you made me say it.”
Okay, that had been a dirty trick. But so is this.
“Christian, can I…”
“Ana,” Luke interrupts, holding up a hand to stop me. “It’s fine.”
Christian glances up at him with cool eyes, but Luke doesn’t cower.
“I didn’t work for you anymore,” he says calmly. “I wasn’t under any obligation to report anything to you.”
“She’s my wife,” Christian growls.
“And why was she there in the first place, Grey? Why was she worried about him? Who did she think he would come after?”
“Careful, Sawyer.” Chrisitan’s voice is a warning. A final one. And for some baffling reason, Luke looks like he wants to press it.
“Baby, have some wine,” I say, picking up the bottle and pouring it with a heavy hand into Christian’s glass. Elliot jumps on the opportunity to change the subject.
“Yeah, let’s eat. I’ve been smelling that lasagna for an hour and I’m starving.” There’s a murmur of agreement around the table, then dishes are passed around. Christian picks up his glass and drinks half of it.
I keep it full.
The food does the trick. Everyone is so enamored with the lasagna that the mood around the table elevates dramatically, and the conversation flows more naturally. Christian’s fingers even loosen their death grip from the inside of my thigh. Instead, he passes his fingertips gently across my skin, sending tingles skipping through me. I set my fork down, unable to eat another bite, and cuddle into him while Elliot finishes selling Kate up the river for the lengths she’s been willing to go to in order to get the inside scoop on some senator who might be having an affair.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a call from the police saying she’s been picked up for stalking. And then what would I tell Kennedy?”
“That her mom is a badass,” Kate laughs. She looks at me, green eyes glinting with hunger. “I’m this close to nailing him, Ana. This close.”
“Well, if you need any pointers, I’m sure Sawyer has some useful advice,” Chrisitan interjects. “How was it you found out the last mayor was having an affair before you got that tape and used it to get my dad elected? Does that require a similar skill set than say… tracking someone’s immigration status, or is it a more complicated operation?”
Luke grinds his teeth. “It wasn’t any more difficult than being asked to follow around a nineteen year old girl for two years and lie about why.”
“Dessert!” I shriek, feeling the escalation coming from Chrisitan like the eye of a storm. “There’s tiramisu in the fridge, will you please go get it?”
Christian turns to me, anger coloring every feature of his beautiful face. He picks up the napkin off his lap and throws it on the table, prowling away from us like a hungry jungle cat checking the perimeter before setting in for the kill.
“Stop antagonizing him!” I snap, throwing the end of a breadstick at Luke. He looks incensed.
“Me? He’s the one throwing punches. What am I supposed to do? Take it like a bitch?”
“No, but pissing him off more isn’t helping. We were wrong, Luke. We need to eat a little crow to gain some trust back.”
“He’s not as right as you think he is, Ana.”
“Then, please,” Christian snarls from behind him, the tiramisu in his hands. “Tell me how I’m wrong, Sawyer.” This time, the malice in Christian’s voice is enough that Luke actually jumps a little. But he recovers quickly.
“She wasn’t paranoid. She was afraid people were following her, I’ve dealt with her stalkers. She was afraid people were watching her, I’ve taken spyware off her phone and computer. Any time you do anything, the paparazzi swarm her. She has been targeted again and again and…” His words cut off, like he knows better than to actually say them aloud, but he’s physically shaking holding them back.
“Go ahead, Luke,” Christian says, almost taunting him. He takes a step closer, tossing the dish that contains the dessert on the table, and both Jade and I exchange nervous glances. Elliot motions for Kate to stand up and back away from the table a few steps, then he gets up and moves closer to his brother.
Luke shakes his head. “Why doesn’t she have a CPO?”
“She does and I’m about ten seconds away from asking him to see you out.”
“Taylor isn’t good for Ana.”
“He’s the best there is.”
“Not for Ana. Taylor is strict. He doesn’t know when to let her get away with something harmless and just take the heat for it himself, and when he needs to actually stop her. He just follows your orders to a T.”
“That’s what makes him a good CPO, Sawyer.”
“No, that’s what’s going to get her hurt. Because no matter how necessary she knows our presence is, she hates it. She hates being watched all the time, and she hates feeling like she’s being babysat. Eventually, she’s going to find an excuse to rebel against it. You’re right. Taylor is the best, and Taylor will stop her. But all that means is that she’s going to do something stupid to try and trick him.” His eyes narrow. “Sometimes you have to let her go get a milkshake with Kate at midnight and act like you’re mad that she got around you so that she won’t figure out how to actually get around you.”
“Hey!” I interject, but neither of them look at me. They continue glaring at each other, Christian moving another inch closer.
“You think you really know best how to protect her? You were the one putting her in danger. You were the one encouraging the insane fucking behavior that could have put her directly in harm’s way.”
“You think I helped her because I was proud of what we were doing? Because I thought it was a good idea? I said she wasn’t paranoid, I didn’t say she wasn’t stupid. I helped her because, if I didn’t, she would have found someone else, and it wouldn’t have been Taylor or Woods. It would be someone none of us would know about because she wanted it to be kept from you. I helped her so I could be there to keep her safe. I helped her so that I could talk her out of it. Hate me all you want, Grey, I did it because I care about her and I didn’t want to see her get hurt trying to keep herself from getting hurt.”
“Yeah, why don’t you tell me more about how much you care for my wife?”
“More than you’re ever going to be comfortable with. I’m not in love with Anastasia, Christian. But I do love her. She’s the only family I have. I’m not going to sleep with her, I’m not going to try and take her from you. I’m not even under the illusion that I could if I wanted to. Which. I. Don’t. So, if you want to be an asshole to me, be an asshole. It’s not going to chase me away from Ana. If you wanna hit me, take your best shot. I’m not going to fight back and turn her against me. Otherwise, you need to get the fuck over it.”
You could hear a pin drop.
I fully expect Christian to punch him. I can almost see him visualising it behind his hurricaine gray eyes. But he doesn’t. He considers him carefully, his body solid as ice. And by the time he speaks, he still hasn’t thawed.
“I know how this ends. I know that I can’t keep you out of Ana’s life. I know that trying to do that will make her very unhappy, and that goes against absolutely every fucking thing I’ve ever promised her. But you came between us, Sawyer. You helped her put up a wall I didn’t even know I had to tear down. Why should I trust you ever again?”
“Because we both want the same thing.”
It takes a while, but Chistian nods. “Fine, you start Monday. Ana and I go to work together to take Calliope to daycare. Be ready to leave by eight. Woods’ room is empty, you can start moving in tonight. Taylor will make whatever arrangements you need.”
I take a deep breath, a smile breaking across my face as I realize what’s happening. It worked! Oh my god, it really fucking worked!
“No,” Luke says.
Christian blinks, uncomprehending. “Excuse me?”
“No. I’ve got a life now.” He looks back at Jade. “I’m not giving her up, and I can’t have her and do this job at the same time. So, I’m sorry, but no.”
“No?” Christian repeats. “Jesus, Sawyer. What the fuck was all that bullshit about Taylor for, then?”
“I meant that. Ana needs someone, just not him.”
“Well who the fuck do you suggest? I can’t get anyone to take the job!”
“Get Woods back. He was almost decent. A few more months and he could be…”
“She was out of that hotel room for an hour and he didn’t even know.”
“I’ve gone more than an hour without checking on Ana before.”
Christian gives him a hard look. “Let’s play a game, shall we? Let’s say that Ana is going to be spending a night alone. I’m not even in the same city, neither is Kate. But she tells you that she doesn’t want your company. She wants to be by herself. She’s just going to stay in her room, so you don’t even have to worry about her. You can have the night off. What would you do?”
Luke frowns. “Stand outside her door until she tried to sneak out.”
“Exactly. Whoever I assign to Ana also ends up with Calliope, and I’m not trusting my entire existence to someone who can be fooled by an excuse that didn’t work on my parents when I was fifteen.”
“Okay, what about…”
“Luke.” This time, it’s Jade who interjects. “You should take the job.”
“No, you don’t know what that means. It’s not like a 9-5, it’s a lifestyle. I’d have to live here, spend all my time going where Ana goes, even when she travels. I couldn’t be with you anymore…”
She presses her lips together, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. “You’re not with me now.”
Luke goes stiff. “What?”
“You haven’t been you ever since you two got back from New York, and tonight… I think I finally know why. You’ve told me all about what you used to do. You loved it. You miss it. You miss her. And it’s been killing you to be away. This is where you want to be. You should take the job.”
She steps forward and kisses him on the cheek. “It’s okay. It’s probably better this way.”
Then she leaves. Without a single look back, she walks to the door and disappears into my house. Luke shoots a pained, almost sick look at me before he runs after her, calling her name. The rest of us stand there, unmoving, unsure of what to do. Unsure of what just happened…
Sunday morning, Luke pulls a uHaul into my driveway.