We stand across the room from each other like the space between us is an impassable chasm filled with my betrayal and lies. The way he’s looking at me makes what I felt back at LAVO and on the cab ride home a hundred times worse. I’d told myself again and again that the reason I kept all of this from him was because I was afraid of his interference. But now part of me wonders if, deep down, I was afraid of this. I was afraid of the disgust I can now see in his eyes.
“Christian, I can explain.”
“Explain?” he repeats, almost incredulously. “Explain? What could you possibly say that would make me understand this?”
I shake my head. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I got so wrapped up in everything that I just acted on instinct and by the time I realized what I was doing, I was in too deep…”
“What the fuck am I supposed to do with that, Anastasia? I mean, Jesus Christ, you weren’t thinking clearly? You signed fucking contracts! I have confronted you about this over and over again and every goddamn time you assured me there was nothing to worry about. You made me feel like I was paranoid! Jealous! Crazy! I trusted you, Anastasia. Do you have any fucking idea how difficult it is for me to trust people, and now you…” His words cut off with his mounting anger. He begins to pace and his hands ball into fists. “How long?”
“How long has this been going on?”
“I uh…” No more lies, Ana. “Since October. Since the campaign.”
He lets out a harsh breath that looks as though it causes him physical pain. His pacing stops, but his body begins to tremble with rage. He pours himself another generous drink, slams it down as if it were water, then throws the glass against the chest of drawers in the corner. I let out a startled scream when the tumbler shatters and sends a million pieces of glittering glass across the carpet.
“Christian, please…” I plead, frightened by the severity of his anger. “If you’ll just calm down and talk to me—“
“I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to hear whatever excuse you’ve come up with to justify this to yourself. What I want is to go find Sawyer and beat the ever living shit out of him.”
“This wasn’t his idea. It was me. All me.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” He makes a disgusted sound and turns away from me, glaring out the widow at the glittering city lights all around us. I want to go to him. It’s a pull as strong as instinct that makes me want to throw my arms around him and promise that I will never betray his trust like this ever again. But I can’t. Everything he’s feeling right now is my fault. I’ve done this to him, and I don’t deserve his comfort after tonight. So I stay frozen in place, watching him in anguish.
“Were you ever going to tell me?” he asks at last. “Were you going to give me the chance to fight for you? For our family?” He turns to face me again, and for the first time since I stepped into this room, fury isn’t the predominant emotion on his face. It’s hurt. More than that, it’s devastation, and it hits me as though he’s slapped me across the face.
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to stop. This was the only thing that made me feel like I was surviving and… I couldn’t stop. But I know that I fucked up and I’m so sorry that I lied to you. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was trying to protect you and I thought what you didn’t know couldn’t hurt…”
“Well I know,” he says, coldly. “I know about your secret rendezvous with Sawyer all over the motherfucking city, about all the money you’ve been putting away, about Harrington… Was that to hurt me? As if all of this wasn’t going to destroy me enough, you brought Harrington into it?”
“He was a threat.”
“A threat? What the fuck does that even mean? You hired Harrington to help you leave me because you were scared of him?”
My brow furrows and I look up at him, confused. “To help me leave you? What are you talking about?”
“Your new apartment.” He turns, reaches into a leather bag resting on the floor by his chair, pulls out an oversized white envelope, and tosses it on the bed between us. “This came in the mail for you this morning.”
“You opened my mail?”
“When something comes to my house, addressed to my wife from Astor Harrington, you better fucking believe I opened it. Congratulations, Anastasia. The place looks great, you can move in next week.”
I pick up the envelope and pull out the loose sheets of paper inside. It’s the closing paperwork on the downtown apartment I’d bought as part of Astor’s moving expenses from Cambridge to Seattle. He plans to move at the end of the month, but since I purchased the apartment, it’s my name on the deed. Not his.
“I got on my plane as soon as it could leave and came straight here,” Christian says, “but you were already gone. Woods had no idea where you were and you didn’t answer my calls, so I had Taylor track your phone. I know you were at LAVO tonight, and I know you were in a private room with Luke Sawyer.”
“Oh my god. Christian, I wasn’t…”
“Why, Ana?” he interrupts. “What did I do that would make you do this to me? To Calliope. Don’t you realize what you’re taking from her? I can’t…”
His hands ball into fists once more and when he turns away again, like he can’t even stand to look at me, I ignore the warning inside that tells me to give him space and rush around the bed to him. He recoils from my touch, but I grab onto him anyway.
“I’m not cheating on you, Christian.”
“I saw you get out of the cab tonight. I saw Sawyer walk you to the door and I saw you kiss him.”
“On the cheek! He’s my best friend. I kiss him in the same way I kiss Kate, or Elliot… it was nothing. I was thanking him for staying by my side despite what I was turning into, for helping me see what I was really doing. I’m not sleeping with him. I would never, not with anyone… You’re the only person that I want and you know that.”
Anger flashes, hot and fast across his face again. “Don’t tell me what I know. This is what I know.” He picks up the envelope again and I quickly shake my head.
“That’s not what you think it is. None of this is.”
“It’s not! I wasn’t in that club tonight to hook up with Luke, I was there to meet Damien Beaufort.”
He freezes and the fury momentarily recedes from his eyes. “What…? Beaufort? From Wiseman and Beaufort PR, Beaufort?”
“Because you told me he was in the lifestyle and Alexis Young needed a new dominant.” He blinks like he’s having a hard time understanding what I’m telling him.
“Alexis Young? You mean… Gresham’s submissive?”
I nod. “I want to tell you everything, Christian. You just have to sit down and give me a chance. Please.”
I motion to the bed, but he doesn’t sit. He stares at me for a long time, uncertain, before he turns and picks up his bottle of bourbon again. He pulls the cap away, takes a long pull from the bottle, then sits back in his chair, the alcohol still clutched firmly in his hands between his knees.
It’s not a quick discussion. I know the only way to move forward from here is to be honest with him and not hold anything back. I lay everything out in excruciating detail, even the parts that I have to choke out through my tears to explain. The nightmares. Andrew Lincoln’s voice echoing through my head standing outside of GEH while the building smoldered right in front of me. I tell him about the tape and how Luke got it, Kozlowski and immigration, my visit to Cambridge with Astor and Carter, and Alexis. The lengths I went to, and the moment it hit me. He doesn’t soften at all, and as I become more and more desperate for him to understand, for him to forgive me, I start making excuses again.
“She had Elena’s book, Christian. You know just as well as I do what that would have done to us had she sent it to anyone. What was I supposed to do?”
“Supposed to do? What were you supposed to do? You were supposed to come to me.” It’s the first thing he’s said since I started and the words are heavy with an emotion I can’t put into words, but that I can feel deep in my heart. He stands up, looking wildly around the room at everything but me. “You were supposed to tell me that you weren’t coping. You were supposed to tell me that you were in pain and that you were scared so that I could handle it appropriately. You were supposed to tell your husband you needed help, not Luke fucking Sawyer!”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“Why, Ana? Why wouldn’t you talk to me? No, worse… why would you lie to me and tell me you were fine when you weren’t and then run off to him?”
“Because it was killing you.”
“Don’t you remember what it was like in those weeks after it happened? When I was sobbing uncontrollably while I was awake and screaming when I slept? When a knock on the door felt like I was being attacked and I was sure that the phone ringing would bring threats of violence? You missed physical therapy appointments, you stopped going to work, you hardly ate or slept… I fell apart and you nearly killed yourself trying to put me back together again. Don’t you see how much worse that made it for me? I was hurting you because I was too weak to deal with this and I couldn’t live with that anymore. I just wanted everything to go back to the way it was. I wanted to be your Ana again. This thing with Luke, it felt like control. It felt like I had power again and as long as I could maintain that, I could live my life. I could feel normal, I could be the woman that you married… I didn’t tell you because if I did you would stop me and I didn’t want to stop.”
“But you’re not the woman I married. You’re not my Ana. Not like this.”
I nod. “I know. I see that now, and I’m done. I promise, Christian. It’s over.”
“So what do we do now? Where do we go from here?”
“I’ll go to therapy. I’ll talk to Flynn and work out my shit. I’m not going to fight you anymore.”
He sighs and hangs his head. “I don’t know if that’s enough.”
A cold chill runs over me and my heart feels like it drops into my stomach. “What?”
“You went to Sawyer, Anastasia!”
“Because of Lincoln!”
“No, this isn’t just about Lincoln anymore, you’ve made this about us. This is about your complete and utter lack of faith in me. It’s about you trusting another man with what you’re going through more than you trust me. And Sawyer… I don’t know that I can just get over this again. Not this time. Not like this.”
“No.” I get up from my place on the side of the bed and take his face with my hands so I can look deep into his eyes. “No, that’s not true. That’s not what it was… I trust you, Christian. I do. This was all just a huge mistake!”
“Yeah.” He pushes my hands away moves out of my reach. I start to shake as I watch him staring blankly into the open space in front of him, making an internal decision without allowing me any input. “I’m… I’m going to go on a walk. I need some time to think.”
“What? No, Christian…” I reach out for him, but he catches my wrist before my fingers make contact.
“Away from you.” He releases me as he walks away and I’m too stunned to chase after him. The sound of the door closing behind him is as loud as a gunshot and it hits me in much the same way. I stumble towards the door and place my hands against the wood, feeling each of the grains with my fingertips as though some detail will be off and I’ll realize this has all been a dream.
It’s not though. I did this. And he left. In the course of an hour, my entire world has been shattered. And with Christian gone, there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
Dazed with grief, I try to make it back to the bed, but I stumble over my feet and fall to the floor. The pain from hitting the ground doesn’t even register in my body. I’m already too consumed with hurt more dire than anything physical could ever be. I’ve betrayed the man I loved, destroyed him in the process, and now… I might be about to lose him.
No. Not might. He’s gone. He heard everything, and he left anyway because he didn’t want to be with me.
He doesn’t want to be with me.
And it’s my fault.
At that thought, I burst into tears. My body shakes with the force of the pain it’s trying to expel, but there’s no escape. The loss of him fills every one of my pores and seeps into my blood until all that I am has been reduced to pain. Every cell in my body aches for him and is left wanting. I can curl into a ball and hold myself as tightly as I can manage, but there is no comfort. There is only the absence of Christian.
The man I love.
The man who has been everything to me.
The man who has faced the fires of hell by my side and merely held tighter to my hand.
An hour passes, then another, but Christian doesn’t return. I’ve resigned myself to the idea that he won’t, that maybe he’ll just get on his plane, fly back to Seattle, and move his things out of our home before I have the chance to stop him. But, just as the clock ticks past two in the morning, the electronic sound of the keypad beeps through the too quiet room, and the metal lock clicks open.
I sit up, face red, puffy, and soaked with tears, and take my first real breath in hours as the door opens and I watch Christian step inside. He looks gaunt. Ghostly. And despite the air of certainty I know he’s fighting to maintain, I can still see the shadow of pain behind his eyes.
“You came back,” I whisper.
“Of course I did. This is where you are. Where else would I go?”
As quickly as I can, I scramble off the floor so that I can throw my arms around him, but his hands catch me and he holds me back at arm’s length.
“I can protect you, Anastasia,” he says. “Better than Sawyer. Better than anyone. You have nothing to fear because I will never let anyone hurt you again.”
“No, you don’t. If you did, you never would have done any of this. You would have come to me. But you didn’t, because I failed you. Because I let Lincoln get to you.”
He shakes his head. “It’s never going to happen again. I won’t let it. And if you knew how much I really meant that, the lengths I’m willing to go to so that it doesn’t…” He takes a breath and his whole body tenses under the weight of his declaration. I stand motionless, waiting, until he relaxes again and finally pulls me into his chest. “I love you, Anastasia. Please don’t underestimate that.”
“I won’t,” I promise. “I don’t. I’m done, I swear to you. I trust you, Christian. And I love you more than anything in the world.” Standing up on my toes, I kiss him with the force of everything I feel for him, but his lips hardly move against mine at all. He doesn’t part his lips for my tongue, he doesn’t even kiss me back. All too soon, he pushes me away from him and holds my gaze with his cold, gray eyes.
“Tell me that he means nothing to you.”
“Sawyer. I need to hear you say that he is nothing.”
“He’s my best friend. That’s not nothing.” His jaw clenches and I can feel him start to move away from me, so I grab onto his hand and push it tightly against my chest. “This is yours. My heart is yours. Every beat is for you and only you. Nothing and no one will ever change that. I love you, Christian. I’m only ever going to love you.”
He stares at me as though my words are not enough to assuage his fears, but eventually he takes a deep breath and pushes his fingertips into the skin on my chest. I’m once again holding back tears as I watch him war with the conflict deep inside of him, but eventually, he reaches into my hair and pulls me into a tight embrace.
“You are mine,” he says firmly, his fingers curling harshly in the roots of my hair.
“Yours,” I repeat back. With a harsh yank, he tilts my face up to his and kisses me hard, taking full possession of me with his mouth, and I let him. My body melts against his in submission, but when my fingers move up to the buttons of his shirt, he grabs my wrists and pulls my hands away from him.
“It’s late. You need to go to bed.”
I gape as he moves to pull down the blankets and makes room for me to lay down. His touch is overly careful as he tucks me in, and after kissing me softly on the forehead, he goes into the bathroom to undress. I wait in the dim lamplight for him to return, but once he climbs into bed next to me, he doesn’t wrap his arms around me or pull me flush against his body as he normally would. He rolls over, facing away from me, and turns off the light.
When my alarm goes off the next morning, I could lie sideways in the space between us.
“God, turn it off,” Christian groans, rolling to the other side of the bed. I move up onto my elbows and silence the shrill chirp of my phone, then close the distance between us and kiss the back of his shoulder.
“Good morning. How do you feel?”
“Like I was hit by a truck.”
“Can I get you something?”
I laugh, but he cringes away from the sound and pulls the blankets over his head. That though, is not surprising. The bottle of bourbon he was drinking from last night is still sitting on the table by the window and there isn’t much left inside. He’s usually not much of a drinker, so I can only imagine how hungover he must be.
As quietly as possible, I get out bed, pick out the clothes I’m going to wear today, and sneak into the bathroom to get ready for work. Normally, I’d probably take the day off to stay home and try and repair what’s been broken between us, but that’s just not an option. I’m in New York specifically for this book party, and my personal life lying in shambles isn’t going to be enough to postpone it. Not to Daves. Not to Scott. And definitely not to Carmen.
I’m just reassuring myself that leaving for the day will actually be a good thing since it’ll give Christian a chance to sleep off his hangover and think through everything we both said the night before, when I hear a loud rapping against our hotel room door.
“Shit!” Tripping over my shoes, I throw the mascara tube in my hand down on the counter and scramble out of the bathroom. Evan stands in the hallway, dressed in a clean suit that’s more formal than what I’ve seen him wear in months.
“Are you ready, Mrs. Grey?”
“Uh, yeah,” I whisper. “Christian’s still sleeping so I’m just going to let him know we’re leaving.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll wait here.” He turns so that his back is to the door and crosses his arms over his chest. I raise an eyebrow at him, but ignore the unexpected formality and make my way back to my husband.
“Hey, I’m about to leave. Do you want to get breakfast before I go in?”
“No,” he yawns. “I’m going to get a few more hours of sleep until it’s business hours in Seattle, then I’ve got some work to do.”
“Sorry. Meetings.” He moves uncomfortably, keeping his eyes scrunched tightly closed. “Will you close the curtains before you leave?”
“Thanks.” He rolls over again and that’s it. I get up, pick up my purse, and close the curtains. Before I make it all the way out of the room though, I stop and turn back to face him.
“Are– are we okay?”
His head lolls to the side and, slowly, his eyes open. “Of course we are. Have a good day.” His voice sounds dead. Completely devoid of any emotion that would reassure me.
I swallow. “Okay. I uh… I have a party tonight for The Black Rose. I’ll be back late.”
“Alright. Feel better.” He hums his response, but as I turn for the door, he calls out to stop me.
Wincing away from the pain undoubtedly pounding in his head, he sits up and looks over at me. “A few weeks ago, you logged into the GEH server from your office at home.”
“Is this why?”
“Yes. Before you told me about Beaufort, I thought I might find someone in Elena’s old records.”
“I’m sorry, Christian…”
“No.” He shakes his head. “I just thought you were trying to get some inside information on Grey Publishing. Steal some prospects, maybe. I was kind of looking forward to duking it out with you.”
“We still will.” I try and smile, hoping to lighten the mood. “I’ve got some stuff that’s going to blow you out of the water, Grey.”
“Yeah.” He lets out a long breath, then slides back down into bed. “I’ll see you tonight.”
I nod, though he doesn’t see because he’s already rolled over and his back is to me again. The whole exchange feels off, not like him, and once I’ve left and stepped into the elevator, I realize why. He didn’t tell me he loved me and never once have I left him without those parting words.
‘Stop it’, I mentally chide myself. Just last night, he told me not to underestimate his love and I promised I wouldn’t. He’s tired. He’s hungover. And I didn’t say it either. So I pull out my phone to text it to him.
“Mrs. Grey?” I look up from my phone and realize the elevator has stopped. Evan stands on the shiny floor of the lobby with his arm over the door to keep it open. I give him a grateful smile as I slip my phone back into my bag and follow him out to the street, but I’m keenly aware of the lack of vibrations against my hip that would tell me Christian responded as we make our way outside.
He’s probably fallen asleep. Relax.
We don’t hail a cab to get into work today. Taylor waits for us out on the curb, standing in front of a black SUV that’s so familiar, it’s like it has Christian’s signature scrawled across it. I smile at him as he opens my door for me, but his face remains stoic. Both he and Evan sit in the front seat, staring ahead as we pull into traffic, not saying a word.
Apparently, even my security is mad at me.
My day doesn’t improve much once I make it into the office. Scott is overly interested in the reason I left early last night and he spends the entire time we have to wait in the conference room for a 9 AM staff meeting with Carmen asking intrusive questions, trying to figure out where I went. Once the meeting starts, he and I immediately have to go on the defensive, explaining last quarter’s poor sales and assuring Carmen that sales trends are up this quarter and getting stronger as we go. But, once the meeting’s over and we make it back to Scott’s office to check the overnight numbers for The Black Rose’s pre-sales, we find our bravado was for nothing.
“Eleven-hundred?” Scott reads, looking at the screen with a combination of disbelief and revulsion. “How is that possible? That’s only twelve numbers higher than it was when we left.”
“Well, maybe people weren’t book shopping in the middle of the night,” I suggest nervously. “Maybe there’s an optimal window. 9 AM to 5 PM, or something.”
“We can’t afford a window, Anastasia. This is it. This book is floating both of our branches and if it doesn’t sell, we’re fucked.”
“You’re not looking at this right, Scott. The book hasn’t even been released yet. We’ve done one press announcement and we got over 1,000 pre-orders. We have the party tonight and the press tour he’ll go on once the book is actually released. There’s still time.”
“No. I think we’re doing something wrong with the marketing. Daves has too big of a following to be showing numbers this low. Maybe we need to find a way to tie this in with Stormy Nights. Pull his fan base in by reminding them of how much they’ve loved his work in the past.
“I don’t know that that’s such a good idea…”
He shoots a condescending look in my direction, like even I couldn’t be dumb enough to believe what I just said. “Really, Ana? You think it would be a bad idea to invoke his success and popularity to showcase his talent and tempt people into giving his latest work a chance?”
“I mean, yeah… you’ll see spike in sales, but you’re going to be drawing in the wrong audience. Stormy Nights was a supernatural, teen romance and The Black Rose is a gritty crime drama. The comparison is going to turn off the people who would actually enjoy the story and coerce a bunch of sixteen year old girls who are going to hate it into buying it. Either way, you’re alienating his future audience.”
“You give too much credit to the public, Anastasia. This isn’t about the genre, it’s about name recognition. People are drawn to things that feel familiar and everyone knows about Stormy Nights.”
I don’t know if it’s my worries over Christian, or the stress from my meeting this morning, but in that moment, something inside me snaps.
“No,” I say firmly. “I know that you have just as much invested in the success of this story as I do, but this is a GSP Seattle title, Daves is my author, and I’m saying no. The marketing materials are staying exactly as they are.”
“Mrs. Grey?” We both look up and see Scott’s assistant standing in the open doorway.
“You have a call from the Seattle office, one of your editors. Line one.”
“Thank you, Heather.” I move away from the desk, but pause on my way out the door to issue one last warning to Scott. “I’ll take care of The Black Rose. Stay out of it. I really don’t want to have to come back here next quarter and explain this title’s failure the way I just had to explain away everything you sent to press before I came on board.”
He narrows his eyes, but doesn’t make any arguments. I turn with a straight back and my head held high, and make my way to the empty desk on the back corner of the floor. It’s the first time I’ve been able to sit at my computer all day, so I have to turn everything on and log in as I pick up the phone.
“You’re not going to believe this,” the voice I recognize as Jacki’s answers.
“Please don’t give me bad news…”
“It’s the best kind of bad news. The 2nd print of Paige’s book went out today and I’ve already gotten calls for restocks. Two stores sold out in under an hour. We’re going to have to order a third print.”
“What?” My computer finally lets me into the system and I’m able to glance over the unread emails in my inbox. Four are the restock requests Jacki mentioned and one is a response from the warehouse informing me that there’s no backstock to fill the order. I pull up the sales matrix page so I can check the numbers and I’m floored. This book was released two weeks ago, and between yesterday morning and right now, we’ve already sold another sixteen hundred copies. “Holy shit,” I breathe in disbelief.
“I know. I think this might be the first time we’ve run into the problem of our press being too small for a release.”
“Then we’ve got to do better. I’ll call the printers and get another rush order done. We’ll have them do a third and fourth print simultaneously. Get ahold of Paige, and ask if she’d be willing to write a forward for the e-book version so we can encourage online sales and take some pressure off the press. And while you’re at it, put some pressure on her to get the pages for her next book.”
“Sure thing, Ana. I’ll call right now.”
“Good. And Jacki?”
“You’re my favorite person in the world right now.”
She laughs. “Thanks.”
Hanging up the phone, I let out a long sigh of relief, then hurry away from my computer back to Scott’s office.
“You coming to apologize?” he asks after I’ve knocked on the frame of his door.
“No. Actually, I came to let you know that one of my fiction editors just requested a third print of the title she’s currently representing. It’s only been two weeks and she’s sold almost 14,000 copies.”
“Her online sales have been absolutely tremendous and the stores we restocked today sold out in an hour. This is shaping up to be more than hit, this might turn into a phenomenon.”
“What book is this? Why don’t I know anything about it?”
“It’s one of Jacki’s, and you don’t know about it because it was published by my branch. I okay’d it, and I didn’t need your opinion on the matter. Do you run everything on your frontlist by me before you send your completed manuscripts off to print?”
“Ana… there’s quite a bit of difference between you and me.”
He sighs. “Look, this power struggle isn’t going to get you anywhere, darling. You’re not going to impress Carmen by fighting me at every opportunity. Quite frankly, it’s making you look desperate. Irrational. You gotta stop letting yourself get so emotional over everything.”
“I know it’s the way you girls operate, but if you just let me guide you, let me teach you how we do things here, you’ll be so much more successful. I know you can be good. You went to Harvard after all. You’re a smart girl.”
I let out a humorless laugh. “Yeah, I am. Which is amazing considering how fragile and hysterical I can be at times. Thank god I have you, Scott.”
His eyes move through the door as the volume of my voice rises. “Now come on, Ana.”
“You want to know the real difference between you and me, Wallace? It’s not that I’m just better educated, or that I work harder, or even that, out of the two of us, mine is the only name that has appeared on the New York Times best seller list… it’s that, while you’re in here crying over your poor pre-sale numbers for the book I told you was trash in the beginning, I’m going to be out there, helping my staff move 20,000 copies of a title you never would have let through the door in the first place.”
This time, I don’t even wait for his response. I turn on my heel, march back to my desk, and bury myself in work so I don’t spend the rest of my day worrying about Christian or imagining each and every satisfying way I could utterly decimate my New York counterpart.
There are more manuscripts in my inbox than I was prepared for, so keeping myself occupied is an easy task. By the time I come to a stopping point, most of the office around me has cleared out. I stretch to relieve some of tension that built up in my muscles from sitting all day and start to gather my things. But just as I turn to leave, I find my path blocked by Scott.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“Yeah, I was just thinking… Look, Carmen was right. You and I have to find a way to work together. I know that I’m a little resistant to change and I have a way I like things done, so maybe I haven’t been the most accepting bringing you on board. But I sought you out for a reason, Anastasia. I think you’re going to be a huge asset to Greenwich and I want you to feel that way too.”
“Oh, well… Thank you.”
“Sure. I mean, I knew you were talented, your resume kind of speaks for you in those regards. But really getting to know you has proven you to be a whole different person than I expected you to be. Not everyone talks to me like you did this morning. It’s kind of sexy.”
My face goes blank and my back goes stiff. “Scott…”
“No, no, I don’t mean that I think you’re sexy… I mean, obviously you are, that’s not what I’m saying…” He takes a deep breath. “I just want you to know that you have impressed me. And I really appreciate all the work you’ve done. I’d really like it if we could move forward from here like real colleagues instead of, well, whatever we’re doing now.”
“Yeah, I’d like that.” He smiles and reaches out his hand, which I shake as briefly as possible before pulling away and nervously gripping the strap on my bag. He steps to the side so I can pass and I find myself walking quickly through the deserted cubicles to the lobby, where Evan is waiting. He stands and pushes the button to summon the elevator, and while we wait, I try to keep him physically between Scott and I until we make it to the street level and he starts to towards the subway, while I cross the sidewalk to where Taylor is waiting with the car.
“Everything alright, Mrs. Grey?” Evan asks, opening my door.
“Yeah, just…” I hesitate, and look in the direction where Scott disappeared.
“Woods,” Taylor calls. “Boundaries.”
“Right. Sorry, sir.” He turns to face me, his face stony and impassive again. “Mrs. Grey, if you’ll step inside the car, we’ll be on our way.”
I look between them and am once again reminded of what I left at the hotel. It’s after five now and Christian never did respond to the ‘I love you’ I sent on my way out the door this morning. In fact, he hasn’t texted me anything all day. And, I don’t think this sudden attitude change in the staff is a good sign for what I’ll find back at the hotel.
Maybe going to this party tonight isn’t such a good idea…
Getting desperate, I send Christian another text to check in and see how his day went, but all I get in response is the ‘read’ receipt beneath the words I sent. By the time I get back and am ushered out of the car by my security, I’m starting to panic again. I have an hour before I have to leave for the party so I think I might have just enough time to get him to sit down and talk to me again before I leave, but when I get to the room, it’s empty. It’s clear that housekeeping has come through, so I’d assume he’d been gone all day, except for the shopping bags sitting on the neatly made bed that weren’t there when I left this morning. Next to them is a note that says, ‘for tonight’ in Christian’s handwriting, so I bite my lip with nervous apprehension and look inside.
The first bag, from Bergdorf Goodman, contains a simple, Oscar de la Renta dress that’s professional and surprisingly modest. Not something Christian would normally choose for me. It’s most surprising feature, however, isn’t the cap sleeves or the high neckline… it’s the color. Gray. Not silver, not charcoal, not slate. Gray.
I lie the dress on the bed, and reach for the unbranded bag next to it, which holds, what I assume is, lingerie. It’s honestly hard to tell as there’s not much too what I pull out besides a tangled mess of strings. It takes me twenty minutes to figure out each piece and how to get it on my body, and once I do, I can barely look at my reflection..
The bra doesn’t even have cups and it fits more like a harness than underwear. Thin black strips wind below and around my breasts so that they’re supported, but still completely exposed. Panties seems too generous a word to describe the second garment. The band wraps around my waist in the same cage-like design as the bra, but the piece of lace that covers my most intimate part is half the size of my credit card. It’s all somehow more explicit than if I were completely naked.
After slipping into the gray dress, I only have enough time to touch up my hair and makeup before I have to leave. My eyes stay nervously focused on my phone as I’m hoping I’ll see a call or at least a text from Christian come through, but there’s nothing. I guess he really isn’t going to make an appearance before I leave, despite the clothes he left for me. So, before I go, I decide to leave a note promising him I’ll be back in a few hours and asking him to wait for me. Feeling the heavy burden of defeated acceptance, I slip the piece of paper I’d written on from the pad on the desk in the same place he’d left a note for me, just as Evan knocks on the door to hurry me along.
“Coming!’ I kiss my fingertips and press them into the note, then hurry across the room, but when I pull open the door, it’s not my CPO standing there waiting for me.
“Good, you’re ready,” Christian says. He’s dressed in a black tuxedo cut so immaculately that he might have been sewn into it. My eyes sweep over him, greedily drinking him in until I’m flushed with want, and he smirks. “I was right about the dress. It looks absolutely stunning on you.”
“Thank you…” I reply, my mouth dry. I swallow, and force my eyes away from the taut stretch of his pristine white shirt across his chest. “What are you doing?”
“You have a party to attend, I’m here to escort you.” From behind his back, he pulls out a single long stemmed rose with inky petals and hands it to me.
I stare down at it for a long, drawn out beat, then smile. “The Black Rose.”
“Exactly.” He leans in and brushes his lips lightly against my cheek, making me shiver, then moves up to speak softly in my ear. “And once the party is over, you are mine. Understood?”
“Yes,” I breathe back.
I feel him smile against my ear. “Yes, what?”
“Good. Now come, it’s rude to be late.”