Chapter 25

misc-11-26-001

I wake Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops splattering noisily against the windows of our cabin. This weekend has been everything I hoped for and more. Sunshine. Family. Chasing Kate and Elliot through the choppy waves on jet skis for hours and hours… The muted gray light filtering in through the windows feels like an end to all of that, so I clamp my eyes tighter together and try to convince myself I’m dreaming. Unfortunately, the all too real warmth I can feel radiating off my husband in the bed next to me makes that impossible. But once I remember that he’s just as naked as I am, something much more potent than disappointment in the weather takes over.

I take a few minutes to reminisce over the night before and feel an instant endorphin rush. His passion was out of control. Wild. And just the memory of the way he touched me, the way he moved inside of me, has me instantly craving more. I decide that I might just wake him up in his most favorite way, except when I roll over, I find that he’s already awake. His hands are folded behind his head, stretching out his bare chest in the most alluring way possible. His eyes, though, stare blankly up at the ceiling, as though he’s looking right through it, and his face is creased with worry.

“Hey,” I say, sitting up. “What’s wrong?”

In an instant, his distress vanishes and he moves his hand from his pillow to cup my face. “Just struggling to ensure you get enough sleep before I do this…” Gentle fingers curl around my cheek, pressing just enough to coax me down to his lips. I hum with contentment and roll my body towards him. As my lips meld to his, I wrap my arm around his chest and use his weight to pull myself up over the top of him. My breasts skim the slopes and valleys of his hard pectoral muscles, and the smooth, whisper soft contact of his skin on mine turns my nipples to tightly rounded pebbles. Just a kiss, a careless touch, and I’m his. But there’s a tension in his lips that I can’t ignore.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” I check.

He frowns. “I’d be better if you wouldn’t stop.”

I raise an eyebrow and he lets out a heavy sigh before allowing his body to relax back into his pillow. “I’m sorry, I just have… a lot on my mind.”

My stomach tightens, but not in the way I hoped it would a few moments ago. Christian hasn’t so much as even looked at the satellite phone, or excused himself to check his email, even one time since Friday night. He’s been as happy and present for me, our daughter, and our family as I’ve ever seen him. But there’s only one thing I can imagine that could occupy his mind enough to let him do something as trivial as worry while I’m naked and spread out over the top of him.

“Are you worried about the tax vote?”

There’s hesitation, then an eventual nod. “Yeah. I guess.”

“What happens if it doesn’t go your way?”

“He takes a deep, uneasy breath, then shakes his head. “It will. Don’t worry.”

“What…” The word only just barely escapes my lips before the rest is cut off by surprise. The entire room whirs around me until, suddenly, I’m on my back. Christian’s body covers mine in the next instant, his thick, strong arms caging me in beneath him.

“You know what I’d really like to focus on right now?” he asks. I open my mouth to argue, but he silences my protest with a hard, deep kiss. I start, taken aback by the sudden assault, but soon the fevered eagerness of his tongue and the low desire filled moan he releases into my mouth push concern aside and I succumb to desire. I throw my arms around him and pull, holding my body as tightly to his as I can manage.

He captures the tip of my tongue between his lips and sucks gently. Each soft pull sends a ripple of pleasure rolling down my spine, like a wave of warm syrup. Then he reaches down beneath the blanket, slides his hand between us, and lightly flicks my clitoris with the pad of his thumb. Once. Twice. Again and again, with the same metronomic pattern, until I start to quake.

“Should I make you come before I fuck you, or make you wait for my cock?” he asks, the want in his voice as raw and rough as sandpaper.

“Now, please,” I breathe back.

I feel, rather than see his responding smile. His finger disappears and is replaced half a heartbeat later with the tip of his erection. The dewdrop of precum at the crown of his head is cool from neglect and it makes my insides clench with delicious anticipation the moment I feel him drag it across my clitoris. He has his fist wrapped tightly around his length and as he starts to tug and pull, he moves across that tightly concentrated bundle of nerves with the same caressing attention he used with his fingers.

His mouth drops open and the gray in his eyes turns to hot, molten steel. His hips thrust forward urgently. With each pass, he presses a little harder against me, moves a little bit faster, until we’re both panting. I close my eyes and let my head loll back, picturing what the blanket and connection between our bodies conceals from me. Him, pleasuring himself while he pleasures me. Even just the thought is like a white hot branding iron against my libido, and when I add the idea of his eventual eruption, expelling over me like lava flows from a powerful volcano, the tight ball of tension inside of me snaps.

I start to come with a high, whiny gasp, and just as the first contractions begin, he pushes inside of me.

“Oh, fuck!” he growls. There’s an almost painful kind of urgency to his expression as he plows into me, pushing as deep as he can reach and basking in the feel of my inner walls milking him for all he’s work while I continue to unravel. The constant lust filled cries pouring from my lips only stop when the pleasure overwhelms me beyond the point of speech and in the split second of silence that follows, I hear the smallest little sneeze.

Christian freezes.

We both turn to look at the bottom of the bed and there, sitting on top of rumpled blankets bunched up around our feet, Calliope sits, yawning, her tiny hand rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“What the hell?” Christian shouts. He immediately pulls out of me and yanks a pillow up off the bed to cover himself as he scrambles to get the baby out of our sex sheets. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him so frantic as he is pulling her into his arms and gaping down at me. “How did she… she was… what the hell?

I blink, just as shocked over my inability to answer that question as he is. There’s a crib set up in Christian’s office, just off our bedroom, and since the door is open, I assume she must have snuck out and pulled herself up on the bed while we were too distracted to notice. But how did she get out of her crib?

I leap out of bed and scramble through the minefield of haphazardly abandoned clothes from the night before to Christian’s office. I expect to find the state of the art crib he insisted we buy in shambles and the evidence of my baby’s painful fall laid out before me like a crime scene. But, except for an abandoned pacifier on the rug at the feet of the still perfect crib, the room is as neat as it was when we put her to bed the night before.

“How did she get out?” Christian asks, reaching out to rattle the bar of her crib and only looking more confused when it doesn’t move. I give Calliope a quick once over and after ensuring she’s not physically injured and that the scrunched up look of discontent on her face is just a mild case of morning grumpiness, I step closer to both of them and smile.

“You’re a wizard, Callie,” I say gruffly. Christian rolls his eyes, and Calliope frowns, then pushes my face away from her with her tiny little hand.

“No, Mama.”

We both laugh as I turn back to her crib. “We’ll need to lower the mattress, I guess.”

“Yeah, I’ll take care of it,” Christian says.

“Mmm.” I bite my bottom lip and then move so I can push my body up against his. “There is something incredibly sexy about a handyman…”

“”Well, then let me go get my tool belt.” He grins devilishly and moves to kiss me, but just before our lips touch, Callie reaches between us to stop him.

“No, Dada!”

“Someone is a little Miss Sass this morning,” I say, pinching her toes and leaning into scrub the tip of my nose against hers. She takes on the same haughty look her dad gets whenever he’s overly defensive about something.

“Mine, Dada.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Christian chuckles, and I reach out to take her from him. “I’ll get her ready if you’ll fix the crib.”

He pivots, moving Calliope out of my reach. “I’ve got her.”

“You’re sure?”

He nods. “It’s Father’s Day. She and I can get started by getting her bed situated and picking out something to wear together.”

I smile and nod, afraid that if I try and say anything the frog quickly working its way up into my throat will betray the sudden swell of love, pride, and happiness I’m trying to keep cool.

I give each of them a kiss and then leave them be. The thick clouds and rain splattering against the window don’t look as though they’ll pass anytime soon, so after a hot shower, I fish a thick cable knit sweater out of the back of my closet and throw it on over a pair of leggings. Then I make my way out to the living room. It’s fairly early, so I think I still have time to make my dad’s favorite breakfast before he gets out of bed, but when I come down the staircase, the first thing I see is him, sitting in a chair by the window with a book and a cup of coffee.

So… not a surprise then.

“Hey, Daddy!” I call, beaming as I cross the room towards him with my arms held open. He looks up at the sound of my voice, then sets his battered copy of A Farewell to Arms on the table and pulls me into a warm hug.

“Morning, sweetheart.”

“Happy actual Father’s Day.”

He laughs, since I’ve wished him a happy Father’s Day at least four other times this weekend so far. “Thanks, Annie. Sleep well?”

“Uh… yeah.” God, I hope he doesn’t notice the sudden rush of heated embarrassment that blooms in my cheeks when my brain conjures up the memories of just exactly what tired me out so much last night. I change the subject. “What do you say to your favorite breakfast? It’s still biscuits and gravy, right?”

“Awh, Annie… That’s real sweet of you, but Kim’s already in there cookin’ up that salmon Carrick and I caught yesterday.”

My heart sinks. “Oh…”

“That’s good though,” he adds quickly. “It means you and I can sit here and talk a bit. You kids have been running around so much, I feel like I’ve barely seen you all weekend.”

“Well, you oughta get out on those jet skis with us from time to time.”

“Oh, yeah. And get launched off into the water and probably break my neck? No, thank you.”

I give him a teasing smile. “You can’t fool me by pretending to be scared, Mr. I’ve Been Through War Twice. I think you wanna be out there so bad, you can’t stand it. You’re afraid of how much you know you’ll love it. Even right now, you’re fighting against the urge to hop on one of those machines, skim off across the waves, and show us damn kids how it’s really done.”

He stares back at me blankly, a challenge to my taunt that is made less effective by the rolling laughter that is so close to the surface, his shoulders twitch. I try my best to maintain the assertion in my gaze, but when a thundercloud claps violently overhead, reminding the both of us that no one is going out on the jet skis today, and a sudden strong gust of wind makes the pitter patter of raindrops against the window suddenly sound like the after sparkle of a Fourth of July fireworks display, we both break down into laughter.

“Well, what do you think?” A voice asks behind us. We turn and watch Carrick stroll into the room with his jacket held open to display his tie. It’s awful. Cobalt blue, but with neon pink, yellow, and green lines zig-zagging across the fabric in a geometric pattern that looks straight out of the 90s. My dad makes an awkward stuttering noise, clearly at a loss for words. Carrick on the other hand looks ecstatic. “Mia sent it to Grace a few days ago. I think it’s one of her best yet.”

“Oh, yeah. It’s going to really pop on camera at your next press conference,” I say.

He grins, refusing to let my sarcasm dampen his bright spirits. “It’s much more of a ribbon cutting tie, don’t you think?”

“Oh, definitely.” I laugh and get up to hug him. “Happy Father’s Day, Carrick.”

“Thanks, Ana.”

 

Christian is last to join us when we all eventually sit down for breakfast in the dining room, and I’m pretty sure it’s because Calliope couldn’t be bothered with choices, so instead decided to wear everything she could possibly get onto her body. He’s dressed her in tights and ruffle socks, a dress and a fuchsia sweatshirt, a tutu, and a pair of glittery sunglasses. He actually struggles to get her into her high chair, but he does seem much more enthusiastic about her overdressing stage than her naked one.

We sit around the table, chatting easily with one another. By all accounts, the rain hasn’t done anything to ruin anyone’s attitude and spirits are high, except I can’t stop grinding my teeth over the praise everyone heaps non-stop onto Kim over her salmon eggs benedict. It is delicious, as painful as that is for me to admit, but I’ve made my dad a special breakfast for Father’s Day for as long as I can remember. The ones we spent together, anyway. And I’m not sure which is worse, that she didn’t even bother to ask me if there were traditions between my dad and I that she should be mindful of today, or that my dad doesn’t even seem to care. I look across the table at Carrick, that stupid tie still proudly in place beneath his collar, and I feel a strong, hot flash of jealous for Mia.

Carrick would care.

“Should we do gift now?” Kate asks, the excitement in her voice making it obvious that the question is less of a suggestion and more of a demand.

“Yes,” Elliot replies. He pushes his chair a few inches back from the table and puffs his chest out importantly. “Laud upon me your praise and mortal gifts, for the unprotected sex I had while I was drunk in Vegas last year culminated in an unplanned pregnancy and now I have a child.”

Kate narrows her eyes at him.

“I mean… I don’t need gifts, baby. Dwight D. Eisenhower over there is already the greatest gift I could have ever asked for.”

“Smooth,” Christian says. Elliot flashes him a cocky grin, and Kate shakes her head in dismay before reaching down to pick up a gift bag resting on the floor by her feet. Elliot digs through the tissue paper and pulls out a set of keys.

“Oh, what are those to?” Grace asks, her interest peaked.

“A riding lawn mower,” Kate answers. “We’ve got that big backyard now and he’s been wanting one ever since that first time he had to go out there with the push mower.”

“And not at all because I want to soup up the engine and turn it into a drag racer.” Elliot winks at me from across the table while Kate shoves him, annoyed, and yanks the bag out of his hands.

“Just give your dad his gift, huh?”

Elliot reaches into his pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper. “I uh… I haven’t really had time to shop, you know, because I’m a new father to your youngest and most helpless granddaughter…”

“Elliot, did you forget to buy your dad a gift?!” Kate snaps.

“No,” he says. “I just thought maybe I’d give him something more personal. Something you couldn’t buy at the store. Something from right here.” He points to his heart, and Carrick actually looks down at the folded paper with interest. “It’s a poem,” Elliot continues. “From me, to you.”

“Well, thank you, son.” Carrick takes the paper and visibly prepares himself before he begins to read.

“Well?” Grace pushes him. “What does it say?”

Carrick blinks, looks at Elliot, and starts to read aloud.

Roses are red

Violets are blue.

Happy Father’s Day.

I’m sorry I haven’t returned your leaf blower.

“I’m going to kill you,” Kate says. She reaches for Elliot and pinches him, hard, on the arm, but after his harsh, hissed, ‘ouch,’ he captures her hands in his and retaliates with an onslaught of tickles. They laugh together until Elliot pulls her in for a sweet, sentimental kiss.

Christian I go next, giving Carrick a Grey Publishing brand e-reader with the entire library of Carrick’s favorite author already loaded inside. My father unwraps a fishing pole, which is obvious, even under the wrapping paper, that Taylor helped me picked out last week. But even though the gift itself is not a surprise, he looks overjoyed by the strong carbon rod and special reel made for the rough rivers he practically lives on throughout the summer months.

“This is so great, Annie. Thank you.”

“Yeah, it’s sure going to come in handy at the new house,” Kim adds.

“New house?” I ask, a note of panic in my voice.

“Uh… yeah,” my dad replies. I stare, uncomprehending. “We, uh… we sold the house.”

“What?!”

“Well, Kim retired last spring and I have all this extra money from what I had saved for your Harvard tuition… So, we decided we’re going to get out of the city and enjoy our golden years in the mountains. We bought a cabin on the lake.”

“Congratulations,” Christian says.

“Thanks, son,” my dad replies. He wraps an arm around Kim. “We’re really excited.”

“To be honest, I’m surprised we were able to sell the house so fast,” Kim says. “It was so outdated and that god awful carpet color… I thought we’d have to replace it all in order to get an offer and we weren’t sure that the added cost would be worth it. But thankfully someone snatched it up as is.”

I glance between them. At the happy carefree smiles on everyone’s faces as well wishes and questions about the new house they’ve bought are exchanged around the table.

“Excuse me,” I say, tossing the napkin from my lap on my plate and hurrying out of the room. I leave an awkward silence in my wake that’s eventually broken by the voice of my father.

“That’s alright, Christian. I’ll go.”

“Alright,” Christian replies.

I stop in the hall and turn to wait for my father to catch up to me. When he does, he doesn’t say anything. He leans against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest, waiting for me to start.

“I grew up in that house,” I tell him.

“I know.”

“That’s where I met Kate. Where I got my acceptance letter to Harvard…”

“I remember.”

“It’s my sanctuary, Dad. I went there once, when you were still in Iraq. Christian and I were being bombarded with media and that was the only place I knew I could go to get away from it.”

“You’ve told me.”

My lips go tight and grit my teeth, irritated by each and every nonchalant answer my father has given me. “My mom picked out that carpet.”

He sighs and shift his weight. “I’m not arguing with you, Ana. It’s the place where you took your first steps. Where you said your first words. Where you learned to read and where you wrote your very first story. It’s also the place where your mother walked out on me. Where I waited for three, long weeks before I even found out where she had taken you. We’ve lived in that house, but all that’s left are memories and those don’t go away just because we aren’t there anymore. We’ll take them with us and jumble them up with all the new memories we’ll make at the new house.”

“Her house,” I correct him.

“Ah.” He nods with sudden understanding and pushes away from the wall. It means he’s standing straight, and the added height has him looking down on me, which makes me feel like a child. “So it’s Kim, then?”

I frown and look away from his eyes, down to my feet. “You’re buying a house with her?”

“Yeah. I’m uh… I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

“What?”

“I mean, I don’t have the ring or anything. I’m not doing it this weekend. But I will, soon enough.”

My stomach clenches like I’ve taken a blow from a linebacker straight to my diaphram. It’s difficult to make my lungs work under the sudden pressure that takes hold of my entire chest. My ears ring. My mouth goes dry. Part of me wonders if I might be having a heart attack.

“Dad, I can’t… you can’t… She’s awful!”

“Now that’s not fair, Annie.”

“Not fair? She’s the most hypercritical, invasive, and petty person I have ever met. Don’t tell me you didn’t hear the way she said her kids stayed home because not everyone owns the company they work for when we got here, as if the fact that we do means we don’t have to work as hard.”

“Well, yes. She was a little upset that we left without her kids and maybe she was a little more vocal to you about it than she should have been. But she and I had just gotten a little heated over the subject in the car and if you had hurt feelings because you felt you were being excluded from a family weekend that you really wanted to be apart of, you better believe that I would have some words to say about it too.”  

“But…” I stammer, too flustered and blindsided to formulate a through correctly.

“The truth is, Annie, you don’t like her because you never tried to like her. Is she perfect? No. But there isn’t a person in this entire world who is. You think that she’s invasive, but really… she just cares. A lot. About you, about Calliope, and about Christian. The things you see as being critical are just her trying to be helpful. ‘Cause that’s all she really wants, sweetheart. Even if she’s not always very good at it.”

I chew on the inside of my cheek. The shock of his announcement wears away and takes the anger I felt with it. But I hate that. I don’t want to be reasoned with. “You forgot petty,” I grumble.

“Yeah, well, she’s a little petty…” He grins and, damn it, I can’t help myself. I break and laugh.

“You see?” he says, smiling victoriously. I shake my head and decide I finally have to say the thing that has plagued me since the day he first time brought Kim to Seattle.

“She has her own kids and they don’t live as far away as I do. She’s got grandkids for you to play with. She seems to be a decent cook. Now she’s selling our house… I’m afraid that she’s going to take you away from me, Daddy, and you’re all I have left. I’ve already lost Mom, I can’t lose you too.”

“Anastasia Rose.” I have to blink away the tears from my eyes, so I’m a little surprised when he pulls me into his arms. The warm, familiar smell of him swirls around me, but instead of comforting me, the way it has my entire life, it only makes me break down harder. “No one, or nothing, will ever take me away from you, do you hear me? Me and you, we’re solid.”

“But…”

“No, no buts. You, my darling daughter, are the love of my life. Nothing can ever change that.”

I nod into his chest, letting his words fill my head and swirl around until they’re seared into me. Only then can I breathe again, and once I do, I sniff hard and hug him back. “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, Annie. And I know exactly how far away you live.” He pulls back so that I look up at him. “Which is why the new house has a bedroom just for you.”

“It does?”

“Yep. There’s a whole little apartment up in the attic for you and Christian and the baby. It’s got these big windows that overlook the water and a skylight for you to see up into the stars. I’m working on a desk in my garage right now to put up there for you. I thought maybe, if you needed a place to get away and write, it could be there. With me.”

“You really did?”

He nods. “You’re going to love it, Annie.”

“Love it? When can I move in?”

He laughs, then looks over his shoulder in the direction of the dining room where the rest of the family is still waiting. “You know what, what do you say you and I skip the rest of breakfast, huh? Maybe we can go set up a game of chess and just, spend some time you and me.”

“What about Kim?”

He shrugs. “She’s grown, she can entertain herself for awhile. Today’s about us.”

I smile and nod enthusiastically, the wrap my arm around him while he steers me back to the living room.

“You were wrong through,” I tell him.

“Oh?”

“Before, when you said there isn’t a perfect person in the world. There is one, and her name is Calliope Katherine.”

He chuckles. “You got me there, Kiddo.”

 

The continuing downpour means that my dad and I don’t get too much time alone, but as everyone starts to trickle out of the dining room and into the living room with us, they mostly leave the two of us alone. It’s the best of both worlds really. I get to let my dad clobber me in chess over and over again while we talk about the books we’ve been reading, the edits I’ve been making to my manuscript after my Lincoln breakthrough, and the new quarterback the Seahawks just drafted out of Wisconsin.

I also get to watch Christian spend the entire day with Calliope, and the patient way he listens to her and plays with her, the way he lets her consume every ounce of his attention, makes me happier than I can put into words. He looks at her with a kind of love that even I can’t recognize, and I know that’s because I’m not supposed to. It’s just for her. The way he holds her in his arms as he reads The Poky Little Puppy to her for the fifth time in a row, or the delight on his face when he takes a sip from the empty toy teacup she hands him over and over again makes me think of the times I did the very same thing with my own dad growing up. The dad who means more to me than almost anyone else in the world.

For all the things that I have, or that I have accomplished, that I can look back on and know I did right, none of them make me more proud than the man I chose to be that person to my daughter.

“Your move, Annie,” my dad says. I jump a little as I come out of my thought provoking stupor and his brow furrows with confusion. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” I smile and look back over at Christian, lifting Calliope over his head while she laughs uncontrollably. “Yeah, I’m perfect.”

Our chess tournament lasts all afternoon, until Grace insists we call the game on account of dinner. I bear my defeat with as much dignity as I can while my dad announces to everyone how he absolutely wiped the floor with me and I become the target of several taunting remarks, especially from Elliot. Christian at least offers a hand in support when I take my seat next to him and when I lean into his side and feel him wrap a comforting arm around my shoulder, I suddenly no longer care about the severity of my loss anymore. Everything is just as it should be. My family is happy and in Christian’s arms, I’m exactly where I belong.

That is, until our dinner is interrupted by the ring of the satellite phone from across the room and everyone’s eyes turn to Christian. A shadow of the deep unease I saw on his face this morning before he knew I was awake returns and it takes the wind out of me like the air from a balloon. Very few people have that number, so there are very few reasons why it would ring.

“Excuse me,” Christian says. He rises from the table and crosses the room to pick up the phone. “Grey. Yes, Councilwoman, how are you this evening?”

There’s a harsh, tinkling sound from the other side of the table, which I realize is Carrick dropping his silverware. His eyes narrow in on Christian, examining every change in his expression and every small movement of his body. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and I wonder if that’s because he’s afraid to miss a single word that Christian says.

“Uh, yeah,” Christian continues. “He’s right here. Hold on.” Awkwardly, he turns back to the table and holds the phone out to us. “Dad, it’s for you.”

Carrick nods, but when he gets up to take the call, he leaves the room. Christian stares after him for a long minute, then blinks and comes back to the table.

“It’s late,” he says. “I’m going to put Calliope to bed.”

“Do you want me to come?” I ask, half standing in preparation, but he shakes his head.

“No, I’ve got it. Stay. Enjoy your dinner.” He pulls back the tray of her highchair and she eagerly reaches up for him. Once he has her pressed to his chest, she immediately goes limp as she really is ready to go to sleep, but the sense of wonder and unfettered pride that has filled Christian’s eyes all day with every single glance at our daughter is gone now. It’s like a switch has been flipped. He’s physically here, but I know that his mind is already on the work he’s undoubtedly about to retreat into his office to do.

Once he’s left the room, Elliot sighs. “What are the odds we see Christian again tonight?”

I shake my head and Elliot gets up from the table to pick up his own daughter and take her to bed, though we all know he’ll try to bring Christian back with him. Grace smiles at him, confident in his ability to win her son over as he has so many times in the past, but I know better. Everything with this fusion project, and everything it touches, isn’t like what we’ve dealt with in the past. Christian’s taken this to a whole new level, and if whatever Carrick is being told right now is a threat to the future of his fusion project, there’s no way he’ll stop trying to counteract it.

“I’ll take the dishes in,” I say, getting up and collecting everyone’s plates.

“Let me help,” Kim says. I give her a tight smile and shake my head.

“I’ve got it, thanks.”

Loaded down with and armful of dirty dishes, I make my way back to the kitchen, feeling heavier than I have all weekend. To my surprise, I find Carrick there, bent over the counter, the phone resting on the wood block by his hand.

“Everything alright?” I check.

“We’re going to lose,” he says. “Well, I am. Christian’s got the support of the city council and with the cuts they’re going to offer him, GEH will be operating at a negative tax rate this year. $2.6 billion dollars last year, and the Seattle taxpayers are going to be paying his operating costs for him.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” I tell him, honestly, because I am. This whole thing has me washed with guilt. But Carrick and I both know that once Christian has his mind set on something, there’s no changing it. Not even by me.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Carrick asks. I shake my head and he sighs. “The alternative budget proposal my office put together to accommodate the revenue shortage from the loss of GEH’s tax payments cuts from every city agency. Even the police department.”

“So no investigation?”

“No.”

I nod. “You still get to appoint a new police chief though, right? Someone we can trust?”

“Yeah, I get to make an appointment, but that’s not going to dig anything up about what happened to you.”

“I know. We just… We have to accept that we’ve done everything that we can do and that it’s going to be enough to prevent something like Lincoln from happening ever again. If you trust the man you’re going to appoint, then I’m okay.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. Andrew Lincoln is gone. He can’t hurt us anymore. And the people who helped him… most of them didn’t have a choice. There’s no greater conspiracy out there. It died with him. I’ve accepted that and now all I want to do is move on. Maybe this is for the best. A police investigation would have taken months, years maybe. This way, we can just let go and live our lives.”

“Yeah.” He nods absentmindedly, but in a way that suggests he’s still trying to process what I’ve said, rather than to simply agree with it. But after looking into my eyes and finding no concealed hurt or blame, he gives me a warm smile. “You really are better, huh?”

“Yeah. I am.”

He pushes away from the counter and comes around to hug me. “I’m glad. We were all really scared for awhile. I don’t know what we would do without you, Ana.”

“Well, there’s no reason to find out.” We hug again just as someone comes into the kitchen behind us. Kim has all the dishes I couldn’t carry in one trip in her hands and, for once, I’m not annoyed at her presence.

“Everything alright?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say with a smile. “Can I leave these to you? I think I know just the thing to get Christian back downstairs.”

“Sure, Sweetheart.” She smiles and touches my arm affectionately as I pass. I can hear the low conversation from Grace, Kate, and my dad floating up the hallway from the dining room. It sounds like Elliot has rejoined them, which would be disheartening if I knew I didn’t have the exact news it’s going to take to get Christian to stop worrying over this vote and join his family. Or at least, I think I do, until I get to the bottom of the steps and find a single red rose petal.

“How did…?” I lean down to pick it up and as I rub my fingers over the soft petal, I see another resting a few steps up. Then another. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs to the top of the stairs, but as it winds down the hallway towards my bedroom, that sparse trail transforms into a thick carpet of petals that leads me to the bathroom.

It’s warm inside, and humid. The deep soaking tub is steaming and filled to the brim. Every inch of the counterspace and the ledge by the window is covered in a line of flickering candles that cast soft light around the small room. The path of rose petals at my feet continues forward, all the way across the bathroom floor, and then up and over the edge of the tub. The last few petals float among the bubbles on top of the water.

“Christian?” I call through my smile, but he doesn’t answer me. I assume he’s still trying to get our daughter to sleep so I decide I’ll indulge a little while I wait. I strip out of the now too warm sweater and toss it out the door, leaving my own trail for him to follow, then step into the hot, fragrant bath. I’ve just sunk down into the thick, foamy bubbles when the door opens again and Christian steps into the bathroom holding two flutes filled with bubbly champagne. He’s already gloriously naked, and my eyes rake over him hungrily. Drinking him in. Pining for more.

“Get in here,” I demand. His eyes flash deviously, and as he takes a step towards me, his mouth curls up in a cheshire cat grin. He sets the flutes on the ledge next to the tub, then slides in behind me. I turn to face him and crawl into his lap, straddling him, and using my legs to pull him closer to me.

“I take it you know, then?”

“Know what?”

“About your dad’s phone call…”

He shakes his head. “No, and I don’t want to talk about that right now. Calliope is asleep, which means my father’s day duties have come to an end and I have been waiting for this all day. He leans down and kisses the top of my breast, then moves his lips up over my chest, collar bones, neck, jaw… stopping just short of my lips. “I don’t want to talk at all. All I want is–”

I don’t wait for what it is he wants. I kiss him, hard, and he immediately wraps me more tightly in his arms and thrusts his insistent tongue into my mouth. He’s already hard beneath the water, so I rise up onto my knees and slide down over the top of him. His responding groan resonates in every one of my pleasure receptors, and as he fills me in the way that only he can, every other thought and worry falls out of my mind. I no longer care about our family waiting downstairs. I can’t be bothered by tax cuts or budget shortages. Not even the water that laps over the side of the tub and spills on the floor makes me hesitate. I focus only on him. On the urgency of his touch, on the taste of his tongue. And as I start to melt into him, he begins to move. Really move. And he doesn’t stop until we’ve dropped anchor in Seattle hours later.