I am not getting sick.
I am NOT. GETTING. SICK..
I glare into the tired blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror, as though I can intimidate myself into warding off germs. This morning, I woke up with a pounding sinus headache and have been sniffling all day. We got a warning from Calliope’s daycare when we took her home Friday that a few of the other kids in her playroom had come down with a cold. Of course, she seems perfectly fine. I, on the other hand, am tired, achy, and struggling to breathe.
And I have absolutely no time to deal with any of it.
At midnight tonight, Barney is running his first maintenance update on the Greenwich Library app, Hailey Lewis has confirmed lunch for tomorrow afternoon, and Mia’s hastily thrown together welcome home/going away dinner is in less than an hour.
After spending all summer indulging in European cuisine, the only thing Mia said she wanted to eat tonight was greasy, deep fried American food that she could slather in ketchup and feel bad about later. When she said it, I thought it was perfect because this weekend just so happens to also be Gail’s Sunday off, and I’ve been left with the responsibility of cooking for everyone. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and french fries sound like an easy thing to whip together in theory, until you’re standing over a 10 lb pile of whole potatoes that you have to cut into thin, perfect strips before they can be fried.
Thank god Kate offered to help.
Yanking one last tissue from the Kleenex box on the bathroom counter, I blow my nose as hard as I can and take a breath. For the first time all day, it actually comes unobstructed.
See, I’m really not getting sick.
With new confidence, I march out of the bathroom and back to the kitchen, where I find Kate slicing vegetables and swinging her hips to Cyndi Lauper. I give her a slanted glance as I go into the pantry and remove our brand new deep fryer.
“Having our own personal 80s revival, are we?” I ask in a teasing voice. She grins at me.
“I just really feel like I need to get back to my roots, you know?”
“So you can…?”
“Find enlightenment, obviously.” She turns to give me a smug look, but it breaks with pain as she misses the potato in her hand and slices her finger. “Owe, fuck!”
“Oh, Katie…” Heaving the heavy appliance onto the counter, I dart back into the pantry to retrieve the first aid kit. When I return, Kate’s running her bloody finger under the tap, whimpering slightly as the cool water stings her skin. I hand her a paper towel and pat my hand against the counter next to the sink. “Hop up here.”
She does, then she pouts while I take her hand and start wiping away the blood still persistently bubbling through her skin. Tossing it to the side, I pick up a Band-Aid, but I can’t rip away the paper wrapper while I’m pinching her fingertip to staunch the bleeding.
“Help me?” I ask, holding up the Band-Aid so she can rip one side while I take the other. She doesn’t move though. “Hello? Earth to Kate?”
“Sorry.” She shakes her head as if shaking away a daze, then gives me a very serious look. “Did you get a new bra? Your boobs look amazing.”
“You’re seriously staring at my boobs right now?”
“How could I not? I mean, damn.”
I roll my eyes, but feel a secret twinge of satisfaction. My secret is that my bra is actually attached to a complicated corset that’s got my boobs jacked all the way up to my collarbones. They’re actually getting a little sore from being so tightly bound for as many hours as I’ve been wearing it, but if it’s got Kate this excited, I imagine the pain will all be worth it the moment Christian gets his first glimpse.
After finally getting the Band-Aid around her finger, I take a step back from the counter, and Kate hops down, dancing her way back to the cutting board on the center island. She grabs the knife again and does a spin that makes me cringe.
“Will you be careful?” I snap at her. “That’s my best friend’s life you’re playing with right now.”
“I heard that.”
For the first time in hours, my attention is drawn to the kitchen table on the other side of the breakfast bar. Luke is sitting there, but he’s been so quiet that I keep forgetting he’s here. He’s been on his phone all day and each time he picks it up, he becomes a little more withdrawn. I can only guess that it has something to do with this new mystery girl I don’t get to know anything about and, judging by the look on his face as he once again picks up his phone and reads whatever is displayed on the screen, it’s not going well. I don’t think it’s been going well all week…
But he doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I’m very sorry,” I tell him, trying to lift his mood a little as I turn back to Kate. “Please be more cautious with the life of the sister, formally known as my best friend.”
“Better,” Luke muses. “But you could just drop the ‘best friend’ bit all together if you wanted to make it perfect. We all know it was a dubious claim to begin with once I came into the picture.”
The backdoor opens and Christian saunters in just as Kate shoots a look full of vitriol back at my CPO. “You think you’re her best friend but it was me who literally saved her life when we were eight and she hurt her leg playing on the playground. It certainly wasn’t you who had to pedal her ass all the way the fuck across Montesano.”
“So, like three blocks?” Christian smirks at her, but she scoffs.
“It was at least six.”
With a laugh, he turns to me, but I’ve missed the entire conversation. I’m too distracted by the drops of water from the pool dripping off the ends of his hair and down the smooth contours of his chest and abs. His skin is golden from the afternoon sun and it takes every ounce of my restraint to stop myself from touching him. Maybe it’s because he’s been around so much more these past few weeks and I’ve actually had time to become addicted to him again. Or maybe it’s that he changed trainers and his arms and chest are so thick and perfectly sculpted now that staring at him makes my mouth water.
“Still having trouble breathing?” he asks, concerned. I smile and look up at him adoringly.
“Only because you take my breath away.”
“Ugh, gross,” Kate says, turning away from us to rinse another batch of potatoes in the sink. Christian takes advantage of her distraction and pushes me back into the refrigerator. I giggle and reach up to kiss him, but the moment his tongue crosses the threshold of my lips, Elliot appears through the same doorway and gives each of us a stern look.
“Jesus, you two. Get a freaking room.”
Christian rounds on him, glaring. “Need I remind you that you’re currently standing in my house?”
“And need I remind you that you came in here to get your daughter a popsicle, not to assault your wife?”
“He doesn’t go anywhere without the intention of assaulting me,” I say, deftly maneuvering out of his hold and skipping back to turn on the deep fryer and start heating the oil. Christian lets out a sigh, moves to the freezer, and rifles around for the popsicles that are buried under the bags and bags of frozen fruit he blends with his protein shakes.
After several seconds of digging and muttered cursing, he finally pulls out the frozen treats in triumph. Of course, Calliope won’t just take the one he offers her. She needs a variety of colors to choose from. And while she diligently considers every flavor with the same air of importance I once used to decide which college I was going to attend, the doorbell rings. Luke gets out of his seat to answer it, and Calliope finally chooses a pink popsicle.
The exact one Christian had given her the first time.
Kate, Elliot, and I laugh as he takes a deep breath to keep his composure, peels away the plastic, and hands her the treat. Every ounce of his annoyance disappears though when she licks the end of the popsicle and beams up at him like he’s brought her ambrosia straight from Mount Olympus. His chest swells and he looks around the room, glowing with pride.
“Most powerful man on the planet,” Elliot says. “Completely controlled by a one year old.”
Christian glares at him. “She’s very mature for her age.”
“No she’s not. You got her the popsicle because she wouldn’t stop trying to eat her boogers.” He laughs so hard he actually has to lean over on the breakfast bar to support himself. While we all wait for him to stop, my father wanders awkwardly into the kitchen with Luke right behind him.
My heartbeat quickens, thudding noisily in my chest. I was convinced he wasn’t coming. When I finally worked up the courage to call and invite him, he told me no. He said he thought it would be better to give Christian a few weeks before he came around again, and no amount of pleading or bargaining changed his mind. But here he is, and the gesture he’s made by coming tonight almost drives me to tears.
“Hi, Daddy,” I say, moving across the kitchen to wrap him in a tight hug. He accepts it willingly, even squeezes me back like he really means it. “Thank you for coming.”
“Oh, stop it. You know there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than right here with you, sweetheart.” I hum in appreciation, but his arms move up and he pushes me back from him. “But it’s an awfully long drive back, so I wouldn’t say no to an invitation to stay the night.”
“Of course,” Christian says over my shoulder. We both turn to look at him, and he holds his hand out for my father’s. “I’m really glad to see you, Ray.”
My dad hesitates for a moment, then shakes his hand. “Thank you, Christian.”
“Can I get you a beer?”
And just like that, the tension breaks from my father’s face and he smiles. “Sure. Thanks, son.”
Christian moves to the fridge and once again the doorbell rings. I feel myself relaxing again as my dad finds Calliope sitting on the floor, dripping in pink. He pulls her into his arms, marveling at the popsicle she holds out to him like it’s a great prize.
“I’m back, bitches!” Mia cheers, following Luke through the archway into the foyer. Christian slides a cold, glass bottle into my father’s hand and rushes from the kitchen. When he makes it to his sister, he sweeps her up into a hug so hard, her feet leave the ground.
“Welcome home, Meems,” he says, once he’s set her on the floor again. She shoves her arms to each side and gives him a look like she’s about to drop a bombshell.
“You and I have to talk!”
“I was in Prague, and there was this news stand next to the café that Tippy and I were having breakfast in that had this tabloid with a picture of you on the cover. So, I had the waiter translate it for me and it said that…”
“He doesn’t have a penis,” Elliot interrupts, walking towards them, hanging his head in shame. He grips Mia’s shoulder and bends down to her eye level. “We didn’t want you to find out this way…”
She sloughs his hand from her shoulder and narrows her eyes at him. “He has a kid, dingus.”
Elliot grins. “I thought you said you were reading the tabloids. Haven’t you heard? Calliope’s father is Luke.” He gestures to the kitchen table and Luke shakes his head in dismay.
“Can we keep me out of this, please?”
“Yes, please,” Christian says. “I will hit you, Elliot.”
Elliot laughs, then leans over to kiss the top of Mia’s head. “Glad you’re back, kiddo.”
“And you make me glad I’m about to leave again.”
“Amelia!” Grace chides her, and Mia grumbles an apology to Elliot before turning back to Christian.
“Anyway, the tabloids are saying that you destroyed your company and that you’re poor now.”
He makes a big show of rolling his eyes. “I swear, the things they come up with…”
She laughs, like the whole thing is ridiculous, then moves to take Kennedy out of her mother’s arms. “Oh my god, she’s so much bigger!”
The moment Mia has hold of her, Kennedy starts to wail. Mia rocks her and tries to shush her, but the tighter she’s squeezed, the harder she screams.
“You’ve been gone too long,” Elliot says, taking his distraught daughter from her and instantly ending her tantrum. “She doesn’t remember you.”
Mia turns to the kitchen to see my father looking at Calliope, but pointing to her. “That’s right,” he praises her. “That’s Aunt Mia.”
Mia gives Elliot a haughty smile and starts for the kitchen. “Ah, there’s my favorite niece.” My dad hands her over and as Mia settles her weight on her hip, she glances back at him. “Hey, Ray. Where’s Kim?”
“Uh…” He stutters, his eyes darting quickly back and forth in search of a response.
“Ray, do you want to do the grilling?” Christian asks, moving quickly into the kitchen to retrieve the burgers from the fridge. “Everyone’s here, we might as well get started.”
“Sure,” he replies, relieved for the break in tension. He takes the brown paper wrappings Christian hands him then leads the men into the backyard. Christian shoots a warning look between Mia and I as he follows and I sigh.
“What was that about?” Mia asks, handing Calliope to Grace so she can take her and Kennedy to the playroom.
“Christian banned Kim from the house,” Kate answers in a blunt tone, moving the bowl of cut potatoes to the fryer. “They left Calliope with her and Ray while they were in New York and Kim posted a picture of her on PixC.”
“I was going to ask about that!” Mia exclaims. “Are we allowed to post pictures of the baby now?”
“Is Kim allowed in my house?” I give Mia an unamused look, and then just to be absolutely clear, I add, “No, do not ever post pictures of Calliope online. Period.”
“Whatever,” Mia says, rolling her eyes. And it’s amazing how even in that whatever, I still trust her more than I ever trusted Kim.
I turn to the counter so I can help Kate with the french fries, but we’re not as intelligent about it as our Harvard education would suggest. She grabs a handful of raw potatoes and tosses them into the fryer. The moment the hot oil comes into contact with the wet surface of the starchy vegetables, it pops and splatters all over the both of us.
“Ah!” We scream in unison, diving away from the fryer. When we stand again, I glare at her.
“Well, I’m sorry I’ve never deep fried anything before!”
“Guys.” Mia’s voice is so quiet that neither one of us hears it.
“Well, let me take over then.” I grab hold of her arms to move her to the side and approach the fryer with caution.
The fries are sizzling nicely beneath the rolling oil and the popping seems to have stopped, so I grab the handle and pull the basket out of the fryer. Once I’ve loosened the moist potatoes already inside, I add a few more and shake it out again.
“That’s too many,” Kate argues, trying to take the basket from my hand.
We both snap our heads in Mia’s direction at the same time. “What?!”
She glances over her shoulder, ensuring there’s no one coming up behind us. Then she actually goes to the window to make sure all the boys are fully occupied at the barbeque. When she turns back to face us again, Kate and I are exchanging nervous glances.
“What’s up, Meems?” I ask hesitantly, setting the basket back in the oil and giving her my full attention. She takes a deep breath.
“I had sex this summer…”
“Oh my god!” Kate practically leaps at her, then yanks her to a barstool at the counter and shoves her down on it. “Start talking.”
Mia blushes. “It was when I was in Greece… We stayed there for a little over a week and the first night we were there we were dancing at this club in Mykonos. I met this guy named Nikolaos.”
“And…?” Kate presses her.
“I don’t know. We hung out. He showed us around, we went to the beach, we flirted, we had dinner… I liked him. I spent pretty much every second with him while we were there, and then the night before the girls and I left for Italy, he walked me back to my room and it just kind of… happened.”
“On your last night?” I ask. She nods.
“Did he go with you to Italy?” Kate asks.
“No. He stayed the night with me that night, we had breakfast the next morning, and then he just… took me to the ferry.”
“It was okay,” she says, waving off the concern in my voice. “I liked him but I wasn’t in love with him. I didn’t want him to be my boyfriend or anything. I just… I didn’t tell the other girls and I wanted to tell someone. I thought it should be my sisters.”
I smile at her, but Kate doesn’t. “He didn’t do anything you didn’t want him to, did he? Because I swear to god, I’ll fly the fuck back to Greece right now, and…”
“No!” Mia interrupts her. “It was fine. Everything about it was fine. He was nice to me, he took care of me while it was happening, he didn’t treat me like dirt when it was over… It was fine.”
I raise an eyebrow at her. “Just fine, huh?”
“Yeah.” She huffs and it makes her deflate a little. “I don’t know. All this hype and… it was just fine.”
“Well, I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but they’re not all winners out there,” Kate says. “Not even the cute ones who should have had lots of practice.”
Mia agrees with a laugh, but when Kate turns back to the fryer, she leans in to me. “Ana, when you and Christian had sex for the first time… how did you feel afterward?”
“Like I just found out magic was real.” Mia frowns, so I reach out and pick up her chin to make her look at me. “Talk to me.”
“I just thought it would change me, you know? I thought I would feel different or it would make me see the world in a new way. I thought it would be like some crazy revelation and… it wasn’t. It mostly hurt, then it was kind of weird. I’m not upset about it or anything, I don’t regret it. I’m just like… was that it?”
“He wasn’t the one. That’s all.”
“You think so?”
“Trust me. When you find the guy who you can’t stop thinking about, who takes your breath away each and every time you’re around him, and who makes your heart feel like it’s going to explode out of your chest… that’s the guy who will take you to bed and rock your whole universe.”
She smiles like she can’t contain the sweet-tinted emotions boiling up inside of her. “Awh… you’re so in love with my brother.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” I roll my eyes and laugh. As the sound dies out, I reach over the counter and grip her hand. “Do you have any questions?”
“Questions about what?” Christian’s voice comes from the other side of the kitchen. He’s carrying a plate of grilled polish sausages. Mia spins toward him and her eyes go wide with panic.
Christian isn’t dissuaded by her shrieked response. He glances between the three of us suspiciously, then repeats himself. “Questions about what?”
“Harvard,” I reply, as though he’s finally worn us down. “She’s worried that she’ll be an outcast and wanted some advice about getting invited to parties.”
“Just stay away from finals clubs,” Kate says, her back still turned to us as she takes the cooked fries from the oil and lowers another batch. Once the oil starts bubbling out of control again, she turns back to Mia, crosses her arms over her chest, and gives her a very stern look. “They’re rape palaces.”
“Stay away from parties altogether,” Christian says. “You should be more like Ana and focus on your studies.”
Luke, who I’ve once again forgotten all about in his monk-like silence, snorts and breaks down laughing at the dining room table. Even Kate snickers as she pulls a bottle of ketchup out of the fridge. I glare at both of them.
“Sometimes I forget how much of Ana’s time at Harvard you weren’t around for,” Kate says to Christian. “I could probably count second-semester sophomore year Ana’s sober nights on one hand.”
“Ugh, second-semester sophomore year Ana was the worst,” Luke agrees. “Two stars, would not recommend.”
“You know what,” I start, glaring angrily between the two of them. I look up at Christian, expecting him to defend me, but he shrugs.
“I didn’t get to be there. Second-semester sophomore year Ana is also not my favorite iteration of you.”
“Oh, yeah? You’re about to like this iteration a whole lot less if heads don’t start rolling around here for talking shit about your wife, Mr. Grey.”
He sighs, but nods. “Kate, when you and Elliot broke up, you had sex with Carter Reed. So I don’t want to hear judgement about anything out of you… ever. Sawyer, you’re dismissed.”
“Really?” Luke immediately perks up.
“Yes,” Christian replies. “The security office is that way, go occupy it.”
With a disappointed sigh, he nods, gets up, and leaves the room. He pauses before he makes it through the archway though. Then he locks eyes with me and once again mouths, “the worst.” I lunge towards him, but Christian catches me around the arm and drags me into the dining room.
Sitting around the table with my family feels more like home than all the work and travel we’ve been doing has allowed in quite some time. No one has a bombshell to drop or drama to start. We all just sit there and listen to Mia tell stories about Europe over a table full of junk food. My dad and I both smother our hot dogs in cream cheese and grilled onions, which has Christian glancing over at us in disgust every thirty seconds. But that only makes the whole experience more enjoyable.
“Did you meet any boys while you were travelling?” Grace asks, trying to be sly. Mia’s cheeks immediately go pink.
“You know, I think we’ve talked enough about me. We haven’t heard anything from Kate, and I bet Kate has all kinds of stuff to talk about. Don’t you, Kate? Don’t you have so many things you want to talk about right now?”
“Uh… yeah,” Kate says, pausing while she thinks of something to fill the silence surrounding the seven pairs of eyes that turn in her direction. “We’re running a story tomorrow morning about the protests that have been going on at City Hall all week.”
“Protests?” I ask. I’ve been out of town most of the week, but this is the first I’ve heard about protests.
“Yeah, about the transportation cuts. There are like 30% fewer buses, ferries, and trains running every day and it’s severely impacting the commuter community. We interviewed a few of the leaders who put the demonstration together and they gave us a list of demands. So, we’re going to publish it.”
Carrick glares at her. “Why? So the yuppy tech bros downtown who this doesn’t affect at all can hate me too? My approval numbers have been in free fall since those people started marching.”
“Hey, I don’t make the news,” Kate says, raising her hands defensively. “I just report it.”
“Yeah, well if I could do something about it, I would. Those budget cuts were a necessary part of this years… revenue shortfalls.” The way Carrick says the last words, and glances in Christian’s direction as he says them, makes it clear that he’s talking about the GEH tax cuts. Christian gives Calliope another French fry and leans casually back in his chair, reaching an arm over my chair and resting it lazily on my shoulder.
“How much is the shortage?”
“We had to cut $13 million from SDOT.”
Christian nods. “I’ll set up a $15 million grant to donate to the city’s transportation fund.
Carrick looks taken aback by Christian’s offer. Slowly, his eyebrows knit themselves together and he blinks a few times like he’s misunderstood what was said. Christian shakes his head, then leans over the table towards his father.
“Despite what you may think, I actually care a great deal about this city. I care even more about your success as Mayor. Besides, I employ commuters too. A well funded infrastructure is good business.”
“Of course he makes it about GEH,” Mia says. He shoots her a self-righteous grin.
“Well, whatever your reasons,” Carrick begins. “I really appreciate that, son. There are people in this city that are struggling, and I want to help them. It’s a very noble offer, so thank you.”
“It’s not, but you’re welcome.” He exchanges a glance with his father that holds a warmth that’s been absent since they went to war with each other last spring. I think Grace sees it just as clearly as I do because she brings a hand to her chest and fights to hold back her sentimental smile. Elliot on the other hand empties his pilsner and coughs to get Christian’s attention.
“I was just thinking… I could use $15 million. You know, if you’re just handing it out.” Christian reaches over for my plate to pick up one of the fries I didn’t finish and hurls it across the table at his brother. Elliot just narrows his eyes at him. “So, no?”
We all laugh, then turn back to Mia, who actually does have several questions about her impending departure for Harvard.
Once dinner is finished and Mia has asked every single thing about Cambridge that she could possibly think of, we walk everyone to the door and say our goodbyes. Kate and Elliot are out quick, eager to get Kennedy back home and into bed. Grace dawdles, unwilling to give up Calliope.
“You know she could come home with us,” she offers, hugging her granddaughter tightly to her chest.
“Not tonight, Mom,” Christian says. Grace frowns, but after one last big squeeze, she passes Calliope back to him. Carrick wraps his arms around me, then holds his hand out for Christian.
“I’ll be in touch with your office to set up that grant,” Christian tells him.
“Good. I’ll clear my schedule for you, son.” They nod at each other as their hands fall to their side, but just before Carrick turns to leave. He stops and pulls Christian in for a hug. “It was good seeing you tonight, Christian.”
“Yeah, you too.”
“I love you, son.”
Christian smiles and nods to his father. “Yeah, you too.”
With a wink, Carrick takes Grace’s hand and, with a lighter stride than the one that carried him in here, he leads her through the front doors and out into the night.
“Well, I guess this is goodnight, kids,” my dad says, hovering at the foot of the stairs behind us. I open my mouth to argue, but stop myself and turn back to Christian. He nods, like he already knows what I’m going to say.
“Go ahead. I’ll put Calliope to bed.”
“Thank you.” I give him a quick, but deep kiss, then move my lips to each of Calliope’s chubby cheeks. “Goodnight, Calli-lilly.”
My dad is already in his room when I make it upstairs. I try to show him around a bit, let him know where he’ll find the things he needs, or extra blankets if he gets cold. He catches me by the shoulders on my third lap around the room.
“Annie, I’ve been here a million times. There’s no need to fuss over me.”
I nod, but instead of leaving him on his own, I take a seat on the edge of his bed. “You were quiet at dinner.”
He shrugs. “It wasn’t really about me.”
“It was about family. You’re family.”
“Yeah, I know.” There’s a sadness behind his voice that tugs painfully at my heart, and I feel myself start to shrink. The same way I did when I thought I disappointed him as a child.
I take a shaky breath. “I’m followed everywhere I go, Daddy. And every time I have Calliope, the paparazzi gets more aggressive because that picture Kim posted blew up and now they think they can make money off of her. They scream at me, they grab me, they curse at me and flip me off to try to get me to react… It’s scary. It scares her. It makes Luke’s job so much more difficult, and I swear Christian is going to lose his shit one day and we’re going to end up in court again….”
“I know, Annie. Christian made all of this very clear the last time I was here.”
“But I don’t want you–”
“Ana.” He stops and turns a stern look on me. “It’s fine. You don’t have to worry about me, and you don’t have to worry about Kim. She’s not going to be a problem anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re no longer seeing each other. Her kids helped her move out this weekend, and I fully expect her keys to be waiting for me on the kitchen counter when I get home. It’s over.”
“What… why?” He gives me a look that makes it clear I should know exactly why, but I shake my head. “I didn’t tell you to… I mean, I didn’t mean for you to, uh… I just wanted—”
“Her out of your life,” he finishes for me. “You wanted her out of your life and you have since the day I first introduced you. The only thing that was keeping this together was Christian, because he was trying. But I saw how serious he was when he said Kim wouldn’t be welcome here again. And if she wasn’t welcome and I stood by her, it would only be a matter of time before that included me too.”
“Daddy, that is not true,” I argue. “I would never let that happen, no matter what.”
“You wouldn’t have to, sweetheart. If Kim was left at home waiting for me every time I came up here to see you, I’d just start coming less and less often. You’d get used to me declining invitations, until, eventually, you’d stop offering them. We’d have holidays with her kids, you’d have holidays with Grace and Carrick. I want nothing to do with that, Annie. I don’t want to miss Calliope growing up and I don’t want a miss a second of time I could be spending with you. You’re the most important thing in the world to me. Period.”
I feel the sting of tears behind my eyes and I have to look down at the floor before any of them actually break through the surface. His arms wrap around me and he pulls me into the familiar chest that’s comforted me innumerable times. This time, though, it only makes me feel worse.
“I love you, Daddy. I really, really love you.”
“I know, baby girl. I love you too. But you gotta get out of here because I’m exhausted and I’m going to bed.”
I nod against his t-shirt, then take a deep breath, wish him sweet dreams, and shuffle back to my bedroom. I can hear Christian reading to Calliope through her bedroom door, so I climb into bed and sit there, staring at the wall, and feeling miserable.
“Exactly where I hoped to find you,” Christian says, when he finally comes through the door. He moves to the bed and crawls over the top of me, seeking out my lips, but just before he makes his target, I hold up my hand to stop him.
“We need to talk,” I tell him. He lets out a disappointed breath and his head falls.
“Yes, right now.”
“Okay.” He rolls off of me and plops down on the bed next to me, pouting up at the ceiling like someone just took his favorite toy away. “What do you want to talk about?”
“My dad and Kim broke up.”
“Oh. Well, that’s much more convenient.”
“Christian!” I slap him across the chest and turn my whole body towards him, glaring. “She’s the only person he has! He lives in the actual middle of nowhere. He doesn’t have neighbors anymore, all of his buddies live over an hour away from him, we never go to visit him… he’s all alone. And I can’t…” I start shaking my head, too overwhelmed with guilt and sadness to finish the sentence. Christian brushes his hand back and forth over my back as he too sits up.
“So, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to buy him an apartment in the city so he can be closer to us?”
“No, he wouldn’t come if you did. I– I–, ugh, I don’t know what I want.”
“Then we’ll start making more of an effort to go visit your father. One weekend a month, as often as we can. Any other time, he’s welcome to come stay with us. He knows that.”
I nod, because I know it’s the best we’re realistically going to be able to come up with, but I still feel like we’ve fallen about a hundred miles short of the mark. The attempt I make to say that is cut off though, when the room is suddenly filled with the piercing sound of the security alarm, blaring from downstairs.
Christian goes tense for half a second, then leaps from the bed and rushes to the door. I’m right on his tail, but he barks back at me to take Calliope into the safe room.
“Without you, are you insane?” I scream over the shrill siren echoing through my halls. He stops and rounds on me, just as we hear the door down the hall open and my father steps out looking confused.
“Stay with Calliope,” I tell him, then I grab Christian’s hand and start dragging him to the stairs. The moment we’re out of the hall, he snatches me by the wrist and yanks me behind him, shielding my body with his as we peer over the railing and into the dark entryway below. Taylor is standing in the middle of the foyer with his gun drawn on a shadowy figure by the door, and my heart starts racing.
“Get on the ground,” Taylor commands, and when the silhouette he’s aiming at hesitates, I hear him click the safety off his gun.
“Wait!” Luke shouts from somewhere in the dark. He comes barreling into the foyer and immediately puts himself between Taylor’s gun and the person cowering against the door. Christian reaches along the wall, in search of a light switch, and when he finally hits it, the mysterious intruder turns into… Jade.
“I’m so sorry,” her fear filled voice whispers to Luke. “I messed up the code and the alarm started going off… I didn’t know what to do.”
“It’s okay,” Luke says, offering her a comforting hand, but not taking his eyes off the gun. Taylor seems to come to his senses then and lowers his weapon, but his gaze is just as stern. Without the threat of the gun though, Luke doesn’t seem to pay him much mind. He turns to Christian, as though he’s expecting a tirade.
It doesn’t come.
“You’re an employee, Sawyer. Employees don’t get to have guests. This is my home, not your personal fuck pad. My daughter is asleep upstairs.”
“Yes, sir. I know, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t. Ana?” Christian holds his hand out for mine like he’s just going to let it all go. Instead, I stomp down the stairs.
“Start explaining, Lucas,” I tell him, shoving a finger in his face. He turns alarmed eyes on Taylor before shaking his head at me.
“Ana, I don’t want to talk–”
“Our break-up wasn’t real,” Jade interrupts him. I look over at her, blinking.
“It was my idea,” she continues, taking a step out from behind Luke and looking at me sheepishly. “He was miserable. The only way he can have you in his life is if he has this job, and when he doesn’t have you he’s this different person that’s not.. Not who I fell in love with. So, when it became clear at that dinner that coming back here was the only way things were going to be resolved between him and Christian… I did the only thing I could think to do. I broke up with him in front of all of you so you had the proof, and then, when we got home, I told him I didn’t mean it. We’ve been seeing each other in secret ever since.”
“This is the first time she’s been here,” Luke says, turning to Taylor. “I swear. Normally, I go to her, but…” He looks up at Christian, and I’m able to fill in the blanks.
“He said no more nights away…”
“Please don’t fire him,” Jade says. “It’s my fault. We haven’t seen each other in over a week and we’ve been fighting about it… I was fighting with him about it. I just needed to see him.”
I reach out and squeeze her arm. “Of course you did.”
The nervous glimmer in her eyes changes slightly, shining with a sudden burst of hope. She turns to Luke and smiles. “See? I told you she’d be okay with it if you just told her!”
“Okay with it? Are you kidding me? This is great! Luke, I’ve been so worried that you were going to resent me for ruining your first true love but she’s still here! And you’re still in love! And there isn’t some secret bimbo out there who I don’t get to know! Oh, Jade! I think I’m in love with you!“ I leap forward and wrap my arms around her until she can’t breathe anymore.
“No,” Taylor interjects, looking between Jade, Luke, and I as though we’ve gone crazy. “I’m sorry, but this is not good news. We have policies on this team regarding outside romantic relationships, policies I now know are vitally important because of past relationships that were kept secret from me that then endangered the lives of almost every single person currently in this room. This is non-negotiable, you knew that when you came back, Sawyer.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. But I’m not Kommer, and she isn’t Gia. Taylor, I swear she won’t compromise me. I swear that my priority is still and will always be Ana. I’ll never bring her back here again, you won’t even know about her.”
“She’s already compromised you. You gave out the code to the front fucking door, Sawyer. What if she’s playing you to get to him?” He jerks his chin towards Christian, and Luke’s eyes dim with warning.
Taylor shakes his head. “You can’t know that.”
“I do know that. You don’t think I did a background check the first fucking night I met her. You don’t think I’ve interviewed every one of her friends and acquaintances? You don’t think I tailed her for weeks before I even so much as gave her my phone number? Remember who you’re talking to, Taylor. I’m the one who does your wet work.”
Taylor’s face goes stone still, and he takes an intimidating step towards Luke. “Not everything comes out in a background check, Luke, and the most dangerous people know exactly how to play their part. You know that as well as I do. That’s why I have the vetting process that I do. That’s why my people only come from very specific sources. That’s why there’s a transitionary period. But none of that matters because at the end of the day, you broke protocol. I have rules, and if you don’t like them… there’s the door.”
“Make your choice, Sawyer.”
Luke’s pained eyes move to me, then to Jade, then back to me. There’s torture reflected in the lines of his face the grows more and more stark with each pass of his gaze between us. His indecision grates on Taylor, who prods him with a stern, “Sawyer…”, and Luke finally lets his eyes settle on me. He takes a breath, shakes his head, and lets his head fall in defeat.
Then he turns to Jade.
“She’s my family.”
“Yeah, I know.” Her bottom lip trembles and tears well in her eyes. She looks down at her shoes and wraps her arms all the way around her body, like she’s afraid she’s going to shatter over my entryway floor. “I’ve been waiting for this ever since you told me you weren’t going to be able to get away anymore. How do you have a relationship like this? I-I–” Her words cut off with impending tears, and she starts shaking her head.
“I’m sorry, Jade,” Luke pleads with her. “I’m so sorry… I didn’t want it to be like this. I didn’t mean– but she, and I–” Whatever walls she had up break behind the swell of tears that come choking out of her. He pulls her against him, placing a hand over the back of her hair as she sobs into his shirt. His chin tilts up, and I see that his eyes are turning glassy too. “Please don’t cry, Jade. Please…”
“Ana?” I turn back and look at Christian, who gestures to me to join him so we can give Luke and Jade privacy. I shake my head in disgust.
“No, this isn’t happening.” I turn to Luke. “Sawyer, you’re fired.”
His head whips around so he can glare at me. “Ana, can you not right now…“
“I’m serious. You’re choosing wrong here, and I’m not going to let you. You’re fired, Luke. Effective immediately.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor says. “You don’t have that authority.”
I round on him. “Like fucking hell I don’t. My name is on the same bank account your paychecks come out of, and he’s my CPO.”
Taylor blinks back at me, unintimidated, then glances at Christian still standing at the top of the stairs. I implore him with my eyes to be on my side, but he doesn’t say anything. He stares down at us, taking in the whole situation, and considering what he wants to do in long, drawn out silence until I can’t take it anymore.
“He’s always going to be closer to me than he is to you and you’re never going to be able to control that. He’s been late, he failed to report… oh, and he totally touched my boob last week when he was trying to make me watch that disgusting horror movie and we got in a fight over the remote.”
Christian raises an eyebrow. “Do you want me to fire him, or kill him?”
“I want you to back me up here.”
“Ana… he’s the only person I’ve been able to keep on your service. He’s the only one you’ll listen to. He’s the only one who knows you well enough to predict what you’re going to do. Firing him makes you less safe.”
Oh great, now he sees that.
I cross my arms over my chest and stare back at him defiantly. “You told me there was nothing to be scared of anymore. You said no one was coming after us and I didn’t have to worry because we were safe. You’ve made sure we were safe, right? So we’re either safe enough that I don’t need Luke anymore, or we’re not as secure as you’re trying to make me believe. You don’t get to have it both ways, Christian. Are we safe or not?”
“That’s not fair, Ana. Security plays into that equation.”
“So there is something to worry about then? There’s something or someone actively threatening us that makes his presence necessary?”
“I didn’t say that…”
I raise an eyebrow and Christian grinds his teeth together. He doesn’t say anything. He puts us through another long silence, spending most of it glaring at me, before he finally takes a deep breath, looks at Luke, and says, “You’re fired, Sawyer.”
“No, I’m not,” Luke snaps back without missing a beat, but I stop whatever he’s going to say next by grabbing him by his shoulder and forcing him to look at me.
“I let you pick me over her once and I didn’t like how that made me feel, or what it did to you. You’ve moved on from this job, Luke. You’ve started building a life, and that’s okay. I want that for you. This lifestyle isn’t supposed to be a forever thing. I know that. I accept that. I just want you to be happy.”
“I’m not leaving you unprotected.”
“I have security.”
“Yeah, and we both know how seriously you take that.”
“Luke…” I beg him to take the out and choose his own happiness with my eyes, but he resists it. A glimmer of fear breaks through the defiance in his eyes, and he licks his lip nervously.
“This is how I get to have you in my life, Ana. And I need you.”
“I’m not going anywhere. You’re my best friend, Luke. I think you’re in for life, buddy.”
He takes a deep breath and turns to Taylor. “Who would you use to replace me?”
“Harper. Or Kelley.”
“Ugh.” Taylor doesn’t even get the names out before Luke is shaking his head. “She doesn’t do well with female CPOs.”
“Well, she’s got Smith and Wyatt.”
“And she hates them. You’ve got enough eyes on her, she needs someone she can trust. Someone she feels comfortable around.”
“Any suggestions?” Taylor directs the question at Luke, but he turns to me.
“Who do you want?”
“Uh… I got along well with Woods.”
Taylor shakes his head. “Woods has been reassigned…”
“You think he’s the best?” Christian interjects, ignoring Taylor and looking at Luke. He tilts his head from side to side, like he can’t make a determination either way.
“Do I think he’s the best on Taylor’s team? No. Do I think he’s the best for Ana? Probably. He won’t be so trusting again to let her throw him off, but she doesn’t resent him the way she does everyone else. Plus, he’s already been vetted so he’s the only one who’s immediately available.”
“Then he’ll be here first thing tomorrow morning,” Christian says, looking back at Taylor. Taylor doesn’t look happy, but he nods, and Luke starts walking toward the living room. I scrunch my brow together and follow after him.
“What are you–?”
“Smith!” he shouts. “Wyatt!”
They appear through the hallway that leads back to the staff quarters, each dressed and with a hand on their holster. Wyatt’s nervous eyes shift around the room, taking everything in, but Smith looks straight at Luke.
“Her pupils dilate when she lies,” he says.
“Anastasia. Her pupils dilate when she lies. She looks at her fingers when she’s hiding something, and she clenches her jaw when she’s nervous. All of those things mean she’s up to something.”
“And every time we go get coffee, she smells the cinnamon rolls and wants one– but they always make her feel like shit for the rest of the day, so don’t let her get one.” He takes a deep breath, then turns to look at me again before he continues. “And sometimes she gets really quiet and stares off into space with this empty, detached look in her eyes… that means she’s thinking about Lincoln, and if it starts happening more than once a day, you need to call me.”
I fold my arms over my chest, surprised to have it laid out just how well my best friend knows me. How well he reads me. I turn back to Christian, and see him staring at Luke with a furrowed brow and an uneasy glimmer in the gray of his eyes.
“Uh… yes, sir,” Smith says.
Luke’s eyes somehow turn colder, and the menacing look he gives each of my other body guards is so intense, they both take a step back from him. “Do not take your eyes off her.”
“No no, I know what Taylor’s rules are and that you understand them, but I need you both to know that I fucking mean it. Do not take your eyes off of her, not for a second. Because if anything happens to her… I’m going to come for both of you. Got me? Her first, no matter what.”
Smith and Wyatt exchange uneasy glances, then nod. Luke still doesn’t look fully pacified, but now when he looks back at Jade, there’s hope in his gaze. And that’s all I need to know this is the right decision.
“We’ll take care of you,” I promise. “You’ve been so good to me for years, so anything you need, just ask, okay? Anything. I’m right here.”
“I know how good you are,” Christian offers. “And we’re always looking for people with your kind of skill in my technology department. If you’re interested, I can find a place for you under Welch.”
Christian nods and Luke actually looks relieved. He turns back to me and I can almost hear the plea in his gaze.
“Are you absolutely sure about this, Ana?”
“Absolutely,” I tell him. “You’re my family, and I want what’s best for you. Just don’t be a stranger, okay?”
“Ditto.” He pulls me into a strong hug and thanks me over and over again while he holds me. Then he pushes me away with a last, affectionate look, reaches for his girl, and the two of them leave together.