Christian really didn’t come home Sunday night, but my security team was there waiting for me. Even Woods, who I thought might get the axe once Christian realized he’d been the one to let me go. The moment Calliope and I came through the door, we were shut down tight. Wyatt stood behind me while I fed Calliope dinner, Harper hovered in the room while I set her in the bath, and Smith spent the night acting as a century outside my bedroom door.
The moment I wake up, all four of them take shifts shadowing me so that I’m never left alone. None of it phases me or even feels off… until we pull up to my office and find Taylor there waiting for us, pushing the paparazzi back.
And he isn’t alone.
Luke is standing on the opposite end of the courtyard, holding the line from the other side, which surprises me because I fully expected Luke to be put on the security team’s persona-non-grata list for a while after he helped me evade my handlers. But he would only be here if Taylor called him. And Taylor would only call him if there was a reason…
He doesn’t look at me when I get out of the car, and when I turn to eye him speculatively, I notice there’s a gun on his hip. Taylor has one too, so I turn to the people filing out of the SUV behind me and, sure enough, I realize for the first time that every single one of them has a weapon holstered somewhere on their body.
Suddenly, the casual brush off Luke gave me in the car back in Montesano feels like a dire warning, but I can’t get his attention while he’s busy pushing back on aggressive photographers. Harper takes hold of my elbow and drags me inside while Woods, Smith, and Wyatt form a protective bubble around me. Luke and Taylor wait til we’ve got a wide berth, then take the car to park. I’m ushered into the building so aggressively that I don’t even have the time to demand to know what the fuck is going on before they push me into the elevator.
“Owe!” I whine, wincing as Wyatt jumps away from me and the toes he’s just crushed beneath his boot. The elevator is too full with all five of us crammed inside, so he bounces off of Woods and steps on me again.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey. Here, let me…” He tries to back away but he’s blocked by Harper. She tries to shift around Smith, but by the time they’ve reshuffled, I’m merely pressed up against Woods instead.
Thankfully, the doors open.
The four of them file through the doors in front of me, then stand to the side to let me lead the way into my office. The elated faces that greet me when I come through the doors make my heart thud uncomfortably in my chest.
“Hey, boss!” Stevens grins. “I gotta say, you were right. I flew through my Phoenix chapters this weekend. I couldn’t put it down!”
It takes me a moment to breathe through the residual chaos beating furiously in my chest before I understand what he’s talking about.
“Oh. That’s great,” I reply, weakly. His brow furrows at my less-than-enthused response.
There was an email from Christian waiting for me in my inbox this morning, giving me explicit instructions on how I’m supposed to start this transition. He imagines we’ll be fully moved into the fourth floor of GEH by the end of today. And somehow, that’s only the second most ludicrous demand he’s made this week.
“I need everyone to meet in the conference room,” I announce to the room, failing to hold any strength in my voice that might assuage the concern that’s reflected back at me. When no one moves, I stand to the side and sweep my arm towards the door, and the uneasy quiet breaks with the commotion of their migration. I pause just briefly before I follow them in to slip a nausea lozenge in my mouth, praying it will carry me all the way through this meeting.
But it’s not just pregnancy that has me ready to throw up right now.
The nervous chatter around the table seems to center mostly on Phoenix. That something happened and Grey Publishing took it back. They’re right, but not in the way they think they are.
“What’s going on, Ana?” Jacki finally asks.
I take a deep breath. No need to sugar coat it.
“We’ve been bought out. Starting today, we’re being absorbed into Grey Publishing.”
There’s silence, then uproar.
“I knew it!” Roberts shouts. “I knew it the moment you walked in here. She’s a plant. She always was. That’s why Grey built the app, he was building it for himself! She ran Scott out of here, and made things real nice and easy for her husband to come in here and take out the competition.”
I hold up my hands defensively. “Look, I know how this looks. But I swear, this was done above me. Carmen agreed to the sale last Friday, and the contracts were signed before I even knew about it.”
“Yeah, we’ll be sure to find comfort in that from the unemployment office,” Stevens sneers.
“No one is losing their job,” I assure them. “We’re all moving together.”
“Moving?” Jacki asks.
I nod. “You have until noon to pack up your desks and move your belongings to the GEH building. We’ll be on the fourth floor. I’ve been told Grey Publishing is making room for us now.”
“And then what? We just… continue on? What am I supposed to tell my authors?”
“That their contracts are still valid and this acquisition means they have a much more powerful press and better funded marketing arm behind them.” I pause for more questions or comments, even complaints. But the only thing I get are bitter looks. I lean over the table, pressing my palms to the cool wood. “We have a meeting scheduled with the New York office and GP at 1PM to discuss our strategy going forward. I suggest you start packing.”
“Does this mean that GP is going to take over the Greenwich Library?” Steven asks before anyone can move.
“And Phoenix?” Jacki adds. “They get that back too?”
“They get everything. Our press, our warehouses, our inventory, our front list… all of it. We are now wholly part of Grey Enterprises Holdings.”
“So, we didn’t win,” Rogers grumbles. “You made that big show here last week about how we’d finally come out on top. But we didn’t. Grey always wins in the end.”
That hits me in the gut. Not just because this was a battle and he did win, but because I’m fighting another battle with him now. He can’t always win, and I try to convey that to my team now.
“Because this was the only way they would survive.” I stand up straighter and try to force my face to reflect the sincerity of what I’m about to say. “I want every single one of you to know how proud I am of everything we’ve achieved here. This sale is because all of you worked so hard that it scared the most powerful name in Seattle publishing. So, if you think I’m going to go in there and let them change what we do, then I’m afraid you’re about to be very disappointed.”
Stevens nods. “Alright. Let’s go, I guess.”
I offer the room a weak smile as each of my employees pushes away from the table. Abby follows me to my office to tell me that she’s scheduled my OBGYN appointment for tomorrow afternoon, and stops the same way I do once we come through the door. My security team is spread out across my office, loading my things into boxes.
“What are you doing?” I demand. Evan shoots a guilty look at me.
“Sorry, Ana. Mr. Grey’s orders. He doesn’t want you lifting anything.”
I want to scowl, but I can’t help but feel a small amount of hope, that maybe, this means he’s coming around. Not happy about it, but at least starting to make accommodations…
That’s something, right?
Abby joins me at my desk to help me start packing the little things I have tucked inside, and the personal items strewn across the top. With so many helping hands, I’m done much more quickly than the rest of my team, so I meander through the office, lending help where I can.
Most of my staff travel into the city on the train, so there’s a kind of caravan we have to organize between the few cars we do have. My security team makes several trips to the office before anyone actually leaves, transporting boxes and office equipment. It’s just before noon before we start figuring out how to move people.
“I can take five,” I offer, simultaneously sending a text to Woods to leave the rest of my team at GEH to free up seats. He isn’t happy about it, but with Taylor and Luke back on paparazzi duty, he eventually relents and returns to GSP with an empty vehicle. Every spot is filled.
I slide into the front passenger seat, while Woods moves Calliope’s car seat to the trunk. There are impressed comments about the quality of the leather on my seats or the gentle purr of the powerful engine as we weave through the streets to our new building. It makes me feel a little self-conscious. Like I’m reminding them how close I really am to the force that’s displacing them.
That this is all my fault.
But when we finally get to GEH, all the resentment I felt back at GSP melts away into awe. We step through the main doors and wide eyes bounce around at the state-of-the-art lobby. I’ve been here so many times that it’s all very unimpressive to me now. But seeing it again through their eyes reminds me of the remarkable things that have happened here, that we’re now a part of. And the remarkable man behind all of them.
My heart seems to skip a beat, then stutter unevenly as I start towards the elevators.
We’re greeted with celebration when we come through the main doors of Grey Publishing. There’s a banner over reception offering welcome, gift bags with Grey branded swag, and plenty of desk space already cleared out to accommodate everyone. They even have their technology all set up and ready to go, complete with full GEH user profiles.
Which is I guess what happens when you go from having John in New York handle all your IT, to Welch.
“Ana, we’re so excited you’re here!” Claire beams the moment I’m in range of a hug. She throws her arms around me, and pulls me against her. “If I had to pick one person to take over for Elizabeth, I’d want it to be you.”
“Take over?” I blink around at the staff, noting the happy recognition that comes back to me every time I lock eyes with one of the old SIP hold-overs. Elizabeth isn’t anywhere. “We won’t be working together?”
Claire shakes her head. “No, she cleaned out her whole office last Friday for you. Take a look for yourself.”
I follow the same carpeted path I took a few weeks ago when I’d come to get the Grey Publishing contract out of her. Sure enough, the office that had been so crammed full of books and various plants then, is completely stark now. Nothing is left but the furniture, a computer, and a giant bouquet of pink peonies waiting for me in the middle of my new desk. I stumble towards them numbly and pull the card from their petals. It’s written in Christian’s handwriting.
I miss you.
My lip starts to tremble and my heart races against my ribcage. I stare down at the indents his pen made in the paper, tracing them with my finger as if feeling them will let me feel him too. It’s an empty kind of hope that makes me feel worse, until I hear a soft knock on the door behind me.
When I turn, he’s there.
“Hi,” he begins, wary. I have to take a breath before I can respond.
“Your uh… security team told me you weren’t able to keep anything down this morning.” He fidgets nervously with something in his hands, which draws my attention to it for the first time. It’s a take-out carton. “I thought you might be hungry.”
My stomach growls, and he almost smiles.
“Thank you,” I reach out for the cardboard container and when our fingers brush, there’s a jolt of warm electricity exchanged between us. It doesn’t spark and make me jump away, it makes me want to move closer. It makes it feel impossible to pull back. I think he experiences the sensation in the same way, because his hand lingers against mine far longer than necessary before he pulls it away. And when he does, he looks almost tortured.
With a step back, I hop up on my new desk, pop open the lid of my container, and dip my chopsticks into the noodles.
“Did you fire, Elizabeth?” I ask, keeping my eyes on my food.
“No. She received an offer for an editor-in-chief position at a much higher volume publishing house. She was very excited to hand me her resignation last week.”
I frown, knowing in my gut that it’s not a coincidence that his current editor-in-chief just happened to find a better job at the exact same time Christian wanted to give his wife this one. And, honestly, her absence isn’t extremely welcome. With the explosion of the Greenwich Library that damn near always keeps my email in a gridlock, it’s become clear that I’m going to need to split some of my responsibilities. Elizabeth would have been a great partner. Without her, well, I guess I’m back to having no one….
He takes a few steps towards me while I eat and mull over this new information, then he places a finger beneath my chin and tilts my face up to his.
“How are you feeling?”
It’s difficult for me to respond at first. His touch once again sends tingles over my skin that I just want to stop and let myself feel. I want him to lower his lips to mine and tell me that he understands me. I want to collapse in his arms and hold him while I paint the picture of the future I see for us now. The one that makes it all worth this risk… Maybe if he sees it, he’d understand.
Instead, I place the noodles on the desk next to me and look up at him with lost eyes.
“Fine. I—uh… I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. They’re just going to do labs and some tests, but I’m going to get an ultrasound.”
He nods, solemnly. “Okay. Just have Abigail forward it to Andrea so she gets it on my calendar, and I’ll be there.”
His face crinkles with pain. “Of course I will. Ana, I love you. I’m always going to be there for you.” He steps closer, moving his body between my legs, and rests his forehead against mine. For a moment, he just stands there and lets his declaration simmer between us. Then he starts in an agonized whisper, “Please, just… try to see it my way. Try to see what you’re asking me to risk.”
The next breath I take feels heavier than just air. Like, I’m breathing in his torment. A flash of my father’s face moves through my memory from when I told him I was expecting. Even Luke had flinched.
“I do,” I breathe back. “It just… doesn’t change anything.”
His body deflates slightly with the defeated breath he lets out, so I reach around and pull my body against his, holding him as tightly as I can. He shakes his head a few times, then makes a resigned sound that ends with his lips crashing into mine.
It isn’t an admission of defeat, or an attempt to sway me to his side. It’s a temporary truce that has to happen because he simply cannot go on not touching me. Not kissing me. Not loving me…
And I fall into it just as hard as he does.
We wrap around each other in every way we can, pulling against the other in a constant attempt to drag them closer. His tongue tangles with mine in the way his fingers tangle in my hair. My ankles lock together behind his hips as if they’ll hold him there forever. I let myself pour every ounce of the longing I’ve felt for him in these endless days apart.
When he finally pulls away, we pant together in silence for several long seconds, then he reaches up to cup the side of my face.
“There must be something wrong with your sense of self-preservation.”
I let out a humorless laugh. “You know what it’s like to love someone more than your own life.” A hand drops to my stomach, and he follows it with his eyes. Then he shakes his head, and pulls that hand away from my body and into his.
“Come on. We’re going to be late.”
We’re the last to walk into the much larger conference room where my team is gathered. Normally, I hate that. But Christian doesn’t seem fazed. He pulls out a chair for me at the head of the long, rectangular table, then steps into the open space at my right and looks around the room. The faces of my employees from New York on the huge screen against the wall show mostly confusion, which Christian acknowledges with an air of surprising humility.
“Good afternoon. On behalf of Grey Enterprises Holdings and Grey Publishing, I would like to extend our warmest welcome. The accomplishments of the Greenwich team are truly remarkable and it is my hope that we will continue to build on those successes going forward. And I don’t think there is a person I’d have more confidence in to ensure that success than your new editor-in-chief, Mrs. Anastasia Grey.”
He gestures for me to take over, but as I rise and he takes the seat next to me, there’s a cough from one of the Grey Publishing employees across the table.
“You’re wife,” he says beneath the obnoxious, fake hacking. Christian’s eyes flash dangerously in the man’s direction, but it’s Claire and Jacki who leap to my defense
“Shut up, Jason,” Claire snaps.
“Yeah, who even are you? Because she’s a best-selling author,” Jacki adds.
His eyes widen in surprise, and he holds his hands up in surrender. “Jesus. Sorry for having a little loyalty to Elizabeth.” Steven’s leans across the table, mouth open like he’s about to say something, but I hold up a hand to stop him.
“It’s alright. This is a very sudden change and we’re going to have some growing pains. But I hope, Jason, that I’ll earn your trust the same way that Elizabeth did.”
“Uh… yeah.” He recedes slightly in his seat, his face turning the lightest shade of pink. Several smug pairs of eyes from the GSP team turn to me, while the Grey Publishing staff I don’t know looks at me with a new curiosity. I turn to Christian, expecting him to leave, but he leans back in his seat and stares back at me with rapt attention.
“Alright,” I begin, turning away from him and trying not to feel his evaluating eyes. “We’ll get started with the Greenwich Library…” I hesitate, feeling my shoulders droop as I realize how difficult this acquisition is about to make my job. “Which I suppose will have to be rebranded… As of eight o’clock this morning, we’re at 203,000 subscribers and 14,000 active titles. Our top downloads now are the Meghan Michaels title, the new tell-all from that madam out of Kirkland, and… get this,” I give my team a sardonic look. “The Black Rose.”
“Are you kidding me?” Stevens asks. I shake my head at him, subtly letting him know that I’m not.
“Oh, no. Turns out that if you don’t make them pay for it upfront, it’s not contrived anymore. It’s just complicated… which, I guess is a good thing now? I don’t know.” I shake my head irritably. “Either way, Daves is pulling in significantly more downloads through the library than he did through the traditional press.”
After a brief rundown of everything we have on the New York and Seattle office front list, and some intensive discussion on Phoenix that makes most of the Grey Publishing team start grinding their teeth, I turn to Jacki.
“Where are we at on your romance sequel?”
“Close. She’s got two chapters left and I’ve made her promise to have them for me by October. We’re going to miss the Christmas rush, but I think it might actually time well with the Phoenix release.”
“Excellent.” With a smile and a check against the last item on my list, I turn to Claire and ask for the Grey Publishing front list. She passes me a single sheet of paper with two titles listed at the top. I turn towards Christian dubiously, and he gives me a now-you-know-why-I-had-to-buy-you-out kind of look. With a very fulfilling sense of superiority, I turn to the editors representing the titles that are here and get as many of the details as possible, offering my support for whatever they need going forward.
There are a few housekeeping items I touch on, and procedures that will be changing going forward. There’s no point in keeping both Claire and Penny as receptionists, so I assure both of them Christian and I will have answers for them by the following morning. Then the team files out of the room to work on all the actionable items I’ve left them with, and Christian and I are once again left alone.
“You’re incredible,” he starts, the compliment marred by the weighty conflict he isn’t speaking aloud. “You really are a natural leader, Anastasia.”
I nod my gratitude while I take my things into my hand, then give him a resigned kind of look. “I can’t manage the library app and the operations of what is now the equivalent of three branches all on my own. I’d like to promote one of my editors to take over those responsibilities for me.”
“Do you have someone in mind?”
“Jacki. I trust her taste and her vision. She’s organized, she knows what she’s doing, and she’s ambitious. She’s the only one I know would make the same decisions I would. Penny can take her place on the editing team and Claire will remain as receptionist.”
“What qualifies Penny to be an editor?”
“An English degree from Santa Clara. She took the receptionist job because she was waiting for an opening.”
He nods. “Alright. Make whatever offers you want. Anything you need, it’s yours. You have my complete support.”
I breathe that in, but it doesn’t bring me any relief. Outside of Grey Publishing, that hasn’t proved to be true.
“Yeah,” I mutter, bitterly. “Thanks.”
“Ana…” He gets out of his chair, slowly, like he’s trying to buy more time to figure out how to say the things he’s already told me a hundred times in a way that will make me finally understand. “What if it were me? What if I had some disease that the doctors could just… cut out of me to save my life, and I refused? What would that do to you?”
“This isn’t a disease, Christian.” And honestly, the comparison is one of the more painful things he’s said so far. But if he’s going to deal in hypotheticals, so will I. “What if it was Calliope?”
“If you could go back in time and tell your past-self exactly what would happen when Calliope was born, would you be telling me then what you’re telling me now? Would you throw Calliope away too?”
“That’s not fair…”
“That is exactly how it feels to me, Christian. This baby is not a concept or a thought experiment. I can feel it. It’s a baby that makes me sick every morning, and so tired I can barely walk straight. It’s a baby that makes my boobs hurt, and it’s a baby that has me breaking down into tears every fifteen minutes. Our baby. Just like Calliope is our baby.”
His jaw sets in an angry line. “I don’t know this baby. I don’t love this baby. But I do love you, and there’s no one in the world I would trade you for, Anastasia. Your heart beats, my heart beats. That’s not just correlation, it’s sequential.”
Defiant tears begin to echo behind my words. “You don’t know that this will be like it was with Calliope, Christian.”
“And you don’t know that it won’t.” There’s a finality to his words that tells me this argument isn’t going to be productive, so I let my head hang in defeat and start to turn. He calls me back.
“I’m going to take Calliope home with me tonight.”
I swallow to relax the tightness that suddenly grips my throat, wishing I was anywhere but here so I didn’t have to fight so hard to keep it together.
“That’s fair, ” I croak back.
His face turns hard and the tension in his jaw pulls so tight, it almost pulses. “You know, this is what divorced couples do. Make custody arrangements…”
“We’re not getting divorced,” I reiterate. “That’s not how this ends. I’m not leaving you, Christian. No matter what.”
His eyes move down to my stomach, a look of disgust shrouding his face. “Aren’t you, though?”
He turns and leaves, and I have to sit in a chair to keep myself from collapsing on the floor. I can feel the fight inside me start to waiver as the exhaustion overcomes me again, but I can’t let myself lose it. I have to fight this battle. I have to fight for my baby. I just don’t know how to do it against the man I love. I don’t know how to withstand this pain. His pain.
I reach up and press my fingers into the hollow of my neck, feeling my pulse and finding my heart racing. Despite my insistence that this time it could be different, that it will be different, I’m still wary of my symptoms. A thundering heartbeat is a little concerning given my history, so I take a deep, calming breath, and try to release the stress lingering in my body. I decide that the best way to do that is to go home and finish my day in a pair of sweatpants, where I can break down and cry if I have to.
After gathering everything I need and packing it into the bag that reminds me of Christian, I summon my security team and start for home. Or the empty building where my stuff is anyway. It becomes very clear once I’m wandering through the empty rooms that seem to echo in the eerie quiet, that it’s not home without Christian and Calliope.
And suddenly, I understand exactly why Christian had to leave. The hours of work I try to bury myself in are only just enough to shake the overbearing feeling of abject loneliness. So, when eight o’clock rolls around and I can’t force myself to stare at my computer screen any longer, I finally pull out my phone.
“Are you grounded for life?” Luke answers.
“Not any more than I already was. What are you doing?”
“Oh, you know. Really important things. Like… seeing how long I can sit on the couch before I start to become part of it.”
“Working. She won’t be home until after three or so.” He sighs. “So it’s just me and me, having some good old quality me time.”
“Yeah, me too. Christian took Calliope to Escala tonight.”
“You guys still haven’t worked it out?”
“No. I don’t think that we’re going to be able to. He said he’ll come to my doctor’s appointment tomorrow, but not because he’s changed his mind. He’s already convinced himself this is a death sentence.”
“I mean… is it?”
He pauses, like he has to rehearse what he wants to say next so that it comes out right. “Ana, maybe, before you go to war with Christian, you should hear what the doctor tells you. I was there last time, and she warned you–” He stops again. “Look, I know you think that you can get through this if you’re just on your best behavior… but it doesn’t always work out that way. It didn’t last time, no matter what you tried. And we really did almost lose you.”
“I know that, Luke. Don’t you think I know that?”
He sighs. “Yeah, I guess you would.”
There’s a heavy silence that falls between us while he wades through his emotions and I try to form the feeling swirling in my gut into words.
“Why were you at my office this morning?”
“Because Taylor asked me to be.”
He takes another long breath, which tells me he doesn’t want to answer, that that immediately makes me wary of whatever he is about to say.
“Please don’t lie to me.”
“Taylor didn’t want you to be held up by the paparazzi. He wanted you in the building as quickly as possible.”
Another pause. “Think about it, Ana. I’m sure you’ll get there.”
“Because someone was coming for me?”
“And he found out about it three days ago. He came to talk to me late last night and we put his plan into motion before you even woke up this morning. It went exactly the way that he planned it would, we got the guy, we took care of it.”
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know, some dude who wanted to hock your wedding ring on the black market.”
“My wedding ring?!”
“It’s a ten million dollar diamond, Anastasia… But he was an amateur, working alone, and very, very carelessly. We were prepared for him. No need to worry.”
“All I do is worry…”
“I know, and it’s stupid. I don’t know what more I can say to you except that no one is ever going to get to you or Calliope. Ever. Your husband is a powerful man, and all of that power is constantly being directed into keeping you safe.”
I swallow, as I’m reminded of the double-edge to that sword, and how his concern for my safety has that sword currently held at my throat. “Yeah… okay.”
“Do you want me to come over? Keep you company?”
“Be there in a few minutes. Just tell your security to stand down, huh? I’d like to avoid stray gunfire, if I can.”
“You know they don’t listen to me.”
“And that’s part of the reason you’re so safe.” He laughs and promises he’s on his way before the phone goes dead and leaves me alone in the ghostly shell of my house. I can’t bring myself to sit and wait.
The emptiness that fills the rooms around me is too oppressive. Instead, I wander aimlessly until I find myself in Christian’s office. With a careless drag of my finger, I walk along the edge of his desk, eyeing the immaculately neat piles of things that weren’t important enough to take with him. His laptop is missing, leaving a defined empty place in front of his chair. I squeeze the shiny, espresso colored leather wrapped around it and let my eyes wander to the framed picture displayed proudly on the corner of his desk.
Our wedding day.
“He’s not in here,” Luke says from the doorway, calling my attention. I look up and give him a sad smile.
“Almost feels like it though.”
The way his face morphs at those words tells me that he feels the pain roiling through me as acutely as I do, and the empathy that shines back at me through the blue eyes I’ve grown to trust so much draws me into his arms.
“It’s going to be alright, Ana.” He squeezes me. “You two will get through this like you’ve gotten through everything else.”
I sniff against his shirt, unsure of how much I believe those words anymore. A few days ago, absolutely. But Christian Grey is an intractable force, and I’m just now being confronted with how absolute that really is…
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
“Come on,” Luke says, rubbing a hand over my shoulder. “Let’s go watch an awful movie that I’m going to hate.”
I laugh and let him drag me out to the living room.
He pops some popcorn and even throws a few bags of the Scooby-doo fruit snacks I would have committed murder for while I was pregnant with Calliope on a tray, while I build us a fortress of pillows on the couch. He grabs the remote before I can, but goes straight for It Happened One Night, and hits play. I give him a knowing smile that makes him roll his eyes, but not a single word of complaint breaks through his lips as we settle into the opening scene.
“You wanna know the real problem with this movie?” he says about half-way through. He sits up straighter and moves the bowl of popcorn off his lap like he’s about to give a Ted Talk. But his speech is interrupted by Woods, Shaw, and Wyatt, who suddenly file into the living room.
“What’s going on?” I ask. My answer comes from the beep of the alarm that says an exterior door has been opened. Luke automatically reaches a protective hand back and angles his body between mine and the door. It drops though, when Christian walks into the kitchen with Calliope on his hip.
His eyes narrow on the space between Luke and I on the couch, which makes Luke shoot me an irritated look before he scoots away. I look at Christian.
“What are you doing here? Calliope should have been in bed hours ago.”
“You’re telling me,” he says, adjusting the wide-awake baby with tear-streaked cheeks on his hip. “She didn’t have her elephant.”
“Oh. I’ll go get it for you.” I start to unravel the blanket from around my lap, but Christian moves through the kitchen and waves me off.
“I know where it is.” He exits through the archway, toward the stairs, and Luke turns to face me.
“He’s not just here for the elephant, is he?”
I take a cautious breath, trying not to let myself feel too much hope behind my response. “No. I don’t think so.”
He nods and leans over to kiss my forehead, holding a hand back to stop my security when all three of them take a step closer to me. Then he turns back to me to roll his eyes and peels himself off the couch. I go after him, walking him to the door with my security team following half a step behind me the entire way. I give each of them an annoyed look before I tell them I’m off to bed and start after Christian.
He’s in Calliope’s nursery, standing over her crib, placing her stuffed animal close enough that she can see it, but far enough away that it won’t suffocate her in the middle of the night. He reaches in and strokes the top of her head lovingly, then turns to look up at me.
And then, he changes. There’s no fight or obscured sense of betrayal in the way he looks at me. Only longing. Even from all the way across the room, it’s almost powerful enough to make me give in.
I look away, and he appears in front of me.
“Christian, I can’t…”
Just as they had this morning, his lips cut off my protest. I feel his hands curl around my face, holding me in the kiss that grows deeper the moment I start to kiss him back. While I melt into him, his hands drag down my body, gently caressing my cheeks, neck, shoulders, arms, hips… all the way down to the backs of my thighs. I push up when he lifts me in his arms, and wrap my legs around his waist. Then I lower my lips to his again, and keep them there while he makes his way back to our bedroom.
Our clothes fall to the floor without any words. His careful fingers gently pull my t-shirt over my head, then roll my leggings over my feet. He draws the tip of his nose up the inside of my thigh. His tongue sweeps gently across the curve of my neck. His eyes take in every inch of my skin, as though he’s experiencing my body again for the first time. Or maybe, just really taking the time to appreciate it.
I could melt in the wonder that looks down at me. I could swim forever in the depth of the love he demonstrates through each sweet touch of his lips. When my panties find their way to the floor and the tip of his erection brushes my clit, my body starts to yearn for him. Not in the greedy, heady way it does when my mind is drunk on sex and desperate for release.
I just need him to touch me.
I need him to envelop me.
I need him to consume me from the inside out, until every doubt I’ve felt over the past few days has been burned away by his unrelenting passion.
I need him to love me and I need him to feel how much I love him back.
He slides inside of me, and I moan for each and every inch of him. His wandering hands return to my face. His gaze holds mine. Only then does he move. Slowly. In a metronomic pace that’s so even and vital it could be a heartbeat. And the moment the comparison falls into my thoughts, I realize that’s exactly what it is.
A heartbeat. His heartbeat. This is why it beats, and this is what each and every one of those beats means.
Your heart beats. My heart beats.