Coming out of unconsciousness is like waking up still drunk after a night of heavy drinking. I can’t feel anything, except a general sense that something isn’t right. My thoughts and memories are all jumbled like individual pieces of a puzzle I can’t quite fit together. It takes a lot to peel my eyelids back and, when I do, everything is out of focus. I have to blink several times before the dark, ambiguous shape next to my bed turns into Christian.
He’s holding my hand. My wedding ring is missing so his thumb moves gently over the letters tattooed into my skin. There’s a profound kind of misery on his face that makes him look so much older than he really is.
It takes a moment for me to remember why he looks that way. Why there are tubes stuck in my arm and a monitor loudly keeping count of each one of my heart beats. Why there’s a new, powerful urge brewing deep inside of me to grab onto him and never let him go.
His face is bruised, but not as swollen as I remember from when I last saw him. He’s dressed in dark green scrubs that match the sterile, slightly ammonic scent clinging to the air. They hang limply off him while he hunches over my bedside like a war-shocked veteran who has finally come home after a long winter.
But he’s here.
He’s touching me…
The monitor next to me starts beeping more rapidly, and it catches Christian’s attention. Anxious eyes dart up and watch the green line draw peaks and valleys across the screen, then shift to me. The moment he knows I’m awake, there’s a visible change in him. A powerful relief that erases the new, unkind years the deep lines of worry have etched into his face.
“Hey,” he breathes, moving closer and enclosing my entire hand in his. I squeeze back and a slightly manic smile moves across his lips. “How do you feel?”
I swallow, realizing for the first time how dry my mouth is, and how much it tastes like blood and medicine. It’s painful when I try to talk, like a blistering hot breeze moving over an open wound. Then, as I start to rearrange my thoughts into something coherent, gunshots ring through my memory and the scene that put me here catches up to me. That’s when the first real wave of fear is able to break through the anesthesia fog.
“Did I…” The words I’m able to wheeze out lose their strength halfway through, and I have to start over. “Did I lose them?”
Christian’s face goes blank and his eyes shift down to my stomach. He blinks like he isn’t sure how to answer, and my heart starts thundering in my chest. The chaos plays through the heart monitor, and urges him to speak.
“No. You didn’t lose them. You’re okay. They’re okay. They’re, uh… fighters.” He looks away from me as though he’s done something wrong. The torment that faded from his face the moment his eyes met mine returns. The lingering despair that drove us into the impasse I’d thought could never be bridged is heavy in his voice, and it makes me feel an echo of the horrifying pain I’d endured through those hours he was missing all over again.
And even just that shadow of hurt, is enough to send a fissure through my heart over the broken man sitting beside me, and the still thrumming heartbeats of our children encased inside of me. Tears well in my eyes and, even heavy with the last of the drugs, my body begins to shake.
“Christian… I’m so sorry.”
His eyebrows pull together, etching a deep, angry crease in his forehead. His eyes blaze with accusation. “What did you just say to me?”
“I’m sorry. I never should have let you leave. I should have begged you to come home the moment I knew you left. I should have never ran… We could have talked about this, we could have worked through this together the same way we’ve worked through everything else. But I… I was scared, and I was angry, and I… I forgot that you weren’t my enemy. I broke us. This is all my fault.”
“No.” He sits up straighter and a resentful kind of outrage settles into every one of his features. “This is not your fault. I took this where it went, even when I knew how you would react. I tried to force you into a choice I knew you would never make. I put you in an impossible position, and so I forced us apart. I made us vulnerable. It was my technology these people wanted destroyed. They were coming after me.” He pauses, swallowing his next words before he can say them out loud, as if he doesn’t like the way they taste. “Just like Elena came for me. Just like Leila came for me. Just like Lincoln came for me… It’s always me, except I’m never the one that has to deal with the consequences.”
He turns a pained look on me that makes my heart shatter just a little further.
He silences me with an exasperated shake of his head. “Don’t. Don’t try to excuse my part in this. I’ve heard you try so many times now that it’s starting to sound like I’m gaslighting you.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is though.” He takes another deep breath and squeezes my hands again. The pain in his eyes grows deeper as he mulls through his next confession, and while I watch him prepare his speech, I’m almost worried that I’m not prepared to hear it.
“Ana… I don’t know what to do. I’m so fucking lost that I don’t even know which way to turn anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
He takes a heavy breath. The confidence that he normally wears like a second skin has completely vanished and he looks broken down and utterly bereft in its absence.
“You are absolutely everything good in my life. You are sunshine first thing in the morning, and serenity when I close my eyes to go to sleep at night. The warmth of your body when you wrap around me is like some kind of magic that makes all of the bullshit and pain and anger I’ve been holding onto my entire life disappear… You are the parts inside of me that stop me from turning into a monster, and I cannot survive without you. But everything, everything is trying to take you from me. All the time. Over and over again. And everytime I try to stop it, it just gets worse.”
“No, just let me…” He pauses and rubs my hand between his, pulling it up to his lips so he can kiss my fingers while he gathers himself enough to continue. “I’ve spent my entire life in therapy talking about what I went through as a kid, but the truth of it is that I don’t remember hardly any of it. The only thing I remember with any kind of clarity is the fear. I can still feel it. It comes out of nowhere sometimes, and it turns everything around me into a threat, every person into an adversary. I have to be smarter. Stronger. Faster. More powerful.”
He stumbles over the last word, then scoffs and hangs his head with disgust. “That’s the only way I win. That’s the only way I can protect myself. To stop myself from ever feeling that fear again. Everything I’ve ever done has been about getting more power and having more control over the people around me. I got into BDSM with Elena, because I was drawn to the power play. I dreamed up GEH because I wanted the power that came with being the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation. I pursued Endurance because I knew the power it would offer me once it was mine. I have lied, cheated, and nearly lost everything and everyone I’ve ever cared about for that power, and the only thing it’s ever done is threaten you. And now I live with that fear. The fear that I’m going to lose you. That I’m going to watch something horrible happen to you. That you’ll be bleeding in my arms. That you’re going to end up in a hospital bed, clinging to life, beyond my power to save you, and the only thing I’ll be able to do is sit here and burn while I feel you slip away.” He looks up at the monitor again, his words painting a perfect picture of the room we’re in now. His fears realized. “This is worse than the fear I’ve been avoiding my whole life ever was, and it’s because of me. It’s because of the choices that I’ve made. That I keep making. Your dreams, your children, your life… it’s all constantly under threat. Because of me. You’re here because of me.”
“This isn’t your fault…”
“Yes it is.” He spits the words through clenched teeth. “They wanted Endurance, which I only started because I was trying to fix how I’d fucked up with Lincoln, and Lincoln only happened because of how I fucked up with Elena over and over again.” He pauses, shaking with anger. “It always comes back to that lie. To that one mistake that I have been running from for four fucking years. Every. Single. Time.”
Another tear chases its predecessor down my cheek. I take a shaky breath as I try to come up with something to say, anything to wipe away the self-loathing so clear in his eyes, but words fail me. He nods, as though my reticence is an affirmation of his own thoughts.
“It’s just going to keep escalating, unless something changes. Something has to change.”
“What do you mean?”
He presses his lips together. “I have to stop running.”
I don’t like the defeat in his voice, or the implication of what it may mean. A thousand different scenarios run through my mind of what he could be about to do next, each more devastating than the last. When I finally get him to look up at me again, I plead with him through the tears in my eyes.
“You’re not a bad person, Christian.”
“I don’t know if that’s true…”
“They don’t give the Nobel Prize to bad people.”
His brow wrinkles with confusion. “What?”
I take a deep breath, hoping I have enough strength to make it through the explanation. “The day you went missing, they announced that you’d been nominated for a Nobel Prize. You’re going to win. Because you made the whole world a better place.”
He scrunches his brow together as he loses himself in thought, then falls back in his chair, looking slightly dazed. I squeeze his hand.
“You’re not a bad person, you just seem to attract the attention of the people who are.”
He sits in silence for a moment, mulling over what I’ve said. Then he leans into me again and takes my hand. “Then that’s what has to change.”
I find out from the doctor later that afternoon that the surgery I’d undergone to repair the damage the bullet had done to my lungs had been successful, and it had been Luke’s quick thinking with the plastic he’d used to seal my wound that had saved my life. Unfortunately, the hospital I’d been taken to is on a military base that is so high security clearance, Christian was only allowed to come because of the deal he’d made for Endurance. Luke wasn’t. I have no way to thank him, and I’m stuck in my hospital bed for two days before I recover enough to travel home.
Those two days are dark.
The first time I’m able to fall asleep without drugs, the nightmares come back. I wake up screaming, trying to fight Christian off of me in the darkness until I realize he isn’t Lincoln… as if nothing had changed from last fall at all. It takes him a long time to get me calmed down enough to crawl into my hospital bed with me and wrap me in his arms. Once he does, I cry until they sedate me again.
I spend the next day in a panic over Calliope. I can feel with the same absolute certainty that I used to throughout all of the long dark months last winter that something’s going to happen to her. Someone’s going to take her, someone will try to rob us and she’ll get hurt in the fray, someone is going to burn the house down… I don’t know. I just know that she isn’t safe if she isn’t with us, and it doesn’t matter how many times Christian tells me that she’s with our whole family and our entire security team, I can’t believe him until I see her with my own eyes. Until I have her back in my arms. Christian does everything he can to get me a phone call back home so that I can hear Kate tell me that she’s fine, but he doesn’t have the kind of power on the base that he does in the civilian world. So, I spend the entire day riddled with fear, and that night, I scream again.
When I’m finally discharged, the doctor gives Christian a referral for a psychiatric hospital back in Seattle.
It’s nighttime when our plane lands at SeaTac, exactly one week after I’d left. There’s an ominous energy hanging in the air that I can feel as clearly as the drops of rain that speckle my hair as we deboard. The feeling grows more pronounced and harder to hide as I struggle through the door of the waiting SUV that Taylor holds open. Christian has to help me climb in since my arm is immobilized, and my injuries make almost all movement painful, but it isn’t the piercing pain in my chest that has my heart racing when we pull through off the tarmac and through a crowd of waiting photographers.
It’s the memory of that video on Luke’s phone. The paparazzi who led Nigel right to Christian when he was most vulnerable.
By the time the skyline of Seattle appears around the scenic curves of the I-5, and I catch a glimpse of the glow from the roof of Escala, a tightness that seems to grab hold of my chest and squeeze like a boa constrictor begins to suffocate me. I grip the seat beneath me until my knuckles go white.
Christian reaches over and breaks my hold from the leather and entwines his fingers with mine. His lips press into my cheek, halting the tear carving its way down to my chin, then he rests his forehead against the side of my face.
“It’s okay if you’re going to fall apart, Ana. I’ll put you back together again. Whatever you need now is okay.” I nod and reach for his hand, gripping it so tightly it’s like I’m worried he’ll disappear again. He winces slightly when my nails dig into him, but he never pulls away. He only ever pulls me closer. And as long as I’m wrapped in his warmth, I can hold it together.
Until we get home.
We pull through our gates and find our driveway packed full of cars. Kate and Elliot, My Dad and Kim, Grace and Carrick, Luke and Jade… Everyone we know is here, and there’s an expectation to that that I’m not sure I’m ready for.
Taylor climbs out of the SUV once we’ve stopped in the garage and comes around to open my door for me. I can’t move. I’m too busy shaking. Too busy listening to the pale echo of Lincoln’s cold, threatening voice ringing distantly in my ears. A reminder I now know I can’t let myself ignore…
I gasp and Christian wraps his arms around me.
“I’m okay.” I push him away and start to shake out my hands, trying anything to relieve enough of the anxiety for me to take control of my own body again. “I’m going to be okay, I just need a second. I don’t want Calliope to see me like this.”
“Okay.” He lets me sit there and fall apart for a few more seconds, but when it becomes clear that the deep breaths I take over and over again are causing me to hyperventilate more than calm down, he tilts my face to his and slowly presses his lips to mine.
It’s like a pebble being dropped into a placid pool, breaking the tension and sending ripples of reassurance through me. It’s something to hold onto, so I dig in and kiss him back until the tears stop, my breathing returns to normal, and my heart falls into a more normal cadence.
“Better?” he asks, wiping the tears from my eyes. I nod and take one last deep breath before I turn to Taylor.
“I want Escala put up for sale, and I want to take the very first offer we receive, no matter what it is. Can you arrange that?”
Taylor’s eyes shift nervously over my shoulder to Christian, lingering there while they silently communicate with one another, then he nods.
“Yes, Mrs. Grey. I’ll be in touch with your realtor first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Good. Thank you.” He reaches out and I slide the hand not tied up in a sling into his so that he can help me from the car. The door closes behind me and Christian wraps an arm around my waist as he leads me inside. I take one last moment to try and center myself, then follow him through the door.
The house is filled with the alluring scent of food. Familiar voices float through the kitchen towards us. It’s warm, and the wash of light that comes from the fixtures on the wall in the laundry room is the perfect shade of home.
But the chime on the security alarm still makes me jump.
Christian’s hand tightens for a moment on my hip, a quick squeeze of support before he pulls me toward the voices coming from our living room. We emerge through the kitchen to find everyone waiting for us, but my eyes search specifically for Calliope. She’s in Jade’s lap, who is sitting on the floor at Luke’s feet.
“Ana?” Grace leaps up from the sofa, looking half-mad with worry. Everyone else turns to me and each and every one of their faces reflects some varying degree of Grace’s concern.
Christian leans into me and whispers, “Whatever you need is okay.”
I feel my insides tighten, but I manage to keep my voice from shaking.
“I’m okay,” I say as much to Christian as I do to everyone else. The moisture from the unshed tears in Grace’s eyes continues to glimmer. Mia’s eyes are as wide as saucers, and she’s sitting so still she might be holding her breath. Kim reaches into my father’s lap and grabs his hand.
“What about the twins?” Carrick is the one brave enough to speak, but only enough to force the answer for the question that no one else wants to ask. His eyes move to my stomach, and Christian goes stiff next to me.
“They’re fine,” he says. “She protected them.” His mother crumples to her knees. She takes several life affirming breaths, then folds her hands over the ottoman and begins to pray. Kate devolves into tears that Elliot has to absorb into his t-shirt. Calliope looks between the two of them uncertainly, then turns to me. Her bottom lip begins to tremble, and her face goes flushed just before she lets out a miserable wail.
For the first time since we left the hospital, I move out of Christian’s reach and start towards Calliope. Her tiny hands are already reaching for me, but when I try to scoop her up, I scream in pain and nearly drop her. She wails harder, so Christian hurries to take her in his arms.
“No heavy lifting,” he reminds me, reaching out and gently stroking the shoulder that’s currently supported by the sling. I feel a deep longing bloom in my chest that starts to ache until he turns, and holds Calliope up to me. I reach up and run a finger through her soft curls and feel an enormous sense of relief… and then overpowering, irrational fear that makes me feel like I’m actually going a little insane.
The cold voice taunts me from the back of my mind again. I shiver, and think through every square foot of space between me and our bedroom upstairs… But I can’t lift her. I can’t carry her. So, I can’t run.
“Are you hungry?” Grace asks. “We were just about to sit down to dinner.”
“Yeah, I’ve made a lasagna,” Gail adds from the kitchen. Christian turns hopeful eyes on me.
“Can’t say no to that…”
I take a deep breath, then glance nervously at Calliope and the tears swimming in her eyes. I’m absolutely overwhelmed with the compulsion to have her in my arms. To take both her and Christian somewhere secure, where I know that no one can get to either one of them, so that it’ll be safe for me to fall apart. And it’s not the same kind of compulsion an alcoholic feels when they’ve reached their lowest low and haven’t had a drink. It’s like needing to breathe. Each pair of eyes pleading with me to stay is like a hand choking me.
“Dinner will make you feel better, sweetheart,” my dad says, then the concern on his face becomes a plea. “Please?”
I swallow as I glance around the room again, then nod in defeat. Calliope screams when Christian tries to hand her off, so it’s my dad who wraps a protective arm around me and leads me to the dining room. He helps me settle down in a chair with the same care Christian uses to secure Calliope into her highchair. Then he kisses me on the crown of my hair and tells me that he loves me. I can hear the intent behind the words he’s given me a million times. Like he’s still feeling the aftershocks of grief and feels as though he can’t waste another second not expressing the way he feels to the people he loves. It’s a compulsion I remember well, so I know it’s born from the hope of a second chance.
I don’t have that hope anymore.
There’s no such thing as a clean slate. No starting over. I know that now, so my father’s gesture makes me nervous. Like maybe he knows someone else is coming, but I’m the only one taking seriously how bad it will be next time…
Christian sits next to me while my dad moves around the table to take the empty seat next to Kim. His hand slides into mine and his lips move to my ear.
“If it’s too much, just squeeze my hand and I’ll ask everyone to leave. Whatever you need is okay.”
The warmth in his voice might have been enough to break through the unease surrounding me like a forcefield, but I don’t actually hear a word of what he says. I’m distracted by Luke, who’s watching Gail dishing plates of lasagna on the serving bar behind the table. I can’t tell if he’s staring at the food, or the way Gail is dishing it out, but the amount of attention he gives her while everyone else skirts around the questions they’re dying to ask is… unsettling.
I turn to look at Gail just as she begins to serve.
“What happened when they took you out of Escala?” Carrick asks Christian. I watch Gail set a plate down in front of him. She serves Grace while Christian starts to speak. He squeezes my hand periodically while he recounts his story, checking on me. I hardly hear him. I watch Gail serve Kate, Elliot, Mia, Jade, Luke, my father, Kim… she picks up the last two plates at the same time, glancing at each of them for just half a second, before moving to the table and very carefully setting a plate down in front of, first me, then Christian.
Except… she didn’t just place the plate in her right hand in front of me, which would be the obvious choice because I’m on her right side. Instead she turns her whole body to give me the plate on her left. And when she turns again to serve Christian, she says, “enjoy.” Like she’s taunting him to eat it…
“Me some, Daddy,” Calliope cries, stretching her fingers out for the food in front of Christian.
“No, no, Callie,” Gail coos to her. “I have a special plate for you, right here.” She sets a small serving on Calliope’s tray and leans over to kiss her on the cheek. “This one is just for babies.”
She doesn’t want Calliope to eat Christian’s food.
I turn to look at my husband, fork in hand, suspended over his food while he finishes his story. The words I haven’t heard a word of pause, and he dips the metal prongs into his lasagna.
My one good arm flies out and knocks his entire plate across the table, sending it tumbling over the other side between Grace and Mia, and crashing to the floor.
Christian hovers in shock for a moment, then turns to me. I leap to my feet and glare at our housekeeper.
“Why did you serve that to him?” I demand. Her eyes go wide, her mouth drops open. She sputters, unsure of how to respond to the anger in my voice.
“She’s doing her job, baby…” Christian tells me, but I still don’t look at him.
“Why did you stop Calliope from sharing his food?”
Gail starts shaking, clearly on the edge of tears. “The s-s-sausage is too spicy for her. The one I made for her is vegetarian…”
I don’t buy it. “Who the fuck have you been talking to?”
“Ana…” Christian stands up and places a hand on each of my arms. He’s trying to hide a deep sense of alarm behind a look of compassion. No one else around the table does. My father’s lips are thin with anxiety. Kate has a hand over her mouth, which I guess by the tears welling in her eyes is to hide the tremble of her lip. Luke looks angry and he stares into space, shaking his head.
Everywhere I look, I see varying degrees of shock or pain or humiliation. When Kim gets up to help Gail clean the mess I made, I start to feel the atmosphere around me a little differently. I replay everything I watched Gail do in my mind, but this time I can’t tell if she was acting weird or just being careful… My family seems to think I’m overreacting, but I can’t tell anymore if that’s true or not. Did she even do anything different than she normally does?
My face flushes with embarrassment as I force myself to take a step back and see just how crazy I’m acting, but there’s still a very powerful instinct in my gut that’s telling me I’m right. It also tells me that Jade is a threat. That Kim is a threat. That Mia’s probably hiding something from us that’s going to put everyone in danger, and I’m going to be the one who has to stop it.. I want to be rational and recognize these thoughts as paranoid and part of my trauma, just like Flynn taught me to do last time… but the conflict is confusing and it tugs harshly at the ends of my already unravelling stability. It’s a fight I can’t wage with everyone staring at me.
Without a look back, I move single-mindedly from the room, up the stairs, and to my bedroom. With the exact same careful precision that became routine a year ago, I lock the door and back away with my hands held protectively in front of me. The windows are my next concern. I find myself trying to calculate the distance between the ground and the balcony, then what it would take to scale it. I check the locks on the window frame to make sure they’re secure… but that wouldn’t stop them from being broken.
An image of the glass shattering and my security team swinging into the room where Christian was being held like seal-team-six sweeps through my mind, and I feel my hackles raise up. Could they do that here? Would they know what room was ours? What room is Calliope’s?
Somewhere in the distance, Lincoln’s voice calls to me.
I’m about to have a panic attack. I can feel it coming. It’s difficult to breathe, it’s impossible to think. I can feel the strength of my thundering heart pounding against my throat. My eyes move around the room searching for more vulnerabilities, for shadowy figures hiding in wait. The paranoia spirals out of control until I finally just collapse on the floor and start to cry.
Christian is the first to come for me and it’s exactly the way it was a year ago. He stands outside the locked door and knocks, gently trying to coax me into letting him in. I want to, desperately. I want to beg him to bring Calliope with him inside, and never leave. But I’m paralyzed. I can’t move, I can’t stop my body from shaking so violently that it feels as though it might disrupt the rhythm of my heart. All I can do is sob, and scream when it becomes too much to contain.
My dad comes next. Then Kate.
I can’t move.
Somewhere around nine, Flynn knocks on the door and, when I don’t open it, he spends nearly an hour trying to talk to me through the barrier. I can’t even hear him over my own crying. After he goes, I have about ten minutes to myself before someone starts pounding on the door again.
“God damn it, Anastasia. Open the motherfucking door!” The commanding tone beneath the order is familiar, but it doesn’t match the voice. It isn’t Christian banging furiously against the door, it’s Luke. “I swear to god, Ana. Grey won’t take the door down, but I will. Open the fucking door.”
For the first time in hours, I’m able to drag myself up off the floor and shamble towards the volley of fists. I carefully twist the lock, and when I pull open the door, Luke actually looks a little shocked.
I blink at him through tear-saturated eyelashes.
He takes a deep breath and marches past me. I close the door while he starts to pace, hand on his hips, like he’s still rehearsing whatever speech he’s about to give.
“What?” I prompt him in a whisper. He looks at me like I’m crazy.
“What? Fucking what?! Anastasia, I am so fucking mad at you, I can’t even see straight.”
“You’re mad at me?”
“Of course I’m fucking mad! This is what I was trying to prevent! You weren’t supposed to be there. You were supposed to be in a van half-a-mile away. You know where you can’t get shot? In a FUCKING VAN HALF-A-MILE AWAY!” He takes another deep breath, but it doesn’t do much to calm him down. “The only reason I let you be in that van in the first place is because you fucking promised you would do as you were told, and you lied to me.”
“They were coming for my dad, Luke!”
“YOU JUMPED IN FRONT OF A GUN, ANA!”
“That was aimed at my husband!”
“I DON’T CARE! I DON’T FUCKING CARE!” His hands ball into fists. “You first! That’s not just Grey’s rule! I dove for him because you were supposed to be safe! You were out of the way and you… you… you made me fail! AGAIN!”
He’s really mad. The rage roiling off him coats me like hot tar and as I feel the sharp bite of his words snake around me like barbed wire, I start to tremble, then full on shake. I’m holding my breath, but once I can’t anymore it comes out in a horrible, painful gasp that hits him so starkly, he looks as though I’ve just slapped him across the face. My shoulders hunch, my body curls in on itself, and I start to cry again.
“Ana… no. I’m sorry…”
“No, you’re not.” He wraps me in his arms, careful not to put too much pressure on my shoulder. I try to push him away, but he holds me tight to him.
“He didn’t call home for three days, Ana. The last time I saw you, they were intubating you. I thought you might… and then he didn’t call for three days. I’m not strong enough for stuff like that. And it only happened because you stepped in front of a fucking gun!”
“Yeah, well… apology not accepted. You’re going to have a hell of a time making this one up to me, Steele.” I let out another shaky breath and his hand moves into my hair, holding my face to his chest so that I can listen to his heartbeat. “He’s not the only one who would lose you, you know. What would I do without you, Ana? ”
I swallow against the constriction in my throat and pull away from him so that I can look into the sky blue depths of his eyes. “You saved my life.”
He scrunches his brow together in a questioning crease.
“The doctor said that the plastic taped over the exit wound let me breathe long enough to keep me alive. Christian told me you kept my heart beating the whole way back and they had to pull you off me once they got me on the plane so they could take off. You saved my life, and you saved my babies.”
His lips go tight again, though this time it seems more like it might be because he’s trying not to cry now. He nods once, then hugs me again.
“Don’t ever fucking do that to me again.”
If only it were that easy.
Without the accusation in Luke’s eyes to fend off, dread starts to seep back into all the empty places inside of me. I go stiff, and Luke notices.
“What happened to them?”
“To Nigel, and his… people?” It seems like too generous a word. Luke’s eyes turn two shades darker.
“Wyatt shot Nigel right after you got hit, he’s dead. The others were taken into custody and are being held under the full authority of the US government. They’re going to rot in federal prison.”
“But there will be others.”
“We don’t know that…”
“I do. Carmen said something about the Saudi’s coming for Christian months ago, and they weren’t the only ones. Oil executives, energy Titans… Scott Wallace. Bill Fitchett. Even her… there will be others. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Luke stares back at me like he doesn’t want to answer. I nod as though he did. “So what are we going to do about it?”
He narrows his eyes cautiously. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, how are you and I going to stop them before they get another shot at Christian?”
He shakes his head. “You’re scared, I get that. But that didn’t change anything last time. It made everything worse, remember? You didn’t like who it turned you into…”
“I don’t care! They could come for Calliope next. Or…” My hands drop to my stomach, and his eyes follow the movement. He frowns.
“I can’t, Ana. I can’t be the one to put you in those situations again, especially not while you’re pregnant.”
“You were the one who said we weren’t wrong last time.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
“I let them talk me out of it, Luke. I let them convince me that it was safe, and this is what happened because I let my guard down. I can’t do that, because we aren’t safe. You were right. You were right when you said that Christian attracts a lot of attention, and makes a lot of enemies. That’s part of our life, and I’m not going to sit around and let it make me a victim anymore. I can’t keep going through this…”
“I want to know who is going to be financially affected by Endurance, and I want them all on our radar. Will you do that for me? Or do I need to find someone else?”
Luke shifts uncomfortably, unwilling to answer. He’s saved in the end by Christian, who calls my name from the now open bedroom door.
I turn to him and try not to feel the pain I see in his eyes. He just stares at me for a long minute, then turns to Luke.
“Will you leave us, please?”
Luke nods, and disappears behind him without another word. Christian turns to me.
“I’m not trying to hide it from you,” I say, defensively. He nods, then closes the door and moves to stand in front of me. I can feel the pull toward him when he stops, so close he’s only just not pressed against me. I can feel the warmth radiating off him like the glow of a fire that promises to ward off my demons, and automatically, I push myself into it.
He twists his arms around me. “I’m trying to make a decision.”
“About whether or not to have me committed?”
“No.” He takes a step back and when his hands move in front of me again, I see that he’s holding a stack of papers. He holds them up for me, and I realize, it’s my manuscript.
The one I wrote about him.
“Why do you have this?”
“I found it when I was looking for Phoenix,” he admits. “And I read it when Calliope got sick.”
“You read it?”
“Mmm.” He nods. “I thought it was beautiful. It made me feel things I had forgotten, parts of the ways I love you that have been eclipsed by others. Parts that I’ve had to repress because they’re too closely entwined with memories that are painful. Except that, the way you wrote it… none of it was painful anymore. It just made me realize how much I have loved every moment that you and I have ever shared together. How much it really means to me. How much it changed me, how much it makes me want to change more… How much more important everything in this book is to me than the things I’ve put them aside for. I’ve been waiting forever to tell you how much I love it. How much it meant to me to read the words from you… but you never bring it up.”
“I called Lydia, and she told me that she’s been asking for it for almost a year, but you said it wasn’t finished. You just told her that a few weeks ago.” He holds it up again. “But it’s been more than a month since I’ve read it.”
“Look at me.” He tilts my chin up so that my blue eyes meet his steely ones. “Tell me why.”
I open my mouth, but he places a finger against my lips before I can speak.
“Don’t try to spare my feelings, I want to know the truth.”
I stare back at him, at the expectation reflected back at me, like he already knows the answer— which is impossible, because I haven’t even been able to verbalize it to myself. But if he knows, then there’s no point in trying to hide it from him. Or from myself.
“My mother was killed while I was on my last book tour,” I tell him. “Hyde attacked me in my dressing room while I was doing interviews. We were out of the apartment the night Lincoln came because I was doing a reading…” I glance up at him, feeling a wash of shame. “I don’t feel particularly safe having my schedule made public, or being pushed into the spotlight at all, really. I don’t want to be seen the way I thought I did when I wrote Escape, or even… when I started writing this.”
His face crinkles with pain. “Which is also why you don’t want Calliope on PixC.”
I nod and his eyes move down to the manuscript in his hands. “This is your dream, Anastasia.”
“No, not in the way you think it is.” He raises an eyebrow at me. I move back into the aura of his heat. “My dream isn’t this manuscript, it’s what’s inside of it. That’s the only thing I care about, and that manuscript, the notoriety that comes with it, puts what I do care about in danger.”
“Is that why you went back to publishing? So you could be part of the creative process without being the one in the spotlight?”
I shrug. I hadn’t had that conscious thought before, but it sort of rings true. He nods to himself again, then looks up at me. This time though, the deep-rooted conflict on his face seems to have resolved. He opens the paper book in his hands, skimming until he finds the passage he’s looking for, then he starts to read aloud.
“When I moved into his side, and felt his arm wrap around me, everything else disappeared. There was nothing but him, me, and the vast ocean of stars illuminating the ink blot sky overhead. And in that nothing… there was happiness.”
He looks up.
“You’re happiness to me too, Anastasia. All that could ever exist.” My lip begins to tremble as tears creep to the surface again, and he stops it with a deep, sensual kiss. One that seems to spread like a drug down my throat and through my blood. He melds his mouth to mine and wraps me in the safety of his arms. His scent fills my head and makes the horrible images playing on a loop through my memory seem duller, more distant… less threatening.
When I stop shaking, his lips break away and he rests his forehead on mine.
“I choose you.”