I may have been a little aggressive in the debate I participated in this afternoon.
Standing outside Teddy’s chemistry classroom, my phone buzzes non-stop with texts, emails, and missed calls from my father’s campaign advisors. They’re not happy I said on live television that the only way anyone could believe that the President’s economic policy embodied the type of imagination it takes to make a nation competitive in an international economy would be if they were “a brain-dead coward.”
Apparently, that rhetoric isn’t on message.
I think I went pretty easy on him…
Another email comes through, this time from Kate, who left her job last spring to spearhead media relations for my dad. Her words are sharper and much more threatening than the messages I got from her subordinates, so I sigh before typing out my apology and a promise I’ll behave. My thumb begrudgingly brushes the SEND icon just as I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“He’s in the nurse’s office,” Sawyer tells me. “There’s a secretary at the front door, the nurse is at her desk, and his parents are on their way. You’re not getting in there.”
I slide my phone back in my pocket. “Oh, I’ll get in there. Don’t worry about that. Did you find anything out about Calliope?”
“Nah, none of the staff are gossiping about her, so there’s nothing to overhear.”
I nod. “We’ll have to look deeper, then. After we get back to the house, I need you to go back to GEH and go through the PixC system to download the DMs her friends are sending. Elizabeth–”
“No,” he interrupts me, crossing his arms in defiance. “You know damn well that Ana made me promise I wouldn’t help you spy on the kids.”
“We’ll Ana doesn’t need to know about it.”
“Oh, no. This was a ‘super, best-friend, double, ultra-mega-cross-your-heart-and-swear-to-die’ type swear that she sealed with a packet of hot sauce that said “You’re Cool” on the front of it. That’s unbreakable. You’re on your own with this one, Buddy.”
The bell rings over my scowl and the halls are suddenly flooded with teenagers. The very last one out of Room 118 is the one who belongs to me, and the second Teddy’s eyes find Sawyer, he stumbles backward into the door closing behind him.
“Dad, no! I’m sorry! Please!” he pleads, with wide fearful eyes.
“Calm down, Teddy,” Sawyer says, rolling his eyes. “We’re not going to murder you.”
“Speak for yourself,” I grumble, then I glance in the direction I want him to go and give him a blunt, “Walk.”
He starts down the hall, and I fall in behind him like a shadow. I can see him taking deep breaths to calm his nerves and reassure himself, but the glimpse I get of his face as we turn a corner tells me he’s not having a lot of luck. As we approach the door for the office, I reach out and squeeze his shoulder. He gulps when he feels the nudge I give him in the direction of the door.
“What was the kid’s name who you hit?” I ask, stopping in front of the Secretary’s desk, but looking at my son.
I glance at the secretary, without acknowledging his answer. “Is he still in there? Theodore would like to apologize for his unfortunate conduct this afternoon.” I shoot a dark look down at him, and he turns pale as a sheet.
“Yes, Mr. Grey,” the secretary says, and she smirks down at Teddy, looking as though she’s glad some kind of justice is being done. I place my hand on his shoulder again, and drive him towards the small office near the back.
The same explanation makes the nurse very graciously duck out of her own office before I lead Teddy into the room where Brighton is resting. He’s laying on a pleather covered bed, not much different from the ones in the BDSM clubs I’ve brought Anastasia to over the years when we’re trying to get away from the kids. My son takes a deep breath and steps up to the bruised boy with an ice pack on his head.
“Uh, Brighton? I’m uh…”
“Sit down,” I snap, cutting off his stammering and pointing to a stool in the corner of the room. “You’re not apologizing for shit.”
His face is a shock of confusion when I step past him to the side of Brighton’s bed, and the wingtip of my shoe kicks against a metal trash can that smells of sick. Brighton cringes as the metallic ring reverberates through the room.
“I’m sorry,” I start. “Was that a little loud?”
Brighton’s battered face crinkles with pain, and he nods. I kick the trashcan again. His hands shoot up to hold his head, and I bend over so my face is only a few inches from his. He pushes against his pillow like he’s trying to sink further into the bed.
“Are you harassing my daughter?”
I kick the trashcan again. “You see, now you’ve called her a whore and a liar on the same day, and, I’ve got to tell you, Brighton. That doesn’t make me happy. Not very happy at all. Do I look like the kind of man you want to make unhappy?”
He stares back at me, too nervous to speak.
“You see this guy behind me?” I turn so he can see Sawyer, and his eyes briefly flit to him before moving back and staying fixed on me, the same way a person would watch a wild animal they were waiting to attack. “He’s incredibly talented at finding information about people who do things that make me unhappy. The kind of information people don’t want him, or anyone else, to know. Your secrets, your very worst lies, your deepest insecurities. He can find me whatever it takes to make the college scouts you’re going to miss this weekend the last that will ever make the trip to see you. I can make things very, very bad for you, Brighton. And it really wouldn’t even take up that much of my time. You talk to or about my daughter again, you even so much as think about her, this guy is going to become a real big part of your life, got it?”
He glances nervously between me and Sawyer, then nods.
I kick the trash can again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
“I won’t talk to Calliope anymore.”
“You see, you just said her name and, for the life of me, I can’t think of a reason for her name to be in your mouth at all.”
“No, Sir! I’m sorry. I don’t even know here.”
“That’s better. I’m glad we understand each other.” I turn back to Teddy, and nod to the door. My son dips out, then Sawyer and I head out after him, leaving Brighton trembling in his bed.
Teddy keeps his distance and stares at me warily the entire walk to the parking lot. He didn’t expect me to cut off his apology, but the caution shining through his eyes makes me believe he’s certain that my anger for Brighton was only an appetizer to what’s coming for him.
It’s not an assumption I’m overly eager to dispel.
He did get suspended, after all.
“Don’t touch the car,” I bark when he reaches out for the door handle on my Lamborghini. I lift the scissor door for him, then, very closely, watch him climb in. “Fuck up anything on my interior, and I’ll ship you off to Military school.”
“No, si-“ The door slams closed before the words finish leaving his mouth. I turn to Sawyer.
“Follow me.” He nods and starts back to the car idling near the front, where Jade is waiting for him. I make my way around to the driver’s side, and duck beneath the door to climb in.
For the first few minutes of the drive, I say nothing. Letting him stew in the anxious energy I feel rolling off of him is a punishment well worthy of the crime, in my opinion. His eyes dart between the road ahead, and the reflection of Sawyer’s car in the rear-view mirror. When I pass the turn for our house, his fist wraps tightly around the handle on the door and he turns to me with a look of horror on his face.
“Dad, please!” he pleads. “I’ve learned my lesson, I swear. I’m never going to fight again in my entire life, I’m sorry!”
“I want to hear your story again,” I tell him, keeping my eyes on the road in front of me. “Start over.”
Talking slowly, methodically, thinking through every word before he lets it cross his lips, he recounts the same story I heard in the Vice Principal’s office earlier. When he’s finished, I make him tell me again. Then again. Each time he recounts what happened, I listen to the small, insignificant details he blows past, looking for contradictions that will help me sniff out a lie. But it’s futile. He repeats his story as if he were reading it from a book. I make him walk me through the whole day five times while we sit in traffic, and not even so much as the inflection he puts on his syllables varies.
“He heard the rumors going around about Calliope, so he came to confront her, and I couldn’t sit there and listen to him talk to her like that.”
New tactic. “Okay, what are the rumors going around about Calliope?”
He frowns. “I can’t tell you that.”
“Like hell you can’t.”
“Dad.” His eyes are pleading now. “I can’t tell you that.”
The reason is plain as day in front of me. It’s not because he doesn’t know, or he isn’t certain. It’s not even because he doesn’t want me to be mad at Calliope. Whatever it is, my kids have put it on lockdown. The covenant, they call it, and the years I’ve spent surrounded by high level security have never produced anything more impenetrable than that secret trust between my kids.
And a part of their relationship that I couldn’t be more proud of.
I sigh, and focus on the road in front of me for a few silent minutes. “You know, I used to get into fights at school.”
He looks at me like I just told him aliens were real. “What?”
“Oh, yeah. Almost daily. The bigger the dude, the better. It was like a sport, combing through the school to find who it was going to be next. I was so angry back then. All the time. It poisoned me. It made me forget how to enjoy things. It made me lose trust in everyone around me. I picked fights with people because I wanted to lash out at the whole world. I was in pain, and I wanted to make everyone around me hurt the exact same way I did.” I pause, and glance at my son. “Is there something more going on that maybe made you want to hurt Brighton a little bit today?”
He looks over at me with eyes that are as crystal clear blue as his mother’s, and yet, still able to shield so many secrets.
“No,” he says eventually, hanging his head. “Brighton’s just a jerk. You didn’t hear the way he was yelling at Callie.”
“No,” I agree. “But I do know that none of that matters to your school’s ethics committee. Or the admissions board at Harvard. I was expelled from school three times, Teddy. Grandpa couldn’t protect me from that, the same way I won’t be able to protect you. If this ever happens again, you’re going to be expelled. Things are different now than when I went to school, you may not be so lucky when Harvard gets your records.”
He looks up at me, completely lost. I just can’t tell if what he’s searching for now is answers or absolution. “I’m sorry, Dad, okay? I know it was wrong. It’s not like I wanted to fight him. But… what was I supposed to do? Nothing? Let him berate my sister in front of all the people who were already talking shit about her? He didn’t just call her a whore. When she told him to fuck off, he got pissed and slapped her soda off the table. If I didn’t stand up for her this time, then next time he might have slapped her. I’m not going to let that happen.”
My knuckles go white on the steering wheel.
“No, you won’t,” I respond, and then I let my turn signal fill the silence that follows. Teddy stares at his shoes, so he doesn’t see the lines of expensive cars outside until I stop. He follows me out of the car, then looks around like I’ve transported him to another planet.
“What are we doing here?”
“I want to be very clear that I meant every single thing I just said to you. I better never hear about you getting into fights at school again, or you’re going to be in for a world of hurt.” I bend down to look him in the eye. “But I’ve told you all your life that nothing is more important than family. We always support each other, we always look out for each other, and we always have each other’s backs. You did that for Calliope today, and, everything else aside, I want you to know just how fucking proud I am of you for that.”
I nod, smiling, then turn to face the line of cars. “So… pick one. You’ve earned it, Son.”
The shock is plain on his face as he processes what I’ve told him, but as he starts to accept what’s happening, the abject fear that’s clung to him melts beneath the glowing joy that suddenly bursts from his chest. “No way!”
I grin, watching him spin and start towards the lines of shiny sports cars as though he’s being beckoned into the pearly gates of heaven. It’s a lot to take in, and before the salesman rushes out to greet us, he weaves through the vehicles, marveling at each and every one like he’s in a museum of sacred art.
While he lives the fantasy of every teenage boy, I get to work on my kids’ suspensions. I heard what the Vice Principal had to say while Teddy took his test, and while his story wasn’t quite as sympathetic to my kids’ case as the one they told me, he collaborated enough of what I care about for me to intervene. I don’t bother with Dr. Wolfe, though. Or the school’s principal. Or even the superintendent. I go straight to the board of trustees and wrap this suspension into a question over any future endowments the school will receive from me or any of my foundations.
“And quite frankly,” I say through clenched teeth to the man on the other end of the phone. “The fact that this boy was able to bully my daughter the way he did and my son had to be the one to stop it, is unacceptable. If my children are spending their time outside of class unsupervised, how am I supposed to feel comfortable about their safety while they’re in your care? There are a good number of highly accredited private institutions in this city, Dr. Kessler. My niece attends the same school I attended with my brother and sister just across the lake. Perhaps it was a mistake to bring my children and my money to Bishop Blanchett after all.”
“Mr. Grey, there must have been some mistake. I find the events of this afternoon to be disturbing, and entirely unacceptable. I will personally see there are changes instituted going forward to prevent a situation like this from happening ever again. Dr. Wolfe behaved inappropriately today, and that will be rectified. I will ensure your children are reinstated this evening so that they may attend class tomorrow morning.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you, Dr. Kessler.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Grey. Please enjoy the rest of your evening, and do pass our apologies on to your children.”
“I will. Goodbye.”
I hang up and glance at Teddy again, before checking whatever notification made my phone vibrate while I was talking. I expect more castigations from the campaign, but it’s actually a Google notification.
Google Alert: Anastasia Grey
US Weekly, October 5th 2028: Mikah Wyler spotted in Gucci in Seattle. The Hollywood hunk was spotted having lunch with friends at a café in downtown Seattle Wednesday afternoon. It’s rumored he’s in talks with Universal to play the lead in the movie adaptation of Anastasia Grey’s best-selling romance series, Love and War.
What the fuck?
I swipe out of the notification and over to PixC. In the search bar, I type James Ryan’s name, another actor being considered for the role, and sure enough, he has pictures of Seattle on his story from early this morning.
I frown, slide my phone back into my pocket, and start over towards Sawyer, who’s hovering a few yards away with Jade, watching Teddy. “Hey.”
“Hey, a Porsche, huh?”
I grin. “Yeah, if he wouldn’t have fucked that kid up at school, I probably would have gotten him one of these.” I nod back to the Lamborghini behind me, and Luke laughs. He’s at ease, which makes him vulnerable.
“Ana tell you if they made a casting decision this afternoon?” I ask, very casually.
He shrugs. “She didn’t tell me when I talked to her earlier, but I think they’ve already pretty much decided on that Ryan guy, right? I think the audition today was just a formality.” He looks over at me and raises an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’re okay with Ana checking out a bunch of hot, naked dudes all day.”
“I’m not, I didn’t know about it.” His mouth goes slack. “She told me they were doing script rewrites today.”
“Fuck!” he hisses, and I smirk.
“Consider us even for refusing to help me with Calliope.”
The resentment swirls in his eyes, but a new realization seems to dawn on him and the torment plaguing him fades away. “Whatever, I’ll just tell her Kate blabbed.”
I laugh, and turn to look at the cars in front of us. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a reason to let my inner Dominant out. I’ve missed it, and my head swims with the fantasies of how I’ll punish Anastasia this evening for her lie this morning, until my son catches my attention, and pulls me back into reality.
The salesman, who can’t be older than 22, is talking to him about the red 911 GT3 at the end, and I’m not sure Teddy’s hearing a word he’s saying. He stares at him the way I once caught my other son staring at the cheerleaders stretching on the side of the field during practice, right before he got dinged in the side of the head by a football headed his way. There’s no sense of subtlety at all. The guy he’s drooling over is obviously onto him and playing it up to make the sale. But there’s life in Teddy at this moment that I don’t get to see very often. He looks happy. Hopeful. Unburdened. I want to go over to him and show him this is okay, but I know that the light in his eyes will go out the moment he sees me coming and the shutters that guard his secrets will slam closed again.
It bothers me that he won’t tell me.
It bothers me that I don’t know why he won’t tell me.
It bothers me that I can’t find out.
Both Ana and Flynn have said again and again that I need to give him the space to accept his sexuality on his own terms and share it with us when he’s ready. Coming out is an important moment of acceptance and self-love that can’t be rushed. The longer it takes him though, the more worried I get. I know how self-destructive a sexually frustrated teenage boy can be, and it’s not what I want for my son.
Aren’t I seeing it now?
“Dad!” he calls, waving me over. I let the concern fall from my face and start towards him. He bounces with excitement over the car beside him. “This is the one!”
I laugh. “Calm down, Teddy. You haven’t even driven it yet.”
“Oh.” He turns to the salesman again, shaking off his exuberance and trying to play it cool. “So, uh, yeah… I think this is the one I want to test drive.”
“Great,” the salesman says, flashing him a flirty grin. “I just need your license and we can take it for spin.”
“Uh…” He looks at me, in a panic.
“He’s got a learner’s permit,” I clarify, and the salesman frowns.
“Oh, well, that might be an issue actually. We’re not allowed to let non-licensed drivers test drive. It’s an insurance issue…”
I offer him some cash on the side to try and get Teddy behind the wheel, but it turns out he’s the son of the owner, and too close to the business to risk breaking the rules. He does let me take the car out with just Teddy in the passenger’s seat though, and he and I have a blast cruising through surrounding streets testing the limits of the engine. His grin stretches from ear to ear by the time we pull back into the dealership, and when the salesman officially passes over the keys, he grips them in his fist and starts to dance.
“Alright, alright,” I laugh. “Let’s go home.”
“Beat you there,” he calls, racing off to his new car and shouting for Sawyer to jump in the driver’s seat so he can get out ahead of me. I take my time heading back to my Lamborghini, patiently navigate back to the freeway, and open the engine the moment I’m off the onramp. It takes seconds for me to fly past him, but he’s smart enough not to try and chase me. He’s broken enough rules today and Teddy was always the cautious one.
As I pull off the gas and signal for my exit, I almost wish I’d bought one for Luke. He’d have the pedal to the floor trying to get past me, and that could be fun.
I pull into the garage at home well before Teddy. The smug but entirely unearned sense of victory hums nicely beneath the surface of my skin, perfectly priming me for the night I spent the last half of the drive planning in meticulous detail. That is, until the woman all those plans center on steps out of the house looking like she’s seen murder.
“Christian Trevelyan-Grey! Where is my child?!” she shrieks. The anguish in her voice draws Luke and Callie out of the house behind her, and their faces melt with horror when they realize their brother isn’t with me.
“Relax,” I tell them, trying to keep myself from rolling my eyes. “He’s just a little behind me. I drive a Lambo, remember?”
“What did you do?” Ana demands. Her fists move to her hips, and her eyes brandish an unspoken accusation at me.
“He gave a kid who called his sister a whore in front of the whole school a concussion today. I gave him the punishment I thought adequately fit the crime.” The gates roll open over my explanation and Teddy pulls up the drive. Ana’s eyes move to the sleek red car that stops before her, blinking like she’s seeing a mirage.
“What?!” Luke shouts. “No fucking way!”
“Language, Lucas!” Ana chides him out of reflex as she stares, transfixed, on the car. Teddy opens his door, and climbs out, taking his time to soak in the attention. He struts around the front, grinning, and sweeping a hand over the hood like an assistant on a game show. “You like?”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Calliope says. She shoots the same look at me that her mother did, but I let their righteous anger roll off of me. I don’t care if Ana thinks I’m wrong. The lesson I taught my son today is that as long as he defends his family, his family will defend him.
I’m good with that.
“So I get grounded and he gets a PORSCHE?!” Luke continues, the temper he inherited from me getting him more and more worked up. I round on him and quash it before it can boil over.
“He stood up for his sister. You tried to stop him instead of backing him up.”
He opens his mouth to argue back, but his mother talks over him. “Teddy also cheated on a test today.”
The arguments I already have prepared catch in my throat. I was ready to defend the fight, I was ready to defend my response… this one comes out of nowhere. Teddy cheated? Why? He’s been studying all week. I helped him this morning and he was fine…
“Dr. Sutter called,” Ana explains. “It seems our sons thought it would be a good idea to switch places this morning so Teddy could take Luke’s test for him…”
“Which I did to help my brother,” Teddy interjects. “Family first. Right, Dad?”
This kid is at the top of his class. He’s so smart, it gets him in trouble because he gets bored too easily and uses chaos to deal with it. Because I know that, I don’t have the fortitude to explain to him the difference between cheating on an exam, and physically protecting his sister. So, I turn to Ana instead.
“So, what? Are they expelled?”
“No. Thankfully, Dr. Sutter is willing to give them another chance. Teddy and I can have a discussion about his punishment upstairs.”
“But, Mom!” Teddy whines.
“You heard your mother. Now, get inside,” I step back, giving him the space to do as I’ve told him, but he hesitates. His eyes move wildly between his mother and I, desperately searching for an argument to get him out of trouble. Ana doesn’t give him the time to try.
“There’s dinner in the fridge.”
The tension in his shoulders collapses with defeat, and he starts forward. I call his name, and let my disappointment bleed into the connection our eyes make. “Keys.”
“You can have them back when you get your license. Now, go eat. Go wash. And go to bed.”
He pouts as he reaches out and drops his keys in my outstretched hand. I nod to the other kids so they follow after him, and once all three of them are out of ears reach on the other side of the closed door, I turn an exhausted look on my wife.
“Cheating?” I repeat, in disbelief.
“I already talked to Luke about it, but you and I need to talk about Calliope.”
All at once, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I knew it was a dead end trying to get Teddy to tell me what was going on with his sister, so I didn’t waste my breath. But Ana’s been home with our daughter all night, and the pain I see breaking through her eyes as she stares helplessly up at me tells me that she had better luck than I did.
“What?” I ask, cautiously. She takes a deep breath, slides her hand into mine without saying a word, and leads me into the house. Teddy is the only one of our kids to linger in the kitchen. He stands in front of the microwave, watching the plate Ana made for him revolve and the timer tick down. We stand there, hovering behind him, until the timer goes off and he takes his dinner upstairs with his homework.
Ana leads me to my office.
“What?” I try again, when she closes the door behind us. She ignores me for the second time, and goes straight for the bar against the far wall. Suspicion colors everything I watch her do, from the ice she drops in the glass to the dark bourbon she pours. When she crosses the room and holds the drink out for me, I don’t immediately take it.
“What’s that for?”
“I’m going to tell you something that’s going to upset you, and you’re not going to blow up about it.”
“What?” I ask, more sharply. She holds out the drink and shakes it so the ice clinks against the sides of the glass.
With a frustrated growl, I reach out, take the drink, and slam it back in one gulp. Then I toss the glass down on my desk and stare at her expectantly. She dances nervously from foot to foot.
“You want another one?”
“Well…” She takes another deep breath. “I want you to go down to the school tomorrow and get our kids’ suspension reversed. These rumors–”
“I’ve already taken care of that, what are the rumors?”
“You’ve already taken care of it?”
“Yes, they’re going to school tomorrow morning. What are the rumors?”
“How did you–?”
“What are the rumors, Anastaisa?” I let my gaze cut into her like a razor, and she starts to gnaw at her bottom lip.
“Okay, okay, okay.” She takes a deep, bracing breath. “The rumor that is going around school about your daughter is that she was caught having sex with someone under the bleachers this morning.”
I feel it. I hear it. I see it. Everywhere. The heat rises inside of me, and I stiffen with the rolling molten wave as it spreads through my body. Ana quickly holds her hands up to stop the eruption.
“She wasn’t! She wasn’t!”
“She said that? What did Luke say?”
“Luke didn’t say anything, and he didn’t have to. I believe her. I saw it in her eyes. She told me what happened, and I’m positive the rumor isn’t true.”
My breath all comes out in one long gust of relief. My head feels heavy, and light at the same time. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. “Ok, then what happened?”
“She was giving a boy a hand job.”
“WHAT?!” I leap to my feet and launch myself away from my desk. “CALLIOPE!”
“Christian, no!” Ana manages to get between me and the door and she throws herself against it to keep me from bursting through. “You are not going to go up there and scream at her. Our daughter had her very sexual experience today, and it’s turned into a public humiliation.”
“You think that’s bad, wait til I get my hands on her. Move, Anastasia.”
“No!” She lets her dead weight fall against the door and stares back at me like a defiant kitten, ready to strike if necessary. “You are not going to make her feel any more shame over this than she already does. I mean it. I need you take your protective Dad hat off for a minute and think about how this could seriously affect your daughter’s relationship with sex.”
“Stop!” I say, moving away from her with my hands over my ears as though she’s just scraped her fingernails over a chalkboard. “Calliope does not have a relationship with sex…”
“Not yet, maybe, but…”
“But nothing. She’s seventeen, Anastasia.”
“Exactly. What were you doing at seventeen, Christian?”
I scowl at her. “What were you doing at seventeen?”
“Not having sex,” she admits. “And do you remember how weird you thought it was that I was still a virgin when I went to college? She’s ten months away from that, Christian. She’s not going to be seventeen forever.”
“I didn’t think it was weird, I thought it was a god damn blessing,” I growl, then shake my head with disgust because the idea of some fucking kid doing anything with my daughter even remotely resembling what I did with Anastasia when I was nineteen makes my skin crawl.
I suddenly feel a lot more sympathy towards my father-in-law for how difficult our relationship was in those first few months.
My body pulses with the need to march up the stairs and rip the doors from each one of my kids’ bedrooms until I know exactly what happened, how it happened, and who I now have to kill. The only thing that keeps me rooted is the pleading look in my wife’s eyes.
“Who was it?” I ask, through bared teeth. She shrugs.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“She didn’t tell me.”
“The boys know, I’ll get it out of one of them…” I start toward the door, but she once again steps in my path.
“You know they’re not going to tell you anything.”
“Like hell they’re not. Go get me a crowbar, I’m going to break the fucking covenenant open.”
“Christian…” She reaches up and places a hand on either side of my face, then stares deep into my eyes. Once again, I see the depth of the pain I’d gotten a flash of out in the garage. “She was sobbing when I went to go talk to her this afternoon. She’s embarrassed, she feels violated, isolated, her trust broken… She’s very vulnerable right now, and she needs guidance. She needs reassurance. She needs to remember that she is not what everyone is telling her she is, or this could turn into something much bigger for her than it already is. Something that could destroy her. As much as it kills me, I know that there’s no one who can talk to her and really reach her like her daddy can. I need you to go take care of our daughter.”
I let out a hard sigh, and close my eyes. The need for bloodshed is still brewing inside of me, thrashing to get out, but the idea of my daughter being in real pain and not shielding her from it is unfathomable. I’ve always known that I would fall on a sword to protect my little girl, this feels like I might be about to.
“Okay,” I acquiesce. Ana smiles, and reaches up on her tiptoes to press her lips against mine.
“I love you.”
I take advantage, pulling her in for a much deeper, more intimate kiss. It’s really just a delay tactic. She lets me have it, then brushes her hand softly across my face and leaves my office.
I head to the bar for another drink.
Two more pours of bourbon later, I’m dragging my feet up the stairs to Calliope’s room. Her light is on, but she’s quiet inside. There’s a small part of me that hopes she’s fallen asleep, but that’s quashed when a shadow breaks the gold glow emanating from under her door.
“Come in,” she calls softly, and with one last fortifying breath, I step inside.
Her face is clean. For the first time in longer than I can remember, the gray eyes that stare at me with trepidation aren’t cloaked in thick black liner or mascara. Her skin is uneven, and blotchy from her tears. I can see shiny streaks of wet that haven’t quite dried on her cheeks.
She looks so much like she did when she was little.
“Can I talk to you?” I ask, softly closing the door behind me. The light in her eyes dims before she looks away.
“There’s nothing you can say to me that will make me hate myself more than I already do, so you might as well just skip the lectures.”
I stop, staring down at her in shock. “Why would I want to make you hate yourself, Calliope?”
“Because I’ve ruined everything. Because I’m a disappointment.”
“That’s not true.”
She looks up at me and a tear leaks over her lower lid. She reaches up to dash it away as it races down her cheek, but more come so fast after it that she eventually just lets her face crash into her hands. Her shoulders jump up and down with her sobs, and her entire body shakes. The echo of pain that reverberates in every shaky breath she draws lands on me like a pin full of needles.
I move to her bed and take a seat. “Come here, Princess.”
She turns to me, her face wet and cherry red. I open my arms, then wave her towards me with my fingers. A few more shaky sobs force their way from her chest, then she peels herself out of the chair and crawls into my lap. I wrap her in my arms, trying to protect her from her own pain.
“Do you know why I love you?” I ask. She sniffs and buries her face in my shirt.
“Because you have to.”
“Nope. Believe it or not, of all the things I’m required by law to do as your parent, loving you is not one of them.” I lean into her. “Why do you think I love you so much, Calliope?”
Her shoulders bob. “I don’t know.”
“Because you’re lovable.” I take her chin between my fingers and tilt her face up to mine. “There are so many things to love about you, Calliope. You’re strong, you’re funny, you’re fierce, and you’re beautiful, inside and out. But I don’t need to come up with a reason to love you. No one does. You are precious. You matter. And you deserve to be loved. Period.”
She stares back at me with unshed tears still glistening in her eyes. I can see the uncertainty still lingering there, so I let the sincerity of my love leak onto her until it’s extinguished. “Don’t ever let anyone make you believe otherwise, okay?”
She breaks again, a sob bursting out of her like she was holding her breath, then throws her arms around my neck. I squeeze her as tightly as I can without hurting her. I want to hold her tight enough to freeze her in this brief snapshot of time and keep her from growing up any more than she already has.
Today has made one truth I’ve always known even more painfully obvious. I’m not ready to let go of my baby girl, and the time I’m going to have to do that is hurtling towards us like a comet on a path to destroy my world.
“I love you, Daddy,” she whispers into my shoulder.
“I love you too, Calliope. Forever and always.”
I hug her one last time, then shift her off of me so I can get up. Her fingers cling to mine until they fall from distance, then she looks at her desk again and sighs. “Is it even worth it to study for the SATs? There’s no way I’ll get into Harvard after they find out I’ve been suspended.”
“You’re not suspended,” I tell her. “I took care of it. You’re going back to school tomorrow morning.”
“Really?” Her eyes light up with gratitude, then quickly dim with fear again. I can almost see her watching the vision of her return to school and all the people talking about her inside her head. It only takes two steps to close the distance between us again, then I kneel in front of her.
“You’re going to be okay, Calliope. I promise it’s going to be okay. Who gives a fuck what anyone else thinks or says? You’re Calliope Grey. Don’t you forget that.”
She takes a deep breath, then nods. “I won’t, Daddy.”
“Good.” I get up, taking a moment to cup her face, and turn back to the door. As I step out though, I pause one last time. “Oh, and Calliope?”
For just a moment, I let the gentle, understanding part of me succumb to the brute, and I feel my whole body harden. “You know why.”
Her eyes move to the floor, and I watch her shrink in her chair. “For how long?”
“Oh… until I find out who he is, I guess.”
“Three weeks, Calliope. He has three weeks to come introduce himself to me, or I’ll find out who he is myself. Until I do, you’re grounded.”
Her mouth drops open with a protest she can’t quite get out, so I close the door before she does. Teddy’s room is right next to Calliope’s and I can hear Ana’s muffled voice inside still, so I skip my goodnight and head straight for my bedroom. There’s an Xbox, a laptop, an iPad, and a few other small devices I don’t pay attention to resting on the comforter. They’re Luke’s and the screen of his iPhone is illuminated with an incoming call.
It’s his girlfriend.
I pick it up, and stare at her name on the screen until the call drops and a missed call notification takes its place. It’s his 4th one.
Slipping his phone back in my pocket, I head back out into the hallway, bypassing Teddy’s and Calliope’s doors and moving straight for Luke’s.
“Yeah?” he calls when I knock. I open the door and peek inside. He’s on his bed, his chemistry book open in front of him, and a look of abject defeat on his face.
“Your suspension was reversed,” I tell him. “So, I’ll see you downstairs for our workout first thing tomorrow morning. Don’t forget to set an alarm.”
“How? Mom took my phone.”
I grin, dip my hand into my pocket for my phone, and toss it to him. He catches it, taking a moment to look down at it and make sure it’s real, before looking back at me like he’s worried I’ve lost my mind.
“You made the responsible choice today,” I tell him. “School is not the place for you to be acting out or getting in trouble, especially if you’re going to achieve what you want to. You should be commended for keeping a level head.”
“Mhm. But if your Uncle Elliot ever threw a punch at some guy, you better believe I’m throwing one right behind him. You always have your brother’s back, I don’t care if he’s right or wrong. He’s always got you, do you understand me?”
He nods. “Are you kidding me? That motherfucker hit my brother and called my sister a whore. The second football season is over, I’m going to find Brighton off school grounds and beat his ass. No one comes for my family like that.”
“I didn’t hear that,” I tell him, seriously. “But, on a completely unrelated note, if you want to add some boxing in your morning workouts, I’m happy to switch up our routine.”
He grins and I nod to the phone still clutched in his hands. “That better be in the top drawer of my desk by 5 AM, and, if your mother asks…”
“I never saw you,” he finishes for me.
“That’s my boy. I love you, Luke.”
“Love you too. Goodnight, Dad.” He grins and I close the door.
Teddy’s light is off, so I poke my head in and wish him a good night’s sleep before heading back to my bedroom. Ana is going through the devices Luke left on the bed.
“Where is his phone?” she scowls to herself. “He can’t honestly think I wouldn’t notice he didn’t hand over his freaking phone…” She tosses Luke’s Apple watch on the bed and starts towards the door, but I reach and arm out to stop her.
“I think you have more to worry about right now than Luke’s phone,” I tell her. Her brow crinkles.
“What do you mean?”
“Where were you today?”
She blinks, clearly not understanding where I’m going with this. “With the kids…”
“Oh,” I repeat, grinning as I watch understanding dawn on her face. “Where were you, Anastasia?”
Her eyes search mine, desperately trying to decipher whether or not I know her secret or if I’m simply fishing for information. There’s too much anticipation brewing inside of me to wait for her to decide.
“Will it be Wyler or Ryan?”
“Uh….” Her voice shakes a little as she searches for something to say, but we both know it’s too late. I know. She knows, I know. And we both know what has to happen now.
“Tell me your safeword,” I tell her, stepping closer and gently wrapping my fingers around her arm. She swallows and looks up at me with a mixture of trepidation and day’s worth of quashed lust.
I feel my back go rod straight, and the corner of my lips ticks up in a devious, side smirk. “Take off your clothes and wait for me on the bed,” I command. Then I turn and disappear into my closet in search of the tools I’ll need to make this god awful day one actually worth remembering.