Luke POV: Constant Vigilance

Since I did miss a posting day, happy Valentines Day!

– WishingMrGreyWasHere


The street is quiet. It’s after eleven, so everything on the block except the bar I’m parked outside of is closed for the night. A few stragglers are standing beneath the overhang, avoiding the rain while they chat and take long drags from cigarettes. The neon sign with the name of the bar scrolled across it flickers every few seconds, which draws my attention and keeps me on edge.

Where the fuck is this guy?

I shift in my seat, glancing again at the blinking light, then jump when my car fills with the sound of an incoming call. With a racing heart, I look down at the caller ID on my dash, and read the name.

“Kate?” I answer.

“Hey…” Her voice is only a breath, and it makes me sit up straighter.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, I just… I just left Ana.”

My heartbeat quickens and I swallow against the sudden tightening in my throat that now comes with the images my best friend’s name summons. Was she in bed, or did she manage to make it down to the couch today? Was she shaking, or was today a day where she just sobbed until she couldn’t breathe anymore? Or maybe she was just blank. Maybe she just stared. Empty. Unresponsive….

That’s the hardest. Because above all else, I’m afraid that it’s a glimpse of who Ana is going to become. Who she’ll be if this beats her. And the longer this goes on, the more it looks like Lincoln’s winning.

“You have to come back,” Kate says, clearly on the edge of tears. “I still don’t know why you left, but she needs you right now, Luke. Taylor’s bringing in all these new people and they don’t know how to act around her. They don’t support her the way she needs to be supported. She needs stability, and familiarity…”

“She needs security.”

“Which is you!”

“Kate…” I grind my teeth together, preparing one of the dozens of reasons I’d given to Taylor, and trying not to break under how weak each and every excuse is. “Every time she looks at me, she sees Gia shoot me. I’m a trigger for her right now. It’s best I… keep a little distance.”

She lets out a pain filled sigh, that’s followed by a pause so long, I wonder if she’s pulled the phone away. “What do we do, Luke? How do we help her?”

“Carrick’s got to get elected. If he wins, he’ll appoint a new police chief, we’ll get an investigation, and we’ll have justice. Then she’ll be okay.” My gut clenches, and I glance up at the rundown sign again. “I’m doing everything I can.”

“I don’t know if that’s enough. I’m terrified that none of this is enough.” Her words cut off with a click, and the silence the follows feels oppressive. I can feel the accusation, because I’ve thrown it at myself every waking moment since the night it happened.

I was responsible for her, and I wasn’t there when she needed me most.

I didn’t stop him.

I didn’t protect her.

The scene that unraveled everything plays through my mind, with an echo of the tap, tap, tap Kommer knocked against my window in the parking garage. I was on the phone listening to my team surrounding Gresham’s apartment through my earpiece, so his appearance surprised me. But it wasn’t weird. I’d just sent Grey and Ana up the elevator with the full knowledge they were about to fuck, so Grey probably chased Kommer out on the way to their bedroom. I motioned for him to join me in the front seat with a nod of my head, but he waved his hand like he wanted me to get out of the car.

That was weird.

I jumped out of the car and demanded to know what had happened. He said, ‘It’s Ana,” looked to the elevator, and I started to run. He waited until we were in the elevator, while I was leaning over to enter the code for the Penthouse, to reach for my holster and put my own damn gun to my head. It killed me the whole way up there, because I had another holster on my leg, another weapon… I just had to wait for my opportunity to get to it. But I couldn’t even properly absorb my surroundings inside the apartment before Gia’s gunshots hit my vest and knocked me out cold.

By the time I came to… Kommer was dead. Gia was dead. Grey had been shot. And Lincoln was on top of Ana.

My body fills with rage at the memories of his hands on her, and I punch the steering wheel in front of me to release it. The horn blares through the empty street, and the smokers in front of the bar all turn to look at my car. With a sigh of frustration, I climb out and stalk through the door under the sign I’ve been fixated on all night.

It’s crowded inside. The music is loud, people are grouped around pool tables or lined up in front of dart boards. I slide into a small table near the back and scan the faces around me. No one pays attention to me. No one is actively avoiding looking at me. I’m here, unnoticed. Except…

My hackles rise and I glance to the bar. The bartender is looking at me, closely, and in my current heightened state of paranoia, it takes several seconds for me to realize… she’s checking me out. An easy smile moves across her full lips, and she tosses her long, black curls over her shoulder as she turns her attention to another customer. At first, I don’t think much of it, until I catch her staring again a few minutes later.

This time, she reaches up a single finger and motions for me to join her at the bar. I glance to the door, which stays shut, and at the patrons around me. He hasn’t come yet, so maybe it wouldn’t hurt to grab a drink while I wait.

I get up and drag myself to the bar, using the distance to give the bartender a cursory glance-over. She’s actually… hot. Her makeup is heavy. It’s almost hard to tell her eyes are brown and inviting beneath the heavy, smudged black eyeliner she’s wearing, or that her lips look petal soft beneath her flat, red lipstick. She’s got an incredible set of tits inside her nearly sheer, white tank-top and the shorts she’s wearing are so tiny that I can see half-her ass hanging out the bottom when she turns to take a bottle off the shelf behind her.

It makes me want to see more…

“You planning on drinking tonight, or are you just here to take up my tables and break all these girl’s hearts?” she asks when I approach.

I grin. “I’m actually waiting for someone.”

Her eyes twinkle with intrigue. “A girl?”

“No, a… business associate.”

She hums and her eyes move up and down my entire body one time before the corners of her lips turn up, and her teeth sink into her bottom lip. “Can I get you anything?”

“An IPA?” She winks, reaches for a mug, and starts to pour. I watch the tilt of the glass, which she fills with careless perfection. The glass she hands to me is filled to the brim with a layer of foam so thin, it’s transparent. She leans over on the bar, folding her arms in front of her and pressing her tits together. She smiles when she catches me looking.

“That’ll be six bucks, beautiful.”

I laugh, reach into my wallet, and toss a $20 on the bar. “Keep it.”

“Ooh, money bags.” Her grin widens as she slides the bill towards her, runs the transaction through the register, and dumps the change into the tip jar. There’s a guy a few feet to my left waving for her attention, but she doesn’t move on. “Let me guess, tech guy?”

“Nope. I’m a… private contractor, actually.”

“Like a hitman?” Her eyes glimmer with excitement, and it makes me laugh.

“Not quite…”

“Well, Mr. Not-Quite-A-Hitman, you gotta name?”

“Luke.”

“I’m Jade.” She reaches across the bar, the light catching on the shiny black paint covering her nails. When I place my hand in hers, she squeezes back with a surprisingly firm grip. I wait for her to release me, but her grip only loosens. “I haven’t seen you in here before.”

“Maybe I only come when you’re not working.”

She laughs. “That would imply there was ever a time I’m not working…”

“Jade!” The man waiting for his drink calls out, and her shoulder rise and fall with irritation. She winks at me, then slides down to her other customer.

“What can I get you, Brad?” Her hands spread out on the edge of the in front of her, so she’s leaning forward slightly as she stares him down. He glances at the deep swell of her breasts, then smirks.

“Jameson.”

“Sure thing.” She turns and snags a lowball glass form the shelf at the same time she pulls the bottle of liquor down. I watch her pour before she dances her way through the other bartenders, back to Brad.

“Anything else?”

“How ‘bout a peak at those titties?”

She lets out a harsh laugh that’s so ladened down with rejection, even I can feel its sting.

“Ah, come on,” he says, smiling in a way I’m sure he thinks is charming. “I’ll give you fifty bucks.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Baby, you’ll give me fifty bucks and I’m not going to show you shit.”

“Oh, really?” His eyes move down to her tits again.

“Mhm.” She picks up his glass of whiskey and sets it on the bar. “Fifty bucks.”

His grin disappears. “Shut the fuck up, that’s an eight-dollar drink.”

“What can I say? Price went up.”

“Jade…”

“Pay up or get away from my bar, Brad.” She pulls the glass back, obviously prepared not to serve him. When the two other girls behind the bar notice and turn suspicious eyes on him, Brad scowls. He reaches into his wallet, throws down a fifty, and Jade smiles. She grabs the bottle of Jameson, leans over the bar, and dumps it into the guy’s mouth.

He’s all smiles after that, and she grabs hold of his jaw. “Keep you brain off my tits, Brad.”

“Unlikely.” He takes his drink and Jade rolls her eyes while she rings him out, dropping $42 into the tip jar.

I take a sip of my beer, marveling at how easily she dealt with that creep. If it were Ana… I smile to myself as I imagine what her face would look like, and the way I’d end up having to deal with it in the end. But that reminds me that I’m here for her now, dealing with something for her now, and I’ve let myself get completely distracted.

“Shit.” I turn, eyes darting around the room for my contact, but there aren’t any new faces in the bar. I shake my head, internally chastising myself, and head back to the table I’d been sitting at before. Nursing my beer, I try to keep my attention focused on the door. But as the minutes drag on and on, my gaze begins to shift back to Jade.

Turns out, the girl is really fucking hot.

Over the next half-hour, I watch her jump on the bar and dance with the other bartenders. She grabs a megaphone and hypes up the crowd when things start getting quiet, drawing them back to the bar to buy more drinks. She flirts with her customers, even the girls, and her smile is dazzling. She drinks with the ladies behind the bar, and it makes them all more handsy with each other—which makes not staring at them almost impossible. When a bachelor party comes through, she takes a pitcher of ice water and dumps it over her white tank top.

I’m left to gape, she’s left with a full tip jar.

“Sawyer?”

I jump, so entranced with the knock-out serving drinks that I didn’t even notice my contact come into the bar, let alone approach. It’s disorienting, and it almost makes me miss how absolutely ludicrous the man looks. I don’t know his name, I never even got a description of the guy, but there’s no doubt in my mind it’s him. He looks like he’s auditioning for a fucking spy movie.

“Real incognito…” I mumble. He glares as he lowers himself into the seat across from me.

“No on can know I’m here…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah… you got the tape or not?”

“Oh, I got it.” He reaches into the pocket of his hoodie and pulls out a plain white envelope, sliding it across the table towards me as if he wants everyone in the bar to know we’re doing something shady. I snatch it up and roll my eyes.

There’s a cassette inside, which I pop into the player stashed in my backpack. I only put in one headphone, and I only listen long enough to be sure what he’s given me is valuable. The current mayor’s mistress is moaning his name within the first few minutes, so I turn it off, slide the player with the tape inside into my jacket pocket, and get up from the table, leaving my backpack behind.  

“Money’s in the bag,” I grunt as I walk away. Jade catches my eye on the way out of the bar and I nearly stop again. But I don’t. Because now, I have work to do.

And yet… it doesn’t keep my mind from wandering back to her. I hear her laugh ringing in my ears as I make the proper copies, and I can smell the lingering, sweet scent of her perfume when I drive those tapes all over town. I’ve actually imagined for days what Kate’s going to do once she has this in her hot little hands, and once she realizes that it’s going to get Carrick elected… but it’s still the way Jade carried herself behind that bar, almost like she was gliding, that I think about when I drop the envelope addressed to Kavanagh Media in the mailbox.

Part of me thinks I picked that mailbox because it was close to the bar. All of me is glad I did once I decide to drive by.

The place is closed down, which should’ve just made me leave. Instead, I park on the curb and walk up to the window, peering through the narrow spaces of glass between the different posters they’ve got in the window. There’s a light on in the back, but it becomes very unimportant when I hear voices floating up the alley next to the bar, and one of them makes my heartbeat quicken.

“Goodnight girls, good work!”

I straighten, preparing for her to emerge onto the street, when a voice calls out to her. “Jade!”

Her scratchy footsteps on the wet pavement stop. I can hear her turn, and I can hear her annoyed sigh. “What do you want, Brad?”

“I want to talk to you…” The words are so slurred, I can barely catch them.

“I think what you need to do is take a long walk home and sleep it off. I’ll see you on Saturday.”

“You owe me money.”

“I don’t owe you shit.”

“That’s not the way I see it. I gave you fifty bucks for a show, I came to collect.”

I move too quickly to hear the sounds of struggle, let alone analyze them. I come around the corner ready for a fight… but all the adrenaline spiking inside of me stalls. My damsel in distress currently has her attacker pinned against the wall, his hands secured behind him and a taser to the back of his head.

“You’re about this close to earning yourself a permanent ban, Brad. You don’t start treating me and my girls with a little more respect, you’re gonna lose a whole lot more than just money.” With a hard shove that scrapes his face against the brick, she lets him go. I watch her ready the taser in case he turns to come at her. He chooses instead to flee up the other end of the alley.

And I stand on my end… fighting an erection.

“Impressive,” I call. She jumps and spins, brandishing the taser at me. I disarm her with a grin.

“Yeah, well… you don’t get where I am without learning how to deal with drunk assholes.”

“I can see that.” She shifts and the glare of her phone in her hand catches my attention. I narrow in on it, and see that she’s got a ride-share app open. “Can I give you a ride home?”

She narrows her eyes. “I don’t take rides from strangers.”

“Okay, what do you want to know?”

There’s hesitation plain on her face as she wars with an internal decision. Her eyes evaluate me, and she goes still so that her other senses can make their evaluations as well. Eventually, she slides her phone into her back pocket and ambles towards me. She manages to keep the taser ready, but tucked behind her and out of sight enough that, were I not a professional, I probably would have forgotten all about it.

“Luke, right?’

“Good memory.”

“Mhm. You got a wife, Luke?”

“No.”

“Girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Borderline psychotic girl attached to you in a way that, should I fuck you tonight, would put me right in the middle of some bullshit drama that I want nothing to do with?”

I laugh. “Let’s be honest here. After tonight, you’re never going to hear from me again.”

“Oh?” A single eyebrow curves high over her warm eyes. “We’ll see about that. You gotta car?”

“Out front.”

“Shotgun.” She smiles, and drags a hand across my chest before leading us both out of the alley. I hit the key fob to unlock her door, then slide into the driver’s seat.

“Fancy digs,” she says, caressing the leather. “Normally, guys who drive Mercedes spend more than $20 in my bar…”

“I told you I was only there to meet someone.”

She laughs. “You know, I think you might really be a hitman.”

“And yet, here you are.” I smile at her, and this time, I don’t hide my brazen examination of her body. She doesn’t shy beneath my gaze. She’s more comfortable under my scrutiny than I’ve seen her all night. “Where to?”

“Oh no, I don’t take randoms to my house. You can pay for a hotel.” She leans back, daring me to challenge her. I don’t. With a smirk, I shift into drive and work my way deeper into downtown.

“The Fairmont Olympic?” she asks, eyes wide while the valet approaches her door. I nod.

“I’ve got an account here.”

“So, this is something you do regularly?”

“I don’t do anything regularly.” I let the taunt glimmer through my eyes, then step out of the car and hand the keys to the valet. Jade slides her hand into the crook of my elbow, which is good because she’s too distracted by the elegance of the lobby to lead herself. It also makes it easy to get her to hang back, while I get us a room.

“Good evening, Mr. Sawyer,” the man behind the desk greets me. “Is Mrs. Grey with you this evening?”

“Not tonight, just the one room.”

“Very good, sir.” His fingers tap on the keys of his computer, and he hands me a single room key, skipping the spiel he’s already given me countless times before. I once again reach for Jade and pull her toward the elevators.

“Do you want a drink?” I ask, once we’re in the room alone together. She shakes her head.

“No, I’m still a little buzzed from work…”

“Oh, well—” My words come to an abrupt halt when her lips push into mine and her body falls into me. Only, ‘falls’ is too passive a word. Nothing about this girl is passive at all. Her hands fly to my face while she kisses me, and her tongue moves through my mouth like a powerful python. Her tits meld to my chest when she pushes against me, and when I moan for it, she lets out a breathy laugh that makes me rock hard. She’s arrogant, and I’m dying to know how much of that confidence is deserved.

Reaching down, I grab her by the ass and lift her so I can carry her to the bed. She wraps her legs around my hips, thrusts her tongue deeper into my mouth, and grinds on my cock the entire way there. When I drop her onto the mattress, she scrambles backwards, opening her legs and stripping off her still damp tank top. Her tits look absolutely incredible pushed up in her bra, and it takes everything I have not to attack the fucking thing to get my mouth on what’s underneath. My cock starts to twitch in with impatience, and I know then that I’m going to come hard for this girl.

It’s only fair I return the favor.

I lunge at her, taking her lips again while I claw at the back of her bra. There’s no finesse in how I open it, I’m too far gone for that bullshit. I rip the thing away, the push her back into the bed so I can really appreciate my first look.

“God, you’re fucking perfect,” I whisper in awe, and even as my eyes move down her body, there’s nothing I can see that would make that statement not absolutely true. Her stomach is flat, with just the perfect amount of tone. Her skin is a flawless, tawny brown that just begs to be touched. I lean over and suck one of her nipples while my hands start on the buttons of her shorts. Her hands go into my hair, every scratch of her nails on my scalp egging me on. When I get her shorts open, she’s just as eager to get them off as I am. They fly across the room while my fingers find her clit. She lets out a heavy breath, and I switch tits.

“Fuck, Luke!” she whines with the rhythm of my fingers. “Fuck, fuck, fuck…”

“That’s it, Jade,” I whisper. With a last tug on her nipple with my teeth, I pull away from her breasts and start down her body. My hands feel out the path I follow with my lips and tongue. I let myself fantasize as I go, picturing the velvet skin beneath my hands brushing against my cock while I come all over her…

Fuuuuuuuuck.

The desire building inside me sends me face first into her pussy without really giving me the chance to even look at her first. She already so gloriously wet and the sweet, tart taste of her on my tongue for the first time puts me in a frenzy. I lick her with long strokes that make her legs tremble. I suck her clit, and she starts to whimper. When I push two fingers into her and fuck her while I lap mercilessly at that swollen bundle of nerves, she thrashes and starts to scream.

“Yes! Oh my god, yes! That’s it, that’s it… fuck!”

She’s soaked, about to come…

And I stop.

“Wait, no…”

“Not yet, baby,” I tell her, kissing her swollen pussy one last time. “You can drip a little for me first.”

She gives me a questioning look that cuts off with a sharp gasp and a groan when I reach into her hair and drag her onto her stomach. She bites her lip with hungry anticipation while I undo my belt, then shoves my hands out of the way when she decides I’m taking too long. Once she has my cock out, she strokes me from base to tip, then takes the entire length in one, smooth go.

“Holy shit, you’re big,” she says, using the spit she just coated me in to jack me off.

“Makes your pussy twitch, right?” I ask, staring at her hand moving up and down my cock. “Thinking about how I’m going to stretch you?”

She shivers. “Yes.”

“Suck my cock, Jade.”

She does. Like she’ll starve if she doesn’t. Her tongue, her cheeks, her tight light throat… it’s all nearly too much. She swallows as much of me as she can take. The more the head of my cock slams into the back of her throat, the more she loosens, and the more of me she pulls into her mouth. I stare down at her lips, mesmerized at the way my shaft disappears between them.

“That’s so fucking good,” I growl, but there’s no recognition of praise in the lion-like eyes that stare back at me. She knows she’s good at this, and now that I know it too, she shows off. Only a few seconds pass, and I’ve completely lost my mind. I can’t control anything; I can’t even think straight. The only thing I care about in that moment is how hot, wet, and tight her mouth is around me. It’s only when I’m just about to explode that I even realize I’m fucking her mouth just as hard as she’s sucking me… and the woman’s taking it like a champ.

“Fuck,” I hiss, yanking her off me and panting like I’ve just run a marathon. The eyeliner I thought was messy before is a disaster now. Black streaks race down her cheeks, past her swollen lips. The eyes behind them are blazing.

“Fuck me. Right now.” Her command is absolute as she grabs me and pulls me on top of her. “Make me come, Luke.”

I give her a cocky grin and roll a condom onto my cock. Her legs spread wider for me, and the moment I’m in position, I slam home.

“Yes!” Her head falls back as her cries echo around us and I hammer away at her like an archeologist on Vesuvius. It’s rough, it’s uninhibited, and it’s absolutely mind-blowing. There’s no pretense with Jade. There’s no coyness or hesitation. She fucks like she knows exactly what she wants and she’s going to get it with or without my help.

And to see her, to feel her, to witness the way she moves and to hear her carnal cries of pleasure… it draws me in like I’ve never been drawn in before. I’m no longer just fucking, I’m… trying to impress her. Trying to help her get where she wants to go without much thought to my own finish. But that concern is pointless, because the moment her pussy begins to spasm and I see the stirrings of her orgasm blossoming in the bottomless depths of her eyes, I’m suddenly so close to the edge I have to worry about my balance.

“Are you going to come on my cock, baby?”

“Yes! Ah, ah… fuck!”

“That’s it. Give it up for me. Show me how you fall apart.” The steady chorus of pleasure-filled gasps come louder and more urgently, until they cut off all together. Her body goes stiff, then releases all at once… concentrated on my cock.

“Fuck!” We scream together. The room around me disappears. I can’t see anything; I can’t hear anything… I can only feel the absolutely mind-blowing power of my orgasm. It rocks me all the way down to my fucking soul, obliterating parts of me that I won’t be able to repair. Like, the parts of me that had no interest in seeing this girl again…

“Jesus,” she finally says, still trying to catch her breath.

“Yeah…” We lie there together in silence for… I don’t even know how long. Eventually though, she sits up, orders nacho delivery from a 24-hour place I would never consider for Ana, and the two of us stay up talking, watching bad late night TV, and going three more rounds. She’s funny. She’s smart. She’s quick. She’s tough. And when she drains me for the final time that night, I collapse next to her, pull her against me, and sleep better than I have in ages.

The mayor’s cheating scandal is all over the headlines when Jade turns on the TV while she gets ready to go the next morning, and I can barely pay attention to any of it. I’m too busy watching her, walking around our hotel room naked after getting out of the shower.

I pull her back into bed and fuck her through the interview Carrick gives channel 4 news.

“Can I have your number?” I ask when she’s finally ready to leave. She pauses and turns back to me, her gaze uncertain.

“I don’t know. Maybe you should come around the bar a few more times before you start blowing up my phone.”

“Okay.”

She smiles and leans in to kiss me. “See you later, hitman.”

I chuckle, then watch her go. My phone is already in my hand before the door has closed.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Sawyer?”

“I need a background check. Jade Marroquin.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 44

“I’m telling you, they’re following us,” I say to Luke, nervously glancing over my shoulder at the car trailing a few dozen yards or so behind us. They followed us out of the pharmacy parking lot in Olympia where we’d stopped to stock up on diapers and other supplies for Calliope, and they haven’t even so much as fallen behind since. 

Luke looks in the rearview mirror and shakes his head. “We’re on a two lane highway in the middle of nowhere, where do you want him to turn off?” 

“He’s not going to turn off, because he’s definitely working for Taylor and he’s definitely following us.” I turn in my seat again, trying to decide whether or not I can recognize the car. Luke sighs. We’re just passing the first few signs announcing the upcoming exit for Montesano, so he puts on his blinker and pulls off the highway. 

The car behind us follows. 

See?” I shriek in panic. Luke looks up, his eye bouncing between the road ahead of us and the rearview mirror. He takes us down the road to a Burger King and pulls into the parking lot. The car behind us continues on down the road. 

“No, you see?” He lets out a breath. “Come on, it’s late and the road to your dad’s house is garbage.” 

He pulls the car out of his parking place and takes it through the drive through. I move to the backseat so that I can feed Calliope bits of chicken fries as we make our way towards the woods, then climb over the console into the passenger’s seat again when Luke gets lost. 

It’s dusk by the time the road begins to dip down into the valley where Lake Sylvia is, and my breath catches at the sight of it. The scenery before us is absolutely magnificent beneath the setting sun. The deep lake, crystal blue in my memory, is black and so perfectly still that it looks like glass. The towering mountains caging us in are deep purple, which contrasts with their snow capped tops in sharp, broken angles. The crisp, clean air that pours in through the open windows of Luke’s car carries the smell of fresh pine.

I breathe it in and let it breeze away as much of the hurt as I can unload on it, relieved by even just the small amount of levity it brings me.

We come to a stop next to the rustic cabin with golden light pouring through the windows and curls of smoke twisting from the stone chimney into the periwinkle sky. I’m just reaching into the back seat to pull Calliope into my arms when I hear the squeaky-whine of the screen door and turn to see my father, looking simultaneously shocked and solaced to see me.

Anastasia Rose! Christian has been calling here every fifteen minutes for the last three hours asking if I’ve heard from you. He’s been looking for you everywhere!”

I settle Calliope on my hip and look up at him with lost eyes. “Did he tell you why?”

My father’s attention is caught by Luke, and the overnight bag he pulls from the trunk and swings over his shoulder. As we start for the stairs that lead up to his porch and he catches the tone of our solemn march, he frowns.

“What happened?”

“I-“ The word moves through my throat like water rippling through a ragged river bed, then dies away. I cling a little tighter to Calliope, gently rubbing my hand in circles over her knee to try and distract myself from crying. It doesn’t fool my dad.

“Come here, kiddo.” He puts a broad smile on his face and takes my daughter from me, swinging her high in the air before settling her on his hip, pulling a laugh from her that I haven’t heard all day. Then he looks up at me. “Come inside. We’ll get you settled in, then you and I can talk.”

I nod, gratefully, and step through the door Luke holds open for me.

There’s a creak from the floorboards as I step into the small front room. None of the furniture in here is familiar to my childhood, but there’s a blanket my mother crocheted years and years ago folded over the sofa that reminds me of home. Everything is neat and tidy, in the perfect order my father became accustomed to after years of being in the military. I glance at the sound humming softly from the corner, and see a pre-season football game playing on the television.

The 49ers. Gross.

“I haven’t been here before,” Luke says, turning back and looking at me expectantly. I motion with a nod of my head to the wooden staircase at the back of the house, then follow after him as he begins the climb.

We emerge in an open loft with a full-sized bed pushed into the corner, which Christian incessantly complained about the one time we stayed here overnight. There’s a desk my father built in his woodshop out back that rests, lovely and sturdy, beneath the window. The rest of the space is barren.

“You can take the bed,” I offer, noticing Luke’s frown as he glances around at the empty, hardwood floor. He gives me a slanted look.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Luke, you don’t have to-“

He holds up a hand to stop me. “I’m fine. Why don’t you leave Calliope with me so you and your dad can talk?”

I start with a thankful smile, then pull him into a hug. “Thank-you. And thank-you for today… and every day, I guess. I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you.”

He squeezes me tighter. “By being that same friend to me.”

I hum in acknowledgement before pulling away. Reaching out to squeeze his hand affectionately before turning and descending the stairs again. My father is in the living room. The TV is muted and the newspaper he’d been reading has been cleared away from the empty seat next to his on the sofa. He’s setting a piping hot kettle on a protective pad on his coffee table when I come up behind him.

He gives me that familiar comforting smile, the one that reminds me that I can tell him anything and that he’ll never stop loving me, then motions for me to take a seat. I pull my mother’s afghan off the back of the couch and do just that.

“Talk to me kid.” He hands me a mug of tea.

“I’m pregnant,” I blurt out before I can stop myself.

The lines of deep concern in his forehead go smooth as the shock spreads across his face. He blinks a few times, then shakes his head a little as if he’s trying to dispel a troubling thought.

“What?”

I sweep my finger across the rim of the mug in my hands, working up the courage to confirm the words that, despite being married, and despite already having a daughter who he adores, I feel some shame in admitting.

I’m in trouble because I got knocked up.

“I’ve been sick a little over a week, so Kate thought I should take a test. I did, and… I’m pregnant.”

This time, the confession makes direct impact. He leans back as though he’s trying to get away from what I’ve said, and his hands ball into fists. His flushed complexion bleeds away to white, and then turns a slight, pale green.

I can see it then. There wasn’t a spark of joy that was dampened by reality or a wistful hope that, maybe, just maybe, it could be different this time. He looks like he’s seen tragedy. The same way Christian looked when I told him yesterday.

I turn to look out at the mountains through the window, now nothing but jagged silhouettes against the last of the sunlight disappearing behind them. “Christian doesn’t want me to keep it. We got in a fight.”

He takes an uneasy breath, pausing for a long time before he proceeds with obvious caution. “Yeah. I think I remember him saying he didn’t want any more kids.”

I snort. “Oh yeah, he’s made damn sure of that. He had a vasectomy behind my back this morning.” The consequence of that statement once again coils around my stomach and squeezes with the strength of a 20 foot python.

We’ll never have more kids. This is it.

He did?”

“Yeah. Obviously, that was part of the fight.”

My father’s face changes, caught somewhere between concern and understanding. He reaches out and squeezes my hand.

“I—“ He hesitates again. “You’re sure you’re pregnant. I mean, you’re really sure?”

“I haven’t gone to the doctor yet, but I took like 10 tests and they were all positive.” The buzz of life that’s so unique to this experience once again vibrates through me. “I’m sure.” 

His hands tighten around mine and his lips part as though he’s going to speak, but… he doesn’t. He looks lost, and the turmoil in his stormy ocean eyes feels like it could break me. I’m completely out on a ledge. I have absolutely no idea how to resolve this impasse I’ve found myself in with the one person I can’t live without or bear to hurt, and if my father can’t give me any guiding wisdom, I don’t know where else to go. He’s never been speechless.

“What do I do, Daddy? I can’t even consider what he’s telling me to do. I wouldn’t be able to live with it. I’d never forgive myself. It’s… it’s not what I want.” I reach down and unconsciously lay a hand over my stomach. “I can feel him. Or… her. I don’t know. And I know that sounds ridiculous, and I know that I really can’t, but I can. He’s there. His heart is beating, and he needs me to protect him. You taught me to protect the things I love, and I am his mother. I’m already in love.”

He grinds his teeth together, chewing on the words as though he has to feel their substance to believe them. Before the tense silence becomes overbearing though, it’s broken by the shrill scream of the phone, and my father’s shoulders deflate.

“Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

“I’m–,” I pause to breathe through the unwelcome sense of Deja-vu. “I don’t want him to come here, so… if he asks for me, I’m not here.”

He doesn’t acknowledge me while he strides across the room and takes the old-fashioned phone off the hook. There’s a quiet reserve to his face as he brings the portable handset to his ear.

“Hello?” A blink, then a frown. “Yeah, she and Luke showed up here about ten minutes ago. They brought Calliope with them.” My eyes widen in horrified betrayal, but he holds out a hand to keep me silent. “But I’m not telling you that because I’m giving you permission to show up here. You’re Calliope’s father, and you have a right to know where she is. But that’s it.” Another pause, this time paired with an uneasy glance in my direction. “She’s staying the night, and I don’t know anything beyond that. You can call her tomorrow and figure out what comes next, but tonight… She needs a little bit of space. You stay put. I mean it, Christian. Do not test me.”

He paces back and forth a few times, offering one word responses to Christian’s questions that don’t give me much context to what he may be asking. I wonder if Christian is as frustrated with the evasive way he speaks as I am because, after only another minute or so, my father hangs up the phone. He rests it back on the hook, then moves back to me with a much heavier gate.

“Congratulations, Annie. I should’a said that earlier.”

It would mean a lot, if his congratulations didn’t somehow sound more like a condolence.

“Daddy… not you too.”

“No,” he shakes his head, and pulls away from me. “No, I’m on your side. I’m always on your side, you know that. I just…” He stops, but it looks as though he doesn’t want to. The words are there, he’s just purposefully holding them back. I don’t need them really. I know what they are, and I know why he feels that way.

“Was it really that bad?” I whisper.

A flash of pain moves across his face that tells me I don’t have to clarify that I’m talking about Calliope’s birth. He hangs his head again, nodding. “Yeah. It was that bad.”

My eyes flood with tears and I turn to look through the window again. I try to keep it together for about half a second until I realize that I don’t care whether or not my father sees me cry, and then I lose it.

He scoots next to me and pulls me into his chest.

“Hey, Annie…. We’re going to figure this out, okay? It’s gonna be alright.”

I turn my face up to his, honestly pleading now. “I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do…” 

A melancholy look crosses his face before he finally brushes the tears from my cheeks and starts to nod. “Yes you do. You know exactly what’s right. And I promise you that no one is going to force you into anything you don’t want. Do you hear me?”

I sniff. “Yeah.”

“It’s going to be okay, Ana,” he says again, hugging me again and rocking me back and forth. “Christian’s just… he’s scared.”

“I know.”

With one last squeeze, he pushes me back and once again looks into my eyes. “Are you tired?”

“I just told you I’m pregnant. I’m always tired.”

He lets out a single, soft laugh that carries enough humor to melt away some of the ice enclaving my heart.

“Why don’t you go to bed? We’ll talk more in the morning, okay?”

“M’kay. Thanks, Daddy.”

“Anytime, Sweetheart.” He kisses me on the cheek before he lets me go, and I gather the blanket I’ve had wrapped around me in my arms. I head up the stairs and find Luke lying with Calliope. She’s tucked in beneath the covers, her head nestled into her pillow while she breathes through her deep, unperturbed sleep. He’s cuddled up next to her, reading aloud from a magazine he’d shoved into his bag on the way out of his apartment. His low voice suggests that he’s reading to Calliope, but after hovering and listening closely for a few seconds, I realize he’s reading her an article about some new, high-speed computer about to hit the market and that none of the excitement in his voice is for her.

I nearly roll my eyes, but watching him makes me think of all the times I’ve watched Christian read her to sleep. The way he holds her, always like he wishes he could pull her in closer. The way he’ll linger on a page with only a single sentence written on it for minutes, just because the colorful artwork makes her eyes go wide with wonder. The way his hushed tones encase his words in velvet and lull her into complete serenity.

Christian is an incredible father. He loves our daughter, absolutely. He’d do anything to make her happy. He’d die to keep her safe.

So why can’t he understand that what he’s asking me to do is impossible?

“Hey…”

I realize I’m staring off into space when Luke calls my attention. I try to give him a bashful smile, but I think it just shows pain because he gently pulls away from my sleeping daughter and comes to wrap me in his arms.

“He’s going to come around, Ana.”

I nod into his shirt, because he has to, then allow Luke to lead me back to bed. With as much care as I can manage, I ease Calliope toward the wall enough that I can slip beneath the covers next to her. Then Luke tucks the blankets in around me and leans over to kiss my forehead. There’s a cabinet at the top of the stairs, filled almost to bursting with extra blankets, so Luke grabs a few and makes a makeshift bed on the floor next to us.

Once he turns off the light, the tears that I hadn’t been able to hold back downstairs come back with a vengeance, and I start to weep in the darkness.

I manage to keep silent at first, embarrassed for Luke to hear me, and worried that Calliope will. I keep my lips pressed so tightly together, it borders on the edge of painful, and I tamper as much of my shallow breathing as possible while my body convulses.

It doesn’t fool my best friend.

Luke’s hand reaches up through the darkness and wraps around mine. Every time he hears me take a broken, stuttering breath, he squeezes. One, long squeeze that’s only meant to convey one thing.

I’m right here.

I cry myself to sleep.


The next morning, I wake to the sound of mountain blue birds chirping merrily through the window. It’s pleasant, or would be if I could hear them over my now expected morning sickness.

“Ana,” Luke groans from his place on the floor outside the bathroom door. “Puke quieter.”

I groan as I flush, then hurry out of the bathroom in search of the nausea lozenges in my purse. Calliope is awake, sitting up on the bed, holding on to her toes, and glancing around at the room looking slightly confused. When I turn to her, she looks up at me, curiously.

“Daddy?”

I gnaw at the inside of my cheek before plastering a perfect smile across my face. “Why don’t we get some breakfast, huh?”

She reaches up for me, so I make a big production of scooping her up off the bed and swinging her around before I pull her into me. She giggles, and I smash my lips into her cheek before I carry her down the stairs.

She wants down the second we get to the living room, but she follows me into the kitchen asking about pancakes, or at least… I think that’s what ‘pinchems’ is supposed to mean. I go to the fridge, hoping against hope that my dad has buttermilk, or at the very least some lemon juice, but it’s empty. And I mean empty. There are three cans of Rainier beer on the top shelf, an open box of baking soda, a bottle of ketchup, and a covered Styrofoam container filled with fishing bait. In the freezer, a stack of hungry man frozen dinners and a few Ziploc bags full of trout.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” my dad yawns, coming out of the bedroom on the other side of the kitchen. I round on him, fists pressed firmly to my hips.

“Why don’t you have any food?”

He stutters. “Well, I wasn’t expecting you…”

“What about you?”

“Annie, you know I don’t cook. Your mom did. Then you. Then…” The strength of his voice trails off before he can say her name, but my mind can fill it in. Kim was a great cook. It had actually been one of the more petty things that had irritated me about her. That despite how much I hated her, everything she made almost had my eyes rolling back in my head it was so good.

I reach back into the freezer and pull out one of the blue boxes shoved into the back corner. “Is this what you’re living off of?”

He presses his lips together, looking guilty. I throw it down on the counter and turn angry eyes back on him. “Are you insane? You’re not a young man anymore, Daddy. You can’t be eating this much sodium. It’s bad for your heart.”

“It’s not so bad…”

“Yes, it is!” I shake my head in frustration and move back to the freezer, yanking out each and every box out and tossing them in the trash. Once they’re gone, I stomp towards the stairs. “Luke, we’re going into town!”

His head pops over the bannister and he raises an eyebrow. “Where are we going?”

“Grocery shopping. So, if you want to eat breakfast anytime soon, you better get a move on.”

It only takes him a few minutes, then we’re in the car, being jostled by the potholes as we make our way down the primitive dirt road. I’m not sure it’s a good thing, but I spend the drive making a list of everything I need to buy while Luke sings along softly to the garbage coming through his stereo. It means I don’t have to think about Christian, or the baby, or the Grey Publishing merger, or even the reasons behind my trip to the store in the first place.

I just make a list.

The grocery store we pull up to in Montesano is the exact same one I’d grown up with. I can feel the nostalgia pulling out the cart and pushing it through the automatic doors. The smell that hangs in the air immediately conjures images of my small hands wrapped around the cool metal bars, while my mother concentrated on the calculator in her hands that would ensure we didn’t go over our budget.

It’s much different now. Pacing the aisles with a limitless credit card, I find myself deciding between the turkey sausage I should buy and the pork sausage I know my father will eat, instead of carefully examining everything in front of me for the best price per pound. I don’t even bother to weigh out the bulk ingredients I scoop from the barrel sized drums into plastic bags, and I take sometimes three or four times the amount of the non-perishables I need, just so I can be certain I won’t come here again and find his cupboards empty.

“We’re going to need another cart,” Luke says, giving me a sideways look. “Which I hope you’ll agree is absolutely ridiculous since your dad lives by himself.”

“I won’t. Will you go get another one? And…” I pause, doing the math in my head. “Forty-two food prep containers. Make it fifty.”

“Jesus Christ.” He shakes his head in dismay, but does as I ask. I tighten my hold on the cart so I can heave it around the corner and make my way towards the bulk bags of brown rice.

“Anastasia?”

Turning, I find a man standing a few feet away from me who doesn’t look like he could be much older than I am. I narrow my eyes at his casual maroon t-shirt over jean shorts, trying to judge their authenticity. “Are you a reporter?”

“No, it’s me. Cody Findlay. We went to school together.”

No we didn’t. Kaci Rice, the woman standing on the other end of the aisle from me trying to get a bottle off the top shelf, went to school with me. The one person I can see stocking the freezers at the back of the store, Dean Schmitt, was a senior when I was a freshman at Montesano High School, but I’d recognize his face anywhere. There were less than 500 kids in my entire school, and less than 4,000 people in the whole town. I know everyone who lives here, but I don’t know this man.

“Who the fuck are you?” Luke’s voice demands from behind me. I whirl around and see him pushing a cart filled with black and clear plastic containers. His expression is hostile and the reaction it draws from the stranger is stark.

“I uh… I was just…”

Luke holds up a strong finger, pointing down the aisle. The command is silent, but Mr. Cody Findlay obeys it immediately. He scrambles away from me, disappearing around the corner as fast as he can, and Luke’s eyes move to me.

“You know him?”

“No.”

He frowns, then clamps his teeth together so hard I can see the tick in his jaw. “Then let’s get out of here. Stay close to me.”

A protective hand finds its way to my back and stays there pretty much the entire time we’re in the check-out line. Even though it’s no longer his job, the light, carefree Luke I left the house with has vanished and been replaced by the CPO. While I scan my credit card, his eyes scan the people around me, looking for danger. He hovers just a little too close to me to be natural as we make our way back to the car, then insists I sit inside with the doors locked while he unloads the groceries.

“What’s going on?” I ask him the moment he’s closed himself in with me.

He sighs. “Nothing. Probably nothing…”

“What do you mean, probably? Is there something I should be worried about?”

“How would I know? I’m not on your security team anymore.”

Which means that you don’t have to follow protocol anymore. You don’t have to be my CPO anymore and you don’t have to follow Taylor’s rules. Tell me what you know.”

He grinds his teeth again. “I can’t. I signed an NDA as part of my employment. I can’t talk about anything Taylor has deemed classified, even after separation.”

“I’m a covered entity.”

He turns to look at me, and I stare back, unwavering in my resolve. His fingers tighten around the steering wheel, and his lips pull together so tightly that they turn white. But he nods, eventually.

“You’re married to a very rich man who attracts a lot of attention, is very open about how much you mean to him, and doesn’t have an easy time making friends.”

“And a very easy time making enemies?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not really one person in particular. Mostly, I think it’s a bunch of crazies who wouldn’t know what to do with you if they ever did get to you. But, ever since Endurance, it’s been… escalating.”

I can feel the blood drain from my face. “What do you mean escalating?” 

He turns to me, and offers me a joking grin to cover his regret. “It’s nothing. Seriously. Taylor’s got it under control, obviously, since your oblivious ass hasn’t even noticed.” He laughs to himself. “A few weeks ago some dude tried to come over the back wall while you and Kate had the babies in the pool, we flagged him before he got anywhere near the house and I was there waiting. Taylor let me absolutely wreck the guy so we could send a message back to whoever sent him. It was pretty funny telling him to keep quiet while I very thoroughly beat his ass to Kidz Bop.”

He laughs again, trying to make all of it seem like a joke so I won’t be worried… But I feel like I’ve been plunged into the pretty lake we’re headed back to.

“Someone tried to attack me in my own backyard?” 

I watch the calculation that runs through his head before he answers. “Uh…”

“Do not lie to me, Lucas.”

 He swallows, then turns to look at the road ahead of us. “Well… yeah. But a lot of people have tried to attack you in your own backyard. And at your office. At the marina. At the airport. Kate and Elliot’s. Grace and Carrick’s. And pretty much everywhere in between. They never even get close.” 

“Christian has told me over and over again that there’s nothing to worry about!”

“And there’s not! You’re not in danger, because you are very well protected. The secret service is a joke compared to what Grey has put around you. Honestly, it should make you feel better knowing that your team is so good at what they do, you didn’t even know what little problem you did have. Because they are good, Ana. I wouldn’t have left if I didn’t believe you were 100% safe.”

“You didn’t want to…” 

“But I did.

I frown, staring ahead through the window. He tries to assure me several times on the drive home that everything is fine. Taylor is smarter and faster than I’m giving him credit for, my current team is made up of former black-ops and specialized military personnel, and do I seriously think that my loves-to-overreact-about-everything husband would have let him go if there was a serious threat?

None of it breaks through the cold. My mind races in the exact uncontrollable way it did in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln, when I’d eventually snapped and decided to just preemptively eliminate any threat I could possibly imagine. It’s not healthy, but it permeates my every thought, even while I’m surrounded by steaming pots, baking dishes, and piles of cut up vegetables back at the house several hours later.

“Smells good in here,” my dad says, coming through the creaky porch door with a joyous smile spread across his face. I can still hear Luke and Calliope playing together outside. “What are you making?”

“Chicken and lentils,” I reply, my voice flat and automatic in my distraction. He makes a face as he leans over the pot.

“Lentils?”

“They’re good for you, and you’re going to eat them.”

“Couldn’t have just made potatoes…” he grumbles.

“I did. They’re over there.”

His head swivels in the direction I point, but the chagrin on his face isn’t wiped away. “Those aren’t potatoes. They’re orange.”

“They’re sweet potatoes, and they’re packed full of fiber and vitamin A.”

“And they’d be better if they were deep fried. Or covered in marshmallows…”

I pop the last dish I’ve prepared in the oven and turn back to him, wiping a hand across my forehead. “I’ve done enough to get you through the next couple of weeks. You should just be able to pull one of these out of the freezer and heat it up. I’ll have Gail do a week at a time after that and we’ll bring it all up here to you.”

The pain I’ve held back under concern and constant motion breaks through my face when I realize that “we’ll,” includes Christian, and the hours I’ve had to think about our situation haven’t given me any kind of clarity. This problem doesn’t have the same easy solution my father’s empty refrigerator did.

And then, as if he heard me think his name, the phone rings. My heartbeat starts to flutter and there’s a measurable sense of relief that courses through me as Christian’s presence immediately fills the room.

My dad moves to answer it.

“Hello? Hi, Christian. She’s, uh…”

I take a bracing breath, then reach out for the phone. He hands it to me, kissing me quickly on the forehead before he darts back outside to give us privacy. I pull the phone to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Hi.” He sounds miserable. Lifeless, almost. Worse even than the times I’d been stuck in Cambridge and couldn’t make it home for weeks at a time. “How… how are you feeling?”

Horrible.

Helpless.

Devastated.

“I’ve been cooking all day.”

“How’s your head?”

“My head?”

“Any headaches? Light sensitivity?”

“No.”

“What about pain? Any cramps or swelling?”

“Nothing more than to be expected.” I hold up my hand and stare at the now too tight wedding band wrapped around my tattooed finger. I don’t know if I could get it off if I wanted to. 

And I don’t.

“Were you sick this morning?”

“A little.” It’s the same checklist he used to go through each night when I was in Cambridge. It had irritated me then, like he didn’t trust me to take care of myself when I was doing everything in my power to do exactly that. Now, it feels like he cares. And I cling to it. “I feel good, though. Really.”

He sighs. “How’s Calliope?”

“Good. She’s outside catching butterflies with my dad and Luke right now. We’re going to have dinner soon.” He doesn’t respond, leaving me only with his pained silence. “What about you?”

The disgusted sound I get in response makes me press him.

“What did you do today?”

“I wore a path in the floor of my apartment, mostly.”

“Apartment? You’re not at home?”

“No.” The word hangs heavy in the dead air over the phone. “I couldn’t stay there. I don’t know how to be in the home we built together when you’re not there. Escala… Well, I have a lot of practice surviving without you here.”

Every ounce of reprieve I’ve been able to draw from the tranquil isolation here evaporates with those words. The beat of my heart feels harsh and burdened when the image of him, alone at Escala, empty the way that it was before I moved in, flashes before my eyes. There’s a kind of dread in his sentiment that I know will lead him down a dark and destructive path, so I head it off before he can go any further.

“I’m not leaving you, Christian. Everything about this is… awful, but I’m not running away. I just… you scared me yesterday.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have… I mean, I didn’t want to…” He lets out a frustrated huff. “I’d never do anything to hurt you, Anastasia.”

“You did though. I’m hurt, Christian. And I don’t know what to do now…”

“You could come home. You could come back to me.”

I push my lips to the side and drag my finger over my father’s countertop, carefully choosing my words before I say them. “I’m coming home tomorrow night. Lucky for you, I can’t exactly take any time off work right now because my company was just bought out from under me and I need to go deal with the acquisition.”

I half expect a small, breathy laugh, but he’s not in anywhere near the kind of mood to appreciate sarcasm right now.

“Should I be there?”

I gnaw on my lip, considering my answer. “I hope so. But I only want you there if you’re ready to accept that this is happening and it’s not going to change.” 

He swallows audibly, then leaves me in silence for several long drawn out seconds. There’s more defeat than defiance in his response. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

The phone goes dead without an, “I love you,” and my eyes well with tears. I stare blankly at the handset before I return it to its place on the wall, and finish my meal prep behind a teary haze that doesn’t clear away until my father and Luke bring Calliope in for dinner.

“Smells like heaven,” my dad tells me, squeezing my shoulder before pulling out a chair at the dining room table. I give him a small smile and start to dish some peas out for Calliope when there’s a knock on the door. For half a second, my heart goes cold in my chest and I wait for a pair of gray eyes to meet mine when my father opens the door.

“Kim,” he says instead, obviously surprised to see her. She’s standing on the porch with a box in her hands, looking impishly at him.

“I found these things mixed in with mine, so I figured I should return them.”

“Oh.” My dad takes the box out of her hands and looks through its contents, taking great care to sort the items he has no way of counting. I decide he’s buying time, trying to keep her standing in his doorway for as long as possible.

It’s what Christian would do if I showed up at Escala tonight. Because he loves me, and every second he’s in my presence is precious to him.

Fuck.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner…” Kim says cautiously, peering over my father’s shoulder and finding Luke, Calliope, and me all seated around the table. She bites down on her lip as she shifts her eyes back to my father. “Maybe… some other time, we could talk?”

“Yeah,” my dad responds. “I—uh…”

“Kim?” Her eyes move from my father’s, back to me, and I swallow back the defiant trepidation that rises up my throat. “Would you mind if… we talked for a second?”

My dad’s eyes narrow, but I ignore him.

“Sure.” Kim gives me a weak smile as she steps back on the porch and I get up from the table. My fingers reach out to brush my father’s in a reassuring kind of way as I pass, but his suspicion never wavers.

I close the door behind me.

“What can I do for you, Ana?” Kim asks, settling down in the porch swing and looking at me like I’m responsible for every ounce of the pain in her eyes. Hell, I guess I am.

“I don’t like you,” I start. She frowns before turning away and looking out over the water.

“You think I don’t know that?”

“You certainly don’t do anything to change it.”

The cadence of her breathing changes in a way that makes me think she’s trying to calm herself down, almost as though this is a familiar pattern with her. Like maybe, she’s had this argument before, only… just with herself. “I don’t know how. I don’t know what I did to make you hate me.”

“Well let me lay it out for you.” I move to the railing in front of the porch swing and pull myself up on it, letting my legs dangle between us. “You’re constantly trying to mother me, and I hate it. You’re not my mom, and I don’t need a replacement. I hate the way you always have commentary for everything I do and it’s always to make me feel like I’m shallow or callous because you think that having money and spending it on the people I love means that my feelings aren’t real.” I pause, tasting the bitterness of the words I now have to admit. “But… I like the way you treat my dad. I like that you give him companionship when he’s all by himself out here, and I like the way you take care of him. I like how happy you make him. I don’t like the way his life is when you’re not in it.”

A look of warmth slowly moves across her face as she takes in what I’ve said. Then she reaches out to remove the hand I have tucked underneath my arm and holds it in hers.

“I don’t think you’re shallow, Ana. Actually, I think you have a beautiful heart. The way you and your father are together… well, it makes me regret the man I chose as the father of my own children. The way you love Kate and the family you inherited through Christian, it’s wonderful. You think that I’m overbearing or that I’m meddlesome, but everything between us has always been about trying to get you to open your heart to me the way you do so easily for everyone else… To get you to see how much I care about you. How much I want to love you. All I’ve ever wanted was your approval. Your acceptance. You never wanted to give me a chance and everything I tried only made you hate me more.”

I frown and look down at my shoes in shame. Not just because it hurts to hear her perception, which is more intuitive than I’d like to give her credit for, but because I haven’t made my last confession yet.

“I hate the way you take him away from me. I’m not used to sharing my dad, and I don’t like it. Even when he was still with my mom, she would have never dreamed of trying to come between us. It feels like… that’s all you ever do. Find the things that are most precious between us and put yourself in the middle of all the best parts. That’s not where you belong.”

“Yeah.” It’s her turn to shift her eyes now. Everything she says next, she says into her own lap, rather than directly to me. “I’m sorry, Ana. I’m so in love with Ray and I want to be a part of all things that he loves. He doesn’t love anything more than he loves you and I thought, if I could make you love me, if I could make myself a part of your bond, then… you’d both want me to stay. That maybe, it would make him need me the way I need him.”

“It’s not where you belong,” I repeat.

“I know that now. I’m sorry.”

I take a breath and release it in a long, resigned exhale. “Christian and I are both public figures and that’s not going to go away. Anything you say or do or post online has the potential to become national headlines. Anything.

“So I’ve learned.”

“No pictures of Calliope online. In fact, I don’t want you posting anything about us at all unless you’re supporting GEH. Nothing about our personal lives, period.”

“Of course not. I just thought it was such a cute picture. None of my family ever sees yours and since Christian got me on that damn PixC thing, I thought it could build a bridge, you know. Open a door. Create a possibility. I didn’t realize this would happen.”

“Then we’ll work on that,” I promise. “Just as long as you never, ever, ever, ever, ever do it again.”

“Never.”

“I mean it, Kim. This isn’t a thing you get to mess up. There aren’t any do-overs, and once something is public, it’s out of our hands. There are consequences to that, dangerous consequences, and if you’re in our lives, you need to understand how serious that is.” 

“I do. I didn’t before, but now…” She bows her head in misery. “I’ll never do anything like that again.” 

“Then, would you consider coming back? I don’t want my dad to have to choose between me and happiness, and you make him happy. I’m not going to stand in the way of that.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Oh, Ana!” She leaps to her feet and yanks me off the railing, pulling me in for a hug. “Thank you. Thank you so much!”

“Yeah,” my dad’s voice sounds from behind the screen door. “Thank you, Annie.”

Kim releases me in an instant and rushes for my father, yanking the door back and leaping into his open arms the moment she’s close enough. He wraps her against him so tightly, I worry for a moment he might break her. But she just laughs.

“I’m sorry, Kim. I didn’t know what else to do…”

She kisses him, then cups the side of his face when she pulls away. “There’s no need to apologize. I would never expect you to pick me over your baby.”

He nods, expressing overwhelming gratitude at her understanding, and pulls her in for a deep kiss that’s uncomfortable for me to witness.

“I’m going to eat,” I say flatly, maneuvering around them and sliding through the door. Neither of them notice me go.

Luke is walking around the living room with the house phone pressed to his ear when I come back, his food abandoned and a look of euphoria spread across his face. It only takes a couple seconds to deduce that he’s talking to Jade. I’ve never seen him look so overjoyed without someone handing him a gun first, and, even though I’m incredibly happy for him… it hurts a little.

My dad.

Luke.

Everyone I know is in love and happy. I’m… in love and drifting because of it.

How am I going to get out of this mess?

I sit back at the table and scoot closer to Calliope, keeping my eyes focused on her so Luke feels like he has the space to say the things he wants to tell the woman he loves. She grabs a handful of peas and smashes them against her face, only a few of them actually making it into her mouth.

I laugh and wipe away the mess.

“Daddy, wut?” she asks again. This time, it’s not as easy to hide my pain.

“Yeah. Daddy’s at work.”

Her face crinkles with sadness so I pull her out of her seat and into my lap, cuddling her more to comfort myself than her. “I miss him too, baby.”

It’s true. More so than I ever thought it could be. And for the first time since I found out I was pregnant, I wonder to myself if I could be happy with just Christian and Calliope.

But I don’t even finish the thought before I have my answer.

Not anymore.

Next Chapter

Chapter 43

I don’t see Christian again for the rest of the night. I stay hidden in our room, fuming. Continuing the argument in my head and landing vicious barbs that I’ll be glad I never really got the chance to say to him in the morning. Really, I’m just waiting for him to come after me. To make it right, the way he always does in the end.

But not tonight. He locks himself in his office downstairs and Calliope is carried between us according to her constantly changing whims. I actually keep her up later than I should, waiting to see if Christian will come through the door to help me give her a bath. He doesn’t, and I put her to bed alone.

When I wake up to find his side of the bed cold and empty the next morning, I decide to go looking for him. But I barely make it two steps from our bed before my stomach rolls, and I have to cover my mouth to hold back vomit as I run for  the bathroom. Each horrible, deep wretch carries a sense of loneliness that reverberates deep in my bones. The last time I did this, I was by myself. On the other side of the country with the entire heartland lying between Christian and me. But he was always only a phone call away. And if I chose to make that call, he’d sit there and offer reassuring words that were like life preservers when I was drowning in misery. If I called him now, would he even answer? I don’t know the answer to that and the uncertainty I feel pounds like a fist against my heart.

The tears that well in my eyes have nothing to do with how sick I am. I sob between retching, wishing I could curl up into a ball and wrap my arms around my body, instead of around the porcelain bowl in front of me. When I hear a soft knock against the door frame behind me, my heart flutters for a moment. Then I turn, and find Gail’s indigo eyes looking down at me with concern, instead of Christian’s stormy gray ones.

“Are you alright, Mrs. Grey?”

“Yeah.” I nod weakly and reach up to flush, then pull a square of toilet paper off the roll to wipe my mouth. “Where’s Christian?”

She frowns. “He left very early this morning.”

“Of course he did.”

“But…” She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a small, rectangular box. “He did ask me to pick these up for you.”

I take the box from her and glance down at the label, a fresh wave of tears pricking at the corners of my eyes as I realize what she’s handed me. The nausea lozenges I survived on during my last pregnancy.

“He loves you, Anastasia,” Gail says, softly. “I know that you disagree right now, but that hasn’t changed. He cares. So much.”

I nod, dashing a tear out of my eye, because… I know that. I know that no matter how distant he feels from me, he’s never going to leave. I know that no matter how angry he is, he’ll never stop loving me. I know that no matter how cold and indifferent he may act, every one of his thoughts is occupied with me. Our love has been tested too many times for me to doubt its staying power, but that doesn’t erase the pain of what he suggested or the callousness in his voice as he doubled down. It doesn’t take back what he wants me to do, and the very thought of following through with that… No, I can’t even think about it.

“Congratulations, Ana,” Gail says to break the tense silence. “If that means anything.”

“It does.” I look up at her with tear-filled, but grateful eyes, and smile, before I break down again.

Ten minutes later, I have the crying and the nausea under control enough that I’m able to peel myself off the bathroom floor and get ready for work. I breeze through it, not caring much about how good my makeup looks or what I’m wearing. It’s hard to care about anything at all besides the cold war brewing between Christian and me, especially after I do try to call him and am greeted immediately by his voicemail.

But when I go to wake up Calliope so I can get her ready for daycare, the burden of that pain is lightened a little. Changing her, dressing her, hearing each little happy sound that escapes her lips as I pull her hair through small, pink rubber bands… it all pulls me into her in a way that is more intense than usual. The attachment I feel to her is somehow stronger today. Every familiar feeling of pregnancy that comes over me is like a secret that only she and I have shared. And it all reminds me of just how much I love being a mother. How much I love her. How much I already love the baby growing inside of me.

When I drop her off at daycare, I have to hold back tears.

She couldn’t care less.

“Ana?” Evan questions me when we leave Calliope’s daycare and my hand hovers over the elevator buttons. 30 will take me to Christian’s floor. G will take me back to the car. I debate between the two buttons for enough time to make my entire security team shift anxiously behind me, then sigh as I press my finger into the button for the garage.

More than anything, I just wish I could abandon my morning, go home, and crawl into bed until Christian decides he’s ready to come home and work this out with me. But I promised Hailey I would work harder for her than Grey Publishing did. That I would make Phoenix a best-seller. So, I drag myself into my office, intending to stay put and ignore the rest of my staff while I do my best to fulfill that promise. I’ve only gotten a good ten minutes into the marketing plan I’m putting together though, when there’s a knock on my door.

My heart once again beats like the wings of a hummingbird, desperately hopeful that I’ll look up and he’ll be there. I’m shocked, however, when I do look up and I see Carmen Gallagher standing in the doorway.

I didn’t even know she wasn’t in New York…

“Carmen,” I start. “Uh… come in.”

“Thank you, Ana.” She saunters forward, moving slowly as she lowers herself into the chair across from me. The corners of her mouth are turned slightly down and there’s an uncomfortable confession trying to conceal itself in the deep brown irises of her eyes, as though she’s holding onto a perturbing secret.

It doesn’t make any sense.

“We’ve surpassed 200,000 subscribers,” I begin in earnest. “My projections had been hopeful at 50,000, and we’ve more than quadrupled that within the first quarter. I’ve been running numbers with accounting and I really think it’s enough to make this next release we’ve got… big. As in quarter of a million copies sold. Maybe half-a-million. I’m not sure, I have to work with our printers to figure out what our max capacity might be but, in terms of potential…”

“Ana.” She holds up a hand to stop me and gives me a patient smile. It makes my nausea return, so I take a breath and slip another lozenge in my mouth while she gathers her thoughts. “I’m selling GSP.”

My blood goes cold. “What?”

“Sold, actually. Effective Monday.”

“Wh-“ I lose the word half-way through, along with all the air in my lungs. Suddenly, everything around me seems very far away and there’s an almost vacuum like silence filling the room that makes the words I’d told Hailey only two days ago echo in my head.

I’m going to work so incredibly hard for you.

As the shock wears off, reality comes rushing back. Only now, it’s all colored red. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do. No matter how impossible, no matter how unreasonable… I have done everything you’ve asked me to do. I’ve taken a crumbling press in a dying industry and made it sustainable. Profitable, even! I just signed a new title two days ago that I know will be a best-seller!”

“I know. It isn’t about that…”

“Then, why?”

“I got an offer I couldn’t refuse.” I stare at her, unblinking, expecting more. She sighs, the guilt returning to the lines around her eyes. “Your husband made a play last night. He’s been quietly buying the controlling shares of our largest clients. The ones who use our fiber optics services. If I didn’t agree to sell GSP, I was going to lose everything. So I took the red-eye out of New York to sign the contracts for the sale in his office early this morning. Greenwich Small Press will be absorbed into Grey Publishing. I don’t know much about what that will entail except that he plans to keep you in charge, and he doesn’t plan on laying off any staff.”

I stiffen. The crimson red tint that colors the room seems to pulse at the edges of my field of vision. I feel hot, like my blood has started to boil through my veins rather than flow like a life giving river. The slash of rage that cuts through me is so intense, I can taste it. And it bites me back with the same, sharp snap of black pepper.

Carmen shifts awkwardly in her chair. “I’m sorry it ended this way, Ana. Really, I am. I truly enjoyed working with you and I was very much looking forward to seeing how far you were going to take this library project you came up with… You really are everything everyone told me you were.”

An hour ago, that would have meant more to me than just about anything ever said to me by a professor, an editor, a publisher… Now, it’s empty. It’s a platitude. It’s a cruel shift of the guilt she feels over the coals she’s dragged me over again and again.

“Get out of my office,” I breathe in disgust. She looks taken aback.

“Excuse me.”

“You’re not my boss anymore, and I am so incredibly tired of trying to kiss your ass. So please, just get the fuck out of my office.”

She stutters for a moment, but doesn’t grasp anything to say back. My glare never breaks as she turns to leave, and the ice behind it is enough to silence her final pause at the door and send her down the hallway.

I reach for my purse and stomp out behind her.

“Ana?” Evan calls, standing up in surprise when he sees me storming towards the front doors. I shoot an impatient look in his direction.

“I’m going to GEH. If you’re coming, you better move.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He’s already in motion as he swings his blazer off the back of his chair. I’m at the elevator before he catches me, but once we’re released again, he doesn’t slow me down. In fact, as out of control with anger as I feel right now, having him drive probably gets me there much faster.

Normally, I’d already be planning the over-the-top speech I’d give him the moment he was in range of my shouts, but my mind is empty. Mostly because, beneath the rage, I’m incredulous. This isn’t our normal tête-à-tête, where he screws me over and I throw it back in his face until he escalates it again. That’s all just foreplay.

This? This is a punishment.

Evan sticks to me like glue as I stalk towards the elevator and slam my finger against the button for Christian’s floor. I don’t even pause when Andrea stands up to greet me from behind her desk. I move for my husband’s office as if it were a pre-destined path, ready to unleash the volcanic eruption building inside of me that will make his worst moments look like angry kitten videos on YouTube.

But when I throw open the double doors at the end of the hallway, I’m met with an empty room.

“That’s what I was going to tell you,” Andrea says from behind me. I round on her and actually feel a good degree of the heat inside of me being doused away when I see her cringe.

“Sorry. It’s not you… I—“ I take a breath, letting it slow the beat of my heart. “Where is he?”

“He had an appointment this morning. He told me not to expect him back today.”

Did he actually schedule an appointment he knew I wouldn’t show up for? 

No… if he had, he would have made sure my security team got me there, whether I liked it or not. They haven’t so much as stepped in my way all morning.

“What kind of appointment?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know, he made it himself.”

“He did?”

“Oh, no one is more shocked than I am, believe me. The man has me put reminders on his calendar to call his mother.”

Irritation bubbles up somewhere amongst the anger, and I spin on my heels towards Ros’s office to see if she has some idea of who he might be meeting with. She doesn’t though, so I decide to pull Calliope out of daycare early and wait for him at home. He did, after all, tell Andrea not to expect him back in the office, which could very well mean he intends to go home early.

She’s the only thing that keeps me sane while I wait. Just like this morning, I feel as if it’s impossible to be close enough to her. She pulls away from me over and over again while we’re sitting together on her playroom floor, too interested in the toys she’s been away from all day let me snuggle her the way I want to. So, I settle for watching her. Just staring and soaking in everything she does. Memorizing every sound she makes. Letting the harmonious trill of her laughter tattoo itself across my heart.

It might be the pregnancy hormones, or just the overpowering love of a mother, but I find myself fighting back tears as the love I hold for this beautiful baby girl overwhelms me. A love that somehow, impossibly, has multiplied with this new life growing inside of me. Love for another child. Love for Christian’s child.

“Ana?” Evan’s head pokes through the gap in the slightly ajar door. His voice is pleasant enough, but the look on his face is all apprehension. “Mr. Grey is at the gate.”

“Oh.”

I look down at Calliope and my heart starts to thud heavily in my chest. The fight I’ve been anticipating is already waging in my gut, pulling me into a battle I know that I have to fight. I kiss the soft curls that are the same shade as mine and whisper that I love her before I pass her off to Mackensie and leave the room I’m now praying is at least decently sound proof.

I’m already screaming at him before he’s even come through the door.

“Who in the actual fuck do you think you are?!”

There isn’t surprise or hesitation in the gaze that meets mine. He’s ready for me, and I recognize the stiffening of his back and the arms that cross over his broad chest as defense.

“Your boss, actually.”

“And how dare you. How fucking dare you bring my career into this, Christian! As if everything I’ve poured my heart and soul and desperate desires into over the last few months is nothing more than an inconsequential chess piece that you can maneuver out of my reach because you’re mad at me. You said that you wouldn’t bring this fight between us. You said this war was between Grey Publishing and Greenwich Small Press. ‘Never between us.’ But this isn’t business, Christian. This is punishment.”

He raises an eyebrow. “This acquisition has nothing to do with your…” His eyes move down to my stomach, and when he speaks again, his voice is so tight, I’m surprised he can wrap it around coherent words. “Condition. I have been in negotiations with Gallagher for months to acquire GSP, ever since you were hired. I’d proposed this particular deal last week at your launch party. She gets the fiber optics deal out of Texas and Barney goes to work in her R&D department; I get you.”

“That’s a pretty shit deal for GEH.”

“It might have been a month ago, though that wouldn’t have stopped me from making it. But with your app overperforming the way it is and Sawyer integrating seamlessly into my R&D department to take Barney’s place, we’re going to be just fine.” 

I shake my head. “That’s all bullshit anyway. Carmen told me that this wasn’t what she wanted. It was your play and she had to take the red-eye here to appease you. That’s what you were doing in your office all night, right? Threatening her with a hostile take-over unless she immediately caved and gave you what you wanted?” 

His expression goes cold, verging on deadly. “I told you I was coming for you. I warned you that you weren’t prepared to take me on. I always win, Anastasia. Remember that.”

His eyes once again move down to my stomach and I start barreling towards him. I don’t even know why. Whether it’s to beat my fists against his chest or to fall in his arms and cry, I need to release the hurt and anger and defeat all compounding inside of me like an insidious pressure cooker. But when I take a step towards him, he backs a step away. At first, I’m hit with a cold, unfamiliar prick of rejection that’s more intense than I would have been able to prepare for, even if I had expected it. That dejected kind of embarrassment melts away, though, when I realize that the step Christian took makes him wince.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing, I’m fine.”

“Fine?” I make a quick movement, like I’m going to lunge at him. He flinches and takes another step back that, this time, makes him grunt in pain. I raise an accusatory eyebrow at him. 

He sighs. “I just had a minor… procedure done this morning. I’m fine.”

Procedure? I think back to what Andrea had told me in his office earlier. After dismissing that he’d made good on his threat from yesterday, I’d assumed she meant he was in a meeting. But thinking back on it, she said he had an “appointment.” As in… doctor’s appointment.

“Are you okay?” I ask, the anger now completely overcome with worry. He eyes me wearily, as though he doesn’t trust the authenticity of my concern, and nods.

“I’m fine.” He winces again. “I just… need an ice pack.”

“What’s wrong? What happened?”

The lump in this throat moves as he makes room for the confession I see in his eyes he doesn’t want to make. “I had a vasectomy.”

I feel my face morph from apprehensive to completely blank, but that seems to be the only thing I really register. The word hangs in limbo between us, and I have to repeat it several times before it really sinks in.

He had a vasectomy. He’s decided that he’s done having children, and so he’s made it an impossibility. No discussion, no concern for any future possibility of what I might want. He wants this pregnancy terminated and all future talk of children erased from our vocabulary.

The rage comes back in full force, though, this time, the room around me isn’t colored red. Everything is sheathed in blinding white that’s so hot, even I can feel its danger. And it all pulsates around Christian.

Are you fucking kidding me?”

The vitriol in my voice makes him cringe slightly, but he doesn’t back down. “You said yesterday that I should be using condoms. That’s not going to happen, but you were right. It’s just as much my responsibility to keep us protected as it is yours. I’ve done that now.”

“By taking away any chance of us ever having more children?!”

His teeth snap together, grinding slightly as he forces his words through them. “Maybe I haven’t made it clear how I feel about you being pregnant, Anastasia…”

“Oh, you’ve made yourself plenty fucking clear.”

I’m shaking my head, and realize only after I’ve taken several steps, that I’m backing away from him, arms up protectively between us. Putting distance between us… like I’m about to run. 

Panic flashes across his face and his reaction happens more on instinct than rational thought. He charges through the foyer and grabs me, pinning me to the wall at my back and caging me in with his body. I let out a terrified gasp and, to my relief, his bruising grip on my arms loosens.

Loosens, but does not let go.

I watch his face crinkle with pain. His head falls between us and his body stops trembling. When he looks up at me again, there’s no more fire behind his ashy eyes. Only a plea for understanding.

“Please, Anastasia. If you want more children, I will give you more children. As many as you want. We can adopt, we can use a surrogate… Hell, we can open a boarding house and raise every homeless child in the city if that’s what you want. Just. Not. You.”

It falls on deaf ears. I’m too embroiled in the hurt and anger over what he’s done to even attempt to hear the reason in what he’s asking for. There is no reason. He’s altered our entire future, his own body, without even talking to me about it first. What would he do if I were to go… get breast implants without telling him, or if I were to suddenly feel very generous and donate a kidney to a complete stranger? Except, no… those aren’t even comparable because none of those things would take away futures he hadn’t even yet had the chance to wish for. None of those things put a limit on the family we’ve started together. A limit I now see he’s already surpassed.

“Do you even like being a father? Or is this all just a charade you put on because you knew I wanted kids?”

If Christian could ever look like he hated me, I think I get a glimpse of it right then and there. His hands tighten around my arms until I whimper, and the intensity in his eyes once again flames so hot, it’s like I can feel it burn my skin. 

How dare you. I love Calliope just as much as you do. I do everything for her. I am an excellent father, and you can feel however you want about this situation, but I will not allow you to take that from me.”

The cold, dangerous tone in his voice sends a real wave of regret washing through my body until the apology is all but bubbling through my trembling lips. But I swallow it back, because, even though I’m the one who will have to take every one of his blows, this fight isn’t about me.

“You’re a father to this baby too, Christian. Because I am pregnant. Am. As in, current state of being. That’s not going to change. No matter what you say, no matter what you do, I have every intention of having this baby. So you really need to get used to the idea that you’re going to be a father of two.”

He shakes his head, the cruelty that fills his gaze still spilling over me like poison. “No. I told you, this isn’t up for discussion. I’ve made the appointment for you tomorrow morning so that you can take the weekend to recover. You are going, and I will get you there by whatever means necessary.”

“You can’t force me to…”

“No!” He slams his fist so hard into the wall beside my head that it goes straight through the drywall. “I’m not fucking fighting with you about this! I will not lose you!”

“Mr. Grey,” Evan’s nervous voice comes from the living room. Christian’s eyes snap in his direction. “Maybe you should… uh, take a step back from your wife for a minute. Get some space. Calm down a little.”

He looks down at me again, softening as he registers how far beyond his control he’s let himself go. He pushes off the broken wall and backs away from me, not making eye contact.

“I’m sorry… but it doesn’t change anything. We’re not doing this. You’re going to the doctor tomorrow morning and I’m not going to hear another word about it.” He moves away from me, the surety of his statement reflected in his walk. He pauses as he approaches the new head of my security team. “She doesn’t leave the fucking house. Understand?”

Evan glances uneasily between us, his eyes lingering on mine for much longer than they do on Christian’s.

“Woods?”

“Yes, sir,” he finally responds, and Christian stalks out of the room.

I don’t hesitate. Evan looks as though he wants to say something comforting to me, but I blow right past him. I’m single minded, driven by an instinctual fear that only a mother can feel. 

I head straight for Calliope’s playroom and immediately scoop her up into my arms. She whines as the toy in her hand falls to the floor, but I don’t stop to pick it up. I don’t stop when Mackensie calls after me. I don’t stop when Gail looks up as we come into the kitchen. My purse is on the counter, so I shift Calliope on my hip and swing an arm out to snatch it up without stopping. The moment my hands close around the leather straps, I hear the first shouts from my security team coming from their office.

Just keep moving.

Pounding on the button to open the door as I hurry into the garage, I move straight for the SUV. But only because it has Calliope’s car seat in the back. I don’t have any of the things I need for her. No diapers, not a single change of clothes… nothing. The car seat is non-negotiable.

I pull open the back door and thrust her into the seat. She’s surprised and starts to cry as I pull the straps over her, but it doesn’t stop me. I buckle her in faster than I ever have before and then slam her inside. Without her weighing me down, I sprint for the drivers side, digging in my purse for my keys as I climb through the door and take my seat behind the wheel. The door to the house swings open and four heads fill the newly open space. I slide the keys into the ignition and yank the gear shift into reverse, and Smith’s hand darts out to close the garage door and cage me in.

I’m prepared to back out either way, but Evan reaches up and stops him before I have to do anything really stupid. His fingers wrap around his wrist and fold his elbow back just long enough for me to make it out of the garage. I can hear the ensuing argument as I back down the driveway.

“What the fuck, Woods?” Harper screams at him.

He shakes his head and waves to the other cars. “Well, follow her!”

They scatter as I pull out onto the road and start towards the freeway. I haven’t even made it out of our neighborhood before Christian’s name appears on the screen and his call rings insistently through the stereo speakers. But I reject him, and the call from Taylor that comes after it. I can see the shiny black car holding my security team in my rear-view mirror, making every turn I do and keeping a close enough distance that no car could merge between us.

Where do I go?

My first thought is Kate, but since she and Elliot never come out on the same side when they get involved in arguments between Christian and me, they’ve decided to stop being involved at all. So, I take the next best option.

“Hey, what’s up?” Luke answers almost immediately after the phone begins to ring. His light, happy tone is at odds with the painful sobs trying to claw their way up my throat.

“Where are you?”

“Uh… I’m at Jade’s apartment. Is everything alright? Why are you crying?”

I sniff, pulling back my emotions so I can focus on driving. Calliope is in the car after all. “Where is Jade’s apartment? I’m coming to you, right now.”

“32nd Avenue. Go north on 522 and turn left after the Taco Bell. I’ll meet you downstairs.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

He hangs up, not asking why, not pushing for details I refused to give him. He’s just there, waiting for me in the parking lot when I pull into his apartment complex.

“What’s going on?” he asks when I leap from the car and yank Calliope out of her seat. I turn to answer him, but the four bodies climbing out of the next car over do that for me.

“Mrs. Grey, you need to return to the house immediately,” Wyatt orders. I scoff and push past him, and he actually tries to grab onto me to make me stop. He ends up grabbing Luke instead, who steps between us with a careless smile playing at his lips.

“Ah, Wyatt. I’m flattered, but I have a girlfriend and… she’s something special.”

Wyatt’s hands fall to his side and his eyes shift uncomfortably to the rest of his team. “We have orders. She’s coming with us.”

I pull Calliope into me, pressing one of her ears to my shoulder and covering the other with my hand. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Back the fuck off!”

“Mrs. Grey…” Harper starts, but Luke cuts her off.

“I think she’s made her position pretty clear. Why don’t you guys just chill? I’ll take care of it, alright?”

Smith grinds his teeth together. “You’re not on this team anymore, Sawyer. You take her up there, I’m going to have to get Taylor involved.”

Luke laughs, his eyes glittering with humor as he nearly doubles over. He makes a show of wiping a tear away as his chuckles die down and he maneuvers Calliope and me to the stairs that lead up to his apartment. “You do that.”

We climb to the third floor, then he leads me down a dark, narrow corridor to a door near the end. The paint is peeling away from the wood, the number is hanging wrong, and Luke has to shove his body weight against the door to get it to open, but he’s all smiles as he leads me inside. My guess is that it has everything to do with the dark haired beauty lying casually across the couch with another pretty girl I’ve never met before. But based on her similar dark hair and eyes, I assume they’re related.

The strange girl looks up from the TV as we come through the door, and when her eyes meet mine, she goes stiff.

“Oh my god. You’re…” She stops, sputtering slightly, then turns to Luke. “You weren’t lying. You really are best friends with Anastasia Grey?” 

Luke grins. “No autographs, please.” 

“Holy shit… “ She turns to me, mouth agape, and Jade rolls her eyes. 

“Ana, this is my sister, Amber.”

“And I am a huge fan of your husband’s,” Amber continues in a rush. “I’m a physics student at UW and I’ve been following his Endurance project very closely and can I just say… he’s just… and he… no else has ever… he’s SO AMAZING!”

I stare at her blankly for a few seconds, and then completely dissolve into tears.

“Hey!” Luke croons, pulling Calliope out of my arms and passing her off to Jade so he can wrap me in a hug. “What happened?”

I push away from him and take a deep breath to get a grip on myself. Then I blink up at him through tear saturated lashes. “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh.” He says the word like it’s a shock. A bad shock. And as he starts to process the news, he begins to nod. “Yeah, I can see how that would go. I take it he’s not happy.”

I let out a noise that makes it clear that’s the understatement of the century. “He wants me to… to end it.”

“And what do you want?”

“He doesn’t care. He made the appointment. He told me I was going by any means necessary, so… I left.”

“When’s the appointment?” 

“Tomorrow morning.” 

Luke lets out a long, heavy exhale, then turns and glances around the room. It’s nice, not having to live through each excruciating detail again to make him understand. He knows me well enough, knows Christian well enough, to fill in the blanks on his own. To know the situation I’m in now, and what it means. Why I came here.

Because Luke will always take my side.

“Well, you can stay here if you want, but we don’t really have a lot of… space.”

I too glance around the room, and realize only then how cramped it is. The living room isn’t much bigger than my entryway. Just a slouchy sectional and TV take up almost the entire space. There’s one small bedroom off to the left, and a crowded kitchen behind me. And that’s it…

“Oh, right. That’s okay, though. I can just go… to… uh…” I bite my lip as I fail to come up with a single place Chrisitan won’t immediately find me, and Luke lets out a long sigh. He turns to Jade.

“You mind if I take off for the weekend?”

“Where are you going?”

He grins and lets out a small growl as he leaps on top of her and smothers her face with kisses. “Somewhere Grey won’t follow us.”

She narrows her eyes. “How are you going to get all the way to Saturn and back by the end of the weekend?” Luke laughs and she shoves him off of her. “Fine, go. I’ve got work all weekend anyway. Be good, though.”

“Aren’t I always?” He flashes her a toothy grin that once again has her rolling her eyes. Then kisses her on the cheek once more and moves to the window, slowly pulling the curtain aside so he can peer down at the parking lot where my security team is still huddled.

“They’re not going to leave,” I tell him. “No matter where we go, they’re going to follow us.”

“I know,” he says, then he holds his hand out to me. “Give me your phone.”

“My phone?” He waves his hand more insistently, so I reach into my purse to retrieve it and give it to him, ignoring the missed call notifications that litter the screen. He pulls his own phone out of his pocket and turns back to Jade.

“Wanna help me out?”

“Is it cool spy shit?”

He chuckles. “Kind of. Take the back way down to my car and go out the south entrance. I want you to drive to Sammamish. Ana, here, is going to book you the most expensive suite in the resort there, and you and Amber can spend the rest of the night pampering yourself and ordering room service. Her treat.”

Both girls look up at me eagerly, but I stare at Luke, confused. “Uh… sure?”

They shriek with giddy excitement and leap up from the couch, hastily pushing Calliope back into my arms so they can run off to pack some things to take. Luke unlocks my phone and dials the number for the resort he promised his girlfriend. He books their best suite and ensures there are strawberries and champagne waiting for their arrival. It’s my name, however, that he leaves on the reservation, though he tells them the keys will be picked up by my assistant. Ms. Jade Marroquin.

Twenty minutes later Jade and Amber are ready to leave. Luke walks them to the back door, which leads to a small balcony with a sketchy fire escape that drops into a back alley. He asks for Amber’s keys, which she hands over before he sweeps Jade into his arms. They kiss goodbye and exchange several whispered secrets that are only meant for the two of them, then he helps her onto the ladder over the railing and holds it steady and she and Amber climb down. Once she’s gone, I follow him back into the house and throw the hand not clinging to my daughter up in frustration.

“What is going on?”

“I slipped our phones into her purse.”

“What? Why?”

He lets out a heavy sigh. “Well, since I’m officially no longer a member of your security team, I guess I can tell you that there’s a tracking device on your cell phone that sends an alert to Taylor every time you leave the Seattle city limits. There’s also a tracking device in my car. In about fifteen minutes, I expect Woods down there is going to get a phone call demanding to know why you and I are driving across the I-90 bridge while they’re all still at my apartment. He’ll track Jade to the hotel and confirm you have a reservation there.”

“And what happens when they realize they’re not really following me?”

He waves his hand as if to bat that very unimportant concern out of the conversation. “We’ll be long gone by then.”

“Where are we going?”

His brow furrows and he looks at me as though the answer should be obvious. “Lake Sylvia.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 42

I should be on top of the world.

A week after its launch, the Greenwich Library has already surpassed over 200,000 subscribers, a number that has had Christian more and more worried by the day, and I’ve received official confirmation from Harrington that Grey Publishing has agreed to terminate Hailey Lewis’ contract. To his surprise, GEH has decided to waive all termination fees and recouped costs. To my surprise, I had several orgasms pulled out of me under the vengeful bite of Christian’s restraints. I should be flying so high that the lights of Seattle below me would dissolve into distant pinpricks, like starlight.

Instead, I’m on my knees in front of the toilet. 

I really thought I’d kicked this…

“Please leave,” I beg for the third time while Chrisitan re-gathers my hair in his hands to keep it out of the path of my projectile vomiting. 

“Not a chance.” 

I take a breath to argue, but the words are cut off by a gross sounding heave that expels what absolutely has to be the last of whatever is left in my stomach. Tears run down my face as I struggle to catch my breath from the repeated retching, and Christian runs his hand lovingly over my back. 

“Can I get you something?” 

“No.” Wiping the tears away, I push down on the silver lever to flush away the vomit, along with whatever is left of my dignity, and scoot back to slump against the wall. At the very least, I do feel a sense of relief. Like that last round really did get up whatever was making me sick. Now, I just feel drained. “I think I’m done.” 

Christian holds onto me as I climb back to my feet and find my balance, something that shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. He frowns, holding me steady. 

“I’ve got meetings I can’t get out of this morning, but I’ll come back and check on you after lunch. Get back in bed and stay there. I’ll have Gail bring you up some toast.” 

“Unnecessary.” I meander back to the sink and swish with a gulp of mouthwash. Once my mouth is clean again, I pick up the abandoned eye shadow palette resting on my countertop, pouting slightly when I see that at least two of the pressed powder pans cracked from the force of being thrown down on the marble before I sprinted away. My go-to shade is covered in loose powder that collects too heavily on my brush and leaves my unfinished eye much darker than the other. “I’m going into the office today.” 

“Like hell you are.” He moves to stand in the doorway, as though he’s actually going to block my way if I try to pass. I meet his eyes in the mirror.

“Christian, I don’t have a choice. I’ve been a little preoccupied stealing Phoenix from you and basically everything else I have to do has gone to shit. I’ve got a lot to catch up on.” 

“It’ll be there tomorrow.” 

“Along with a whole new day of work.” I close the palette and toss it carelessly into the drawer with the rest of my makeup, then turn and kiss him softly on the cheek. “I know you’re scared I’m going to run your publishing company out of business, but that’s just something you’re going to have to accept, baby.” 

He glares at me. “That’s going to be awfully hard to do when I lock you in this house.” 

With a laugh, I slip past him, pale and slightly green through my makeup, but dressed and ready for work none-the-less. “You can try, but I’m at the top of my game, Grey. Unstoppable.” 

“You are.” Strong arms wrap around me from behind, pulling me back against him. “But you’re not going to stay that way if you don’t take care of yourself. I swear to god, I might as well fire every single person on my security team. The biggest threat to you, is you.” 

I let out a small laugh through my nose, but just the tiny little bit my abs contract to force out the sound triggers my gag reflex, and I have to swallow to keep the bile in my stomach from rising up my throat. Thankfully, I manage it without Christian noticing. 

“I’m not going to argue with you if you’re thinking about cutting down the number of people stalking me everywhere I go.” He rolls his eyes and tightens his hold when I once again try to move away. 

“Please stay home.” 

“Look, if I get any worse, I’ll come home… after my meetings.” 

He takes a deep breath that’s filled with all of the arguments he still wants to make, but he nods in agreement. Probably because he knows it’s the best compromise he’s going to get. With a softly whispered, “I love you,” he leans in and presses his lips to mine. 

I linger there for about three seconds until I have to sprint for the bathroom again. 

“Ana…” his warning voice grumbles, following me into the bathroom. 

“I’m fine!” I call back.

But I’m not fine.

I spend the entire drive into the city dry heaving and feeling as though every thought I have is run through molasses first. There are once again photographers lingering outside my office that I don’t have the energy to deal with, so I ask Smith to drive me around back where Evan leads me up a shady alley occupied by a man passed out with a needle in his arm. The back door is heavy and has to be forced open, but we manage to get into the service elevator without incident. 

I lean against the wall as we start the journey up, concentrating on breathing and reminding myself of everything I absolutely have to get done today so that when the doors slide open, I can pull myself together and strut into my office as if I own the whole fucking world.

Because I’m a Grey.

“Good morning, Ana,” Abby greets me with her usual bubbly smile. I try to return her enthusiasm as she holds out the stack of phone messages she’s taken for me, but I’m so exhausted, I’m not sure it’s even possible to succeed. There’s nothing here that can’t wait, so I thank my assistant and turn to the rest of my staff. 

“Can I have everyone gather in the conference room? I’ve got some big news to share.” 

“We already saw the numbers,” Stevens calls. “You’re kicking ass, Ana. We get it. We love you. We don’t need to have a whole meeting about it…” 

“Oh, you have no idea how much ass I’ve been kicking. Conference room. Now.” 

There’s an unpleasant concerto of groans and squeaks from chairs, scrapes and clings from supplies being gathered, and an overall hum of curious babble as everyone files into the tiny room next to my office. Most eyes turn to Abby, looking for clues, but she keeps the news locked up tight behind a terrible poker face. The joy she’s basking in over being in the know shines so brightly through her self-satisfied smile that it could be picked up from space like the Luxor beam. 

“Abby?” I start, breaking through her reverie. 

“Hm?” 

“The manuscripts?” 

“Oh, shit!” Her eyes go wide before she darts back out to reception in a panic. I giggle to myself as she tromps back in with Penny, both of them ladened down with thick copies of printed manuscripts that they start to pass around the table. 

“Whatever projects you’re working on are on hold,” I announce to the room. “This is our next big release, and I need every pair of eyes on it.” 

“Phoenix?” Jacki asks. “I thought Lewis signed with Grey Publishing?” 

“She did. But she and I had lunch yesterday and we had a really great conversation about her goals and her vision for her career and she decided that GP just wasn’t putting her on the right course. So…” I reach into my bag and pull out Hailey’s new contract. “She signed with us instead.” 

“But she’s under contract…” 

Was. Through some mildly threatening maneuvering on my part, GP has released her from her contractual obligations without any objection.” I grin. “Though I assure you, my husband was not very happy about it.”

Laughter fills the room, then is overcome with boisterous chatter. There’s pride in the glances that are shot in my direction, and elation in the excited proclamations that punctuate the otherwise pervasive thrum. The confidence I feel in promising a 50,000 unit release is reflected back at me, even as I make the statement. The people around this table really believe in me, and, for a moment, I think I might start to cry…

“I just can’t believe it,” Rogers says. He’s been quiet, mostly staring off into space while the people around him celebrated. “We’ve never beat Grey Publishing on a release. Never. Not once.” 

I smirk at him. “Well get used to it. There’s a new big dog in town, ladies and gentleman.” 

Cheers ring out and Rodgers starts a round of applause, holding my gaze as he slowly gets to his feet. It’s overwhelming. I can feel my face flame cherry red, so I start to shake my head and wave them toward the door. 

“Alright, alright… Everyone back to work. I mean it, this one has to be perfect.” 

The excited energy dwindles in the room long after my staff has finally shuffled back to their desks. But as I gather my things, I start to feel woozy again and have to lean over on the table for support. Probably because it takes me so long, Evan peaks into the room to check on me. When I look up at him, he’s expression turns down with concern. 

“Mrs. Grey, maybe we should take you home.”

I shake my head. “I’m fine. I just need to sit down for awhile.” 

On the way to my office, Penny stops me to say that Kate called while I was in the meeting, so I put a return phone call at the top of the list of priorities I’m compiling in my head. I don’t even get the chance to reach for my phone though, because the second I’m settled down in my chair, I’m hit with a wave of nausea that has me bending over my waste basket. When I’m finally able to pick up the phone and dial Kate’s number, I fall back in my chair and actually think it might be time to admit defeat.

I should have listened to Chrisitan. 

“Kavanagh Media,” Kate’s receptionist answers. “How may I direct your call?” 

“Katherine Grey, it’s Ana.” 

“Please hold.” 

A pleasantly soft melody floats through the phone and I close my eyes, letting each sweet note calm away the contractions in my stomach. It works surprisingly well. 

“I have the most exciting news you’ve heard all day, are you ready?” Kate’s voice abruptly breaks through the music. 

I laugh, then immediately regret it. “Tell me.” 

“You’re going to have to call your husband and tell him that he’s not going to see you tonight because you and I are going to use my press pass to get backstage at the Drake concert in Tacoma. I’ve already booked a hotel room.” 

“Ugh, I wish…” 

“You wish? What the fuck could be more important than Drake? And don’t say Christian because I know Christian, and I’m telling you right now, he’s not.” 

 This time my chuckle is cut off by a groan. “Stop making me laugh.” 

“Why?”

“Because I’m dying.” 

Still?” 

“It’s getting worse. The second I got out of bed this morning, I started puking.” 

She snorts. “What? Are you pregnant?” 

“No, that’s ridicul–” 

The words come to an abrupt halt, like a car that hits a wall in a crash dummy test. 

I’ve been absolutely wrung-out exhausted. Just like I was when I was pregnant with Calliope. 

I’ve been constantly nauseous without a fever or any other flu symptoms. Just like I was when I was pregnant with Calliope. 

Yesterday the wine at the restaurant had made me sick, just like the wine had at that dinner I’d joined Christian for in New York had made me sick… when I was pregnant with Calliope. 

Oh, god…

“Why are you so quiet?” Kate asks. “Holy fuck, are you pregnant?” 

“No. No, I can’t be pregnant. I’m on birth control…” 

“Like you were last time?” 

I shake my head, even though I know she can’t see it. “No, last time it was antibiotics. I haven’t taken anything. I don’t even have to take my birth control. I got the implant.” 

“When was your last period?” 

I blink, trying to think. It’s difficult because they’ve been so light since I’ve changed my birth control that they’ve become nearly non-existent. 

“I– shit, I can’t remember.” 

“Oh my god, Ana.” 

“No, I’m not pregnant,” I say again, as though it’s a fact. Because I need it to be a fact. 

“I’ll go to the pharmacy and pick up some pregnancy tests. Meet me at Escala in an hour.” 

“No!” 

“Ana, not taking a pregnancy test isn’t going to mean you’re not pregnant, and delaying finding out is denying my niece or nephew vital prenatal care.” 

I can feel myself shaking. Niece? Nephew? Fuck.

“It’s not that, I just..” There are paparazzi outside and Escala is a very recognizable building… “Not Escala.” 

“I thought you worked that whole thing out?” 

“I did. That doesn’t mean I want to spend all my time there.” 

“Fine.” I can hear the eye roll in her voice. “Meet me at Grace and Carrick’s apartment.” 

“Aren’t they at work?” 

“Yeah, that’s why it’s perfect. No one will be there to watch me cry.” The excitement in her voice is so apparent, it’s like I can feel it coming through the phone. I can’t seem to think at all, and after spending all morning oscillating between a well deserved power high and being violently ill, I’m suddenly completely numb. 

“How are you going to get in?” I ask in a shaky voice.

“I have a key.” 

“You have a key?!”

“You don’t?” 

“No.” 

“Well, I guess that means they love me more than they love you.” The taunt behind her tone lands in exactly the way she meant it to. I scowl. 

“Not if I’m pregnant, they don’t.” 

Her bell-like laughter rings in my ears. “See, now you’re getting in the spirit. One hour, Ana. Don’t be late.” 

She hangs up and I’m left drifting. There was this moment of realization I had once the doctor at the student clinic in Cambridge told me I was pregnant with Calliope. It was like the instant I knew she was there, a connection was made that allowed me to feel her. A constant awareness that she was there, like a hum that lived beneath my skin, and that I could always feel. There’s nothing else in the world that’s ever felt like that. And sitting there, I start to feel that exact same hum buzzing across every inch of my body. 

I do my best to ignore it until it’s time to go meet Kate. 

“Evan?” I call as I approach the small cluster of desks where my security team spends most of the day. All four pairs of eyes look up at me. 

“What’s up, Ana?” 

“I need you to take me to my mother-in-law’s apartment, please?” 

“Sure thing, boss.” He picks up his coat and swings it over his shoulder. To my dismay, the other three follow us out. 

Kate pulls into the space next to me in the parking garage seconds after Smith cuts the engine of the SUV. She’s got a plastic CVS bag in her hand and a 10,000 megawatt grin plastered across her face.

“I got like ten different kinds,” she effuses.  She holds out the bag for me and I take it, feeling it’s weight like a prison sentence. I can’t move. My feet feel as though they’ve been filled with concrete that’s been bolted to the asphalt, leaving me with no other option but to just stand there and shake. For the first time, Kate’s grin falters. She takes a breath before wrapping her arm through mine and pulling me to the elevators. 

At the very least, my security team decides to give us space. Only Evan takes the elevator with us, and he stays in the hallway while Kate fishes out a key. I stand beneath the generic light fixture over the door, drowning in the growing certainty of what this test is about to tell me. By the time Kate gets through the deadbolt, I’m so washed with that same, knowing hum that it’s almost as though I can feel a heartbeat thrumming from inside my uterus. 

“Come on,” Kate says, tossing her purse onto the couch as we stride through the barely familiar living room. We’ll use Grace’s bathroom.”

I clutch the plastic bag in my hand and follow her, concentrating so hard on breathing that I’m caught completely off guard by the security-summoning scream she lets out when she opens the door to Grace and Carrick’s bedroom. Evan bursts through the front door, gun drawn, and comes barrelling over the top of me. I blink uncertainly through the chaos as it unfolds around me and, automatically, place a protective hand over my stomach. 

“What in the world?” Grace demands, wrapping a robe around herself as she comes through her open bedroom door. Evan immediately holsters his gun and glares down at the blonde laughing next me. 

“What the hell, Kate?” 

“I wasn’t expecting her to be here. Stand down, Clark Kent.” 

Somehow, his look becomes darker. But it softens when he turns to me. “You alright, Ana?” 

I nod, realizing too late that I’m still cradling my stomach. His eyes watch my hands fall to my sides, then turn solemn. “I’ll uh… I’ll give you some privacy.” 

He leaves at my nod, but once he’s disappeared down the hallway, I’m left to answer Grace’s questioning stare. 

“What are you girls doing here?” 

“We, uh…” Kate hesitates. “We thought you would be at work.” 

“I had an emergency appendectomy last night and had to come home to get some sleep. I was just getting ready to go in.” Her eyes move down to the bag in my hand and narrow suspiciously. “What’s going on?” 

Kate bobs slightly, pressing her lips together to keep the excited words from tumbling out all over our mother-in-law like the vomit I’ve been unable to hold back all morning. I hold up the bag, trying to ignore the crinkling of the plastic that gives away the tremble in my hands. 

“I’m here to take a pregnancy test.” 

Grace’s eyes go as wide as dinner plates. It’s like she’s on an old-fashioned dimmer switch, her glow brightening as realization dawns. 

“You’re pregnant?” 

I haven’t taken the test yet, but I nod anyway. Kate, surprisingly, is more practical. She takes the bag from me and moves past Grace into the bedroom. “That’s what we’re here to find out.” 

An excited shriek disappears into the hallway behind Grace as she races for the kitchen to get me something to drink. Kate and I start pulling boxes out of the bag, trying to be organized about which test I should take first. Ultimately, I take a paper Dixie cup from Grace to pee in, and with unsteady hands, dip in each stick before laying them out in a line on the counter. 

Then I start to pace. 

“We shouldn’t get too excited,” Kate says, though the tone of her voice suggests she’s already well past ‘excited.’ “It could be negative.” 

It’s not going to be negative.

“Right,” Grace agrees. “No reason to jump the gun here.” She pauses for about three seconds before locking eyes with Kate. “Oh, I hope it’s a boy!” 

“Me too!” 

A boy?

I turn to look out the windows that offer a spectacular view of the city and place a hand over my stomach, imagining a baby boy in place of a disconnected heartbeat. I can see him immediately, a perfect reflection of Chrisitan, the way Calliope is of me. In the few minutes it takes for the tests to develop, a whole life flashes before me. Scraped knees and grass stains, soccer games and football practices… Chrisitan in the garage, already having summoned his entire R&D team to help our son build a race car for the downhill derby. My heart swells to a fullness that makes my chest ache, that warms my blood with an overwhelming feeling of peace. Completion. When the timer goes off that tells us it’s time to check the results, a tear breaks over my waterline and, once again, my hands move to my stomach.

“Ana?” Kate prompts me, her voice so anxious she doesn’t even sound like herself. . 

“You look,” I reply. I don’t have to. 

I hear the movement behind me as she races to the bathroom counter and starts sorting through the tests. Her exalted inhale confirms what I already know. 

“Positive,” she breathes, as if that’s the best she can do. “Positive. Positive. Positive… they’re all positive!” 

Of course they are.

“We’re having a baby!” Grace cheers. She and Kate grab a hold of one another and start bouncing together, chanting their joy again and again. Tears of bliss are rolling down Grace’s face when she finally turns to me. I can barely lift my arms to return her hug. 

“Ana?” she checks. “Are you alright, dear?” 

I’m not sure if it’s perceptible, but I shake my head. When I try to speak, I’m only able to do so in a whisper. “Christian doesn’t want any more kids.” 

“Oh,” Kate waves her hand as if that’s very unimportant. “He says he doesn’t want any more kids, but have you seen the way he is with Calliope? She’s his favorite thing in the entire world, next to you. The man is completely head-over-heels in love with that baby. It’ll be the same with this one.” 

“That’s true,” Grace agrees. “He’s always been resistant to change, but once that change happens, he embraces it fully. He’s going to be absolutely over the moon when you tell him, Ana.” 

“You think so?” 

Kate nods enthusiastically. “Remember, you were scared to tell him about Calliope too. You spent that whole day in a panic thinking he was going to lose his shit, and then he practically threw a party. Remember how happy he was? And he didn’t even know then how much he was going to love being a father.” 

“Which he does,” Grace affirms. “More than anything.”

I nod. No one could deny just how much Christian loves Calliope. Surely, they’re right. Surely, he’ll fall for this baby exactly the way he fell for her. I already have… 

I reach down and place a hand over my stomach again and that warm feeling of home blossoms inside of me once more. It’s happiness and hope and… fulfillment. It’s perfection.

 I take a deep breath and summon the image of understanding and jubilation that had dawned on Christian’s face back in Cambridge and hold onto it with everything I have.

“I should make it special,” I say at last. “It wasn’t special last time, I just blurted it out. I should… come up with some way to tell him, right?” 

Kate nods, her excitement returning. “I can make a Pinterest board of ideas if you want.” 

“No…” I shake my head and glance down at my watch. It’s just after 11:30 in the morning. “He won’t be home until after six. I’ve got all day to figure it out.” 

“Film it if you can,” Kate says. “Or I’ll have Luke hack it off your security cameras.” She laughs to herself, but Grace’s eyes flash very seriously in her direction. 

“Can we do that?”

“Are you kidding me? The day we find something Luke can’t get into is the day someone becomes richer than Christian.” 

Grace nods, and I can feel her happiness in this revelation in the goodbye hug she gives me on our way out. I’m sure she’s imagining all the production she’s going to put into the few seconds of security footage Kate will make good on producing, eagerly anticipating it’s entry into her perfect family archives. 

Once we’re out of the apartment though, Kate lets me wallow in silence. I think she knows that I’m trying to sort through so many varying degrees of happiness and confusion and shock and fear. Evan doesn’t. The moment I’ve said good-bye to her and climbed back into the SUV, he meets my eyes in the rear-view mirror. 

“Everything alright, Ana?” 

I swallow. “I’m not going back into the office today. Please take me home.” 

“Sure.” He starts the car and backs out of the parking space, while I reach for my phone to text Abby, letting her know I won’t be back in the office… and that she needs to schedule me an appointment with my OBGYN. Once she’s responded that she’s on it, I lean back and try to figure out how on earth I’m going to tell Christian. 

I’m grateful for the hours I’ll have to figure out what to do before he leaves the office, until I get home and they’re all taken away from me. Christian is there, sitting on the couch in clothes it looks like he was working out in, sorting through the piles of documents stacked around him while the news plays at a quiet background level on the TV. When I come through the archway between the living room and the foyer, he looks up at me and gives me a sly smile. 

“Did she tell you to come home?” 

My brow furrows. “What?” 

“You went to my mother’s apartment and now you’re here. Was I right? Should you have stayed home?” 

“Oh, uh… no.” I shake my head, his surprise presence leaving me a little dazed as I try to figure out what to say next. Thankfully, the fact that his presence is a surprise gives me the perfect diversionary tactic. “What are you doing home?” 

His expression slips into something close to concern, but he moves his eyes away from mine and back to the stacks of papers around him before I can get a real read on what that slip means. “My meeting this morning was much more brief than I expected. The rest of this, I could work on from home and I thought there was a good possibility that you wouldn’t make it through the day. Not with the way you looked this morning when I left you.” 

I press my lips together and move towards him, lowering myself on the sofa at his side and swinging my legs into his lap. He reaches down and pulls my shoes from my feet, then starts to rub. I moan and let my head fall back on the armrest. 

See, he loves me. I shouldn’t be scared to tell him good news…

“What’s all this?” I ask, in a cowardly move to buy more time. He lights up. 

“Well, this…” He straightens a stack of papers on the table, dotted throughout with yellow signature tabs. “Is an agreement I’ve made with Lamborghini to utilize Endurance technology.” His eyes flash with a kind of pleasure that’s usually reserved for me, naked and tied to his headboard. “They’ve agreed to let Welch do most of the design on the new model and he’s managed to integrate several features I’ve wanted for years.” 

“So you’re getting a custom Lamborghini?’ 

“An energy-efficient custom Lamborghini that has more power than any combustion engine that’s ever been created.” His smile is as wide as I’ve ever seen it as he makes the correction, and it actually relieves a little bit of the pressure on my chest. He’s in a good mood. That’s good, right?

“What’s that?” I ask, nodding to the stack of papers on the other side of the table. Chrisitan looks at it before picking up a folder off the top of the pile and handing it over to me. 

“That is from our lawyers. I’m adjusting Calliope’s trust fund.” 

“Adjusting?” I open the folder and my eyes widen at the new number displayed at the top. “Holy shit, Christian!” 

“I’ve made a lot of money over the past month.” He puts his hands up defensively. “I just want to make sure I’m taking care of my daughter.” 

Of course he does. Because he’s a good father. 

“I think you were taking care of her just fine with $10,000,000. This is…” 

He shakes his head and cuts me off. “I walked away from ten million when I was in college. Put another zero on the end of that, I wouldn’t have walked away.” 

I glare at him. “Well, I’m glad to know that money would have been enough to make you stay when I wasn’t.” 

“That’s not fair. You weren’t supposed to go anywhere. If I had known what was waiting for me on the other side of that decision, I would have gone all the way through a PhD program to hang on to you.” 

I laugh, and it obscures my retort. “No, you wouldn’t have.” 

“No.” He grins. “But I would have done everything differently.” I sit up and lean into him, pressing my lips against his and savoring the taste of his love. I could stay there forever, but he pulls us both out of it with one whispered question against my mouth. 

“What did she tell you?” 

“What?” 

“My mother. If she didn’t tell you that you were sick and needed to come home, what did she tell you? It was obviously enough to get you to leave work, which I thought was an impossibility without some kind of crowbar.” 

His eyes are alight with humor at his own joke, but I feel my stomach drop. 

“Oh…” 

“Ana?” The smile on his face vanishes and he reaches up for my forehead again. “What’s wrong?” 

There’s no point in delaying it. It’s not like he won’t find out and he’ll be more upset that I kept a secret from him. I didn’t have time to think of some clever way to ease him into the announcement, so I take a deep, reassuring breath, and reach into my bag instead. 

Maybe he won’t be upset. Maybe it will be just like when I told him about Calliope.

With hands that are once again trembling, I remove the plastic sticks from my bag and place them one by one on the table in front of us. With each tiny clink against the glass surface, Christian’s eyes tick a degree wider and the color completely drains from his face. 

“Tell me that’s not what I think it is.” 

Okay. Not like Calliope.

I swallow, nervously. “It is. I–I have more… they’re all positive.” 

His jaw tenses and he looks down at the pregnancy tests in front of him as with so much contempt it’s like he’s trying to make them burst into flames and burn out existence. 

“What about your birth control?” 

“I don’t know. I didn’t take anything that should have made it less effective, I didn’t…” I shake my head, unsure of what else to add to the list. “I don’t know why it didn’t work. You must have superpowered sperm or something.” 

His eyes flash to me, hot and angry. “That’s not funny, Anastasia.” 

“I’m not trying to be funny.”

He pushes off the sofa and begins to pace back and forth across the living room rug, though pace doesn’t quite encompass the angry energy rolling off of him as he starts trying to reason through this problem aloud. 

“You were… eight weeks pregnant when you started having symptoms with Calliope? That means you’ve got to be somewhere around there now. Eight weeks is early. We have time.” He stops pacing and stares blankly ahead for a few, long heartbeats. Then he turns to me, and his face looks somber. “I’m so sorry. I never wanted you to have to go through this… believe me. But I’m going to be here the entire time. For every part of it. No work. No distractions. I promise.” 

Oh my god, Grace was right. 

Relief boils over every cell in my body and the hopeful joy that I’d gotten just the smallest taste of in Grace’s apartment comes rushing back, filling my chest to its fullest capacity once again as my heart beats wildly in satisfaction. 

“You’re sure?” 

“Of course I’m sure.” 

“But… nine months is an awfully long time for you to solely be devoted to me. What about Endurance?” 

“Nine months?” His brow crinkles, and when he responds, it’s in a voice that leaves no room for argument. “There will not be nine months, Anastasia. I’m not interested in having any more children.” 

I frown. “Well, I’m sorry… we’re having a baby.”

“No. We’re not.” His back goes stiff while I blink back at him, uncomprehending. There’s a fight brewing in the set of his jaw when he tilts his head ever-so-slightly to the side, and trouble begins to brew in his gray eyes. “Do you need me to spell it out for you?”

I don’t, and the moment that ugly word pops into my head, it festers in the air around me. I have to leap from the couch and sprint for the bathroom to puke. Christian once again appears behind me as I heave again and again, but the gentle caress of his hand on my back isn’t comforting. I cringe away from him as my heart starts to race and it becomes harder and harder to draw breath. When I’m finally able to talk again, I’m on the edge of hysterics. 

“Ana–” 

“Don’t touch me!” I take a step out of his reach and stare up at him with all the strength I can muster through my tear filled eyes. “Are you telling me that you want me to… to…” I can’t even say it out loud through the bile creeping up my throat, and the care and concern reflected in his moody eyes is at odds with the tense and unyielding set of his jaw. 

“Yes. As soon as possible.” 

“How could you?!”

“You can’t be serious right now…”

“I’m dead fucking serious. This is our baby, Christian! Calliope’s brother or sister… how could you even suggest…?”

He takes a step towards me, disregarding my earlier command and taking hold of me by the arms. The action demands I stare into his intense gaze as he starts to make his case. “Don’t think of it like that.” 

Don’t think of it like that? How the fuck else am I supposed to think of it?” 

“Ana, this isn’t up for discussion.” 

“You’re goddamn right it’s not up for discussion because it isn’t an option!” The protective fury brewing inside of me at the mere suggestion grows hotter with each word, which only provokes Chrisitan further. 

“You almost died!” he screams back at me. “It is an actual fucking miracle that you didn’t and miracles are not something I’m willing to rely on when it comes to  protecting your life. You didn’t live through that the way I did. You didn’t have to feel what it was like to lose you over and over again. You didn’t have to hear the heart beats on the monitor stop. You didn’t have to watch everyone we know and love give up on you one by one and have to actually fight them off just to keep you alive. I. Am. Not. Going. Through. That. Again.” 

Each word is punctuated by his determined sincerity, but it does nothing to shake my resolve. Not even a chip in the foundation. 

I look him dead in the eye and straighten my back. “It’s too late, Christian. If this is how you really felt, then you were free to wear a condom each and every fucking time we had sex. You didn’t.”

He grinds his teeth together, looking as though he’s trying to hold back a torrent of angry words, but I don’t stick around to hear them. He can yell all he wants, there’s no debate for us to have. I turn and march for the stairs. 

“I’m making the appointment tomorrow, Anastasia!” His angry voice calls after me.

“Then you’ll be going alone!” 

Next Chapter

The Outtakes are Coming! The Outtakes are Coming!

Hey everyone!

I’ve already had a couple outtakes requests so I figured I’d start ruminating on it. I haven’t even really thought yet about what scenes I’m going to do, so I thought I’d turn to you all. I am also planning something to post later in the year that will essentially be a short story (a futuretake, if you will) made of multiple character’s perspectives (who I haven’t quite decided yet), and since there are so many, this will help me narrow it down:

Please leave specific request for outtakes in the comment section of this post. Reminder, this is only for The Final Shade of Fifty. If someone else has already suggested and outtake you want to see, reply to their comment and back them up– I’m very susceptible to peer pressure and I won’t have time to write everything, so gang up with each other to win lol.

As the story comes to a close, you’ll be able to find this post for further requests at the top of the “Wishing…” page, on the menu above. I’m sure there will be requests for many of the coming chapters….

Does that forecast some drama on the horizon? Maybe.

Have I said eight billion times that this is an HEA? Yes.

Is that still true? Yes.

xoxo

Wishingmrgreywashere

Chapter 41

The next morning, I wake up all stuffy again. But this time, it’s accompanied by just enough nausea to make getting ready for work a truly miserable experience. I’m so pale that my makeup looks too dark on my skin, and the effort I’m trying to put into blending it seems to be more effective at making my arm as tired as the rest of my body than it is at transforming my face into something presentable.

“You still feel like you’re going to die?” Christian asks, sauntering lazily into the bathroom behind me. He’s already dressed in a perfectly pressed, gray suit that’s the same shade as the tie tucked beneath his jacket. The deep curves and lines of his build are obvious through his suit, and they make me stare inappropriately. Gawk, really. 

He’s a monochromatic dream, and I can’t do anything about it because I feel like I’m about to hurl all the nothing I have in my stomach all over the bathroom floor.

“It’s just a little nausea,” I reply, though my voice comes out much more quiet than I intend as I take a deep breath, lay my hand over my chest, and try to focus on not throwing up. Christian comes up behind me and moves his hand to my forehead. “You don’t feel warm, but something is clearly making you sick. I guess it must be the horrible, horrible failure of your app…”

His teasing grin broadens with each of those final words. I meet his eyes in the mirror and glare at him. Last night, Barney ran maintenance on the Greenwich Library app, and it somehow created a whole host of errors he hasn’t been able to resolve yet. Nearly eight hours have passed since everything went down and every avenue we possess for customers to reach out for support has been completely inundated with complaints.  For our first week, this has the makings of disaster written all over it.

“You do my tech,” I sneer at him. “This is a GEH problem, not a Greenwich problem.”

“Yeah, tell that to the thousands of reviewers on the app store right now.” His eyes glint with mirth, and I toss my blending sponge into the sink before rounding on him like a tornado.

“Why are you so happy about this? Did you do it on purpose? Is this some kind of sabotage or something?”

“Oh, please. I wish I could have come up with something this perfect. This is the kind of gift that can only be ordained by the gods of the free market.”

I cross my arms and narrow my eyes. “I’m really starting to see why everyone who works with you hates you so much.”

“Who works against me. You were the one who wanted it to be this way. Just say the word, my love, and I can have your new corner office ready in under an hour.”

“Mmm, tempting offer. But since I know your failing publishing house is already relying on stealing leads from me, I think I’ll take my chances with Greenwich.”

He shrugs. “Suit yourself. I’ve got to go into the office early this morning and I’m going to take Calliope with me. Is there anything you need before I go?”

Automatically, I rise up on my tiptoes to kiss him. But just before our lips touch, my stomach heaves again and I have to pull away. Once more, he places a worried hand over my forehead, then frowns. 

“Eat something before you go, and take it easy today.” 

“M‘kay.” He leans to press his lips against the spot on my forehead still flushed from his touch, then turns back through the door to our bedroom, flashing one last devastatingly handsome smile back at me before he’s gone. When I look into the mirror again, I take a deep breath and hold it until I feel like I’ve got control again. It’s mind over matter and in my ‘I’m just not going to be sick’ mindset, I manage to finish my makeup and get ready without any more trouble. 

Once I’m downstairs though, I’m faced with a new kind of trouble. For the first morning in a long time, Luke isn’t here. Evan Woods is the one in the raven colored suit and sunglasses, leaning against the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee. And he isn’t alone. Smith and Wyatt are hovering around the center island, and there’s a woman talking to Gail who I’ve never seen before. They look like a pack of wolves. Perfectly in sync. Docile for the moment, but deadly should the need arise. 

It makes the hairs on the back of my arms stand on end.

“Good morning, Mrs. Grey,” Woods greets me. 

I take another, soothing breath. I did after all, sign up for this to give my best friend a shot at love. “Good morning, Evan. And, just Ana. Please.” 

“I–uh…” he hesitates, but when he sees the look on my face waiting to argue, he stops and gives me a pacifying smile. “I’m sorry. Ana.” 

The silence that follows is uncomfortable. There’s an unspoken truth in the air around us about the reason he’s had to come back, instead of being here the whole time, and I’m still too ashamed over the things I did to acknowledge it. Thankfully, Gail breaks the tension with the smile and a metal to-go cup filled to the brim with hot tea. 

“What can I make you for breakfast, Ana? Yogurt and granola? Some eggs?” 

“I don’t think I could keep it down.” 

“You sure?” She sounds like she isn’t, but I nod in return as I look at the woman she was speaking with before. 

“Who are you?” 

“Teressa Harper, Mrs. Grey. I’m joining your security team with Woods.” 

“Are you?” I glance back to Evan, and he nods. There’s a sinking kind of feeling that takes hold of my stomach, but I try to push it aside. This is going to be the new normal, and I’ve got to accept that. 

I’ve seen what happens without them, and that’s not a situation I plan on reliving.

“Well, we’re going to be late.”

“We’re ready when you are, Mrs. Grey.”

****

I feel the first real impact of Luke’s absence when we pull up in front of my office half an hour later. The internet has been buzzing all morning about some groundbreaking deal Christian has made with the sovereign prince of Monaco and the invitation for a meeting with the Supreme Leader of North Korea he received over the weekend. Since there’s about a 50% chance he could be in the car with me on any given day, more and more paparazzi have taken to gathering in the courtyard in front of my office. Luke always managed to keep them at bay without trouble. The moment they notice him missing from my team, they move in like jackals. 

“Mrs. Grey, do you have any comments on the grant Grey Enterprises Holdings announced this morning to supplant the city budget shortfalls?” 

“Where’s Sawyer? Did your husband fire him because he uncovered your affair?” 

“Does Mayor Grey intend on challenging the Governor in next year’s primary?” 

I recede slightly as the wall of cameras moves in. Harper slides out of the SUV and into the small pocket of space behind me. We’re able to move a few feet forward, but when one of the photographers reaches out to grab my wrist and pull me back, chaos breaks out. Harper’s arms wrap around me from behind and suddenly I’m being shoved forward. The man who reached for me falls short because a hand comes up and wrenches his arm behind his back. In the span of a breath, Wyatt has him on the concrete. Woods falls to the ground to help restrain the reporter now fighting Wyatt, and Smith comes around and pushes the other photographers back, shouting orders. Meanwhile, I’m being dragged to the doors of the building, and the scene unfolding behind me is lost in a white burst of camera flashes. 

It’s day one, and my ridiculous entourage has already caused a scene. 

Harper shuts me away in the elevator like it’s a secret room no one will ever find. As she reaches for the button to my floor, I give her a dark look and pull out my phone. 

LUKE

Surprise! I got BOTH Woods AND Harper.

It’s not going great.

I FUCKING told you!

They are literally brawling with the

paparazzi, Luke.

😂😂😂

That’s amazing actually

I’m kind of jealous…

I’m glad you’re entertained.

You made the choice. You had to know Grey

was going to go overboard… AGAIN.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you end up

with a new Endurance car that just so

happens to be armored lol

Yeah. 🙄

Just give them a chance and let them

do their job. We’re talking a forever kind

of regret if I let you push me out and

something happens to you.

Ugh, isn’t it a little early for a guilt trip?

Be good.

I keep my phone in my hand until I’ve stepped through my office doors and Abby pops up from her seat behind reception. She’s grinning, but the sunshine spewing out of her slowly clouds over as she reads my face. 

“Abby, I need you to get my husband’s publicist on the phone, please.” I glare pointedly at Harper, who is ostensibly unapologetic. “We need to do some damage control.” 

My newest CPO shrugs. “Mr. Grey has been very clear. No one touches you.”

That doesn’t mean you…” My voice is so tight, it snaps like a guitar string and ends up silent before I get the whole sentence out. I mash my lips together and take a deep breath, firmly planting the look on Luke’s face last night when he knew he was going to leave with Jade right in the forefront of my mind. “Have you heard from Barney?”

She nods. “The app’s been back online for the last fifteen or so minutes. One of the data loads was corrupted and it… I don’t know, he started saying a lot of tech stuff after that that I didn’t much care about. The point is, it’s working again.” 

“Thank god.” She hands me two goldenrod colored post-it notes with messages scribbled across them in her heartsick teenage girl handwriting. There’s even a heart drawn in the corner of the one from Christian confirming our dinner reservations for tonight. I roll my eyes, but smile to myself, as I push my way into my office. The sentimental lift to the corners of my lips stretches to a full grin when I look at my desk and see a paper coffee cup sitting next to a chocolate croissant. There’s a note that’s been torn from the pad of paper sitting next to them. 

I told you to eat something. 

-I love you

I laugh softly through my nose and pick up the cup of coffee, inhaling the rich, aromatic steam before taking a long drink. Clearly, my new security team is filled with narcs, but if fresh breakfast delivery is the consequence of that… I might get used to it. 

The croissant is gone before I even get logged into my computer, and because the universe bends to Christian Grey’s will, having something in my stomach actually does alleviate the last of my nausea. I dial into the conference call with my editor feeling completely back on my game.

Until lunch…

I’m meeting Hailey Lewis and despite the fact that I want this meeting to feel completely natural and casual, I’ve spent all of my free time this morning diligently planning everything I’m able to control, right down to the wine we’ll be having– which I’ve pre-paid for this time. 

When I’m finally ready to leave, though, I step out of my office and nearly run right over the top of Harper. She reaches out and grabs hold of my arms to keep me steady and as I turn a furrowed brow back to her, she actually looks contrite.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey.” 

“Was there something you needed?” 

Her face knots with confusion. “No ma’am.” 

“Then why are you…?”

“She’s been there all day,” Jacki calls from her desk on the other side of the room. I turn to her and get a contemptuous look in return. The steam I’ve been running on all morning dies out and I’m left feeling heavy. Or overburdened. Either way, it’s suffocating. 

“I don’t need a bouncer, Harper.”

“No, ma’am.” She gives me one sharp nod, but doesn’t take a step away from the door until I do. She’s on me like a shadow as I stop to let Abby know I’m on my way out to meet with Hailey, and then I’m surrounded by bodies again. It only takes me to the elevators before that suffocating feeling becomes too much.

“Okay, I don’t need all of you everywhere I go. This is ridiculous. Evan and I can manage a trip down the street just fine.” 

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Smith begins. “But Taylor said…” 

“I don’t care what Taylor said. I’m Taylor’s boss, and I’m telling you to go find another place to be.” 

Wyatt reaches out a conciliatory hand. “Mrs. Grey–” 

“I think she’s right,” Woods says. “This is a business meeting after all, and it’s hardly professional to show up to a one-on-one meeting with a posse… Mrs. Grey and I will be just fine on our own.” 

“Those aren’t Taylor’s orders, Woods,” Harper argues. He turns to her, towering over her, and looks down into the deep blue depths of her eyes with a level impassivity that’s chilling. 

“Is Taylor here?” 

“No.” 

“Then I’m in charge, and my orders are that the three of you stand down.” There’s a meaningful glint in his eye that seems to rattle Harper a bit, and she nods before she takes a step back. The elevator doors open and Woods ushers me inside, alone. 

“Thank you,” I tell him. “I just…” 

“You don’t like feeling babysat,” he finishes for me. 

I shake my head. “I don’t like feeling controlled. I know you guys are just trying to protect me and I don’t want to make that job any more difficult than it already is. I want you here. I’m grateful that you’re here. It’s just… I feel like I can’t move. I need to be able to breathe, Evan.” 

He nods, but keeps his eyes trained on the numbers ticking lower on the panel over the doors. “I get it. A lot of this isn’t your choice and people are always telling you that you don’t have control over it… that’s gotta drive you a little crazy.”

I smirk. “Been talking to Luke?” 

“All morning.” He sighs. “Look, if I’m going to be here, and believe me, your husband is paying me very well to be here, then I don’t want this to be difficult. I don’t want to worry about you running away behind my back and I don’t want to have to hover over you and Kate while you’re watching movies on the couch together. I want this, between us, to be like it was with you and Sawyer. I want you to trust me, and I wanna trust you.”

The car fills with the high ping that announces our arrival at the lobby and my cheeks pull back with the doors. 

“Good.” Thrusting my arm through the crook in his, I pull him from the elevator and start marching for the SUV.  “Tell me about yourself, Evan. Let’s get real personal.” 

We spend the drive to the restaurant in the heart of downtown getting to know one another and building the friendship it’s going to take to make this arrangement work. It has me in high spirits by the time we arrive. Especially because this particular restaurant is mine and Kate’s favorite place to go with one another. That’s why I picked it. The pink velvet chairs, crisp white linens, and pretty flower arrangements that sit in the middle of the round tables are perfectly girly and happy under the crystal chandeliers. It’s exactly the place to sip rosé and gossip with your girlfriends, and I want Hailey to feel like she’s meeting with a friend this afternoon, not a publishing executive. 

While Evan grabs a chair at the front of the restaurant, the hostess leads me to a perfectly set table near the back where we’ll mostly be to ourselves. I smile at the soft pink petals scattered across the table, resting at the base of shiny crystal wine glasses. I’m a little early, so the waitress brings me a glass of wine to keep me occupied while I wait. It’s good, because I don’t even get the rim of my glass to my lips before the scent of the wine hits me, and reinvigorates my nausea from this morning. 

Oh, shit.

Cringing away from the glass, I glance at the clock on my phone and calculate the hours it’s been since I’ve eaten. It’s been awhile. Clearly, too long. So I send back the rosé and order Shirley Temples instead, hoping the soda will settle my stomach and the syrup will keep it fun. The fizzy pink drink is placed in front of me just as Hailey slides into the padded chair on the other side of the table.

“This place is cute,” she says. 

“Isn’t it?” I swallow, commanding myself to get a hold of the clenching inside my gut that tells me I want to throw up, and to my surprise… it works. With a deep breath, I’m able to turn a smile on her and completely relax. “This is where my best friend and I meet for lunch when we’re in the city.” 

Her cheeks flush and she lifts her glass to clink the edge of mine, and I wave over the waitress to take our orders. 

For the most part, I try to keep the conversation away from business. I ask her about her weekend, plans for the fall, if there are any men in her life… it doesn’t take much to get her to start gushing to me about her whole life story. I laugh when she tells a joke, I let my mouth drop open in shock when she tells me something outrageous. I lean in to her. I mimic her body language. Everything I can think to do to let her know that I’m absorbed in her, I do. 

And it’s deliberate, but it’s not malicious. 

I actually do find her stories of growing up on a farm on the east side of the mountains charming, and her anecdotes of being in the city are hilarious. The woman is an amazing story teller, and that’s why I’m here. 

“What about you?” she asks, taking what I think may be the first breath she’s had since she sat down. Her eyes glisten with delight as she sips from her straw.  “Are you writing anything?” 

“Can I tell you a secret?” 

“Absolutely.” 

“A month or so ago, I finished the hardest story I’ve ever written.” 

Finished!” 

“Don’t get excited, I’m not ready to put it out into the world yet. It’s a little… I don’t know. Too personal, I guess.” 

“What’s it about?” 

“My husband. Well, us. I’ve been writing it ever since I left Havard and it’s probably the most personal thing I’ve ever written. It’s taken forever, but it’s finally finished, and I’m very happy with it.” 

“So. Give. It. To. The. World.” She claps her hands to emphasize each word and I laugh. 

“I don’t know. I’m just not sure I’m ready to receive the world’s input, you know? Sometimes the reaction isn’t always like yours.” 

“Meh. Let the haters be your motivators.”

A wave of cold sweeps over me that comes so out of nowhere, I glance up to see if we’re sitting under an air conditioning vent. We’re not though, so I shake away the shivers and brighten my voice as I reach for my Shirley Temple. 

“I’m going to have to get over it, though. Lydia will murder me if I don’t give her something soon.” 

“Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl.” Hailey leans back in her chair and pushes her arms out in front of her, like she needs space to get the words out. “I’ve worked with Lydia. You think she’s bad? You should try getting something published with Elizabeth Morgan.” 

My heart flutters excitedly. “Oh?” 

“The woman is insane. She wouldn’t know good literature if someone smacked her upside the head with it, and, believe me, I’m about to.” 

“What do you mean?”

She leans in, propping her elbows on the table. “Remember the part in Phoenix where she follows that light spirit into the cave and finds the magical pool?” 

“Yeah, and it shows her the truth about the people she’s fighting for.” 

“Exactly. Crucial plot point, right? Elizabeth wants me to cut the whole thing.” 

“What?!” 

“She thinks it’s too passive. She wants me to just rewrite the scene where she comes back to camp to be the first time she witnesses the motives that she’s missed. ‘Show don’t tell.’” Her voice raises at the end, taking on a mocking tone that’s actually surprisingly close to Elizabeth’s North-East dialect. “God forbid there ever just be enlightenment over violence.” 

 “It also just doesn’t make sense for the people she’s working with. Their cruelty is systemic and hidden beneath a well written code of morals and ethics that makes what they’re doing on the surface seem like justice, when it’s really genocide. To have them be open about what they’re really doing would be the same as having them admit they were the bad guys.”

Her mouth drops open and her body sags in the pretty, velvet chair. “You get me so much. Ugh, why couldn’t you have come to me and asked me to sign with you like two days earlier?” 

I take a steadying breath. “It’s not too late, Hailey.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean that you’re still in the very early stages of this journey with Grey Publishing, and if you don’t want to go further with them… you don’t have to.” 

She snorts and shakes her head. “Yeah, if I want to pay about ten million dollars in penalties.” 

“It’ll be closer to $10,000.” 

“And I’m not a billionaire. $10,000 is almost six months rent for me, Ana.”

I smile, tasting the first hint of victory on the end of my tongue. “Well then it’s a good thing you made friends with a billionaire.” 

Her eyebrow curves with confusion, so I reach across the table and take hold of her hand.  

“I see the brilliance in your work, and I won’t make you change it to suit whatever narrative I want to tell. I will protect you, and I will work tirelessly to make Phoenix a success in exactly the way you want it to be. If that’s what you want to work with, say the word, and I’ll pay your contract termination fees.” 

“Y-you will?”

“I have a lawyer on stand-by who can take care of everything and make this very easy for you. One phone call. That’s all it’ll take.” 

She isn’t looking at me. Her eyes stare, unfocused, into the space between us while she processes what I’m telling her. I can feel the victory, so I reach into my bag for the pristine stack of papers that are waiting there like my secret weapon. When I lay the Greenwich contract on the table in front of her, she stares quietly at it for a long time. Then she nods, turns for her own purse, and pulls out a cheap, ballpoint pen that she uses to scratch her name across the signature line at the back. 

The moment her pen lifts from the paper, I’m hit with a swell of emotion so powerful, I could cry. 

I did it. 

Despite Scott, and Carmen, and even Christian… I finally fucking did it.

“I’m going to work so incredibly hard for you,” I tell her, once again placing a warm hand over hers. She grins.

“Yeah, I know you will.” 

The rest of our lunch centers around Phoenix. There are a few changes she’s thought through in the months she’s been in limbo, and I poke and prod for updates on the sequel. When we leave, it’s with promises of future lunches and a warm hug, and I think, as I watch her walk away, that it might not have been for show. I think I might be on the verge of becoming really good friends with Hailey.

“Ana?” I turn to the curb where Evan is standing in front of the back door to my SUV. He grins. “I take it your meeting went well.” 

“As though it were scripted.” I skip to the car and climb into the backseat as he pulls open the door for me. Once he’s inside, he adjusts the rearview mirror and meets my gaze. 

“Back to the office?” 

“Actually, we’re headed to 86 W. 3rd St.” 

The soft eyes in the mirror turn to stone with a blink. “You sure that’s a good idea?” 

“He played dirty first.”

“Alright…” He says the words like he doesn’t really believe them, but he still hits the turn signal and slides out into the crowded lane. Minutes later, we pull up in front of a generic looking high rise, just a few blocks from my office. It’s a multi-purpose building that houses an astounding number of small businesses. I find the name of the private law firm I’m looking for on the directory in the lobby, and follow it’s directions to the 2nd floor. His name is written across the door in shiny gold letters. 

“Good afternoon, are you a client?” the woman sitting behind the desk in the tiny, crowded entry asks. 

“Yes. Ana Grey.” 

She nods and picks up her phone. “Mr. Harrington, Ana Grey is here to see you.” 

I glance through the window, but I’m barely able to distinguish the color of the shudders on the building across from us before the one and only door in the office swings open. Astor Harrington strides out with a welcoming grin plastered across his face. 

“Well, this is a surprise. What can I do for you, Ana?”

“A contract termination. I signed an author this afternoon who needs some helping getting out of her current contractual obligations with Grey Publishing. There will be financial penalties, but you can bill those directly to me.” 

“Sure. Do you have her contact information?” 

“Of course.” 

I hand him a card with Hailey’s address, phone number, and email, then allow him to make a copy of her signed GSP contract and the GP contract that contains her termination provisions. There isn’t much small talk exchanged, just an assurance that the transition will go smoothly. I’m overly grateful for his help as he walks me out of the cramped office, but I hold out my hand when he offers me a hug goodbye. 

“Have a good afternoon, Mrs. Grey,” he says, the corners of his eyes wrinkling with humor as he shakes my hand. I wink, then make my way down the hall. 

When Evan pulls open the doors of the front entrance for me, I’m immediately confronted with a Maybach idling innocently on the curb directly in front of the doors. The back door opens and a pair of long legs step out, dragging my very angry looking husband out of the car and onto the sidewalk. 

“You know, Luke isn’t a snitch,” I mumble to my bodyguard so Christian can’t hear. He chuckles. 

“It wasn’t me.” With a nod, he directs my attention to a black town car parked across the street. “There’s the rest of you team.” 

I sigh, rather than roll my eyes, then let the happiness of my win beam through me as I traipse forward to Christian. He takes hold of me the moment I’m in his reach, and pulls me roughly into the backseat. Once I’m closed inside, the car starts to move. 

“Care to explain?” he growls. 

I laugh, then reach in my bag and dump Hailey’s signed contract on his lap. He narrows his eyes in suspicion, then picks it up and scans the first few paragraphs before flipping back to the signature page. Once his eyes trace the elegant loops of Hailey’s signature, he turns his glare back to me.

“How’d you manage this?” 

“You might be a better businessman than I am, Mr. Grey. But people like me more than they like you. Especially Hailey.” 

He snorts. “Enough to bury herself in debt? You know I’m just going to rake her over the coals for this until she changes her mind, don’t you?”

The elation in my expression turns to fire. “No, that’s the beauty. You see, I never intended Hailey to pay a dime to come to Greenwich. In fact, I had planned on having the whole transition expensed out through Carmen, but then I thought… why would I take this chunk out of my budget to give to you, when we’ve been filling our bank accounts with all this Endurance money like we live in Smaug’s lair?”

His face goes blank. “You used my own money…” 

“I will if you bill me for it.” Unbuckling my seatbelt, I move out of my seat and crawl into his lap, sealing my lips against his before he can start again.  “Don’t ever try to steal an author from me again. I’m a Grey, and we don’t take that shit laying down.” 

“Oh, fuck…” He groans, then a hand comes up to cup the back of my head, pulling me deeper into our kiss. I hiss when I feel his hand tighten in my hair, then moan and thrust my tongue deep into his mouth. He sucks on it, each pull of his lips soaking my panties a little bit more. 

I reach down between us and start to fumble with his belt and zipper. He doesn’t try to stop me when I take his heavy erection into my palm. So once I’ve got him free, I wrap both of my fists around him and slide them up and down his length, from root to tip, keeping my grip tight enough to make his eyes roll back into his head.  

His hands move to my knees, then slowly drag their way up my thighs. He pushes my skirt back and his fingers brush the lace edge of my panties. Then one hand disappears and, behind me, I hear the low drag of the glass divider between us and Taylor as it seals closed. 

“We’re only a few minutes from Escala,” he says, quivering slightly as I squeeze his round, swollen crown. “Let me take you there and eat you until you beg for my cock.”

“We don’t need to go to Escala, I’ll beg right now.” 

“Will you?” 

I swipe my thumb over his tip, swirling the bead of moisture there around the tight skin. He shivers, but his eyes never falter, baring into mine. I let my teeth sink into my bottom lip and nod. 

“Please.”

A hand reappears in my hair, gripping the roots tightly enough to make me shriek with pain. 

“Please, what?” 

“Fuck me. Right here, right now. Please.” 

He gives me a cruel smirk. “And why would I do that?” 

“Because I need you. I need this.” I squeeze him until he grunts, then start to stroke him again. The muscles hidden beneath his slacks tense and release with each pull of my hand and his eyes turn to liquid mercury. “Please, Christian.” 

The hand still on my thigh dips between my legs and rudely pulls my panties to the side. I’m almost clumsy in my rush to nestle his thick cock against my wet folds, but his hands stay firm on my hips and guide me exactly where I need to go. I start to sink down on him, reveling in that first, delicious stretch. But I’ve barely taken his head, when the fingers on my hips dig harshly into my flesh and stop me in dead air. 

“This isn’t over between us, Anastasia. I don’t give up either.” 

“Then may the best woman win.” I let the playfulness glimmer through my eyes while I try and rock my hips to take some of the friction I’m shaking for.  I can’t move, and he isn’t wooed by my revelry. 

“Who are you?” he demands instead. His fingers dig into me, and I see the answer he’s waiting for written in his eyes. My teeth catch my bottom lip as the obedient smile begins to play across my face. 

“I’m a Grey.” 

“You’re goddamn right, you are.” The hands holding me still suddenly force me down and I take the entire length of him in one, forceful blow. “Now, ride me.” 

My body reacts to the command before my mind does. I move my knees to either side of his legs so I can lift myself just far enough to his tip that he doesn’t slip out, then sink down again. It’s slow at first. I use his shoulders to balance and his eyes to anchor me as I rise and fall like an incoming tide. It feels on the surface as though he lets me control the pace, but I know in my soul that every single movement my body makes, right down to the beat of my heart, is happening only on his terms. 

That’s most obvious when I try to move faster and those strong, unbreakable hands once again clamp down around me, forcing me to return to the agonizingly slow pace that makes me take notice of every long, thick inch of him spreading me open. When he presses his palm flat against my belly and begins to tease my clit with his thumb, I let my head fall back and try to soak in the pleasure. But as the eye contact between us is broken, he’s pulling me back again, shifting beneath me so that I’m sitting up straight and his cock is pressed into the exact place I need it. 

“Oh god, Christian. Right there… right… there…”

The wild sound of want that claws its way from his chest makes me whimper. I can feel everything inside of me starting to tighten and clench, and the more insistent my body’s reaction becomes, the more erratic he churns his hips. His body looks so powerful beneath mine,  but that power is seconds away from being beyond his control. 

And fuck do I want that. 

I want him to lose it. I want him to overwhelm me. I want him to pull me into a depth we’ll never crawl out of and hold me there with him forever. 

“Fuuuuck…” he hisses through clenched teeth. “You’re going to make me come so fucking hard, baby.” 

“Yes, please. Please, come in me. Please, please, please…

I let out a needy cry that’s followed for a series of unrelenting, breathless pants. The sound fills the space around us. My entire body is a tightly wound string that he expertly plucks with each deep stroke. I grind on him every time he bottoms out inside of me, and every subtle move I make draws a curse word from his lips. Each and every one of them is swallowed by the deep, passionate kiss that finally ignites the powder keg orgasm building inside of me and blows my goddamn mind. 

Our tongues tangle together in a dance only we know the steps to while my orgasm wrecks my body. I can feel him tighten with every vice-like clench of my insides around his cock. Sweat begins to bead on his brow and an impatiently angry vein pounds with his pulse beneath the skin on his neck. I keep pace with him as long as I physically can. But as the intensity of my orgasm drags me down to his chest and leaves me trembling, he thrusts up as deep as he can reach and empties himself inside of me. 

His shouts of ecstasy echo around us long after he’s stilled, and I melt with a deep kind of satisfaction that’s more powerful than the aftershocks of my orgasm.

We sit there together, chest to chest, heart to heart, until I notice the same parked car streak past the dark tinted window I saw a few minutes ago, and I realize we’re circling the block around my office. Christian spends our final lap devouring my lips until I’m craving a second round. All I get though is a small chuckle, as the car finally comes to a stop in front of my building. 

“Watch your back, Mrs. Grey,” he warns me as I step out onto the sidewalk where my security team is already waiting for me. I look back and see a devilish grin spread across his still swollen lips. “Now, I’m coming for you.” 

I give him the same grin he gave me back in his office a few weeks ago, lean into the car, and brush the tip of my nose against his. 

“I thought you just did.” 

Next Chapter

Chapter 40

I am not getting sick.

I am NOT. GETTING. SICK..

I glare into the tired blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror, as though I can intimidate myself into warding off germs. This morning, I woke up with a pounding sinus headache and have been sniffling all day. We got a warning from Calliope’s daycare when we took her home Friday that a few of the other kids in her playroom had come down with a cold. Of course, she seems perfectly fine. I, on the other hand, am tired, achy, and struggling to breathe.

And I have absolutely no time to deal with any of it.

At midnight tonight, Barney is running his first maintenance update on the Greenwich Library app, Hailey Lewis has confirmed lunch for tomorrow afternoon, and Mia’s hastily thrown together welcome home/going away dinner is in less than an hour.

After spending all summer indulging in European cuisine, the only thing Mia said she wanted to eat tonight was greasy, deep fried American food that she could slather in ketchup and feel bad about later. When she said it, I thought it was perfect because this weekend just so happens to also be Gail’s Sunday off, and I’ve been left with the responsibility of cooking for everyone. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and french fries sound like an easy thing to whip together in theory, until you’re standing over a 10 lb pile of whole potatoes that you have to cut into thin, perfect strips before they can be fried.

Thank god Kate offered to help. 

Yanking one last tissue from the Kleenex box on the bathroom counter, I blow my nose as hard as I can and take a breath. For the first time all day, it actually comes unobstructed.

See, I’m really not getting sick.

With new confidence, I march out of the bathroom and back to the kitchen, where I find Kate slicing vegetables and swinging her hips to Cyndi Lauper. I give her a slanted glance as I go into the pantry and remove our brand new deep fryer.

“Having our own personal 80s revival, are we?” I ask in a teasing voice. She grins at me.

“I just really feel like I need to get back to my roots, you know?”

“So you can…?”

“Find enlightenment, obviously.” She turns to give me a smug look, but it breaks with pain as she misses the potato in her hand and slices her finger. “Owe, fuck!”

“Oh, Katie…” Heaving the heavy appliance onto the counter, I dart back into the pantry to retrieve the first aid kit. When I return, Kate’s running her bloody finger under the tap, whimpering slightly as the cool water stings her skin. I hand her a paper towel and pat my hand against the counter next to the sink. “Hop up here.”

She does, then she pouts while I take her hand and start wiping away the blood still persistently bubbling through her skin. Tossing it to the side, I pick up a Band-Aid, but I can’t rip away the paper wrapper while I’m pinching her fingertip to staunch the bleeding.

“Help me?” I ask, holding up the Band-Aid so she can rip one side while I take the other. She doesn’t move though. “Hello? Earth to Kate?”

“Sorry.” She shakes her head as if shaking away a daze, then gives me a very serious look. “Did you get a new bra? Your boobs look amazing.”

“You’re seriously staring at my boobs right now?” 

“How could I not? I mean, damn.”

I roll my eyes, but feel a secret twinge of satisfaction. My secret is that my bra is actually attached to a complicated corset that’s got my boobs jacked all the way up to my collarbones. They’re actually getting a little sore from being so tightly bound for as many hours as I’ve been wearing it, but if it’s got Kate this excited, I imagine the pain will all be worth it the moment Christian gets his first glimpse.

After finally getting the Band-Aid around her finger, I take a step back from the counter, and Kate hops down, dancing her way back to the cutting board on the center island. She grabs the knife again and does a spin that makes me cringe.

“Will you be careful?” I snap at her. “That’s my best friend’s life you’re playing with right now.” 

“I heard that.”

For the first time in hours, my attention is drawn to the kitchen table on the other side of the breakfast bar. Luke is sitting there, but he’s been so quiet that I keep forgetting he’s here. He’s been on his phone all day and each time he picks it up, he becomes a little more withdrawn. I can only guess that it has something to do with this new mystery girl I don’t get to know anything about and, judging by the look on his face as he once again picks up his phone and reads whatever is displayed on the screen, it’s not going well. I don’t think it’s been going well all week…

But he doesn’t want to talk about it.

“I’m very sorry,” I tell him, trying to lift his mood a little as I turn back to Kate. “Please be more cautious with the life of the sister, formally known as my best friend.”

“Better,” Luke muses. “But you could just drop the ‘best friend’ bit all together if you wanted to make it perfect. We all know it was a dubious claim to begin with once I came into the picture.”

The backdoor opens and Christian saunters in just as Kate shoots a look full of vitriol back at my CPO. “You think you’re her best friend but it was me who literally saved her life when we were eight and she hurt her leg playing on the playground. It certainly wasn’t you who had to pedal her ass all the way the fuck across Montesano.”

“So, like three blocks?” Christian smirks at her, but she scoffs.

“It was at least six.”

With a laugh, he turns to me, but I’ve missed the entire conversation. I’m too distracted by the drops of water from the pool dripping off the ends of his hair and down the smooth contours of his chest and abs. His skin is golden from the afternoon sun and it takes every ounce of my restraint to stop myself from touching him. Maybe it’s because he’s been around so much more these past few weeks and I’ve actually had time to become addicted to him again. Or maybe it’s that he changed trainers and his arms and chest are so thick and perfectly sculpted now that staring at him makes my mouth water. 

“Still having trouble breathing?” he asks, concerned. I smile and look up at him adoringly.

“Only because you take my breath away.”

“Ugh, gross,” Kate says, turning away from us to rinse another batch of potatoes in the sink. Christian takes advantage of her distraction and pushes me back into the refrigerator. I giggle and reach up to kiss him, but the moment his tongue crosses the threshold of my lips, Elliot appears through the same doorway and gives each of us a stern look.

“Jesus, you two. Get a freaking room.”

Christian rounds on him, glaring. “Need I remind you that you’re currently standing in my house?”

“And need I remind you that you came in here to get your daughter a popsicle, not to assault your wife?”

“He doesn’t go anywhere without the intention of assaulting me,” I say, deftly maneuvering out of his hold and skipping back to turn on the deep fryer and start heating the oil. Christian lets out a sigh, moves to the freezer, and rifles around for the popsicles that are buried under the bags and bags of frozen fruit he blends with his protein shakes.

After several seconds of digging and muttered cursing, he finally pulls out the frozen treats in triumph. Of course, Calliope won’t just take the one he offers her. She needs a variety of colors to choose from. And while she diligently considers every flavor with the same air of importance I once used to decide which college I was going to attend, the doorbell rings. Luke gets out of his seat to answer it, and Calliope finally chooses a pink popsicle.

The exact one Christian had given her the first time.

Kate, Elliot, and I laugh as he takes a deep breath to keep his composure, peels away the plastic, and hands her the treat. Every ounce of his annoyance disappears though when she licks the end of the popsicle and beams up at him like he’s brought her ambrosia straight from Mount Olympus. His chest swells and he looks around the room, glowing with pride.

“Most powerful man on the planet,” Elliot says. “Completely controlled by a one year old.”

Christian glares at him. “She’s very mature for her age.”

“No she’s not. You got her the popsicle because she wouldn’t stop trying to eat her boogers.” He laughs so hard he actually has to lean over on the breakfast bar to support himself. While we all wait for him to stop, my father wanders awkwardly into the kitchen with Luke right behind him.

My heartbeat quickens, thudding noisily in my chest. I was convinced he wasn’t coming. When I finally worked up the courage to call and invite him, he told me no. He said he thought it would be better to give Christian a few weeks before he came around again, and no amount of pleading or bargaining changed his mind. But here he is, and the gesture he’s made by coming tonight almost drives me to tears.

“Hi, Daddy,” I say, moving across the kitchen to wrap him in a tight hug. He accepts it willingly, even squeezes me back like he really means it. “Thank you for coming.”

“Oh, stop it. You know there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than right here with you, sweetheart.” I hum in appreciation, but his arms move up and he pushes me back from him. “But it’s an awfully long drive back, so I wouldn’t say no to an invitation to stay the night.”

“Of course,” Christian says over my shoulder. We both turn to look at him, and he holds his hand out for my father’s. “I’m really glad to see you, Ray.”

My dad hesitates for a moment, then shakes his hand. “Thank you, Christian.”

“Can I get you a beer?”

And just like that, the tension breaks from my father’s face and he smiles. “Sure. Thanks, son.”

Christian moves to the fridge and once again the doorbell rings. I feel myself relaxing again as my dad finds Calliope sitting on the floor, dripping in pink. He pulls her into his arms, marveling at the popsicle she holds out to him like it’s a great prize.

“I’m back, bitches!” Mia cheers, following Luke through the archway into the foyer. Christian slides a cold, glass bottle into my father’s hand and rushes from the kitchen. When he makes it to his sister, he sweeps her up into a hug so hard, her feet leave the ground.

“Welcome home, Meems,” he says, once he’s set her on the floor again. She shoves her arms to each side and gives him a look like she’s about to drop a bombshell.

“You and I have to talk!”

“Oh?”

“I was in Prague, and there was this news stand next to the café that Tippy and I were having breakfast in that had this tabloid with a picture of you on the cover. So, I had the waiter translate it for me and it said that…”

“He doesn’t have a penis,” Elliot interrupts, walking towards them, hanging his head in shame. He grips Mia’s shoulder and bends down to her eye level. “We didn’t want you to find out this way…”

She sloughs his hand from her shoulder and narrows her eyes at him. “He has a kid, dingus.”

Elliot grins. “I thought you said you were reading the tabloids. Haven’t you heard? Calliope’s father is Luke.” He gestures to the kitchen table and Luke shakes his head in dismay.

“Can we keep me out of this, please?”

“Yes, please,” Christian says. “I will hit you, Elliot.”

Elliot laughs, then leans over to kiss the top of Mia’s head. “Glad you’re back, kiddo.”

“And you make me glad I’m about to leave again.”

“Amelia!” Grace chides her, and Mia grumbles an apology to Elliot before turning back to Christian.

“Anyway, the tabloids are saying that you destroyed your company and that you’re poor now.”

He makes a big show of rolling his eyes. “I swear, the things they come up with…”

She laughs, like the whole thing is ridiculous, then moves to take Kennedy out of her mother’s arms. “Oh my god, she’s so much bigger!”

The moment Mia has hold of her, Kennedy starts to wail. Mia rocks her and tries to shush her, but the tighter she’s squeezed, the harder she screams.

“You’ve been gone too long,” Elliot says, taking his distraught daughter from her and instantly ending her tantrum. “She doesn’t remember you.”

“But—“

“Meem!”

Mia turns to the kitchen to see my father looking at Calliope, but pointing to her. “That’s right,” he praises her. “That’s Aunt Mia.”

Mia gives Elliot a haughty smile and starts for the kitchen. “Ah, there’s my favorite niece.” My dad hands her over and as Mia settles her weight on her hip, she glances back at him. “Hey, Ray. Where’s Kim?”

“Uh…” He stutters, his eyes darting quickly back and forth in search of a response.

“Ray, do you want to do the grilling?” Christian asks, moving quickly into the kitchen to retrieve the burgers from the fridge. “Everyone’s here, we might as well get started.”

“Sure,” he replies, relieved for the break in tension. He takes the brown paper wrappings Christian hands him then leads the men into the backyard. Christian shoots a warning look between Mia and I as he follows and I sigh.

“What was that about?” Mia asks, handing Calliope to Grace so she can take her and Kennedy to the playroom.

“Christian banned Kim from the house,” Kate answers in a blunt tone, moving the bowl of cut potatoes to the fryer. “They left Calliope with her and Ray while they were in New York and Kim posted a picture of her on PixC.”

“I was going to ask about that!” Mia exclaims. “Are we allowed to post pictures of the baby now?”

“Is Kim allowed in my house?” I give Mia an unamused look, and then just to be absolutely clear, I add, “No, do not ever post pictures of Calliope online. Period.”

“Whatever,” Mia says, rolling her eyes. And it’s amazing how even in that whatever, I still trust her more than I ever trusted Kim.

I turn to the counter so I can help Kate with the french fries, but we’re not as intelligent about it as our Harvard education would suggest. She grabs a handful of raw potatoes and tosses them into the fryer. The moment the hot oil comes into contact with the wet surface of the starchy vegetables, it pops and splatters all over the both of us.

“Ah!” We scream in unison, diving away from the fryer. When we stand again, I glare at her.

“Smooth move.”

“Well, I’m sorry I’ve never deep fried anything before!”

“Guys.” Mia’s voice is so quiet that neither one of us hears it.

“Well, let me take over then.” I grab hold of her arms to move her to the side and approach the fryer with caution.

“Guys?”

The fries are sizzling nicely beneath the rolling oil and the popping seems to have stopped, so I grab the handle and pull the basket out of the fryer. Once I’ve loosened the moist potatoes already inside, I add a few more and shake it out again.

“Guys…”

“That’s too many,” Kate argues, trying to take the basket from my hand.

“Guys!”

We both snap our heads in Mia’s direction at the same time. “What?!”

She glances over her shoulder, ensuring there’s no one coming up behind us. Then she actually goes to the window to make sure all the boys are fully occupied at the barbeque. When she turns back to face us again, Kate and I are exchanging nervous glances.

“What’s up, Meems?” I ask hesitantly, setting the basket back in the oil and giving her my full attention. She takes a deep breath.

“I had sex this summer…”

“Oh my god!” Kate practically leaps at her, then yanks her to a barstool at the counter and shoves her down on it. “Start talking.”

Mia blushes. “It was when I was in Greece… We stayed there for a little over a week and the first night we were there we were dancing at this club in Mykonos. I met this guy named Nikolaos.”

“And…?” Kate presses her.

“I don’t know. We hung out. He showed us around, we went to the beach, we flirted, we had dinner… I liked him. I spent pretty much every second with him while we were there, and then the night before the girls and I left for Italy, he walked me back to my room and it just kind of… happened.”

“On your last night?” I ask. She nods.

“Did he go with you to Italy?” Kate asks.

“No. He stayed the night with me that night, we had breakfast the next morning, and then he just… took me to the ferry.”

“Oh, Meems…”

“It was okay,” she says, waving off the concern in my voice. “I liked him but I wasn’t in love with him. I didn’t want him to be my boyfriend or anything. I just… I didn’t tell the other girls and I wanted to tell someone. I thought it should be my sisters.”

I smile at her, but Kate doesn’t. “He didn’t do anything you didn’t want him to, did he? Because I swear to god, I’ll fly the fuck back to Greece right now, and…”

“No!” Mia interrupts her. “It was fine. Everything about it was fine. He was nice to me, he took care of me while it was happening, he didn’t treat me like dirt when it was over… It was fine.

I raise an eyebrow at her. “Just fine, huh?”

“Yeah.” She huffs and it makes her deflate a little. “I don’t know. All this hype and… it was just fine.”

“Well, I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but they’re not all winners out there,” Kate says. “Not even the cute ones who should have had lots of practice.”

Mia agrees with a laugh, but when Kate turns back to the fryer, she leans in to me. “Ana, when you and Christian had sex for the first time… how did you feel afterward?”

“Like I just found out magic was real.” Mia frowns, so I reach out and pick up her chin to make her look at me. “Talk to me.”

“I just thought it would change me, you know? I thought I would feel different or it would make me see the world in a new way. I thought it would be like some crazy revelation and… it wasn’t. It mostly hurt, then it was kind of weird. I’m not upset about it or anything, I don’t regret it. I’m just like… was that it?”

“He wasn’t the one. That’s all.”

“You think so?”

“Trust me. When you find the guy who you can’t stop thinking about, who takes your breath away each and every time you’re around him, and who makes your heart feel like it’s going to explode out of your chest… that’s the guy who will take you to bed and rock your whole universe.”

She smiles like she can’t contain the sweet-tinted emotions boiling up inside of her. “Awh… you’re so in love with my brother.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” I roll my eyes and laugh. As the sound dies out, I reach over the counter and grip her hand. “Do you have any questions?”

“Questions about what?” Christian’s voice comes from the other side of the kitchen. He’s carrying a plate of grilled polish sausages. Mia spins toward him and her eyes go wide with panic.

“Nothing!”

Christian isn’t dissuaded by her shrieked response. He glances between the three of us suspiciously, then repeats himself. “Questions about what?”

“Harvard,” I reply, as though he’s finally worn us down. “She’s worried that she’ll be an outcast and wanted some advice about getting invited to parties.”

“Just stay away from finals clubs,” Kate says, her back still turned to us as she takes the cooked fries from the oil and lowers another batch. Once the oil starts bubbling out of control again, she turns back to Mia, crosses her arms over her chest, and gives her a very stern look. “They’re rape palaces.”

“Stay away from parties altogether,” Christian says. “You should be more like Ana and focus on your studies.”

Luke, who I’ve once again forgotten all about in his monk-like silence, snorts and breaks down laughing at the dining room table. Even Kate snickers as she pulls a bottle of ketchup out of the fridge. I glare at both of them.

“Sometimes I forget how much of Ana’s time at Harvard you weren’t around for,” Kate says to Christian. “I could probably count second-semester sophomore year Ana’s sober nights on one hand.”

“Ugh, second-semester sophomore year Ana was the worst,” Luke agrees. “Two stars, would not recommend.”

“You know what,” I start, glaring angrily between the two of them. I look up at Christian, expecting him to defend me, but he shrugs.

“I didn’t get to be there. Second-semester sophomore year Ana is also not my favorite iteration of you.”

“Oh, yeah? You’re about to like this iteration a whole lot less if heads don’t start rolling around here for talking shit about your wife, Mr. Grey.”

He sighs, but nods. “Kate, when you and Elliot broke up, you had sex with Carter Reed. So I don’t want to hear judgement about anything out of you… ever. Sawyer, you’re dismissed.”

“Really?” Luke immediately perks up.

“Yes,” Christian replies. “The security office is that way, go occupy it.”

With a disappointed sigh, he nods, gets up, and leaves the room. He pauses before he makes it through the archway though. Then he locks eyes with me and once again mouths, “the worst.” I lunge towards him, but Christian catches me around the arm and drags me into the dining room.

Sitting around the table with my family feels more like home than all the work and travel we’ve been doing has allowed in quite some time. No one has a bombshell to drop or drama to start. We all just sit there and listen to Mia tell stories about Europe over a table full of junk food. My dad and I both smother our hot dogs in cream cheese and grilled onions, which has Christian glancing over at us in disgust every thirty seconds. But that only makes the whole experience more enjoyable.

“Did you meet any boys while you were travelling?” Grace asks, trying to be sly. Mia’s cheeks immediately go pink.

“You know, I think we’ve talked enough about me. We haven’t heard anything from Kate, and I bet Kate has all kinds of stuff to talk about. Don’t you, Kate? Don’t you have so many things you want to talk about right now?”

“Uh… yeah,” Kate says, pausing while she thinks of something to fill the silence surrounding the seven pairs of eyes that turn in her direction. “We’re running a story tomorrow morning about the protests that have been going on at City Hall all week.”

“Protests?” I ask. I’ve been out of town most of the week, but this is the first I’ve heard about protests.

“Yeah, about the transportation cuts. There are like 30% fewer buses, ferries, and trains running every day and it’s severely impacting the commuter community. We interviewed a few of the leaders who put the demonstration together and they gave us a list of demands. So, we’re going to publish it.”

Carrick glares at her. “Why? So the yuppy tech bros downtown who this doesn’t affect at all can hate me too? My approval numbers have been in free fall since those people started marching.”

“Hey, I don’t make the news,” Kate says, raising her hands defensively. “I just report it.”

“Yeah, well if I could do something about it, I would. Those budget cuts were a necessary part of this years… revenue shortfalls.” The way Carrick says the last words, and glances in Christian’s direction as he says them, makes it clear that he’s talking about the GEH tax cuts. Christian gives Calliope another French fry and leans casually back in his chair, reaching an arm over my chair and resting it lazily on my shoulder.

“How much is the shortage?”

“We had to cut $13 million from SDOT.”

Christian nods. “I’ll set up a $15 million grant to donate to the city’s transportation fund.

Carrick looks taken aback by Christian’s offer. Slowly, his eyebrows knit themselves together and he blinks a few times like he’s misunderstood what was said. Christian shakes his head, then leans over the table towards his father.

“Despite what you may think, I actually care a great deal about this city. I care even more about your success as Mayor. Besides, I employ commuters too. A well funded infrastructure is good business.”

“Of course he makes it about GEH,” Mia says. He shoots her a self-righteous grin.

“Well, whatever your reasons,” Carrick begins. “I really appreciate that, son. There are people in this city that are struggling, and I want to help them. It’s a very noble offer, so thank you.”

“It’s not, but you’re welcome.” He exchanges a glance with his father that holds a warmth that’s been absent since they went to war with each other last spring. I think Grace sees it just as clearly as I do because she brings a hand to her chest and fights to hold back her sentimental smile. Elliot on the other hand empties his pilsner and coughs to get Christian’s attention.

“What?”

“I was just thinking… I could use $15 million. You know, if you’re just handing it out.” Christian reaches over for my plate to pick up one of the fries I didn’t finish and hurls it across the table at his brother. Elliot just narrows his eyes at him. “So, no?”

We all laugh, then turn back to Mia, who actually does have several questions about her impending departure for Harvard.

Once dinner is finished and Mia has asked every single thing about Cambridge that she could possibly think of, we walk everyone to the door and say our goodbyes. Kate and Elliot are out quick, eager to get Kennedy back home and into bed. Grace dawdles, unwilling to give up Calliope.

“You know she could come home with us,” she offers, hugging her granddaughter tightly to her chest.

“Not tonight, Mom,” Christian says. Grace frowns, but after one last big squeeze, she passes Calliope back to him. Carrick wraps his arms around me, then holds his hand out for Christian.

“I’ll be in touch with your office to set up that grant,” Christian tells him.

“Good. I’ll clear my schedule for you, son.” They nod at each other as their hands fall to their side, but just before Carrick turns to leave. He stops and pulls Christian in for a hug. “It was good seeing you tonight, Christian.”

“Yeah, you too.”

“I love you, son.”

Christian smiles and nods to his father. “Yeah, you too.”

With a wink, Carrick takes Grace’s hand and, with a lighter stride than the one that carried him in here, he leads her through the front doors and out into the night.

“Well, I guess this is goodnight, kids,” my dad says, hovering at the foot of the stairs behind us. I open my mouth to argue, but stop myself and turn back to Christian. He nods, like he already knows what I’m going to say.

“Go ahead. I’ll put Calliope to bed.”

“Thank you.” I give him a quick, but deep kiss, then move my lips to each of Calliope’s chubby cheeks. “Goodnight, Calli-lilly.”

“Bye-bye, Mommy.”

My dad is already in his room when I make it upstairs. I try to show him around a bit, let him know where he’ll find the things he needs, or extra blankets if he gets cold. He catches me by the shoulders on my third lap around the room.

“Annie, I’ve been here a million times. There’s no need to fuss over me.”

I nod, but instead of leaving him on his own, I take a seat on the edge of his bed. “You were quiet at dinner.”

He shrugs. “It wasn’t really about me.”

“It was about family. You’re family.”

“Yeah, I know.” There’s a sadness behind his voice that tugs painfully at my heart, and I feel myself start to shrink. The same way I did when I thought I disappointed him as a child.

I take a shaky breath. “I’m followed everywhere I go, Daddy. And every time I have Calliope, the paparazzi gets more aggressive because that picture Kim posted blew up and now they think they can make money off of her. They scream at me, they grab me, they curse at me and flip me off to try to get me to react… It’s scary. It scares her. It makes Luke’s job so much more difficult, and I swear Christian is going to lose his shit one day and we’re going to end up in court again….” 

“I know, Annie. Christian made all of this very clear the last time I was here.” 

“But I don’t want you–” 

“Ana.” He stops and turns a stern look on me. “It’s fine. You don’t have to worry about me, and you don’t have to worry about Kim. She’s not going to be a problem anymore.” 

“What do you mean?”

“We’re no longer seeing each other. Her kids helped her move out this weekend, and I fully expect her keys to be waiting for me on the kitchen counter when I get home. It’s over.”

“What… why?” He gives me a look that makes it clear I should know exactly why, but I shake my head. “I didn’t tell you to… I mean, I didn’t mean for you to, uh… I just wanted—”

“Her out of your life,” he finishes for me. “You wanted her out of your life and you have since the day I first introduced you. The only thing that was keeping this together was Christian, because he was trying. But I saw how serious he was when he said Kim wouldn’t be welcome here again. And if she wasn’t welcome and I stood by her, it would only be a matter of time before that included me too.”

“Daddy, that is not true,” I argue. “I would never let that happen, no matter what.”

“You wouldn’t have to, sweetheart. If Kim was left at home waiting for me every time I came up here to see you, I’d just start coming less and less often. You’d get used to me declining invitations, until, eventually, you’d stop offering them. We’d have holidays with her kids, you’d have holidays with Grace and Carrick. I want nothing to do with that, Annie. I don’t want to miss Calliope growing up and I don’t want a miss a second of time I could be spending with you. You’re the most important thing in the world to me. Period.”

I feel the sting of tears behind my eyes and I have to look down at the floor before any of them actually break through the surface. His arms wrap around me and he pulls me into the familiar chest that’s comforted me innumerable times. This time, though, it only makes me feel worse.

“I love you, Daddy. I really, really love you.”

“I know, baby girl. I love you too. But you gotta get out of here because I’m exhausted and I’m going to bed.”

I nod against his t-shirt, then take a deep breath, wish him sweet dreams, and shuffle back to my bedroom. I can hear Christian reading to Calliope through her bedroom door, so I climb into bed and sit there, staring at the wall, and feeling miserable.

“Exactly where I hoped to find you,” Christian says, when he finally comes through the door. He moves to the bed and crawls over the top of me, seeking out my lips, but just before he makes his target, I hold up my hand to stop him.

“We need to talk,” I tell him. He lets out a disappointed breath and his head falls.

“Now?”

“Yes, right now.”

“Okay.” He rolls off of me and plops down on the bed next to me, pouting up at the ceiling like someone just took his favorite toy away. “What do you want to talk about?”

“My dad and Kim broke up.”

“Oh. Well, that’s much more convenient.”

“Christian!” I slap him across the chest and turn my whole body towards him, glaring. “She’s the only person he has! He lives in the actual middle of nowhere. He doesn’t have neighbors anymore, all of his buddies live over an hour away from him, we never go to visit him… he’s all alone. And I can’t…” I start shaking my head, too overwhelmed with guilt and sadness to finish the sentence. Christian brushes his hand back and forth over my back as he too sits up.

“So, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to buy him an apartment in the city so he can be closer to us?”

“No, he wouldn’t come if you did.  I– I–, ugh, I don’t know what I want.”

“Then we’ll start making more of an effort to go visit your father. One weekend a month, as often as we can. Any other time, he’s welcome to come stay with us. He knows that.”

I nod, because I know it’s the best we’re realistically going to be able to come up with, but I still feel like we’ve fallen about a hundred miles short of the mark. The attempt I make to say that is cut off though, when the room is suddenly filled with the piercing sound of the security alarm, blaring from downstairs.

Christian goes tense for half a second, then leaps from the bed and rushes to the door. I’m right on his tail, but he barks back at me to take Calliope into the safe room.

“Without you, are you insane?” I scream over the shrill siren echoing through my halls. He stops and rounds on me, just as we hear the door down the hall open and my father steps out looking confused.

“Stay with Calliope,” I tell him, then I grab Christian’s hand and start dragging him to the stairs. The moment we’re out of the hall, he snatches me by the wrist and yanks me behind him, shielding my body with his as we peer over the railing and into the dark entryway below. Taylor is standing in the middle of the foyer with his gun drawn on a shadowy figure by the door, and my heart starts racing.

“Get on the ground,” Taylor commands, and when the silhouette he’s aiming at hesitates, I hear him click the safety off his gun.

“Wait!” Luke shouts from somewhere in the dark. He comes barreling into the foyer and immediately puts himself between Taylor’s gun and the person cowering against the door. Christian reaches along the wall, in search of a light switch, and when he finally hits it, the mysterious intruder turns into… Jade.

“I’m so sorry,” her fear filled voice whispers to Luke. “I messed up the code and the alarm started going off… I didn’t know what to do.”

“It’s okay,” Luke says, offering her a comforting hand, but not taking his eyes off the gun. Taylor seems to come to his senses then and lowers his weapon, but his gaze is just as stern. Without the threat of the gun though, Luke doesn’t seem to pay him much mind. He turns to Christian, as though he’s expecting a tirade.

It doesn’t come.

“You’re an employee, Sawyer. Employees don’t get to have guests. This is my home, not your personal fuck pad. My daughter is asleep upstairs.”

“Yes, sir. I know, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t. Ana?” Christian holds his hand out for mine like he’s just going to let it all go. Instead, I stomp down the stairs.

“Start explaining, Lucas,” I tell him, shoving a finger in his face. He turns alarmed eyes on Taylor before shaking his head at me. 

“Ana, I don’t want to talk–”

“Our break-up wasn’t real,” Jade interrupts him. I look over at her, blinking. 

“What?” 

“It was my idea,” she continues, taking a step out from behind Luke and looking at me sheepishly.  “He was miserable. The only way he can have you in his life is if he has this job, and when he doesn’t have you he’s this different person that’s not.. Not who I fell in love with. So, when it became clear at that dinner that coming back here was the only way things were going to be resolved between him and Christian… I did the only thing I could think to do. I broke up with him in front of all of you so you had the proof, and then, when we got home, I told him I didn’t mean it. We’ve been seeing each other in secret ever since.”

“This is the first time she’s been here,” Luke says, turning to Taylor. “I swear. Normally, I go to her, but…” He looks up at Christian, and I’m able to fill in the blanks. 

“He said no more nights away…”

“Please don’t fire him,” Jade says. “It’s my fault. We haven’t seen each other in over a week and we’ve been fighting about it… I was fighting with him about it. I just needed to see him.”

I reach out and squeeze her arm. “Of course you did.”  

The nervous glimmer in her eyes changes slightly, shining with a sudden burst of hope. She turns to Luke and smiles. “See? I told you she’d be okay with it if you just told her!” 

“Okay with it? Are you kidding me? This is great! Luke, I’ve been so worried that you were going to resent me for ruining your first true love but she’s still here! And you’re still in love! And there isn’t some secret bimbo out there who I don’t get to know! Oh, Jade! I think I’m in love with you!“ I leap forward and wrap my arms around her until she can’t breathe anymore.

“No,” Taylor interjects, looking between Jade, Luke, and I as though we’ve gone crazy. “I’m sorry, but this is not good news. We have policies on this team regarding outside romantic relationships, policies I now know are vitally important because of past relationships that were kept secret from me that then endangered the lives of almost every single person currently in this room. This is non-negotiable, you knew that when you came back, Sawyer.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. But I’m not Kommer, and she isn’t Gia. Taylor, I swear she won’t compromise me. I swear that my priority is still and will always be Ana. I’ll never bring her back here again, you won’t even know about her.”

“She’s already compromised you. You gave out the code to the front fucking door, Sawyer. What if she’s playing you to get to him?” He jerks his chin towards Christian, and Luke’s eyes dim with warning. 

“She’s not.” 

Taylor shakes his head. “You can’t know that.” 

“I do know that. You don’t think I did a background check the first fucking night I met her. You don’t think I’ve interviewed every one of her friends and acquaintances? You don’t think I tailed her for weeks before I even so much as gave her my phone number? Remember who you’re talking to, Taylor. I’m the one who does your wet work.” 

Taylor’s face goes stone still, and he takes an intimidating step towards Luke. “Not everything comes out in a background check, Luke, and the most dangerous people know exactly how to play their part. You know that as well as I do. That’s why I have the vetting process that I do. That’s why my people only come from very specific sources. That’s why there’s a transitionary period. But none of that matters because at the end of the day, you broke protocol. I have rules, and if you don’t like them… there’s the door.”

“Taylor–” 

“Make your choice, Sawyer.” 

Luke’s pained eyes move to me, then to Jade, then back to me. There’s torture reflected in the lines of his face the grows more and more stark with each pass of his gaze between us. His indecision grates on Taylor, who prods him with a stern, “Sawyer…”, and Luke finally lets his eyes settle on me.  He takes a breath, shakes his head, and lets his head fall in defeat. 

Then he turns to Jade. 

“She’s my family.”

“Yeah, I know.” Her bottom lip trembles and tears well in her eyes. She looks down at her shoes and wraps her arms all the way around her body, like she’s afraid she’s going to shatter over my entryway floor. “I’ve been waiting for this ever since you told me you weren’t going to be able to get away anymore. How do you have a relationship like this? I-I–” Her words cut off with impending tears, and she starts shaking her head. 

“I’m sorry, Jade,” Luke pleads with her. “I’m so sorry… I didn’t want it to be like this. I didn’t mean– but she, and I–” Whatever walls she had up break behind the swell of tears that come choking out of her. He pulls her against him, placing a hand over the back of her hair as she sobs into his shirt. His chin tilts up, and I see that his eyes are turning glassy too. “Please don’t cry, Jade. Please…”

“Ana?” I turn back and look at Christian, who gestures to me to join him so we can give Luke and Jade privacy. I shake my head in disgust.

“No, this isn’t happening.” I turn to Luke. “Sawyer, you’re fired.”

His head whips around so he can glare at me. “Ana, can you not right now…“

“I’m serious. You’re choosing wrong here, and I’m not going to let you. You’re fired, Luke. Effective immediately.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor says. “You don’t have that authority.”

I round on him. “Like fucking hell I don’t. My name is on the same bank account your paychecks come out of, and he’s my CPO.”

Taylor blinks back at me, unintimidated, then glances at Christian still standing at the top of the stairs. I implore him with my eyes to be on my side, but he doesn’t say anything. He stares down at us, taking in the whole situation, and considering what he wants to do in long, drawn out silence until I can’t take it anymore.

“He’s always going to be closer to me than he is to you and you’re never going to be able to control that. He’s been late, he failed to report… oh, and he totally touched my boob last week when he was trying to make me watch that disgusting horror movie and we got in a fight over the remote.”

Christian raises an eyebrow. “Do you want me to fire him, or kill him?”

“I want you to back me up here.”

“Ana… he’s the only person I’ve been able to keep on your service. He’s the only one you’ll listen to. He’s the only one who knows you well enough to predict what you’re going to do. Firing him makes you less safe.”

Oh great, now he sees that.

I cross my arms over my chest and stare back at him defiantly. “You told me there was nothing to be scared of anymore. You said no one was coming after us and I didn’t have to worry because we were safe. You’ve made sure we were safe, right? So we’re either safe enough that I don’t need Luke anymore, or we’re not as secure as you’re trying to make me believe. You don’t get to have it both ways, Christian. Are we safe or not?”

“That’s not fair, Ana. Security plays into that equation.” 

“So there is something to worry about then? There’s something or someone actively threatening us that makes his presence necessary?” 

“I didn’t say that…” 

I raise an eyebrow and Christian grinds his teeth together. He doesn’t say anything. He puts us through another long silence, spending most of it glaring at me, before he finally takes a deep breath, looks at Luke, and says, “You’re fired, Sawyer.”

“No, I’m not,” Luke snaps back without missing a beat, but I stop whatever he’s going to say next by grabbing him by his shoulder and forcing him to look at me.

“I let you pick me over her once and I didn’t like how that made me feel, or what it did to you. You’ve moved on from this job, Luke. You’ve started building a life, and that’s okay. I want that for you. This lifestyle isn’t supposed to be a forever thing. I know that. I accept that. I just want you to be happy.”

“I’m not leaving you unprotected.” 

“I have security.” 

“Yeah, and we both know how seriously you take that.” 

“Luke…” I beg him to take the out and choose his own happiness with my eyes, but he resists it. A glimmer of fear breaks through the defiance in his eyes, and he licks his lip nervously. 

“This is how I get to have you in my life, Ana. And I need you.”

“I’m not going anywhere. You’re my best friend, Luke. I think you’re in for life, buddy.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah.”

He takes a deep breath and turns to Taylor. “Who would you use to replace me?”

“Harper. Or Kelley.”

“Ugh.” Taylor doesn’t even get the names out before Luke is shaking his head. “She doesn’t do well with female CPOs.”

“Well, she’s got Smith and Wyatt.”

“And she hates them. You’ve got enough eyes on her, she needs someone she can trust. Someone she feels comfortable around.”

“Any suggestions?” Taylor directs the question at Luke, but he turns to me.

“Who do you want?” 

“Uh… I got along well with Woods.”

Taylor shakes his head. “Woods has been reassigned…”

“You think he’s the best?” Christian interjects, ignoring Taylor and looking at Luke. He tilts his head from side to side, like he can’t make a determination either way.

“Do I think he’s the best on Taylor’s team? No. Do I think he’s the best for Ana? Probably. He won’t be so trusting again to let her throw him off, but she doesn’t resent him the way she does everyone else. Plus, he’s already been vetted so he’s the only one who’s immediately available.”

“Then he’ll be here first thing tomorrow morning,” Christian says, looking back at Taylor. Taylor doesn’t look happy, but he nods, and Luke starts walking toward the living room. I scrunch my brow together and follow after him. 

“What are you–?”

“Smith!” he shouts. “Wyatt!”

They appear through the hallway that leads back to the staff quarters, each dressed and with a hand on their holster. Wyatt’s nervous eyes shift around the room, taking everything in, but Smith looks straight at Luke.

“Yes, sir?”

“Her pupils dilate when she lies,” he says. 

“Excuse me?” 

“Anastasia. Her pupils dilate when she lies. She looks at her fingers when she’s hiding something, and she clenches her jaw when she’s nervous. All of those things mean she’s up to something.” 

“Uh… okay.”

“And every time we go get coffee, she smells the cinnamon rolls and wants one– but they always make her feel like shit for the rest of the day, so don’t let her get one.” He takes a deep breath, then turns to look at me again before he continues. “And sometimes she gets really quiet and stares off into space with this empty, detached look in her eyes… that means she’s thinking about Lincoln, and if it starts happening more than once a day, you need to call me.” 

I fold my arms over my chest, surprised to have it laid out just how well my best friend knows me. How well he reads me. I turn back to Christian, and see him staring at Luke with a furrowed brow and an uneasy glimmer in the gray of his eyes. 

“Uh… yes, sir,” Smith says. 

Luke’s eyes somehow turn colder, and the menacing look he gives each of my other body guards is so intense, they both take a step back from him. “Do not take your eyes off her.” 

“No, sir…”

“No no, I know what Taylor’s rules are and that you understand them, but I need you both to know that I fucking mean it. Do not take your eyes off of her, not for a second. Because if anything happens to her… I’m going to come for both of you. Got me? Her first, no matter what.”

Smith and Wyatt exchange uneasy glances, then nod. Luke still doesn’t look fully pacified, but now when he looks back at Jade, there’s hope in his gaze. And that’s all I need to know this is the right decision.

“We’ll take care of you,” I promise. “You’ve been so good to me for years, so anything you need, just ask, okay? Anything. I’m right here.”

“I know how good you are,” Christian offers. “And we’re always looking for people with your kind of skill in my technology department. If you’re interested, I can find a place for you under Welch.”

“Really?” 

Christian nods and Luke actually looks relieved. He turns back to me and I can almost hear the plea in his gaze. 

“Are you absolutely sure about this, Ana?” 

“Absolutely,” I tell him. “You’re my family, and I want what’s best for you. Just don’t be a stranger, okay?”

“Ditto.” He pulls me into a strong hug and thanks me over and over again while he holds me. Then he pushes me away with a last, affectionate look, reaches for his girl, and the two of them leave together.

Next Chapter

Chapter 39


Google Alert: Christian Grey

The Seattle Times, August 23rd 2012. Seven Officers Arrested on Charges of Conspiracy […], Seattle billionaire Christian Grey, the target of the conspiracy, has already poured over a million dollars into the city’s prosecuting attorney’s office.


Google Alert: Christian Grey

Forbes Magazine, August 23rd 2012. Christian and Anastasia Grey: American Royalty. Christian Grey is nowhere to be seen when we arrive at his palatial mansion on Lake Washington. Instead, it’s Anastasia who runs the household, much in the way she runs her bi-coastal publishing company…


Google Alert: Christian Grey

Business Insider, August 23rd 2012. Bill Gates is No Longer the Richest Man in the World. The announcement of Grey Enterprises Holdings partnership with the Pentagon Thursday comes with a hefty payday for CEO Christian Grey. A $50 billion payday.


My phone won’t shut up while I sit at the breakfast table, so I’m forced to turn it off.  Jacqueline has been working overtime. Now we’re in the middle of a perfect media storm and the sudden onslaught of press has actually managed to completely drown out any mention of Calliope, once again proving Christian is the man behind the curtain in almost every situation.

Congratulatory bouquets, cards, and assorted baskets of treats have been arriving since dawn from the people who turned on Christian while he was down, and now are desperately trying to get back on his good side. Kate left me an angry voicemail over us letting the Seattle Times break the police conspiracy story instead of Kavanagh Media, and, in response to the article from Business Insider, Elliot has been blowing up both our phones asking for exorbitant amounts of money to fund an impressively ridiculous string of business ideas he’s been coming up with all morning.

I ignore all of it. I’m too engrossed in watching Christian cutting up blueberry pancakes and feeding our daughter each syrupy bite. I still feel like I haven’t fully recovered from my sleepless night in New York, which is probably because I spent another sleepless night last night going three rounds with the incredibly sexy man now sitting across the table from me. I bite down on my lip, thinking it’s a shame he has to wear clothes at the breakfast table.

“You better watch those eyes you’re giving me, Anastasia,” he says, somehow catching me in the middle of checking him out, even though he’s entirely wrapped up in our daughter. He stabs another small piece of pancake and gives me a pointed look as he guides the fork to her mouth. “I have the self-control of a man, not a saint.”

 “Mmm!” Calliope squeaks, holding her fists in the air excitedly as she chews. Christian looks back at her and laughs, then drags the silicone edge of the fork he’s holding across her bottom lip to clean away a drip of maple syrup. I watch them both with rapt interest over my breakfast, smiling like an idiot.

“Do you like pancakes?” Christian asks, still grinning.

“Mo’, Daddy.”

“More?” He spears another bite and swirls it around as he brings it to her mouth. She laughs, then clamps her mouth down on the fork like a turtle. I giggle this time, and the sound once again catches Christian’s attention.

“Mmm, that’s lovely. Much more of that, please.”

I beam back at him. “Giggling, or adoring you?”

“Why make me choose?”

I let out another laugh, then turn to my right as Gail approaches with a vanilla latte she made with our brand new, very fancy espresso machine. There’s a leaf drawn on the top in foamy milk.

“I’m not quite perfect at it yet,” she tells me as she sets the full mug on the table in front of me, though her excitement and pride color every word of the sentiment. I turn to her, hoping how impressed I am with her handiwork is there in my smile. 

“Are you kidding me? It’s gorgeous!” I look at Christian. “We’re not paying her enough.”

Christian laughs before turning his attention back to the insistent cries of our baby. She has her hands reached out towards the half-eaten omelette on his plate.

“You want my breakfast?” he asks, skeptically. Even I wrinkle my nose. She strains her hands further, so he cuts a bit off the corner of the folded eggs and holds it out for her. She takes the bite eagerly, but only chews it a few times before she spits it back out on her tray.

Gail gasps from the kitchen and places a hand over her chest.

“You see,” Christian says sternly to Calliope, nodding to our housekeeper. “Now you’ve offended your cook.”

“It’s not Gail’s fault your breakfast is gross,” I interject, looking down at the monstrosity resting on his plate. “Who whisks whey protein into their eggs?”

“Someone who is going to get some serious gains when they work out with their trainer later.”

I lean closer to him, resting my elbows on the table. “But, for God’s sake, at what cost?”

He smiles, a genuine, breathtaking smile that makes my head swoon and leans the rest of the way in. His lips are a mere breath away from mine when we’re interrupted by one of my new security guards.

“Mrs. Grey?”

I sigh and turn to him. “Uh… Smith, right?”

“Wyatt.” He gives me a patient smile, then holds out a cell phone to me. “Your assistant is asking for you.”

My eyes shift down to the mirror black screen on my iPhone and I frown. So much for an uninterrupted breakfast.

I reach out for the phone Wyatt’s holding, but pause just before my fingers wrap around it. “Wait isn’t this Luke’s phone?”

“Yes, ma’am. When your assistant got your voicemail, she reached out to your head of security.”

“So, where is he?”

“In the office.” His eyes shift to Christian. “He’s working on something for  Mr. Grey, I believe.”

Oh… right. 

I take the phone and try to express an apology to Christian for the interruption. He’s not paying attention to me. Once again, he and Calliope are in their own little world together.

“Hello?”

“I’m really sorry to bother you, Ana…” Abby starts. “Since you’re not leaving the country anymore, are you coming into the office today? And, most importantly, if you’re not, could you?” 

My stomach drops. I spent all day yesterday playing with Calliope, soaking her in while I dealt with the residual emotions from the confrontation with my dad. I haven’t even glanced at The Greenwich Library’s numbers.

“Uh oh, what’s wrong?” I ask, dreading the answer.

“Nothing, we’re just… a little in over our heads here.” 

“What do you mean?”

“Uh… I don’t know if I can express it correctly over the phone. I think you need to see it yourself.”

My brow furrows, but I decide that if she thinks I need to see it to understand the worry in her voice, there’s no reason to keep her on the phone asking pointless questions. “Okay, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Thanks, boss.”

I hang up the phone and sigh as I push what’s left of my own blueberry pancakes a few inches away from me. Christian turns in my direction, frowning.

“Everything, alright?”

“I don’t know. Abby’s freaking out about something, so I’ve got to go into the office and deal with it.”

“No, you don’t. Quit. Come work for me. I’ll have an office at Grey Publishing cleared out and ready for you within the hour.”

I snicker, then come around the table to kiss him. “After all the work I’ve put into ringing you dry with my new subscription service? Not a chance in Hell, Grey.”

“It was worth a shot.” He once again turns the gorgeous smile that makes my knees weak on me in full force, then pulls my lips down to his. It’s not a quick, goodbye kiss like I’d thought it would be. He presses his lips deeply into mine and pushes his tongue into my mouth. I suck the tip of it and he groans. “Just a man, Ana… If you think you’re leaving for work, you better get the fuck out of here.”

His hands clench tightly around the armrests of his chair, and I know it’s the only warning I’m going to get.

“Have a good day,” I tell him, and he grumbles slightly as I walk away. That is until Calliope captures his attention again, which doesn’t even take as long as it takes me to leave the room. I start towards the security office to return Luke’s phone, but it rings before I get there. When I look down at the name across the screen it stops me in my tracks.

Jade.

I pick up the pace, nearly knocking Mackensie over at the bottom of the stairs as I sprint to the security office. Luke is inside, looking intently at a document open on his computer screen.

“Luke!” He turns to me, eyebrows furrowed at my urgent tone. I toss the phone to him. “It’s her!

His eyes widen as he looks down at the screen, then harden as he reads the name. There’s a tick in his jaw that throbs like a heartbeat when he presses his finger into the button to reject the call, and shoves the phone roughly in his pocket. I’m shocked, because it’s the exact opposite of the reaction I was expecting.

“Okay… so are we in the hating her guts phase now?”

“We’re not in any phase,” he grumbles. “I’m over it.”

“Well, you’ve got me convinced.” He narrows his eyes at the sarcastic bite to my words, but I ignore him and take the seat at the workspace next to his. “Are you fighting?”

“No.”

“Did she find out about your whorish ways?”

“Why do you always assume I’m being a whore?” I’d meant it as a joke, but he actually sounds a little indignant.

“I’m sorry. I don’t really think that, Luke. I was just kidd–” And then it hits me. I don’t know if it’s the look in his eyes or some kind of best friend intuition, but suddenly, I know what’s been so different about him these past few weeks. As certainly as I know the color of the shirt he’s wearing right now. “Holy shit. You’re seeing someone!”

His face falls, his cheeks pink, and he turns to face the computer again. “I don’t want to talk about it, Ana.”

“Oh my god, you are!”

He shakes his head. “I’m not allowed to be seeing someone, remember? Serious relationships take more time than this job gives me, and romantic connections are compromising.”

“Like that’s ever stopped you before.”

When was I in a serious relationship before?”

“You know, that one girl that you dated while I was still in school…”

That one girl. Sounds serious.”

I glare at him. “Her name was Leah.”

“And I fucked her like three times and then I dumped her.”

I cringe at his ugly tone. It’s not like Luke to be so defensive with me, not after this much instigating. I know what I know, and the fact that he won’t admit it to me actually hurts a little. Maybe even more than a little.

“You’re kind of being an asshole, you know that?” I snap at him. He rounds on me, ready to launch into a tirade, but I jump in first. “You know every single thing about me. You know what time I wake up in the morning, you know what I eat for breakfast, what time I go to work, what meetings I have, how many times a day I talk to my husband… hell, you know when we have sex. This job means that you get a very personal look into my life. So if this thing between you and me is really a friendship, you can’t have a secret life that I don’t know about. That doesn’t put us on equal footing, and if we’re not on equal footing, then you’re just Big Brother.”

He lets out a harsh breath, then gets out of his chair and moves to close the door. Once we’re blocked off from anyone who might come up the hallway, he moves to flip a switch on the control panel to the security system. The light on the camera in the corner goes dark, and Luke’s shoulders rise and fall with the deep breath he takes. When he rounds on me, he no longer looks irritated. There’s a vulnerability spelled out across his face that I only ever get to see, when he isn’t trying to act like my CPO.

“Ana, I really don’t want to talk about this.”

“Why?”

“Because you go to bed with my boss every night and I’m not trying to get fired. There are rules about this.”

“Oh.” That actually makes me pause. “Well… I won’t tell him. It’ll be our secret.” 

He leans back, sitting on the edge of the desk, and folds his arms over his chest. “Think about what you just said. You really want more secrets between you and me? How do you think your husband will feel about that?” 

“Uh…” I hesitate, because I’m not exactly sure how to respond. No matter how long I stare at him, the answer never comes. Probably because he’s right. “Fine, but you are, though,” I reply, stubbornly. “I know you are. I can read you like a book, Sawyer.”

He grins and walks towards me, bending over and resting his hands on each of the arm rests of my chair. “I don’t want to talk about it, Ana.”

I don’t want to talk about it, Ana.” I mock his words in a very childish voice as I get out of the chair, but it only makes him laugh. He flips on the camera again and follows me out of the office while I grumble about how I don’t even really want to know her anyway, and that she’s probably terrible, and that we definitely wouldn’t be best friends, and I don’t even want to be… I have enough friends so it doesn’t even bother me not being close to the people that he loves. Not even a little.

By the time we pull out of the garage and start towards GSP, he’s shaking with silent laughter.

Twenty minutes later, I pull up in front of my office expecting the worst. I spent the entire drive here thinking of every doomsday scenario that could’ve happened in the last 24 hours. The app has crashed and all our data has disappeared. The paywall isn’t working and people are downloading our entire collection for free. Christian has found some magical loophole in the contract he made me sign for my app design that means all the profits from the Greenwich Library go to GEH. That last one is ridiculous, I know, but after the whole Hailey Lewis/Phoenix debacle, I’m not taking my eye off him for a second.

Instead of being greeted by disaster though, I walk through the front doors to a round of applause. Everyone in the office is on their feet clapping, beaming at me. Jacki looks almost on the edge of tears.

“What’s going on?” I ask, so taken aback that I actually do step backwards into Luke.

“Have you seen the numbers for the library?” Abby squeals.

I feel the apprehension leave my face, leaving me completely blank. “No, we were dealing with a… uh…” I swallow to get myself to stop babbling. “Are they good?”

“Good?” Stevens barks from his desk. He picks up a folder and starts towards me, thrusting it into my hands the moment he’s close enough. I glance down and skim through the information until I see the number.

180,000.

Holy shit.” The words escape before I can pull them back, but when I shoot guilty eyes up at my employees they all laugh jubilantly. On Monday we were praying for 50,000 subscribers. 180,000 is so far out of the realm of what I thought was possible that, looking at it now, I have to focus on the thundering beat of my heart just to make sure I’m not dreaming.

Numbers like these aren’t just survival. This means growth. This means freedom and flexibility. This means that I really do know what I’m doing after all.

“It’s been insane here since yesterday,” Stevens says. “Our inboxes have been flooded from literary agents we’ve never worked with and hundreds of self-published authors who are interested in getting their work into the premium content side of the library. New York has been calling for hours complaining that they’re getting emails they send you pinged back because your inbox is full.”

“What? Full?” I push past him and start at a quick pace for my office, hearing good natured calls for me to get to work so they can. I turn back to look at them as I open the door to my own office, just so I can roll my eyes, but Luke stops me before I step inside.

“Uh, Ana…” He gestures awkwardly to Smith.

“Oh, right. Abby, this is Collin Smith. He’s joining my security team. Can you find a place for him?”

She glances around the room of completely occupied desks, then answers me the same way people speak to their senile grandparents. “Sure thing, Ana.”

I ignore her tone and nod to them as I move into my office, bracing myself while I take the seat behind my computer. It’s just as bad as my employees said. The moment I open my email, I’m met with all kinds of error messages about the emails I can’t receive until I delete what’s already in my inbox. I start in, planning on doing nothing but reading all day, but it becomes clear very quickly that I can’t keep up with the workload and manage the branch at the same time. Since no one can email me, I’m hounded with phone calls the entire day. Every fifteen minutes, someone is knocking on my door with some fire that needs to be put out. Eventually, I have to have Penny help me work the manuscript submissions, but even with her help, my inbox is still gridlocked until the very end of the day.

 “A new email!” she cheers in triumph when she deletes a submission from Rogers and an unread email appears in its place. I return an absolutely exhausted smile that morphs into surprise when I look up and see the message sitting at the top of my inbox.


To: Anastasia Grey

Date: August 23rd 2012 08:24 AM

Subject: GP/GSP Writers Conference

From: Elizabeth Morgan

Attachment: GP New Author Contract Template.pdf

Hey, Ana!

I’ve been thinking about this all week and I’ve got some great new ideas to talk to you about. Have you had time to review your schedule for a standing meeting yet? Wednesdays work best for me but I’ve got some time on Tuesdays and Fridays too. Oh, and I’ve attached the contract template you requested– sorry it took me so long to get it to you. I swear I’m losing my mind sometimes.

Best,

Elizabeth Morgan

Editor-in-Chief, Grey Publishing, Inc.


I don’t remember the last time I moved so fast. The second the contract is open on my screen, I start to read. The table of contents guides me to the sections of the document that talk about GP’s responsibilities and what the author is agreeing to. Christian hasn’t broken a single provision, of course. Mr. Careful has certainly dotted all of his Is and crossed every single T.

I fall back in my chair, nearly defeated, until I scroll to the very last section of the document and find a termination clause buried in a big block of legal speak.

10. (a) VOLUNTARY TERMINATION. This contract may be terminated voluntarily for any reason, by either party, upon thirty (30) days prior written notice detailing causes for termination and sent via certified mail.

10. (b) Unless his or her authority is revoked pursuant to clause three (3), after termination, the author will be financially liable for the services administered by the publisher including, but not limited to: editing fees, printing costs, literary agent commissions, marketing materials, and other miscellaneous expenses detailed by the publisher. The publisher shall have sixty (60) days from the date of termination to report any financial liabilities related to a voluntary termination to the author.

I re-read the section several times, making sure there isn’t any double meaning to what’s written that might come back and bite me in the ass. On the surface, the consequences of this termination clause seem astronomical. There’s no way an author could afford to reimburse their publishing company for business costs. Especially a young, first time author like Hailey.

But for the publishing company who is desperate to sign her and who is currently experiencing a massive wave of success from their subscription service…

A smile crosses my lips and I start to calculate the possible cost of a contract termination in my head. She’s only been signed for a week and a half, so they’ve still got to be in the beginning phases of the editing process. Christian will gouge me over that, I’m sure, since editing is so difficult to bill anyway. But they won’t have sent anything to the printers, they won’t have marketing materials, and Hailey didn’t use an agent to get to Grey Publishing. I think I could get her out of this for less than ten grand, and for a release that I’m certain will create hundreds of thousands, if not a million, in revenue, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Quickly, I open my email and start composing a message to Abby, asking her to make me lunch reservations for Monday afternoon. Before I hit send though, my phone rings and it’s Christian’s name that greets me when I look down at the screen. It makes my stomach drop.

He’s on to me.

“Hello?” I answer, nervously.

“You’re late,” comes his easy reply. I let out a sigh of relief and look down at the clock in the bottom corner of my screen.

“I’m not late, it’s only six.”

“It’s 6:03,” he corrects me, and when I huff back he laughs. “Are you finished for today?”

I hit send on my email to Abby, then close the screen on my laptop. “Yep, just powered down my computer. I’m on my way home now.”

“Good, I love you.”

“I love you too, see you soon.” I hang up the phone and gather my things. Most of the office is empty already, except for Penny and my security team, who help me close down before we lock up and make our way down the elevators. I wave good-bye to my receptionist, thanking her again and again for the invaluable help she’s given me all day. She tells me for probably the hundredth time that she’s happy to help, then smiles as she starts down the street for the train station. I turn my attention to the car waiting for me on the curb, but it’s not Smith who is standing there waiting to open the door for me.

“So this is why you were so impatient,” I say, smiling as I step into Christian’s arms. He doesn’t respond. He pulls me into him and kisses me deeply, eliciting a few flashes from the bushes that Luke has to chase away.

“Come on,” Christian says, opening the passenger’s door to the Maybach for me. I glance in the backseat and frown.

“Where’s Calliope?”

“With Taylor and Mackensie. I thought you and I could have a date night tonight.”

I hum softly and let my eyes sparkle with love at him. “Did you?”

“Mhm. I have a surprise for you.”

“Well then, take me away, Mr. Grey. I’m your willing prisoner.”

“Don’t give me any ideas, now.” His eyes crinkle with mirth at the corners, and I lean up and steal a quick kiss before ducking into the front seat of the car. He appears next to me seconds later, then pulls out into traffic, taking my hand over the center console as he expertly weaves in and out of the lanes packed too tightly with cars.

“How was your day?” I ask.

“Productive. I wrapped up negotiations and signed a $65 billion deal with China today.”

I actually choke over my own breath. “Billion?”

“Dollars.” He grins, then turns to look at me. “Do you want an island? I’m thinking about buying an island.” I stutter for a few moments, having difficulty summoning words while my brain tries to rationalize sixty-five billion dollars. The look of amusement on his face never falters. “How was your day?”

It takes me a minute to shake away my shock before I can answer him. “Good. Very good, actually.”

“You got your numbers back from the Greenwich Library?”

“Mhm.”

“And?”

“I’m not telling you that. You’re the competition, and you’ve made it very clear that it’s war between us.”

“War between Grey Publishing and Greenwich Small Press,” he corrects me. “Never between us.”

“Semantics.” I brush his remarks away with a casual wave of my hand, but he just once again grabs ahold of it and brings each of my fingers to his lips. 

“It’s not semantics, it’s important to me. Never between us.” He kisses each of my fingers again. “Will you at least tell me if I should be worried?”

“Only if you plan on keeping your publishing company.” This time, I turn and give him a look that is exactly as smug and satisfied as I feel. He doesn’t falter one bit.

“And I do. Remember who you’re dealing with, Anastasia.”

“You don’t scare me.”

“I should. This is my game, baby. I write the rules, and I enforce them.”

“We’ll see.” I turn away, looking out the window. His hand tightens around mine in a gesture of warm affection and I smile to myself. There’s a part of me that loves stepping into this ring with Christian, and I think he feels the same. But the only way we can fight each other in business is to never let it seep into the deep bond we share with one another. And he doesn’t. Not even when he’s losing.

  It’s strange that he turns for the freeway and takes it south, rather than to any of the restaurants in the city. My confusion only deepens when he hits the turn signal, and we pull through the gate at Boeing airfield. His jet is there, waiting for us.

“What exactly does this date night entail?” I ask.

He grins. “We’re just going up. Come on. I’ll show you around.”

I give him a confused look as I step out of the car and look up at the familiar jet. Except, as my eyes start picking out small details, it isn’t familiar at all. The wings and the tail are the wrong color, electric blue instead of deep gray. So is the giant GREY painted on the side of the fuselage.

“Wait, what is this? Did you buy a new plane?”

“Not exactly. It’s the flagship of the new Endurance fleet I’m building with Boeing. We have contracts with every major airline, but I wanted the very first one to be yours.”

My eyes widen at the word, and I peel my eyes away from the plan to gawk at him. “Mine?”

He shrugs. “You travel as much as I do anymore. This way I can control when, where, and who you’re flying with, and Ros can stop bitching at me for the plane never being available.”

“But… but…”

“Come on.” He takes my hands and looks at me adoringly as he pulls me towards the stairs. “You’re going to love it.”

From the outside, the plane looks almost identical to Christian’s. On the inside, the differences are immediately apparent. Christian’s jet has enough seating for our entire family and security team. As I look around at the small cluster of chairs around the table, one long sofa, and a few regular seats, I find myself counting bodyguards to determine whether or not they can all be accommodated.

“I know it looks small, but it isn’t,” Christian says, once again answering my thoughts instead of my words like he’s some kind of wizard. “We’ve made a few editions to make travel easier for you.”

Leading me to the back, I start to notice what he means. Christian’s plane, with its ample seating, has one bedroom at the back. Mine, has two. A small room that’s already been transformed into a nursery for Calliope and a larger room for Christian and I. They’re connected by a small hallway that is lined with cots that fold down.

“For your security team,” he tells me, lifting a cot back up into it’s holding place on the wall. There’s a bathroom back here that’s much larger than the closet-sized one on Christian’s jet, and an actual closet in the master bedroom. “Well, what do you think?”

I blink at him. “You bought me a plane.”

“No, I built you a plane, and you haven’t seen the half of what makes it so special.” He leads the way back to the main cabin, which has been closed up as if we’re preparing for take off. Natalia is standing over the table near the front, laying out dishes and place settings.

“We’re having dinner here?”

Christian nods. “I want you to feel it, so I’m taking you to Portland and back. It’ll take a couple hours. I thought we’d share a candlelight dinner.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“Good.” He turns to Natalia. “Let Stephan know we’re ready to take off.”

“Yes, Mr. Grey.” Natalia places the last fork on the table and scurries up the aisle toward the cockpit. Once we’re alone, Christian sweeps me into his arms and kisses me like he’s been waiting for it for ten years. We fall back on the sofa, letting our hands roam the other’s body like we need to get reacquainted. It’s a ridiculous concept, because every inch of muscle my fingertips trace is bone-achingly familiar. There is a small degree of exhaustion, and not just from my busy day, that lingers persistently in the back of my mind. It’s very easy to ignore though when he groans into my mouth and grinds his erection against my thigh. We probably would have started stripping right then and there if I didn’t suddenly start sliding down the couch.

“What the—” I grip the cream leather that covers the sofa and glance in a panic out the window. We’re already off the ground, and I didn’t notice. The plane is completely silent, and as I stare around in confusion at what the hell is going on, Christian gives me a cocky grin.

“No combustion, remember? Without the chemical reactions and burning of fossil fuels, the engines are only as loud as wind hitting the propeller blades. We built the fuselage with insulated, reinforced steel to keep it as silent as possible.”

I stare out the window, watching the propellers inside the engines spinning in a blur on the wings. Marveling at how silent they are, like we’re in a car driving 35 miles an hour down an empty road with all the windows up.

“It’s almost unsettling,” I tell him.

“But think of how much better we’ll sleep on the way to our new private island. Did you prefer the Indian ocean, or French Polynesia?” I roll my eyes and turn away from him, but he captures my wrist and pulls me back into his lap, kissing me deeply the moment I’m engulfed in his arms. We stay that way until we reach cruising altitude and Natalia returns with covered dishes in her hands and lays them on the table.

“Can I get you anything else, Mr. Grey?” she asks. Christian shakes his head and dismisses her, before pulling out a chair for me and settling down himself on the other side of the table. I lift the cover from my plate and find a pasta tossed with clams. Mmm.

“Mia’s home, by the way,” Christian says, casually throwing a clam shell into the dish resting on the table between us. “Her flight came in late this afternoon. I thought maybe we’d give her a few days to get back on local time, then we could have a family dinner at our house on Sunday? She leaves for Harvard next week.”

“Already?” I ask, genuinely baffled. He nods, eyes widening like he can’t believe it either. I agree that we need to get everyone together before she goes, especially if she’s planning on being anything like Christian. He didn’t come home for anything except major holidays when he was at school. I’ve decided I won’t be able to wait until November for the Yale game anyway, so we start making plans to visit Mia in October, after Carrick’s birthday. The entire time we’re talking, he keeps my flute of champagne full.

“Are you trying to get me drunk?” I hiccup. He smiles and shakes his head.

“No, I’m trying to christen this damn plane.”

“I think you’re supposed to do that before take off,” I tell him, picking up my glass. “And I think you’re supposed to break the champagne on the ship, not force feed it to your wife.”

“That would be true if that’s what I meant.” He leans into me, his eyes brimming with a dark, lustful promise. “And that is most certainly not what I fucking meant.”

My mouth goes dry, and I’m instantly craving him. The taste of his lips, of his skin, of his cock… it’s all so much more appealing to me than the food on my plate. I push away from the table and crawl into his lap. He accepts me with open arms, then pulls my lips down to his.

I’m naked in under a minute, and grinding on him while he’s still fully dressed in an expensive and immaculately cut suit does things to me that make rational thought very difficult. It’s an unequal feeling of power, reminding me that I’m submissive to his desires and his wants. That reminder is the only thing that keeps me from dragging him out of his chair and into the bedroom.

“Please,” I beg against his lips, the lone word trembling with my need for him. He groans and utters a filthy obscenity under his breath, then lifts me in his arms and starts toward the bedroom. I’m slammed against a wall before we make it there and once again assaulted by his lips. I can feel the bruising starting, but that only makes me more ravenous for his kiss. The harder he grabs me, the more brutal his lips are against mine, the more intense my need for him burns. By the time he tosses me onto our new bed, I can’t even force myself to lie there and wait for him. I bounce back up and immediately start climbing him again, disrupting his attempts to unravel his tie. My unexpected weight throws him off balance slightly, and he topples over onto the bed, pinning me beneath him. I grind my clit against the fly of his slacks.

“Fuck me, Christian. Please, fuck me.”

“Fuck you?” He reaches for my wrists and pins them over my head, then leans down and gently nuzzles each of my breasts. It sends a torturous wave of tingles through me that resound painfully at the junction of my legs. “I brought you up here to make love.”

I pant and arch my breasts up more insistently against his face, silently begging for his tongue. He doesn’t comply.

“All day I’ve been thinking about laying you over this bed and treating you like the goddess you are. There wasn’t an inch of your gorgeous body that I wasn’t going to touch. Kiss. Worship. I was going to take you slow and deep and tell you over and over again just how much I fucking love you.”

I whimper and lick my lips.

“But if you’d rather be fucked…” I hadn’t noticed him pulling out his cock until he thrusts it inside of me. Hard. Without any pretense of gentility or even concern. If I hadn’t been as absolutely soaked as I am right now, he would have ripped right through me. As it is, he bottoms out with hardly any resistance and I let out a pleasure-laced scream that echoes throughout the room around us. He fills me over and over again in exactly the way I need him to, each hammering thrust chipping away my composure until I’m sweating, shaking, and panting beneath him. As every one of my muscles tenses in anticipation of release, I start to tremble. He looks deep into my eyes, reveling in my dizziness. He’s got me exactly where he wants me and I can see the satisfaction burning behind the pleasure so obviously displayed on his face. So when I finally come apart, I scream his name as loudly as I can to intensify all of it.

“Fuck, baby,” he growls into my ear while my orgasm pulses around his cock again and again. “So fucking tight. So fucking good.” His hands tighten on me, digging into my skin so roughly I know I’ll be left with bruises. Fuck, I hope I’m left with bruises.  

As my orgasm subsides, he kisses me and the way his tongue moves in my mouth is almost enough to make me come again. His pace slows and with every push and pull he stretches his torso over mine, brushing the beautifully sculpted muscles on his chest across my hardened nipples.

“Oh, fuck,” I breathe. My entire body shivers. He lets out a single, sexy laugh and softly nuzzles my neck.

“Have you had enough?”

“No.”

“Good.” The hand around my wrists vanishes and lands on my hip. With a harsh tug, he tosses me across the bed so I land on my stomach, then yanks my hips into the air. I expect another ruthless onslaught from his cock, but it’s his tongue I feel next. He licks me over and over again, starting at my clit, then dipping inside of me. I push back on his face, moving against his tongue in exactly the way I need it. Any second, I expect some form of castigation, but it doesn’t come. He lets me ride his face right until…

“That’s enough.”

Fuck. “No, Christian….” The words come out so needy, I don’t even sound like myself. The cold air that breezes over my wetness in his absence feels cruel when the heat had been so, so close…

He grabs two handfuls of my ass and spreads me open, watching me clench in desperation for him until all promise of an orgasm has subsided. Then he pushes his thumb deep inside of me, moving it in and out, keeping me right on the edge. It’s a challenge, because I’m not allowed to come for his fingers. So I moan and push into the mattress beneath me, but I refuse to let the pleasure overwhelm me. After a minute, he pulls out, drags his thumb through my dripping lips, and starts to circle the entrance of my ass.

“So wet for me,” he whispers, dipping into me and dragging his finger up again. His thumb pushes through my tightly pleated muscles at the same time his cock slides through my lower lips. I buck against the intrusion, but his free hand comes down on my hips and holds me in place.

“Slow this time,” he says, pulling back all the way to his tip and then inching back into me. His thumb moves in unison with his cock for a few seconds, until it’s gone and replaced with two fingers. They work together, building me to an impossible high. As the third starts to tickle my entrance, I realize he’s not playing with me. He’s preparing me. The stretch comes just as his cock pushes right against the place I need it most, and I lose whatever shred of control I was holding on to.

He continues his slow, measured cadence while I call out more and more garbled versions of his name. The waves of pleasure that radiate from each and every deep thrust go on and on until I find myself clawing at the blankets, trying to crawl away from them. He doesn’t let me. He holds me in place and fucks me until I’m limp. My head is swimming with euphoria, so I hardly notice him move me onto my side or pull my leg all the way up to my chest. I do notice though when the wide crown of his cock presses against my ass.

“Relax,” he says, wrapping a gentle, loving arm around me. I do, and, slowly, he pushes into me. I gasp, then whimper. He starts to suck the tip of my earlobe. “Real slow, baby.”

“Okay.” I swallow the pitiful sounds clawing their way up my throat and focus on breathing. Each breath in, pulls him in deeper. Each breath out makes it more bearable. One hand reaches up to run soft circles around my sensitive nipples, while his mouth leaves a trail of sweet kisses up the curve of my throat. With a small grunt, I take what’s left of him and he lets out a satisfied moan.

“Fuck, you feel incredible.”

I reach my chin over my shoulder and meet his lips. Once again, he kisses me like it would kill him to stop. Our lips seem to melt together, and our tongues move in a choreographed dance that’s taken years to master. He groans as he starts to move again. I tighten at first, but accept him absolutely once he reaches around and starts massaging my clit.

“I love you,” he whispers in my ear, pacing his thrusts with the intonation of his words. “So much. Every day, I fall in love with you all over again.”

I feel an urgent heat start to flame between my legs, and I reach down to Christian’s forearm, his initials on my finger pressing down into my name scrawled across his skin.

“Oh, god… I’m close.”

“Good. I want you to feel how much you turn me on.” He thrusts into me, harder than he was before, and I let out a tortured cry that merely feeds his hunger. “How hard I am for you. How much I want you. How much I fucking need you.”

“Yes! Yes! Oh, god, yes!”

“You’re mine, Anastasia. You’re fucking mine, and there’s not a goddamn thing in the universe that means more to me than that.”  

“YOURS!” I come like a spectacular show of fireworks. My body shakes, my mind is reeling. The extent of the pleasure rippling through me feels impossible in its magnitude, and yet it scorches through me until I can feel fire. Somewhere on the edge of my periphery, I hear the increasing urgency behind Christian’s grunts, but he’s lost in the stars dancing before my eyes until he leans in and announces very clearly that he’s coming inside of me. After that, a second wave comes crashing over me and it drowns all of my senses until Christian collapses on the bed next to me and the fasten seatbelt light over the door blinks on.

Somehow, we’re already home.

“Next time,” he says, still breathing heavily as he turns to look at me. “We’ll fly to LA.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 38

I’m pulled from the blissful oblivion of a dreamless sleep by the touch of Christian’s lips against mine. The feel of him, the taste of his kiss, surrounds me in a warm familiarity that keeps the existential dread from the previous night at bay for a few euphoric seconds. I let my lips play gently against his for much too long, and hum with delight when he grows tired of my too soft kisses and presses deeply into me, his tongue gliding past my lips. The moment he pulls away though, his warmth disappears and the cold fear I’d had when I saw Calliope’s face plastered across the internet instantly fills the void he’s left behind.

I sit up at the uneasy clenching in my gut, then blink through heavy eyelids at the room around me in confusion. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was Natalia handing me my Starbucks order while I settled down in a seat next to Christian. Now I’m in the bedroom at the back of the jet, and I feel like I’ve been hit with a cement truck.

“You fell asleep almost the second you sat down,” Christian explains. “I thought you’d be more comfortable back here.”

That surprises me, considering I’d spent the entirety of last night pacing across our hotel room floor while Christian begged me to come to bed. I’d been too stressed to try. Even after my nap, I can still feel the grogginess of my sleepless night coming back to punish me. My body feels heavy and weak. My attention shifts, unfocused, between Christian and everything else around me. I’m unable to settle or concentrate on any one thing through the fog of exhaustion weighing me down. There’s a pounding headache growing behind my right ear. With a groan, I sink down into the warmth emanating from the blankets draped over me as if it has the power of a witch’s incantation, beckoning me back into obscurity.

“Can I just have another hour?” I mumble, already succumbing to the overpowering urge to drift off.

“We’re about to land. I want you to come sit in a chair with a seatbelt.”

That has my eyes snapping open again. “We’re already back to Seattle?”

He grins. “Yeah, you’ve been dead to the world for several hours. If it wasn’t for all the snoring, I probably would have made an emergency landing in Minneapolis to have your resuscitated.”

I narrow my eyes at him as I take his hand and, reluctantly, step out of the bed. “I don’t snore.”

“Okay, baby.” His tone is just a placation, and I’m about to argue back when I get a head rush that has me uneasy on my feet. Once again, I feel the burden of my exhaustion.

“What, did you drug me?” I shoot an accusatory glare at him, while his sure hands make me steady, but it only makes him laugh.

“If I did…” He presses his lips against mine, once. “You’d never be able to prove it.”

I roll my eyes as he tugs against my hand and leads me to the main cabin of the jet. Apparently he’s spent his time on the flight working, because the table surrounded by a cluster of chairs near the galley is covered in stacks of documents and an open laptop. I slump down into a seat and fasten the belt over my hips while Christian starts sliding his work into a briefcase to keep it safe during landing. Once the table is clear, his hand wraps around mine and he reaches a finger for my chin so he can tilt my face towards his.

“You’re very quiet.”

I shrug, and he takes a measured breath.

“Talk to me, Ana. I can’t do whatever it is you need me to do next if you don’t talk to me about what you’re feeling.”

His eyes are imploring for my response, but I don’t know how to voice aloud the thoughts bouncing around in my head to him anymore than I could to my father over the phone last night. Because the problem isn’t just that I’m scared about what will happen now that Calliope can be easily identified by someone who wanted to hurt me or Christian, my trust has been broken. And I trust my father more than anyone else in the world. Even Christian. Now, he’s… what? Betrayed me? 

That doesn’t even make sense, like the words can only be arranged in that order in some foreign language I don’t speak. I can’t reconcile having been so clear about never posting pictures of Calliope online with the photo I saw on my phone last night. Not even Kate has dared to try, and she posts literally every picture she takes straight to her PixC without a second thought. My dad is careful and deliberate in everything he does and says, and yet, the only thing I’ve heard from him about the post is his defense of Kim. Reading that Google Alert last night was like witnessing the incorruptible effigy that I’d built around him come crumbling to the ground, and now I’m left to wade through the rubble to find if any of it can be salvaged.

I need to have Calliope in my arms again before I can decide how that’s even possible.

“Ana?” Christian presses me. I turn back to look at him, seeing the ghost of the look that haunted me all those months I refused to deal with Lincoln swimming through his troubled gaze. The fear over what the internal battle I was waging would do to me, and frustration over my refusal to let him do anything about it. The hurt that I’d built the walls around myself too high for him scale. I don’t want to shut him out or put him through the pain I did before. It’s fear that makes me feel this way, my time with Flynn has taught me that, and Christian can assuage my fears better than anyone… So, I shift in my seat, moving as close to him as my seatbelt will allow, and I try.

“People want to hurt us, Christian.”

He takes a long, deep breath, swallows, then nods. “I know.” 

“Nothing would hurt me more than if something were to happen to her.”

“I know.”

And they know what to look for now!” My voice becomes sharp as tears well in my eyes, and I try to look away. His fingers move back to my face, forcing me to keep eye contact with him. “We have no idea who has that picture now and who they might have given it to. People could be out on the streets looking for her right now.

“And she’s back at the house with security.”

“It’s not just about today. It’s about every day now. We’re never going to be able to let our guard down again and-”

“Ana.” He shifts and takes my hands in his, holding my gaze as his lips press into each one of my fingers. “What can I do to make you feel safe?”

Kim’s face flashes before my eyes and I cringe at the bitter taste that creeps into my mouth. I flinch at the way my heart sputters over the pain she’s put between me and my dad. He was the one who stopped Lincoln. But he’s not around anymore and I can’t live through another person who needs to be stopped… I can’t.

My face crinkles with pain again, and Christian pulls me into his chest, letting my tears soak through his expensive shirt. 

“Please tell me what you’re feeling,” he whispers. 

I breathe in slowly, letting my lungs fill until the urge to sob stops and I can speak. Though, when I try, it’s weak at best. “Everyone thought I was being petty. Everyone thought I was being selfish. No one listened to me when I tried to say that Kim would be dangerous for our family. Now she’s opened the lid to something that can’t be closed again and I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know how I’m going to live with it. My dad is my favorite person in the entire world, but right now…” 

Words fail me again because I have no idea how to finish that sentence. I don’t want to push my father away. I don’t want to fight with him. I don’t want to make him my enemy or even an antagonist. Even being plagued by these doubts feels disrespectful to the man who sacrificed everything to make my dreams come true.

But I have them, and they’re very real.

And it’s all because of her

“I don’t know,” I repeat, defeated. “I hate her, Christian. And now I don’t trust her. Now she’s making me doubt the one person I never thought I would.” 

“Okay, so…”

“No! Not okay. How do I tell my dad that without destroying him? How am I supposed to look him in the eye and tell him that this isn’t a mistake, it’s a betrayal? He’s my dad, Christian, and right now I don’t know how to talk to him at all. I have never had that problem.” 

I think about our phone conversation, and the ‘buts’ that followed every apology he offered. I have to swallow to bitter taste the memory dredges up. But that doesn’t change the way my heart pounds at the idea of doing anything to upset him or disappoint him. Or how angry that reaction makes me. Tears well in my eyes and I bury my face in my hands, shaking my head in despair. 

“I knew she couldn’t be trusted. I knew that she was going to tear us apart. Now what do I do?” 

He reaches over and takes my face in his hands, wiping away my tears. “You don’t need to do anything. We had a rule, they fucked up. If I’m the one that needs to step in and be the heavy so that we can resolve this, then that’s what I’m going to do.” 

I sniff, and take a broken breath. “You’re just very heavy, Christian.”

“He’s your father, Anastasia. I will make every attempt to keep a lid on my temper, I promise.”

Staring into his eyes, I try to find a hint of the feelings he’s burying beneath his concern for me. Is he scared the way I am? Is he boiling with rage underneath his seemingly calm exterior? Unleashing an angry Christian Grey on my father would be about as brutal as the Romans throwing people to the lions just to enjoy the bloodshed. But, no matter how hard I search his eyes or examine the line of his jaw for a hint of tension, there isn’t any of the expected fury looking back at me. He doesn’t even look worried.

“How are you so blasé about this? Aren’t you afraid someone will see her while we’re out in public and—“

“No,” he interrupts me. “I’m not afraid. You are protected, Anastasia. Calliope is protected. I’ve told you once, wars will be fought before anyone ever gets close to either of you again. I meant that, and I’ve made it a reality. Believe me when I tell you that no one will ever get to you or Calliope again.”

The first time he’d told me this, it had me worried. Now, it actually brings me a powerful sense of relief.

“Promise?” I breathe back.

“I promise,” he replies, firmly. The sentiment floats between us like an exorbitant prize, and I focus every cell in my body on accepting it. 

Even when I think I hear the echo of a cold, disembodied voice waking in the back of my mind that tells me I shouldn’t. 

The plane bounces roughly over the runway when we land, but it’s only a few minutes after that before we’re de-boarding. Mostly, Christian leaves everything behind as we’re only supposed to be making a short stop to pick up Calliope before continuing on to Beijing, but the thought of taking another trip right now, of taking Calliope out in public in a foreign country where my security team will already be at a disadvantage… it all has me feeling a little defeated.

I just need a few days at home with my baby.

“Welcome home, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor says, opening the door to the backseat of the SUV for me. I give him the warmest smile I can muster and brush an affectionate hand over the dark sleeve of his sports coat.

“Thank you, Taylor. How was the time you spent with your daughter?”

He smiles. “Much needed, thank you.”

“Was Sawyer abducted while we were gone?” Christian asks, peering through the darkly tinted windows of the front passenger’s seat. Taylor frowns and shakes his head.

“I’m not sure how he’s spent his days off but he failed to report this morning. I’ve talked to him, he’ll meet us back at the residence.”

“Failed to report?” Christian repeats. “He’s never failed to report. What was he doing?”

“I think the question is who was he doing,” I interject, as I climb into the backseat. I can hear Christian’s irritable sigh behind me, but whatever he says to Taylor next is too mumbled for me to catch. Then he’s in the seat next to me, pulling out his phone while Taylor settles in behind the wheel and drives us through the gates that will take us back to the freeway. The Bluetooth picks up Christian’s call before we’re even off the tarmac.

He spends the drive yelling at his lawyers. Unfortunately, there’s very little legal recourse we can take to stop the picture from floating around or even have what’s already posted taken down. We can issue cease and desist letters to the major publications who have pulled the photo from PixC, but we can’t sue someone for sharing a photo through the same social media site it was published on. And because both Christian and I were tagged, our combined followers have reposted the photo almost 3.2 million times.

“We can sue the person who posted the original photo,” the lawyer suggests. “It’s not going to stop it from being spread all across the internet, but we could get damages.”

“The person who posted it has nothing,” Christian grumbles. “We’d get nothing.”

“Well, then I would suggest the best course of action would be to… not post pictures of your child online.”

I snort. Christian nods to Taylor in the rear-view mirror, a signal to end the call.

“She’s safe,” he reassures me. “No matter what, she will always be safe.”

“I know.” My response is filled with audible dread, so he grabs my hand reassuringly and squeezes it tightly in his. I let the welcome sense of comfort wash through me each and every time his fingers pass over mine, then hold onto that security as we inch our way through our front gate. 

It’s once again surrounded by paparazzi. 

Taylor curses under his breath while the two men that have been haunting my house at every major event we’ve had over the past few weeks disperse the crowd enough to open a lane. I duck my face into Christian’s chest, trying to pretend I don’t see the flashes. Trying to pretend that each and every one of them doesn’t make me tremble with fear at who will see them or if any particular angle they capture will help someone find out exactly where we live and what time we got home. 

“We’re all safe,” Christian whispers, and he holds me as we finally make it into the driveway.

I’m slow to get out of the car once the garage door is closed behind us. I’m not particularly looking forward to the confrontation that’s about to take place, and if I wasn’t so desperate to get to my daughter, I don’t know that I would have gotten out of the SUV at all. Christian isn’t impatient though. He comes around to my side and opens my door, offering a hand to help me climb down from the too high seat. He doesn’t pull me after him the way I’ve become accustomed to. Instead, he lets me set the pace as we walk into the house.

Gail and Andrea are in the kitchen, Gail packing Calliope’s favorite snacks into small coolers for the almost twenty hour flight we’re supposed to take while Andrea takes inventory against her checklist. Christian doesn’t acknowledge either of them. Instead, he stays calm and silent until we emerge in the living room where Kim and my dad are sitting on the sofa, talking quietly to one another.

“Hey, sweetheart,” my dad says, cautiously looking up as we approach. He eases out of his seat and moves towards me with open arms. When he pulls me into a hug, I hesitate for a moment, before returning a feeble imitation of his affection. “Annie, I’m so sorry. We didn’t—“

I can’t hear him say he didn’t know, because he did. Everyone in my life did. So I cut off the lie before it even has a chance to cross his lips. “Where’s Calliope?”

He sighs, then gestures to the hallway behind us with a nod of his head. “She’s in the playroom with your nanny.”

I give him a curt nod before slipping out of his hold and moving in the direction he pointed out. He calls after me, but Christian intervenes.

“No, this is actually going to be a conversation between you and I, Raymond.”

“Okay,” my dad says, more serious now. “Then let’s sit down and have a talk.”

I don’t stop to hear what’s said. I’m single minded, making my way down the hall to the playroom. Calliope is sitting like an island in a sea of toys, smiling at Mackensie while she hands her a colorful, plastic ring.  The joy on her face makes the hollow ache in my chest dissipate, like the dying breath of a dust storm. She looks up as I start towards her, and somehow, that joy reaches a new crescendo.

“Mommy!”

“Hey, Calli-lilly!” I nearly cry, sweeping her up in my arms and hugging her tightly against me. I take a deep breath, inhaling her scent and letting it flood through me until every ounce of trepidation has left my body.

“Hi, Mommy,” she repeats, reaching into my hair and playing with the ends of the strands. I lean forward and kiss every inch of her face, then bask in the wholesomeness of her responding giggles.

“How was grandpa’s house?”

“Pop-pop,” she says, then starts babbling a string of non-words. It doesn’t matter. I stare at her, soaking in each and every bit of nonsense like it’s the most engrossing conversation I’ve ever had.

“You don’t say,” I laugh when she finally presses her lips together in a silent pout. She throws herself forwards and leaves a wet raspberry on my cheek. I sit with her cuddling for a few minutes, listening to Mackensie tell me all about her morning, until she’s suddenly drowned out.

“BULLSHIT! WE HAVE ONE FUCKING RULE!” Christian’s voice comes up the hallway in a thunderous echo that immediately catches Calliope’s attention. Her eyes go wide and her mouth forms a perfect little ‘o.’

“Daddy?”

“Yeah,” I reply, cautiously. “Let me just go see what he’s doing…” Handing her back to Mackensie, I quickly dart from the room. The shouting only intensifies the closer I get. It makes me cringe.

“I don’t care what you meant! No. Pictures. On. The. Internet. It was that fucking simple! And you weren’t even careful in how you worded the fucking thing. Now, not only do I have to worry about how you’ve put my daughter’s safety at risk, I also get to read stories in every gossip magazine across the country about how Anastasia has been unfaithful to me. What do you think that does to our relationship? What do you think that does to the way I look at my security team? Because now, I have Google Alerts popping up on my phone every five fucking minutes telling me that I need to be concerned about the relationship between my wife and the man that I have hired to protect her and my daughter, who you have now put in danger.”

“You can’t really be blaming her for the way some trashy rag has twisted something completely innocent!” my dad shouts back. His tone makes me recede back into the wall, just like I would have when I was seven. “She was pointing out how similar you are! The fact that they have somehow made her saying, ‘no paternity test needed,’ into Ana demanding a paternity test is absolutely ludicrous.”

Christian’s eerily calm response comes through clenched teeth. “I’m not blaming you for how they twisted it, I’m blaming you for posting the fucking picture in the first place. This was something we have both been very clear about. No. Pictures. On. The Internet.”

 “How was I supposed to know all these people would see it?” Kim says, tears welling in her eyes.

“We have a combined twenty-three million PixC followers!” Christian shouts, generously omitting that over twenty million of those followers are his. “You tagged us both.”

“But I didn’t know that’s how it worked. I thought that’s how I sent it to you! All I wanted to do was show Ana how cute that picture was, I didn’t think it would become a national headline.”

“Then why didn’t you just send it to me?” I speak up. Everyone turns in my direction, so I push off the wall I’m leaning on in the archway and move to Christian’s side. “Why didn’t you put it in a text and send it straight to me?”

Kim stutters, looking to my dad for help as she flounders. He takes a deep breath and turns a look on me that pleads for understanding.

“We had no idea this would happen. We made a mistake and I’m sorry, Annie. You know that we’re sorry. She’s deleted the picture, if that means anything.”

“It doesn’t,” Christian practically growls. “Do you have any idea how hard I have been working to make her feel safe again? To take that look,” he turns and points directly at my face, “out of her eyes? I have been killing myself for almost a year to get us back to this point, and you just shattered it.”

“Christian…” my dad begins hesitantly, but my husband holds up a hand to stop him. He starts pacing, shaking his head as though he’s continuing the argument in his mind while he figures out what he’s going to do next. When he decides, he returns to my side and puts on his CEO persona in full force. 

“You’re no longer welcome in my home.”

“Christian!” I protest. He shoots me a warning glare, but it’s not enough to make me fall silent. “You’re not banning my father from my house. That’s out of the question.”

“I agree. Kim, however, is not.” This time, my dad is the one with the indignant reaction, but Christian doesn’t allow my father to stop him, the way he allowed me. “I should have trusted Ana’s instincts from the beginning and I’m sorry that I ignored the warning signs. She was right. You can’t be trusted, Kim. So, you are no longer welcome in my home. You are no longer a welcome part of my family. You are no longer welcome in the presence of my daughter.” He turns to my dad, who has gotten off the couch now. “Calliope will not go to your house anymore. If you would like to spend time with her and Anastasia, you are welcome to visit them here any time you’d like.”

My dad blinks in disbelief, then slowly turns to me, waiting for me to say something. To contradict what Chrisitan is saying. When I don’t, his brow creases with pain. “Annie?”

I stare back, unsure what to say. I can see the hurt I’d feared written clearly across his face and I want nothing more than to make it stop, but… there’s nothing Christian said that I want to refute. I don’t want Calliope going anywhere without security anymore. Even if it is the middle of nowhere, where he lives now. I want her here, behind my gates and under the ever present watch of my cameras and my security team. My desire to have any kind of relationship with Kim was already tenuous at best. Every effort I did put in was only for my father, and now…

“I don’t trust her,” I say quietly, looking down at my feet because I can’t bear to say the words while seeing the heartbreak that stares back at me. “I love you, Daddy, and you will always be welcome here. But I can’t let any more people in who I don’t trust. Not after how I’ve been burned in the past. And I just don’t trust her.”

He takes a shaky breath, processing what I’ve said. I expect a fight. I expect excuses. I expect disappointment. To my surprise, after several eternal seconds, he nods. “Alright. I get it. From one overprotective father to another, I get it.” He turns and reaches a hand out for Kim. “Come on, we should go.”

A tear falls over Kim’s water line as she takes my father’s hand and slowly comes to her feet. She looks like she’s going to say something, try to make a final plea. But when Christian puts an arm around me, presenting us again as a united front, she swallows the words teetering at the edge of her lips and follows my father silently from the room. Christian and I stand there, not moving or saying anything until we hear the beep from the security alarm, and the soft closure of the front door.

“Was that too much?” he asks. “I guess I’m not very good at keeping my temper under control after all. I’ll call and apologize to him tonight if—“

I lean up on my tip toes and cut off his words with a kiss. “Thank you.”

“Always.” The whisper lingers in the space between our lips as he carefully rests his forehead against mine. I reach my arms behind his head and wrap them lazily across the backs of his shoulders, but just as he leans in to kiss me, Taylor appears in the entry from the foyer.

“Sir.”

Christian exhales sharply, but pulls away. I shift my gaze to the head of our security team, then raise an eyebrow when I realize he isn’t alone. The men from outside are flanked on either side of him. 

“Ana, this is Smith and this is Wyatt.” Christian gestures to each of them. “They’re your new bodyguards.”

I look at him in horror. “New bodyguards? What about Luke?”

“He’s not going anywhere. But we’ve decided you need a driver and an extra set of eyes for when you have Calliope with you. Just until the noise dies down a little.”

I look back at them, feeling an overwhelming sense of foreboding. Beefing up my security team last time was the opposite of helpful, so naturally, my initial reaction isn’t a trusting one. 

But if there was ever a time to get me to agree to more security, Calliope’s picture floating around on PixC is definitely it.

“Okay,” I concede, trying to smile at each of them. “Hello.”

“Hello, Mrs. Grey,” they respond in unison. It’s creepy, but at least they’re talking to me now.

“We’ll be ready to leave momentarily,” Christian says, a clear dismissal. The three suited men in our foyer disperse and he turns to me, once again taking me into his arms. “Anything you need before we go?”

I frown. “How upset would it make you if I didn’t go to China?”

“Very upset.” He tilts my face up to his and holds my gaze. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He raises an eyebrow that tells me he doesn’t believe me, so I sigh and push out of his embrace. “I’m just drained. I have no idea where I’m even at with The Greenwich Library and I don’t have the energy right now to deal with that while dragging a fifteen month old through a foreign country. Especially if you’re going to be in meetings the whole time. I don’t want to go.”

He doesn’t respond immediately. Instead, he closes the distance I created and brushes his thumbs under my eyes as though he’s tracing the dark circles I’m sure are there. “Okay. We won’t go.”

My brow crinkles. “We?”

“We,” he confirms. “I told you before, I don’t want to be separated from you and Calliope anymore. I travel with you, you travel with me. If you’re telling me that you can’t, then that goes for me as well.”

“But… you’re meeting with the president of China. This isn’t just some routine trip to a manufacturing plant in the middle of nowhere, this is… I mean, it’s China!

He shrugs. “I’ll handle it over the phone.”

You’ll handle it over the phone.” I repeat the words slowly, hoping hearing them out loud will help him realize how ridiculous they sound. He just rolls his eyes.

“Or video conference, whatever. The point is, they’ll come to me. It’s fine.”

I think back to the event I attended with Christian weeks ago where he’d made the first Endurance reveal. He’d said the same thing about Senator Blandino, and he hadn’t been wrong. The man flew half the government all the way across the damn country just to get that contract. Everyone keeps telling me I’m underestimating the magnitude of the Endurance project and what it means for Christian. Maybe I am.

There’s a sudden ruckus behind Christian, and I peer over his shoulder to see what it is. I expect it to be Andrea, but it’s Luke. In his rush to get back home, he comes through the utility room hot and immediately trips over the cooler of snacks Gail had been putting together. With two long steps that slam hard against the stone floor, he manages not to fall face first to the ground, but only because he reaches out to catch himself on the wine rack. A crystal glass rocks violently from its resting place and Luke kicks out his foot, managing to hurl the glass back into the air with the tip of his shoe. It bounces back and forth between his hands a few times before he finally gets a firm hold on it. When he holds it up in the air to inspect it for damage, the kitchen light sparkles over the pristine perfection of the crystal.

“Okay, but did you see that?” He grins.

“You’re the man,” I laugh back.

He slides the glass back on the rack, then saunters into the living room looking very pleased with himself. Christian doesn’t look so enthused.

“Andrea.”

The blonde head bent over the kitchen counter looks up from the tablet in her hands, her finger going still over the glass. “Yes, sir?”

“Cancel my trip. Let them know that we’ll conduct our negotiations through teleconference.”

She stares back at him, utterly befuddled. “Cancel?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Okay… but… To be clear, you’re asking me to call the representatives of the Chinese government and tell them that you’re… not coming.” She says the words in exactly the way I felt them, as though their utterance is completely insane.

Christian just tilts his head to the side and blinks back at her, clearly not in the mood to repeat himself.

“Does Ms. Bailey know?” Andrea tries again.

“Ms. Bailey will defer to my judgment,” he tells her, though she obviously doesn’t buy that one bit. Christian takes a deep, calming breath, then turns his attention back to me. “I need to make a phone call. Do you need anything?”

I shake my head and he leans down to kiss me before turning and leaving the room. I notice Gail dejectedly picking up the cooler and unloading everything inside while Andrea starts to gather her things to go. I probably should offer to go help, since I’m the reason for all the rework they’re about to do, but I’m too distracted by Luke.

“Where were you?” I’m trying for innocence, but he’s so onto me that he might as well be a freckle.

Reading to the blind.”

I cross my arms over my chest. “Is that why you have lipstick on your earlobe?”

“What?” His hand shoots up and he starts to scrub his fingers against his skin. When he pulls his hand away and sees the smear of red staining his thumb, he smiles. “I didn’t say what I was reading. You’d be surprised how quick you can get these women going with just a little erotica.”

“I’m in publishing,” I tell him, plopping down at his side. “I’m very well aware of the avarice appetite for porn out there.”

“Avarice appetite.” He repeats the phrase a few times. “Impressive wordplay there, Harvard.”

I narrow my eyes at him again, and he pushes me away in exasperation.

“What part of ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ makes you think that what I’m actually saying is that I want to talk about it?”

“I’m your best friend. If you’re not talking to me, who are you—“ My words are cut off by the doorbell, and Luke grins excitedly.

“Oh, sorry. I’d love to finish this conversation, but I gotta get that.” He jumps over the back of the couch and walks with a quick pace into the foyer. I follow after him, hovering in the archway, and am surprised when he opens the door and it’s Carrick who is standing there waiting.

“Oh good,” he says, spotting me behind Luke. “I was hoping I’d catch you before you left for China.”

“We’re not going,” I say automatically. “What’s up?”

Luke steps aside and let’s my father-in-law step through the door. He comes to me and wraps me in a hug. “We finally did it, Ana.”

“Did what?” It’s Christian’s voice that asks the question. He comes up behind me and rests gentle hands on each of my shoulders. When his father looks up to give him the answer, a grin spreads wide across his face and he holds up a manila envelope.

“Your senator has completed the investigation. I’ve got the names of the officers who helped Lincoln.”

The envelope disappears from Carrick’s hand in an instant as Luke snatches it away and starts ripping the golden paper apart. I feel like I’m still processing what Carrick has said, but my bodyguard is already tearing through pages, muttering to himself.

“That son-of-a-bitch, I know this motherfucker!”

“Let me see it.” Christian reaches his hand out for the dossier, and after a great deal of hesitation, Luke gives it to him. He’s much more patient in the way he flips through the thick stack of pages held together by a lone staple in the upper left hand corner. He only just barely starts to scan the list of names on the third page before he lets out a disgusted sound and tosses the documents back at his father. “There’s why we had so much trouble starting an investigation. The chief of police is at the top of the fucking list.”

“I know,” Carrick says. “I’ve spoken with his replacement and we’re handling it. He was one of the few arrests we made this morning. The rest of them will be detained by 5 PM tonight. I’ve heard that because it’s you, the judge will be setting an extraordinarily high bail to keep them where they are. With the evidence in this file, I don’t know how they’re going to fight this. Speaking as a defense attorney, this is a nightmare for each and every single one of those men.”

Nightmare,” I scoff, then I reach out my hand towards Carrick, expecting the file. He looks at Christian as though he isn’t sure I should see it, but hands it over when he nods. The summary of the investigation is pages long and I skim most of it. I don’t even take that much time to read the full list of names. My focus is on the pages of evidence collected behind all of that, things I need to be certain will stick. There are phone records, internal communications, and different kinds of messages with Lincoln himself. On page twelve, there’s an email from Lincoln to the chief of police.


To: Harold Seymore

Subject: [Encrypted] Re: Surveillance

Date: March 13th 2011  08:20 PM

From: Andrew Lincoln

I don’t understand what’s taking so long. She is CONSTANTLY out in the city with only Sawyer watching her. Drop the fucker and snatch the bitch off the streets.

Andrew Lincoln


There are text messages that show both of the men who attacked me in that alleyway downtown were Seattle PD.

I toss the file at Christian, unable to get through it all. “You’re sure that’s everyone?”

“Yes,” Carrick says. “We’ve already started interrogating the officers we’ve arrested and of the three, two immediately cracked. They gave us different names, but none we didn’t already have. We’ve got them all, dead to rights.”

I nod, letting myself accept the truth of that statement. Willing myself to let this be the end. Taking respite in the lack of emotion rising inside of me that would make both of those things impossible.

It almost works, until Luke starts trembling with rage. 

“No, this is bullshit. Grey, you know as well as I do that these fucks are all buddy-buddy with the city prosecutor’s office and they’re going to get a slap on the wrist at best. Let me take care of this.”

“Mayor standing in the room,” Carrick says, shooting a serious look at Luke. He doesn’t seem to care. He’s focused only on Christian. He looks thoughtful for a long, tense minute, then takes a deep breath and shakes his head.

“He said arrests will be made by the end of the day. This is why we have a criminal justice system, to deal with people like this.”

“Thank you, son.” Carrick shakes Christian’s hand before finally pulling him in for a hug. Then he moves to me. “I wanted this for you.”

“I know. Thank you.” He hugs me, then refuses my offer for lunch, so I walk him out. When I turn back to look at Luke and Christian, they’re muttering quietly to one another.

“I don’t want any more violence,” Christian hisses at him, which makes Luke press his lips together so hard they disappear. “We’re going to let the courts handle this.”

“And when they’re back out there?” 

He frowns and tosses the file back at Luke. “You have names now, so get to work. Find out what Lincoln had on these people, and make sure they know we have it too. I want everything you can find on their families. We’ll let the law handle this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make reassurances.” 

Luke straightens his back. “Yes, sir.”

Christian reaches a hand out for me, but stops before he fully leads me out of the room. “Oh, and Sawyer…”

“Yes, sir?”

“Failure to report is unacceptable. No more nights away.”

His mouth drops open. “But, sir!”

“I pay you to protect my wife. If she’s in this house and you’re not, what am I paying you for?”

“I-I…” His shoulders deflate. “Yes, sir.”

“I’ll expect daily reports on your progress.” He nods to the folder in his hands, then turns and pulls me from the foyer and straight to Calliope’s playroom.

Next Chapter

Taylor PoV: Like Herding Cats…

Hey everyone! It’s my birthday!!!

A bunch of people asked if there was going to be a bonus this week, and my initial answer to that was no.

1. I’m not done with this week’s chapter yet.

2. It’s not a like…. happy, festive, fun chapter. There’s some drama on the horizon, and who wants an epic Christian Grey meltdown on Christmas?

That being said, you guys are so great to me every single week that I decided I really wanted to post something today– so I wrote a quick, non-spoilery outtake! This would take place between chapter 35 and 36 of TFSOF (but that doesn’t matter much).

Hope you enjoy it!!

xoxo

wishingmrgreywashere

This room is always warmer than the rest of the executive suite at GEH. It’s a small, rectangular space with no windows, three desks, and dozens of screens that hum and put off heat. My eyes flit between the images of the residence, Calliope’s daycare, different floors of GEH, the parking garage, and Escala. It’s quiet, which is a good change of pace, but days like these are extremely boring. It’s easy, when it’s like this, to let my mind wander to thoughts of my daughter or plans I want to make for the next weekend we’ll get to spend together… but it’s an urge I fight. I can’t afford to lose concentration. Not when I know what’s out there, lurking in wait. Not after I saw what our failures last time did to Anastasia. Thankfully, the perfect thing to make me refocus suddenly comes through my earpiece.

“Taylor, I’ve got an unexpected delivery for Ana,” Luke murmurs.

“Mrs. Grey,” I correct him with a grumble. “What is it?”

“I’ll go find out.” He’s quiet for a minute, and when I hear him speak again, it’s not to me. “Hey buddy, where you delivering from?”

“Oh, I’m just a courier, man.”

“Yeah, that’s the thing though… Anastasia Grey doesn’t take deliveries from just anyone, I’m going to need a name.”

“I don’t know, dude. I don’t take the orders. I just deliver them.”

There’s another pause before Luke starts again, this time in a more familiar tone. “Did Ana order something I don’t know about?”

“Not that I know of.” It takes a moment to place the female voice that responds– Abigail, Anastasia’s assistant—and that irritates me. Damn, what I wouldn’t give to put cameras in her office.

My teeth mash together as I pull up an email on the laptop in front of me and send it off while keeping my attention on the conversation Luke is having.


To: Christian Grey

Subject: GSP Video Surveillance

Date: August 15th 2012  10:27 AM

From: Jason Taylor

Any movement with Gallagher on getting cameras into Mrs. Grey’s office?

Jason Taylor

Head of Security, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.


“So, are you gonna sign or….” The impatience in the courier’s voice is clear, even 2nd hand through Luke’s earpiece, and I automatically make a face as I anticipate Luke’s response.

“Why don’t you chill the fuck out, alright?” he says, making me shake my head. He’s always been the hot head on my team, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the best. “What courier company do you work for?”

“One-Hour Delivery.”

“You only take local orders?”

“No. We’ll only deliver locally but we’ll take orders from whoever calls.”

Luke sighs. “Alright, open the box, Abby.”

“Hey, I can’t let you do that until you sign!”

“Ok, first of all, you need to get it out of your head that you’re letting me do anything…” I can hear the package being sliced open behind Luke’s words, which is the only thing that keeps me from telling him to pull it back a bit. Well that, and Grey’s response.


To: Jason Taylor

Subject: RE: GSP Video Surveillance

Date: August 15th 2012  10:29 AM

From: Christian Grey

Gallagher won’t agree. We’re going to have to go through the building owner.

Christian Grey

CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.


I take a deep breath and start pulling up the records I have on Anastasia’s employer so I can get the contact information for GSP’s landlord, still focusing half my attention on Luke.

“Oh…” Abby says, shame coloring the one word I hear. “I uh… I think this might be from Kate.”

“What is it?” I ask.

There’s a shuffling noise, and Luke responds, “It’s just some candles and shit for her office.”

“So, will you sign now, please?” the courier asks.

“Sure,” Abby says, and the low scratching sound that must be her scrawling her signature on the order form is drowned out by Luke.

“Here, courtesy of Christian Grey.”

“Hey, thanks, man!” the courier says, and after some generic rustling sounds, it goes quiet on Luke’s side again.

“Sawyer, you need to stop being so combative with everyone.”

“Nah, it’s better when I’m scary.”

“Sawyer…”

“I tipped him!”

Sawyer…

“Okay, okay, okay…”

I let out a heavy sigh and dial the number for the landlord to Ana’s building. Then I have to coordinate another delivery to the house. When Grey goes into his R&D meeting, Andrea has to take the Lamborghini to the mechanic for an oil change, which means arranging transportation to get her back to GEH.

At three, I double check all of the Greys are exactly where they’re supposed to be and that my team is in place, then I make two laps through the building. The girls at Grey Publishing always have candy for me when I pop in to make sure they’re doing alright, and there’s a woman up in accounting who has a service dog that I stop and say hi to every time I pass. It helps keep my spirits high when I meander through the first floor lobby and stare at the torrential downpour bouncing off the pavement outside.

Grey likes the rain, but I fucking hate it. And it rains non-stop here from October to June. I think I should get a little reprieve in August—but this city can’t even give me that.

And, as if it wants to rub salt in my wounds, right then a giant thundercloud claps overhead, and the lights in the building go dark. I wait a few uneasy seconds for the back-up generators to kick on… until I remember that the entire power grid is currently being dismantled so it can be replaced with Endurance technology, and the backup generators were the first to go.

For most people, a power outage is an inconvenience. Possibly even exciting—something to break up the monotony of the day at least. For me, it’s a disaster. It means all of the surveillance systems are down, all of the electronic locks… everything.

I reach up for my earpiece as I start back for the security office, which will take me forever to get to since I’m now going to have to take the stairs up thirty-one fucking floors.

“Sawyer, our power is out. You?”

There’s a click that tells me he’d turned the microphone off on his earpiece, and when I hear Ana talking in the background, I know why. He’s always been very protective of his friendship with her, and sometimes it means shit like this. But the closeness between them has proved to be valuable over and over again in the past, so I don’t fight him on it anymore.

Oh my god, look how cute this is!” Ana squeals.

“Yeah, us too. I’m sitting in her office,” Sawyer mumbles to me, probably so Ana won’t hear him.

“Good, stay there. James, you got eyes on Calliope?”

“No, there’s an external door alarm on the south side. Smith and I are going to check it out.”

“What the fuck do you mean you’re going to check it out? Who’s watching Calliope?” I’m met with silence that fills me with equal parts incredulity and dread, so after several seconds of no response, I fill the emptiness with a tirade of lectures and curse words. I’m more out of breath from yelling at my team than the seven flights of stairs I sprint up to get to Calliope’s daycare. Not only is James missing from his post, but so is the receptionist who is never supposed to leave this desk unmanned.

“I swear to fucking god…” I grumble, pulling open the door that no longer locks without power. It’s chaos inside. Shrieks and wails of tears sound from the room to the left, while excited giggles bubble up around me from the older kids. I wade through them all to get to the Caterpillar room and immediately start looking for Kensie, but she isn’t here. A hot rush of panic climbs up the back of my neck and my eyes fly wildly around the room, searching for the mop of familiar brown curls that belongs to Calliope.

She isn’t here.

There are only seven children in this room, and it takes me less than three seconds to critically evaluate each and every one of their faces. Not a single one of them is Calliope.

I go to the teacher across the room who is currently cuddling a screaming toddler, while trying to listen to the mindless ramblings of a little boy hovering nervously near her legs.

“Where’s Calliope?” I demand. She blinks up at me, completely frazzled.

“What do you mean? Isn’t she…” Her eyes move from mine and survey the room, widening with panic when she comes to the same realization I have. “Well she’s supposed to be right here…”

“I know where she’s supposed to be! I’m asking you where she is?”

“I-I—” Her eyes start anxiously searching again until she starts shaking her head with horrible regret. “Shit, I don’t know…”

“You don’t get to not know!”

“I’m sorry! We’re sort of having a situation here… Maybe you can’t tell, but I’m a little overwhelmed with crying babies who don’t understand why it’s suddenly dark.”

“So, the CEO’s daughter is the one you choose to ignore? WHERE IS CALLIOPE GREY?!”

“I don’t know, she has a nanny with her. Where’s Mackensie?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be bothering with you.”

I turn on my heel and storm through the door, glancing over the faces of the other teachers and the sea of tiny people running wildly through the open floor space. Mackenzie isn’t here, and neither is Calliope.

“Calliope isn’t in the daycare,” I parrot to my team, my voice suddenly going low and monotone. Years of military training kicks in like the flip of a light switch, and all the noise around me fades into the background of my concentration. My senses sharpen, and I immediately start mentally clearing the space around me.

“Yeah, I know. Just hold on a second. I’ll be right back,” Luke says, jovially enough that I know he’s talking to Anastasia. There’s a high-pitched scrape, the sound of a chair, and I decide he’s probably leaving her office so he can talk to me without alarming her.

That’s a good call. No need to panic the Greys until I know for sure what’s going on. Especially not the quick-to-irrational-fury one who’s currently on the 31st floor, probably already furious that the power outage has interrupted his day.

There’s the soft sound of a door closing that matches perfectly with the door of the daycare closing behind me and Luke starts hissing angrily through his earpiece. “Taylor, I’m going to need you to repeat what you just fucking said because what I think you said is that you lost Anastasia’s child.”

My gut clenches uneasily at the brutal reality of what he just said, but I choose not to acknowledge it until I’m certain there’s truth to it. Mackensie is also missing after all, perhaps she just taken her on a walk… without a security escort, through the crowded city, during a rainstorm and power outage.

Okay, maybe that isn’t better.

“What was the breach, Smith?” I ask, refocusing on the avenues I have to track her down. “Please tell me we didn’t let someone get out of this building with that baby.”

“There’s nothing out here, just… wait—” His voice stalls, and then raises a few levels in pitch, as though he’s calling to someone far away. “What are you doing out here?”

The response is difficult to hear through the sound of the pouring rain bouncing off the metal roof that covers the courtyard off the back side of the building, but while I’m on high alert like this, I could’ve made out each of their words if they were standing under a thundering waterfall.

“Smoking…”

“You come through that door?”

“Are we… not supposed to? This is the only place we’re allowed to smoke…”

“You go through the east door. What do you think ‘emergency exit only’ means?!”

“Smith, Calliope!” I bark. “Focus.”

“Did anyone come through here with a baby?”

“No, it’s just me.”

I grind my teeth together. “When did you leave your post, James?”

“Five minutes ago?”

“Five minutes.” Does he realize what could have happened in five fucking minutes? “No one leaves anywhere without checking directly with me first, got it?”

“Sorry, sir… I wasn’t expecting the power outage.”

“I don’t want to hear apologies, I want Calliope found. All of you, start searching. Top to bottom, floor by floor. Harper, Wyatt… I want you out on the streets.”

“Are you seriously telling me we lost Calliope?” Luke growls. “What the fuck am I supposed to say to Ana?!”

“Nothing, I’ll find her.” I turn and bolt back into the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time. Praying that the power comes on by the time I make it back to the security office so that I’ll be able to review the footage, and that the feed didn’t cut off before Calliope was taken. It takes almost four minutes for me to get all the way to the top floor, and when I come through the door into the reception area, both Andrea and Olivia shoot concerned looks at me.

“Everything alright, Taylor?” Andrea asks. I can only offer her a half-hearted wave as I stride past her, moving purposefully to my office.

The power didn’t come on, so the monitors are still dark. Luke’s jaw is grinding impatiently in my ear and I have no idea what to say to him.

“Smith? James?”

“I’ve got nothing.”

“Garage is clear.”

“Harper? Wyatt?”

“Nothing suspicious.”

“There’s an officer parked up the street, he didn’t see anyone come tearing out of the garage, so it’s not likely we’re dealing with a getaway car.”

My gut sinks and I feel a hot flash of shame. We haven’t found her, so I’m going to have to tell Grey. And I know he’s going to pop the fuck off. I’ve seen him lose it over far less when something even threatened to get near Anastasia… I can’t imagine what he’s going to do when it comes to Calliope.

“I’ll go inform Grey,” I say, as though I’m informing them of death. Which, considering the situation, might be a reality since Grey is probably going to kill me. 

“You sure?” Smith asks.

“Yeah. Sawyer, don’t tell Anastasia anything until Grey decides what he wants her to know. Everyone get back here and be ready for my orders.”

“How can I help?” Sawyer asks.

“Stay with Ana. Once the power comes on, you’re most useful to me behind a computer.”

“Sir, with all due respect, I disagree. I’m a better shot than either Wyatt or James, and I’m the best you have at hand to hand. If we’re dealing with an abductor, I think I’m the exact person to handle it.”

“No, if someone really did come for Calliope, Ana could also be a target. I need you with her, and I need you sharp.”

“I’m always sharp.”

And arrogant. Don’t forget arrogant.

“Sawyer…”

“Yeah, I got it. Stay put.”

“Good.” With the same amount of courage that once carried me through battle in the past, I shuffle out of the office towards the double oak doors that stand between me and Mr. Grey. There’s a kind of pep-talk running through my mind, convincing me to keep going, but it doesn’t slow me down. With quick efficiency, I push through the doors and steel myself for the news I have to deliver.

Except, instead of the sharp, irritated look I usually expect when I interrupt his workday, I get soft eyes and a warm smile. All because of the tiny little beauty currently standing in his lap, held up by his hands. Her laughter echoes through the room like sweet music. Her soft brown girls bounce with the rhythm of her father’s knees.

“Ah, come in, Taylor. Did you resolve the camera situation for Ana’s office?” His good humor colors every word and I stand there speechless. Calliope makes a loud, happy sound, that catches his attention and makes his face light up. She reaches out and places her palm against his lips, and he kisses it several times before turning expectant eyes back on me.

“Uh… yes, sir. I was just coming to let you know that, uh, all of our surveillance is down because of the power outage.”

“I know, the door to her daycare just opened when I went down there to get her. And they’re so overwhelmed down there I sent Kensie down to the store for snacks to try and calm everyone down. Thankfully, Welch will have GEH transferred to the Endurance grid by Friday, and we won’t have to deal with this anymore.”

“Right. Well, I suppose I’ll just keep you updated then.”

“Sawyer is with Ana, right? A power outage seems like the exact scenario where Kate would call her and talk her into doing something stupid.”

“Yes, Sir. He’s in her office right now. She seems to be having a good day.”

The joy on his face somehow shines through brighter. “Good. If the cameras are down, we should get people down to all the entrances. I still want to know everyone coming in and out of this building.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve already got the team mobilized.”

“Good. Then you can leave us, Taylor.”

“Yes, sir.” I turn around, feeling my heart racing a mile a minute as relief seeps from every single one of my pores… until Grey calls my name again. “Yes, sir?”

He smiles again, and nods to his daughter. “Don’t you think she’s the most perfect thing you’ve ever seen?”

I chuckle. “Yes, sir. The most perfect.”

“Yeah, I think so too.” He turns to her, completely losing himself. “This is going to be your office one day, isn’t it? All of this is going to be yours…”

I turn and leave his office, letting out a long sigh before I reach up for my earpiece. “Grey has Calliope, everyone stand down.”

“Oh, thank god,” Luke exhales. “Well, if there’s no crisis I’m going back into Ana’s office, I’ll be on mute.”

“Fine. And, James?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You’re no longer assigned to daycare. Wait there until Kelley comes to relieve you, then report to my office immediately.”

I can hear him swallow his trepidation. “Yes, sir.”

As the sense of urgency that had consumed me only minutes ago dies away, I’m left feeling drained and tired. The weight of it lands heavily on my chair and I plop down in my seat and stare at the blank monitors around me. My head falls back against the headrest, and I take just a few minutes to let myself relax, but the power switches on and the room around me suddenly hums with life again. I glance up at the screens, once more searching through the images of GEH, the Grey’s home, and Escala for anything that’s gone amiss in the time that’s lapsed since my last check. Everything is quiet. Everything is the same.

And suddenly, I’m very grateful for my boring day.