“God damn it, Anastasia!” Luke hisses angrily through my earpiece. “What part about ‘stay where you fucking are’ don’t you understand?”
The gates in front of me groan open, but I don’t make any moves to drive forward. I sit with my eyes darting back and forth, straining my ears through the earpiece for any indication that the distraction has worked.
“Daddy?” I whisper.
“I’ve got eyes on him,” Woods replies. “They haven’t seen him yet, but they’re getting closer.” There’s a faint clicking noise that sounds like the hammer being pulled back on a gun. “I’ve got the guy on your right, Ray. You go left.”
I take a deep breath, watching several shadowy figures emerge from the house and start moving toward me. My heart is thundering in my chest, and every inch of my skin is covered in terrified goosebumps.
“Wait,” Woods whispers. “They’re turning around. They’re heading back toward the gate.”
“My guy too,” Harper says. “He got a radio call, they’re all headed towards Mrs. Grey.”
Two of the figures coming up the drive step into the wash of light from my headlights, and a different kind of fear grips my chest. My hands are trembling, so I pull them from the steering wheel and tuck them beneath my legs, doing my best to turn a fully confident front on the man who approaches my open window.
“Good evening, Mrs. Grey,” he sneers, and the passenger door opens. A hand reaches across the empty space and yanks me out of the drivers seat. The pressure puts too much stress on my shoulder and I let out a pain filled whine as I leave my seat. My legs get tangled between the seat and the man who quickly slides into the car to replace me, knocking my knees together hard enough that they still sting when I’m finally set upright in a stranger’s lap in the passenger’s seat.
“They’ve got her,” Smith says.
“Not for fucking long,” Luke replies, and the way he says it sounds almost like a personal slight. I can hear him moving quickly through the property. Some kind of foliage rustles around him, there’s a crunch of gravel beneath his feet.
“Sawyer, you’ve got company,” Wyatt warns him, but Luke’s response is almost gleeful. As the van starts to pull forward through the gate, I listen to the scuffle he has with whoever caught him. There aren’t any gunshots or any calls for help. The only thing I hear are muffled sounds of struggle, until Luke finally whispers, “I’m at the house.”
“Annie, listen to me,” my dad says urgently. “We are coming for you, but you are going to need to buy us a little time. Do not struggle, do every single thing they tell you to do. Just keep them talking, okay?”
I can’t answer, so I take another deep breath and let it out in a long, loud sigh that I hope he knows means I heard him. I don’t get any confirmation, only a volley of hushed orders and quiet grunting.
The van pulls into an empty garage and the rumble of the door as it closes behind us sounds more ominous than I’m prepared for. It makes every part of me tremble. I’m keenly aware that they’re going to try to use me against Christian, and everything that implies makes my heart hammer against my ribcage.
They can’t find out I’m pregnant.
I press my eyes closed as tightly as I can, fight the instinct to cradle my stomach, and remind myself that they’re going to bring me to him. Once I have him, my team will get us out. I just need to have a clear head and keep my courage until then.
“She’s inside,” Woods says. “Let’s move.”
“I’m already in the house,” Luke says, though he says it so softly, it’s almost impossible to distinguish the words.
The door that leads from the garage into the house opens, and a man hurries through it. He looks at the van with a giddy kind of excitement that looks too childish for the menacing atmosphere around him. When I’m pulled from the car and he gets his first real look at me, that excitement transforms into unbridled joy.
He looks up, holding his hands together as if in prayer, and whispers, “Thank you.”
Someone behind me calls something in Arabic, which the man in front of me responds to. I glance between them, trying to understand what was said, but Harper answers for me.
“They’re searching the van. They’re trying to figure out if she’s alone.”
There are more foreign words exchanged which Harper tells us is a consensus that I came on my own, and an order to sweep the van for any tracking or listening devices. The entire time she whispers in my ear, I keep my face blank. Every ounce of my control goes into keeping myself from reacting to the sounds in my earpiece so that it won’t be discovered. Especially when rough hands start searching my body for a wire.
Thank god military technology isn’t that clumsy anymore.
The man who seems to be the one giving orders begins stalking toward me, and I close my eyes. Searching deep inside for strength.
His hand reaches up and cups my face, so I open my eyes and look at him. The shit eating grin on his face widens further.
“It really is you,” he says, the British accent in his voice telling me exactly who I’m dealing with. Nigel Dalton. “Could you really be this fucking stupid?”
“Or this fucking serious,” I say back, surprised by the even tone in my voice. On the inside, I can already feel adrenaline moving through my veins. “Where is my husband?”
“Hm, maybe I was wrong, Mrs. Grey. Maybe you’re exactly the person I need.”
He smirks at me, then pushes my face away with enough force that I nearly topple over. Hands grab me from behind, keeping me upright, and then hold me so there’s no way I could escape their grasp.
When Nigel turns around and re-enters the house, I feel a shove against my back that forces me to follow after him. The house is dark, except for a single ray of light at the end of the hallway that sends obscure and frightening shadows looming over me while the threat of danger creeps nearer. There are muffled sounds that are hard to distinguish coming from somewhere in the house, and as we approach that light, they become clearer. I hear a deadened blow followed by a pain filled grunt that I can immediately recognize as Christian’s.
A hand covers my mouth before I’m able to scream. I thrash violently against the hands holding me in place, not feeling any pain from their restraints and using that numbness to fight harder. I’m single minded in my need to get to Christian, but the moment I’m able to slip through one set of hands, three more are on me and I’m wrestled to the ground and gagged.
“Annie, are you okay?” my father’s worried voice demands in my ear. I fight against the man restraining me, knocking my elbows against the hardwood floor, and whimper in pain. “Annie?!”
“I’ve got eyes on her,” Luke says, so deathly quiet it sends a chill up my spine. “She’s got six guys with her, all armed.”
“Do not pursue alone!” my father hisses between panting breaths that tell me he’s moving very quickly, but Luke’s threatening response sounds so disconnected from himself that I’m not even sure he’s aware he spoke out loud.
“Get your fucking hands off of her.”
“Luke, that is an order! Stand down!”
My head is being held tightly against the unyielding floor, but my eyes dance around to every corner of the room they can find, looking for Luke’s approach. No one seems to move though, so he must still be hiding. Waiting. I let my body go limp, and Nigel lets out a taunting laugh before he turns away, instructing his men to keep me there.
He rounds the corner and says something again in Arabic. A few seconds later, another man joins us from the room where Nigel is now and when I see his blood covered hands, I can’t stop the impulse to fight against the man holding me again. We struggle for several seconds until I hear Nigel speak, and I go still again.
“Had enough?” he asks. There’s a spitting sound, and the creek of a wood chair before I hear Christian’s strained, but arrogant response.
“Are you kidding? I used to get off on this shit.”
Nigel laughs. “You’re very brave, I’ll give you that.”
“What do you know about brave? You’re a fucking coward. I can see it in your eyes. You’re terrified that your entire pathetic life’s work is about to be completely unravelled by a better man. You think you’re in control here, but make no mistake, at the end of this, you are going to lose everything. And I am going to take it from you.”
“Do you know what I really think, Grey?” Nigel asks. Christian doesn’t respond, but he continues anyway. “I think you’re going to pick up the phone, call Ms. Bailey, and tell her to break your energy technology apart bit by bit.”
“That’s never going to happen. I don’t give a fuck what you do to me.”
“To you, maybe. What about your wife?”
I can’t see him. I’m not even in the same room as him. But I can feel the change in the air the moment those words cross Nigel’s lips.
“Careful. That’s a line you really don’t want to cross. I’m going to ruin you, but you won’t walk out of here if I even hear you mention her again.”
“Well then, you’re not going to like what comes next very much. Not unless you pick up the phone and call Ms. Bailey.”
“Harper and I have the north entrance. Smith, Wyatt, are you ready for entry?” My dad’s voice and the responses from my team in my earpiece nearly drown out Christian’s response.
“You don’t have her. Ros wouldn’t lie to me.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“Unequivocally. I know what and who I have around her. I know you don’t have her.”
“I mean, it’s not like your confidence isn’t earned, Grey. I’ve watched others fail over and over again… but I would hope by now you’ve realized that I’m not like the others. And I’m not fucking around. Pick up the phone.”
“Go to hell.”
“There’s a 2nd story and an open landing over this room.” Luke whispers. “I can see at least one guy up there and he’s packing. Someone’s gotta get up there or he’ll pick us off like fish in a barrel.”
“I’m headed that way,” My dad replies.
“You really going to make me do this, Grey? You really wanna go this far and put the woman you love through what I’m gonna do to her?”
“You’ll never touch her. My people would die first. And if they do, you’ll still have to get through Sawyer, and you’ll still have to get through her dad. I know neither one of them will let her out of their sight while I’m gone.”
He sighs. “Alright, but remember I gave you the chance to stop this…”
The floor creaks with heavy footsteps, then Nigel’s voice calls out into the hallway in Arabic once again. The body holding me down disappears and suddenly I’m wrenched up off the floor. The gag that had been held in my mouth falls forgotten to the ground as they drag me into the room and toss me, hard, onto the floor at Nigel’s feet. I feel a shock of panic for my babies, and it’s made worse when he pushes me roughly with his foot and I roll so that Christian can see my face.
His is a disaster. He’s bleeding from his nose, his lip, and nasty cut on his left cheek. There are different levels of bruising all around his face, the newest ones bright red, others a deep purple, and some that have already started to fade to a greenish-yellow. It adds dimensions to his face that shouldn’t be there, and it makes the anguish I see when his gray eyes meet mine seem almost monstrous.
“Ana?” he breathes in horror.
“I’m okay,” I answer back. Nigel’s hand twists in my hair and yanks me up off the ground, making me shriek with pain. Then he pulls my face right up to his lips.
“Let’s not make promises you can’t keep. Okay, sweetheart?”
“Let her go!” Christian commands. Nigel smiles at him.
“I’m sorry, Grey. You want this to stop, you’re going to have to call Ms. Bailey..”
He reaches for a knife sitting on the table next to him and brings it to my skin. Christian starts to thrash violently against his restraints, but I go perfectly still.
Keep him talking. Protect your children.
“Wait!” The knife pauses only a breath away from the skin on my throat, while Christian continues to struggle uselessly. The hand Nigel has in my hair tightens.
“That’s a useless word, beautiful. You’re not in Seattle anymore. You don’t have any power here.”
A high pitched noise sounds from somewhere off to my right, and Nigel’s hands release me. He falls to the ground, clutching his arm, and when I see the blood start to seep through his fingers, the room devolves into chaos. Several shouts fill the room and guns are drawn, pointing in every direction. There’s a crash on the other side of the room, and every barrel turns toward it, which is when Luke comes through an archway opposite from the entrance to the hall and dives at the man closest to him.
They roll across the floor, but the gun that turns in Luke’s direction drops when the man holding it is shot in the shoulder from somewhere on the 2nd floor. The man who was holding me down in the hall waves for someone to go investigate, but as they start to move, the glass on the windows of the back wall shatter apart into a million pieces and Wyatt and Smith come into the room with weapons drawn.
I move to Christian. He leans over to cover as much of my body with his as he can while I unfasten his right wrist from the arm of the chair he’s in. Once it’s free, his adept fingers are faster at untying the last knots and the moment he’s released himself, he grabs me and pulls me behind a sofa. His body covers mine, his hands gently hold my head to the ground, and bullets fly over the top of us.
“Where’s Calliope?” he whispers.
“They don’t have her, we came here. She’s safe.”
“Fuck.” He lets out a sigh of true relief that’s washed out by the implied threat in the very next words out of his mouth. “Stay down, and do not move. Do you understand me?”
“Stay down, Anastasia.” He pushes himself up from the floor and launches himself over the couch. I scream for him to come back, but the sound is lost in the pandemonium around us. Crawling on my elbows, I move to the very end of the couch and peer around it. The room looks like a scene from The Avengers, but in the worst way possible. The danger all around me is so incredibly real, and it’s everywhere. Luke is locked in a fight with someone who is much bigger than he is. Wyatt and Smith wrestle with another guy who is trying to get a clean shot up at the 2nd floor balcony, and when I look up at his intended target, I see my dad fighting with a man who is trying to dump Harper over the railing. In the struggle, his gun falls to the floor with a sickening thud, just as Nigel scrambles up off the floor and tries to bolt from the room.
Christian slams him down on the ground.
It’s hard to know where to keep my attention, since every man I love is locked in a life and death battle. The glint of the knife Nigel dropped catches my attention just as it’s about to be brought down into Evan’s back, but Wyatt is there and the two of them manage to gain control of the weapon. Smith has to fire again, hitting his assailant in the thigh and incapacitating him. My dad has gotten Harper out of her precarious position, but the man the two of them are fighting seems to be better at hand to hand than either of them are. Luke tears around the room like the Tasmanian Devil, unleashing violence on whoever gets in his path. Christian attacks Nigel like a bloodthirsty wolverine.
Eventually, Harper and my father gain the upper hand and manage to subdue the man they’re fighting. Luke brings the last man left to resist us to his knees with a gun pointed at the back of his head, and everything goes still except for Christian.
“Mr. Grey,” Woods says as he and Wyatt pull him off of Nigel. Christian doesn’t stop. He fights their restraints just as hard as he intends to fight the man who put his hands on me until Luke manages to break through his bloodlust with one single word.
Christian stops and looks back at me, finding me kneeling at the end of the couch and trembling. His eyes meet mine and with each second they stay locked there, his breathing becomes more regular, his body relaxes, and his face softens. Evan and Wyatt release him and he starts towards me. But behind him, I see Nigel sit up and weakly pick his gun up from the floor, and point it at his back.
“Fuck you, Grey…”
“Christian!” I scream.
The gunshot rings through the otherwise silent room at exactly the same time that Luke and I begin to move. Luke leaps through the air and slams into Christian, both of them falling to the floor. He hits him hard enough that Christian lets out a harsh grunt of pain before he scrambles to his knees and looks back at the man who fired. But the rage that brews inside of him is quenched by my father’s horrified scream.
Christian rounds on me at the same time I look down at the blood quickly soaking the front of my shirt. The bullet hit me in the chest, right below my right collarbone, but I can’t feel it. I can’t feel anything. Everything around me seems to slow down. My father leaps down the last few stairs and starts to sprint for me. Luke launches himself off the ground. There’s another gunshot, and the other members of my team start shouting at one another and moving around the room. The color drains from Christian’s face and his expression morphs with anguish.
I still don’t feel it. Not until I try to take a breath and the air that moves through my lungs suddenly has me drowning in fire. I collapse just as Christian gets his arms around me.
“No, no, no, no, no!” he insists, again and again, his eyes moving over me in disbelief as he slowly lowers me to the ground. A weird convulsion moves through me, making my body jerk unnaturally, and it seems to break Christian’s sanity. He reaches for the weak part of my collar and yanks against it, shredding my shirt down the middle and exposing my wound. Both Luke and my father fall to their knees at my side in the next second.
“Get out of the way, Christian,” my dad says, pushing his hands aside so he can press his own against the hole in my chest. I start to choke on the fire blazing in my lungs and my dad’s eyes move to Luke.
Luke carefully pushes me up onto my side and glances over my back. When he speaks, he sounds terrified. “Yeah, it’s sucking air.”
“Fuck,” my dad hisses. Christian looks between them with alarm.
“What does that mean?”
“She’s not getting enough air,” Luke says. “She’s going to suffocate.” My father looks up at the rest of my team.
“Get me something to seal it!”
“I’ve got it,” Luke says. He shrugs his backpack off and tears it open. He pulls out something black, but whatever it is, he tosses it aside and instead takes the clear cellophane wrapper it was encased in and presses it to my skin. “Grey, there’s duct tape in there. Give it to me.”
Christian’s hands dive into Luke’s bag and he pulls out a roll of duct tape. With his teeth, he quickly tears four short strips off that Luke uses to completely seal the plastic wrap to my skin. I whimper while he works, but the pain boiling inside my chest isn’t enough to keep me from hearing the torment in the angry words he spits at me through his impending tears. “You’re so fucking stupid, Ana. Why would you do that? Why the fuck would you do that?!”
I try to tell him I’m sorry, I try to explain that it hadn’t been a decision—that Christian was in danger and I reacted on impulse. But when I open my mouth, the only sound that comes out is a ghostly moan.
“Don’t try to talk, Annie,” my dad says. “Be still. I need you to stay calm, because the more you panic, the faster your heart is going to beat, and the more blood you’re going to lose. I need you to just breathe. Okay, sweetie? Just breathe for me. Breathe for your babies.”
I take a breath, but the fire makes me wheeze. My father’s eyes shoot up to my husband.
“Christian, keep her focused. Keep her calm.”
I feel his hands cup my face, and then the only thing I can see are his eyes. They’re swimming with tears, but there’s a fierce kind of determination burning like the flames in my chest behind them.
“Breathe, baby. I need you to keep breathing for me.”
It’s painful, but I manage to breathe in and out every time he tells me to as long as his eyes stay connected to mine. I’m starting to fully realize what’s happened to me, and as my mind races to my babies, I want to panic. It’s not even a want, it’s a natural, biological reaction that I put everything into fighting because that’s the only way I can protect them. It feels like trying to stop falling after you’ve jumped out of a plane, but despite the impossibility, I find a way to do it. Because it’s the only way I can save my babies, and I have to fight with everything I have for the man holding on to me.
“Breathe, baby…” He pleads again.
I do. In and out. In and out. In and out.
Each and every of those breaths feels like swallowing a hot fire poker.
Once Luke has the wound bound tightly in plastic, it becomes a little easier to breathe, but everything around me starts to drift away. I can see my father, Luke, and Christian, but it’s like I’m looking at them in a dream. The pain radiating in my bones starts to fade, my vision goes black around the edges, and the fire in my chest turns to ice. It’s like the chaotically beating chambers of my heart freeze the blood pumping through them, until my whole body goes cold and I begin to shiver. There’s a faint taste of blood creeping into my mouth.
No. Please, no…
“Ana, stay with me,” Christian says, commanding rather than pleading. “You have to keep breathing, baby. Just keep breathing.”
“We’ve gotta get her out of here,” my dad says. “Get her back to the plane.” He nods to Christian, who then scoops me up to his arms. He moves so quickly through the house to the garage that it makes me nauseous. Everything around me begins to spin, the same way it does when I’ve had too much tequila. Only this time, I’m terrified to let myself succumb to the blackness that beckons me toward peace.
“Hang on, Ana,” Luke begs while he helps Christian get me into the van. They lay me on the floor between the seats, and Christian straddles my waist so he can keep pressure on my chest. His eyes move wildly back and forth as the thudding beneath his hands begins to grow weaker.
“Don’t you dare, Anastasia,” he warns me, tears finally breaking and rolling down his cheeks. He pushes harder against my chest. “You are not allowed to leave me, do you understand? You are not allowed to leave Calliope. Don’t you fucking dare!”
Smith takes the wheel and hits the gas so hard that the tires squeal and smoke beneath us. We fly in reverse down the driveway, and the blackness presses down on me harder, becoming more and more difficult to resist with each passing second. Wyatt produces a medical kit from somewhere in the van that mercifully has a transfusion line inside. He and Luke help get the needle in my father’s arm while Christian holds pressure on my wound. The cold starts to feel more persistent and my mind moves again to my babies.
“Christian…” I whisper weakly. He shakes his head.
“No, stop. No good-byes, you just need to hold on. Just keep breathing…”
“She’s going under,” my dad’s voice echoes in the distance. “Luke change places with Christian and start chest compressions…”
There’s a shift, and then I succumb to unconsciousness. The last words I hear are Christian’s desperate plea.
“Please, hold on…”