Chapter 51

Coming out of unconsciousness is like waking up still drunk after a night of heavy drinking. I can’t feel anything, except a general sense that something isn’t right. My thoughts and memories are all jumbled like individual pieces of a puzzle I can’t quite fit together. It takes a lot to peel my eyelids back and, when I do, everything is out of focus. I have to blink several times before the dark, ambiguous shape next to my bed turns into Christian.

He’s holding my hand. My wedding ring is missing so his thumb moves gently over the letters tattooed into my skin. There’s a profound kind of misery on his face that makes him look so much older than he really is.

It takes a moment for me to remember why he looks that way. Why there are tubes stuck in my arm and a monitor loudly keeping count of each one of my heart beats. Why there’s a new, powerful urge brewing deep inside of me to grab onto him and never let him go.

His face is bruised, but not as swollen as I remember from when I last saw him. He’s dressed in dark green scrubs that match the sterile, slightly ammonic scent clinging to the air. They hang limply off him while he hunches over my bedside like a war-shocked veteran who has finally come home after a long winter. 

But he’s here.

He’s alive.

He’s touching me…

The monitor next to me starts beeping more rapidly, and it catches Christian’s attention. Anxious eyes dart up and watch the green line draw peaks and valleys across the screen, then shift to me. The moment he knows I’m awake, there’s a visible change in him. A powerful relief that erases the new, unkind years the deep lines of worry have etched into his face.

“Hey,” he breathes, moving closer and enclosing my entire hand in his. I squeeze back and a slightly manic smile moves across his lips. “How do you feel?”

I swallow, realizing for the first time how dry my mouth is, and how much it tastes like blood and medicine. It’s painful when I try to talk, like a blistering hot breeze moving over an open wound. Then, as I start to rearrange my thoughts into something coherent, gunshots ring through my memory and the scene that put me here catches up to me. That’s when the first real wave of fear is able to break through the anesthesia fog.

“Did I…” The words I’m able to wheeze out lose their strength halfway through, and I have to start over. “Did I lose them?”

Christian’s face goes blank and his eyes shift down to my stomach. He blinks like he isn’t sure how to answer, and my heart starts thundering in my chest. The chaos plays through the heart monitor, and urges him to speak.

“No. You didn’t lose them. You’re okay. They’re okay. They’re, uh… fighters.” He looks away from me as though he’s done something wrong. The torment that faded from his face the moment his eyes met mine returns. The lingering despair that drove us into the impasse I’d thought could never be bridged is heavy in his voice, and it makes me feel an echo of the horrifying pain I’d endured through those hours he was missing all over again. 

And even just that shadow of hurt, is enough to send a fissure through my heart over the broken man sitting beside me, and the still thrumming heartbeats of our children encased inside of me. Tears well in my eyes and, even heavy with the last of the drugs, my body begins to shake.

“Christian… I’m so sorry.”

His eyebrows pull together, etching a deep, angry crease in his forehead. His eyes blaze with accusation. “What did you just say to me?”

“I’m sorry. I never should have let you leave. I should have begged you to come home the moment I knew you left. I should have never ran… We could have talked about this, we could have worked through this together the same way we’ve worked through everything else. But I… I was scared, and I was angry, and I… I forgot that you weren’t my enemy. I broke us. This is all my fault.”

“No.” He sits up straighter and a resentful kind of outrage settles into every one of his features. “This is not your fault. I took this where it went, even when I knew how you would react. I tried to force you into a choice I knew you would never make.  I put you in an impossible position, and so I forced us apart. I made us vulnerable. It was my technology these people wanted destroyed. They were coming after me.” He pauses, swallowing his next words before he can say them out loud, as if he doesn’t like the way they taste. “Just like Elena came for me. Just like Leila came for me. Just like Lincoln came for me… It’s always me, except I’m never the one that has to deal with the consequences.”

He turns a pained look on me that makes my heart shatter just a little further.

“Christian…”

He silences me with an exasperated shake of his head. “Don’t. Don’t try to excuse my part in this. I’ve heard you try so many times now that it’s starting to sound like I’m gaslighting you.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is though.” He takes another deep breath and squeezes my hands again. The pain in his eyes grows deeper as he mulls through his next confession, and while I watch him prepare his speech, I’m almost worried that I’m not prepared to hear it. 

“Ana… I don’t know what to do. I’m so fucking lost that I don’t even know which way to turn anymore.” 

“What do you mean?” 

He takes a heavy breath. The confidence that he normally wears like a second skin has completely vanished and he looks broken down and utterly bereft in its absence. 

“You are absolutely everything good in my life. You are sunshine first thing in the morning, and serenity when I close my eyes to go to sleep at night. The warmth of your body when you wrap around me is like some kind of magic that makes all of the bullshit and pain and anger I’ve been holding onto my entire life disappear…  You are the parts inside of me that stop me from turning into a monster, and I cannot survive without you. But everything, everything is trying to take you from me. All the time. Over and over again. And everytime I try to stop it, it just gets worse.” 

“Christian…” 

“No, just let me…” He pauses and rubs my hand between his, pulling it up to his lips so he can kiss my fingers while he gathers himself enough to continue. “I’ve spent my entire life in therapy talking about what I went through as a kid, but the truth of it is that I don’t remember hardly any of it. The only thing I remember with any kind of clarity is the fear. I can still feel it. It comes out of nowhere sometimes, and it turns everything around me into a threat, every person into an adversary. I have to be smarter. Stronger. Faster. More powerful.” 

He stumbles over the last word, then scoffs and hangs his head with disgust. “That’s the only way I win. That’s the only way I can protect myself. To stop myself from ever feeling that fear again. Everything I’ve ever done has been about getting more power and having more control over the people around me. I got into BDSM with Elena, because I was drawn to the power play. I dreamed up GEH because I wanted the power that came with being the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation. I pursued Endurance because I knew the power it would offer me once it was mine. I have lied, cheated, and nearly lost everything and everyone I’ve ever cared about for that power, and the only thing it’s ever done is threaten you. And now I live with that fear. The fear that I’m going to lose you. That I’m going to watch something horrible happen to you. That you’ll be bleeding in my arms. That you’re going to end up in a hospital bed, clinging to life, beyond my power to save you, and the only thing I’ll be able to do is sit here and burn while I feel you slip away.” He looks up at the monitor again, his words painting a perfect picture of the room we’re in now. His fears realized. “This is worse than the fear I’ve been avoiding my whole life ever was, and it’s because of me. It’s because of the choices that I’ve made. That I keep making. Your dreams, your children, your life… it’s all constantly under threat. Because of me. You’re here because of me.” 

“This isn’t your fault…”

Yes it is.” He spits the words through clenched teeth. “They wanted Endurance, which I only started because I was trying to fix how I’d fucked up with Lincoln, and Lincoln only happened because of how I fucked up with Elena over and over again.” He pauses, shaking with anger. “It always comes back to that lie. To that one mistake that I have been running from for four fucking years. Every. Single. Time.”

Another tear chases its predecessor down my cheek. I take a shaky breath as I try to come up with something to say, anything to wipe away the self-loathing so clear in his eyes, but words fail me. He nods, as though my reticence is an affirmation of his own thoughts. 

“It’s just going to keep escalating, unless something changes. Something has to change.”

“What do you mean?”

He presses his lips together. “I have to stop running.”

I don’t like the defeat in his voice, or the implication of what it may mean. A thousand different scenarios run through my mind of what he could be about to do next, each more devastating than the last. When I finally get him to look up at me again, I plead with him through the tears in my eyes.

“You’re not a bad person, Christian.”

“I don’t know if that’s true…”

“They don’t give the Nobel Prize to bad people.”

His brow wrinkles with confusion. “What?”

I take a deep breath, hoping I have enough strength to make it through the explanation. “The day you went missing, they announced that you’d been nominated for a Nobel Prize. You’re going to win. Because you made the whole world a better place.”

He scrunches his brow together as he loses himself in thought, then falls back in his chair, looking slightly dazed. I squeeze his hand. 

“You’re not a bad person, you just seem to attract the attention of the people who are.”

He sits in silence for a moment, mulling over what I’ve said. Then he leans into me again and takes my hand. “Then that’s what has to change.”

I find out from the doctor later that afternoon that the surgery I’d undergone to repair the damage the bullet had done to my lungs had been successful, and it had been Luke’s quick thinking with the plastic he’d used to seal my wound that had saved my life. Unfortunately, the hospital I’d been taken to is on a military base that is so high security clearance, Christian was only allowed to come because of the deal he’d made for Endurance. Luke wasn’t. I have no way to thank him, and I’m stuck in my hospital bed for two days before I recover enough to travel home.

Those two days are dark.

The first time I’m able to fall asleep without drugs, the nightmares come back. I wake up screaming, trying to fight Christian off of me in the darkness until I realize he isn’t Lincoln… as if nothing had changed from last fall at all. It takes him a long time to get me calmed down enough to crawl into my hospital bed with me and wrap me in his arms. Once he does, I cry until they sedate me again.

I spend the next day in a panic over Calliope. I can feel with the same absolute certainty that I used to throughout all of the long dark months last winter that something’s going to happen to her. Someone’s going to take her, someone will try to rob us and she’ll get hurt in the fray, someone is going to burn the house down… I don’t know. I just know that she isn’t safe if she isn’t with us, and it doesn’t matter how many times Christian tells me that she’s with our whole family and our entire security team, I can’t believe him until I see her with my own eyes. Until I have her back in my arms. Christian does everything he can to get me a phone call back home so that I can hear Kate tell me that she’s fine, but he doesn’t have the kind of power on the base that he does in the civilian world. So, I spend the entire day riddled with fear, and that night, I scream again.

When I’m finally discharged, the doctor gives Christian a referral for a psychiatric hospital back in Seattle.


It’s nighttime when our plane lands at SeaTac, exactly one week after I’d left. There’s an ominous energy hanging in the air that I can feel as clearly as the drops of rain that speckle my hair as we deboard. The feeling grows more pronounced and harder to hide as I struggle through the door of the waiting SUV that Taylor holds open. Christian has to help me climb in since my arm is immobilized, and my injuries make almost all movement painful, but it isn’t the piercing pain in my chest that has my heart racing when we pull through off the tarmac and through a crowd of waiting photographers. 

It’s the memory of that video on Luke’s phone. The paparazzi who led Nigel right to Christian when he was most vulnerable.

By the time the skyline of Seattle appears around the scenic curves of the I-5, and I catch a glimpse of the glow from the roof of Escala, a tightness that seems to grab hold of my chest and squeeze like a boa constrictor begins to suffocate me. I grip the seat beneath me until my knuckles go white.

Christian reaches over and breaks my hold from the leather and entwines his fingers with mine. His lips press into my cheek, halting the tear carving its way down to my chin, then he rests his forehead against the side of my face.

“It’s okay if you’re going to fall apart, Ana. I’ll put you back together again. Whatever you need now is okay.” I nod and reach for his hand, gripping it so tightly it’s like I’m worried he’ll disappear again. He winces slightly when my nails dig into him, but he never pulls away. He only ever pulls me closer. And as long as I’m wrapped in his warmth, I can hold it together.

Until we get home.

We pull through our gates and find our driveway packed full of cars. Kate and Elliot, My Dad and Kim, Grace and Carrick, Luke and Jade… Everyone we know is here, and there’s an expectation to that that I’m not sure I’m ready for.

Taylor climbs out of the SUV once we’ve stopped in the garage and comes around to open my door for me. I can’t move. I’m too busy shaking. Too busy listening to the pale echo of Lincoln’s cold, threatening voice ringing distantly in my ears. A reminder I now know I can’t let myself ignore…

I gasp and Christian wraps his arms around me.

“Ana…”

“I’m okay.” I push him away and start to shake out my hands, trying anything to relieve enough of the anxiety for me to take control of my own body again. “I’m going to be okay, I just need a second. I don’t want Calliope to see me like this.”

“Okay.” He lets me sit there and fall apart for a few more seconds, but when it becomes clear that the deep breaths I take over and over again are causing me to hyperventilate more than calm down, he tilts my face to his and slowly presses his lips to mine.

It’s like a pebble being dropped into a placid pool, breaking the tension and sending ripples of reassurance through me. It’s something to hold onto, so I dig in and kiss him back until the tears stop, my breathing returns to normal, and my heart falls into a more normal cadence. 

“Better?” he asks, wiping the tears from my eyes. I nod and take one last deep breath before I turn to Taylor.

“I want Escala put up for sale, and I want to take the very first offer we receive, no matter what it is. Can you arrange that?”

Taylor’s eyes shift nervously over my shoulder to Christian, lingering there while they silently communicate with one another, then he nods.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey. I’ll be in touch with your realtor first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Good. Thank you.” He reaches out and I slide the hand not tied up in a sling into his so that he can help me from the car. The door closes behind me and Christian wraps an arm around my waist as he leads me inside. I take one last moment to try and center myself, then follow him through the door.

The house is filled with the alluring scent of food. Familiar voices float through the kitchen towards us. It’s warm, and the wash of light that comes from the fixtures on the wall in the laundry room is the perfect shade of home.

But the chime on the security alarm still makes me jump.

Christian’s hand tightens for a moment on my hip, a quick squeeze of support before he pulls me toward the voices coming from our living room. We emerge through the kitchen to find everyone waiting for us, but my eyes search specifically for Calliope. She’s in Jade’s lap, who is sitting on the floor at Luke’s feet.

 “Ana?” Grace leaps up from the sofa, looking half-mad with worry. Everyone else turns to me and each and every one of their faces reflects some varying degree of Grace’s concern. 

Christian leans into me and whispers, “Whatever you need is okay.”

I feel my insides tighten, but I manage to keep my voice from shaking.

“I’m okay,” I say as much to Christian as I do to everyone else. The moisture from the unshed tears in Grace’s eyes continues to glimmer. Mia’s eyes are as wide as saucers, and she’s sitting so still she might be holding her breath. Kim reaches into my father’s lap and grabs his hand.

“What about the twins?” Carrick is the one brave enough to speak, but only enough to force the answer for the question that no one else wants to ask. His eyes move to my stomach, and Christian goes stiff next to me.

“They’re fine,” he says. “She protected them.” His mother crumples to her knees. She takes several life affirming breaths, then folds her hands over the ottoman and begins to pray. Kate devolves into tears that Elliot has to absorb into his t-shirt. Calliope looks between the two of them uncertainly, then turns to me. Her bottom lip begins to tremble, and her face goes flushed just before she lets out a miserable wail.

For the first time since we left the hospital, I move out of Christian’s reach and start towards Calliope. Her tiny hands are already reaching for me, but when I try to scoop her up, I scream in pain and nearly drop her. She wails harder, so Christian hurries to take her in his arms.

“No heavy lifting,” he reminds me, reaching out and gently stroking the shoulder that’s currently supported by the sling. I feel a deep longing bloom in my chest that starts to ache until he turns, and holds Calliope up to me. I reach up and run a finger through her soft curls and feel an enormous sense of relief… and then overpowering, irrational fear that makes me feel like I’m actually going a little insane.

“Anaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

 The cold voice taunts me from the back of my mind again. I shiver, and think through every square foot of space between me and our bedroom upstairs… But I can’t lift her. I can’t carry her. So, I can’t run.

“Are you hungry?” Grace asks. “We were just about to sit down to dinner.”

“Yeah, I’ve made a lasagna,” Gail adds from the kitchen. Christian turns hopeful eyes on me.

“Can’t say no to that…”

I take a deep breath, then glance nervously at Calliope and the tears swimming in her eyes. I’m absolutely overwhelmed with the compulsion to have her in my arms. To take both her and Christian somewhere secure, where I know that no one can get to either one of them, so that it’ll be safe for me to fall apart. And it’s not the same kind of compulsion an alcoholic feels when they’ve reached their lowest low and haven’t had a drink. It’s like needing to breathe. Each pair of eyes pleading with me to stay is like a hand choking me.

“Dinner will make you feel better, sweetheart,” my dad says, then the concern on his face becomes a plea. “Please?”

I swallow as I glance around the room again, then nod in defeat. Calliope screams when Christian tries to hand her off, so it’s my dad who wraps a protective arm around me and leads me to the dining room. He helps me settle down in a chair with the same care Christian uses to secure Calliope into her highchair. Then he kisses me on the crown of my hair and tells me that he loves me. I can hear the intent behind the words he’s given me a million times. Like he’s still feeling the aftershocks of grief and feels as though he can’t waste another second not expressing the way he feels to the people he loves. It’s a compulsion I remember well, so I know it’s born from the hope of a second chance.

I don’t have that hope anymore.

There’s no such thing as a clean slate. No starting over. I know that now, so my father’s gesture makes me nervous. Like maybe he knows someone else is coming, but I’m the only one taking seriously how bad it will be next time…

Christian sits next to me while my dad moves around the table to take the empty seat next to Kim. His hand slides into mine and his lips move to my ear.

“If it’s too much, just squeeze my hand and I’ll ask everyone to leave. Whatever you need is okay.”

The warmth in his voice might have been enough to break through the unease surrounding me like a forcefield, but I don’t actually hear a word of what he says. I’m distracted by Luke, who’s watching Gail dishing plates of lasagna on the serving bar behind the table. I can’t tell if he’s staring at the food, or the way Gail is dishing it out, but the amount of attention he gives her while everyone else skirts around the questions they’re dying to ask is… unsettling.

I turn to look at Gail just as she begins to serve.

“What happened when they took you out of Escala?” Carrick asks Christian. I watch Gail set a plate down in front of him. She serves Grace while Christian starts to speak. He squeezes my hand periodically while he recounts his story, checking on me. I hardly hear him. I watch Gail serve Kate, Elliot, Mia, Jade, Luke, my father, Kim… she picks up the last two plates at the same time, glancing at each of them for just half a second, before moving to the table and very carefully setting a plate down in front of, first me, then Christian.

Except… she didn’t just place the plate in her right hand in front of me, which would be the obvious choice because I’m on her right side. Instead she turns her whole body to give me the plate on her left. And when she turns again to serve Christian, she says, “enjoy.” Like she’s taunting him to eat it…

“Me some, Daddy,” Calliope cries, stretching her fingers out for the food in front of Christian.

“No, no, Callie,” Gail coos to her. “I have a special plate for you, right here.” She sets a small serving on Calliope’s tray and leans over to kiss her on the cheek. “This one is just for babies.”

She doesn’t want Calliope to eat Christian’s food.

I turn to look at my husband, fork in hand, suspended over his food while he finishes his story. The words I haven’t heard a word of pause, and he dips the metal prongs into his lasagna.

My one good arm flies out and knocks his entire plate across the table, sending it tumbling over the other side between Grace and Mia, and crashing to the floor.

Christian hovers in shock for a moment, then turns to me. I leap to my feet and glare at our housekeeper.

“Why did you serve that to him?” I demand. Her eyes go wide, her mouth drops open. She sputters, unsure of how to respond to the anger in my voice.

“She’s doing her job, baby…” Christian tells me, but I still don’t look at him.

“Why did you stop Calliope from sharing his food?”

Gail starts shaking, clearly on the edge of tears. “The s-s-sausage is too spicy for her. The one I made for her is vegetarian…”

I don’t buy it. “Who the fuck have you been talking to?”

“No one!”

“Ana…” Christian stands up and places a hand on each of my arms. He’s trying to hide a deep sense of alarm behind a look of compassion. No one else around the table does. My father’s lips are thin with anxiety. Kate has a hand over her mouth, which I guess by the tears welling in her eyes is to hide the tremble of her lip. Luke looks angry and he stares into space, shaking his head.

Everywhere I look, I see varying degrees of shock or pain or humiliation. When Kim gets up to help Gail clean the mess I made, I start to feel the atmosphere around me a little differently. I replay everything I watched Gail do in my mind, but this time I can’t tell if she was acting weird or just being careful… My family seems to think I’m overreacting, but I can’t tell anymore if that’s true or not. Did she even do anything different than she normally does?

My face flushes with embarrassment as I force myself to take a step back and see just how crazy I’m acting, but there’s still a very powerful instinct in my gut that’s telling me I’m right. It also tells me that Jade is a threat. That Kim is a threat. That Mia’s probably hiding something from us that’s going to put everyone in danger, and I’m going to be the one who has to stop it.. I want to be rational and recognize these thoughts as paranoid and part of my trauma, just like Flynn taught me to do last time… but the conflict is confusing and it tugs harshly at the ends of my already unravelling stability. It’s a fight I can’t wage with everyone staring at me.

Without a look back, I move single-mindedly from the room, up the stairs, and to my bedroom. With the exact same careful precision that became routine a year ago, I lock the door and back away with my hands held protectively in front of me. The windows are my next concern. I find myself trying to calculate the distance between the ground and the balcony, then what it would take to scale it. I check the locks on the window frame to make sure they’re secure… but that wouldn’t stop them from being broken.

An image of the glass shattering and my security team swinging into the room where Christian was being held like seal-team-six sweeps through my mind, and I feel my hackles raise up. Could they do that here? Would they know what room was ours? What room is Calliope’s?

Somewhere in the distance, Lincoln’s voice calls to me.

I’m about to have a panic attack. I can feel it coming. It’s difficult to breathe, it’s impossible to think. I can feel the strength of my thundering heart pounding against my throat. My eyes move around the room searching for more vulnerabilities, for shadowy figures hiding in wait. The paranoia spirals out of control until I finally just collapse on the floor and start to cry.

Christian is the first to come for me and it’s exactly the way it was a year ago. He stands outside the locked door and knocks, gently trying to coax me into letting him in. I want to, desperately. I want to beg him to bring Calliope with him inside, and never leave. But I’m paralyzed. I can’t move, I can’t stop my body from shaking so violently that it feels as though it might disrupt the rhythm of my heart. All I can do is sob, and scream when it becomes too much to contain.

My dad comes next. Then Kate.

I can’t move.

Somewhere around nine, Flynn knocks on the door and, when I don’t open it, he spends nearly an hour trying to talk to me through the barrier. I can’t even hear him over my own crying. After he goes, I have about ten minutes to myself before someone starts pounding on the door again.

“God damn it, Anastasia. Open the motherfucking door!” The commanding tone beneath the order is familiar, but it doesn’t match the voice. It isn’t Christian banging furiously against the door, it’s Luke. “I swear to god, Ana. Grey won’t take the door down, but I will. Open the fucking door.”

For the first time in hours, I’m able to drag myself up off the floor and shamble towards the volley of fists. I carefully twist the lock, and when I pull open the door, Luke actually looks a little shocked.

I blink at him through tear-saturated eyelashes.

“Come in.”

He takes a deep breath and marches past me. I close the door while he starts to pace, hand on his hips, like he’s still rehearsing whatever speech he’s about to give.

“What?” I prompt him in a whisper. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

What? Fucking what?! Anastasia, I am so fucking mad at you, I can’t even see straight.”

“You’re mad at me?”

“Of course I’m fucking mad! This is what I was trying to prevent! You weren’t supposed to be there. You were supposed to be in a van half-a-mile away. You know where you can’t get shot? In a FUCKING VAN HALF-A-MILE AWAY!” He takes another deep breath, but it doesn’t do much to calm him down. “The only reason I let you be in that van in the first place is because you fucking promised you would do as you were told, and you lied to me.”

“They were coming for my dad, Luke!”

“YOU JUMPED IN FRONT OF A GUN, ANA!”

“That was aimed at my husband!”

“I DON’T CARE! I DON’T FUCKING CARE!” His hands ball into fists. “You first! That’s not just Grey’s rule! I dove for him because you were supposed to be safe! You were out of the way and you… you… you made me fail! AGAIN!”

He’s really mad. The rage roiling off him coats me like hot tar and as I feel the sharp bite of his words snake around me like barbed wire, I start to tremble, then full on shake. I’m holding my breath, but once I can’t anymore it comes out in a horrible, painful gasp that hits him so starkly, he looks as though I’ve just slapped him across the face. My shoulders hunch, my body curls in on itself, and I start to cry again.

“Ana… no. I’m sorry…”

“No, you’re not.” He wraps me in his arms, careful not to put too much pressure on my shoulder. I try to push him away, but he holds me tight to him.

“He didn’t call home for three days, Ana. The last time I saw you, they were intubating you. I thought you might… and then he didn’t call for three days. I’m not strong enough for stuff like that. And it only happened because you stepped in front of a fucking gun!

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well… apology not accepted. You’re going to have a hell of a time making this one up to me, Steele.” I let out another shaky breath and his hand moves into my hair, holding my face to his chest so that I can listen to his heartbeat. “He’s not the only one who would lose you, you know. What would I do without you, Ana? ”

I swallow against the constriction in my throat and pull away from him so that I can look into the sky blue depths of his eyes. “You saved my life.”

He scrunches his brow together in a questioning crease.

“The doctor said that the plastic taped over the exit wound let me breathe long enough to keep me alive. Christian told me you kept my heart beating the whole way back and they had to pull you off me once they got me on the plane so they could take off. You saved my life, and you saved my babies.” 

His lips go tight again, though this time it seems more like it might be because he’s trying not to cry now. He nods once, then hugs me again.

“Don’t ever fucking do that to me again.”

If only it were that easy.

Without the accusation in Luke’s eyes to fend off, dread starts to seep back into all the empty places inside of me. I go stiff, and Luke notices.

“What’s wrong?”

“What happened to them?”

“Who?”

“To Nigel, and his… people?” It seems like too generous a word. Luke’s eyes turn two shades darker.

“Wyatt shot Nigel right after you got hit, he’s dead. The others were taken into custody and are being held under the full authority of the US government. They’re going to rot in federal prison.”

“But there will be others.”

“We don’t know that…”

“I do. Carmen said something about the Saudi’s coming for Christian months ago, and they weren’t the only ones. Oil executives, energy Titans… Scott Wallace. Bill Fitchett. Even her… there will be others. Tell me I’m wrong.”

 Luke stares back at me like he doesn’t want to answer. I nod as though he did. “So what are we going to do about it?”

He narrows his eyes cautiously. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, how are you and I going to stop them before they get another shot at Christian?”

He shakes his head. “You’re scared, I get that. But that didn’t change anything last time. It made everything worse, remember? You didn’t like who it turned you into…”

“I don’t care! They could come for Calliope next. Or…” My hands drop to my stomach, and his eyes follow the movement. He frowns.

“I can’t, Ana. I can’t be the one to put you in those situations again, especially not while you’re pregnant.”

“You were the one who said we weren’t wrong last time.”

“That’s not what I meant…”

“I let them talk me out of it, Luke. I let them convince me that it was safe, and this is what happened because I let my guard down. I can’t do that, because we aren’t safe. You were right. You were right when you said that Christian attracts a lot of attention, and makes a lot of enemies. That’s part of our life, and I’m not going to sit around and let it make me a victim anymore. I can’t keep going through this…”

“Ana…”

“I want to know who is going to be financially affected by Endurance, and I want them all on our radar. Will you do that for me? Or do I need to find someone else?”

Luke shifts uncomfortably, unwilling to answer. He’s saved in the end by Christian, who calls my name from the now open bedroom door.

I turn to him and try not to feel the pain I see in his eyes. He just stares at me for a long minute, then turns to Luke.

“Will you leave us, please?”

Luke nods, and disappears behind him without another word. Christian turns to me.

“I’m not trying to hide it from you,” I say, defensively. He nods, then closes the door and moves to stand in front of me. I can feel the pull toward him when he stops, so close he’s only just not pressed against me. I can feel the warmth radiating off him like the glow of a fire that promises to ward off my demons, and automatically, I push myself into it.

He twists his arms around me. “I’m trying to make a decision.”

“About whether or not to have me committed?”

“No.” He takes a step back and when his hands move in front of me again, I see that he’s holding a stack of papers. He holds them up for me, and I realize, it’s my manuscript.

The one I wrote about him. 

“Why do you have this?”

“I found it when I was looking for Phoenix,” he admits. “And I read it when Calliope got sick.”

“You read it?”

“Mmm.” He nods. “I thought it was beautiful. It made me feel things I had forgotten, parts of the ways I love you that have been eclipsed by others. Parts that I’ve had to repress because they’re too closely entwined with memories that are painful. Except that, the way you wrote it… none of it was painful anymore. It just made me realize how much I have loved every moment that you and I have ever shared together. How much it really means to me. How much it changed me, how much it makes me want to change more… How much more important everything in this book is to me than the things I’ve put them aside for. I’ve been waiting forever to tell you how much I love it. How much it meant to me to read the words from you… but you never bring it up.”

“Oh.”

“I called Lydia, and she told me that she’s been asking for it for almost a year, but you said it wasn’t finished. You just told her that a few weeks ago.” He holds it up again. “But it’s been more than a month since I’ve read it.”

“Yeah, well…”

“Look at me.” He tilts my chin up so that my blue eyes meet his steely ones. “Tell me why.”

I open my mouth, but he places a finger against my lips before I can speak.

“Don’t try to spare my feelings, I want to know the truth.”

I stare back at him, at the expectation reflected back at me, like he already knows the answer— which is impossible, because I haven’t even been able to verbalize it to myself. But if he knows, then there’s no point in trying to hide it from him. Or from myself.

“My mother was killed while I was on my last book tour,” I tell him. “Hyde attacked me in my dressing room while I was doing interviews. We were out of the apartment the night Lincoln came because I was doing a reading…” I glance up at him, feeling a wash of shame. “I don’t feel particularly safe having my schedule made public, or being pushed into the spotlight at all, really. I don’t want to be seen the way I thought I did when I wrote Escape, or even… when I started writing this.”

His face crinkles with pain. “Which is also why you don’t want Calliope on PixC.”

I nod and his eyes move down to the manuscript in his hands. “This is your dream, Anastasia.”

“No, not in the way you think it is.” He raises an eyebrow at me. I move back into the aura of his heat. “My dream isn’t this manuscript, it’s what’s inside of it. That’s the only thing I care about, and that manuscript, the notoriety that comes with it, puts what I do care about in danger.”

“Is that why you went back to publishing? So you could be part of the creative process without being the one in the spotlight?”

I shrug. I hadn’t had that conscious thought before, but it sort of rings true. He nods to himself again, then looks up at me. This time though, the deep-rooted conflict on his face seems to have resolved. He opens the paper book in his hands, skimming until he finds the passage he’s looking for, then he starts to read aloud.

“When I moved into his side, and felt his arm wrap around me, everything else disappeared. There was nothing but him, me, and the vast ocean of stars illuminating the ink blot sky overhead. And in that nothing… there was happiness.”

He looks up.

“You’re happiness to me too, Anastasia. All that could ever exist.” My lip begins to tremble as tears creep to the surface again, and he stops it with a deep, sensual kiss. One that seems to spread like a drug down my throat and through my blood. He melds his mouth to mine and wraps me in the safety of his arms. His scent fills my head and makes the horrible images playing on a loop through my memory seem duller, more distant… less threatening.

When I stop shaking, his lips break away and he rests his forehead on mine.

“I choose you.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 50

“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.”

Thank god.

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. 

“Bullshit.”

“Excuse me?”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.

“Ana.”

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.

“Annie, no!”

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.

“NO!”

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.

“Exit wound?”

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…”

Next Chapter

Jade POV: That Fucking Smile

His heart hammers beneath my fingers on his chest. I gently tickle the curves of his muscles while he tries to catch the breath that’s still ladened down with the echos of his moans. These few seconds, before he’s said anything and before either one of us has found the will to move again, have become more blissful than anything I’ve ever experienced. 

And more terrifying. 

Because I’m comfortable here. I want to be here. And I think I’m starting to need it. I’m starting to need him. But there’s still so much I don’t know about him, so much he’s holding back, that I’m not sure letting myself catch feelings for him is a good idea. The only thing I’m certain, still lying here naked and tangled up with him, is that Luke Sawyer is a fucking god. And I’ve never heard of god that needed anybody.

“Why do you always bring me here?” I ask, pressing my palm against the heartbeat I want so desperately to be only for me. He looks down and frowns. 

“What’s wrong with the Fairmont? It’s a five star hotel…” 

“Yeah, and we always come here. We’ve hooked up a dozen times now, and I’ve never seen your apartment.” 

“Maybe I don’t have a great apartment.” 

“But you’re spending $400 on a hotel room every time we fuck?” 

“Which would explain why I can’t afford a great apartment, right?” 

“Luke, I’m being serious. I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know where you live. I’ve never met any of your friends, or anyone who even knows you. I still don’t even know what you really do.” 

“I thought we settled on hitman?” 

You’re not supposed to be okay with me calling you a murderer!”  I roll off of him and shake my head dejectedly at the ceiling. “This is starting to get weird.” 

He sits up, the crease in his brow the only imperfection on his gorgeous face. The blues of his eyes are so mesmerising in his concern that I almost want to let it all go so he’ll let me fall into him and make love to me all over again. 

And that’s the fucking problem

“Jade, what’s going on?” he asks. 

I sigh, then pull the blanket over my head so he can’t watch the flush of humiliation that colors my cheeks. “I don’t think I want this to be so casual anymore, Luke. I think… I think I might be falling for you.” 

A few seconds of silence pass, and I start to picture him leaping out of bed and bolting through the door before he even gets his pants all the way on. Instead, his fingers curl around the blanket and pull it away from my face. I want there to be a smile waiting for me when I look up at him. I want him to tell me that he feels exactly the same way and that he’s only been holding back because he’s just as nervous about this as I am. 

Instead, he looks curious. 

Not angry. 

Not appalled. 

Just curious.

“Why are you hiding from me?” 

I swallow. “I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me. I’m afraid I’m going to fall, and you’re just going to let me.” 

“Because you don’t know what I do?” 

“Because I don’t know who you really are.” 

He blinks. Then takes a long breath. 

“I was in the military,” he says, after a long pause. “First Infantry, United States Army. I spent most of my time on the Pakistani border.”

My heart thuds excitedly. “Oh? Are you from a military family?” 

“No.” He shakes his head. “My mom wasn’t the most stable woman. We moved around a lot when I was a kid. All over the country. I was loner, until some military recruiter caught me my senior year of high school. I enlisted, and deployed three months after graduation.” 

“That young?” 

He waves away the concern in my voice. “It was good for me. It gave me purpose for the first time. It gave me something to believe in. Gave me a family. I never stayed put long enough to make friends growing up, and somehow, in the middle of the desert on the other side of the world, I found my people.” 

I smile, hoping it makes this new, giving mood I may or may not have forced him into feel safe and encouraging. But the cold barriers behind his eyes that keep his soul from me stay firmly in place as he continues. 

“There were eleven men in my squad. Every single one of them felt like a brother to me. We went on this scouting mission to take account of the enemy’s position, artillery, and defenses before an operation we planned to launch a few days after that. We got everything, wrote a report that turned into a flawless plan. It was one of those rare times over there when it felt like something was actually fucking happening and that we weren’t just wondering aimlessly across all that god forsaken sand for nothing.” 

“But the mission didn’t go as planned?” I ask. 

He shakes his head. “It never happened. The night before we were going to deploy, I woke up feeling horrible. My stomach was all tied up, I felt like I was having a heart-attack… I got out of my cot and walked a few hundred yards from the big canvas tent everyone was sleeping in and started puking. Apparently it was loud enough to wake my commander because he came to check on me, and while we were crouched down in the brush, a missile came over the hill and landed right on top of the tent we’d just left. The explosion blew Taylor and I back several feet. I had a concussion. The thing I remember most about getting back to camp is the ringing in my ears. And then the smell of burned flesh. We didn’t even have to check to know that nobody had survived, and bullets started flying down at us from the cliffside, so we jumped in the only vehicle that made it through the explosion and drove as we could out of there. The tank went dry about thirty miles outside of Bagram Air Force Base. We walked fifteen more before we got picked up.” 

“Luke…” 

“That’s just one time. I never knew my father. The first girl I ever slept with died in a drunk driving accident on her Senior prom night, and a few weeks ago, I watched a mad man point a gun at my best friend. I’ve lost almost every single person I’ve ever cared about, Jade. I like you. Really, I do. I wanna see you, I wanna spend time with you, and I’m really into fucking you, but… I’m not ready to let myself care yet. That’s going to take awhile…  Is that okay?” 

He actually looks contrite while his question hangs between us. I gnaw at my bottom lip, slightly overwhelmed with the new insight he’s given me. This reaction isn’t what I wanted, but now that I know the reasons behind his reticence, can I blame him? 

“I care,” I tell him. “Does that scare you?” 

He leans into me, his hand brushing gently against my cheek and resting there. His nose brushes tenderly against mine. “Not at all.” 

I bask in the warmth of his tone and fall into his lips. He kisses me back like he means it. Like he wants to leave clues about how he really feels but can’t say out loud yet. I can feel it in the way his hands cradle me, and in the way his tongue caresses mine. I feel it from him the same way I feel it beating in my heart, and even though I know it’s so stupid… I know that I’ve already tumbled down the rabbit hole, and all there’s left to do is explore Wonderland. 

“Are we okay?” he asks when he pulls away. My lips press together, lifting slightly at the corners, and I nod. The last of the tension leaves the creases around his eyes and he grins. “Good, cause I have to pee.” 

I snort as he rolls out of bed and his naked ass disappears through the bathroom door. There’s a kind of glow that fills my chest as I sink back into the pillows, and I bask in it for three or four absolutely heavenly seconds. 

Then Luke’s phone buzzes on the nightstand. 

Ana

Are you up?

Ana?

I frown and lean over, glancing at the closed bathroom door before I reach down and swipe the message. It opens his text conversation with her and just the messages I can see in the window make my stomach churn. 

I love you? My heart starts to race and the next breath I take shakes all the way down. Heat rushes to my face. Blood pounds behind my ears. A million thoughts start buzzing around my head until my mind is so full, I can’t sort anything out. It sends chaos ricocheting through my body. Leaping out of bed, I snatch my t-shirt off the floor and pull it over my head. I’m just working on my pants when Luke comes through the bathroom door. 

“What are you doing?” 

“I’m leaving.” 

“What? Why?” 

“Because you’re a fucking liar!” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“I asked you point blank, Lucas. I asked you if you had a girlfriend, I asked you if you had a wife. You told me no.” 

“I don’t!” 

“Oh, really? Then who the fuck is Ana?” 

His face goes blank. “You know about, Ana?” 

“Yeah,” I sneer back. “So you can save your bullshit sob stories, I know why you’ve kept me out of your life. Why I’ve never seen your apartment. Do you have kids there?” 

“What the fuck are you talking about?” 

I roll my eyes and pull on my shoes, then march toward the door. “Have a nice life, Luke.” 

He steps in front of me, the barriers in his eyes now cold and deadly. “How do you know about Ana?” 

“Check your phone.” 

“My phone?” 

“Yeah, she texted you and I gotta say, reading your love confessions for one another was really truly heartwarming.” 

He doesn’t even give me the decency to stand there and let me eviscerate him. The moment I say ‘she texted you, he’s moving across the room to pick up his phone. He takes a second to read what’s on the screen, then presses his finger into the glass and pulls it up to his ear. Then his eyes meet mine. 

“You’re making a mistake… Hey,” he takes a step away from me, and starts talking into his phone. “I’m up, are you okay?” 

My whole chin starts to tremble, and I can feel the tears welling in my waterline. Before he can see them, I pick up my bag and hurry out of the room. 


“Well fuck him,” Georgia says, tilting the rim of her beer against her lips and draining it. “Dude’s either a coward or an asshole, you’re better off without him.” 

“Yeah,” I reply, swallowing against the knot in my throat while I nod. “I just… I thought this one was different.” 

“None of them are different. All men are trash, and the ones who aren’t are either gay or are lying to themselves about not being gay.” 

I laugh and let my head fall back against the sofa. My apartment is a far cry from the luxurious accommodations at the Fairmont Olympic. It’s small, crowded with too much junk, and so poorly ventilated that it always smells a little bit like mildew from the constant rain. But it’s my place. And it’s ironic, as I sit here nursing the cracks of my breaking heart, that this was the place that I came to escape my last relationship. After a year of threats, and cruelty, and abuse… I’d finally gotten away and found a sanctuary. After surviving all of that, how could I let myself fall like this again? 

It’s those damn eyes. And his smile. Ugh, that fucking smile.

A flash of our night together moves through my memory. His hands roaming my body and holding me like I was too precious to let go. His lips caressing my skin and pressing against my ear. I can recall the low timber of his voice when he told me exactly what I did to him with perfect clarity, and it makes me tremble. 

“Jade…” 

I look up at my best friend, tears threatening at the corners of my eyes again. She tosses the cookie in her hand on the coffee table and moves across the sofa to wrap me in her arms. 

“You’re too good for him. He doesn’t deserve your tears. Why don’t we go out tonight, huh? Get your mind off of him? Joe’s working the door at some fancy donor dinner for the mayor’s race in Seattle. It’s like a five course meal and open bar. We can go get shit-faced.” 

I give her a skeptical look. “Don’t those things cost like $5,000 a head?” 

“Yeah, but that’s all paid in advance. They assume if you get through the door, you’ve paid. That’s where Joe comes in.” 

“Really?” I let my head drop from side to side, weighing my options. “Champagne?” 

“Dom Perignon, baby.” 

“Oh, fuck yeah.” Her grin stretches just as wide as mine does, and we bolt into the bedroom. My closet could honestly be mistaken for costume storage with the number of gigs I run around town while trying to get my event planning business off the ground, but I’ve gone to just enough swanky networking events to produce dresses for both Georgia and me. She’s worked the MAC counter part time for years, so I sit diligently still while she works her magic, and we make grand schemes about how we’re going to nab ourselves a bonafide millionaire by the end of the night. 

“And by nab, I assume we’re both talking about kidnapping one of these douchebags and dumping their bodies somewhere in the wilderness, right? I’ve been listening to murder podcasts for years to prepare for this.” 

I laugh. “Yeah, maybe the Starbucks guy will be there. Teach you to sell the Supersonics, motherfucker.” 

We both break down laughing until my phone starts to vibrate on the counter and I glance down to see Luke’s name spelled out across the screen. Instantly, the laughter dies out, and I feel my heart leap up into my throat. 

“What the fuck does he want?” Georgia snaps.

“I don’t know.” My fingers shake while I reach out for it, but I take a deep, bracing breath before I answer so he won’t be able to sense my vulnerability. “Hello?” 

“It’s not what you think it is.” 

I want to roll my eyes. “Oh, really. Please enlighten me then.” 

“We’re not dating. We’re not married. We’re not romantically involved in any way.” 

“I saw the texts, Luke. You said you loved her.” 

“And I do. Just not the way you think I do.”

“What does that mean?” 

“Can we talk? In person, I mean.” 

I glance down at Georgia, who looks like she’s ready to let him have it through the phone. “Uh… where are you?” 

“Just go outside.” 

“What?” 

“Go outside.” 

“I’m at my apartment, wh–” My words cut off as three loud booms make their way through the apartment to my bathroom. I glance uneasily in their direction. 

“Was that you?” 

“Open the door.” 

“How do you know where I live?” 

“I know everything about you, Jade. Please come open the door and let me explain.” 

I pull the phone away and hang up. Georgia stares at me with a questioning look, but I push past her and stalk warily towards the door. And sure enough, when I open it, he’s standing there waiting for me. 

“What in the–” 

“I’m not ready to lose you yet, Jade. So, if you’ll let me… I’d like to try and explain everything to you.” 

I step to the side and he walks past me into my apartment. My best friend is hovering in my bedroom door, and despite the fact that I’ve never even mentioned her to him before, he nods in her direction as though they’ve met a dozen times. 

“Georgia,” he greets her politely. 

“Uh… Luke, right?” 

“Yeah, would you mind giving us a few minutes of privacy?” 

“Sure.” She starts to back into my bedroom, but he shakes his head. 

“No, actually. I’d really appreciate it if you waited outside. Downstairs. Please.” 

Georgia’s eyes move to me and her brow arches in an unspoken question. I glance at Luke, pondering him for a moment, then nod to my best friend. She hesitates, then picks up her phone on her way to the door. “Call me if you need me.” 

“I will.” 

The moment she’s gone, Luke pulls a small device that looks a little like a walkie-talkie from his jacket pocket and starts holding it up to the walls like he’s trying to find a cell signal. 

“What are you doing?” 

“I’m looking for recording devices.” He moves past me as though what he just said was perfectly normal and moves into the bedroom to do the same thing. Once he’s made a sweep of the room, he turns off the device, shoves it back into his pocket, and turns to me. 

“I’m not a hitman.” 

“Are you sure?” Honestly, I’m not anymore…

He lets out a short breath through his nose, then starts to pace. “I’m part of an elite private security team for some very powerful individuals. I specialize in technology, mostly, but let’s say my job description is a little… nebulous.” 

“Is that how you know where I live?” 

“Yes. I’ve been checking into you since we first slept together. Since I knew I wanted there to be another time.” 

“What are you talking about? How do you know Georgia?” 

“I uh…” He swallows nervously. “I saw you two having lunch together a few weeks ago. I followed her back to the store where she works and snuck into her locker to bug her phone. I find close acquaintances to be one of the most useful ways of tripping someone up in a lie. People let their guard down with the people they trust.” 

“You’ve been spying on us?” 

“Yes.” 

“Why?” 

“Because I have to. Because there are people who will try to use me and everyone around me to get to the people that I work for. I’ve had to look into your past, your job, your… whole life to make sure you are who you say you are. I’ve been burned before, and it’s… It’s not a mistake I’m going to make again. But I know you’re not lying to me, and so I’m here to try and make it right.” 

“Who do you work for?” 

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Ana?” 

He goes stiff, and the ice I saw in his eyes earlier is replaced with fire. “Don’t say her name.” 

“Why?” 

“Because you can’t be in that part of my life. You can’t have anything to do with it, and that’s not because of you. It’s just the way it is. There are all kinds of rules, NDAs… real shit. I didn’t tell you because I can’t tell you, and if you can’t live with that, then… I mean, I get it. But I’m the same person I was last night, Jade. I don’t want you to walk away from me. I don’t want to lose what we have, or what you…” He pauses, and grits his jaw. “This morning you said you cared. I didn’t realize how much that meant to me until you walked out.” 

I shift uncomfortably, and he moves to me. 

“I don’t want you to stop caring.” 

It’s those damn eyes. Deep pools of blue I could swim in forever. And when I see the look of pleading reflecting down on me, and the want that colors it, I forget about everything except the parts of me that want this man. 

“I haven’t,” I whisper. “I do.” 

He wraps my arms around me and presses his lips to mine. I don’t even have time to catch my breath before his tongue slides into my mouth, and drags me down into the hazy euphoria that is quickly starting to feel like an addictive drug. And one that only he can provide. 

“Can I tell you one more thing?” he asks. 

“What?” 

“Well, I told you that I moved around a lot as a kid, right? We bounced from Toledo, Cincinnati, Minneapolis… Then we jumped to Portland, Seattle, and finally Fairbanks. I spent a lot of time in Alaska, and the thing about Alaska is that the days there are really dark, and really cold. When I went to the Middle East, everyone around me always bitched about the heat. But I loved it. It was like… making up for lost time, or something. Whenever I had downtime, I would go out and lay in the sand and just feel the sun on my skin and those quiet moments alone in the heat were some of the most peaceful I’ve ever experienced.” He pauses, and brushes his fingers over the side of my face. “You feel like the sun, Jade.” 

My lip trembles, so I catch it with my teeth before he notices, and throw my arms around him. 

“So… is that okay?” he asks. “I mean, as long as I’m doing what I’m doing, you’re only ever going to get half of me. That’s not negotiable. So… is that enough for you?” 

It’s a heavy question, and it weighs on me appropriately. I take a breath, and stare deep into those gorgeous blue eyes…

“I don’t know. Will you really give me that half?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean, no more nights at the Fairmont. No more secret hook-ups and salacious rendezvous. If I only get half of you, then that half has to actually be with me.” 

“Okay.” He nods. “Yeah, just tell me what you need.” 

I reach over and pick up my purse off the bed and sling it over my shoulder. “Come on, we’re going out tonight. I’m going to introduce you to my friends.” 

He shoots me a guilty look. “I’m going to be real honest with you here, I know all your friends.” 

“Well, then I want them to know you.” My fingers lace with his and I pull him from the apartment, all the way out to the curb where Georgia is waiting. She runs upstairs to grab her purse, and I sneak in a tiny make-out sesh with Luke while we’re alone before the Uber arrives.

“Just like the sun,” he whispers.  


The venue for this ritzy party is slightly underwhelming. The white stone facade looks so ordinary, it could be a bank. But the first guy I see standing in line to get in is sporting a Rolex on his left wrist , and when I glance back at Georgia, she winks and flashes me a giddy smile. 

“What are we doing here?” Luke asks, his eyes flashing to the sign next to the door with the candidate’s information on it: Carrick Grey, For the People.

“We know the guy working the door, so we’re going to sneak in and enjoy all the fancy stuff. Don’t worry, we do stuff like this all the time. We’ve never gotten caught.” 

“Yeah, but–” 

“Hey, Michael! Cynthia!” Georgia says, cutting Luke off as she leans in to kiss the pretty redhead we met working concessions at a Sounders game a few years ago. “You look great.” 

“Thanks, I picked this dress up at Nordstroms after work, but I kept the tags on so I can return it tomorrow.” 

“Well you look beautiful,” I tell her, moving in for the hug. She beams at me, then turns her gaze to Luke. 

“Hi,” he says. “Cynthia, right?” 

She gives him a weird look. “Uh… yeah. Have we met?” 

“Oh, no… Jade’s just told me all about you.” He doesn’t blush or break eye contact with her at all. The lie passes through his lips smooth as butter and it makes me crinkle my brow. Cynthia on the other hand, smirks and tosses her hair over her shoulder. 

“Naturally.” 

With a charming smile, Luke holds his hand out for hers but she gives him a hug instead. He lets Michael introduce himself when they shake hands, then takes a step back and wraps an arm around me. 

“Shall we?” I ask. Michael nods and moves to lead the way. 

The line isn’t long. I mean, how long can you expect rich people to wait, right? But when we get to the front, we’re immediately confronted with a problem. Joe isn’t the one working the door. It’s a stranger standing there with the clipboard and the ear piece, and when we approach the head of the line, his gaze almost makes me think he’s onto us from the get go.

“Name?” he asks. 

“Uh… actually, is Joe here?” Michael asks. “He asked me to speak with him directly.” 

“He’s on a break. Name?” 

“Uh…” 

Michael’s eyes shift nervously back to Cynthia, who glances over at Georgia. The nervous energy that fills the space between them builds until the guy with the clipboard notices, and his stern face goes sour. 

“Look this is a paid event…” 

“Luke Sawyer,” Luke says, pushing forward. “My name is Luke Sawyer.” 

The wannabe bouncer standing in front of us looks down at his clipboard, and scans the names. “Sorry, you’re not on the list.” 

“Tell the people in your earpiece I’m here.” 

“I’m sorry, the list is the list. If you’re not on the list, you can’t come in.” 

“Just do it.” 

He rolls his eyes but reaches up to touch his earpiece. “Yeah, I’ve got a Luke Sawyer here at the door. He seems to think he should be on the list…” 

We wait while Mr. Stick-Up-His-Ass listens to whatever response comes through his earpiece. It’s an honest to god shock when the haughty superiority on his face starts to melt away. He coughs and reaches down for the velvet rope. 

“My apologies, Mr. Sawyer. Right this way.” 

“Sick…” Michael says, turning an incredulous look on Georgia. She beams back and Luke and I, but I turn toward him, utterly confused. 

“Powerful individuals?” I ask. 

“Yeah, let’s just… keep a low profile.” 

We walk through the dark corridor into a low lit, but trendy looking restaurant. Mostly, it’s filled with suits and their bored looking wives. There are waitresses milling through the crowd with trays of food and flutes of champagne, and I watch a woman in a red evening dress pluck one away from the passing waiter so she can pop a pill. 

“Over here,” Cynthia says, starting toward an empty table near the back. We slide into the seat and Luke pushes himself into the furthest, darkest corner he can. While everyone else gushes about the menu waiting on the place settings and tries to figure out how to flag someone down to order drinks, he sets his phone on the table, and starts to scan the people around us. 

“Looking for someone?” I ask. 

His eyes finish the sweep before he glances over at me. “No, just a habit.” 

“Oh my god, look…” Georgia whispers, reaching over to grab my arm. “Isn’t that Christian Grey?” 

“Oh yeah,” Cynthia says. “That’s definitely him. I’d know that gorgeous fucking face anywhere.” 

“Keep dreaming ladies. Any man who takes care of himself the way that fine specimen does is not batting for team hetero.” 

“He’s married…” Luke says. 

“Oh, how cute…” Michael replies, his voice simpering and mocking. I glance back at Luke, but he just rolls his eyes and picks up a menu. 

“Didn’t he just get shot or something?” Georgia asks. “I thought I read that he was attacked in his apartment.”

“Yeah, I think you– oh, hey! Miss!” 

A woman dressed all in black pauses on her way past the table and offers Cynthia a polite smile. She asks around the table for drinks, but Luke doesn’t answer when she gets to him. He’s staring off into the crowd again. 

“Is something wrong?’ 

Again, he doesn’t immediately turn back to me. “No, nothing.” 

A wave of unease moves over me, but just as I’m about to ask what’s going on, he leans in and presses his lips against mine. “I don’t do well in crowds, okay?” 

“Agoraphobic?” 

“No more like… hyper-paranoid. I’m in security, remember?” 

“Oh, well… do you want a drink?” 

“No. I think the best distraction for me is actually right here.” He pulls me closer to him and kisses me again. Really kisses me this time, and my friends start whooping around the table. 

“Oh my god, shut up.” I say, picking up a napkin and tossing it across the table at Georgia. She rolls her eyes at me, but engages everyone else in conversation when Luke pulls my face back to his and envelops me in his arms. 

The drinks come and the conversation flows. In between feeling me up under the table, and holding me tightly against his side, Luke starts to melt a little. He makes a joke when Michael spills his drink all over himself, and he and Cynthia get into a weirdly in-depth conversation about old Hollywood movies, most of which I’ve never heard of but he can rattle off like the ABCs. Just as the food comes to the table though, and all the people in sparkling evening wear start to take their seats, Luke’s phone buzzes on the table. 

I look down at the incoming call, and I see ANA on the screen. 

The fork falls from his hand he moves so quickly to answer it. 

“Hey… what’s wrong? Ana?” He recedes into the velvet cushions of the booth, trying to shrink into the shadows. “Talk to me, what’s going on? No, there’s no one in the house. Ana, there is no one in the house. Because I know. Where’s Woods? Okay, okay… Where are you? Where? Alright, I’m going to hang up the phone, call Woods, and tell him to go up there, okay? I’ll call you right back. No, okay, okay… shit.” He curses under his breath and sits up, glancing around the restaurant again. His eyes fall on something across the room and he nods to himself. “Hold on, okay?” 

He gets up from his seat and shoots an anxious look back at me before moving quickly away from the table. I feel the furrow in my brow while I watch him weave through the tables, and stop at the one positioned prominently in the center of everyone. He moves past the scary looking men in black suits, steps up right behind Christian Mother-Fucking Grey, and leans down to speak to him. The billionaire I’ve only ever seen on TV and in magazines before looks over at him like that’s perfectly normal, then takes his phone out of his hand and starts to talk into it. Within seconds, he’s jumping out of his seat and barreling towards the exit. Luke hesitates in his wake, then glances back at me. 

His shoulders slump, and as he trudges his way back, it all comes together. 

Ana. 

As in Anastasia

As in Anastasia Grey.

“Hey,” Georgia says, turning to me. “Where’d Luke–” 

I hardly hear her, and I’m already out of my seat before she can finish. The guilt is clear in Luke’s eyes from several yards away. 

“Christian Grey?” I hiss. “That’s the powerful person you work for? Grey Enterprises Holding, Man of the Year, Forbes Top 20 CEOs, billionaire Christian Grey?” 

His mouth opens, but he stumbles over the words so he grabs ahold of my wrist and drags me out of the restaurant. Once we’re on the sidewalk, he stops and glances up and down the street like he’s not sure where to go. I take his hand and drag him to the harbor steps where we can sit and talk in private. 


“I had a collapsed lung, a few broken ribs.” He hangs his head as the story he’s finally let himself tell pours out of him. It came like a trickling stream, at first. But when the dam broke it came in tidal waves until there was absolutely nothing left inside of him. “I almost lost my best friend. And I’m not entirely sure we’re out of the woods yet.”

“What do you mean?” 

“She’s…” He stops, and chews on the words before settling on, “terrified. She’s absolutely terrified, all the way down to her bones, and it’s changing her. I’m doing everything I can to stop it, but I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if she’s ever going to be able to come back from this.” 

The text messages I read this morning run through my mind again, and I start parroting them without realizing I’m saying it out loud. “I love you, please remember that.” He cringes with pain, and puts his forehead in his palms. “Are you worried she’s going to hurt herself?” 

“I don’t know what she’s going to do. She’s not in her right mind and… yeah. I’m afraid of what might happen if she’s left alone at the wrong time. I should be there, but…” 

His words come to an abrupt halt and he looks off over the sound with malice on his face. 

“But what?” 

“I– I just…” As he stutters through his words, the frustration that’s had hold of his entire body since he answered that phone call finally hits a breaking point. He deflates. The normally confident, strong, intimidating man I’m growing to love, looks lost. 

He shifts on the stair, pivoting towards me, and takes my face in both his hands. We stare deeply into each other’s eyes, and for the very first time, the walls behind his are gone. 

“Can I trust you, Jade?” he pleads, so softly that the noise of the traffic a hundred yards behind us nearly downs him out. I inch closer to him and hope the sincerity beating in my heart reflects in my eyes. 

“I don’t want to fuck you over, Luke. I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone you love. I don’t want to leave. I… “ I press my lips together, remembering the last time these words crossed my lips and the man I gave them to. How they didn’t stop what he did to me, and how much worse that made everything. But Luke isn’t Brandon. And if I want him to trust me, I have to trust him. “I’m falling in love with you.” 

His face breaks into a breathtaking smile, that same one that would let him drag me into the cement alcove near the look out and fuck me for all the people down on the waterfront to hear. He leans in to kiss me, but I pull back. 

“What’s wrong?” 

“I, uh…” Bits and pieces of the story he told me run through my mind again. The parts about the girl he’s admitting to me now that he’s afraid to lose. “The way you talk about Ana… I mean, I know she’s married and everything, but… are you in love with her?” 

His hands fall from my face and he turns away from me irritably. “Jesus Christ.” 

“No, I just–” 

“I’m not, okay?” he snaps. It’s not defensive, it’s genuinely angry. I lean away from him, feeling as shocked as I would have if he slapped me across the face, and my reaction seems to cool him down a little. 

“I’m sorry, it’s not you… Her husband’s a little, uh…” 

“Possessive?” 

“That’s not… what makes you say that?” 

I roll my eyes and pull my phone out of my cleavage, then type “Christian Grey” “Anastasia Grey” into Google Images. Most of what populates are pictures of them on red carpets or at some swanky event, but there are lots of paparazzi shots of them just walking on the street together. I point my phone at him and start swiping through them. 

“Look at his hands in every single one of these pictures. He always holds her hand so that his is over hers. And look at the way he poses with her. He doesn’t just hold a hand on her back, he wraps it all the way around her front, and curls it around her. He’s not just standing next to her, he’s holding her against him. That’s possession.” 

“And you get that just from a picture?” 

The ghost of a strong hand curls around my hip, tightening in warning, and I shiver. “Yeah, it’s not like he hides it.” 

“No, he doesn’t.” Luke chuckles, then shakes his head. “But it also means that he’s been accusing me of fucking his wife for… well, since I met him. And what’s funny is he is exactly why my relationship with Ana is what it is. Not just because she’s in love with him but because she likes his whole schtick. She wants that. She’s very happy letting him be the one in charge and falling perfectly in step with him. I like a little more fire. I like my women a little more… wild.” His eyes flame at me, and the last of my self-control drains away. I dig my fingers into the front of his shirt and pull him towards me, smashing my lips against his. He moans and wraps me in his arms, his hands tangling in my hair and tugging just enough to get me to gasp so that he can slide his tongue inside. 

I’d let him have me right there, but, miraculously, I manage to find some scrap of dignity. 

“Come on, Hitman. You’re not taking me to the Fairmont,” I tell him. “We’re going back to your apartment. I’m not a hooker, you don’t have to pay to fuck me.” 

“Can I make a confession?”

“What?” 

“I never paid for any of those rooms. I just charge them to Grey’s account… he doesn’t even notice.”

“That actually makes me insanely proud.” I laugh and take him by the hand, dragging him to the street so I can hail down a cab. I spend the few blocks to his apartment jacking him off with his jacket over his lap, and whispering all of the filthy things I’m going to do to him once he has me in his bed. 

Once the car stops, he throws a fistful of cash at the driver and yanks me out of the backseat.

Next Chapter

Chapter 49

“Alright, is everyone on?” Taylor asks, placing his phone on the table between him, Luke, my father, Elliot, and Carrick. Ros and I both hover nervously behind them.

“We’re here,” Smith answers. Taylor turns to Luke and nods.

“I got into the city traffic cameras. There’s one at the intersection down here that caught an unmarked van leaving the parking garage at 2:41 AM, so I used that time stamp to follow them down the highway to the airport. They had a private plane waiting for them, and I couldn’t get the security footage from the airport, but I did manage to get the flight logs. No manifest, but there was a destination. Riyadh.”

My dad’s brow creases with surprise. “Saudi Arabia?”

The words trigger a memory that plays through my mind like a film reel. A conversation between Carmen and Christian the night he took me to that sex club in New York.

Don’t you realize what will happen if you pull this off? Eliminating the need for combustible fuel will eliminate the need for corporations who make that their business. The Saudis, Exxon, BP, Halliburton… You prepared to take them on too?”

The echo of Carmen’s voice fits our current situation like a puzzle piece, completing the picture of a nightmare I should have been prepared for. The warnings were there, I just stopped listening. I let my guard down, I stopped searching, and now…

The nervous energy I felt before suddenly becomes a little more tangible. A black thorn of fear coiling around my heart, it’s poison seeping dangerously into my thoughts.

“Did you forget about me, Ana?” Lincoln’s voice echos in the back of my thoughts, nearly drowning out what Luke says next. 

“I still know some guys in that area. I put out an APB for the flight and got a license plate for the car that met them at the airport. That eventually led to an address, and a name. Ahmad Hassan, the co-founder of HD Oil. The largest private oil company in the world.”

“Co-founder?”

“He’s got a partner. Nigel Dalton, who seems to be a real piece of work from everything I was able to find. We’re talking cartoon levels of villainy here. The man is personally responsible for the near eradication of three different marine species in the Arabian Gulf because of unsafe pollution from his oil rigs. He was being investigated over it, the investigator ended up dead.”

“He wouldn’t happen to be British, would he?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s an expat.”

“He’s the one who called,” Ros says. “He’s the one who asked me to dismantle Endurance.”

Luke nods. “Then we’re on the right track.”

“So, what now?” Elliot asks. “Do we call the FBI back and tell them all of that?”

“No, that’ll take hours, maybe days, and I don’t think we’ve got that kind of time,” Luke says. “Ana’s got a plane and I know a guy still stationed in Kuwait who can get us over the border. We get into town, lay low until it’s dark, get inside the house, and bring Grey out.”

My father blinks at him. “That’s your plan? Some guy you know will get you over the border?

“Well…”

“Do you know how far it is from your crossing point to Riyadh? Do you have any idea how many checkpoints there are or what the patrols are like along the way? Do you know what the road conditions are or if there are any kinds of hazards we’re going to deal with? What are you going to do if we run into trouble?”

Luke mashes his lips together. “Okay, maybe I’m open to suggestions.”

My dad gives him an incredulous look, then lets out a huff and throws his hands in the air. “Somebody get me a map, I guess.”

Jade perks up, eager for a way to help, so I direct her to the hallway that leads back to Christian’s office with my eyes. “In the library. Mia, will you show her?”

“Yeah.” Mia untangles herself from her mother and darts to Jade, snatching her hand and pulling her towards the library. They come back with the oversized, hardbound atlas that I’m pretty sure Christian bought more for how it looked on the shelf than for its intended purpose, but the maps contained inside are much better quality than I’d given them credit for. Carrick and Elliot end up stepping away from the table because my father, Luke, and Taylor pour over the maps, comparing them to pictures on Google Earth Luke pulls up on his phone, while laying out objectives and speaking in military terms that seem like a native language to them, but completely foreign to everyone else.

But I’m happy to let them handle the logistics. Both because any opinion I could offer would be grossly uninformed, and because I didn’t actually eat anything, so I only get to stand there for a few more seconds before my morning sickness hits me like a fucking wrecking bottle and I end up back on my knees in the bathroom.

Luke comes for me a few minutes later.

“Here,” he says, handing me a bowl of oatmeal. I take it and glance expectantly up at him, waiting for him to tell me the plan. Instead, he frowns. “I may have underestimated how difficult this was going to be. Your dad’s pretty firm that going in ourselves is a mistake. We don’t know what’s waiting for us and we have no idea really what these people are capable of. Turns out, an American billionaire being held hostage over Nobel Prize nominated technology that’s already been sold internationally, has like… huge implications, or something. I don’t know. He doesn’t think we should be taking this lightly.”

“So, what does he think we should do?”

“He and Taylor are talking about it now, but I think they’re going to call the FBI.”

“But you said—”

“I know.” He frowns, and I wonder if it’s because he has the same understanding that I do. That each and every second is precious, because right now, they’re counting down to Christian’s last. Tears start to well again and a horribly acidic taste fills my mouth. My body begins to hum with a nervous energy that makes everything feel uncomfortable and too restraining, like a phantom straight jacket.

“I knew this was going to happen,” I admit in a shaky voice. “Everyone treated me like I was crazy, but I knew this was going to happen again.”

“You weren’t crazy. Reckless, maybe, but not crazy. I told you before, Ana. You weren’t as wrong as he made you believe you were.”

I swallow the bitterness on my tongue. “All those people you told me about, all the things that Taylor’s stopped… did he know these people were out there?”

He shakes his head. “No, we weren’t prepared for anything like this. This isn’t some street thug trying to get a ransom or even some psycho with resources, like Lincoln was. These are the kinds of people that stage coups to overthrow foreign governments. The people who came in here are trained, just like we are. Maybe better.” He pauses, his jaw flexing like he’s chewing on his next words before deciding to say them aloud. “I wouldn’t have left if I knew this was coming. I’m sorry, Ana… I’m so fucking sorry.”

I take a deep breath and shake my head, refusing to accept the hint of defeat in his apology. “What would he do, Luke? If it were me who disappeared in the middle of the night, and he was here… what would Christian do?”

His shoulders rise and fall, but he gives me a starkly honest response. “He’d already be on that plane.”

I nod, and allow his words to give me resolution so that I can peel myself off the floor and march back out to the living room. Everyone is now surrounding Taylor and my father, trying to make arguments that they both seem to just be ignoring. I don’t give either of them a second glance. I move between them, pick up my cell, and begin scrolling through my contacts.

“Ana?” My dad checks. “What are you—”

A voice is speaking through the phone, so I hold up a hand to silence him. 

“Yes, this is Anastasia Grey. I need to speak with Senator Blandino immediately.”


It’s incredible how fast things turn around once I have the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services on the phone. In just a little more than an hour, the plan to extradite Christian goes from borderline childish, to clinical. We’re given access to whatever resources we need and are offered every piece of relevant intelligence the United States government has. The only caveat is that, to prevent any possibility of starting an act of war, the US government, and by extension the military, has to remain as uninvolved in Christian’s rescue as possible. 

It’s a conundrum that pulls me back to countless memories over the last few months, desperate confessions from Christian about why Endurance meant so much to him.

“I want power. I want to build the kind of empire that controls what’s really important. Information. Policy. World Leaders. By the time I’m finished, wars will be fought before anyone ever gets close to you or Calliope again.”

Just like everything else, he was right. Maybe wars will be fought.

“So, with that understanding,” the military commander on the other end of the phone says. “Who do you have that could lead this kind of mission?”

“Jason Taylor,” Luke answers. “He’s got the most military experience of anyone on the team, and the most command experience.”

“No,” Taylor says. “I don’t.” He winces again as he shifts in his seat to lean forward. “I’m not in any kind of shape to get in a combative situation, and you need good men. Captain Steele has more expertise than I do, and more experience. I think I should stay behind with Calliope and the family, and Ray here should take the rest of my team with him, and take the lead.”

My dad nods. “I can do that.”

“Alright,” the voice calls through the phone. “Then Captain Steele will take point. We’ll coordinate military escorts into Saudi Arabia and ensure you’ll have a safe rendezvous point. You’ll have a vehicle waiting for you to get into the city, and personnel to back you up if you get in trouble.”

My dad glances around the room and gets a half-nod from Luke and Taylor. “Good,” he says. “It’s almost a 24-hour flight to Riyadh so better get going.”

“There’s a convoy headed up from Lewis-McChord. They’ll meet you at Boeing for take-off and they’ll give you everything you’ll need for us to stay in contact while you’re in the air.”

“Thank you, Colonel.” My dad hangs up the phone and Taylor gets out of his seat.

“All of you need to go back to the main residence. We’re going into lockdown until the team returns.”

“You too,” Luke says to Jade, and Taylor nods.

“Everyone.”

I take a deep breath and go to Kate. “Tell Calliope I love her, and don’t take your eyes off her, okay?”

She wrinkles her brow at me. “What are you talking about? You’re coming with us.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Ana…” Luke begins to argue, but I shake my head.

“I’m going with you. If it were me, there’s no way Christian would stay behind. It’s not any different the other way around.” I turn and stare my father dead in the eyes, leaving no room for argument. “I can’t stay behind and not know. I’m going.”

“You’re pregnant, sweetheart.”

“And I’m still going. Every second we stand here arguing about it, is another second we’re not getting to Christian.”

He hesitates, but only for a moment. The reluctance in his eyes is clear as he nods. Kate looks at me like she’s sure I’ve lost my mind and, maybe I have, but there’s just absolutely no way that I could stay here and not know what’s happening.

As everyone starts filing for the elevators, I feel a strong pair of fingers wrap tightly around my arm and yank. I turn to meet a pair of turbulent blue eyes. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Don’t, Luke. You’re not going to change my mind.”

His jaw tightens and I can see the storm of words ready to strike out at me like lightning teetering just on the edge of his tongue. But he meets my eyes and reads something there that makes him hold them back. Instead, he leans in and whispers in a voice so low that it’s almost threatening, “I swear to god, you will do every motherfucking thing I tell you to do, no questions asked. You got it?”

“Yes.”

“I mean it, Ana. Even if I tell you to run away and leave him behind, you do what I tell you to do.”

“It’s not going to come to that.”

Anastasia…”

“Okay. I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.” He nods, but his eyes are still suspicious and he hovers behind me as I hug Grace and Mia goodbye. Kim sweeps me into her arms and offers words that are surprisingly encouraging, and Elliot makes me promise that I’ll tell Christian that he’s going to kill him the second he sees him for putting him through this. I give him a weak smile, then turn to watch Jade give Luke a long and deep good-bye kiss. Their eyes meet, exchanging a goodbye more personal than words ever could, and then she turns to me.

“You make sure he comes home to me, okay?”

I nod, then pull her into a hug.

Downstairs, Taylor funnels the rest of my family between the SUV and Grace and Carrick’s car. Transporting everyone back to the house takes every vehicle available to us, except one, and as I toss the keys to Luke his eyes widen.

“Holy shit, are you sure?”

I give him a very serious look. “Everyone else is already on the way to the airport. I expect you to get there as fast as possible.”

He hits the button on the key fob, and the lights to the Lamborghini blink back at us. He grins. “Ah, hell yeah.”

Luke quickens his pace as we take the last few steps to the car, while my dad glances uneasily through the windshield.

“There’s only two seats…”

I yank up the butterfly door and stand to the side for him to crawl in first. “There’s plenty of room for me to sit on top of you.”

A grimace crosses his face as he realizes how I know that, but he ducks into the car all the same and only bemoans its foreign status as I reach up to close us inside. Luke revs the engine while he shifts into gear and then peels out of the parking garage.

He keeps the speedometer above ninety, so we’re pulling onto the airfield at Boeing in less than ten minutes. Taylor has called ahead to have my jet prepared, but while we idle on the tarmac waiting for the rest of my team, I catch a glimpse of Christian’s plane still parked in the hangar. There’s an eerie kind of lifelessness that hangs heavily in the darkness around it. My own plane hums with life, the windows alight and welcoming, the stairs already stretching out to greet me.

It feels too much like a metaphor for what’s at stake.

“You ready?” Luke asks, turning to me as a familiar car pulls onto the tarmac behind us. I take a deep breath and nod. He reaches over and squeezes my hand before stepping out of the car and pulling me to the plane. We’ve already started to move by the time we take our seats, and the silence that had been so impressive the first time Christina took me up in this plane sounds oppressive as we take off.

It’s a long flight, and it’s not easy for me to sleep despite my father and Luke constantly suggesting I do just that. But every time I close my eyes, I’m terrorized by the echo of a voice in the back of my mind. It’s not Lincoln this time, it’s Christian. And the sound is filled with pain. The images my mind conjures of what they might be doing to him to get him to agree to destroy his life’s greatest achievement is more brutal than I would have through myself capable of. Eventually, it becomes too much, so I crawl onto the sofa next to Luke, lay my head on his shoulder, and wait with him in silence until we finally land.

It’s slightly disorienting stepping off the plane. It was dawn when we’d left Seattle, but the sun is low in the sky and somehow, still blazing hot in Riyadh. I don’t know what the time difference is, only that we have been on that god forsaken plane for an entire day, which means that they’ve had Christian for almost two.

I follow in the dusty cloud that pulls up from the sand with every step my father takes. He shakes hands with a man in a military uniform that has an impressive number of badges and bars displayed across the front. I watch the men the military has sent to our aid unloading a van from an aircraft carrier a few hundred yards away, and frown. When they said they’d provide a vehicle to get us into the city, I’d imagined a souped up Humvee with armored, reinforced steel and bullet proof glass. The drab and unimpressive shell of this vehicle looks too vulnerable, too ordinary. and for the first time, I think I really feel the danger in what we’re about to do.

“We can do this, right?” I hiss to Luke, holding a protective hand over my stomach. He reaches over to squeeze my arm.

“You don’t have to come if you’re scared. You can stay here, on the plane, with these fine men. You should stay here. They’ll protect you.”

I turn back and watch the soldiers milling around us again, my eyes narrowing in on the weapons laid across the table next to my father, and the guns on the jets that had landed on the sandy, makeshift airfield with us. It’s all a ‘Plan B,’ but I’ve been through this enough now to expect the worst case scenario. The threat of escalation is all around me, and if I’m not there to see how everything goes down, that’s all I’m going to think about.

“No,” I tell him. “I have to come. I need to see that he’s okay with my own eyes.”

His lips press together and his forehead creases with worry, but he nods and leans over to kiss me on the temple. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, okay?”

“I know.”

After listening to the life and death instructions given to us by the military commander running base camp, we pile into the van and start towards the city. It’s a good twenty-five miles of open desert between us and the first sign so life, and the drive gives me too much space and silence to think about what we’re moving towards. It’s tense, nearly unbearable, and the only thing I can do is stare blankly at the equipment around me and… hope.

As we make our way into the city, using military GPS to take us directly to the estate where Christian is being held, Luke pulls out his phone and curls into the side of the van as though it could give him any modicum of privacy. I try not to listen, but he’s the only one who speaks, so everyone in the van hears everything he says.

“Hey, we’re just about there… I just wanted to call and tell you that I love you.” He’s talking to Jade, and there’s a kind of vulnerability in his voice that sounds strange coming from him. Luke is normally the guy who’s looking for a fight, who gets excited by the prospect of danger. Now, there’s hesitation, and it’s because he has something to lose now. And listening to him say goodbye to the woman he loves, just in case, has me in tears when we pull onto the dark street where my dad finally kills the engine.

“Is everyone ready?” he asks, slowly unbuckling his seatbelt and peering through the windows for any sign that someone has noticed our arrival. There’s a rumble of agreement that sounds around me, then Luke takes a black, heavy case out from under his seat and passes earpieces around. I twist the completely invisible bud into my ear, and nod when my father tests to make sure we can hear him. But when everyone begins to file out of the van, Luke’s hand tugs me back inside.

“You’re not coming.”

“What?”

“There’s a good chance it gets hairy in there and we can’t focus on your husband if we’re worrying about you. So, stay here, stay low, and stay quiet. We’ll be back with Christian in just a few minutes, okay?”

“But—”

“You’ll be able to hear us, Annie,” my dad says. “The moment I have Christian safe, I’ll give him my earpiece.”

“We need you to do this,” Evan adds. “Sawyer’s right. You first, remember?”

I take a few deep breaths and try to consider what they’re telling me objectively. Everything inside of me is screaming to refuse. It’s taking every ounce of my control not to bolt from this van and just run to the house glowing at the end of the street, because I know that’s where he is. But I need every single person on this team to come back safe too, and if going with them could put any of them in danger, I can’t argue with them when they ask me to stay.

“Okay.” I nod, though the word tastes like poison on my tongue. “But… be careful, okay?”

“We will,” Luke promises. He hugs me tightly and kisses me hard on the cheek before he disappears into the blackness. I hug Woods next, then my father.

“Come back to me,” I make him promise.

“I always do.”

The door to the van closes and the dome light slowly fades into nothing, leaving me alone in blackness with nothing but the muffled sounds of breathing in my earpiece. It’s one of the most intense moments in my entire life. I can hear my heart beating furiously in my chest, my stomach churns with nausea that I can’t allow to overwhelm me. I cling desperately to every softly whispered command, every involuntary sound, every footstep… waiting for the worst.

“I’ve got two on the south side,” Woods murmurs. “I can see a Galil and an AK-47.”

“I’ve got an AR-15 on the east wall,” Wyatt adds. “Three men. The other two have pistols on their hips.”

“Damn it,” my father whispers. “I’m moving up the north wall, there’s a light up ahead about 500 feet. I think it may be an open gate.”

“I can see it from my position,” Harper says. “You’ve got two on the other side. I’ve got them in my scope.”

“400 feet,” my dad says. “300…”

“Wait, Ray,” Luke hisses. “I’ve got movement on the North side, you’ve got three people headed right for you. 12 o’clock.”

“Fuck.”

“You got cover?” Smith asks.

“No, I’m out in the open here.”

“You’ve got ten seconds,” Luke says. “They’re armed.”

I hear my father grunt, and I don’t know what that means. If he’s found somewhere to hide, if he’s trying to get away, if someone has him… he’s gone silent as he tries to remain concealed and my heart pounds in my chest with each passing second. I wait in agony for anyone to say anything, for one word of reassurance, but there is only dead silence in my ears and it drives me right up to the brink of insanity.

“Shit, they’re going to see him,” Luke says, urgently. “We need a distraction.”

“Is any one open enough that they can create a diversion?” Woods adds. No one answers.

I don’t even think about it. I leap from the back into the driver’s seat and twist the keys in the ignition. My foot finds the pedal and I shove it down against the floor and jolt forward up the street towards Christian’s prison. The engine groans as I try to coax every ounce of speed I can from it.

“What the fuck is that?” Woods asks.

“We’ve got headlights coming up the street,” Smith says.

The gate to the driveway materializes in the beam of my headlights and I hit the breaks, reaching over at the same time to roll down the window.

“It’s me,” I tell them.

“You?” What the fuck do you mean it’s you?” Luke demands. I reach through the window and press the button on the speaker outside the gate. A deep voice responds in a language I don’t understand, but I don’t have to. He just has to understand me.

“My name is Anastasia Grey,” I tell the voice in the box. “I’m here for my husband.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 48

“I don’t know, it was still dark…” Elliot’s eyes look into nothing while he answers the questions from the police. He’s not dazed or overcome with shock. It looks as though he’s reliving a memory.

Reliving a nightmare.

“They were already in the room by the time I woke up. Christian and I had been drinking, I was still a little drunk… At first, I thought it was him coming to fuck with me. But then there were more of him, of them. One held me down, one wrapped the tape around my head, and one zip tied me to the headboard. I was helpless before I even knew what was going on.”

“Then what happened?”

“They walked out of the room. I tried to shout for help, but I couldn’t move my mouth under the tape. I was trying to get out of the zip ties when I heard them fighting with Christian downstairs. It sounded bad, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even call out to him…”

“Did you hear anything about what they wanted, or where they were going?”

“No, they never said a word. The only thing I heard was…” He looks up at the still demolished foyer, and his face melts with something between pain and disgust. “That.”

The officer conducting the interview sighs, adjusts the recorder on the coffee table, and then turns to me. “Mrs. Grey, is anything else missing? Cash you had on hand? Jewelry? Any valuables?”

I don’t answer.

I can’t.

It’s not real.

Everything in front of me is happening as though I’m watching it on a television screen. I can see my family sitting around me, I can hear the police asking questions, and I can understand the answers they get in return. But I can’t interact with any of it. I’m in a daze. A completely inert state of unbeing. I can’t speak. I can’t move. I can’t even look at anything except the empty space in front of me.

“Nothing is missing,” Taylor grunts from the far side of the sofa. He makes several pain-filled noises as he shifts to sit more upright. The ice pack he holds to the side of his brutalized face never moves. “They were in, they were out. They only wanted him.”

“Yes,” the officer agrees, dejectedly. He reaches forward and stops the recording, then gives a sympathetic smile to Elliot. “Thank you, Mr. Grey. That’s all the questions I have for you.”

“I wish I could give you more,” Elliot replies, his voice breaking with each word. “You are going to find him, right?” 

“We’re going to do everything we can.” 

Elliot grimaces as he swallows back the emotion clawing up his throat, then sniffs hard and moves to Kate. She kisses and throws her arms around him, squeezing him as tightly as she can while he sobs silently into her shoulder.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” she says, wearing her own pain as loudly as Elliot does. “I’m so sorry for what you went through.”

“I didn’t go through anything. It was Christian—“ He starts to sob again, while Kate runs her fingers gently over his scalp.

“They’re going to find him Elliot.”

“Yeah. They have to.” He pulls away from Kate, taking a few deep breaths to calm himself, and then he turns to me.

“What can I do, Ana?”

I can’t look at him.

“Well we’re going to start by getting everyone together,” Grace intervenes. “I just got off the phone with Ray and he’s on his way down. He asked me to make you a cup of tea.”

A teacup appears on the table before me, and I actually manage to look down at it. It’s familiar. It comes from a set that Christian bought for my apartment on the 14th floor when I worked for him as an intern. I’d had to bring them up here with me when I’d agreed to move in with him because he doesn’t drink tea. I remember putting them in the cabinet on my first official day living here and realizing, even then, how much they represented the way he cares about me. The way he’s always thinking about me.

I didn’t speak to him for two years, and he remembered to buy me tea cups.

Tears well in my eyes, but I can’t move to brush them away. I stare at pretty pink flowers on the china that look like the dozens of bouquets he’s sent me over the years, and the tears stream unimpeded down my face until I feel Kate’s fingers reach over to catch them. She leans away from Elliot and wraps an arm around me, but it doesn’t make me thaw. I sit. Still. Staring at the teacup.

I wonder if I look as dead as I feel?

“Mia’s on her way,” Carrick says, stalking into the room and brandishing his cell phone with an erratic kind of energy that is deeply unsettling. “I’ve chartered her a flight out of Boston, she’s going to be here in a few hours.”

“I still don’t think she needs to leave school,” Elliot says. “She hasn’t even been there for a week and if we’ve learned anything over these past few years, it’s that she’s a hell of a lot safer in Cambridge than she is here.”

“Elliot,” Kate hisses in admonishment. Her eyes go wide with an unspoken lecture and her head tilts in my direction, but I’m not phased by his blunt statement. It washes off me just like everything else. There’s no point mincing words or trying to paint this any other color than the dark shade of horror it is.

“I don’t care,” Carrick continues. “I want us all together.” His eyes move over all of us, as though he’s taking a head count, and then his eyes go wide with a newly realized fear. “Where are the babies?”

“They’re at Chri– Ana’s house,” Grace says, stumbling painfully over her words. She walks to her husband and wraps him in an unsettled embrace. “They’re with Mackensie and the rest of her security team.”

“Well, get them here immediately!” Carrick argues. My eyes flash up at him like he’s just threatened me, but I don’t have to break through the parasitic void to fight him because Taylor does it for me.

“They’re most secure at the residence,” he says. “Mr. Grey’s approved emergency protocol says the kids should be put in lockdown. Ana should be there too, but—”

“But she’s not going anywhere,” Luke says from across the room. It’s the first time he’s emerged from the security office since he first got here. Now, he looks exhausted. Kate nods in agreement. 

“Not until Luke finds him.” 

The police officers still wandering through the apartment scoff, and Luke’s jaw flexes irritably. He turns intense eyes on me, communicating something he doesn’t want the rest of the room to know. I’m not even sure that it is, but the message I get from it is that he’s watching me. I don’t know what he’s looking for, but the warning makes me think he sees an avenue through this. One he doesn’t want to put me through. One that he’s afraid I’ll figure out. 

And suddenly, I’m aware of absolutely everything around me. 

“You are going to find him, aren’t you?” Elliot asks. 

Luke frowns. “Of course I am. It’s just going to take me a minute to get through everything that’s trying to stop me.  In the meantime, I could use some coffee if there’s any made.” 

“I’ll get it,” Jade says. 

She’s been sitting in an armchair on the other side of the room, burying herself in her phone and trying to stay invisible in the middle of our family crisis for hours. I was surprised, actually at how fast she got here. Or that she even came at all. Luke called to tell her where he was and that he wasn’t sure when he’d be home. Instead of being upset, she drove straight here, left him to do his work, and came to sit with me. When I wouldn’t talk, she just nodded, moved to the chair she’s in now, and let me be silent, filling the lonely emptiness in the room with her presence. 

She gets up, and Luke pulls her in for a grateful kiss before she heads into the kitchen. Grace starts sobbing softly from the other side of the sectional again, which she tries to hide unsuccessfully behind her hand, and Carrick takes the seat next to her so that he can hold her through it. His eyes bounce between Luke and Taylor. 

“How did this even happen? How did they get in here?” 

Taylor grimaces. “Escala.” 

“What?”

“We own the apartment, not the building. So everything we do, we have to give to the building owner. They have the code to the elevator for liability reasons, and we’re only allowed to have recording cameras in common areas because of an agreement we made that states Escala owns the footage and has the right to turn the cameras off at their discretion. They don’t, so it’s never been a problem. But they can. Whoever came at us, did. Nothing broke through our firewalls, every breach Luke has found came from the Escala side. That’s why the garage footage is gone, but not the footage in the apartment.”

“But he doesn’t even really live here,” Carrick argues again. “He’s only been here a few nights, how did they even know to look for him here?” 

“Probably something to do with this…” Luke interjects. He walks across the room and puts his cellphone on the table. A video starts to play on the screen with a logo for a paparazzi website I’ve blocked on all my devices stamped over the picture in the left hand corner. 

Through the shouts and tightly packed bodies, the shiny black door of the Maybach opens and Christian steps out onto the sidewalk in the same suit he was wearing at my doctor’s appointment yesterday. He looks annoyed as he pushes through the first wave of photographers, and as the angle changes with him, I see the blue glass doors of Escala. There’s a very distinguishable clock on a post next to the door that clearly shows the time of his arrival. 

“Why wasn’t he dropped off in the garage?” Kate asks, rounding on Taylor. His face falls.

“He’d asked me to go get him bourbon. I dropped him off at the street entrance so I could go to the liquor store.” 

Jade returns with a coffee cup that she gingerly passes to Luke. He takes a deep drink, grimacing slightly as it scalds his throat, then wraps an arm around his girl and pulls her into his side. Elliot’s knees bounce anxiously, until he eventually pulls himself off the sofa and begins to pace. 

“There’s got to be something we’re overlooking. There’s got to be more we could be doing.“

“I’m not overlooking anything, Elliot,” Luke assures him. “I’m going to find hi–”

His sentence cuts off with the ping of the elevator, and everyone’s eyes turn toward the foyer as though they expect it to be Christian who comes through the doors. As though they think it would be that simple.

As if they truly believe we’re going to get out of this without devastating consequences.

The steel doors slide open and Ros’s heels begin clacking their way across the foyer into the living room. Grace goes to her immediately, throwing her arms around her while Christian’s best friend begins to word-vomit her sympathies.

“Is there any news?” she asks, nervous eyes darting first to Taylor, then to Luke, and finally Carrick. They all shake their heads, so she turns to me.

Her hand flies up to her chest and her face crinkles with unspoken consolation. She moves toward the sofa as though it were a calling, and slides into the seat next to me. “How are you doing, Ana?”

I can’t even yank my hand out of hers, the way I want to.

“She’s…” Kate begins, and immediately stops as the words fail to materialize. Ros nods, and gets up to hug Elliot and Carrick, but I can’t quite make out the words they exchange with one another. I glance around, waiting for a sign. Looking for clarity. Praying for some epiphany that will put some light at the end of this macabre tunnel. My internal pleas are interrupted by a sudden, discordant jingle…

A phone.

“That’s Ana’s,” Luke voices aloud for me.

Kate leans across the table to dig through my abandoned purse, but when she has my phone in her hands and she looks down at the screen, she frowns.

“It just says ‘unknown.’”

The police officer who interviewed Elliot perks up, then snaps to his colleagues currently going over the security footage at my dining room table. “It could be them,” he says, and it’s like I suddenly come to life. Whatever heavy force was holding me down, whatever thing was choking back my voice… all of it disappears, and I practically leap from the couch to snatch my phone from Kate’s hands.

“This is Anastasia Grey,” I start, and an unfamiliar British accent responds.

“Good evening, Mrs. Grey. Are the police officers with you tracing this phone call?”

I swallow, ensuring my voice won’t shake before I continue. The officer who interviewed Elliot is coming towards me with a black box in his hand, similar to the one that Luke had used to record the call Lincoln made at my graduation. 

“They will be.” 

“Then I’ll keep this brief. Rosaline Bailey entered your apartment a few minutes ago. Would you be so kind as to hand her the phone, please?” 

So they are watching us.

“Ros?” I turn to look at her and her eyes go wide. “No, Christian… What about Christian? Where is he? Is he okay?” 

“I don’t have much time, Mrs. Grey.” 

“I… Look, I’m the one you want to help you, okay? My name is on everything that Christian’s is and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get him back safely. I can give you anything he can, so just tell me what you want for him, and I’ll give it to you.” 

He sighs. “The only way you can give me what I want, is by handing the phone to Rosaline Bailey.” 

My heart hammers against my ribcage while I hesitate. Each second feels precious while Christian’s fate hangs in the balance, but… this is my only line to the man who has him, which makes it the only line I have to him. It’s not so easy to give up…

“Please,” I beg, my bottom lip beginning to tremble. “Please let me talk to him. Let me just hear that he’s okay.”

“I’m sorry, that’s impossible. Please give the phone to Ms. Bailey.”

“Please,” I plead again, only becoming more desperate the more the man reveals. “Please, just tell me what to do to get him back…”

“Give the phone to Ms. Bailey, Mrs. Grey.”

I close my eyes, fighting against the insurmountable force that tells me to keep the man talking and keep him talking to me, and pass the phone to Ros. She reaches out with a shaky hand, but pauses before regaining her composure and slowly pulling the phone to her ear.

“This is Rosaline Bailey,” she says. For several seconds, I watch the myriad of emotions move across her face in silence. First trepidation, then revulsion, then fear, and finally, anger.

“No, I can’t do that,” she says, so firmly I could scream. There’s another long pause while the man on the phone makes his counter argument, but that’s only met with another denial from Ros.

It’s too much for me to hold back. I lunge at her with the same intense purpose I did with Kate and take the phone back. “I can do it. I will do it. Just tell me what you want.”

The voice sighs impatiently. “You’re not the person who can help me, Anastasia…”

“Like hell I can’t. Just give me the number. Ten million? A hundred million? A billion? I don’t care, you can have all of it! I just want my husband back.” I’m shrieking, on the edge of hysterics, and the man on the phone sighs impatiently.

“I don’t want your money,” he says, and then to my complete and utter horror, he hangs up the phone.

“No!” My scream echoes through the deathly silent room while I go into my contacts and try to call the unknown number back over and over again. Each time the call fails to connect, my anguish blooms a little bit further out of my control. I round on Ros. “What did he want?”

She cowers slightly under the force of my words, which I think has more to do with guilt than fear. She glances nervously at the other faces around the room, then looks directly at the police.

“He wants me to dismantle Endurance. He wants everything we’ve developed and manufactured to be destroyed and all of our data erased. He wants it to be like it never existed and for us to bury it deep enough that I will never exist again.”

Her denial reverberates in my mind and nearly has me falling back on the couch in disbelief. That’s it?

“So do it!” I scream at her. She mashes her lips together and shakes her head defiantly.

“I can’t. We have contracts with governments all over the world and the man has been nominated for a fucking Nobel Prize. This technology is bigger than we are now. This is an evolutionary point in human history and nothing can be allowed to step in its way. Christian knew that before anyone else did, and I guarantee you that the reason they’re calling me right now is because he’s telling them the same thing I’m telling you.”

Carrick blinks at Ros in shock. “What did you say? He’s nominated for a Nobel Prize?”

I hold up a hand in my father-in-law’s face, cutting off Ros’s response. “I don’t give a fuck what he’s nominated for. They don’t give the Nobel Prize posthumously.”

I can feel it coming, the break they’ve all been tiptoeing around. It starts like a crack in the fortified walls in a dam. Small, almost inconsequential. The waves of grief compounding on top of it chip it open further and further until I’m only holding on by a few crumbling bits of plaster.

Luke sees it coming, but he doesn’t come to me. “I’m on it, Ana.” he tells me. “I’m going to find him.” Then he turns around and marches back into the security office. 

On the precipice of a total meltdown, I turn away from Ros and the rest of my family, and hurry towards our bedroom. The door sounds so final when it slams behind me, like an ending I’m not prepared to face.

I fall into the bed, the first great sob of the hysteria pulling in the scent of Christian from the sheets. I wrap myself in them like a cocoon while I shake with a grief so profound it shakes my very essence. The tears stream in endless currents down my face, beyond the point I should have any left. Every part of me feels as though it’s being ripped apart, and then somehow ripped again. It goes on and on, the pain only compounding with each passing second, until eventually, someone comes to check on me.

“Annie?”

The door creaks a little as my father eases it open. He stands in the doorway for only half a second, taking in the devastation before him, and then he moves to the bed beside me. His arms coil around me, as if I could be fused back together with enough pressure.

“He’s going to be okay, Annie,” he whispers into my hair. “Christian is so much stronger than any of us, he’ll get through this. He’d fight the whole world to get back to you.”

“What if he doesn’t win, Daddy?” 

“Nonsense. He changed the laws of physics. Does that sound like a man who loses to you?” 

I take a few breaths against his shirt, and soak in the comfort he’s trying to give me. It doesn’t do much, because there’s something about that sentiment that rings like a warning. But the little reprieve I’m able to take from his love gives me the strength to choke back my tears and at least look up at him. In a way, he seems unfamiliar through the glassy layer of despair that coats my eyes. Everything is distorted. Darker, like some of the light has been taken from the world. But there’s hope staring down at me through my father’s eyes, and every part of me wants to believe in it. Even if I know it’s an empty lie.

He reaches for my face and wipes the tears from my cheeks. “Have you eaten anything?” I shake my head, because it’s all that I can do, and he gives me an understanding smile. “Kim came up with me. I’ll have her fix you something, okay?”

“Looks like I’m two steps ahead of you, Ray.”

We both look up and see Kate standing in the doorway. She holds up a brown paper bag and a large cup with a wide red straw. My dad smiles and claps his hand over the blanket that covers my leg.

“I guess I’ll leave you girls to it, then.” I nod and he leans over to kiss my forehead, capturing my chin between his fingers before he climbs out of bed. “I’m here, Annie. If you need anything, I’m just down the hall. If you want to talk or you want someone to cry on… I’m waiting for you, okay? No matter what time it is, I’m here. Just come find me.”

I try to respond, but in the absence of the unrelenting torment, I’ve gone numb again. It doesn’t matter, he understands me better than anyone in the entire world. He smiles back at me, and kisses me one last time. As he leaves the room, he squeezes Kate’s arm.

“Thanks, kiddo.”

She winks at him, then hops into bed with me and gives me a look like she’s about to let me in on a secret.

“I know you probably don’t want to eat, but hear me out. Elliot went down to Dicks and…” She holds up the bag in front of me. The bottom so coated in grease I’m almost worried it will give out. “Deluxe cheeseburger, large fries, and an extra thick chocolate milkshake.” She holds it out to me with confidence that would normally be well earned, but there’s nothing about consuming way too many calories that appeals to me right now. There’s nothing that appeals to me right now period. There’s only the absence that Christian has left behind and the desperate need I have to bring him home.

“Come on, Ana,” Kate says dejectedly. “You have to eat. It’s not just you anymore, remember?” Her eyes move down to my stomach, and I feel a wash of blame sweep over me. I hang my head.

“He was right, I didn’t see this from his side.” 

“What?” 

“He’s terrified of losing me because it feels like this, and I haven’t felt this. This… this…” I lift my hands, like it’s even possible to demonstrate the enormity of this loss. Of this hurt. “He’s been living with this for days, and I… I ran away. He wanted to be home, I told him he couldn’t be there. He did come home, and I asked him to leave again. I didn’t see this from his side because if I did, I would have done everything I could to help him through this pain. I could have called Flynn. I could have assembled a team of experts. I could have bought a fucking hospital and just moved in for the next nine months, but instead… instead, I told him I needed space. That I needed to be away from him. Because I didn’t understand this pain. His pain… He was here because of me.” 

“Don’t do that to yourself, Ana. He could have done all of those things too, but he got a vasectomy instead. You didn’t know this would happen, and you don’t know that this had to happen here. Maybe it would have happened anyway, and maybe it would have happened where you and Calliope were…”

I narrow my eyes at her. “Do you know the only directive my security team has? Me first. Always me first. So while I was safe at home, behind my gates that are locked with codes no one else has, under the surveillance of my cameras that no one else can turn off, guarded by my entire armed security team, he was here. Without them. If he would have been home last night, Taylor wouldn’t have been alone. He would have had Evan, and Smith, and Harper, and Wyatt… I would have been there.”

“And they would have just taken you too.”

I turn away from her, scowling into the nothingness around me. “I think I would have preferred that. Any imminent threat of danger would be easier than this. Than not knowing what’s happening to him… or what will happen next. I can’t do this!

“He’s going to be okay, Ana. We’re going to make a deal to get him. Eventually, it will come down to money. We’ll pay it, and we will get him back.”

“No, Kate. They’re never going to give him back.” I turn to her, and lay out the part of this she hasn’t seen yet. The parts I didn’t see until the phone went dead. The parts that keep her sitting upright, while I’m struggling to maintain the functions that are supposed to be done unconsciously. “Why would they give him back? They said they wanted Endurance destroyed and Christian is Endurance. He’s the creator. He’s the visionary. It’s all in his head.” And suddenly, the warning I took from my father makes sense, and it stirs the existential fear inside of me. “He doesn’t lose. He wouldn’t even lose to me, there’s no way in hell he’d let himself be beaten by the people who invaded his home and took the power from him that he put his entire life’s work on the line to get. He’ll just start from scratch and somehow end up with a product that’s better and more impressive than what he built the first time. And then they’ll come back. Or someone else will come…” I let the words trail off as my head hangs in misery. “They’re not giving him back, Kate.” 

As tears fall down my face, she hugs me again. “Annie…” 

“I can’t lose him, Kate. I can’t, I–” A ghost of the words he’s said to me over and over moves through my head, and I feel the weight of their poignancy. “His heart beats, my heart beats… not just correlation, sequential.” 

“Luke isn’t going to let you lose him, Ana. We’re going to find him. And the team of people who kept you safe are going to bring him home.” 

I take a trembling breath, feeling my entire body fill to the brim with pain. Because I don’t know if I believe her. I don’t know what comes next and every second I live in this torturous purgatory waiting for whatever terrible judgement fate plans to hand down gets harder and harder to bear. I can feel myself unraveling as it happens, but I can’t stop it. I spiral down and down until there’s nothing left but grief. 

Kate’s arms hold me together, and she stays there clinging to me until the sun comes up the next morning and my stomach starts to roil. 

I stumble to the bathroom, wiping tears from my face as I bend over the toilet to vomit. But nothing happens. I wretch and wretch and wretch, but I have nothing in my stomach to throw up. It’s painful, and starts a whole new wave of tears that brings Kate to the floor next to me. 

She passes me the bottle of anti-nausea meds that was in my purse. “You have to eat something, Ana. Please.”

I give her a helpless look, but once the contractions in my stomach stop, I nod and take her hand. She leads me out to the living room and we find everyone still spread out, restless and bleary-eyed. The police have left, but Ros is still here. Kim is in the kitchen stirring something on the stove, and Grace is on the sofa with Mia wrapped under her arm. Every pair of eyes around the room turns to me. 

“She wants to eat something,” Kate says, answering the unspoken question in their gazes. 

“Good,” my dad says. 

“I’m making oatmeal,” Kim calls. “I’ll bring you some.” 

I nod to her, numbly, then shuffle towards the empty place on the sofa that my dad creates for me. Mia gets up like she wants to come cuddle into my side, but she stops when a trilling jingle sounds from the other side of the room. Automatically, I look down at my phone, still on the coffee table, still plugged into the device the police gave me, but it’s silent. Ros is the one who dives into her bag, and when she looks at the screen her nervous eyes shift to Taylor. 

He pulls himself off the couch, groaning in pain but not letting it slow him down in the slightest, rips the device out of my phone, and brings it to Ros. He slips it into the charging port, then nods for her to answer the phone. 

My breath catches in my throat. 

“Hello?” Her voice is shaky and her eyes dart nervously back and forth, then widen very suddenly. “Christian?!” 

I launch myself at her faster than I think I’ve ever moved in my life. I watch her cringe as she listens to whatever he says, then shake her head as she answers. “No, she’s right here, she’s fine. Yeah, Calliope too. They’re both okay. They’re safe. What about you?” She pauses for a moment, listening very intently, but whatever is happening on the other end of the phone only seems to confuse her more. 

“Christian?” she suddenly calls in panic, and I react before I realize what I’m doing. My hand darts out and snatches the phone from her, and I bring it to my ear with the whispered pleas for him to be okay already tumbling from my lips. 

“Christian! Christian!” I call, but the line’s gone dead. There’s nothing but silence, and my wild eyes snap up to Ros. “What did he say?!” 

She shakes her head. “He said don’t do it. He asked if they had you or Calliope, and then he told me not to do a fucking thing. Then there was shouting and…” She cringes again and looks away from me, and I crumple to the floor under the weight of this whole new wave of pain. Both Ros and Kate bend down and place soft hands on my shoulder, whispering reassuring words… but the only thing that breaks through the sorrow is the voice of my former CPO. 

“I’ve got him,” Luke says, and when my head jerks up toward him, I see that he’s talking directly to me. He holds my gaze for just half-a-second, letting me feel the truth behind what he just said, then his eyes move around the room. “I know where he is, and I’m going to go get him. Who’s coming with me?”

Next Chapter

Chapter 47

That night, I wake abruptly as though I’ve just escaped a nightmare. My heart is beating wildly in my chest when I sit up straight in bed. My breath comes too quick and shallow for me to calm myself. I try to grasp onto the remnants of my dream slipping away like wisps of smoke, but there aren’t any frightening images in them. I’d been dreaming of Christian and a summer day on our yacht in the middle of the sound.

A new fear moves to the forefront of my mind, and I reach down to my stomach in alarm. There isn’t any pain though, or even queasiness. I’m not bleeding. I’m not uncomfortable. I feel fine. The darkness around me is still, except for Kate breathing peacefully in the bed next to me, and nothing seems to be disturbed.

I glance over Kate to the alarm clock on Christian’s nightstand. It’s 2:37 AM, and I groan. As I fall back into the pillows, I reach over for my phone out of habit to check any notifications that might have popped up while I was sleeping. There’s a missed call and a voicemail from Christian he’d left just after 1 AM. With a cautious look at Kate, I press play on the message, and pull my phone to my ear.

It’s quiet, and it stays that way long enough that I think for a moment he must have butt-dialed me. My fingers moves to delete the message just as his voice comes through the phone and the sound is so rough and broken, it grates against my eardrums like sandpaper.

“You promised me forever,” he slurs. “All I’ve ever tried to do, all I’ve ever wanted, was to love you enough to deserve forever.  And now I’ve fucked it up and I’m going to lose you–No.” He changes direction quickly, and I can almost hear him shaking his head. “I won’t lose you. I won’t. Your heart beats, my heart beats.” Another long beat of silence. “I’ll make fucking sure of it.”

The message ends with a click and my heart starts beating violently in my chest. The morbid tone of his words lingers in my ears and brings goosebumps to the surface of my skin. I quickly dial his number and wait anxiously for him to answer, but I get his voicemail. 

I try to tell myself that’s a good thing. It means he’s gone to sleep and he’ll wake in the morning with a much clearer head. More painful, but definitely clearer. 

With a text to remind him how much I love him and a request for him to call me when he wakes up, I set my phone back on the nightstand and try to get back to sleep. It’s pointless though. The worry I feel over Christian’s voicemail plagues me through the rest of the night, pulling me down into constantly fluctuating waves of tears, until the sun comes up and the alarm clock chimes shrilly from the other side of the bed.

“Mmmm,” Kate moans, stretching her whole body before she even pries her eyes open. “Morning, Annie.” She turns to me, the ghost of pleasant dreams still present on her face. When she sees my puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks, it all melts into concern. “What’s wrong?”

I reach up to wipe the moisture from my eyes and take a misery filled breath. “Christian called last night. He didn’t sound good.”

“How not good?”

I shake my head, and she frowns.

“Well, Elliot’s with him. If there’s one person who knows how to get Christian through his bullshit, it’s him.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” I pull back the covers and get out of bed, but stop when Kate calls my name. I turn inside the doorframe to the bathroom.

“What did he say?” she asks. 

“Nothing, it’s fine.”

But it’s not fine. Nothing about this is fine and I can’t do this anymore. This is going to end today. When Christian comes home from work, we’re going to have it out. And no matter how ugly it gets, I’m not going to run. I’m not going to back down. He’s going to see it my way if it kills him, because what we’re doing right now, is slowly killing me.

The gradual roll of my morning sickness begins to rear its ugly head, so I go to the medicine cabinet before I hop in the shower. I expect my nausea lozenges to be on the 2nd shelf waiting for me, but they’ve been replaced by an orange prescription bottle. The label tells me it’s the medication Dr. Baker prescribed for me during my visit yesterday. I’d completely forgotten about it and hadn’t called Abby to have it picked up. Christian must’ve had Andrea do it, and holding that bottle in my hand makes me only more resolved about my plans for tonight.

We can do this. We love each other. There’s nothing we can make it through.

No matter what.

After my shower, I pick one of Christian’s button down shirts from his closet and tuck it into a high-waisted pencil skirt so that it billows over the top. It smells like the cleaners, rather than my husband, but I can almost feel his touch being wrapped in the fabric. Like the empty sleeves are the same as being held in his arms. The sense of comfort I glean from it gives me a reassuring kind of certainty that keeps my head held high while I move around Kate in the bathroom, then go get Calliope ready for the day.

When we get to GEH, there’s a tiny glimmer of hope in the back of my mind that Christian might be waiting for us. He hasn’t seen Calliope in over a day and that’s always really rough on him. But the only person who greets me once we step off the elevators on the seventh floor is the receptionist who mans the desk in front of Calliope’s daycare. She smiles and greets me the same as she always does, and Calliope runs to play with her friends the moment I set her on the rug of the playroom just like it was any other morning. I watch her for a few minutes while I try to call Christian again, then call her over for a kiss goodbye when I immediately get his voicemail.

“Mary,” I say to the receptionist as I come back into the hallway.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“If my husband comes down here to see Calliope, will you let me know?”

“Sure, you’re at Grey Publishing now, right?”

My face falls. Good news travels fast, I see. “Yeah.”

She smiles, despite my less than enthused reaction, and makes a note while I head for the elevators with my security team. My Phoenix team is already assembling for the meeting that’s now become part of our daily routine, so I let them know I’ll just be a few minutes and duck into my office. Christian’s phone once again goes straight to voicemail, so I start to compose an email just in case he’s without a phone charger but is checking his email on the computer at Escala. He doesn’t respond within the five minutes I give myself to check my other emails, so before I duck out for my meeting, I pick up my phone and call upstairs.

“Good morning, Christian Grey’s office. How may I help you?” It’s Andrea who answers, instead of Oliva, and her voice is disrupted by some kind of chaos going on in the background. 

“Hey it’s Ana. Can you transfer me to my husband, please?”

“Uh, I wish… he’s not here. I’ve called him like 50 times but his phone is off. We’re getting bombarded with calls and he’s complete M.I.A.”

My brow furrows. “Calls about what?”

“You didn’t hear? Mr. Grey has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics for the Endurance project.”

“What?!”

“Jacqueline is trying to get a statement, Ms. Bailey has been fielding calls from government officials and scientists all morning, and I can’t get the man on the damn phone.”

I blink in shock a few times, only slightly processing what she’s said. The Nobel Prize? The words run like a ticker through my head until I can absorb them properly, and for some reason, the realization makes me think of Carrick. Of all the times Carrick bemoaned his lost legacy when his son dropped out of his alma mater. Now that son could be a Nobel Prize winner.

Talk about a fucking legacy.

“Ana?”

“Sorry… I’m just, uh… shocked a little.”

She laughs. “Is that why I can’t reach your husband?”

“Maybe. He… had a rough night last night, I think he’s probably sleeping in.”

“Well, when you hear from him, please tell him to call me. We’re drowning up here.”

“I will. And if he calls you first…”

“Oh, I’ll yell at him.”

For what feels like the first time in days, a genuine smile crosses my lips and, if I could, I would reach through the phone and hug her. “Thank you, Andrea.”

“No problem. Talk to you later, Ana.”

She hangs up the phone and I have to take a breath to stall the new giddy fluttering of my heart. The rush of pride and amazement and sheer happiness I feel over this new piece of news is almost too much for me to handle, but in a way that gives me an enormous amount of relief. It’s a stark and forceful reminder of how much I love that man and how much he means to me, and it warms me from the inside like a fire crackling merrily through a snowstorm.

I pull out my phone and start a new text.

Congratulations! I love you so much and I’m so proud I can’t even put it into words. Call me ❤

I check my phone about every 15 seconds during my Phoenix meeting, which makes it difficult to follow everything my team is telling me. The general direction we’re moving in on Hailey’s book is exactly what I want, but there’s a palpable resentment shining through the window of the conference room with each and every glance from the GP team. It seeps into the conversation surrounding Phoenix until the former GSP team is engaging in nothing but trash talk about their new co-workers.

The silence from Christian makes their catty banter grating.

“Can we stop with the tribalism, please?” I ask, looking up from my phone again. “You’re all the same team now and I need you to act like it.”

Stevens rolls his eyes, while Jacki glares through the window at the persistently antagonistic stares. “They’re the ones making this difficult.”

“No, this is just difficult. It would be less so if we could act professionally.” I glance around the table with an accusatory stare that has each of them expressing some variation of guilt. Now properly chastened, my team picks up with the conversation about edits being done on chapter three, while I turn to look at a new commotion through the window. The bitter looks from the rest of my team have turned curious and moved to reception, where Ros is speaking with Claire. A second later, the phone in the conference room beeps.

“Hey, Ana. Ms. Bailey is here to see you.”

“I’m on my way out.” I push away from the table and ask my team to continue working, then step out of the room. There’s no sense of warm greeting from Ros as I approach reception. She looks annoyed.

“Hey, what’s up?” I ask.

“Is your husband planning on coming in today? Or, you know, responding to a fucking email?”

I frown. “You haven’t heard from him yet?”

Have you?”

“No.”

She lets out an irritated huff and shakes her head with dismay. “We have an Endurance call with the Prime Minister of New Zealand in forty-five minutes and I do not know enough about the technology to step in for Christian. I need him to come into the office.”

“Okay, I’ll get ahold of him. Hold on.” Taking a few steps away, I once again pull out my phone, but this time, I call Taylor. It rings several times before finally picking up.

I’m sorry, but the person you have called has a voicemail box that has not been set up yet…”

I hang up and feel a strange sense of foreboding come over me. Ros starts to speak, but I move past her. Several questing glances come my way as I move through the office. The only thing I focus on is the man sitting at the desk next to my door.

“Evan, have you heard from Taylor?” I ask.

He glances up at me, frowning, but not looking alarmed. “Not today.”

“Have any of you?”

The other members of my security team glance between one another, the no clear on each of their faces, and a chill moves up my spine. I turn back to Evan.

“I need you to take me to Escala.”

He looks as though he doesn’t believe me. “Escala? Are you… sure?”

“Yes. Now.”

There’s no argument. He picks up his jacket and follows me to the car, along with the rest of my security team. I promise Ros I’ll call her the second I find him, then wait until we’re in the car before I call Elliot. I get his voicemail, and Kate’s, which puts me in a kind of tailspin until I finally call Luke, just to have someone to calm me down.

“Hey, hold on,” he answers in a rushed voice that gets louder as he talks to whoever he’s with. “I need you animals to keep it down while I take this super secret, private phone call with the CEO’s wife.” The joke in his voice is met with the muffled sound of laughter.

“Careful though,” I hear Welch say in the background. “I’ve known Grey for years and there’s nothing that triggers that man more than someone coming onto his wife. Did you hear about the guy who got fired because he glanced at her ass when she was walking out of his office?”

“Did you hear about the eight billion times I got fired because she can’t keep her mitts off me?” He laughs as his attention returns to me. “What’s up, Ana?”

“Why wouldn’t Taylor be answering my calls?”

The merriment in his tone disappears like a snap of his fingers, turning heavy and serious with the very next word out of his mouth. “What happened?”

It takes almost the entire drive to Escala to get him caught up on everything that’s happened since I last spoke with him. He doesn’t say anything when I give him the bad news we’d gotten from the doctor or when I tell him about Christian’s tirade through our apartment the night before. He just listens until my car dips into the shadows of the parking garage, and I let my darkest fear escape.

“You don’t think he’d hurt himself, do you?”

“No,” Luke says, emphatically.

“I keep having this horrible thought that he got into his car while he was drinking and…”

“There’s no way. He loves that car way too much.”

“Luke…”

“Ana, I’m sure he’s fine. He would never do anything that would separate himself from you, no matter how low he got. He’d never leave you.”

“Yeah.” The word comes out in a breath, but it’s firm. I believe him, and I cling to that belief as we pull into a parking spot and Evan turns the key out of the ignition. “We’re here, I’ve gotta go.”

“Keep me updated, okay?”

“Yeah. Bye, Luke.” I hang up and toss my phone back into my purse as I follow my security team through the garage. Christian’s Lamborghini is parked exactly where it should be, which at the very least, assuages the worst of my fears. It’s the not knowing what I’m about to walk into that plagues me the entire ride up the elevator.

But the uncertainty turns out to be so much better than the reality.

At first, I think the scene that greets us through the opening elevator doors is just a horrible, PTSD flashback. The table in the center of the foyer has been knocked over and is now lying in a pool of water, surrounded by broken china and scattered flowers. There’s a body shaped indentation in the drywall opposite from us, and on the metal edge of the elevator, there’s a smudged, bloody handprint. As though someone had tried to cling to the wall and had been dragged inside.

The truth of what’s in front of me sinks in only when my security team starts to react. Evan shouts orders to get me back to the car and several hands reach out, either for me or for the elevator buttons. In a panic, I fight through them all and run into the apartment.

“Christian!” My voice echos through the empty foyer, but I hear a weak groan respond from the living room. My heart thuds with relief and I sprint towards the sound. The thud dies when I find it’s source is Taylor.

He’s beaten. Badly. The bruises on his face are dark enough that they have to be several hours old and the blood on his face and shirt has dried, making his appearance shockingly more gruesome. His right wrist is handcuffed to the breakfast bar, and his body lies lip against the wall.

I run to him just as the calls of alarm from my security team echo behind me. He groans when I take his battered face in my hands, but there’s life in his eyes.

“Where’s Christian?” I manage to say. He turns to look at Evan, now towering over me, moaning with pain at each movement. The word he barks out is barely recognizable.

“Cameras.”

With a nod, Evan and Smith move back into the foyer towards the security office, while Harper and Wyatt start administering first aid for Taylor. I watch them in a daze, my mind repeating the same question over and over again.

Where is he?

“Christian!” My voice doesn’t echo this time, but it sounds hollow. I scramble back to my feet and move toward our bedroom, frantically pulling back the blanket on the bed even though it’s clearly empty, before tearing through our closet and bathroom. He isn’t in his office, he isn’t in the library, he isn’t in the bathroom, or the laundry room… He isn’t anywhere. I call his name again and again as I move through the downstairs, but there’s no answer. I’m just about to start upstairs when I hear a distant call of triumph from the security office.

“Found it,” Evan says, and I start at a dead run for the foyer. I skid through the door to find Smith seated behind the main display screen for the security cameras, rewinding through the footage.

“What is it?” I ask, panting slightly as I come up behind his chair.

“Someone put the override code in at 2:26 this morning,” Evan explains, and the moment he does, the footage stops. I watch in horror as the elevator doors shown in the stream from the foyer roll open and a group of six men, all dressed in identical black with masks covering their faces, file into my apartment. We can follow them through the 2nd second camera in the living room, where they break into two groups. Three of them head upstairs, the other three are confronted by Taylor.

He’s not ready for them. He’s barefoot and dressed in a t-shirt and flannel bottoms. There isn’t a gun in his hand. Against the three hulking figures, dressed in tactical gear and fully prepared for the fight, he never stood a chance, and the fight isn’t pleasant to watch. They surround him almost immediately and the blows he takes are horrifying. The brutality continues for over a minute, until the other group rejoins the first, and they all drag Taylor to the breakfast bar where he’s currently handcuffed

Once they have him secured, the six of them move together into the hallway that leads to my bedroom.

There aren’t any cameras in our room, so I have no way of knowing what happens to Christian until several minutes have passed and they’re dragging him into the hallway. He looks dazed and unsteady as he tries to get the men off him. But once he sees Taylor, something changes in him that makes him more alert and more coordinated. Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s adrenaline, maybe it’s fury, but as Christian starts to fight the scene devolves into an absolute nightmare.

I’ve seen Christian angry. I’ve seen Christian fight. But I’ve never seen him in a rage like he is on the screen before me. The violence between him and his attackers is terrifying and almost too sickening to watch. They try to overwhelm him in the same way they did to Taylor, but he moves quicker and avoids being closed in. Somehow, he manages to maneuver in a way that keeps the match-ups one on one, and in those scenarios he has the upper hand. As they adapt though, the match-ups start becoming more and more uneven until it’s just six on one.

The harder he fights back, the harder they do. And it makes what they did to Taylor look kind.

The crack on the wall I’d seen when we came in happens when Christian grabs one of the men trying to subdue him and launches him against it. But while that man falls unceremoniously to the floor, another man comes up and grabs Christian from behind. They struggle with one another until another masked man takes advantage and punches Christian, hard, across the jaw. He stumbles into another man who shoves him roughly further into the foyer, sending him tumbling over the table I’d seen lying on the floor.

Christian rolls through the broken bits of the vase, bloodied and clearly in pain. It doesn’t stop them. Two of the men grab him by the arms and wrench him off the floor enough to drag him back to the elevator. With a last, desperate effort, he grabs hold of the metal edge on the elevator and clings to it for dear life. But his hands are slick with blood, and they slip when the men holding onto him yank harder.

Then the elevator doors close, and he disappears.

I only realize after I nearly collapse on the floor that I’d been holding my breath. 

“Mrs. Grey,” Evan says, moving to grab onto me while I wobble unsteadily in front of the monitors. I can barely feel his arms around me. Barely hear the calls he makes for someone to bring me something to drink. 

Still unsteady on my feet, I turn to Smith, and blink at him. “What do we do now?” 

“I-uh…” 

“We find out where they took him,” an unexpected voice interrupts from behind me. I turn and see Luke hovering in the doorway, looking ashen faced as his eyes practically beg for me to understand how much he feels the pain I’m still too numb to experience, and that he’s here to do whatever he can to stop it. 

“Sawyer,” Evan says, mirroring my surprise. I find my balance as Luke moves into the room, so Evan’s hands fall from my arms and we part to make room for my best friend. He looks down at Smith. 

“Get out of the way.” 

“Sawyer, you’re not–”

Get out of my fucking way.” Smith blanches under the threat in Luke’s voice, but he doesn’t move until Evan intervenes. 

“Let him in,” he says. With a slightly resentful roll of his eyes, Smith gets up from his seat and Luke slides in to replace him. He doesn’t hesitate. His fingers start to fly over the keyboard, and boxes pop-up on the screen in front of him that fill with code that he seems to understand more than I do. 

“They got the footage in the garage,” he says robotically, so focused on what’s in front of him that I can’t be certain if he’s communicating with me or just mindlessly parroting what he sees. “They had the code for the elevator, so that probably means they have access to the security systems Escala has in place. And if they do, they know she’s here right now.” 

“Then we’re in code black,” Evan says. He turns to me. “Mrs. Grey, I’m going to need you to return to the main residence immediately.” 

He waits for me to respond, but I don’t. Not even when he calls my name three more times. While Luke continues whatever he’s trying to do through our system, I stare at the paused security footage that has just unravelled my entire world. It’s not the elevators that represent the last place I saw him, or even the trail of blood that leads there that has my attention so captivated. It’s the time stamp in the bottom right hand corner.

2:37 AM.

Next Chapter

Chapter 46

“Look, I’m not happy about this entire situation. I’ve been with Greenwich since day one and now… what? I never applied to work at Grey Enterprises Holdings. No one in the New York office did, and we’re not stoked about it.”

The way he says Grey Enterprises Holdings makes it sound like something sonomous with Nazi Death Camp. There’s animosity in every word he’s said to me, and that’s become something of a pattern with my employees in New York. And several from Grey Publishing. There’s a possible mutiny brewing beneath me, and I’m too sick to put a stop to it.

“I hear you,” I start, my voice already breaking with each nauseating contraction in my stomach. “But can you just hold on one second, Mitch?” My finger barely has time to swipe against the mute button on the screen of my phone before I lean into the toilet and lose my breakfast. The floor is cold and too hard through my stockings and my toes are pinched past the point of pain in my slightly too tight Jimmy Choos. I’ve been trying to leave for the office for over an hour, but I can’t stop throwing up. No matter how many nausea lozenges I suck on, no matter how many crackers I force down, no matter how many minutes I lay down sipping water… I always end up sprinting for the bathroom. This happened once on a weekend I was home with Christian while I was pregnant with Calliope, and I’d ended up in the emergency room for dehydration.

If that happens today… I don’t even know what Christian will do.

“Mrs. Grey? Are you there?”

“I’m sorry, Mitch,” I say, pulling my head out of the toilet and unmuting the phone. I slump back against the wall and place a cool hand over my clammy forehead. “I’m listening.”

“Are you, though? Because it seems to me like you’ve just come in here like a bulldozer and flattened everything us lifers have built! You ran off Scott, you closed our press… now we’re not even Greenwich anymore? We didn’t sign up for this!”

“Neither did I. Believe me, this was not in any of my plans. But it was Carmen’s decision to sell, and I can’t do anything to change it. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure there is as little disruption in this process as possible, and no one loses their job. That’s the best I can give you, and if that’s not enough, I’ll be happy to write you a letter of recommendation.”

A bitter huff sounds through the phone, and I glance up at the ceiling, praying he’ll hang up before I hurl again.

“The amount we’re expected to deal with right now better be reflected in our compensation once annual raises start coming around…” he grumbles.

“That’s actually one of the positive things about this transition. As an entity of Grey Enterprises Holdings, we’re now much better funded. I expect that will be reflected in salaries going forward.”

His strife draws out for several more minutes, and I do my best to talk him down. By the end of the conversation, I’m at least sure he won’t quit. But even that small victory doesn’t stop me from once again falling face first into the toilet the moment I set the phone down.

“Ana?” Evan calls from behind me. I turn and see him watching me wearily, his frown deepening as he closely examines the color of my cheeks. “You alright?”

“Oh, yeah. Having a great time.”

He cringes. “Sorry… I just came up here to see if you were still planning on going to your doctor’s appointment. We should be leaving shortly.”

“Oh, shit…” I let my head fall into my hands, the general misery so close to overwhelming me I almost tell him to cancel. But then I remember that Christian said he would be there. So I have to put on a brave front to communicate to him that I can handle this and that his reaction to this pregnancy is completely overblown.

It’s that resolve that pulls me off the bathroom floor. I hurriedly take yet another nausea lozenge from the tin on my counter, then hand it over to Evan. Downstairs, Harper gives me a bottle of water to sip on the drive, and I cling to it for dear life.

All of that ends up on the asphalt of the parking lot in front of my OBGYN’s office when I step out of the SUV and immediately double over.

“Wyatt, is that a photographer?” Evan asks, bending to pull my hair away from my face and gesturing to the bushes at the front of the medical complex. I follow his gaze and see the movement that drew his attention. As Wyatt sets off to investigate, Smith and Harper move to surround me, shrouding me from view while keeping me in a claustrophobic bubble. I groan and hold onto Evan while he moves me around them and guides me through the front doors of the building.

Christian isn’t there waiting for me.

We check in at the front desk and I sit in the waiting room with my CPO, just like I did back in Boston. It’s painful this time. Not just because I’d prefer the CPO I had then to the one I have now, but because he doesn’t have to be here at all. This time, I should have Christian next to me, and I don’t. Not even after he promised he’d be here. Every second that ticks past seems to come slower and slower, but my eyes stay trained on the door. With each and every one of them, I can hear the words he said to me yesterday as clearly as if he was saying them in front of me right now. “I’ll be there.”

Well, where the fuck is he?

“We’re ready for you Mrs. Grey.”

My eyes shoot up to the friendly looking woman in magenta colored scrubs, standing at the door with a clipboard in her hands. She smiles at me expectantly, but my eyes move back to the door one last time. Then I reach into my purse for my phone. There isn’t a text from Christian, so I send one of my own.

You said you’d be here.

“Anastasia?” The nurse presses me. I toss my phone back in my bag, take a deep breath, and smile at her.

“Yes, sorry.” She sweeps her arm through the door and directs me to a room at the end of the hall. It’s oddly relieving walking into the examination room without my security team hovering over me. The nurse directs me to take a seat on the table and asks several questions. Then she leaves me for a few minutes to let me change into a paper gown. I take the time before the doctor arrives to check my phone for Christian’s response, but there’s nothing.

Only a ‘read’ receipt.

“Mrs. Grey?” I glance up at the knock on the door, and Dr. Greene steps into the room. She beams at me with all the summer light of August as she plops down on a stool and rolls her way across the room. “I hear you might be pregnant?”

“Yeah, I took a test and it was positive.”

Somehow, her smile brightens. “Well, we’re going to take another one, and if that one comes back positive, we’ll get you an ultrasound.”

“Okay, tha—“ I’m cut off by another knock on the door, which Dr. Greene acknowledges with confusion.

“Yes?”

A balding man who wears a suit beneath his white coat enters the room, looking embarrassed before he even starts to speak. “I’m sorry, Dr. Greene, but Mrs. Grey is actually going to have her examination performed by her… uh, personal physician.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. “Personal physician?”

He steps back and Christian walks into the room, followed closely by… Dr. Baker. My OBGYN from Boston.

“Good afternoon,” Dr. Baker says, her overly polite handshake a clear play at breaking the awkward tension in the room. “I’m so sorry that this is happening.”

“But it is,” Christian says, leaving no room for argument. He holds the door open and glances at Dr. Greene. “If you wouldn’t mind…”

The look of shock on Dr. Greene’s face is palpable. Her eyes move to the man in the suit, but he shakes his head in return. Straightening her jacket, she turns the same cheery smile on me and takes my hand.

“I’m sure you’re in very good hands, Mrs. Grey. Excuse me.”

Dr. Greene gets off the stool and marches proudly from the room. Once the door closes behind her, I turn wide eyes on my husband.

“You have got to be kidding me?”

“Don’t,” he snaps back, his voice a warning. I grind my teeth together and turn to Dr. Baker.

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh, it’s alright.” She lowers herself onto Dr. Green’s vacated stool. “How are you feeling?”

My eyes move nervously to Christian, only to find him staring intently back at me, clearly ready to analyze everything I say.

“The morning sickness has been… a lot,” I tell her, trying to downplay any negative as much as possible. She nods and flips through the files she must have brought from her own records.

“That was true with Calliope too…” She flips through her papers again and starts reading through her notes, reciting the medications that had worked for me in the past. She’s not even able to get her prescription pad out though, before Christian is cutting her off.

“Tell her what you told me.”

“Mr. Grey, perhaps we should…”

“No! Tell her what you told me.”

Dr. Baker takes a deep breath and swivels on her stool to face me again. There’s hesitance in her eyes that wasn’t there before, and it makes me feel cold.

“What?”

“Mr. Grey called to talk to me about your history, and how it may affect this pregnancy…” She pauses, as though she’s uncertain how she should continue, and I take a bracing breath.

“And?”

“Well, generally, women who experience a placental abruption during their first pregnancy are at high risk for reoccurrence for every pregnancy thereafter.”

“How high is the risk?”

“It’s about 1 in 10.”

I take a much easier breath and look between the doctor and my husband like they’re crazy. “That’s only a ten percent chance it’ll happen. That means there’s a ninety percent chance it won’t.”

Christian turns yet another insistent look on the doctor, and she frowns. “It’s just that, it’s such a rare complication to begin with that the jump in probability is, medically, staggering. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy pregnancy. It just means…” She pauses, like she can’t decide whether or not she’s actually trying to scare me or encourage me. “You had a very traumatic delivery the first time. There will be some damage and scarring to your uterus that could make any future complications you do experience… more severe than they were in the past.”

Christian stiffens, and my mouth goes dry.

“Oh.”

Dr. Baker smiles again, picking up the mood of the room in the same skilled way Dr. Greene did. “But we shouldn’t panic until we know all the facts. Why don’t we take a look, huh? You wanna lay back for me?”

I do as she asks, and place my legs in the plastic stirrups on either side of her. She wheels the ultrasound closer to me and pulls a long line of blue gel across the probe. Once it slides inside of me, my eyes immediately dart to the monitor it’s connected to, and Christian’s hand wraps around mine. I flinch a little as the wand moves around, but any discomfort vanishes from my mind the moment I see the small flicker amongst the static in front of me. When Dr. Baker turns up the volume, and the sound of a thrumming heartbeat fills the vacant silence around us, Christian’s hold on my hand tightens.

I turn to him, and feel the first sense of hope I’ve been able to conjure in days. His eyes are stuck on the monitor and the crease in his brow isn’t from anger or defensiveness. It’s discovery. For a long breath, Christian stares at the flicker as though he’s seeing the sun rise after a night he thought would never end. There’s awe. There’s surprise. There’s want

And then he looks at Dr. Baker and his eyes cloud over again.

“What’s wrong?”

My gaze shoots to Dr. Baker only to find her carefully composed demeanor now colored with concern.

“It seems…” She shakes her head and stops, moving the wand around again and narrowing her eyes as she leans in to examine the screen. When she finds whatever it is she’s looking for, she turns a grim look on Christian. “I see two heartbeats.”

“What?”

She points to the monitor, circling her finger around one black circle, then another. “It’s twins.”

Twins?

My mouth drops open as what she’s showing me comes into focus. Two tiny disturbances in a field of static gray that each flicker with their own unique signs of life. It takes a careful ear, but listening to the sound from the ultrasound machine closely, I start to hear the difference between the two heartbeats.

“Oh my god,” I breathe, reaching out to touch the screen.

“What does that mean?” Christian asks.

“It means… Well, pregnancies with multiples present risks all their own. With Ana’s history…” She pauses in the same way, like she’s preparing to give devastating news. “It makes the risk of a placental abruption much higher.”

“How much higher?” I ask, before Christian can go on whatever rant he’s got on deck. “20%? 30%? 50?”

The doctor worries her lip a bit with her teeth, then takes a deep breath. “I’ve never seen a case where a woman with your history became pregnant with multiples and had a normal pregnancy.”

“No,” Christian says, dropping my hand and storming away from the bed. He begins to pace, his hands up in the air as if he doesn’t really know what to do with them. “No. No. No. No. No.”

I block him out and turn to the doctor. “So, you’re saying this pregnancy isn’t viable?”

“I’m not saying it isn’t viable. I am saying it’s high risk. Extremely high risk.”

“So what does that look like?”

“Well, let me take some measurements.”

She starts to drag her cursor across the screen, drawing lines that measure the size of the babies. Christian returns to my side, but his jaw is locked, his body is seized with stress, and there’s a dangerous fight brewing in his eyes. He shakes his head the entire time Dr. Baker works, so I do my best not to look at him.

“I’d say you’re about nine weeks, and based on the size of the fetuses, I think you’re looking at permanent bed rest starting around four, maybe five months.”

So only two months from now…

“And that will let me carry them to term?”

“I can’t give you any definitives, but if you intend to move forward with this pregnancy…” 

“I do,” I say before any other suggestion can be made. 

“Well, then… I would probably account for an early delivery in your birth plan.”

“Will I be able to carry them long enough for them to survive?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about her?” Christian interjects again. Dr. Baker turns to him, a questioning eyebrow arched high over her amber colored eyes. “You said that the damage from Calliope’s delivery could make all of this worse, and the only thing that could be worse than her almost dying, is the absence of ‘almost.’”

Her lips press together as she weighs the advice she has to give. “We know what to expect this time and we can plan in a way we couldn’t before… I’m the best, and I’ll do everything I can.”

“That’s not good enough.” He turns again, moving all the way to the far side of the room. His back is turned to us, his hands on both his hips, his breathing exaggerated. “Dr. Baker, would you give me a moment alone with my wife?”

“Of course, Mr. Grey.” She gives me a reassuring kind of smile and squeezes my hand before she makes her exit. I keep my eyes focused on Christian, waiting for a tirade that doesn’t come. He just stands there, looking at the wall.

“I don’t know what to say to you, Christian…” I begin, nervously. He lets out a defeated sigh, then turns back to look at me.

“You know, I know what Kate is going to say to you on your deathbed. It’s a beautiful speech, you’re really going to love it..”

My throat tightens, and I swallow automatically. “Stop…”

“I know what your dad’s face looks like the moment he realizes he’s lost you forever. I know what my mother’s tears sound like, I know what color Mia’s complexion turns… You think I’m being callous, but it’s only because all of that is very real to me. I’ve been trapped in that moment every time I’ve gone to sleep this week, and I’m telling you, Ana… I can’t live through that again. I can’t lose you.”

“Christian…” My eyes start to fill with tears and words fail me. Stuttering sounds croak their way from my throat like a broken muffler, but I can’t turn them into sentences. What is there to say?

I think he senses my moment of weakness, because he flies across the room and takes me by the hand.

“Please,” he pleads. “Ana… please. You can put it all on me. You can hate me for it. You can punish me for it. I can live through that. I can’t live through losing you. Please, don’t do this.”

I turn away, unable to bear the unusual supplication in his gaze. Dr. Baker’s insights have suddenly painted this whole scene a new color that my eyes haven’t quite adjusted to yet. I don’t even know what I’m thinking right now, and Christian’s pleas on top of my own uncertainty is overwhelming.

“I need to think about it,” I mumble. His calm and subjugated demeanor evaporates, and he shoves away from the examination table.

“Think about what? Did you hear what the doctor just told you? You can’t do this, Anastasia.”

“That’s not what she said…”

“That’s exactly what she fucking said! You can wade through the margins looking for as much hope as you want, but she was very clear about what we should expect. It’ll be worse than it was last time. You’re not going to make it through this, and I will never accept that.”

“Well then let’s talk about things that we’ll never be able to accept, Christian. What do you think it’ll do to me to wake up everyday knowing that I made the choice to end the lives of my children?”

They’re not our children.” He growls the menacing words through clenched teeth, the same uncontrollable rage boiling to the surface I saw last week before I ran to my dad’s, and it once again has me moving away from him. This time though, he stops and takes a moment to breathe, rather than let his anger explode out of control. Still, when he speaks again, it’s through clenched teeth. “What about Calliope?”

“That’s exactly what I’ve been telling you!” I reach down for my stomach. “This could have been Calliope. It was Calliope. And I wouldn’t trade her to take everything that happened back, even if it had been worse. I wouldn’t even consider it. Not for a second.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, if you don’t…” He chokes slightly over his words, so he has to swallow and change direction. “Calliope is here, real, and she needs you. You’re her mother and right now, what you’re talking about could leave her in this world without you. I lost my mother at four and all that I have left of her are a couple flashes of a hairbrush. Calliope’s not even two, Anastasia. She’ll have nothing. She won’t even remember you.”

That hits me harder than anything he’s said so far. The pain in the last part of that statement is almost unfathomable, and I have to turn around again so he doesn’t see the tears welling in my eyes. Half of me expects his touch, though it never comes. He lets me cry softly to myself, letting me feel everything he just said to me.

“This is real too,” I say at last.

“What?”

“I saw you during the ultrasound, the moment you saw the heartbeat. This is real. You can pretend it isn’t all you want, but it is. I heard what Dr. Baker said, I hear the pain in your voice… but that does not make this an easy decision for me.”

“I don’t expect it to be easy. I expect you to be rational.”

I blink, then look away again. I can feel the fight inside me dying away and the feeling that takes its place is dark, like a cloud rolling across a clear blue sky that bleeds the color from everything around me. I feel an echo of oppressive hopelessness swirling menacingly over me, calling me into it’s deadly depths like a misplaced lighthouse in the middle of a storm.

It’s everything I fear, and I feel it creeping towards me with a kind of inevitability that can’t be stopped, except by the warmth and light emanating from my womb.

“I need some time to think about it,” I say, numbly.

His head rolls back with frustration, but he doesn’t scream at me anymore. He clenches his jaw, pulls his lips tightly together, and starts to nod.

“Fine. I’ll go back to Escala tonight. But I’m coming home tomorrow, and we are going to make a decision.”

I nod. 

“I don’t plan on changing my position.”

“I know.”

He swallows, then starts toward me. I nearly trip and fall to the floor in my hurry to be engulfed in his arms. He holds me so tightly against him, it’s like he’s ready to fight a tug-of-war against death to keep hanging on.

“I love you, and I won’t survive without you.” He leans his forehead against mine. “Your heart beats, my heart beats. Please remember that.”

I nod, and his lips melt into mine.

An hour later, I’m home and am greeted with the sounds of Calliope’s misery filled cries the moment I come through the door. Mackensie has her in her arms, while Gail hovers over them with her favorite pink elephant in hand, but my baby just wants to scream. Big alligator tears roll down her cherry red cheeks, and the sight of them makes my nipples ache.

“Oh, Calliope,” I say, reaching for her the moment I step into the kitchen. Her gray eyes lock with mine, and she nearly throws herself from Mackensie’s grip in an attempt to get to me. I catch her just in time to keep her from tumbling to the floor, while she suctions to me like an octopus wrapping around her prey. Her tears stop almost the moment I have her, replaced instead with a whimpered ‘mama’ that she repeats into my blouse over and over again.

“She’s been like that since you left,” Kensie says, drooping onto a barstool and laying over the top of the counter. “I’ve tried everything.”

I reach up and place a hand on her forehead, then kiss both of her cheeks. She doesn’t feel warm, and now that she’s in my arms, she’s fairly pacified.

“She misses her Daddy,” I say, hugging her against me and swaying back and forth.

“Should I take her to Escala?”

I shake my head. “No, I want her with me. Go ahead and take the day, Kensie. I’ve got her.”

“Are you not going into work?”

“Not today.” I lean back so I can look at Calliope’s face, and brush away a few stray hairs that have stuck to the tears on her cheeks. “She can hang out with me in my office here.”

“Alright,” Kensie says, though her tone expresses a great deal of reservation. “I’m just going to hang out in the staff residence then, if you need me.”

“Thank you.” I give her a kind, but dismissive smile, and start towards my office. Calliope’s playroom is just across from me, so I set up the baby gate at the end of the hall to keep her where she’s supposed to be, then keep both doors open for her to move between the rooms freely. Her toys end up scattered over the pretty rug on the floor that keeps my office from being too oppressive and masculine, the way Christian’s office feels. I find myself distracted on most of my phone calls and ignoring more emails than I probably should, but I can’t bring myself to care. I know what a dire position we’re in right now, I know that Phoenix is still in it’s baby stages and needs my nurturing to get it where it needs to be, I know the promises I’ve made… but the only thing that feels good right now is Calliope.

She makes the storm clouds part, she breaks through the darkness shrouding my thoughts like golden sunlight.

She’s what I’m fighting for, she’s what I have to lose. And yet, the battle waging between Christian and I, between my fear and my hope, and between reality and possibility doesn’t touch her. She is joy, and nothing can dampen that.

After yet another lonely dinner, Calliope and I move into the living room. I build her a squishy bed of pillows and blankets on the floor and turn on The Little Mermaid while I read through the edits Stevens has submitted for Phoenix. It’s a good arrangement, until Calliope starts trying to sing along with ‘Under the Sea,’ and everything else, work included, disappears.

I push my laptop to the side and move closer to her, brushing the tip of my nose against hers again and again until she starts to giggle. The sound makes my heartbeat quicken.

“I love you so much, Calli-lily,” I tell her. She lets herself fall forward so that her lips mash into mine, and I pull her into my lap while I smother her with kisses. Her laugher chimes around me like a bell that wards away the demons, clearing my mind and calming my soul. I lean back against the couch and stare into the eyes that mirror so perfectly the ones that own my heart. “Do you want to be a big sister?”

“No,” she replies, with the same kind of causal dismissal she would use if I offered her more peas or a cup of juice. I don’t know if it’s the exhaustion, the stress, or the start of a complete mental breakdown, but her response makes me laugh so hard, I nearly lose my grip on her. She laughs back, clearly having a fabulous time even though she has no idea what’s going on, and it only makes the warmth surrounding her glow brighter. I squeeze her as hard as I can.

“You really are your father’s daughter.”

“Daddy?”

“Yeah. Just like Daddy.”

My fingers find their way to her sides and I start to tickle her just as an unexpected commotion erupts in my entryway. I look up, hoping the beep from the security alarm is a prelude to Christian’s entrance, but instead, it’s followed by raised voices. Harper, who has spent the last hour silently camped out at the kitchen table, gets up with her hand on the holster attached to her hip. I nervously start to take Calliope in my arms, preparing to dart to the basement, then stop when Kate, clinging tightly to Kennedy, storms into the living room looking as though she’s just been through an ordeal.

I perk up immediately.

“Kate?”

She lets out a huff and moves Kennedy higher up on her hip, pointing over her shoulder to the four hulking figures hovering in the shadows behind her. “That’s a little much, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yeah. Well… Christian.”

She nods her head in agreement, but rolls her eyes as she moves next to me on the couch. After placing Kennedy in the pillowy bed next to Calliope, she kisses my baby on the forehead and plops down on the couch next to me. There’s an accusation in her eyes that I don’t understand.

“What?”

“Your husband is having a breakdown in your apartment.”

What?!”

She shrugs. “Elliot is over there right now trying to talk him off the ledge, but apparently he’s completely fucking losing it. And there’s lots of alcohol involved so, you know, only good things can happen from this point forward.”

I shake my head in disbelief and start to get off the couch, but she reaches out and wraps her fingers around my wrist to stop me.

“Ana. I know you had a doctor’s appointment this afternoon and now Christian is on a rampage.” She hesitates, which is unusual for Kate. “What happened?”

I collapse back into the sofa, fighting against the pinprick sting of tears at the corners of my eyes. The darkness my afternoon with Calliope managed to keep at bay, starts to seep through the cracks in the armor around me, and I feel myself falling into the pain-filled chasm Christian and I have found ourselves on opposite sides of once again without any idea how I’ll ever climb out.

“It’s twins,” I tell her, and the concern on her face is instantly replaced with joy.

Twins?! But Ana, that’s amazing!”

I give her a dark glare that drains away her relief like water through a sieve. “It’s going to be like last time. The doctor told me that I was already at high risk for another placental abruption, twins makes it a certainty. And the scarring from my first abruption could make this one worse. Much worse.”

In the exact same way I watched it happen with Christian, then Luke, then my father, a look of abject horror sweeps across her face. Her color fades, her mouth drops open, and her eyes reflect a kind of terror I can’t let myself feel. She blinks wildly for a few minutes, processing what I’ve said and somehow coming up more lost.

“He flew in my doctor from Cambridge,” I continue. “I thought maybe she was overreacting or letting my history cloud her actual, medical opinion, because everything she told me just got worse and worse. But I stopped by my regular obstetrician’s office and when she looked at the charts… well, she didn’t even give me the slim ray of hope Dr. Baker did. She told me the risk is so bad that the states with the strictest abortion laws have exemptions for this situation. ‘Danger to the life of the mother.’” 

The quote tastes bitter on my tongue.

“Jesus.” The word is filled with hurt and disbelief, in the exact same tenor that resonates inside of me. She curls into herself a little as she pushes back into the cushions, then blinks back at me with a kind of sympathy that tells me she doesn’t have the sage words or wisdom to guide me forward. “What are you going to do?”

A tear breaks over my waterline, and I dash it away before more can follow. “I don’t know. I hear what the doctor’s are telling me, I understand what it means, and I can feel what it’s doing to Christian… but I just can’t do it.”

“You’re pro-choice…”

“Yeah, choice. I don’t choose this. I don’t want this. I—“ My eyes fall on Calliope, who has started drifting off with her cousin, and the argument inside of me changes. I don’t know how, I don’t know what to… and the frustration I feel in that confusion breaks the last of my self-control. I dissolve into all consuming tears, and Kate wraps all the way around me.

“I know, Ana. You’re a mother protecting her children. Of course you can’t.”

“Am I though?” I shake my head and pull away from her, tears still streaming down my face as I unload everything on her that I can’t carry alone anymore. “What if I don’t survive, Kate? What if it happens exactly the way it happened last time, except I don’t wake up? I’ll leave Christian absolutely devastated, alone, with three kids under the age of two. Even if it’s just Calliope… He’s twenty-four, he could live another seventy years. I couldn’t even fathom having to live through that amount of time without him. How can I risk putting him through that?”

There’s a vision that runs through my mind then, one I’ve seen over and over again since I took that pregnancy test. Christian and I tossing the kids into the rust colored piles of leaves beneath the giant trees in our backyard. It suddenly disappears. There’s no laughter from my daughter, no blissful happiness behind the smile of the man I love. It’s just gone. A picture of Calliope’s graduation takes its place, but as I disappear from the image, the pride on Christian’s face changes to regret and longing, while Calliope smiles through a deep kind of sadness I can feel the permanence of.

“So… are you going to terminate the pregnancy?” Kate’s nervous voice breaks through the picture. I bite my lip while the images dissolve from my mind and slowly shake my head.

“I can’t. There’s absolutely no way I could go through with it, and even if I could, I’d never be able to live with myself.”

She nods solemnly, then wraps her arms around me again. I sit in her embrace for a few long, silent moments, then I bury my face in her shirt and let myself fall apart.

Next Chapter

Chapter 45

Christian really didn’t come home Sunday night, but my security team was there waiting for me. Even Woods, who I thought might get the axe once Christian realized he’d been the one to let me go. The moment Calliope and I came through the door, we were shut down tight. Wyatt stood behind me while I fed Calliope dinner, Harper hovered in the room while I set her in the bath, and Smith spent the night acting as a century outside my bedroom door. 

The moment I wake up, all four of them take shifts shadowing me so that I’m never left alone. None of it phases me or even feels off… until we pull up to my office and find Taylor there waiting for us, pushing the paparazzi back. 

And he isn’t alone. 

Luke is standing on the opposite end of the courtyard, holding the line from the other side, which surprises me because I fully expected Luke to be put on the security team’s persona-non-grata list for a while after he helped me evade my handlers. But he would only be here if Taylor called him. And Taylor would only call him if there was a reason…

He doesn’t look at me when I get out of the car, and when I turn to eye him speculatively, I notice there’s a gun on his hip. Taylor has one too, so I turn to the people filing out of the SUV behind me and, sure enough, I realize for the first time that every single one of them has a weapon holstered somewhere on their body. 

Suddenly, the casual brush off Luke gave me in the car back in Montesano feels like a dire warning, but I can’t get his attention while he’s busy pushing back on aggressive photographers. Harper takes hold of my elbow and drags me inside while Woods, Smith, and Wyatt form a protective bubble around me. Luke and Taylor wait til we’ve got a wide berth, then take the car to park. I’m ushered into the building so aggressively that I don’t even have the time to demand to know what the fuck is going on before they push me into the elevator.

“Owe!” I whine, wincing as Wyatt jumps away from me and the toes he’s just crushed beneath his boot. The elevator is too full with all five of us crammed inside, so he bounces off of Woods and steps on me again. 

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey. Here, let me…” He tries to back away but he’s blocked by Harper. She tries to shift around Smith, but by the time they’ve reshuffled, I’m merely pressed up against Woods instead. 

Thankfully, the doors open.

The four of them file through the doors in front of me, then stand to the side to let me lead the way into my office. The elated faces that greet me when I come through the doors make my heart thud uncomfortably in my chest.

“Hey, boss!” Stevens grins. “I gotta say, you were right. I flew through my Phoenix chapters this weekend. I couldn’t put it down!”

It takes me a moment to breathe through the residual chaos beating furiously in my chest before I understand what he’s talking about. 

“Oh. That’s great,” I reply, weakly. His brow furrows at my less-than-enthused response.

There was an email from Christian waiting for me in my inbox this morning, giving me explicit instructions on how I’m supposed to start this transition. He imagines we’ll be fully moved into the fourth floor of GEH by the end of today. And somehow, that’s only the second most ludicrous demand he’s made this week.

“I need everyone to meet in the conference room,” I announce to the room, failing to hold any strength in my voice that might assuage the concern that’s reflected back at me. When no one moves, I stand to the side and sweep my arm towards the door, and the uneasy quiet breaks with the commotion of their migration. I pause just briefly before I follow them in to slip a nausea lozenge in my mouth, praying it will carry me all the way through this meeting.

But it’s not just pregnancy that has me ready to throw up right now.

The nervous chatter around the table seems to center mostly on Phoenix. That something happened and Grey Publishing took it back. They’re right, but not in the way they think they are.

“What’s going on, Ana?” Jacki finally asks.

I take a deep breath. No need to sugar coat it.

“We’ve been bought out. Starting today, we’re being absorbed into Grey Publishing.”

There’s silence, then uproar.

“I knew it!” Roberts shouts. “I knew it the moment you walked in here. She’s a plant. She always was. That’s why Grey built the app, he was building it for himself! She ran Scott out of here, and made things real nice and easy for her husband to come in here and take out the competition.”

I hold up my hands defensively. “Look, I know how this looks. But I swear, this was done above me. Carmen agreed to the sale last Friday, and the contracts were signed before I even knew about it.”

“Yeah, we’ll be sure to find comfort in that from the unemployment office,” Stevens sneers.

“No one is losing their job,” I assure them. “We’re all moving together.”

“Moving?” Jacki asks.

I nod. “You have until noon to pack up your desks and move your belongings to the GEH building. We’ll be on the fourth floor. I’ve been told Grey Publishing is making room for us now.”

“And then what? We just… continue on? What am I supposed to tell my authors?”

“That their contracts are still valid and this acquisition means they have a much more powerful press and better funded marketing arm behind them.” I pause for more questions or comments, even complaints. But the only thing I get are bitter looks. I lean over the table, pressing my palms to the cool wood. “We have a meeting scheduled with the New York office and GP at 1PM to discuss our strategy going forward. I suggest you start packing.”

“Does this mean that GP is going to take over the Greenwich Library?” Steven asks before anyone can move.

“Yes.”

“And Phoenix?” Jacki adds. “They get that back too?”

“They get everything. Our press, our warehouses, our inventory, our front list… all of it. We are now wholly part of Grey Enterprises Holdings.”

“So, we didn’t win,” Rogers grumbles. “You made that big show here last week about how we’d finally come out on top. But we didn’t. Grey always wins in the end.”

That hits me in the gut. Not just because this was a battle and he did win, but because I’m fighting another battle with him now. He can’t always win, and I try to convey that to my team now.

“Because this was the only way they would survive.” I stand up straighter and try to force my face to reflect the sincerity of what I’m about to say. “I want every single one of you to know how proud I am of everything we’ve achieved here. This sale is because all of you worked so hard that it scared the most powerful name in Seattle publishing. So, if you think I’m going to go in there and let them change what we do, then I’m afraid you’re about to be very disappointed.”

Stevens nods. “Alright. Let’s go, I guess.”

I offer the room a weak smile as each of my employees pushes away from the table. Abby follows me to my office to tell me that she’s scheduled my OBGYN appointment for tomorrow afternoon, and stops the same way I do once we come through the door. My security team is spread out across my office, loading my things into boxes.

“What are you doing?” I demand. Evan shoots a guilty look at me.

“Sorry, Ana. Mr. Grey’s orders. He doesn’t want you lifting anything.”

I want to scowl, but I can’t help but feel a small amount of hope, that maybe, this means he’s coming around. Not happy about it, but at least starting to make accommodations…

That’s something, right? 

Abby joins me at my desk to help me start packing the little things I have tucked inside, and the personal items strewn across the top. With so many helping hands, I’m done much more quickly than the rest of my team, so I meander through the office, lending help where I can.

Most of my staff travel into the city on the train, so there’s a kind of caravan we have to organize between the few cars we do have. My security team makes several trips to the office before anyone actually leaves, transporting boxes and office equipment. It’s just before noon before we start figuring out how to move people.

“I can take five,” I offer, simultaneously sending a text to Woods to leave the rest of my team at GEH to free up seats. He isn’t happy about it, but with Taylor and Luke back on paparazzi duty, he eventually relents and returns to GSP with an empty vehicle. Every spot is filled. 

I slide into the front passenger seat, while Woods moves Calliope’s car seat to the trunk. There are impressed comments about the quality of the leather on my seats or the gentle purr of the powerful engine as we weave through the streets to our new building. It makes me feel a little self-conscious. Like I’m reminding them how close I really am to the force that’s displacing them.

That this is all my fault.

But when we finally get to GEH, all the resentment I felt back at GSP melts away into awe. We step through the main doors and wide eyes bounce around at the state-of-the-art lobby. I’ve been here so many times that it’s all very unimpressive to me now. But seeing it again through their eyes reminds me of the remarkable things that have happened here, that we’re now a part of. And the remarkable man behind all of them.

My heart seems to skip a beat, then stutter unevenly as I start towards the elevators.

We’re greeted with celebration when we come through the main doors of Grey Publishing. There’s a banner over reception offering welcome, gift bags with Grey branded swag, and plenty of desk space already cleared out to accommodate everyone. They even have their technology all set up and ready to go, complete with full GEH user profiles.

Which is I guess what happens when you go from having John in New York handle all your IT, to Welch.

“Ana, we’re so excited you’re here!” Claire beams the moment I’m in range of a hug. She throws her arms around me, and pulls me against her. “If I had to pick one person to take over for Elizabeth, I’d want it to be you.”

“Take over?” I blink around at the staff, noting the happy recognition that comes back to me every time I lock eyes with one of the old SIP hold-overs. Elizabeth isn’t anywhere. “We won’t be working together?”

Claire shakes her head. “No, she cleaned out her whole office last Friday for you. Take a look for yourself.”

I follow the same carpeted path I took a few weeks ago when I’d come to get the Grey Publishing contract out of her. Sure enough, the office that had been so crammed full of books and various plants then, is completely stark now. Nothing is left but the furniture, a computer, and a giant bouquet of pink peonies waiting for me in the middle of my new desk. I stumble towards them numbly and pull the card from their petals. It’s written in Christian’s handwriting.

I miss you.

My lip starts to tremble and my heart races against my ribcage. I stare down at the indents his pen made in the paper, tracing them with my finger as if feeling them will let me feel him too. It’s an empty kind of hope that makes me feel worse, until I hear a soft knock on the door behind me.

When I turn, he’s there.

“Hi,” he begins, wary. I have to take a breath before I can respond.

“Hi.”

“Your uh… security team told me you weren’t able to keep anything down this morning.” He fidgets nervously with something in his hands, which draws my attention to it for the first time. It’s a take-out carton. “I thought you might be hungry.”

My stomach growls, and he almost smiles. 

“Thank you,” I reach out for the cardboard container and when our fingers brush, there’s a jolt of warm electricity exchanged between us. It doesn’t spark and make me jump away, it makes me want to move closer. It makes it feel impossible to pull back. I think he experiences the sensation in the same way, because his hand lingers against mine far longer than necessary before he pulls it away. And when he does, he looks almost tortured. 

With a step back, I hop up on my new desk, pop open the lid of my container, and dip my chopsticks into the noodles. 

“Did you fire, Elizabeth?” I ask, keeping my eyes on my food.

“No. She received an offer for an editor-in-chief position at a much higher volume publishing house. She was very excited to hand me her resignation last week.”

I frown, knowing in my gut that it’s not a coincidence that his current editor-in-chief just happened to find a better job at the exact same time Christian wanted to give his wife this one. And, honestly, her absence isn’t extremely welcome. With the explosion of the Greenwich Library that damn near always keeps my email in a gridlock, it’s become clear that I’m going to need to split some of my responsibilities. Elizabeth would have been a great partner.   Without her, well, I guess I’m back to having no one…. 

He takes a few steps towards me while I eat and mull over this new information, then he places a finger beneath my chin and tilts my face up to his.

“How are you feeling?”

It’s difficult for me to respond at first. His touch once again sends tingles over my skin that I just want to stop and let myself feel. I want him to lower his lips to mine and tell me that he understands me. I want to collapse in his arms and hold him while I paint the picture of the future I see for us now. The one that makes it all worth this risk… Maybe if he sees it, he’d understand.

Instead, I place the noodles on the desk next to me and look up at him with lost eyes.

“Fine. I—uh… I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. They’re just going to do labs and some tests, but I’m going to get an ultrasound.”

He nods, solemnly. “Okay. Just have Abigail forward it to Andrea so she gets it on my calendar, and I’ll be there.”

“You will?”

His face crinkles with pain. “Of course I will. Ana, I love you. I’m always going to be there for you.” He steps closer, moving his body between my legs, and rests his forehead against mine. For a moment, he just stands there and lets his declaration simmer between us. Then he starts in an agonized whisper, “Please, just… try to see it my way. Try to see what you’re asking me to risk.”

The next breath I take feels heavier than just air. Like, I’m breathing in his torment. A flash of my father’s face moves through my memory from when I told him I was expecting. Even Luke had flinched.

“I do,” I breathe back. “It just… doesn’t change anything.”

His body deflates slightly with the defeated breath he lets out, so I reach around and pull my body against his, holding him as tightly as I can. He shakes his head a few times, then makes a resigned sound that ends with his lips crashing into mine.

It isn’t an admission of defeat, or an attempt to sway me to his side. It’s a temporary truce that has to happen because he simply cannot go on not touching me. Not kissing me. Not loving me…

And I fall into it just as hard as he does.

We wrap around each other in every way we can, pulling against the other in a constant attempt to drag them closer. His tongue tangles with mine in the way his fingers tangle in my hair. My ankles lock together behind his hips as if they’ll hold him there forever. I let myself pour every ounce of the longing I’ve felt for him in these endless days apart. 

When he finally pulls away, we pant together in silence for several long seconds, then he reaches up to cup the side of my face.

“There must be something wrong with your sense of self-preservation.”

I let out a humorless laugh. “You know what it’s like to love someone more than your own life.” A hand drops to my stomach, and he follows it with his eyes. Then he shakes his head, and pulls that hand away from my body and into his.

“Come on. We’re going to be late.”

We’re the last to walk into the much larger conference room where my team is gathered. Normally, I hate that. But Christian doesn’t seem fazed. He pulls out a chair for me at the head of the long, rectangular table, then steps into the open space at my right and looks around the room. The faces of my employees from New York on the huge screen against the wall show mostly confusion, which Christian acknowledges with an air of surprising humility.

“Good afternoon. On behalf of Grey Enterprises Holdings and Grey Publishing, I would like to extend our warmest welcome. The accomplishments of the Greenwich team are truly remarkable and it is my hope that we will continue to build on those successes going forward. And I don’t think there is a person I’d have more confidence in to ensure that success than your new editor-in-chief, Mrs. Anastasia Grey.”

He gestures for me to take over, but as I rise and he takes the seat next to me, there’s a cough from one of the Grey Publishing employees across the table.

“You’re wife,” he says beneath the obnoxious, fake hacking. Christian’s eyes flash dangerously in the man’s direction, but it’s Claire and Jacki who leap to my defense

“Shut up, Jason,” Claire snaps.

“Yeah, who even are you? Because she’s a best-selling author,” Jacki adds.

His eyes widen in surprise, and he holds his hands up in surrender. “Jesus. Sorry for having a little loyalty to Elizabeth.” Steven’s leans across the table, mouth open like he’s about to say something, but I hold up a hand to stop him.

“It’s alright. This is a very sudden change and we’re going to have some growing pains. But I hope, Jason, that I’ll earn your trust the same way that Elizabeth did.”

“Uh… yeah.” He recedes slightly in his seat, his face turning the lightest shade of pink. Several smug pairs of eyes from the GSP team turn to me, while the Grey Publishing staff I don’t know looks at me with a new curiosity. I turn to Christian, expecting him to leave, but he leans back in his seat and stares back at me with rapt attention.

“Alright,” I begin, turning away from him and trying not to feel his evaluating eyes. “We’ll get started with the Greenwich Library…” I hesitate, feeling my shoulders droop as I realize how difficult this acquisition is about to make my job. “Which I suppose will have to be rebranded… As of eight o’clock this morning, we’re at 203,000 subscribers and 14,000 active titles. Our top downloads now are the Meghan Michaels title, the new tell-all from that madam out of Kirkland, and… get this,” I give my team a sardonic look. “The Black Rose.

“Are you kidding me?” Stevens asks. I shake my head at him, subtly letting him know that I’m not.

“Oh, no. Turns out that if you don’t make them pay for it upfront, it’s not contrived anymore. It’s just complicated… which, I guess is a good thing now? I don’t know.” I shake my head irritably. “Either way, Daves is pulling in significantly more downloads through the library than he did through the traditional press.” 

After a brief rundown of everything we have on the New York and Seattle office front list, and some intensive discussion on Phoenix that makes most of the Grey Publishing team start grinding their teeth, I turn to Jacki.

“Where are we at on your romance sequel?”

“Close. She’s got two chapters left and I’ve made her promise to have them for me by October. We’re going to miss the Christmas rush, but I think it might actually time well with the Phoenix release.”

“Excellent.” With a smile and a check against the last item on my list, I turn to Claire and ask for the Grey Publishing front list. She passes me a single sheet of paper with two titles listed at the top. I turn towards Christian dubiously, and he gives me a now-you-know-why-I-had-to-buy-you-out kind of look. With a very fulfilling sense of superiority, I turn to the editors representing the titles that are here and get as many of the details as possible, offering my support for whatever they need going forward.

There are a few housekeeping items I touch on, and procedures that will be changing going forward. There’s no point in keeping both Claire and Penny as receptionists, so I assure both of them Christian and I will have answers for them by the following morning. Then the team files out of the room to work on all the actionable items I’ve left them with, and Christian and I are once again left alone.

“You’re incredible,” he starts, the compliment marred by the weighty conflict he isn’t speaking aloud. “You really are a natural leader, Anastasia.”

I nod my gratitude while I take my things into my hand, then give him a resigned kind of look. “I can’t manage the library app and the operations of what is now the equivalent of three branches all on my own. I’d like to promote one of my editors to take over those responsibilities for me.”

“Do you have someone in mind?”

“Jacki. I trust her taste and her vision. She’s organized, she knows what she’s doing, and she’s ambitious. She’s the only one I know would make the same decisions I would. Penny can take her place on the editing team and Claire will remain as receptionist.”

“What qualifies Penny to be an editor?” 

“An English degree from Santa Clara. She took the receptionist job because she was waiting for an opening.” 

He nods. “Alright. Make whatever offers you want. Anything you need, it’s yours. You have my complete support.”

I breathe that in, but it doesn’t bring me any relief. Outside of Grey Publishing, that hasn’t proved to be true.

“Yeah,” I mutter, bitterly. “Thanks.”

“Ana…” He gets out of his chair, slowly, like he’s trying to buy more time to figure out how to say the things he’s already told me a hundred times in a way that will make me finally understand. “What if it were me? What if I had some disease that the doctors could just… cut out of me to save my life, and I refused? What would that do to you?”

“This isn’t a disease, Christian.” And honestly, the comparison is one of the more painful things he’s said so far. But if he’s going to deal in hypotheticals, so will I. “What if it was Calliope?”

“What?”

“If you could go back in time and tell your past-self exactly what would happen when Calliope was born, would you be telling me then what you’re telling me now? Would you throw Calliope away too?”

“That’s not fair…”

“That is exactly how it feels to me, Christian. This baby is not a concept or a thought experiment. I can feel it. It’s a baby that makes me sick every morning, and so tired I can barely walk straight. It’s a baby that makes my boobs hurt, and it’s a baby that has me breaking down into tears every fifteen minutes. Our baby. Just like Calliope is our baby.”

His jaw sets in an angry line. “I don’t know this baby. I don’t love this baby. But I do love you, and there’s no one in the world I would trade you for, Anastasia. Your heart beats, my heart beats. That’s not just correlation, it’s sequential.”

Defiant tears begin to echo behind my words. “You don’t know that this will be like it was with Calliope, Christian.”

“And you don’t know that it won’t.” There’s a finality to his words that tells me this argument isn’t going to be productive, so I let my head hang in defeat and start to turn. He calls me back.

“I’m going to take Calliope home with me tonight.”

I swallow to relax the tightness that suddenly grips my throat, wishing I was anywhere but here so I didn’t have to fight so hard to keep it together.

“That’s fair, ” I croak back. 

His face turns hard and the tension in his jaw pulls so tight, it almost pulses. “You know, this is what divorced couples do. Make custody arrangements…”

“We’re not getting divorced,” I reiterate. “That’s not how this ends. I’m not leaving you, Christian. No matter what.”

His eyes move down to my stomach, a look of disgust shrouding his face. “Aren’t you, though?”

He turns and leaves, and I have to sit in a chair to keep myself from collapsing on the floor. I can feel the fight inside me start to waiver as the exhaustion overcomes me again, but I can’t let myself lose it. I have to fight this battle. I have to fight for my baby. I just don’t know how to do it against the man I love. I don’t know how to withstand this pain. His pain. 

I reach up and press my fingers into the hollow of my neck, feeling my pulse and finding my heart racing. Despite my insistence that this time it could be different, that it will be different, I’m still wary of my symptoms. A thundering heartbeat is a little concerning given my history, so I take a deep, calming breath, and try to release the stress lingering in my body. I decide that the best way to do that is to go home and finish my day in a pair of sweatpants, where I can break down and cry if I have to.

After gathering everything I need and packing it into the bag that reminds me of Christian, I summon my security team and start for home. Or the empty building where my stuff is anyway. It becomes very clear once I’m wandering through the empty rooms that seem to echo in the eerie quiet, that it’s not home without Christian and Calliope.

And suddenly, I understand exactly why Christian had to leave. The hours of work I try to bury myself in are only just enough to shake the overbearing feeling of abject loneliness. So, when eight o’clock rolls around and I can’t force myself to stare at my computer screen any longer, I finally pull out my phone.

“Are you grounded for life?” Luke answers.

“Not any more than I already was. What are you doing?”

“Oh, you know. Really important things. Like… seeing how long I can sit on the couch before I start to become part of it.”

“Where’s Jade?”

“Working. She won’t be home until after three or so.” He sighs. “So it’s just me and me, having some good old quality me time.”

“Yeah, me too. Christian took Calliope to Escala tonight.”

“You guys still haven’t worked it out?”

“No. I don’t think that we’re going to be able to. He said he’ll come to my doctor’s appointment tomorrow, but not because he’s changed his mind. He’s already convinced himself this is a death sentence.”

“I mean… is it?”

“No!”

He pauses, like he has to rehearse what he wants to say next so that it comes out right. “Ana, maybe, before you go to war with Christian, you should hear what the doctor tells you. I was there last time, and she warned you–” He stops again. “Look, I know you think that you can get through this if you’re just on your best behavior… but it doesn’t always work out that way. It didn’t last time, no matter what you tried. And we really did almost lose you.”

“I know that, Luke. Don’t you think I know that?”

He sighs. “Yeah, I guess you would.”

There’s a heavy silence that falls between us while he wades through his emotions and I try to form the feeling swirling in my gut into words. 

“Luke…” 

“Hm?” 

“Why were you at my office this morning?”

“Because Taylor asked me to be.” 

“Why?”

He takes another long breath, which tells me he doesn’t want to answer, that that immediately makes me wary of whatever he is about to say. 

“Please don’t lie to me.” 

“Taylor didn’t want you to be held up by the paparazzi. He wanted you in the building as quickly as possible.” 

“Because?”

Another pause. “Think about it, Ana. I’m sure you’ll get there.” 

“Because someone was coming for me?” 

“And he found out about it three days ago. He came to talk to me late last night and we put his plan into motion before you even woke up this morning. It went exactly the way that he planned it would, we got the guy, we took care of it.”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know, some dude who wanted to hock your wedding ring on the black market.”

“My wedding ring?!”

“It’s a ten million dollar diamond, Anastasia… But he was an amateur, working alone, and very, very carelessly. We were prepared for him. No need to worry.” 

“All I do is worry…” 

“I know, and it’s stupid. I don’t know what more I can say to you except that no one is ever going to get to you or Calliope. Ever. Your husband is a powerful man, and all of that power is constantly being directed into keeping you safe.” 

I swallow, as I’m reminded of the double-edge to that sword, and how his concern for my safety has that sword currently held at my throat. “Yeah… okay.”

“Do you want me to come over? Keep you company?”

“Would you?”

“Be there in a few minutes. Just tell your security to stand down, huh? I’d like to avoid stray gunfire, if I can.”

“You know they don’t listen to me.”

“And that’s part of the reason you’re so safe.” He laughs and promises he’s on his way before the phone goes dead and leaves me alone in the ghostly shell of my house. I can’t bring myself to sit and wait. 

The emptiness that fills the rooms around me is too oppressive. Instead, I wander aimlessly until I find myself in Christian’s office. With a careless drag of my finger, I walk along the edge of his desk, eyeing the immaculately neat piles of things that weren’t important enough to take with him. His laptop is missing, leaving a defined empty place in front of his chair. I squeeze the shiny, espresso colored leather wrapped around it and let my eyes wander to the framed picture displayed proudly on the corner of his desk.

Our wedding day.

“He’s not in here,” Luke says from the doorway, calling my attention. I look up and give him a sad smile.

“Almost feels like it though.”

The way his face morphs at those words tells me that he feels the pain roiling through me as acutely as I do, and the empathy that shines back at me through the blue eyes I’ve grown to trust so much draws me into his arms.

“It’s going to be alright, Ana.” He squeezes me. “You two will get through this like you’ve gotten through everything else.”

I sniff against his shirt, unsure of how much I believe those words anymore. A few days ago, absolutely. But Christian Grey is an intractable force, and I’m just now being confronted with how absolute that really is…

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

“Come on,” Luke says, rubbing a hand over my shoulder. “Let’s go watch an awful movie that I’m going to hate.”

I laugh and let him drag me out to the living room.

He pops some popcorn and even throws a few bags of the Scooby-doo fruit snacks I would have committed murder for while I was pregnant with Calliope on a tray, while I build us a fortress of pillows on the couch. He grabs the remote before I can, but goes straight for It Happened One Night, and hits play. I give him a knowing smile that makes him roll his eyes, but not a single word of complaint breaks through his lips as we settle into the opening scene.

“You wanna know the real problem with this movie?” he says about half-way through. He sits up straighter and moves the bowl of popcorn off his lap like he’s about to give a Ted Talk. But his speech is interrupted by Woods, Shaw, and Wyatt, who suddenly file into the living room.

“What’s going on?” I ask. My answer comes from the beep of the alarm that says an exterior door has been opened. Luke automatically reaches a protective hand back and angles his body between mine and the door. It drops though, when Christian walks into the kitchen with Calliope on his hip.

His eyes narrow on the space between Luke and I on the couch, which makes Luke shoot me an irritated look before he scoots away. I look at Christian.

“What are you doing here? Calliope should have been in bed hours ago.”

“You’re telling me,” he says, adjusting the wide-awake baby with tear-streaked cheeks on his hip. “She didn’t have her elephant.”

“Oh. I’ll go get it for you.” I start to unravel the blanket from around my lap, but Christian moves through the kitchen and waves me off.

“I know where it is.” He exits through the archway, toward the stairs, and Luke turns to face me.

“He’s not just here for the elephant, is he?”

I take a cautious breath, trying not to let myself feel too much hope behind my response. “No. I don’t think so.”

He nods and leans over to kiss my forehead, holding a hand back to stop my security when all three of them take a step closer to me. Then he turns back to me to roll his eyes and peels himself off the couch. I go after him, walking him to the door with my security team following half a step behind me the entire way. I give each of them an annoyed look before I tell them I’m off to bed and start after Christian.

He’s in Calliope’s nursery, standing over her crib, placing her stuffed animal close enough that she can see it, but far enough away that it won’t suffocate her in the middle of the night. He reaches in and strokes the top of her head lovingly, then turns to look up at me. 

And then, he changes. There’s no fight or obscured sense of betrayal in the way he looks at me. Only longing. Even from all the way across the room, it’s almost powerful enough to make me give in.

I look away, and he appears in front of me.

“Christian, I can’t…”

Just as they had this morning, his lips cut off my protest. I feel his hands curl around my face, holding me in the kiss that grows deeper the moment I start to kiss him back. While I melt into him, his hands drag down my body, gently caressing my cheeks, neck, shoulders, arms, hips… all the way down to the backs of my thighs. I push up when he lifts me in his arms, and wrap my legs around his waist. Then I lower my lips to his again, and keep them there while he makes his way back to our bedroom.

Our clothes fall to the floor without any words. His careful fingers gently pull my t-shirt over my head, then roll my leggings over my feet. He draws the tip of his nose up the inside of my thigh. His tongue sweeps gently across the curve of my neck. His eyes take in every inch of my skin, as though he’s experiencing my body again for the first time. Or maybe, just really taking the time to appreciate it.

I could melt in the wonder that looks down at me. I could swim forever in the depth of the love he demonstrates through each sweet touch of his lips. When my panties find their way to the floor and the tip of his erection brushes my clit, my body starts to yearn for him. Not in the greedy, heady way it does when my mind is drunk on sex and desperate for release.

I just need him to touch me.

I need him to envelop me.

I need him to consume me from the inside out, until every doubt I’ve felt over the past few days has been burned away by his unrelenting passion.

I need him to love me and I need him to feel how much I love him back.

He slides inside of me, and I moan for each and every inch of him. His wandering hands return to my face. His gaze holds mine. Only then does he move. Slowly. In a metronomic pace that’s so even and vital it could be a heartbeat. And the moment the comparison falls into my thoughts, I realize that’s exactly what it is.

A heartbeat. His heartbeat. This is why it beats, and this is what each and every one of those beats means.

Your heart beats. My heart beats. 

Next Chapter

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.

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