Chapter 40

I am not getting sick.

I am NOT. GETTING. SICK..

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

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

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

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

Thank god Kate offered to help. 

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

See, I’m really not getting sick.

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

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

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

“So you can…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How could I not? I mean, damn.”

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

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

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

“I heard that.”

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

But he doesn’t want to talk about it.

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

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

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

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

“It was at least six.”

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

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

“Only because you take my breath away.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exact one Christian had given her the first time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I get you a beer?”

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

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

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

“Welcome home, Meems,” he says, once he’s set her on the floor again. She shoves her arms to each side and gives him a look like she’s about to drop a bombshell.

“You and I have to talk!”

“Oh?”

“I was in Prague, and there was this news stand next to the café that Tippy and I were having breakfast in that had this tabloid with a picture of you on the cover. So, I had the waiter translate it for me and it said that…”

“He doesn’t have a penis,” Elliot interrupts, walking towards them, hanging his head in shame. He grips Mia’s shoulder and bends down to her eye level. “We didn’t want you to find out this way…”

She sloughs his hand from her shoulder and narrows her eyes at him. “He has a kid, dingus.”

Elliot grins. “I thought you said you were reading the tabloids. Haven’t you heard? Calliope’s father is Luke.” He gestures to the kitchen table and Luke shakes his head in dismay.

“Can we keep me out of this, please?”

“Yes, please,” Christian says. “I will hit you, Elliot.”

Elliot laughs, then leans over to kiss the top of Mia’s head. “Glad you’re back, kiddo.”

“And you make me glad I’m about to leave again.”

“Amelia!” Grace chides her, and Mia grumbles an apology to Elliot before turning back to Christian.

“Anyway, the tabloids are saying that you destroyed your company and that you’re poor now.”

He makes a big show of rolling his eyes. “I swear, the things they come up with…”

She laughs, like the whole thing is ridiculous, then moves to take Kennedy out of her mother’s arms. “Oh my god, she’s so much bigger!”

The moment Mia has hold of her, Kennedy starts to wail. Mia rocks her and tries to shush her, but the tighter she’s squeezed, the harder she screams.

“You’ve been gone too long,” Elliot says, taking his distraught daughter from her and instantly ending her tantrum. “She doesn’t remember you.”

“But—“

“Meem!”

Mia turns to the kitchen to see my father looking at Calliope, but pointing to her. “That’s right,” he praises her. “That’s Aunt Mia.”

Mia gives Elliot a haughty smile and starts for the kitchen. “Ah, there’s my favorite niece.” My dad hands her over and as Mia settles her weight on her hip, she glances back at him. “Hey, Ray. Where’s Kim?”

“Uh…” He stutters, his eyes darting quickly back and forth in search of a response.

“Ray, do you want to do the grilling?” Christian asks, moving quickly into the kitchen to retrieve the burgers from the fridge. “Everyone’s here, we might as well get started.”

“Sure,” he replies, relieved for the break in tension. He takes the brown paper wrappings Christian hands him then leads the men into the backyard. Christian shoots a warning look between Mia and I as he follows and I sigh.

“What was that about?” Mia asks, handing Calliope to Grace so she can take her and Kennedy to the playroom.

“Christian banned Kim from the house,” Kate answers in a blunt tone, moving the bowl of cut potatoes to the fryer. “They left Calliope with her and Ray while they were in New York and Kim posted a picture of her on PixC.”

“I was going to ask about that!” Mia exclaims. “Are we allowed to post pictures of the baby now?”

“Is Kim allowed in my house?” I give Mia an unamused look, and then just to be absolutely clear, I add, “No, do not ever post pictures of Calliope online. Period.”

“Whatever,” Mia says, rolling her eyes. And it’s amazing how even in that whatever, I still trust her more than I ever trusted Kim.

I turn to the counter so I can help Kate with the french fries, but we’re not as intelligent about it as our Harvard education would suggest. She grabs a handful of raw potatoes and tosses them into the fryer. The moment the hot oil comes into contact with the wet surface of the starchy vegetables, it pops and splatters all over the both of us.

“Ah!” We scream in unison, diving away from the fryer. When we stand again, I glare at her.

“Smooth move.”

“Well, I’m sorry I’ve never deep fried anything before!”

“Guys.” Mia’s voice is so quiet that neither one of us hears it.

“Well, let me take over then.” I grab hold of her arms to move her to the side and approach the fryer with caution.

“Guys?”

The fries are sizzling nicely beneath the rolling oil and the popping seems to have stopped, so I grab the handle and pull the basket out of the fryer. Once I’ve loosened the moist potatoes already inside, I add a few more and shake it out again.

“Guys…”

“That’s too many,” Kate argues, trying to take the basket from my hand.

“Guys!”

We both snap our heads in Mia’s direction at the same time. “What?!”

She glances over her shoulder, ensuring there’s no one coming up behind us. Then she actually goes to the window to make sure all the boys are fully occupied at the barbeque. When she turns back to face us again, Kate and I are exchanging nervous glances.

“What’s up, Meems?” I ask hesitantly, setting the basket back in the oil and giving her my full attention. She takes a deep breath.

“I had sex this summer…”

“Oh my god!” Kate practically leaps at her, then yanks her to a barstool at the counter and shoves her down on it. “Start talking.”

Mia blushes. “It was when I was in Greece… We stayed there for a little over a week and the first night we were there we were dancing at this club in Mykonos. I met this guy named Nikolaos.”

“And…?” Kate presses her.

“I don’t know. We hung out. He showed us around, we went to the beach, we flirted, we had dinner… I liked him. I spent pretty much every second with him while we were there, and then the night before the girls and I left for Italy, he walked me back to my room and it just kind of… happened.”

“On your last night?” I ask. She nods.

“Did he go with you to Italy?” Kate asks.

“No. He stayed the night with me that night, we had breakfast the next morning, and then he just… took me to the ferry.”

“Oh, Meems…”

“It was okay,” she says, waving off the concern in my voice. “I liked him but I wasn’t in love with him. I didn’t want him to be my boyfriend or anything. I just… I didn’t tell the other girls and I wanted to tell someone. I thought it should be my sisters.”

I smile at her, but Kate doesn’t. “He didn’t do anything you didn’t want him to, did he? Because I swear to god, I’ll fly the fuck back to Greece right now, and…”

“No!” Mia interrupts her. “It was fine. Everything about it was fine. He was nice to me, he took care of me while it was happening, he didn’t treat me like dirt when it was over… It was fine.

I raise an eyebrow at her. “Just fine, huh?”

“Yeah.” She huffs and it makes her deflate a little. “I don’t know. All this hype and… it was just fine.”

“Well, I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but they’re not all winners out there,” Kate says. “Not even the cute ones who should have had lots of practice.”

Mia agrees with a laugh, but when Kate turns back to the fryer, she leans in to me. “Ana, when you and Christian had sex for the first time… how did you feel afterward?”

“Like I just found out magic was real.” Mia frowns, so I reach out and pick up her chin to make her look at me. “Talk to me.”

“I just thought it would change me, you know? I thought I would feel different or it would make me see the world in a new way. I thought it would be like some crazy revelation and… it wasn’t. It mostly hurt, then it was kind of weird. I’m not upset about it or anything, I don’t regret it. I’m just like… was that it?”

“He wasn’t the one. That’s all.”

“You think so?”

“Trust me. When you find the guy who you can’t stop thinking about, who takes your breath away each and every time you’re around him, and who makes your heart feel like it’s going to explode out of your chest… that’s the guy who will take you to bed and rock your whole universe.”

She smiles like she can’t contain the sweet-tinted emotions boiling up inside of her. “Awh… you’re so in love with my brother.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” I roll my eyes and laugh. As the sound dies out, I reach over the counter and grip her hand. “Do you have any questions?”

“Questions about what?” Christian’s voice comes from the other side of the kitchen. He’s carrying a plate of grilled polish sausages. Mia spins toward him and her eyes go wide with panic.

“Nothing!”

Christian isn’t dissuaded by her shrieked response. He glances between the three of us suspiciously, then repeats himself. “Questions about what?”

“Harvard,” I reply, as though he’s finally worn us down. “She’s worried that she’ll be an outcast and wanted some advice about getting invited to parties.”

“Just stay away from finals clubs,” Kate says, her back still turned to us as she takes the cooked fries from the oil and lowers another batch. Once the oil starts bubbling out of control again, she turns back to Mia, crosses her arms over her chest, and gives her a very stern look. “They’re rape palaces.”

“Stay away from parties altogether,” Christian says. “You should be more like Ana and focus on your studies.”

Luke, who I’ve once again forgotten all about in his monk-like silence, snorts and breaks down laughing at the dining room table. Even Kate snickers as she pulls a bottle of ketchup out of the fridge. I glare at both of them.

“Sometimes I forget how much of Ana’s time at Harvard you weren’t around for,” Kate says to Christian. “I could probably count second-semester sophomore year Ana’s sober nights on one hand.”

“Ugh, second-semester sophomore year Ana was the worst,” Luke agrees. “Two stars, would not recommend.”

“You know what,” I start, glaring angrily between the two of them. I look up at Christian, expecting him to defend me, but he shrugs.

“I didn’t get to be there. Second-semester sophomore year Ana is also not my favorite iteration of you.”

“Oh, yeah? You’re about to like this iteration a whole lot less if heads don’t start rolling around here for talking shit about your wife, Mr. Grey.”

He sighs, but nods. “Kate, when you and Elliot broke up, you had sex with Carter Reed. So I don’t want to hear judgement about anything out of you… ever. Sawyer, you’re dismissed.”

“Really?” Luke immediately perks up.

“Yes,” Christian replies. “The security office is that way, go occupy it.”

With a disappointed sigh, he nods, gets up, and leaves the room. He pauses before he makes it through the archway though. Then he locks eyes with me and once again mouths, “the worst.” I lunge towards him, but Christian catches me around the arm and drags me into the dining room.

Sitting around the table with my family feels more like home than all the work and travel we’ve been doing has allowed in quite some time. No one has a bombshell to drop or drama to start. We all just sit there and listen to Mia tell stories about Europe over a table full of junk food. My dad and I both smother our hot dogs in cream cheese and grilled onions, which has Christian glancing over at us in disgust every thirty seconds. But that only makes the whole experience more enjoyable.

“Did you meet any boys while you were travelling?” Grace asks, trying to be sly. Mia’s cheeks immediately go pink.

“You know, I think we’ve talked enough about me. We haven’t heard anything from Kate, and I bet Kate has all kinds of stuff to talk about. Don’t you, Kate? Don’t you have so many things you want to talk about right now?”

“Uh… yeah,” Kate says, pausing while she thinks of something to fill the silence surrounding the seven pairs of eyes that turn in her direction. “We’re running a story tomorrow morning about the protests that have been going on at City Hall all week.”

“Protests?” I ask. I’ve been out of town most of the week, but this is the first I’ve heard about protests.

“Yeah, about the transportation cuts. There are like 30% fewer buses, ferries, and trains running every day and it’s severely impacting the commuter community. We interviewed a few of the leaders who put the demonstration together and they gave us a list of demands. So, we’re going to publish it.”

Carrick glares at her. “Why? So the yuppy tech bros downtown who this doesn’t affect at all can hate me too? My approval numbers have been in free fall since those people started marching.”

“Hey, I don’t make the news,” Kate says, raising her hands defensively. “I just report it.”

“Yeah, well if I could do something about it, I would. Those budget cuts were a necessary part of this years… revenue shortfalls.” The way Carrick says the last words, and glances in Christian’s direction as he says them, makes it clear that he’s talking about the GEH tax cuts. Christian gives Calliope another French fry and leans casually back in his chair, reaching an arm over my chair and resting it lazily on my shoulder.

“How much is the shortage?”

“We had to cut $13 million from SDOT.”

Christian nods. “I’ll set up a $15 million grant to donate to the city’s transportation fund.

Carrick looks taken aback by Christian’s offer. Slowly, his eyebrows knit themselves together and he blinks a few times like he’s misunderstood what was said. Christian shakes his head, then leans over the table towards his father.

“Despite what you may think, I actually care a great deal about this city. I care even more about your success as Mayor. Besides, I employ commuters too. A well funded infrastructure is good business.”

“Of course he makes it about GEH,” Mia says. He shoots her a self-righteous grin.

“Well, whatever your reasons,” Carrick begins. “I really appreciate that, son. There are people in this city that are struggling, and I want to help them. It’s a very noble offer, so thank you.”

“It’s not, but you’re welcome.” He exchanges a glance with his father that holds a warmth that’s been absent since they went to war with each other last spring. I think Grace sees it just as clearly as I do because she brings a hand to her chest and fights to hold back her sentimental smile. Elliot on the other hand empties his pilsner and coughs to get Christian’s attention.

“What?”

“I was just thinking… I could use $15 million. You know, if you’re just handing it out.” Christian reaches over for my plate to pick up one of the fries I didn’t finish and hurls it across the table at his brother. Elliot just narrows his eyes at him. “So, no?”

We all laugh, then turn back to Mia, who actually does have several questions about her impending departure for Harvard.

Once dinner is finished and Mia has asked every single thing about Cambridge that she could possibly think of, we walk everyone to the door and say our goodbyes. Kate and Elliot are out quick, eager to get Kennedy back home and into bed. Grace dawdles, unwilling to give up Calliope.

“You know she could come home with us,” she offers, hugging her granddaughter tightly to her chest.

“Not tonight, Mom,” Christian says. Grace frowns, but after one last big squeeze, she passes Calliope back to him. Carrick wraps his arms around me, then holds his hand out for Christian.

“I’ll be in touch with your office to set up that grant,” Christian tells him.

“Good. I’ll clear my schedule for you, son.” They nod at each other as their hands fall to their side, but just before Carrick turns to leave. He stops and pulls Christian in for a hug. “It was good seeing you tonight, Christian.”

“Yeah, you too.”

“I love you, son.”

Christian smiles and nods to his father. “Yeah, you too.”

With a wink, Carrick takes Grace’s hand and, with a lighter stride than the one that carried him in here, he leads her through the front doors and out into the night.

“Well, I guess this is goodnight, kids,” my dad says, hovering at the foot of the stairs behind us. I open my mouth to argue, but stop myself and turn back to Christian. He nods, like he already knows what I’m going to say.

“Go ahead. I’ll put Calliope to bed.”

“Thank you.” I give him a quick, but deep kiss, then move my lips to each of Calliope’s chubby cheeks. “Goodnight, Calli-lilly.”

“Bye-bye, Mommy.”

My dad is already in his room when I make it upstairs. I try to show him around a bit, let him know where he’ll find the things he needs, or extra blankets if he gets cold. He catches me by the shoulders on my third lap around the room.

“Annie, I’ve been here a million times. There’s no need to fuss over me.”

I nod, but instead of leaving him on his own, I take a seat on the edge of his bed. “You were quiet at dinner.”

He shrugs. “It wasn’t really about me.”

“It was about family. You’re family.”

“Yeah, I know.” There’s a sadness behind his voice that tugs painfully at my heart, and I feel myself start to shrink. The same way I did when I thought I disappointed him as a child.

I take a shaky breath. “I’m followed everywhere I go, Daddy. And every time I have Calliope, the paparazzi gets more aggressive because that picture Kim posted blew up and now they think they can make money off of her. They scream at me, they grab me, they curse at me and flip me off to try to get me to react… It’s scary. It scares her. It makes Luke’s job so much more difficult, and I swear Christian is going to lose his shit one day and we’re going to end up in court again….” 

“I know, Annie. Christian made all of this very clear the last time I was here.” 

“But I don’t want you–” 

“Ana.” He stops and turns a stern look on me. “It’s fine. You don’t have to worry about me, and you don’t have to worry about Kim. She’s not going to be a problem anymore.” 

“What do you mean?”

“We’re no longer seeing each other. Her kids helped her move out this weekend, and I fully expect her keys to be waiting for me on the kitchen counter when I get home. It’s over.”

“What… why?” He gives me a look that makes it clear I should know exactly why, but I shake my head. “I didn’t tell you to… I mean, I didn’t mean for you to, uh… I just wanted—”

“Her out of your life,” he finishes for me. “You wanted her out of your life and you have since the day I first introduced you. The only thing that was keeping this together was Christian, because he was trying. But I saw how serious he was when he said Kim wouldn’t be welcome here again. And if she wasn’t welcome and I stood by her, it would only be a matter of time before that included me too.”

“Daddy, that is not true,” I argue. “I would never let that happen, no matter what.”

“You wouldn’t have to, sweetheart. If Kim was left at home waiting for me every time I came up here to see you, I’d just start coming less and less often. You’d get used to me declining invitations, until, eventually, you’d stop offering them. We’d have holidays with her kids, you’d have holidays with Grace and Carrick. I want nothing to do with that, Annie. I don’t want to miss Calliope growing up and I don’t want a miss a second of time I could be spending with you. You’re the most important thing in the world to me. Period.”

I feel the sting of tears behind my eyes and I have to look down at the floor before any of them actually break through the surface. His arms wrap around me and he pulls me into the familiar chest that’s comforted me innumerable times. This time, though, it only makes me feel worse.

“I love you, Daddy. I really, really love you.”

“I know, baby girl. I love you too. But you gotta get out of here because I’m exhausted and I’m going to bed.”

I nod against his t-shirt, then take a deep breath, wish him sweet dreams, and shuffle back to my bedroom. I can hear Christian reading to Calliope through her bedroom door, so I climb into bed and sit there, staring at the wall, and feeling miserable.

“Exactly where I hoped to find you,” Christian says, when he finally comes through the door. He moves to the bed and crawls over the top of me, seeking out my lips, but just before he makes his target, I hold up my hand to stop him.

“We need to talk,” I tell him. He lets out a disappointed breath and his head falls.

“Now?”

“Yes, right now.”

“Okay.” He rolls off of me and plops down on the bed next to me, pouting up at the ceiling like someone just took his favorite toy away. “What do you want to talk about?”

“My dad and Kim broke up.”

“Oh. Well, that’s much more convenient.”

“Christian!” I slap him across the chest and turn my whole body towards him, glaring. “She’s the only person he has! He lives in the actual middle of nowhere. He doesn’t have neighbors anymore, all of his buddies live over an hour away from him, we never go to visit him… he’s all alone. And I can’t…” I start shaking my head, too overwhelmed with guilt and sadness to finish the sentence. Christian brushes his hand back and forth over my back as he too sits up.

“So, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to buy him an apartment in the city so he can be closer to us?”

“No, he wouldn’t come if you did.  I– I–, ugh, I don’t know what I want.”

“Then we’ll start making more of an effort to go visit your father. One weekend a month, as often as we can. Any other time, he’s welcome to come stay with us. He knows that.”

I nod, because I know it’s the best we’re realistically going to be able to come up with, but I still feel like we’ve fallen about a hundred miles short of the mark. The attempt I make to say that is cut off though, when the room is suddenly filled with the piercing sound of the security alarm, blaring from downstairs.

Christian goes tense for half a second, then leaps from the bed and rushes to the door. I’m right on his tail, but he barks back at me to take Calliope into the safe room.

“Without you, are you insane?” I scream over the shrill siren echoing through my halls. He stops and rounds on me, just as we hear the door down the hall open and my father steps out looking confused.

“Stay with Calliope,” I tell him, then I grab Christian’s hand and start dragging him to the stairs. The moment we’re out of the hall, he snatches me by the wrist and yanks me behind him, shielding my body with his as we peer over the railing and into the dark entryway below. Taylor is standing in the middle of the foyer with his gun drawn on a shadowy figure by the door, and my heart starts racing.

“Get on the ground,” Taylor commands, and when the silhouette he’s aiming at hesitates, I hear him click the safety off his gun.

“Wait!” Luke shouts from somewhere in the dark. He comes barreling into the foyer and immediately puts himself between Taylor’s gun and the person cowering against the door. Christian reaches along the wall, in search of a light switch, and when he finally hits it, the mysterious intruder turns into… Jade.

“I’m so sorry,” her fear filled voice whispers to Luke. “I messed up the code and the alarm started going off… I didn’t know what to do.”

“It’s okay,” Luke says, offering her a comforting hand, but not taking his eyes off the gun. Taylor seems to come to his senses then and lowers his weapon, but his gaze is just as stern. Without the threat of the gun though, Luke doesn’t seem to pay him much mind. He turns to Christian, as though he’s expecting a tirade.

It doesn’t come.

“You’re an employee, Sawyer. Employees don’t get to have guests. This is my home, not your personal fuck pad. My daughter is asleep upstairs.”

“Yes, sir. I know, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“See that it doesn’t. Ana?” Christian holds his hand out for mine like he’s just going to let it all go. Instead, I stomp down the stairs.

“Start explaining, Lucas,” I tell him, shoving a finger in his face. He turns alarmed eyes on Taylor before shaking his head at me. 

“Ana, I don’t want to talk–”

“Our break-up wasn’t real,” Jade interrupts him. I look over at her, blinking. 

“What?” 

“It was my idea,” she continues, taking a step out from behind Luke and looking at me sheepishly.  “He was miserable. The only way he can have you in his life is if he has this job, and when he doesn’t have you he’s this different person that’s not.. Not who I fell in love with. So, when it became clear at that dinner that coming back here was the only way things were going to be resolved between him and Christian… I did the only thing I could think to do. I broke up with him in front of all of you so you had the proof, and then, when we got home, I told him I didn’t mean it. We’ve been seeing each other in secret ever since.”

“This is the first time she’s been here,” Luke says, turning to Taylor. “I swear. Normally, I go to her, but…” He looks up at Christian, and I’m able to fill in the blanks. 

“He said no more nights away…”

“Please don’t fire him,” Jade says. “It’s my fault. We haven’t seen each other in over a week and we’ve been fighting about it… I was fighting with him about it. I just needed to see him.”

I reach out and squeeze her arm. “Of course you did.”  

The nervous glimmer in her eyes changes slightly, shining with a sudden burst of hope. She turns to Luke and smiles. “See? I told you she’d be okay with it if you just told her!” 

“Okay with it? Are you kidding me? This is great! Luke, I’ve been so worried that you were going to resent me for ruining your first true love but she’s still here! And you’re still in love! And there isn’t some secret bimbo out there who I don’t get to know! Oh, Jade! I think I’m in love with you!“ I leap forward and wrap my arms around her until she can’t breathe anymore.

“No,” Taylor interjects, looking between Jade, Luke, and I as though we’ve gone crazy. “I’m sorry, but this is not good news. We have policies on this team regarding outside romantic relationships, policies I now know are vitally important because of past relationships that were kept secret from me that then endangered the lives of almost every single person currently in this room. This is non-negotiable, you knew that when you came back, Sawyer.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. But I’m not Kommer, and she isn’t Gia. Taylor, I swear she won’t compromise me. I swear that my priority is still and will always be Ana. I’ll never bring her back here again, you won’t even know about her.”

“She’s already compromised you. You gave out the code to the front fucking door, Sawyer. What if she’s playing you to get to him?” He jerks his chin towards Christian, and Luke’s eyes dim with warning. 

“She’s not.” 

Taylor shakes his head. “You can’t know that.” 

“I do know that. You don’t think I did a background check the first fucking night I met her. You don’t think I’ve interviewed every one of her friends and acquaintances? You don’t think I tailed her for weeks before I even so much as gave her my phone number? Remember who you’re talking to, Taylor. I’m the one who does your wet work.” 

Taylor’s face goes stone still, and he takes an intimidating step towards Luke. “Not everything comes out in a background check, Luke, and the most dangerous people know exactly how to play their part. You know that as well as I do. That’s why I have the vetting process that I do. That’s why my people only come from very specific sources. That’s why there’s a transitionary period. But none of that matters because at the end of the day, you broke protocol. I have rules, and if you don’t like them… there’s the door.”

“Taylor–” 

“Make your choice, Sawyer.” 

Luke’s pained eyes move to me, then to Jade, then back to me. There’s torture reflected in the lines of his face the grows more and more stark with each pass of his gaze between us. His indecision grates on Taylor, who prods him with a stern, “Sawyer…”, and Luke finally lets his eyes settle on me.  He takes a breath, shakes his head, and lets his head fall in defeat. 

Then he turns to Jade. 

“She’s my family.”

“Yeah, I know.” Her bottom lip trembles and tears well in her eyes. She looks down at her shoes and wraps her arms all the way around her body, like she’s afraid she’s going to shatter over my entryway floor. “I’ve been waiting for this ever since you told me you weren’t going to be able to get away anymore. How do you have a relationship like this? I-I–” Her words cut off with impending tears, and she starts shaking her head. 

“I’m sorry, Jade,” Luke pleads with her. “I’m so sorry… I didn’t want it to be like this. I didn’t mean– but she, and I–” Whatever walls she had up break behind the swell of tears that come choking out of her. He pulls her against him, placing a hand over the back of her hair as she sobs into his shirt. His chin tilts up, and I see that his eyes are turning glassy too. “Please don’t cry, Jade. Please…”

“Ana?” I turn back and look at Christian, who gestures to me to join him so we can give Luke and Jade privacy. I shake my head in disgust.

“No, this isn’t happening.” I turn to Luke. “Sawyer, you’re fired.”

His head whips around so he can glare at me. “Ana, can you not right now…“

“I’m serious. You’re choosing wrong here, and I’m not going to let you. You’re fired, Luke. Effective immediately.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor says. “You don’t have that authority.”

I round on him. “Like fucking hell I don’t. My name is on the same bank account your paychecks come out of, and he’s my CPO.”

Taylor blinks back at me, unintimidated, then glances at Christian still standing at the top of the stairs. I implore him with my eyes to be on my side, but he doesn’t say anything. He stares down at us, taking in the whole situation, and considering what he wants to do in long, drawn out silence until I can’t take it anymore.

“He’s always going to be closer to me than he is to you and you’re never going to be able to control that. He’s been late, he failed to report… oh, and he totally touched my boob last week when he was trying to make me watch that disgusting horror movie and we got in a fight over the remote.”

Christian raises an eyebrow. “Do you want me to fire him, or kill him?”

“I want you to back me up here.”

“Ana… he’s the only person I’ve been able to keep on your service. He’s the only one you’ll listen to. He’s the only one who knows you well enough to predict what you’re going to do. Firing him makes you less safe.”

Oh great, now he sees that.

I cross my arms over my chest and stare back at him defiantly. “You told me there was nothing to be scared of anymore. You said no one was coming after us and I didn’t have to worry because we were safe. You’ve made sure we were safe, right? So we’re either safe enough that I don’t need Luke anymore, or we’re not as secure as you’re trying to make me believe. You don’t get to have it both ways, Christian. Are we safe or not?”

“That’s not fair, Ana. Security plays into that equation.” 

“So there is something to worry about then? There’s something or someone actively threatening us that makes his presence necessary?” 

“I didn’t say that…” 

I raise an eyebrow and Christian grinds his teeth together. He doesn’t say anything. He puts us through another long silence, spending most of it glaring at me, before he finally takes a deep breath, looks at Luke, and says, “You’re fired, Sawyer.”

“No, I’m not,” Luke snaps back without missing a beat, but I stop whatever he’s going to say next by grabbing him by his shoulder and forcing him to look at me.

“I let you pick me over her once and I didn’t like how that made me feel, or what it did to you. You’ve moved on from this job, Luke. You’ve started building a life, and that’s okay. I want that for you. This lifestyle isn’t supposed to be a forever thing. I know that. I accept that. I just want you to be happy.”

“I’m not leaving you unprotected.” 

“I have security.” 

“Yeah, and we both know how seriously you take that.” 

“Luke…” I beg him to take the out and choose his own happiness with my eyes, but he resists it. A glimmer of fear breaks through the defiance in his eyes, and he licks his lip nervously. 

“This is how I get to have you in my life, Ana. And I need you.”

“I’m not going anywhere. You’re my best friend, Luke. I think you’re in for life, buddy.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah.”

He takes a deep breath and turns to Taylor. “Who would you use to replace me?”

“Harper. Or Kelley.”

“Ugh.” Taylor doesn’t even get the names out before Luke is shaking his head. “She doesn’t do well with female CPOs.”

“Well, she’s got Smith and Wyatt.”

“And she hates them. You’ve got enough eyes on her, she needs someone she can trust. Someone she feels comfortable around.”

“Any suggestions?” Taylor directs the question at Luke, but he turns to me.

“Who do you want?” 

“Uh… I got along well with Woods.”

Taylor shakes his head. “Woods has been reassigned…”

“You think he’s the best?” Christian interjects, ignoring Taylor and looking at Luke. He tilts his head from side to side, like he can’t make a determination either way.

“Do I think he’s the best on Taylor’s team? No. Do I think he’s the best for Ana? Probably. He won’t be so trusting again to let her throw him off, but she doesn’t resent him the way she does everyone else. Plus, he’s already been vetted so he’s the only one who’s immediately available.”

“Then he’ll be here first thing tomorrow morning,” Christian says, looking back at Taylor. Taylor doesn’t look happy, but he nods, and Luke starts walking toward the living room. I scrunch my brow together and follow after him. 

“What are you–?”

“Smith!” he shouts. “Wyatt!”

They appear through the hallway that leads back to the staff quarters, each dressed and with a hand on their holster. Wyatt’s nervous eyes shift around the room, taking everything in, but Smith looks straight at Luke.

“Yes, sir?”

“Her pupils dilate when she lies,” he says. 

“Excuse me?” 

“Anastasia. Her pupils dilate when she lies. She looks at her fingers when she’s hiding something, and she clenches her jaw when she’s nervous. All of those things mean she’s up to something.” 

“Uh… okay.”

“And every time we go get coffee, she smells the cinnamon rolls and wants one– but they always make her feel like shit for the rest of the day, so don’t let her get one.” He takes a deep breath, then turns to look at me again before he continues. “And sometimes she gets really quiet and stares off into space with this empty, detached look in her eyes… that means she’s thinking about Lincoln, and if it starts happening more than once a day, you need to call me.” 

I fold my arms over my chest, surprised to have it laid out just how well my best friend knows me. How well he reads me. I turn back to Christian, and see him staring at Luke with a furrowed brow and an uneasy glimmer in the gray of his eyes. 

“Uh… yes, sir,” Smith says. 

Luke’s eyes somehow turn colder, and the menacing look he gives each of my other body guards is so intense, they both take a step back from him. “Do not take your eyes off her.” 

“No, sir…”

“No no, I know what Taylor’s rules are and that you understand them, but I need you both to know that I fucking mean it. Do not take your eyes off of her, not for a second. Because if anything happens to her… I’m going to come for both of you. Got me? Her first, no matter what.”

Smith and Wyatt exchange uneasy glances, then nod. Luke still doesn’t look fully pacified, but now when he looks back at Jade, there’s hope in his gaze. And that’s all I need to know this is the right decision.

“We’ll take care of you,” I promise. “You’ve been so good to me for years, so anything you need, just ask, okay? Anything. I’m right here.”

“I know how good you are,” Christian offers. “And we’re always looking for people with your kind of skill in my technology department. If you’re interested, I can find a place for you under Welch.”

“Really?” 

Christian nods and Luke actually looks relieved. He turns back to me and I can almost hear the plea in his gaze. 

“Are you absolutely sure about this, Ana?” 

“Absolutely,” I tell him. “You’re my family, and I want what’s best for you. Just don’t be a stranger, okay?”

“Ditto.” He pulls me into a strong hug and thanks me over and over again while he holds me. Then he pushes me away with a last, affectionate look, reaches for his girl, and the two of them leave together.

Next Chapter

Chapter 39


Google Alert: Christian Grey

The Seattle Times, August 23rd 2012. Seven Officers Arrested on Charges of Conspiracy […], Seattle billionaire Christian Grey, the target of the conspiracy, has already poured over a million dollars into the city’s prosecuting attorney’s office.


Google Alert: Christian Grey

Forbes Magazine, August 23rd 2012. Christian and Anastasia Grey: American Royalty. Christian Grey is nowhere to be seen when we arrive at his palatial mansion on Lake Washington. Instead, it’s Anastasia who runs the household, much in the way she runs her bi-coastal publishing company…


Google Alert: Christian Grey

Business Insider, August 23rd 2012. Bill Gates is No Longer the Richest Man in the World. The announcement of Grey Enterprises Holdings partnership with the Pentagon Thursday comes with a hefty payday for CEO Christian Grey. A $50 billion payday.


My phone won’t shut up while I sit at the breakfast table, so I’m forced to turn it off.  Jacqueline has been working overtime. Now we’re in the middle of a perfect media storm and the sudden onslaught of press has actually managed to completely drown out any mention of Calliope, once again proving Christian is the man behind the curtain in almost every situation.

Congratulatory bouquets, cards, and assorted baskets of treats have been arriving since dawn from the people who turned on Christian while he was down, and now are desperately trying to get back on his good side. Kate left me an angry voicemail over us letting the Seattle Times break the police conspiracy story instead of Kavanagh Media, and, in response to the article from Business Insider, Elliot has been blowing up both our phones asking for exorbitant amounts of money to fund an impressively ridiculous string of business ideas he’s been coming up with all morning.

I ignore all of it. I’m too engrossed in watching Christian cutting up blueberry pancakes and feeding our daughter each syrupy bite. I still feel like I haven’t fully recovered from my sleepless night in New York, which is probably because I spent another sleepless night last night going three rounds with the incredibly sexy man now sitting across the table from me. I bite down on my lip, thinking it’s a shame he has to wear clothes at the breakfast table.

“You better watch those eyes you’re giving me, Anastasia,” he says, somehow catching me in the middle of checking him out, even though he’s entirely wrapped up in our daughter. He stabs another small piece of pancake and gives me a pointed look as he guides the fork to her mouth. “I have the self-control of a man, not a saint.”

 “Mmm!” Calliope squeaks, holding her fists in the air excitedly as she chews. Christian looks back at her and laughs, then drags the silicone edge of the fork he’s holding across her bottom lip to clean away a drip of maple syrup. I watch them both with rapt interest over my breakfast, smiling like an idiot.

“Do you like pancakes?” Christian asks, still grinning.

“Mo’, Daddy.”

“More?” He spears another bite and swirls it around as he brings it to her mouth. She laughs, then clamps her mouth down on the fork like a turtle. I giggle this time, and the sound once again catches Christian’s attention.

“Mmm, that’s lovely. Much more of that, please.”

I beam back at him. “Giggling, or adoring you?”

“Why make me choose?”

I let out another laugh, then turn to my right as Gail approaches with a vanilla latte she made with our brand new, very fancy espresso machine. There’s a leaf drawn on the top in foamy milk.

“I’m not quite perfect at it yet,” she tells me as she sets the full mug on the table in front of me, though her excitement and pride color every word of the sentiment. I turn to her, hoping how impressed I am with her handiwork is there in my smile. 

“Are you kidding me? It’s gorgeous!” I look at Christian. “We’re not paying her enough.”

Christian laughs before turning his attention back to the insistent cries of our baby. She has her hands reached out towards the half-eaten omelette on his plate.

“You want my breakfast?” he asks, skeptically. Even I wrinkle my nose. She strains her hands further, so he cuts a bit off the corner of the folded eggs and holds it out for her. She takes the bite eagerly, but only chews it a few times before she spits it back out on her tray.

Gail gasps from the kitchen and places a hand over her chest.

“You see,” Christian says sternly to Calliope, nodding to our housekeeper. “Now you’ve offended your cook.”

“It’s not Gail’s fault your breakfast is gross,” I interject, looking down at the monstrosity resting on his plate. “Who whisks whey protein into their eggs?”

“Someone who is going to get some serious gains when they work out with their trainer later.”

I lean closer to him, resting my elbows on the table. “But, for God’s sake, at what cost?”

He smiles, a genuine, breathtaking smile that makes my head swoon and leans the rest of the way in. His lips are a mere breath away from mine when we’re interrupted by one of my new security guards.

“Mrs. Grey?”

I sigh and turn to him. “Uh… Smith, right?”

“Wyatt.” He gives me a patient smile, then holds out a cell phone to me. “Your assistant is asking for you.”

My eyes shift down to the mirror black screen on my iPhone and I frown. So much for an uninterrupted breakfast.

I reach out for the phone Wyatt’s holding, but pause just before my fingers wrap around it. “Wait isn’t this Luke’s phone?”

“Yes, ma’am. When your assistant got your voicemail, she reached out to your head of security.”

“So, where is he?”

“In the office.” His eyes shift to Christian. “He’s working on something for  Mr. Grey, I believe.”

Oh… right. 

I take the phone and try to express an apology to Christian for the interruption. He’s not paying attention to me. Once again, he and Calliope are in their own little world together.

“Hello?”

“I’m really sorry to bother you, Ana…” Abby starts. “Since you’re not leaving the country anymore, are you coming into the office today? And, most importantly, if you’re not, could you?” 

My stomach drops. I spent all day yesterday playing with Calliope, soaking her in while I dealt with the residual emotions from the confrontation with my dad. I haven’t even glanced at The Greenwich Library’s numbers.

“Uh oh, what’s wrong?” I ask, dreading the answer.

“Nothing, we’re just… a little in over our heads here.” 

“What do you mean?”

“Uh… I don’t know if I can express it correctly over the phone. I think you need to see it yourself.”

My brow furrows, but I decide that if she thinks I need to see it to understand the worry in her voice, there’s no reason to keep her on the phone asking pointless questions. “Okay, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Thanks, boss.”

I hang up the phone and sigh as I push what’s left of my own blueberry pancakes a few inches away from me. Christian turns in my direction, frowning.

“Everything, alright?”

“I don’t know. Abby’s freaking out about something, so I’ve got to go into the office and deal with it.”

“No, you don’t. Quit. Come work for me. I’ll have an office at Grey Publishing cleared out and ready for you within the hour.”

I snicker, then come around the table to kiss him. “After all the work I’ve put into ringing you dry with my new subscription service? Not a chance in Hell, Grey.”

“It was worth a shot.” He once again turns the gorgeous smile that makes my knees weak on me in full force, then pulls my lips down to his. It’s not a quick, goodbye kiss like I’d thought it would be. He presses his lips deeply into mine and pushes his tongue into my mouth. I suck the tip of it and he groans. “Just a man, Ana… If you think you’re leaving for work, you better get the fuck out of here.”

His hands clench tightly around the armrests of his chair, and I know it’s the only warning I’m going to get.

“Have a good day,” I tell him, and he grumbles slightly as I walk away. That is until Calliope captures his attention again, which doesn’t even take as long as it takes me to leave the room. I start towards the security office to return Luke’s phone, but it rings before I get there. When I look down at the name across the screen it stops me in my tracks.

Jade.

I pick up the pace, nearly knocking Mackensie over at the bottom of the stairs as I sprint to the security office. Luke is inside, looking intently at a document open on his computer screen.

“Luke!” He turns to me, eyebrows furrowed at my urgent tone. I toss the phone to him. “It’s her!

His eyes widen as he looks down at the screen, then harden as he reads the name. There’s a tick in his jaw that throbs like a heartbeat when he presses his finger into the button to reject the call, and shoves the phone roughly in his pocket. I’m shocked, because it’s the exact opposite of the reaction I was expecting.

“Okay… so are we in the hating her guts phase now?”

“We’re not in any phase,” he grumbles. “I’m over it.”

“Well, you’ve got me convinced.” He narrows his eyes at the sarcastic bite to my words, but I ignore him and take the seat at the workspace next to his. “Are you fighting?”

“No.”

“Did she find out about your whorish ways?”

“Why do you always assume I’m being a whore?” I’d meant it as a joke, but he actually sounds a little indignant.

“I’m sorry. I don’t really think that, Luke. I was just kidd–” And then it hits me. I don’t know if it’s the look in his eyes or some kind of best friend intuition, but suddenly, I know what’s been so different about him these past few weeks. As certainly as I know the color of the shirt he’s wearing right now. “Holy shit. You’re seeing someone!”

His face falls, his cheeks pink, and he turns to face the computer again. “I don’t want to talk about it, Ana.”

“Oh my god, you are!”

He shakes his head. “I’m not allowed to be seeing someone, remember? Serious relationships take more time than this job gives me, and romantic connections are compromising.”

“Like that’s ever stopped you before.”

When was I in a serious relationship before?”

“You know, that one girl that you dated while I was still in school…”

That one girl. Sounds serious.”

I glare at him. “Her name was Leah.”

“And I fucked her like three times and then I dumped her.”

I cringe at his ugly tone. It’s not like Luke to be so defensive with me, not after this much instigating. I know what I know, and the fact that he won’t admit it to me actually hurts a little. Maybe even more than a little.

“You’re kind of being an asshole, you know that?” I snap at him. He rounds on me, ready to launch into a tirade, but I jump in first. “You know every single thing about me. You know what time I wake up in the morning, you know what I eat for breakfast, what time I go to work, what meetings I have, how many times a day I talk to my husband… hell, you know when we have sex. This job means that you get a very personal look into my life. So if this thing between you and me is really a friendship, you can’t have a secret life that I don’t know about. That doesn’t put us on equal footing, and if we’re not on equal footing, then you’re just Big Brother.”

He lets out a harsh breath, then gets out of his chair and moves to close the door. Once we’re blocked off from anyone who might come up the hallway, he moves to flip a switch on the control panel to the security system. The light on the camera in the corner goes dark, and Luke’s shoulders rise and fall with the deep breath he takes. When he rounds on me, he no longer looks irritated. There’s a vulnerability spelled out across his face that I only ever get to see, when he isn’t trying to act like my CPO.

“Ana, I really don’t want to talk about this.”

“Why?”

“Because you go to bed with my boss every night and I’m not trying to get fired. There are rules about this.”

“Oh.” That actually makes me pause. “Well… I won’t tell him. It’ll be our secret.” 

He leans back, sitting on the edge of the desk, and folds his arms over his chest. “Think about what you just said. You really want more secrets between you and me? How do you think your husband will feel about that?” 

“Uh…” I hesitate, because I’m not exactly sure how to respond. No matter how long I stare at him, the answer never comes. Probably because he’s right. “Fine, but you are, though,” I reply, stubbornly. “I know you are. I can read you like a book, Sawyer.”

He grins and walks towards me, bending over and resting his hands on each of the arm rests of my chair. “I don’t want to talk about it, Ana.”

I don’t want to talk about it, Ana.” I mock his words in a very childish voice as I get out of the chair, but it only makes him laugh. He flips on the camera again and follows me out of the office while I grumble about how I don’t even really want to know her anyway, and that she’s probably terrible, and that we definitely wouldn’t be best friends, and I don’t even want to be… I have enough friends so it doesn’t even bother me not being close to the people that he loves. Not even a little.

By the time we pull out of the garage and start towards GSP, he’s shaking with silent laughter.

Twenty minutes later, I pull up in front of my office expecting the worst. I spent the entire drive here thinking of every doomsday scenario that could’ve happened in the last 24 hours. The app has crashed and all our data has disappeared. The paywall isn’t working and people are downloading our entire collection for free. Christian has found some magical loophole in the contract he made me sign for my app design that means all the profits from the Greenwich Library go to GEH. That last one is ridiculous, I know, but after the whole Hailey Lewis/Phoenix debacle, I’m not taking my eye off him for a second.

Instead of being greeted by disaster though, I walk through the front doors to a round of applause. Everyone in the office is on their feet clapping, beaming at me. Jacki looks almost on the edge of tears.

“What’s going on?” I ask, so taken aback that I actually do step backwards into Luke.

“Have you seen the numbers for the library?” Abby squeals.

I feel the apprehension leave my face, leaving me completely blank. “No, we were dealing with a… uh…” I swallow to get myself to stop babbling. “Are they good?”

“Good?” Stevens barks from his desk. He picks up a folder and starts towards me, thrusting it into my hands the moment he’s close enough. I glance down and skim through the information until I see the number.

180,000.

Holy shit.” The words escape before I can pull them back, but when I shoot guilty eyes up at my employees they all laugh jubilantly. On Monday we were praying for 50,000 subscribers. 180,000 is so far out of the realm of what I thought was possible that, looking at it now, I have to focus on the thundering beat of my heart just to make sure I’m not dreaming.

Numbers like these aren’t just survival. This means growth. This means freedom and flexibility. This means that I really do know what I’m doing after all.

“It’s been insane here since yesterday,” Stevens says. “Our inboxes have been flooded from literary agents we’ve never worked with and hundreds of self-published authors who are interested in getting their work into the premium content side of the library. New York has been calling for hours complaining that they’re getting emails they send you pinged back because your inbox is full.”

“What? Full?” I push past him and start at a quick pace for my office, hearing good natured calls for me to get to work so they can. I turn back to look at them as I open the door to my own office, just so I can roll my eyes, but Luke stops me before I step inside.

“Uh, Ana…” He gestures awkwardly to Smith.

“Oh, right. Abby, this is Collin Smith. He’s joining my security team. Can you find a place for him?”

She glances around the room of completely occupied desks, then answers me the same way people speak to their senile grandparents. “Sure thing, Ana.”

I ignore her tone and nod to them as I move into my office, bracing myself while I take the seat behind my computer. It’s just as bad as my employees said. The moment I open my email, I’m met with all kinds of error messages about the emails I can’t receive until I delete what’s already in my inbox. I start in, planning on doing nothing but reading all day, but it becomes clear very quickly that I can’t keep up with the workload and manage the branch at the same time. Since no one can email me, I’m hounded with phone calls the entire day. Every fifteen minutes, someone is knocking on my door with some fire that needs to be put out. Eventually, I have to have Penny help me work the manuscript submissions, but even with her help, my inbox is still gridlocked until the very end of the day.

 “A new email!” she cheers in triumph when she deletes a submission from Rogers and an unread email appears in its place. I return an absolutely exhausted smile that morphs into surprise when I look up and see the message sitting at the top of my inbox.


To: Anastasia Grey

Date: August 23rd 2012 08:24 AM

Subject: GP/GSP Writers Conference

From: Elizabeth Morgan

Attachment: GP New Author Contract Template.pdf

Hey, Ana!

I’ve been thinking about this all week and I’ve got some great new ideas to talk to you about. Have you had time to review your schedule for a standing meeting yet? Wednesdays work best for me but I’ve got some time on Tuesdays and Fridays too. Oh, and I’ve attached the contract template you requested– sorry it took me so long to get it to you. I swear I’m losing my mind sometimes.

Best,

Elizabeth Morgan

Editor-in-Chief, Grey Publishing, Inc.


I don’t remember the last time I moved so fast. The second the contract is open on my screen, I start to read. The table of contents guides me to the sections of the document that talk about GP’s responsibilities and what the author is agreeing to. Christian hasn’t broken a single provision, of course. Mr. Careful has certainly dotted all of his Is and crossed every single T.

I fall back in my chair, nearly defeated, until I scroll to the very last section of the document and find a termination clause buried in a big block of legal speak.

10. (a) VOLUNTARY TERMINATION. This contract may be terminated voluntarily for any reason, by either party, upon thirty (30) days prior written notice detailing causes for termination and sent via certified mail.

10. (b) Unless his or her authority is revoked pursuant to clause three (3), after termination, the author will be financially liable for the services administered by the publisher including, but not limited to: editing fees, printing costs, literary agent commissions, marketing materials, and other miscellaneous expenses detailed by the publisher. The publisher shall have sixty (60) days from the date of termination to report any financial liabilities related to a voluntary termination to the author.

I re-read the section several times, making sure there isn’t any double meaning to what’s written that might come back and bite me in the ass. On the surface, the consequences of this termination clause seem astronomical. There’s no way an author could afford to reimburse their publishing company for business costs. Especially a young, first time author like Hailey.

But for the publishing company who is desperate to sign her and who is currently experiencing a massive wave of success from their subscription service…

A smile crosses my lips and I start to calculate the possible cost of a contract termination in my head. She’s only been signed for a week and a half, so they’ve still got to be in the beginning phases of the editing process. Christian will gouge me over that, I’m sure, since editing is so difficult to bill anyway. But they won’t have sent anything to the printers, they won’t have marketing materials, and Hailey didn’t use an agent to get to Grey Publishing. I think I could get her out of this for less than ten grand, and for a release that I’m certain will create hundreds of thousands, if not a million, in revenue, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Quickly, I open my email and start composing a message to Abby, asking her to make me lunch reservations for Monday afternoon. Before I hit send though, my phone rings and it’s Christian’s name that greets me when I look down at the screen. It makes my stomach drop.

He’s on to me.

“Hello?” I answer, nervously.

“You’re late,” comes his easy reply. I let out a sigh of relief and look down at the clock in the bottom corner of my screen.

“I’m not late, it’s only six.”

“It’s 6:03,” he corrects me, and when I huff back he laughs. “Are you finished for today?”

I hit send on my email to Abby, then close the screen on my laptop. “Yep, just powered down my computer. I’m on my way home now.”

“Good, I love you.”

“I love you too, see you soon.” I hang up the phone and gather my things. Most of the office is empty already, except for Penny and my security team, who help me close down before we lock up and make our way down the elevators. I wave good-bye to my receptionist, thanking her again and again for the invaluable help she’s given me all day. She tells me for probably the hundredth time that she’s happy to help, then smiles as she starts down the street for the train station. I turn my attention to the car waiting for me on the curb, but it’s not Smith who is standing there waiting to open the door for me.

“So this is why you were so impatient,” I say, smiling as I step into Christian’s arms. He doesn’t respond. He pulls me into him and kisses me deeply, eliciting a few flashes from the bushes that Luke has to chase away.

“Come on,” Christian says, opening the passenger’s door to the Maybach for me. I glance in the backseat and frown.

“Where’s Calliope?”

“With Taylor and Mackensie. I thought you and I could have a date night tonight.”

I hum softly and let my eyes sparkle with love at him. “Did you?”

“Mhm. I have a surprise for you.”

“Well then, take me away, Mr. Grey. I’m your willing prisoner.”

“Don’t give me any ideas, now.” His eyes crinkle with mirth at the corners, and I lean up and steal a quick kiss before ducking into the front seat of the car. He appears next to me seconds later, then pulls out into traffic, taking my hand over the center console as he expertly weaves in and out of the lanes packed too tightly with cars.

“How was your day?” I ask.

“Productive. I wrapped up negotiations and signed a $65 billion deal with China today.”

I actually choke over my own breath. “Billion?”

“Dollars.” He grins, then turns to look at me. “Do you want an island? I’m thinking about buying an island.” I stutter for a few moments, having difficulty summoning words while my brain tries to rationalize sixty-five billion dollars. The look of amusement on his face never falters. “How was your day?”

It takes me a minute to shake away my shock before I can answer him. “Good. Very good, actually.”

“You got your numbers back from the Greenwich Library?”

“Mhm.”

“And?”

“I’m not telling you that. You’re the competition, and you’ve made it very clear that it’s war between us.”

“War between Grey Publishing and Greenwich Small Press,” he corrects me. “Never between us.”

“Semantics.” I brush his remarks away with a casual wave of my hand, but he just once again grabs ahold of it and brings each of my fingers to his lips. 

“It’s not semantics, it’s important to me. Never between us.” He kisses each of my fingers again. “Will you at least tell me if I should be worried?”

“Only if you plan on keeping your publishing company.” This time, I turn and give him a look that is exactly as smug and satisfied as I feel. He doesn’t falter one bit.

“And I do. Remember who you’re dealing with, Anastasia.”

“You don’t scare me.”

“I should. This is my game, baby. I write the rules, and I enforce them.”

“We’ll see.” I turn away, looking out the window. His hand tightens around mine in a gesture of warm affection and I smile to myself. There’s a part of me that loves stepping into this ring with Christian, and I think he feels the same. But the only way we can fight each other in business is to never let it seep into the deep bond we share with one another. And he doesn’t. Not even when he’s losing.

  It’s strange that he turns for the freeway and takes it south, rather than to any of the restaurants in the city. My confusion only deepens when he hits the turn signal, and we pull through the gate at Boeing airfield. His jet is there, waiting for us.

“What exactly does this date night entail?” I ask.

He grins. “We’re just going up. Come on. I’ll show you around.”

I give him a confused look as I step out of the car and look up at the familiar jet. Except, as my eyes start picking out small details, it isn’t familiar at all. The wings and the tail are the wrong color, electric blue instead of deep gray. So is the giant GREY painted on the side of the fuselage.

“Wait, what is this? Did you buy a new plane?”

“Not exactly. It’s the flagship of the new Endurance fleet I’m building with Boeing. We have contracts with every major airline, but I wanted the very first one to be yours.”

My eyes widen at the word, and I peel my eyes away from the plan to gawk at him. “Mine?”

He shrugs. “You travel as much as I do anymore. This way I can control when, where, and who you’re flying with, and Ros can stop bitching at me for the plane never being available.”

“But… but…”

“Come on.” He takes my hands and looks at me adoringly as he pulls me towards the stairs. “You’re going to love it.”

From the outside, the plane looks almost identical to Christian’s. On the inside, the differences are immediately apparent. Christian’s jet has enough seating for our entire family and security team. As I look around at the small cluster of chairs around the table, one long sofa, and a few regular seats, I find myself counting bodyguards to determine whether or not they can all be accommodated.

“I know it looks small, but it isn’t,” Christian says, once again answering my thoughts instead of my words like he’s some kind of wizard. “We’ve made a few editions to make travel easier for you.”

Leading me to the back, I start to notice what he means. Christian’s plane, with its ample seating, has one bedroom at the back. Mine, has two. A small room that’s already been transformed into a nursery for Calliope and a larger room for Christian and I. They’re connected by a small hallway that is lined with cots that fold down.

“For your security team,” he tells me, lifting a cot back up into it’s holding place on the wall. There’s a bathroom back here that’s much larger than the closet-sized one on Christian’s jet, and an actual closet in the master bedroom. “Well, what do you think?”

I blink at him. “You bought me a plane.”

“No, I built you a plane, and you haven’t seen the half of what makes it so special.” He leads the way back to the main cabin, which has been closed up as if we’re preparing for take off. Natalia is standing over the table near the front, laying out dishes and place settings.

“We’re having dinner here?”

Christian nods. “I want you to feel it, so I’m taking you to Portland and back. It’ll take a couple hours. I thought we’d share a candlelight dinner.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“Good.” He turns to Natalia. “Let Stephan know we’re ready to take off.”

“Yes, Mr. Grey.” Natalia places the last fork on the table and scurries up the aisle toward the cockpit. Once we’re alone, Christian sweeps me into his arms and kisses me like he’s been waiting for it for ten years. We fall back on the sofa, letting our hands roam the other’s body like we need to get reacquainted. It’s a ridiculous concept, because every inch of muscle my fingertips trace is bone-achingly familiar. There is a small degree of exhaustion, and not just from my busy day, that lingers persistently in the back of my mind. It’s very easy to ignore though when he groans into my mouth and grinds his erection against my thigh. We probably would have started stripping right then and there if I didn’t suddenly start sliding down the couch.

“What the—” I grip the cream leather that covers the sofa and glance in a panic out the window. We’re already off the ground, and I didn’t notice. The plane is completely silent, and as I stare around in confusion at what the hell is going on, Christian gives me a cocky grin.

“No combustion, remember? Without the chemical reactions and burning of fossil fuels, the engines are only as loud as wind hitting the propeller blades. We built the fuselage with insulated, reinforced steel to keep it as silent as possible.”

I stare out the window, watching the propellers inside the engines spinning in a blur on the wings. Marveling at how silent they are, like we’re in a car driving 35 miles an hour down an empty road with all the windows up.

“It’s almost unsettling,” I tell him.

“But think of how much better we’ll sleep on the way to our new private island. Did you prefer the Indian ocean, or French Polynesia?” I roll my eyes and turn away from him, but he captures my wrist and pulls me back into his lap, kissing me deeply the moment I’m engulfed in his arms. We stay that way until we reach cruising altitude and Natalia returns with covered dishes in her hands and lays them on the table.

“Can I get you anything else, Mr. Grey?” she asks. Christian shakes his head and dismisses her, before pulling out a chair for me and settling down himself on the other side of the table. I lift the cover from my plate and find a pasta tossed with clams. Mmm.

“Mia’s home, by the way,” Christian says, casually throwing a clam shell into the dish resting on the table between us. “Her flight came in late this afternoon. I thought maybe we’d give her a few days to get back on local time, then we could have a family dinner at our house on Sunday? She leaves for Harvard next week.”

“Already?” I ask, genuinely baffled. He nods, eyes widening like he can’t believe it either. I agree that we need to get everyone together before she goes, especially if she’s planning on being anything like Christian. He didn’t come home for anything except major holidays when he was at school. I’ve decided I won’t be able to wait until November for the Yale game anyway, so we start making plans to visit Mia in October, after Carrick’s birthday. The entire time we’re talking, he keeps my flute of champagne full.

“Are you trying to get me drunk?” I hiccup. He smiles and shakes his head.

“No, I’m trying to christen this damn plane.”

“I think you’re supposed to do that before take off,” I tell him, picking up my glass. “And I think you’re supposed to break the champagne on the ship, not force feed it to your wife.”

“That would be true if that’s what I meant.” He leans into me, his eyes brimming with a dark, lustful promise. “And that is most certainly not what I fucking meant.”

My mouth goes dry, and I’m instantly craving him. The taste of his lips, of his skin, of his cock… it’s all so much more appealing to me than the food on my plate. I push away from the table and crawl into his lap. He accepts me with open arms, then pulls my lips down to his.

I’m naked in under a minute, and grinding on him while he’s still fully dressed in an expensive and immaculately cut suit does things to me that make rational thought very difficult. It’s an unequal feeling of power, reminding me that I’m submissive to his desires and his wants. That reminder is the only thing that keeps me from dragging him out of his chair and into the bedroom.

“Please,” I beg against his lips, the lone word trembling with my need for him. He groans and utters a filthy obscenity under his breath, then lifts me in his arms and starts toward the bedroom. I’m slammed against a wall before we make it there and once again assaulted by his lips. I can feel the bruising starting, but that only makes me more ravenous for his kiss. The harder he grabs me, the more brutal his lips are against mine, the more intense my need for him burns. By the time he tosses me onto our new bed, I can’t even force myself to lie there and wait for him. I bounce back up and immediately start climbing him again, disrupting his attempts to unravel his tie. My unexpected weight throws him off balance slightly, and he topples over onto the bed, pinning me beneath him. I grind my clit against the fly of his slacks.

“Fuck me, Christian. Please, fuck me.”

“Fuck you?” He reaches for my wrists and pins them over my head, then leans down and gently nuzzles each of my breasts. It sends a torturous wave of tingles through me that resound painfully at the junction of my legs. “I brought you up here to make love.”

I pant and arch my breasts up more insistently against his face, silently begging for his tongue. He doesn’t comply.

“All day I’ve been thinking about laying you over this bed and treating you like the goddess you are. There wasn’t an inch of your gorgeous body that I wasn’t going to touch. Kiss. Worship. I was going to take you slow and deep and tell you over and over again just how much I fucking love you.”

I whimper and lick my lips.

“But if you’d rather be fucked…” I hadn’t noticed him pulling out his cock until he thrusts it inside of me. Hard. Without any pretense of gentility or even concern. If I hadn’t been as absolutely soaked as I am right now, he would have ripped right through me. As it is, he bottoms out with hardly any resistance and I let out a pleasure-laced scream that echoes throughout the room around us. He fills me over and over again in exactly the way I need him to, each hammering thrust chipping away my composure until I’m sweating, shaking, and panting beneath him. As every one of my muscles tenses in anticipation of release, I start to tremble. He looks deep into my eyes, reveling in my dizziness. He’s got me exactly where he wants me and I can see the satisfaction burning behind the pleasure so obviously displayed on his face. So when I finally come apart, I scream his name as loudly as I can to intensify all of it.

“Fuck, baby,” he growls into my ear while my orgasm pulses around his cock again and again. “So fucking tight. So fucking good.” His hands tighten on me, digging into my skin so roughly I know I’ll be left with bruises. Fuck, I hope I’m left with bruises.  

As my orgasm subsides, he kisses me and the way his tongue moves in my mouth is almost enough to make me come again. His pace slows and with every push and pull he stretches his torso over mine, brushing the beautifully sculpted muscles on his chest across my hardened nipples.

“Oh, fuck,” I breathe. My entire body shivers. He lets out a single, sexy laugh and softly nuzzles my neck.

“Have you had enough?”

“No.”

“Good.” The hand around my wrists vanishes and lands on my hip. With a harsh tug, he tosses me across the bed so I land on my stomach, then yanks my hips into the air. I expect another ruthless onslaught from his cock, but it’s his tongue I feel next. He licks me over and over again, starting at my clit, then dipping inside of me. I push back on his face, moving against his tongue in exactly the way I need it. Any second, I expect some form of castigation, but it doesn’t come. He lets me ride his face right until…

“That’s enough.”

Fuck. “No, Christian….” The words come out so needy, I don’t even sound like myself. The cold air that breezes over my wetness in his absence feels cruel when the heat had been so, so close…

He grabs two handfuls of my ass and spreads me open, watching me clench in desperation for him until all promise of an orgasm has subsided. Then he pushes his thumb deep inside of me, moving it in and out, keeping me right on the edge. It’s a challenge, because I’m not allowed to come for his fingers. So I moan and push into the mattress beneath me, but I refuse to let the pleasure overwhelm me. After a minute, he pulls out, drags his thumb through my dripping lips, and starts to circle the entrance of my ass.

“So wet for me,” he whispers, dipping into me and dragging his finger up again. His thumb pushes through my tightly pleated muscles at the same time his cock slides through my lower lips. I buck against the intrusion, but his free hand comes down on my hips and holds me in place.

“Slow this time,” he says, pulling back all the way to his tip and then inching back into me. His thumb moves in unison with his cock for a few seconds, until it’s gone and replaced with two fingers. They work together, building me to an impossible high. As the third starts to tickle my entrance, I realize he’s not playing with me. He’s preparing me. The stretch comes just as his cock pushes right against the place I need it most, and I lose whatever shred of control I was holding on to.

He continues his slow, measured cadence while I call out more and more garbled versions of his name. The waves of pleasure that radiate from each and every deep thrust go on and on until I find myself clawing at the blankets, trying to crawl away from them. He doesn’t let me. He holds me in place and fucks me until I’m limp. My head is swimming with euphoria, so I hardly notice him move me onto my side or pull my leg all the way up to my chest. I do notice though when the wide crown of his cock presses against my ass.

“Relax,” he says, wrapping a gentle, loving arm around me. I do, and, slowly, he pushes into me. I gasp, then whimper. He starts to suck the tip of my earlobe. “Real slow, baby.”

“Okay.” I swallow the pitiful sounds clawing their way up my throat and focus on breathing. Each breath in, pulls him in deeper. Each breath out makes it more bearable. One hand reaches up to run soft circles around my sensitive nipples, while his mouth leaves a trail of sweet kisses up the curve of my throat. With a small grunt, I take what’s left of him and he lets out a satisfied moan.

“Fuck, you feel incredible.”

I reach my chin over my shoulder and meet his lips. Once again, he kisses me like it would kill him to stop. Our lips seem to melt together, and our tongues move in a choreographed dance that’s taken years to master. He groans as he starts to move again. I tighten at first, but accept him absolutely once he reaches around and starts massaging my clit.

“I love you,” he whispers in my ear, pacing his thrusts with the intonation of his words. “So much. Every day, I fall in love with you all over again.”

I feel an urgent heat start to flame between my legs, and I reach down to Christian’s forearm, his initials on my finger pressing down into my name scrawled across his skin.

“Oh, god… I’m close.”

“Good. I want you to feel how much you turn me on.” He thrusts into me, harder than he was before, and I let out a tortured cry that merely feeds his hunger. “How hard I am for you. How much I want you. How much I fucking need you.”

“Yes! Yes! Oh, god, yes!”

“You’re mine, Anastasia. You’re fucking mine, and there’s not a goddamn thing in the universe that means more to me than that.”  

“YOURS!” I come like a spectacular show of fireworks. My body shakes, my mind is reeling. The extent of the pleasure rippling through me feels impossible in its magnitude, and yet it scorches through me until I can feel fire. Somewhere on the edge of my periphery, I hear the increasing urgency behind Christian’s grunts, but he’s lost in the stars dancing before my eyes until he leans in and announces very clearly that he’s coming inside of me. After that, a second wave comes crashing over me and it drowns all of my senses until Christian collapses on the bed next to me and the fasten seatbelt light over the door blinks on.

Somehow, we’re already home.

“Next time,” he says, still breathing heavily as he turns to look at me. “We’ll fly to LA.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 38

I’m pulled from the blissful oblivion of a dreamless sleep by the touch of Christian’s lips against mine. The feel of him, the taste of his kiss, surrounds me in a warm familiarity that keeps the existential dread from the previous night at bay for a few euphoric seconds. I let my lips play gently against his for much too long, and hum with delight when he grows tired of my too soft kisses and presses deeply into me, his tongue gliding past my lips. The moment he pulls away though, his warmth disappears and the cold fear I’d had when I saw Calliope’s face plastered across the internet instantly fills the void he’s left behind.

I sit up at the uneasy clenching in my gut, then blink through heavy eyelids at the room around me in confusion. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was Natalia handing me my Starbucks order while I settled down in a seat next to Christian. Now I’m in the bedroom at the back of the jet, and I feel like I’ve been hit with a cement truck.

“You fell asleep almost the second you sat down,” Christian explains. “I thought you’d be more comfortable back here.”

That surprises me, considering I’d spent the entirety of last night pacing across our hotel room floor while Christian begged me to come to bed. I’d been too stressed to try. Even after my nap, I can still feel the grogginess of my sleepless night coming back to punish me. My body feels heavy and weak. My attention shifts, unfocused, between Christian and everything else around me. I’m unable to settle or concentrate on any one thing through the fog of exhaustion weighing me down. There’s a pounding headache growing behind my right ear. With a groan, I sink down into the warmth emanating from the blankets draped over me as if it has the power of a witch’s incantation, beckoning me back into obscurity.

“Can I just have another hour?” I mumble, already succumbing to the overpowering urge to drift off.

“We’re about to land. I want you to come sit in a chair with a seatbelt.”

That has my eyes snapping open again. “We’re already back to Seattle?”

He grins. “Yeah, you’ve been dead to the world for several hours. If it wasn’t for all the snoring, I probably would have made an emergency landing in Minneapolis to have your resuscitated.”

I narrow my eyes at him as I take his hand and, reluctantly, step out of the bed. “I don’t snore.”

“Okay, baby.” His tone is just a placation, and I’m about to argue back when I get a head rush that has me uneasy on my feet. Once again, I feel the burden of my exhaustion.

“What, did you drug me?” I shoot an accusatory glare at him, while his sure hands make me steady, but it only makes him laugh.

“If I did…” He presses his lips against mine, once. “You’d never be able to prove it.”

I roll my eyes as he tugs against my hand and leads me to the main cabin of the jet. Apparently he’s spent his time on the flight working, because the table surrounded by a cluster of chairs near the galley is covered in stacks of documents and an open laptop. I slump down into a seat and fasten the belt over my hips while Christian starts sliding his work into a briefcase to keep it safe during landing. Once the table is clear, his hand wraps around mine and he reaches a finger for my chin so he can tilt my face towards his.

“You’re very quiet.”

I shrug, and he takes a measured breath.

“Talk to me, Ana. I can’t do whatever it is you need me to do next if you don’t talk to me about what you’re feeling.”

His eyes are imploring for my response, but I don’t know how to voice aloud the thoughts bouncing around in my head to him anymore than I could to my father over the phone last night. Because the problem isn’t just that I’m scared about what will happen now that Calliope can be easily identified by someone who wanted to hurt me or Christian, my trust has been broken. And I trust my father more than anyone else in the world. Even Christian. Now, he’s… what? Betrayed me? 

That doesn’t even make sense, like the words can only be arranged in that order in some foreign language I don’t speak. I can’t reconcile having been so clear about never posting pictures of Calliope online with the photo I saw on my phone last night. Not even Kate has dared to try, and she posts literally every picture she takes straight to her PixC without a second thought. My dad is careful and deliberate in everything he does and says, and yet, the only thing I’ve heard from him about the post is his defense of Kim. Reading that Google Alert last night was like witnessing the incorruptible effigy that I’d built around him come crumbling to the ground, and now I’m left to wade through the rubble to find if any of it can be salvaged.

I need to have Calliope in my arms again before I can decide how that’s even possible.

“Ana?” Christian presses me. I turn back to look at him, seeing the ghost of the look that haunted me all those months I refused to deal with Lincoln swimming through his troubled gaze. The fear over what the internal battle I was waging would do to me, and frustration over my refusal to let him do anything about it. The hurt that I’d built the walls around myself too high for him scale. I don’t want to shut him out or put him through the pain I did before. It’s fear that makes me feel this way, my time with Flynn has taught me that, and Christian can assuage my fears better than anyone… So, I shift in my seat, moving as close to him as my seatbelt will allow, and I try.

“People want to hurt us, Christian.”

He takes a long, deep breath, swallows, then nods. “I know.” 

“Nothing would hurt me more than if something were to happen to her.”

“I know.”

And they know what to look for now!” My voice becomes sharp as tears well in my eyes, and I try to look away. His fingers move back to my face, forcing me to keep eye contact with him. “We have no idea who has that picture now and who they might have given it to. People could be out on the streets looking for her right now.

“And she’s back at the house with security.”

“It’s not just about today. It’s about every day now. We’re never going to be able to let our guard down again and-”

“Ana.” He shifts and takes my hands in his, holding my gaze as his lips press into each one of my fingers. “What can I do to make you feel safe?”

Kim’s face flashes before my eyes and I cringe at the bitter taste that creeps into my mouth. I flinch at the way my heart sputters over the pain she’s put between me and my dad. He was the one who stopped Lincoln. But he’s not around anymore and I can’t live through another person who needs to be stopped… I can’t.

My face crinkles with pain again, and Christian pulls me into his chest, letting my tears soak through his expensive shirt. 

“Please tell me what you’re feeling,” he whispers. 

I breathe in slowly, letting my lungs fill until the urge to sob stops and I can speak. Though, when I try, it’s weak at best. “Everyone thought I was being petty. Everyone thought I was being selfish. No one listened to me when I tried to say that Kim would be dangerous for our family. Now she’s opened the lid to something that can’t be closed again and I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know how I’m going to live with it. My dad is my favorite person in the entire world, but right now…” 

Words fail me again because I have no idea how to finish that sentence. I don’t want to push my father away. I don’t want to fight with him. I don’t want to make him my enemy or even an antagonist. Even being plagued by these doubts feels disrespectful to the man who sacrificed everything to make my dreams come true.

But I have them, and they’re very real.

And it’s all because of her

“I don’t know,” I repeat, defeated. “I hate her, Christian. And now I don’t trust her. Now she’s making me doubt the one person I never thought I would.” 

“Okay, so…”

“No! Not okay. How do I tell my dad that without destroying him? How am I supposed to look him in the eye and tell him that this isn’t a mistake, it’s a betrayal? He’s my dad, Christian, and right now I don’t know how to talk to him at all. I have never had that problem.” 

I think about our phone conversation, and the ‘buts’ that followed every apology he offered. I have to swallow to bitter taste the memory dredges up. But that doesn’t change the way my heart pounds at the idea of doing anything to upset him or disappoint him. Or how angry that reaction makes me. Tears well in my eyes and I bury my face in my hands, shaking my head in despair. 

“I knew she couldn’t be trusted. I knew that she was going to tear us apart. Now what do I do?” 

He reaches over and takes my face in his hands, wiping away my tears. “You don’t need to do anything. We had a rule, they fucked up. If I’m the one that needs to step in and be the heavy so that we can resolve this, then that’s what I’m going to do.” 

I sniff, and take a broken breath. “You’re just very heavy, Christian.”

“He’s your father, Anastasia. I will make every attempt to keep a lid on my temper, I promise.”

Staring into his eyes, I try to find a hint of the feelings he’s burying beneath his concern for me. Is he scared the way I am? Is he boiling with rage underneath his seemingly calm exterior? Unleashing an angry Christian Grey on my father would be about as brutal as the Romans throwing people to the lions just to enjoy the bloodshed. But, no matter how hard I search his eyes or examine the line of his jaw for a hint of tension, there isn’t any of the expected fury looking back at me. He doesn’t even look worried.

“How are you so blasé about this? Aren’t you afraid someone will see her while we’re out in public and—“

“No,” he interrupts me. “I’m not afraid. You are protected, Anastasia. Calliope is protected. I’ve told you once, wars will be fought before anyone ever gets close to either of you again. I meant that, and I’ve made it a reality. Believe me when I tell you that no one will ever get to you or Calliope again.”

The first time he’d told me this, it had me worried. Now, it actually brings me a powerful sense of relief.

“Promise?” I breathe back.

“I promise,” he replies, firmly. The sentiment floats between us like an exorbitant prize, and I focus every cell in my body on accepting it. 

Even when I think I hear the echo of a cold, disembodied voice waking in the back of my mind that tells me I shouldn’t. 

The plane bounces roughly over the runway when we land, but it’s only a few minutes after that before we’re de-boarding. Mostly, Christian leaves everything behind as we’re only supposed to be making a short stop to pick up Calliope before continuing on to Beijing, but the thought of taking another trip right now, of taking Calliope out in public in a foreign country where my security team will already be at a disadvantage… it all has me feeling a little defeated.

I just need a few days at home with my baby.

“Welcome home, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor says, opening the door to the backseat of the SUV for me. I give him the warmest smile I can muster and brush an affectionate hand over the dark sleeve of his sports coat.

“Thank you, Taylor. How was the time you spent with your daughter?”

He smiles. “Much needed, thank you.”

“Was Sawyer abducted while we were gone?” Christian asks, peering through the darkly tinted windows of the front passenger’s seat. Taylor frowns and shakes his head.

“I’m not sure how he’s spent his days off but he failed to report this morning. I’ve talked to him, he’ll meet us back at the residence.”

“Failed to report?” Christian repeats. “He’s never failed to report. What was he doing?”

“I think the question is who was he doing,” I interject, as I climb into the backseat. I can hear Christian’s irritable sigh behind me, but whatever he says to Taylor next is too mumbled for me to catch. Then he’s in the seat next to me, pulling out his phone while Taylor settles in behind the wheel and drives us through the gates that will take us back to the freeway. The Bluetooth picks up Christian’s call before we’re even off the tarmac.

He spends the drive yelling at his lawyers. Unfortunately, there’s very little legal recourse we can take to stop the picture from floating around or even have what’s already posted taken down. We can issue cease and desist letters to the major publications who have pulled the photo from PixC, but we can’t sue someone for sharing a photo through the same social media site it was published on. And because both Christian and I were tagged, our combined followers have reposted the photo almost 3.2 million times.

“We can sue the person who posted the original photo,” the lawyer suggests. “It’s not going to stop it from being spread all across the internet, but we could get damages.”

“The person who posted it has nothing,” Christian grumbles. “We’d get nothing.”

“Well, then I would suggest the best course of action would be to… not post pictures of your child online.”

I snort. Christian nods to Taylor in the rear-view mirror, a signal to end the call.

“She’s safe,” he reassures me. “No matter what, she will always be safe.”

“I know.” My response is filled with audible dread, so he grabs my hand reassuringly and squeezes it tightly in his. I let the welcome sense of comfort wash through me each and every time his fingers pass over mine, then hold onto that security as we inch our way through our front gate. 

It’s once again surrounded by paparazzi. 

Taylor curses under his breath while the two men that have been haunting my house at every major event we’ve had over the past few weeks disperse the crowd enough to open a lane. I duck my face into Christian’s chest, trying to pretend I don’t see the flashes. Trying to pretend that each and every one of them doesn’t make me tremble with fear at who will see them or if any particular angle they capture will help someone find out exactly where we live and what time we got home. 

“We’re all safe,” Christian whispers, and he holds me as we finally make it into the driveway.

I’m slow to get out of the car once the garage door is closed behind us. I’m not particularly looking forward to the confrontation that’s about to take place, and if I wasn’t so desperate to get to my daughter, I don’t know that I would have gotten out of the SUV at all. Christian isn’t impatient though. He comes around to my side and opens my door, offering a hand to help me climb down from the too high seat. He doesn’t pull me after him the way I’ve become accustomed to. Instead, he lets me set the pace as we walk into the house.

Gail and Andrea are in the kitchen, Gail packing Calliope’s favorite snacks into small coolers for the almost twenty hour flight we’re supposed to take while Andrea takes inventory against her checklist. Christian doesn’t acknowledge either of them. Instead, he stays calm and silent until we emerge in the living room where Kim and my dad are sitting on the sofa, talking quietly to one another.

“Hey, sweetheart,” my dad says, cautiously looking up as we approach. He eases out of his seat and moves towards me with open arms. When he pulls me into a hug, I hesitate for a moment, before returning a feeble imitation of his affection. “Annie, I’m so sorry. We didn’t—“

I can’t hear him say he didn’t know, because he did. Everyone in my life did. So I cut off the lie before it even has a chance to cross his lips. “Where’s Calliope?”

He sighs, then gestures to the hallway behind us with a nod of his head. “She’s in the playroom with your nanny.”

I give him a curt nod before slipping out of his hold and moving in the direction he pointed out. He calls after me, but Christian intervenes.

“No, this is actually going to be a conversation between you and I, Raymond.”

“Okay,” my dad says, more serious now. “Then let’s sit down and have a talk.”

I don’t stop to hear what’s said. I’m single minded, making my way down the hall to the playroom. Calliope is sitting like an island in a sea of toys, smiling at Mackensie while she hands her a colorful, plastic ring.  The joy on her face makes the hollow ache in my chest dissipate, like the dying breath of a dust storm. She looks up as I start towards her, and somehow, that joy reaches a new crescendo.

“Mommy!”

“Hey, Calli-lilly!” I nearly cry, sweeping her up in my arms and hugging her tightly against me. I take a deep breath, inhaling her scent and letting it flood through me until every ounce of trepidation has left my body.

“Hi, Mommy,” she repeats, reaching into my hair and playing with the ends of the strands. I lean forward and kiss every inch of her face, then bask in the wholesomeness of her responding giggles.

“How was grandpa’s house?”

“Pop-pop,” she says, then starts babbling a string of non-words. It doesn’t matter. I stare at her, soaking in each and every bit of nonsense like it’s the most engrossing conversation I’ve ever had.

“You don’t say,” I laugh when she finally presses her lips together in a silent pout. She throws herself forwards and leaves a wet raspberry on my cheek. I sit with her cuddling for a few minutes, listening to Mackensie tell me all about her morning, until she’s suddenly drowned out.

“BULLSHIT! WE HAVE ONE FUCKING RULE!” Christian’s voice comes up the hallway in a thunderous echo that immediately catches Calliope’s attention. Her eyes go wide and her mouth forms a perfect little ‘o.’

“Daddy?”

“Yeah,” I reply, cautiously. “Let me just go see what he’s doing…” Handing her back to Mackensie, I quickly dart from the room. The shouting only intensifies the closer I get. It makes me cringe.

“I don’t care what you meant! No. Pictures. On. The. Internet. It was that fucking simple! And you weren’t even careful in how you worded the fucking thing. Now, not only do I have to worry about how you’ve put my daughter’s safety at risk, I also get to read stories in every gossip magazine across the country about how Anastasia has been unfaithful to me. What do you think that does to our relationship? What do you think that does to the way I look at my security team? Because now, I have Google Alerts popping up on my phone every five fucking minutes telling me that I need to be concerned about the relationship between my wife and the man that I have hired to protect her and my daughter, who you have now put in danger.”

“You can’t really be blaming her for the way some trashy rag has twisted something completely innocent!” my dad shouts back. His tone makes me recede back into the wall, just like I would have when I was seven. “She was pointing out how similar you are! The fact that they have somehow made her saying, ‘no paternity test needed,’ into Ana demanding a paternity test is absolutely ludicrous.”

Christian’s eerily calm response comes through clenched teeth. “I’m not blaming you for how they twisted it, I’m blaming you for posting the fucking picture in the first place. This was something we have both been very clear about. No. Pictures. On. The Internet.”

 “How was I supposed to know all these people would see it?” Kim says, tears welling in her eyes.

“We have a combined twenty-three million PixC followers!” Christian shouts, generously omitting that over twenty million of those followers are his. “You tagged us both.”

“But I didn’t know that’s how it worked. I thought that’s how I sent it to you! All I wanted to do was show Ana how cute that picture was, I didn’t think it would become a national headline.”

“Then why didn’t you just send it to me?” I speak up. Everyone turns in my direction, so I push off the wall I’m leaning on in the archway and move to Christian’s side. “Why didn’t you put it in a text and send it straight to me?”

Kim stutters, looking to my dad for help as she flounders. He takes a deep breath and turns a look on me that pleads for understanding.

“We had no idea this would happen. We made a mistake and I’m sorry, Annie. You know that we’re sorry. She’s deleted the picture, if that means anything.”

“It doesn’t,” Christian practically growls. “Do you have any idea how hard I have been working to make her feel safe again? To take that look,” he turns and points directly at my face, “out of her eyes? I have been killing myself for almost a year to get us back to this point, and you just shattered it.”

“Christian…” my dad begins hesitantly, but my husband holds up a hand to stop him. He starts pacing, shaking his head as though he’s continuing the argument in his mind while he figures out what he’s going to do next. When he decides, he returns to my side and puts on his CEO persona in full force. 

“You’re no longer welcome in my home.”

“Christian!” I protest. He shoots me a warning glare, but it’s not enough to make me fall silent. “You’re not banning my father from my house. That’s out of the question.”

“I agree. Kim, however, is not.” This time, my dad is the one with the indignant reaction, but Christian doesn’t allow my father to stop him, the way he allowed me. “I should have trusted Ana’s instincts from the beginning and I’m sorry that I ignored the warning signs. She was right. You can’t be trusted, Kim. So, you are no longer welcome in my home. You are no longer a welcome part of my family. You are no longer welcome in the presence of my daughter.” He turns to my dad, who has gotten off the couch now. “Calliope will not go to your house anymore. If you would like to spend time with her and Anastasia, you are welcome to visit them here any time you’d like.”

My dad blinks in disbelief, then slowly turns to me, waiting for me to say something. To contradict what Chrisitan is saying. When I don’t, his brow creases with pain. “Annie?”

I stare back, unsure what to say. I can see the hurt I’d feared written clearly across his face and I want nothing more than to make it stop, but… there’s nothing Christian said that I want to refute. I don’t want Calliope going anywhere without security anymore. Even if it is the middle of nowhere, where he lives now. I want her here, behind my gates and under the ever present watch of my cameras and my security team. My desire to have any kind of relationship with Kim was already tenuous at best. Every effort I did put in was only for my father, and now…

“I don’t trust her,” I say quietly, looking down at my feet because I can’t bear to say the words while seeing the heartbreak that stares back at me. “I love you, Daddy, and you will always be welcome here. But I can’t let any more people in who I don’t trust. Not after how I’ve been burned in the past. And I just don’t trust her.”

He takes a shaky breath, processing what I’ve said. I expect a fight. I expect excuses. I expect disappointment. To my surprise, after several eternal seconds, he nods. “Alright. I get it. From one overprotective father to another, I get it.” He turns and reaches a hand out for Kim. “Come on, we should go.”

A tear falls over Kim’s water line as she takes my father’s hand and slowly comes to her feet. She looks like she’s going to say something, try to make a final plea. But when Christian puts an arm around me, presenting us again as a united front, she swallows the words teetering at the edge of her lips and follows my father silently from the room. Christian and I stand there, not moving or saying anything until we hear the beep from the security alarm, and the soft closure of the front door.

“Was that too much?” he asks. “I guess I’m not very good at keeping my temper under control after all. I’ll call and apologize to him tonight if—“

I lean up on my tip toes and cut off his words with a kiss. “Thank you.”

“Always.” The whisper lingers in the space between our lips as he carefully rests his forehead against mine. I reach my arms behind his head and wrap them lazily across the backs of his shoulders, but just as he leans in to kiss me, Taylor appears in the entry from the foyer.

“Sir.”

Christian exhales sharply, but pulls away. I shift my gaze to the head of our security team, then raise an eyebrow when I realize he isn’t alone. The men from outside are flanked on either side of him. 

“Ana, this is Smith and this is Wyatt.” Christian gestures to each of them. “They’re your new bodyguards.”

I look at him in horror. “New bodyguards? What about Luke?”

“He’s not going anywhere. But we’ve decided you need a driver and an extra set of eyes for when you have Calliope with you. Just until the noise dies down a little.”

I look back at them, feeling an overwhelming sense of foreboding. Beefing up my security team last time was the opposite of helpful, so naturally, my initial reaction isn’t a trusting one. 

But if there was ever a time to get me to agree to more security, Calliope’s picture floating around on PixC is definitely it.

“Okay,” I concede, trying to smile at each of them. “Hello.”

“Hello, Mrs. Grey,” they respond in unison. It’s creepy, but at least they’re talking to me now.

“We’ll be ready to leave momentarily,” Christian says, a clear dismissal. The three suited men in our foyer disperse and he turns to me, once again taking me into his arms. “Anything you need before we go?”

I frown. “How upset would it make you if I didn’t go to China?”

“Very upset.” He tilts my face up to his and holds my gaze. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He raises an eyebrow that tells me he doesn’t believe me, so I sigh and push out of his embrace. “I’m just drained. I have no idea where I’m even at with The Greenwich Library and I don’t have the energy right now to deal with that while dragging a fifteen month old through a foreign country. Especially if you’re going to be in meetings the whole time. I don’t want to go.”

He doesn’t respond immediately. Instead, he closes the distance I created and brushes his thumbs under my eyes as though he’s tracing the dark circles I’m sure are there. “Okay. We won’t go.”

My brow crinkles. “We?”

“We,” he confirms. “I told you before, I don’t want to be separated from you and Calliope anymore. I travel with you, you travel with me. If you’re telling me that you can’t, then that goes for me as well.”

“But… you’re meeting with the president of China. This isn’t just some routine trip to a manufacturing plant in the middle of nowhere, this is… I mean, it’s China!

He shrugs. “I’ll handle it over the phone.”

You’ll handle it over the phone.” I repeat the words slowly, hoping hearing them out loud will help him realize how ridiculous they sound. He just rolls his eyes.

“Or video conference, whatever. The point is, they’ll come to me. It’s fine.”

I think back to the event I attended with Christian weeks ago where he’d made the first Endurance reveal. He’d said the same thing about Senator Blandino, and he hadn’t been wrong. The man flew half the government all the way across the damn country just to get that contract. Everyone keeps telling me I’m underestimating the magnitude of the Endurance project and what it means for Christian. Maybe I am.

There’s a sudden ruckus behind Christian, and I peer over his shoulder to see what it is. I expect it to be Andrea, but it’s Luke. In his rush to get back home, he comes through the utility room hot and immediately trips over the cooler of snacks Gail had been putting together. With two long steps that slam hard against the stone floor, he manages not to fall face first to the ground, but only because he reaches out to catch himself on the wine rack. A crystal glass rocks violently from its resting place and Luke kicks out his foot, managing to hurl the glass back into the air with the tip of his shoe. It bounces back and forth between his hands a few times before he finally gets a firm hold on it. When he holds it up in the air to inspect it for damage, the kitchen light sparkles over the pristine perfection of the crystal.

“Okay, but did you see that?” He grins.

“You’re the man,” I laugh back.

He slides the glass back on the rack, then saunters into the living room looking very pleased with himself. Christian doesn’t look so enthused.

“Andrea.”

The blonde head bent over the kitchen counter looks up from the tablet in her hands, her finger going still over the glass. “Yes, sir?”

“Cancel my trip. Let them know that we’ll conduct our negotiations through teleconference.”

She stares back at him, utterly befuddled. “Cancel?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Okay… but… To be clear, you’re asking me to call the representatives of the Chinese government and tell them that you’re… not coming.” She says the words in exactly the way I felt them, as though their utterance is completely insane.

Christian just tilts his head to the side and blinks back at her, clearly not in the mood to repeat himself.

“Does Ms. Bailey know?” Andrea tries again.

“Ms. Bailey will defer to my judgment,” he tells her, though she obviously doesn’t buy that one bit. Christian takes a deep, calming breath, then turns his attention back to me. “I need to make a phone call. Do you need anything?”

I shake my head and he leans down to kiss me before turning and leaving the room. I notice Gail dejectedly picking up the cooler and unloading everything inside while Andrea starts to gather her things to go. I probably should offer to go help, since I’m the reason for all the rework they’re about to do, but I’m too distracted by Luke.

“Where were you?” I’m trying for innocence, but he’s so onto me that he might as well be a freckle.

Reading to the blind.”

I cross my arms over my chest. “Is that why you have lipstick on your earlobe?”

“What?” His hand shoots up and he starts to scrub his fingers against his skin. When he pulls his hand away and sees the smear of red staining his thumb, he smiles. “I didn’t say what I was reading. You’d be surprised how quick you can get these women going with just a little erotica.”

“I’m in publishing,” I tell him, plopping down at his side. “I’m very well aware of the avarice appetite for porn out there.”

“Avarice appetite.” He repeats the phrase a few times. “Impressive wordplay there, Harvard.”

I narrow my eyes at him again, and he pushes me away in exasperation.

“What part of ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ makes you think that what I’m actually saying is that I want to talk about it?”

“I’m your best friend. If you’re not talking to me, who are you—“ My words are cut off by the doorbell, and Luke grins excitedly.

“Oh, sorry. I’d love to finish this conversation, but I gotta get that.” He jumps over the back of the couch and walks with a quick pace into the foyer. I follow after him, hovering in the archway, and am surprised when he opens the door and it’s Carrick who is standing there waiting.

“Oh good,” he says, spotting me behind Luke. “I was hoping I’d catch you before you left for China.”

“We’re not going,” I say automatically. “What’s up?”

Luke steps aside and let’s my father-in-law step through the door. He comes to me and wraps me in a hug. “We finally did it, Ana.”

“Did what?” It’s Christian’s voice that asks the question. He comes up behind me and rests gentle hands on each of my shoulders. When his father looks up to give him the answer, a grin spreads wide across his face and he holds up a manila envelope.

“Your senator has completed the investigation. I’ve got the names of the officers who helped Lincoln.”

The envelope disappears from Carrick’s hand in an instant as Luke snatches it away and starts ripping the golden paper apart. I feel like I’m still processing what Carrick has said, but my bodyguard is already tearing through pages, muttering to himself.

“That son-of-a-bitch, I know this motherfucker!”

“Let me see it.” Christian reaches his hand out for the dossier, and after a great deal of hesitation, Luke gives it to him. He’s much more patient in the way he flips through the thick stack of pages held together by a lone staple in the upper left hand corner. He only just barely starts to scan the list of names on the third page before he lets out a disgusted sound and tosses the documents back at his father. “There’s why we had so much trouble starting an investigation. The chief of police is at the top of the fucking list.”

“I know,” Carrick says. “I’ve spoken with his replacement and we’re handling it. He was one of the few arrests we made this morning. The rest of them will be detained by 5 PM tonight. I’ve heard that because it’s you, the judge will be setting an extraordinarily high bail to keep them where they are. With the evidence in this file, I don’t know how they’re going to fight this. Speaking as a defense attorney, this is a nightmare for each and every single one of those men.”

Nightmare,” I scoff, then I reach out my hand towards Carrick, expecting the file. He looks at Christian as though he isn’t sure I should see it, but hands it over when he nods. The summary of the investigation is pages long and I skim most of it. I don’t even take that much time to read the full list of names. My focus is on the pages of evidence collected behind all of that, things I need to be certain will stick. There are phone records, internal communications, and different kinds of messages with Lincoln himself. On page twelve, there’s an email from Lincoln to the chief of police.


To: Harold Seymore

Subject: [Encrypted] Re: Surveillance

Date: March 13th 2011  08:20 PM

From: Andrew Lincoln

I don’t understand what’s taking so long. She is CONSTANTLY out in the city with only Sawyer watching her. Drop the fucker and snatch the bitch off the streets.

Andrew Lincoln


There are text messages that show both of the men who attacked me in that alleyway downtown were Seattle PD.

I toss the file at Christian, unable to get through it all. “You’re sure that’s everyone?”

“Yes,” Carrick says. “We’ve already started interrogating the officers we’ve arrested and of the three, two immediately cracked. They gave us different names, but none we didn’t already have. We’ve got them all, dead to rights.”

I nod, letting myself accept the truth of that statement. Willing myself to let this be the end. Taking respite in the lack of emotion rising inside of me that would make both of those things impossible.

It almost works, until Luke starts trembling with rage. 

“No, this is bullshit. Grey, you know as well as I do that these fucks are all buddy-buddy with the city prosecutor’s office and they’re going to get a slap on the wrist at best. Let me take care of this.”

“Mayor standing in the room,” Carrick says, shooting a serious look at Luke. He doesn’t seem to care. He’s focused only on Christian. He looks thoughtful for a long, tense minute, then takes a deep breath and shakes his head.

“He said arrests will be made by the end of the day. This is why we have a criminal justice system, to deal with people like this.”

“Thank you, son.” Carrick shakes Christian’s hand before finally pulling him in for a hug. Then he moves to me. “I wanted this for you.”

“I know. Thank you.” He hugs me, then refuses my offer for lunch, so I walk him out. When I turn back to look at Luke and Christian, they’re muttering quietly to one another.

“I don’t want any more violence,” Christian hisses at him, which makes Luke press his lips together so hard they disappear. “We’re going to let the courts handle this.”

“And when they’re back out there?” 

He frowns and tosses the file back at Luke. “You have names now, so get to work. Find out what Lincoln had on these people, and make sure they know we have it too. I want everything you can find on their families. We’ll let the law handle this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make reassurances.” 

Luke straightens his back. “Yes, sir.”

Christian reaches a hand out for me, but stops before he fully leads me out of the room. “Oh, and Sawyer…”

“Yes, sir?”

“Failure to report is unacceptable. No more nights away.”

His mouth drops open. “But, sir!”

“I pay you to protect my wife. If she’s in this house and you’re not, what am I paying you for?”

“I-I…” His shoulders deflate. “Yes, sir.”

“I’ll expect daily reports on your progress.” He nods to the folder in his hands, then turns and pulls me from the foyer and straight to Calliope’s playroom.

Next Chapter

Taylor PoV: Like Herding Cats…

Hey everyone! It’s my birthday!!!

A bunch of people asked if there was going to be a bonus this week, and my initial answer to that was no.

1. I’m not done with this week’s chapter yet.

2. It’s not a like…. happy, festive, fun chapter. There’s some drama on the horizon, and who wants an epic Christian Grey meltdown on Christmas?

That being said, you guys are so great to me every single week that I decided I really wanted to post something today– so I wrote a quick, non-spoilery outtake! This would take place between chapter 35 and 36 of TFSOF (but that doesn’t matter much).

Hope you enjoy it!!

xoxo

wishingmrgreywashere

This room is always warmer than the rest of the executive suite at GEH. It’s a small, rectangular space with no windows, three desks, and dozens of screens that hum and put off heat. My eyes flit between the images of the residence, Calliope’s daycare, different floors of GEH, the parking garage, and Escala. It’s quiet, which is a good change of pace, but days like these are extremely boring. It’s easy, when it’s like this, to let my mind wander to thoughts of my daughter or plans I want to make for the next weekend we’ll get to spend together… but it’s an urge I fight. I can’t afford to lose concentration. Not when I know what’s out there, lurking in wait. Not after I saw what our failures last time did to Anastasia. Thankfully, the perfect thing to make me refocus suddenly comes through my earpiece.

“Taylor, I’ve got an unexpected delivery for Ana,” Luke murmurs.

“Mrs. Grey,” I correct him with a grumble. “What is it?”

“I’ll go find out.” He’s quiet for a minute, and when I hear him speak again, it’s not to me. “Hey buddy, where you delivering from?”

“Oh, I’m just a courier, man.”

“Yeah, that’s the thing though… Anastasia Grey doesn’t take deliveries from just anyone, I’m going to need a name.”

“I don’t know, dude. I don’t take the orders. I just deliver them.”

There’s another pause before Luke starts again, this time in a more familiar tone. “Did Ana order something I don’t know about?”

“Not that I know of.” It takes a moment to place the female voice that responds– Abigail, Anastasia’s assistant—and that irritates me. Damn, what I wouldn’t give to put cameras in her office.

My teeth mash together as I pull up an email on the laptop in front of me and send it off while keeping my attention on the conversation Luke is having.


To: Christian Grey

Subject: GSP Video Surveillance

Date: August 15th 2012  10:27 AM

From: Jason Taylor

Any movement with Gallagher on getting cameras into Mrs. Grey’s office?

Jason Taylor

Head of Security, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.


“So, are you gonna sign or….” The impatience in the courier’s voice is clear, even 2nd hand through Luke’s earpiece, and I automatically make a face as I anticipate Luke’s response.

“Why don’t you chill the fuck out, alright?” he says, making me shake my head. He’s always been the hot head on my team, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the best. “What courier company do you work for?”

“One-Hour Delivery.”

“You only take local orders?”

“No. We’ll only deliver locally but we’ll take orders from whoever calls.”

Luke sighs. “Alright, open the box, Abby.”

“Hey, I can’t let you do that until you sign!”

“Ok, first of all, you need to get it out of your head that you’re letting me do anything…” I can hear the package being sliced open behind Luke’s words, which is the only thing that keeps me from telling him to pull it back a bit. Well that, and Grey’s response.


To: Jason Taylor

Subject: RE: GSP Video Surveillance

Date: August 15th 2012  10:29 AM

From: Christian Grey

Gallagher won’t agree. We’re going to have to go through the building owner.

Christian Grey

CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.


I take a deep breath and start pulling up the records I have on Anastasia’s employer so I can get the contact information for GSP’s landlord, still focusing half my attention on Luke.

“Oh…” Abby says, shame coloring the one word I hear. “I uh… I think this might be from Kate.”

“What is it?” I ask.

There’s a shuffling noise, and Luke responds, “It’s just some candles and shit for her office.”

“So, will you sign now, please?” the courier asks.

“Sure,” Abby says, and the low scratching sound that must be her scrawling her signature on the order form is drowned out by Luke.

“Here, courtesy of Christian Grey.”

“Hey, thanks, man!” the courier says, and after some generic rustling sounds, it goes quiet on Luke’s side again.

“Sawyer, you need to stop being so combative with everyone.”

“Nah, it’s better when I’m scary.”

“Sawyer…”

“I tipped him!”

Sawyer…

“Okay, okay, okay…”

I let out a heavy sigh and dial the number for the landlord to Ana’s building. Then I have to coordinate another delivery to the house. When Grey goes into his R&D meeting, Andrea has to take the Lamborghini to the mechanic for an oil change, which means arranging transportation to get her back to GEH.

At three, I double check all of the Greys are exactly where they’re supposed to be and that my team is in place, then I make two laps through the building. The girls at Grey Publishing always have candy for me when I pop in to make sure they’re doing alright, and there’s a woman up in accounting who has a service dog that I stop and say hi to every time I pass. It helps keep my spirits high when I meander through the first floor lobby and stare at the torrential downpour bouncing off the pavement outside.

Grey likes the rain, but I fucking hate it. And it rains non-stop here from October to June. I think I should get a little reprieve in August—but this city can’t even give me that.

And, as if it wants to rub salt in my wounds, right then a giant thundercloud claps overhead, and the lights in the building go dark. I wait a few uneasy seconds for the back-up generators to kick on… until I remember that the entire power grid is currently being dismantled so it can be replaced with Endurance technology, and the backup generators were the first to go.

For most people, a power outage is an inconvenience. Possibly even exciting—something to break up the monotony of the day at least. For me, it’s a disaster. It means all of the surveillance systems are down, all of the electronic locks… everything.

I reach up for my earpiece as I start back for the security office, which will take me forever to get to since I’m now going to have to take the stairs up thirty-one fucking floors.

“Sawyer, our power is out. You?”

There’s a click that tells me he’d turned the microphone off on his earpiece, and when I hear Ana talking in the background, I know why. He’s always been very protective of his friendship with her, and sometimes it means shit like this. But the closeness between them has proved to be valuable over and over again in the past, so I don’t fight him on it anymore.

Oh my god, look how cute this is!” Ana squeals.

“Yeah, us too. I’m sitting in her office,” Sawyer mumbles to me, probably so Ana won’t hear him.

“Good, stay there. James, you got eyes on Calliope?”

“No, there’s an external door alarm on the south side. Smith and I are going to check it out.”

“What the fuck do you mean you’re going to check it out? Who’s watching Calliope?” I’m met with silence that fills me with equal parts incredulity and dread, so after several seconds of no response, I fill the emptiness with a tirade of lectures and curse words. I’m more out of breath from yelling at my team than the seven flights of stairs I sprint up to get to Calliope’s daycare. Not only is James missing from his post, but so is the receptionist who is never supposed to leave this desk unmanned.

“I swear to fucking god…” I grumble, pulling open the door that no longer locks without power. It’s chaos inside. Shrieks and wails of tears sound from the room to the left, while excited giggles bubble up around me from the older kids. I wade through them all to get to the Caterpillar room and immediately start looking for Kensie, but she isn’t here. A hot rush of panic climbs up the back of my neck and my eyes fly wildly around the room, searching for the mop of familiar brown curls that belongs to Calliope.

She isn’t here.

There are only seven children in this room, and it takes me less than three seconds to critically evaluate each and every one of their faces. Not a single one of them is Calliope.

I go to the teacher across the room who is currently cuddling a screaming toddler, while trying to listen to the mindless ramblings of a little boy hovering nervously near her legs.

“Where’s Calliope?” I demand. She blinks up at me, completely frazzled.

“What do you mean? Isn’t she…” Her eyes move from mine and survey the room, widening with panic when she comes to the same realization I have. “Well she’s supposed to be right here…”

“I know where she’s supposed to be! I’m asking you where she is?”

“I-I—” Her eyes start anxiously searching again until she starts shaking her head with horrible regret. “Shit, I don’t know…”

“You don’t get to not know!”

“I’m sorry! We’re sort of having a situation here… Maybe you can’t tell, but I’m a little overwhelmed with crying babies who don’t understand why it’s suddenly dark.”

“So, the CEO’s daughter is the one you choose to ignore? WHERE IS CALLIOPE GREY?!”

“I don’t know, she has a nanny with her. Where’s Mackensie?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be bothering with you.”

I turn on my heel and storm through the door, glancing over the faces of the other teachers and the sea of tiny people running wildly through the open floor space. Mackenzie isn’t here, and neither is Calliope.

“Calliope isn’t in the daycare,” I parrot to my team, my voice suddenly going low and monotone. Years of military training kicks in like the flip of a light switch, and all the noise around me fades into the background of my concentration. My senses sharpen, and I immediately start mentally clearing the space around me.

“Yeah, I know. Just hold on a second. I’ll be right back,” Luke says, jovially enough that I know he’s talking to Anastasia. There’s a high-pitched scrape, the sound of a chair, and I decide he’s probably leaving her office so he can talk to me without alarming her.

That’s a good call. No need to panic the Greys until I know for sure what’s going on. Especially not the quick-to-irrational-fury one who’s currently on the 31st floor, probably already furious that the power outage has interrupted his day.

There’s the soft sound of a door closing that matches perfectly with the door of the daycare closing behind me and Luke starts hissing angrily through his earpiece. “Taylor, I’m going to need you to repeat what you just fucking said because what I think you said is that you lost Anastasia’s child.”

My gut clenches uneasily at the brutal reality of what he just said, but I choose not to acknowledge it until I’m certain there’s truth to it. Mackensie is also missing after all, perhaps she just taken her on a walk… without a security escort, through the crowded city, during a rainstorm and power outage.

Okay, maybe that isn’t better.

“What was the breach, Smith?” I ask, refocusing on the avenues I have to track her down. “Please tell me we didn’t let someone get out of this building with that baby.”

“There’s nothing out here, just… wait—” His voice stalls, and then raises a few levels in pitch, as though he’s calling to someone far away. “What are you doing out here?”

The response is difficult to hear through the sound of the pouring rain bouncing off the metal roof that covers the courtyard off the back side of the building, but while I’m on high alert like this, I could’ve made out each of their words if they were standing under a thundering waterfall.

“Smoking…”

“You come through that door?”

“Are we… not supposed to? This is the only place we’re allowed to smoke…”

“You go through the east door. What do you think ‘emergency exit only’ means?!”

“Smith, Calliope!” I bark. “Focus.”

“Did anyone come through here with a baby?”

“No, it’s just me.”

I grind my teeth together. “When did you leave your post, James?”

“Five minutes ago?”

“Five minutes.” Does he realize what could have happened in five fucking minutes? “No one leaves anywhere without checking directly with me first, got it?”

“Sorry, sir… I wasn’t expecting the power outage.”

“I don’t want to hear apologies, I want Calliope found. All of you, start searching. Top to bottom, floor by floor. Harper, Wyatt… I want you out on the streets.”

“Are you seriously telling me we lost Calliope?” Luke growls. “What the fuck am I supposed to say to Ana?!”

“Nothing, I’ll find her.” I turn and bolt back into the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time. Praying that the power comes on by the time I make it back to the security office so that I’ll be able to review the footage, and that the feed didn’t cut off before Calliope was taken. It takes almost four minutes for me to get all the way to the top floor, and when I come through the door into the reception area, both Andrea and Olivia shoot concerned looks at me.

“Everything alright, Taylor?” Andrea asks. I can only offer her a half-hearted wave as I stride past her, moving purposefully to my office.

The power didn’t come on, so the monitors are still dark. Luke’s jaw is grinding impatiently in my ear and I have no idea what to say to him.

“Smith? James?”

“I’ve got nothing.”

“Garage is clear.”

“Harper? Wyatt?”

“Nothing suspicious.”

“There’s an officer parked up the street, he didn’t see anyone come tearing out of the garage, so it’s not likely we’re dealing with a getaway car.”

My gut sinks and I feel a hot flash of shame. We haven’t found her, so I’m going to have to tell Grey. And I know he’s going to pop the fuck off. I’ve seen him lose it over far less when something even threatened to get near Anastasia… I can’t imagine what he’s going to do when it comes to Calliope.

“I’ll go inform Grey,” I say, as though I’m informing them of death. Which, considering the situation, might be a reality since Grey is probably going to kill me. 

“You sure?” Smith asks.

“Yeah. Sawyer, don’t tell Anastasia anything until Grey decides what he wants her to know. Everyone get back here and be ready for my orders.”

“How can I help?” Sawyer asks.

“Stay with Ana. Once the power comes on, you’re most useful to me behind a computer.”

“Sir, with all due respect, I disagree. I’m a better shot than either Wyatt or James, and I’m the best you have at hand to hand. If we’re dealing with an abductor, I think I’m the exact person to handle it.”

“No, if someone really did come for Calliope, Ana could also be a target. I need you with her, and I need you sharp.”

“I’m always sharp.”

And arrogant. Don’t forget arrogant.

“Sawyer…”

“Yeah, I got it. Stay put.”

“Good.” With the same amount of courage that once carried me through battle in the past, I shuffle out of the office towards the double oak doors that stand between me and Mr. Grey. There’s a kind of pep-talk running through my mind, convincing me to keep going, but it doesn’t slow me down. With quick efficiency, I push through the doors and steel myself for the news I have to deliver.

Except, instead of the sharp, irritated look I usually expect when I interrupt his workday, I get soft eyes and a warm smile. All because of the tiny little beauty currently standing in his lap, held up by his hands. Her laughter echoes through the room like sweet music. Her soft brown girls bounce with the rhythm of her father’s knees.

“Ah, come in, Taylor. Did you resolve the camera situation for Ana’s office?” His good humor colors every word and I stand there speechless. Calliope makes a loud, happy sound, that catches his attention and makes his face light up. She reaches out and places her palm against his lips, and he kisses it several times before turning expectant eyes back on me.

“Uh… yes, sir. I was just coming to let you know that, uh, all of our surveillance is down because of the power outage.”

“I know, the door to her daycare just opened when I went down there to get her. And they’re so overwhelmed down there I sent Kensie down to the store for snacks to try and calm everyone down. Thankfully, Welch will have GEH transferred to the Endurance grid by Friday, and we won’t have to deal with this anymore.”

“Right. Well, I suppose I’ll just keep you updated then.”

“Sawyer is with Ana, right? A power outage seems like the exact scenario where Kate would call her and talk her into doing something stupid.”

“Yes, Sir. He’s in her office right now. She seems to be having a good day.”

The joy on his face somehow shines through brighter. “Good. If the cameras are down, we should get people down to all the entrances. I still want to know everyone coming in and out of this building.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve already got the team mobilized.”

“Good. Then you can leave us, Taylor.”

“Yes, sir.” I turn around, feeling my heart racing a mile a minute as relief seeps from every single one of my pores… until Grey calls my name again. “Yes, sir?”

He smiles again, and nods to his daughter. “Don’t you think she’s the most perfect thing you’ve ever seen?”

I chuckle. “Yes, sir. The most perfect.”

“Yeah, I think so too.” He turns to her, completely losing himself. “This is going to be your office one day, isn’t it? All of this is going to be yours…”

I turn and leave his office, letting out a long sigh before I reach up for my earpiece. “Grey has Calliope, everyone stand down.”

“Oh, thank god,” Luke exhales. “Well, if there’s no crisis I’m going back into Ana’s office, I’ll be on mute.”

“Fine. And, James?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You’re no longer assigned to daycare. Wait there until Kelley comes to relieve you, then report to my office immediately.”

I can hear him swallow his trepidation. “Yes, sir.”

As the sense of urgency that had consumed me only minutes ago dies away, I’m left feeling drained and tired. The weight of it lands heavily on my chair and I plop down in my seat and stare at the blank monitors around me. My head falls back against the headrest, and I take just a few minutes to let myself relax, but the power switches on and the room around me suddenly hums with life again. I glance up at the screens, once more searching through the images of GEH, the Grey’s home, and Escala for anything that’s gone amiss in the time that’s lapsed since my last check. Everything is quiet. Everything is the same.

And suddenly, I’m very grateful for my boring day.

Chapter 37

The city feels different this time. The heat is stifling after leaving the beautiful seventy-five degree Seattle weather, but it’s not enough to dampen my spirits. A lifetime ago, New York had been a dream. For years I’d lost myself in fantasies of sitting at a counter in a busy coffee shop, absorbing the hustle and bustle that happened all around me while I churned out the next great american novel. Then Christian had brought me here and shattered my heart. Every trip since then has been a string of disasters, each more terrible than the last.

But this time… it’s different.

We’re staying in the penthouse suite of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. We’ve dined in some of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to. Our first night here, Christian took my hand and led me into Central Park. We’d walked along the beautifully manicured paths through the twilight, soaking each other in as he listened to me unload all the trepidation I feel over the Greenwich Library launch. None of the doubt I felt ever crept into the encouraging words he offered in return. After feeling the immense amount of comfort that reassurance gave me, I couldn’t drag him back to our bed fast enough.

The morning of my launch, though, all of that anxiety comes crashing back. Abby showed up at my hotel room first thing this morning to help me prepare. Now she’s sitting cross-legged on the floor of the sitting room, helping me confirm guest lists, vendors and entertainment, transportation, and accommodations for our big name talent. By ten, my fingers are sore from the number of emails I’ve had to type out on my phone.

It’s lunch time when Christian comes back from his workout in the hotel gym, and he finds me shaking with nerves while I pace back and forth across the floor.

“Stop,” he tells me, letting the door slam behind him as he rushes across the room to take me in his arms.

“I can’t. We haven’t been able to get ahold of Meghan Michaels all morning, what if she doesn’t show up?”

“She will.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

“Then fuck her.”

“The catering company called and asked for a half-hour extension, but I told them I couldn’t give that to them. What if I accidentally give everyone food poisoning?”

He rolls his eyes. “You’re being ridiculous now.”

“What if no one subscribes, Christian?”

“That’s not going to happen, baby. Tonight will be perfect. Meghan Michaels will show up and post a million and a half pictures online, no one is going to get sick, and you will still be the most beautiful woman in the world.”

I smile, but let out an exasperated sigh. “That last one isn’t going to help with anything.”

“I disagree.” He leans down, kisses me, then pulls me back towards the door.

“What are you doing?” I ask in a panic when the light from the hallway suddenly comes pouring into my sitting room.

“You need to get out of the hotel for a while, clear your mind. Let’s go see the city a little.”

“But—“

My protest is cut off by another kiss, and it lasts until he’s pushed me into the elevator and the doors have slid closed behind him.

He doesn’t lead me anywhere in particular. Mostly, we let street-food vendors, performers, and traffic lights lead us through the streets. Once we try to call my dad, who has Calliope while we’re out of town, but Kim tells us he’s got her out on the boat with a fishing pole and she doesn’t expect they’ll be back for a few hours. Christian was irritated when he hung up because he thought getting to talk to our daughter would pacify the last of my nerves, but this is better. Thinking of her sitting with my dad, probably holding the same pink fishing pole I did when I was little, brings a warm sense of comfort that doesn’t extinguish my stress, but is simply more important. I duck under Christian’s arm and hold myself against his side until he suddenly comes to a dead stop.

“We should go this way,” he says, nodding in the opposite direction. I look up at him, confused.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just don’t go down this street.”

My eyes move up, following the towering buildings until I see exactly why Christian wants to change course. We’re standing in the shadow of the Empire State Building.

Looking at the Art Deco skyscraper, I can suddenly recall my memories from the last time I was here with such vivid clarity, I almost drop his hand. Part of me wonders if he can sense that, because the moment the thought passes through my mind, his fingers tighten around mine.

I hate it. I hate that part of him, no matter how small, will always be waiting for me to leave and it’s because of this building. I hate that he still has nightmares about this place and that I’m the reason for them. I hate that I wasn’t strong enough then to bear what this place represents…

But I am now.

“Come on,” I tell him, tugging against the hand that feels like a vice grip. He doesn’t budge. Instead, his eyes move down to me with alarm.

“No. I don’t go down this street, Anastasia.” His voice is final, leaving no room for negotiation. Which is fine with me, because I also don’t intend on negotiating.

“Fine.” With a hard yank that he doesn’t expect, I slip my hand from his and start across down the sidewalk toward the silver revolving doors. He calls out for me, but I don’t stop. His heavy footfalls sound behind me a second later as he runs to catch up.

“Anastasia, watching you walk away from me down this street is not helping,” he growls, wrapping a hand around my elbow. I don’t let him stop me. I reach out for the bar that stretches across the glass and metal door in front of me, and pull it back.

“Does this help?”

As if he had to walk through a curtain of fire to do it, he comes through the door after me. This time, I don’t get the choice to continue or not.

“Stop.” His hands are firm on me, holding me in place. “I’m not doing this. I don’t want to do this. I want nothing to do with this fucking building.”

“Well that’s a shame. I want to see the view.”

“Why are you doing this?” he whispers, pain finally breaking through the angry determination coloring his face. I give him a small, but reassuring smile, then turn for the elevators. Begrudgingly, he follows after me.

There’s a line to go up to the observation deck, but a few hundred dollar bills in the attendant’s white-gloved hand gets us into an elevator car by ourselves. I can hear Christian grinding his teeth as we feel the jolt of the elevator lift us into the air. So, I do what he does best. I grab hold of the front of his t-shirt, push him back into the wall, the way he’s done to me hundreds of times, and begin to devour his lips.

He doesn’t respond immediately. He kisses me back, but his body is rigid. I reach down to his forearm, gripping tightly to my name, and absolutely ravage him. By the 50th floor, he gives into my passion and suddenly I’m the one pinned beneath him. The weight of what he’s carrying falls on top of me. I can feel it in his lips. I can feel it in the desperate grip of his hands. When the car slows, and the ding announcing our arrival at the 86th floor, I watch him flinch.

He steps out of the elevator willingly, but after that, he doesn’t move. It takes every tool in my arsenal to coax him out onto the observation deck, and when I do, I hold my arms open and look around the crowded viewing area.

“See,” I tell him. “No ghosts.”

He stares at me for a long minute, unable to arrange the emotions roiling through him into coherent thoughts or words. Eventually, he gives up trying and moves to me. His strong arms wrap around my body and he pushes me toward the concrete barrier that gives us a sweeping view of the city. I press back into him, tracing my fingers absentmindedly over his skin as we take everything in.

“I’m never going to leave you, Christian,” I tell him, softly. “I couldn’t, even if I should. Walking away from you would kill me. No matter what, remember?”

He’s quiet for a beat, then exhales with relief. “Say it again.”

“I’ll never leave you. No matter what. This is forever. You didn’t walk away when I was so broken there weren’t enough pieces left of me to make you stay. You didn’t give up on me when I was trying to give up on you. The war is over, Christian, and you’re the only one left to sit on the throne. You want me to be a queen? I am your queen, and I’m going to stand by your side while you rule this world until the day I die. No. Matter. What.” I glance around once more, making a show of it. “This. This is just a building. Part of a past that doesn’t matter anymore.”

He nods and tightens his hold on me. I hum slightly as I feel his lips press into my cheek. We linger for a few more minutes, and when we finally turn back to the elevator, Christian no longer clings to me for dear life. He doesn’t hurry for the elevator and he isn’t irritated with me as we make the descent back to the city streets. He merely pulls me against him and tells me how much I mean to him until the elevator doors slide open, and we step back into New York.

**** 

There’s a very stark difference between the events we normally attend for GEH, and the party I’ve put together for GSP. Normally on nights like these, I’m obsessing over my hair or the way I’ll look in the designer gown Christian had custom ordered. Tonight, my hair hangs down straight over my shoulders, I’m dressed in a nice but casual sheath dress, and I’m so strung out with stress I can’t stop stalking back and forth across the bedroom of our suite.

“Well?” Christian asks. He steps out of the bathroom and saunters towards me, holding his hands out to his side, and then spinning around so I can get the whole view of his look. He’s wearing a pair of navy slacks and a white collared shirt that’s unbuttoned further than is normal for him. His sleeves are rolled all the way up to his elbows so his tattoo is on full display. He really is a knockout.

“You look great,” I tell him.

Great?” He wrinkles his brow with distaste and closes the space between us. “You’re supposed to tell me that I’m the most heart-stoppingly handsome man who has ever walked the face of the earth and then present me a gift as a token of your affection.”

“I am?”

“Why do you think you leave for every one of my events dripping in diamonds, Anastasia?” He lets out a playfully exasperated sigh that makes me giggle.

“Well, you are, in fact, the most heart-stoppingly handsome man who has ever walked the face of the earth, Mr. Grey. And I actually did get you a gift… it’s just not meant for you to wear.”

“Oh?” His eyes shift down to my breasts, intrigued.

“Mhm. But you don’t get to unwrap it until we get home. You’re just going to have to be patient until then.”

He growls and pulls me until I crash into the wall, his body immediately overtaking mine and pinning me in place. “Patience isn’t really my thing, baby.”

I bite my lip and look directly into his smoldering gray eyes. “I know. That’s what’s going to make finally coming back here so much fun.”

With a want-fueled groan, his lips lower to mine. I’m ravaged by his tongue while his hands fist into the fabric of my dress, a vague threat that he could, if he wanted to, just rip it away.

“Let me see it,” he whispers into my mouth. “Give me something to fantasize about all night.”

“Trust me, the second you see it, you’re not going to care about anything else but fucking me. Since I have somewhere to be, you’re just going to have to use your imagination.”

“Must I?” His lips find mine again and his hands move down from my waist to my hips. I can feel his fingers digging into my dress and pulling it up. The loose hem of my skirt skims softly over my skin as it rises up over my thighs. His tongue is half way down my throat, his hands move to my now exposed ass, and his rock hard erection presses into my hip, which is of course the exact moment Abby bursts into my suite.

“Ana, we’re rea—oh my god, I’m so sorry!” She nearly trips over her shoes as she stumbles backwards out of the room, but the distraction is enough for me to slip out of Christian’s grip.

“You heard her,” I tell him. “We’re going to be late.”

The lustful glint in his eye shines back at me, telling me he’s not ready to go fucking anywhere. “I’m hard.”

“Well, try thinking about sports. Not the Seahawks, obviously, since that’ll just make it worse…” I smile at him, chuckling slightly at my own joke. “But, like… the Rams or something.” 

He isn’t impressed. Instead, he takes a step toward me and leans down to speak softly in my ear.

“We can go, but if I’m still hard by the time we get in the car, I’m going to have no choice but to lay you over my lap and spank you until you’re as uncomfortable as I am.”

I shiver, then close my eyes and take a deep breath of him. “Or I could just blow you in the back seat…”

He moans, then takes my hand and starts barreling towards the hotel door. Abby has to hurry to keep pace with us as Christian pulls me through the hallway to the elevator. Every update she has for me is better news than I had hoped for, so by the time Christian has me in the back seat of our chauffeured town car, I’m the one who pounces on him.

“Open your pants,” I plead against his lips, reaching over to close the privacy glass between us and the driver. His hands move down to his fly, then tangle in my hair to pull me down to his waiting cock. I don’t ease into it. With a long, satisfied moan, I take him into my mouth and sink down until my face is pressed so hard into him that I can’t breathe.

“Fuck yes, Ana,” he hisses back. His head drops back and his hands fall limply to his side. He doesn’t thrust into my throat, he doesn’t grab ahold of me to try and control my pace. He just lets me pleasure him, and the rare bit of control he’s seceded drives me wild. Every moan, every gasp, every sudden grunt of pleasure is mine. My tongue traces every inch of him, and he hums out how good it feels. My lips pull tightly every time I rise and fall, and it makes the muscles in his legs tense again and again. Every time I suck him into my throat, I purposefully swallow as hard as I can, and it makes him shudder. I even force myself to gag on him a few times, just so he can feel it.

“I’m going to come,” he warns me, so I start sucking harder and keep him deep in my throat. It takes seconds for him to finish after that and the guttural way he shouts my name as he explodes has me high on power. When I finally pull away and see him flushed and panting, I feel a rush wash through me that has me flying.

I’m starting to see why the dominance appeals to him so much.

“I love you,” he says through the harsh, broken breaths he’s still forcing out. With a smile, I lean in and softly press my lips against his. We’re starting up the block towards my party now, I can see the flashes of the cameras waiting for us at the entrance. So I lean back and give him a sheepish look.

“Am I a mess?”

“Just your lipstick. Here…” He reaches up and, with his thumb, brushes away the peach residue that’s smeared around my mouth. I reach into my clutch, cursing myself for not bringing a mirror, and pull out the gold tube to re-apply my makeup. He watches me try to carefully drag the crayon over my lips, but when I hesitate over my cupid’s bow, he laughs, takes the lipstick from me, and colors the rest in himself.

“How do I look?” I ask, rubbing my lips together and leaning back.

He smiles. “Like a fucking dream.”

I hum with affection and grab onto his hand as the car comes to a stop. But when the door opens, he doesn’t let me pull him out with me.

“Take a couple seconds for yourself,” he says instead. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Giving his hand three, quick, I love you squeezes, I step out onto the street by myself. Cameras flash a few times while I move toward the entrance of the venue, and I’m shocked by how many of them are here. This is just a small party, not much different from the one I’d attended with Christian back in June for The Black Rose. I suppose Meghan Michaels attendance was bound to draw the interest of the paparazzi, but when the car door opens behind me and I’m suddenly engulfed in an explosion of light, the photographer’s presence suddenly becomes very clear. Christian’s name flies over my shoulder and I turn to look at him. He doesn’t stop to soak in any of the attention the way he would at a GEH event. Instead, with his head down, he walks to stand behind me, and wraps his arms around my waist. Only then does he look up at the cameras.

I lean back into him and let the bliss I feel being pressed against his chest shine through in my face. He kisses my cheek and I bask in the affection. When I turn and press my lips against his, he holds me tight against him and gives me the most passionate kiss he can, knowing the pictures will be public in just a few short hours. I turn and smile while he keeps adoring eyes focused on me, then I take him by the hand and lead him inside.

He doesn’t even blink over it.

I’d been worried the venue we’d picked for tonight’s party was too large, we only expected around 100 people. Stepping through the front doors, I realize we didn’t choose a space large enough. The place is packed, and the moment we come through the door, every pair of eyes in the room seems to find us.

“Mr. Grey,” a man standing a few feet away from us says, moving forward with his hand outstretched. “My name is Aaron Michelson, I work with JetBlue Airways. If you have a moment to talk about Endurance…”

“I don’t,” Christian interjects. “I’m only here to support my brilliant wife. Excuse us.” He pushes me away from the man opening and closing his mouth like a sea bass behind us, and ignores several other cries for his attention until we spot Carmen near the bar. She’s surrounded by a small crowd of people herself. As we approach, I can hear the heaps of praise they lay on her for her ingenious idea.

“The industry has changed,” she says, profoundly. “I knew we needed to find a way to compete with self-publishing, this seemed like the most reliable way to do that.”

“You’re just full of great ideas, aren’t you?” Christian says, bitterly. Carmen jumps and turns to face us, but her eyes don’t even pass over me. She sees Christian and starts to glare.

“Grey.”

“It’s not a great sign of leadership if you can’t even give the people underneath you credit when it’s due.”

“Yeah? How much credit do you give Welch when you’re talking about Endurance?”

“Plenty. I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Carmen rolls her eyes, then steps away from the interested looks of the people standing around her and pulls Christian to the side. “That was a real dirty play you made on Gutierrez.”

He laughs. “I heard what you said to Gutierrez about GEH to get that deal, Gallagher. You don’t want to have to contend with my wrath? Come correct next time.”

“That deal was the crux of my entire 2013 pipeline, Grey. Everything I have is dependent on that contract.”

“So?”

“So… what do you want for it?”

The grin plastered on his face widens. “You know what I want, Carmen.”

“Yeah, well now.” She grimaces, but Christian shakes his head.

“My reasons haven’t changed.”

“Well, there’s no way in hell. Not now. Not after this.”

“What if I throw in Barney?”

Mostly, I’d been ignoring their conversation, choosing instead to scan the room to make sure my high profile guests haven’t arrived without me knowing. Barney’s name catches my attention as effectively as if it had been my own.

“Barney?” Carmen repeats, though her tone is no longer hard and accusing. She’s interested.

“He’s trained under Welch, he designed your app… I’ll back out of the deal with Gutierrez, tell him I can’t manage it with Endurance, and I’ll give you Barney.”

“And my licensing?” 

He shrugs. “Someone might have made a mistake. Who’s to say?”

“I’ll think about it,” she says after a long pause. “I’ll be in touch with your office to set up a meeting.”

“My assistant will be waiting with baited breath.”

She glares at him again, clearly not appreciating the slightly condescending lilt to his voice, then finally turns to look at me. “Congratulations, Anastasia. Your launch party is a hit. Excuse me.”

She starts to walk away, but just before she makes it out of earshot, Christian calls her back. 

“What?” Her eyes are sharp. Christian looks back at her as though he’s made of steel. 

“I’m warning you, Gallagher. You make me wait for it, I’m going to come take it. And if I have to come take it, I’m going to take a hell of a lot more than I’m asking for right now.” 

“Is that a threat?” 

“Do I look like the kind of man who makes threats?” 

She sucks in a sharp breath of air that makes her shoulders fan out, then she spins on her heels and marches away. My eyes follow her as she moves into the crowd and I’m just about to round on Christian and demand to know what the fuck just happened, but instead, I spot Abby by the door. She waves over to me in a panic and I think I see her mouth that Meghan Michaels is here.

“Hold on, Christian,” I say, distracted. My hand falls from his as I move towards my assistant, but when I look back, he hasn’t followed me. He seems to have melded in perfectly with the group of people Carmen left behind.

The cameras are flashing just as wildly as they did for Christian when I step outside, though this time, they’re pointed at a buxom blonde who looks gleeful as she poses for each shot. She’s an influencer from Los Angeles who decided to write a book about how to become internet famous. It’s not exactly the most intellectual read, but the girl has 18 million PixC followers and I was in no position to turn down that kind of exposure. The way the photographers catcall at her as she turns for the booty shot, makes me think that I’m right.

“Anastasia!” she calls, waving me over. I move to her side and pose with her, ignoring any questions thrown at me and instead letting her take up all the attention. She’s the one I’m here to sell, and if I had my way, she’d stay in front of these cameras all night.

Unfortunately, she loses interest in the attention all too soon and moves inside to seek the spotlight from someone else. I’m stuck though, as my second big name, Naveed Bijan, steps out of the next car to pull up. He’s a comedian who has an impressive following and great wit for writing. I lucked out over him being just obscure enough that his manuscript didn’t catch the attention of the big players in the industry. I let him stand with just his group of friends for a while, then take a few pictures at his side. Once he’s ready to bail, I follow him in.

“If you see a camera, get in front of it,” I tell him before releasing him for the bar. It wasn’t advice I had to give to Meghan. I can see her sitting in the VIP section taking enough selfies that it seems foolish for the press to have come at all. I just have to hope that the hundreds of thousands of likes those photos will undoubtedly get will also result in a few subscriptions.

“What color is it?” Christian whispers in my ear from behind, interrupting my thoughts. He chuckles when I jump.

“What color is what?”

“Whatever the fuck you have under this dress.” I can feel his smile against my neck. “I’ve been picturing red.”

“Wrong.” I laugh, and he wraps his arms around me.

“You could let me find out. There’s a utility closet in the hallway to the bathrooms. All you’d have to do is stay very, very quiet.”

“You think so, huh?” I turn around to face him, my teeth set firmly against my bottom lip as I lean in and brush the tip of my nose against his. He eyes me hungrily, and I can see the idea cross his mind that he might just toss me over his shoulder and carry me back to said utility closet. Before he makes his decision though, we’re once again interrupted by my assistant.

“Ana, I just got the first subscription report back from Stevens. You have to look! We’re already at almost thirty-seven thousand subscribers!”

“What!” My hands can’t move fast enough for my phone, and I nearly break my clutch in two trying to wrestle it out. When it wakes though, I have more than just an email waiting for me. My screen is littered with PixC notifications, texts, missed phone calls, voicemails, and Google Alerts. It makes me panic, so instead of checking my email, I open my texting app. The one at the top is from Kate, so I read it first.

Oh my god, Ana. Go look at Kim’s PixC.

An overwhelming sense of dread takes hold of my heart as I swipe through my apps to open PixC. I don’t have to search for her name because she tagged me in the post. Sitting at the top of my feed is a picture of Calliope, frowning, next to a picture of Christian from last Thanksgiving making the exact same face. She’s captioned it, “No paternity test needed! @AnaGrey @ChristianGrey,” and she’s published it for the entire world to see.

There’s no need for me to look at the Google Alert waiting for me, but I do anyway.


Google Alert: Christian Grey

TMZ, August 21st 2012. Pictures of Christian Grey’s baby have finally surfaced and she looks just like her ultra-hot dad… or does she? The PixC snapshot, which was posted by a close family friend and has introduced Calliope Grey to the world, seems to imply that Anastasia Grey is questioning the paternity of her own child.


Next Chapter

Chapter 36

On Saturday evening, I have my hair in rollers while I skim through the manuscripts I didn’t make it through by the end of the week. It’s difficult to concentrate, and has been ever since I left Elizabeth’s office on Thursday. My eyes and ears are trained on my inbox, waiting for the Grey Publishing contract to come through. I was worried the jig was up when I hadn’t received it by this morning, but Christian hasn’t mentioned anything to me all day. And I know if he found out what I was doing, he’d definitely have something to say. Even if it was just to let me know that I’d been caught, and he was the one to do it. My fear now is that she’s just changed her mind, which would be extraordinarily frustrating after all of my hard work.

“Mr. Sawyer?” A member of the GEH security team, who Taylor is currently working on transitioning into our personal security team, steps into my office. When he finds the chair Luke’s been in all afternoon empty, his eyes dart frantically around the room.

“Smith, right?” I try, even though I know it’s pointless. He doesn’t look at me, he stands stock straight and stares ahead at nothing, like the guards at Buckingham Palace. After rolling my eyes, I nod toward the door on the wall opposite me and offer a half-hearted, “he’s in the bathroom.”

I’m not even sure he blinks back at me.

A few seconds later, Luke emerges through the bathroom door and turns a sternly curious look on Smith. “What are you doing in here?”

“Looking for you, sir. I came to ask you to let Mrs. Grey know that the chef has arrived and he’d like to go over tonight’s menu with her before his staff gets to work.”

Luke nods and turns to face me. “Mrs. Grey, the chef for tonight’s dinner is here and he’d like to speak with you.”

I glare at him, and grind my teeth at the annoying game of telephone that’s been going on all morning. “One more time, Luke. Call me Mrs. Grey one more time, and I swear to god…” I stand up in my chair and close the screen of my laptop, hoping I’ll be able to put the Greenwich Library out of my head long enough to make it through the night. Then I come around the desk and move past him, keeping my narrowed eyes trained on his. “And I heard him.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey. Understood.”

Honest to god, my hand twitches. Tonight is an extremely important night for Christian, GEH, and Endurance, and it has my whole household in a near panic. Gail’s been banished from her own kitchen to make room for a Michelin rated chef. Every available body has been brought here to provide security. There have been delivery men coming in and out all day, and my best friend is stuck in permanent CPO mode.

And I get it.

Tonight there will be three high ranking military officials, six senators, two congressmen, and the Secretary of Energy seated around my dining room table. It honestly feels like the only important person in the entire country who won’t be here is the President of the United States, and it has everyone strung out on stress. 

Well, except for Christian. 

He left with Calliope early this morning as if it were any other Saturday and hasn’t come back yet. Taylor’s been updating me as he’s driven them all over the goddamn city, and it seems to me like he isn’t planning on being home any time soon. They just met Elliot and Kennedy at the zoo forty-five minutes ago.

When I step into my kitchen, there’s a woman in a white coat waiting for me with a staff of people behind her. She pulls out an elegant looking menu and shows me what she has planned: a pacific northwest inspired meal including Hamachi, locally sourced greens, a fireweed bread inspired by native recipes, and a wild huckleberry cobbler. I’m obviously not about to tell a world celebrated chef that I have any issues with the personally crafted menu she created for me, especially because I don’t, so I thank her warmly and tell her how much I’m looking forward to tasting her food. With a gracious smile, she backs into the kitchen and I hear the distant rumble of the garage behind the noise that erupts around me.

I wait for Christian to come through the kitchen, and when he does, I’m dumbfounded. Calliope is asleep in his arms, her head resting on his shoulder. She’s still clutching a plastic bag filled with pink cotton candy, and there’s a white and purple fairy painted on her cheek. The shocking part, though, is that Christian has one to match. Half his face is covered in glittery lavender paint that swoops elegantly around his eyes and lips.

“That’s quite the look, Mr. Grey,” I say, smiling. He rolls his eyes. “What happened?”

You too, Daddy.” He takes a deep breath, but drags a loving hand softly over Calliope’s back. “What was I supposed to say? No? I’m not a monster.”

 “No, I don’t think you are.” My eyes sparkle at him adoringly. “But, I don’t think it’s a look that’s going to impress Senator Blandino.”

“Good thing I’ve already impressed him.” I laugh, then place a soft kiss against his lips before turning back to my office. His hand reaches out for mine and he tugs me back. “Come help me get Callie cleaned up and put to bed.”

“Can you give her to Mackensie? I’ve got like 3 manuscripts left to get through and I still have to get ready.”

“No.” He steps forward and grips my chin between his thumb and forefinger and stares deep into my eyes. “Come help me give our baby a bath and put her to bed. Everything else can wait until tomorrow.”

“But…”

“It can wait.” His voice is firm, so I nod and actually feel a sense of relief. I’ve been driving myself insane all day waiting for Elizabeth’s email, it will probably be a welcome reprieve shutting all of that out and focusing only on him and Calliope for a little while. You know, before this career deciding dinner. Oh, and did I mention my app is launching in three days?

I can feel the stress soaking deep into my muscles, so I take a deep breath to push it away and slide my hand into Christian’s. He leads me upstairs and I draw a bath for Calliope while he gently eases her out of sleep. Her face is immediately contorted with a sleepy, grumpy expression, but it melts away when Christian takes her to the mirror and lets her see the paint still lighting up the space around her eyes. She brightens instantly, pointing to his face and giggling. Then in the bath, she fights us both to keep us from washing it away. We let her keep the paint, at least until tomorrow, but otherwise wash the day off her and get her dressed in her coziest PJs. I plop down in the rocking chair and take her in my lap so I can read her a story. Christian folds himself on the floor in front of me, looking up at me with that ridiculous paint all over his face, my name proudly displayed on his forearm, and he starts to massage my feet.

I could die right then.

It doesn’t take long for Calliope to drift off, even her dad looks tired from their afternoon together. I still read the entire book, just so I can hold her in my arms a little longer. Just so I can feel Christian touching me. Once I close the hard bound cover, though, Christian gets up, gently eases our baby out of my embrace, and lays her in her crib. I sing a few, soft notes, just in case she’s still on the edge of sleep. But once Christian has the mobile swaying over her wound up, he wraps an arm around me and, together, we slowly back out of the room.

The second we hear the soft, metal clink of the door jam coming together, we’re all over each other.

Maybe it should bother me that he currently looks like a nineteen year old girl strung out on LSD at Coachella, or that the glitter fluttering off of him and on to me will be next to impossible to remove before our guests get here since I don’t have time to take a shower, but it doesn’t. Far from it. How could something that proves what a dedicated father he is do anything but turn me on?

Under the urging of his instant hands and even more aggressive tongue, I move with him back to our bedroom. The light is on in the adjoined bathroom, and it draws his attention. Christian glances up and spots Kate, perched on our bathroom counter, making a face at us through the bathroom door.

“Gross, don’t you two have an off switch?”

“No,” Christian replies, bluntly. “Get out.”

Slowly, a teasing, yet completely elated smile begins to paint her expression. “What. In. The. Hell…

Christian rolls his eyes. “I’d be very careful about your next words, Katherine.”

She doesn’t even flinch. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Christian. I think it’s beautiful. You look like a pretty little princess.”

Christian rolls off me and storms to the door, pushing it all the way open and standing to the side to make room for her. “Get the fuck out, Kate.”

She doesn’t move.

“I’m sorry, I’m really trying to hear you right now but the only thing that I can focus on are the fairy wings delicately framing your eyes. Seriously, how did you get through an afternoon with Elliot having that shit on your face?”

His eyes narrow. “You think this is bad, you should see him.”

She laughs, nearly falling off the counter as she doubles over and tries to catch her breath. Christian shakes his head irritably. “Kate. Get out of my bathroom.”

“No, I need her,” I argue, getting out of bed gently pushing past him. He looks as though I just stole his childhood security blanket. “She’s here to finish my hair and do my makeup.”

“And to cock block you,” Kate adds, finally finding her voice through the raucous laughter. “It’s literally one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

Christian turns a very unhappy look on me, then lets his eyes wander over my body in regret. Then he lets out a sigh. “Fine, I’ll shower downstairs.”

He leans down and softly presses his lips against mine. It’s sweet and romantic, but there’s a promise buried beneath the gentle caress of what’s in store for me later. Shivers work their way through my bloodstream so that by the time he pulls away, my entire body feels like it’s being pulled with him by some powerful magnetic force.

“I’ll be thinking of you,” I whisper. He smiles against my mouth.

“If I think of you, I’ll be coming down the shower drain. And that would be a terrible waste.”

I bite down on my lip with want and let out a small needy sound that has him lunging for my lips again.

“Twenty-three minutes, Ana. Oop, twenty-two,” Kate interjects, and I pull away from Christian in an instant.

“Shit! I’ve got to…”

“I know, I’m going.” With one last bitter look at Kate, he turns and leaves the room. Kate calls out her goodbye, letting the insincerity of her regret over his misfortune linger in his absence. I glare at her, but she just laughs and reaches for my hair.

Despite the fact that Christian hasn’t even started getting ready by the time Kate begins work on my makeup, he’s the one waiting for me as the end of the hour ticks closer and closer. I can feel him hovering in our bedroom and it does nothing but compound the stress building in my gut.

“Kate…”

“I’m almost done, I’m almost done.” She purses her lips into a pouty pucker and dabs her lipstick covered finger over my bottom lip. “There, you look flawless.”

I turn in the mirror and appreciate her work. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever not be impressed with her artistry. She may have missed her calling, except that she’s actually doing exactly what she was born to do. Snoop where she doesn’t belong.

“You’re a lifesaver,” I tell her. “Help me get into my dress?”

“Sure.” She follows me into my closet, then helps me ease the custom, cobalt blue, Karl Lagerfeld that Christian surprised me with this morning over my head, careful not to ruin my hair or face. Once she’s zipped me in, she stands back to appreciate the completed project. “Honestly, you should let me dress you every day.”

“Do I look smart?” I ask, twisting in front of the mirror and smoothing the lines on the front of the perfectly constructed sheath dress. Kate raises an eyebrow at me like I’ve gone insane, but Christian comes up behind me and grabs hold of my arm, spinning me to face him before Kate can speak.

“You are a vision,” he says, his smoky eyes raking in every inch of my body. “In fact, you might be a little too beautiful for tonight. It wouldn’t be good business if I have to give the Secretary of Energy a broken nose for his wandering eyes.”

“Well, you might just have to learn to control yourself, Mr. Grey.”

“Not when it comes to you.” He lifts my hand high above my head and spins me so that he can get a look at my ass in the dress, then sucks in a sharp breath of air through his teeth. “Absolute perfection.”

I blush and then turn again so I can kiss the lips that offer such sweet words, but Kate’s hand appears between us before I can make contact.

“You’ll ruin your lipstick and I’ve put far too much effort into this masterpiece to let Christian fuck it all up because he can’t keep his dick put away for a few hours. Get moving, Steele.”

Christian glances at her, then turns a too calm look on me. “You see what you’ve brought into our home.”

“Hey, she’s your sister-in-law. You could have talked Elliot out of it.”

He snorts and shakes his head, but the doorbell sounding from downstairs cuts off any smartass remark he might have. Kate begins to gather her things, and I give her a last grateful hug before I take Christian’s hand and walk side by side with him downstairs. Senator Blandino, Senator Hadfield, and Senator Takahashi stand in the foyer waiting for us with their wives.

“Gentleman,” Christian calls in greeting as we descend the stairs. “Welcome to our home. May I offer you a drink?”

“Good show,” Senator Hadfield replies. He leans down and kisses his wife on the cheek, then turns with the other two Senators to exit the foyer. I feel a shock of disappointment when I feel Christian’s hand slip from mine, then a rush of panic when I realize he intends to leave me alone with the wives.

I’ve tried to prepare for this dinner all week. Politics isn’t exactly my strong suit when it comes to conversation, so I’ve been sure to pay extra close attention to the news and any mention of current events. Outside of that, I have no idea what I’m going to talk to these women about. But when our husbands leave, they all turn expectantly to me.

“Uh…” I begin awkwardly. “May I give you a tour?”

“That sounds heavenly, Mrs. Grey. This house is absolutely beautiful,” Senator Hadfield’s wife responds, her Alabama accent wrapped like thick molasses around her words. The woman gives me a wide smile that seems so practiced I feel like I’m standing in front of a beauty queen, and the other two wives immediately imitate her.

“Great,” I reply. “Follow me.”

Luke steps out of the security office and falls silently in place behind me as I turn and lead the women through the house. They’re over complimentary about every room I take them through, oohing and awing at Christian’s impressive art collection, and the flawless design of the rooms we use so little I hadn’t even bothered trying to decorate them and had hired someone to do it instead. Senator Seder’s wife, who joined us while I took the others out on the veranda, laughs nervously at everything I say. When we finally settle down in the formal sitting room and are handed drinks from the wait staff Christian hired, it’s like an all out brawl starts between them as they clamor for my attention.

“So what is it that you are passionate about, Anastasia?” Cynthia Hadfield asks. She slowly lifts her drink and nine pairs of eyes turn curiously in my direction.

I have to fight my blush. “Well, I run a publishing company. So… books, mostly.”

“And that is so important,” Jamila Fox, the wife of Congressman Gerald Fox, interjects. “You know my husband just co-sponsored a bill with the good gentleman from Colorado. Educators all around the country have been saying it will have a dramatic impact on literacy rates for children under the age of ten.”

“That’s right,” Sarah Noriega, the wife of the other congressman, agrees. “My husband always says the best way to take drugs and guns out of young people’s hands is to put a book in them instead.”

“Is that so?” I take a long drink from my wine glass, nodding politely as the other wives jump in and try to impress me with the legislation their husbands have introduced, or their voting records on things they think will be important to me. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve been a nervous wreck over this dinner for days because I was worried I’d look like an idiot in front of these women, who are part of the very fabric that makes up our most important government institutions, but there’s so much ass-kissing going on in this room I’m starting to feel violated.

“And what about your foundation?” Mitzy Wehrenberg, the wife of the Secretary of Energy asks. “The Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation, what do you do?”

“We provide resources, safe shelter, and legal assistance for women who are victims of sexual or domestic violence, and children who come from abusive homes.”

“That’s so noble,” Jamila says, placing a hand over her heart as though she’s been deeply touched. “You know, I would love to organize an event together to raise awareness for your foundation. I’m sure you know, but Gerald is a primary candidate for President of the United States. I just know that he could bring so much attention to your cause.”

“That sounds great.” I glance around the room, feeling a strange hunger suddenly directed at me that makes me want to escape. “Would you excuse me for a moment?”

I can see the argument on each and every one of their faces, but I ignore the silent pleas and scurry from the room. Luke is leaning against the wall of the foyer just outside the door, typing on the keyboard of his phone.

“Important security business?” I check, he looks up and frowns.

“Uh… sure.”

“Sure?”

“I mean, I’m just coordinating with the team on the perimeter. Everything’s quiet.”

“Feel like coordinating my great escape, instead?” I ask with a dark laugh. He raises an eyebrow at me.

“Everything alright?”

“Yeah.” I sigh. “I just didn’t expect the whole ‘men go one way, women go another’ thing. I don’t have Christian to shield me and they’re all so busy talking over each other and interjecting themselves into everything I say that I’m starting to feel like an animal on display at the zoo. I don’t get it, they all seem to know one another but none of them are talking to each other. Only me.”

He chuckles. “You really don’t get what your husband just did, do you?”

“What do you mean?”

I mean he’s changed the entire course of the fucking future, Anastasia. It’s not just solving the energy crisis or reversing climate change. He’s made things like the kind of deep space exploration you see in Star Trek possible.  He’s reached out to organizations that help developing nations to give them the infrastructure that will lift millions of people out of poverty. Billions, maybe. Historians are going to talk about him the way we talk about Edison, or DiVinci, or Galileo.” He pauses, and takes a step closer to me. “Oil prices have been in freefall since the announcement. Each and every day Endurance exists, it becomes more and more valuable. I overheard a little bit of what they’re talking about in his office, and they’re throwing out numbers in the billions, Ana. Multiple billions.”

“I know! But what does that have to do with the women acting like lost puppies in my sitting room right now?”

He rolls his eyes. “Your net worth is about to be more than a lot of entire ass countries. That’s power, Steele, and that’s what tonight is about. Those women in there are just waiting for you to tell them what you want so that they can give it to you. And, in return, they’ll expect you to donate to their husband’s re-election campaigns, dump money into their Super PACs, and fund their pet projects. This is an exchange, you just need to figure out what you want.”

I think about that for a moment. Even when we thought we were about to lose everything, I’d never worried myself too much over the amount of money spread between Christian’s bank accounts. I could live at his side just as easily as I do now if he had absolutely nothing. Power is his kink. To me it feels a little… daunting.

That is what the uncertainty brewing in my gut means, isn’t it?

“Mrs. Grey?” a waiter asks. He approaches cautiously, like he’s worried he’s interrupting something important between Luke and I.

“Yes?”

“Dinner is being served.”

“Oh, great.” I turn back to Luke and gesture back to the room I just vacated with a nod of my head. “Will you let them know and I’ll go get Christian?”

“Sure thing, Mrs. Grey.”

This time, I don’t even hesitate. I reach back and, with as much force I can muster while I’m balancing on my heels, I punch him right in the bicep. He lets out a sharp yell and reaches up to cup the sore muscle.

“Owe! What the hell, Ana?”

“I told you if you called me Mrs. Grey one more time…”

He glares at me, then shakes his head. “Oh, you just wait, I’m going to get you so bad later.”

“I’ll look forward to watching you try.” I give him a simpering smile, then turn for Christian’s office. I can hear him still muttering threats under his breath as I round the corner.

“Christian?” I knock softly on the half-opened door and take a step inside. The men all turn to look at me, though Christian is the only one who doesn’t seem angered by my interruption.

“Yes, baby?”

“Dinner is being served, if you’d like to join us in the dining room.”

“Impeccable timing,” he says, smiling. Then he rises from his seat and motions for the other men in the room to do the same. Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly after what Luke just told me, the men do exactly as he says, as though they’re a pack of trained German Shepherds.

I take the hand Christian offers me and walk with him from his office, falling into the background as their conversation picks up where I’d interrupted them. We emerge in the dining room to find the wives already seated, finally chatting amongst themselves. The men file into the empty seats dotted between them.

“Would you look at that?” Cynthia says, when she looks up and sees Christian pull my chair out for me. She turns and smacks her husband lightly across his sport coat. “You see, that is chivalry. How come you never dote on me like that?”

Her husband ignores her.

“It’s like I was saying, Grey,” he begins instead. “Your vision is noble, but you’re never going to achieve it without the intervention of the United States government.”

“Hence why I’ve invited you here this evening.” 

“So, we have a deal?” 

“We’ve always had a deal. At $70 billion.”

The Senator shakes his head. “I can’t get that without going through Congress.” 

“Then I suggest you go to Congress.” 

“The Senate is controlled by conservatives,” Senator Blandino interjects. “We won’t get $70 billion for anything but war.” 

“Perhaps they’ll change their minds when the United States starts dramatically falling behind the rest of the world in energy production. My company has already been contacted by the leaders of several foreign governments who seem much less hesitant to give me what I’m asking for…” 

That makes several of the officials around the table straighten nervously. “Which governments?” the Army officer with three stars displayed across his chest asks from across the table. 

Christian shrugs and takes a very lazy drink of wine. “Why don’t you go pull up a list of every member of the United Nations. That ought to give you a good idea.” 

Anxious looks fly around me, and Senator Hadfield clears his throat. “I think we’d all agree that it is in all of our best interest as Americans to see our country and our economy thrive. You seem to be the one with your thumb on that pulse right now, Grey. Perhaps you should think of it as service to your country.”

“You see, that’s the problem, Senator. I don’t much care about service to my country, and what you’re asking for is practically welfare.”

“That’s interesting,” Senator Hadfield says, then he turns to me. “Mrs. Grey, your father served in the military, isn’t that right?”

I nod. “Yes, he was a Captain in the Army.”

“An impressive one,” the Army officer speaks up. “I checked his service records and they’re exemplary. He fought in Desert Storm, deployed to Afghanistan three days after September 11th, and two tours in Iraq. He received a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery fighting along the Syrian border. You should be proud.”

“I am. Very.”

“He was in an insurgent attack a few months before his discharge,” the man continues. “Eight men were lost under heavy artillery and airstrikes. That must have been extremely traumatic for him.”

“What?”

The man’s brow crinkles. “Surely you know he received a medal of valor?”

“Yes, for saving a man’s life…”

Three men’s lives. He pulled them out of a burning building after it had sustained several minutes of bombing.”

My face goes blank, and Christian moves his hand to my knee under the table. “General, Captain Steele has chosen to keep much of the experiences he endured during his time in Iraq private. I wish you would respect his wishes. There’s no reason to worry my wife over things that have already happened and are now in the past.”

“My apologies, Mr. Grey. I wasn’t aware… but it brings me back to my point. That building was merely a casualty alongside the insurgents’ real target. A petroleum reserve. Had we had Endurance, there would have been no target. No fuel for the flames that ignited that structure. It’s possible Captain Steele would have never been in that building.”

I feel a heavy thud in my chest, then turn wearily to Christian. He’s already staring at me.

“With Endurance,” another of the military officials continues, “ Our armed forces will be more prepared to face siege under enemy fire than we’ve ever been. No more will our boys be put in danger by a cargo truck in a caravan transporting gasoline, or have their lives put in jeopardy because they have to refuel in enemy territory. Think of the airmen who won’t be lost in a mission because they won’t run out of fuel somewhere over the ocean. Think of all the military men, like Captain Steele, whose lives could be saved by this technology.”

Christian glances at the man in uniform across from him, then back at me. There’s a conflict in his eyes, but I can’t read what it is. Before I figure it out, he squeezes my hand under the table and turns back to Congressman Fox.

“Do you know why I started this project, Congressman?” 

“No, I’m afraid I don’t.” 

“During my wife’s final year at Harvard, she was relentlessly stalked and threatened by a man who had a vendetta against me. She was terrified, and I did everything I was supposed to do. I went to the police. Several times, in fact. But they never did anything to help her. To protect her. By the end, it became glaringly obvious that the police were actually helping the man terrorizing my family.”

“I uh… I’m very sorry, Mr. Grey. That must have been a terribly uncomfortable situation…”

“Uncomfortable? That man sent people into my home who murdered my nanny and held a gun to the head of my two month old daughter. That man fired on my security team, on his own people, and on me. He tried to take my wife so he could rape her, and it was not the police who stopped him. It was the police who created the diversion that almost let him get away with it. Does that sound uncomfortable to you?”

A fork drops on a plate, and I briefly glance at Mitzy to find she’s suddenly gone as pale as a ghost. Christian squeezes my knee under the table, checking on me. I have a vague idea where he may be going with this, so I take a breath to calm my pounding heart, reach down, and squeeze back. 

I’m okay. Keep going.

“The officers who helped that man come after the people I love are still hiding in the Seattle Police Department,” Christian continues.  “The city’s revenue shortfalls this year mean there isn’t money for an investigation and without one we’ll never get justice. I’ve tried to give them the money myself, but apparently… there’s a conflict of interest. Can you get me the names of those officers, Senator?”

He blinks for a moment, then his eyes shift to the government officials around the table. One by one, they start to nod. “Uh, yeah. Yes, I could pull some strings and reallocate some funds for an investigation. We’ll call it a routine examination of police misconduct.”

“Then I might just be willing to make a deal,” Christian adds. “In the interest of serving my country.” 

Every single person around the table perks up. “You would?” 

“As long as the contract is very clear that any Endurance technology will remain entirely under GEH control.” 

“Well now, let’s not be unreasonable, Grey. Do you know the kind of clearance you’d have to get to have access to the things Endurance will be integrated with?” 

“I assume it’ll probably be fairly high.” 

The Congressman starts to grind his teeth, so I turn to him with a clueless kind of smile. “You know, Jamilla and I were just talking earlier this evening about how wonderful it would be to have this deal made by tonight. It would give us such a wonderful opportunity to stay connected and work closely together, possibly on a fundraising event for your presidential campaign. How much am I allowed to donate to your super pac, Jamilla?”

“No limit,” she squeaks.

 “Interesting.”

Jamilla starts to glow and turns excited eyes on her husband. The muscles in his face go tight as he turns to Senator Blandino. “Technically, he’s the only fusion energy expert in the world. We might need him and his company regardless. I say we make the deal, and we get him the clearance.” 

There’s a murmur of agreement around the table that eventually reaches Senator Blandino.

“Then, I think we have a deal.” He reaches across the table to shake Christian’s hand, which Christian takes with a firm grip and a triumphant grin. 

“Well, I don’t think we need to intrude on your evening any more,” Senator Takahashi says, getting to his feet. The elegant dinner laid out in front of us has only been half eaten and there hasn’t even been mention yet of the cobbler waiting for dessert, but that doesn’t phase any of them. It’s clear, as they file out, that they came for that handshake. Now that they have it, they’re done with us. It makes me nervous about the promise that was just made to me.

“Thank you for an excellent evening, Grey,” Congressman Fox says, reaching out to shake Christian’s hand one last time. “You might be just about to become the richest man in the world, my good friend.”

Christian puts an arm around me. “I already am.”

With a nod, our guests turn to file out of the foyer, but Christian calls out to stop the imposing one near the back.

“Yes, Mr. Grey?” Senator Blandino asks, turning back to face us.

“My head of security, Jason Taylor, will be reaching out to your office this week regarding the investigation. I expect it will be done extremely timely.”

“Right. Yes. Very good.” He gives us an awkward smile, then turns to leave. I don’t even get to watch the door close before Christian sweeps me up into his arms.

“I can’t believe you did that,” I say, breathlessly. “I’d given up on that. I didn’t think…” 

He pulls back and grabs my chin, holding my face so that he can hold my gaze. “I told you that I would protect you. I told you that no one would come for us ever again. I’m going to take over the world, Anastasia. And I’m going to rule it for you.” 

He leans down and kisses me, but I’m smiling so broadly that it’s difficult for him to find any kind of real purchase. He doesn’t seem bothered. In fact, it makes him grin too. 

“And the way you came in at the end to set the stakes. To seal the deal. I knew we were a good team but you… you were magnificent. I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately, but you have me rock-fucking-hard.”

He reaches down and sweeps me into his arms, and I let out an elated shriek as he starts up the stairs. He dumps me on the bed the moment we’re in the bedroom and then towers over me. The look in his eyes instantly makes me wet.

“I’m going to make you safe word,” he says, and the desperate need on my face instantly goes cold.

“What? What did I do?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not a punishment, Ana. This is a reward. I’m going to make you come until you say ‘red.’”

“What?”

He gives me a crooked smile, then crawls onto the bed, over the top of me. His mouth sinks into mine, pushing deep into me. I’m just getting lost in his kiss, when he pulls back.

“Just for tonight,” he says, so softly I can barely hear him. “You may come for my fingers.”

I shudder with pleasure at the thought, then moan as his lips start moving down my body. He peels my dress off me slowly, kissing each new inch of skin he exposes until he slips the fabric completely off of me. When he removes my panties, he purposefully holds my gaze, then he slowly lowers them into his back pocket. 

Fuck.

His lips wrap around my big toe, and his hands massage the arches of my feet. His tongue begins the journey up my ankle, then my calf, my knee, my thigh… all the way up until he’s hovering over my clit with his lips.

“I love you, Anastasia. And I am incredibly proud to have you by my side. I want you to think about that while you scream for me.” Then his mouth is on me. He’s slow at first, taking his time as he licks the arousal around my lips and sucks gently at my clit. The closer I get to orgasm, the more aggressive he becomes. His tongue flicks against me so intensely, I try to pull away from him. His hands lock down on my hips, pulling me back to his mouth, and he starts to suck again. The warmth comes in pulses, with every pull of his lips. It starts between my legs, then works its way up my stomach, through my arms, down to my toes, and eventually out my mouth.

“Fuck, Christian! I’m coming!”

“Don’t hold back, baby.” I writhe under his tongue, the pleasure intensifying to a degree that has my back arched so high off the bed I almost feel like I’m floating. A small voice in the back of my head wonders why he isn’t more concerned about keeping me quiet. Calliope is asleep just down the hall, after all. But he never moves to silence me. He seems to revel in the sound of his name echoing around the room.

“One,” he pants, lifting up just enough to free his erection and plunge it inside of me. I scream again, then push back on his cock until I erupt for the second time. He rides me hard through two more orgasms before he loses himself. With a sharp hiss, he pulls out of me and strokes his cock until ropes of come fly out across my stomach. The moment his hand stops moving, he moves his face back between my legs.

“Oh my god! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

“God isn’t about to make you come, baby,” he growls against me. “Say my name.” 

“Christian!” With his fingers plunging in and out of me, it’s not long before he pulls another orgasm out, and by the time I come down, I’m starting to understand how you could be forced to safe word with too many orgasms.

“Wait,” I pant, pushing against him as he positions his once again fully stiff cock at my entrance. His hands wrap around my wrists and force them over my head as he drives in.

“That’s not a safe word.”

I pant with exertion, whimpering slightly with each thrust. It’s heaven, it’s hell. It’s too much, it’s too little. He’s suffocating me, he’s not holding me close enough. I can feel his come slipping messily between our bodies while he pounds into me, and that in itself is enough to set me off again. Tears pour from my eyes as I unravel for the sixth time.

“Christian…” I whine in protest. He pauses, but his hands keep their death grip on my body.

“Do you want to say something to me, Anastasia?”

I let my mouth fall open, but no words come out. I can’t tell him to stop. I never want him to stop. Even if it’s too much, even if it’s overwhelming, even if it’s gone past pleasure and leaves me writhing in pain, I don’t ever want him to stop. I want his hands and his lips on me. I want him as close as is physically possible, and he can’t get there without being inside of me.

“I’m waiting,” he says. A finger slides into me, then another, and he starts to pump them in and out. “Ana…”

“I don’t have anything to say,” I moan, and he grins.

“Good. Give me your phone.”

“My pho—“ His fingers pull out and he slaps me hard over the clit, making me cry out with pain. I squirm away from it, but the shocks from the impact shooting down my legs from the contact aren’t tormenting. They’re electrifying.

“I didn’t ask for backtalk, I asked for your fucking phone.”

I turn for the nightstand and take my iPhone off the charger. He opens the camera and points it directly between my legs, shooting a video of his fingers fucking me all the way to orgasm. Then he makes me watch it while he goes down on me again.

“I can’t… oh, FUCK!” I scream as the orgasm I’ve lost count of swallows me. I’m limp, my body covered in sweat. My insides are throbbing. When he flips me over, I can barely hold my hips up high enough for him to thrust in again, and I’m so swollen from his assault that he has to force his way through my tight walls.

“You’re not going to keep me out, Ana. You. Belong. To. Me.” He grunts with the effort of each thrust and it drives me into something deep and savage. As he hammers his way in and out, the things he says to me are so filthy and depraved that I know he’s beyond rational thought himself. We’re animals, lost in a carnality that has the power to erase us both as we blow each other’s minds over and over again. I don’t even know if I’m screaming anymore. If I’m making any noise at all. The only thing I can think of or feel is every inch of his cock sliding against my slick, sensitive lips. I couldn’t even tell you how many times he makes me come before finally emptying himself inside of me.

“Red,” I sob when he turns me back on my back and moves to plunge his fingers in me again. “Red, red, red.”

“Shhh.” His entire demeanor changes in an instant. His hands disappear from my skin, and his weight lifts from my body. He moves to the side of me, hovering next to me until I give him permission to touch me again. But I can’t. I don’t even think I can speak.

“Ana? Are you okay?”

I let my head roll over the pillow to face him. “Who’s Ana?”

He laughs, then scoots as close as he can without pressing himself against me. His eyes shine down on me with pride and love. “I want to kiss you, but you safeworded. I won’t touch you again until you tell me you want me to.”

I nod and his lips lower to mine. None of the libidinous fire that existed between us just a minute ago lingers in his kiss. It’s soft, deep, and filled with a thousand confessions of his feelings for me. I soak it all in, bathe in the feeling, until he pulls away.

“I have to go to China at the end of next week,” he says at last. “I’d like you to go with me.”

I blink. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve been invited to the Grand Palace in Beijing to discuss Endurance with the Chinese government.”

“That’s very fancy, Mr. Grey.”

“It is. And, I’m told, a great honor. One I’d like to share with you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’d like you to come with me. In fact, from now on, I always want you to come with me. I’ve spent enough time away from you, I’ve missed enough of Calliope’s milestones. I don’t want to do that anymore. I amassed this power so that I can do whatever I want, and what I want is to be with you. All the time.”

“That’s very sweet, but I can’t go to China next week. I’m flying to New York on Monday for my app release.”

“So, I’ll go with you. We’ll spend a few days in New York, then we’ll come home to refuel and pick up Calliope, and be on our way.”

“It’s not that easy, Christian. Don’t you realize how much work I’m going to have to do after the app launches.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to work overseas, and you can work on the flight. Besides, it might be good for you to not see the numbers from your release right away. It would be… healthy if you gave yourself a few days to be successful before you start thinking you’re a failure.”

“That’s not a bad point…”

“No, it’s not. Come to China with me.”

I take a deep breath, mulling it over. “But Carmen—”

“Don’t worry about Carmen Gallagher. If necessary, I will deal with her.”

I laugh, then shake my head. “I don’t need you to fight my battles for me.”

“I know. You’re a Grey.” He grins, then kisses me once more. “Come to China with me, Ana.”

It takes several seconds to mull it over, but it’s him that makes up my mind. Not just the words he’s given me, but the way he looks at me. The way his hands absentmindedly brush over my skin and leave goose bumps behind. Why the hell would I want to spend any time away from him either?

“Okay,” I agree.

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

He grins in victory, then lowers his lips to mine again.

Next Chapter

Chapter 35

Barney holds open the conference door for me, and I practically float past him. This is actually happening, and in exactly the way I want it to. Everything has gone so perfectly that if Barney weren’t just as good at managing my anxiety as he was at programming, I’d probably be preparing myself to be walloped with a sidewinder that was about to bring everything crashing down. 

As it is, I’m practically euphoric.

“I’ll send the file with the raw library data now so you’ll have it by the time you get back to GEH,” I tell him. “How soon do you think I’ll get to see the beta app with content?” 

“We’ve already programmed the testing criteria, so as long as your file translates into the system correctly, I can get you an updated version within twenty-four hours of the first load.”

“Really?” 

“Of course. I fully expect to be completely finished by the end of the weekend. We’ll have days to fuck…” His words halt and he grimaces as he looks up at me. “Uh… sorry. We’ll have days to mess around with it to try and find any bugs. Plenty of time to get them fixed before the launch.” 

“That’s excellent. And you don’t need to apologize.” I lean in, like I’m going to give him the low down on some juicy gossip. “I’m just as fucking excited as you are.” He laughs, then he seems to relax a little.

“You know there’s a joke we tell in R&D that Grey always gets what he wants because he’s got B.D.E., but that can’t be it because you’ve got it to.” 

“B.D.E.?”  

His cheeks pink and once again he looks at me with slight embarrassment. “Uh… Big Dick Energy. It’s more of a swagger really, like… the way he holds himself. It makes people listen to him and you have that. It’s almost like the two of you are so similar that you move the same.”

“Nah.” I wave him off. “He’s just got me well trained.” 

“Yeah, I think he’s got us all well trained. It’s his world and we just live in it.”

“Thankfully, he’s a benevolent dictator.” 

“Ha! To you, maybe.”

I laugh and Barney joins in as we make our way to the doors. After repeating my standing request to keep me informed of any major developments between now and our next meeting, he humors me with a good natured smile and wishes me a good afternoon before he makes his exit. I feel a giddy rush of excitement over the constant deluge of good news he’s given me, then take a lap through the floor to check-in with my people. I end up lingering a little too long at Luke’s desk, so by the time I make it to my own office and sit down in front of my computer, my inbox is full. Unfortunately, the email waiting for me at the top of the pile isn’t from one of my editors. It’s from Carmen.


From: Carmen Gallagher

Subject: Quarterly Sales Reports

Date: August 6th 2012   10:45 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

Attachment: 2012 Q3 Sales.exe

I’m not happy, and I’m running out of patience.

Carmen Gallagher

CEO, Gallagher Corporation


I click on the attachment the accounting team presented her in their meeting this morning and cringe at the numbers glaring back at me. They’re dismal. The Black Rose is reflected here, which only drags down the average from Stevens’ and Jacki’s releases. After that, there’s an entire month and a half where hardly any sales were made at all. Though, I was prepared for that and Carmen should have been too. 

She was the one who only gave me one more release and put ridiculous criteria on it.

So, it’s not the financials that bother me. It’s the patience part of the email that dampens the elation I feel following my meeting with Barney. Greenwich Library aside, I’m still looking for our next traditional bestseller, but the sort of title Carmen has tasked me with pulling in is a nearly impossible feat for the size of our press. We don’t attract the authors who already have a significant following and can command those kinds of sales. Finding an undiscovered author who is good enough to pull in 50,000 units sold on their first title and who doesn’t have the confidence in their talent to go straight to a big five publisher is like trying to find a specific drop of water in a lake.

And I still have to compete with Christian. 

Grey Publishing remains the dominant small press in Seattle, especially after The Black Rose fiasco, and every time I’ve gotten close to finding my very own white peacock, Elizabeth Morgan has swooped in and stolen it out from under me. 

I exit out of Carmen’s email without replying and dig in to a dark comedy Roger forwarded to me, telling myself that today is the day I’m going to make my big discovery. It has promise, but only for the Greenwich Library. As I type that into my response to Roger, the paging tone on my desk phone breaks the silence around me.

“Ana, you’ve got a call on line one,” Penny says. “It’s your agent.”

I frown and turn to my phone, pressing my finger into the button next to the blinking red light and bringing the handset to my ear. “Hey, Lydia. What’s up?”

“Oh you know, just checking in. Seeing if you need anything. Like… instructions on how to send me your manuscript. It’s really easy. I’ll send you something that you can respond to so you don’t even have to look up my contact information. All you have to do is drag…”

“I’m aware of the process of sending an email, Lydia.”

“That seems suspicious considering you’ve been editing since June and it’s August now, but I still don’t have that gold mine in my hot little hands. The Grey brand is hot, hot, hot right now, Anastasia. We’ve got to capitalize on it.”

I snort. “Don’t you think I’ve given you enough to capitalize on considering I handed my best author over to you, already?”

Hailey Lewis?” Lydia lets out a harsh, very unimpressed laugh. “No, what you did was pass off one of your fans to me who practically idol worships everything you say to her own detriment. I got her an offer from Scholastic, you know what she said? No. She wants to work with smaller publishers so that she can have more control and be more involved in the process from start to finish. Where do you think she got an insane idea like that from, Anastasia?” She emphasizes my name to make it her answer, but I ignore the slight because everything else she says has my interest peaked.

“She wants to work with a small publisher?”

Lydia makes a disgusted sound. “Of all the ridiculous things… No offense.”

“I’ve got to go,” I tell her quickly, already pulling the receiver from my ear. I can hear her distant protests before I set the handset in its cradle, but I ignore them, hang up, and bolt to my office door. “Abby, can you get Hailey Lewis on the phone for me?”

“Uh… sure thing.” I catch a brief glimpse of my assistant moving to the computer so she can access our contact files before I close the door. Then I pace my office floor until I get the page telling me Hailey is on the phone. “Line one, Ana.”

“Hailey?” I start a little too urgently. She hesitates before she responds, so I force myself to take a deep breath and calm down before I scare her off.

“Hey, Ana… What can I do for you? Please tell me you’re about to release another book. It’s rough out there right now, and I’m dying for some good content.”

“No, I’m actually calling to talk to you about yours. I just got off the phone with Lydia and she told me that you’d backed out of a deal with Scholastic because you wanted to work with a smaller publisher?”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe the contract they sent me. There was all this stuff in there about variable royalties based on tiered sales models and about waiving my rights to control the narrative if there was ever an offer for a movie deal. I’m just not ready to deal with all of that yet and I don’t want to get screwed out of something, you know? I want to work with someone who wants to help me build a career, not squeeze every dollar out of me they can.”

“I’m really glad to hear that, Hailey. Are you free this afternoon?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’d love to have you stop by my office so you and I can discuss exactly what you want out of this experience. Is 2 o’clock okay?”

“To go hang out with my hero while she gives me publishing advice? Uh… yeah.”

I laugh. “Good, I’ll send a car for you. I’m looking forward to seeing you, Hailey.”

“Me too. Bye, Ana.”

“Bye.” I hang up the phone and feel a rush of adrenaline so intense, I have to put myself through a few breathing exercises to stop from hyperventilating. Once I’m under control, I pick up the phone again and dial the extension to Luke’s desk.

“’Sup, dude?” he answers.

“Will you come in here for a minute, please?”

“Everything alright? If someone is holding you at gunpoint, say ‘waddle’.”

“Just get your ass in here.” He laughs, hangs up, and my door swings open thirty seconds later. I stare at him with an enthusiastic smile until he plops down in the chair across from me, eyeing me wearily.

“What? Did you solve the world’s energy crisis too?”

I shake my head. “No, this is so much more important than that. Do you remember Hailey Lewis?”

He scrunches his forehead briefly, trying to remember. “You were in a restaurant with her once. When I was tailing Alexis Young.”

“She’s an author,” I tell him. “She wrote Phoenix.”

“Oh, you mean the amazing book that could sell a hundred thousand copies that you gave away like an idiot.” He laughs, and I pluck a pencil out of its holder to throw at him. He deflects it, grinning at me. “Did she change her mind?”

“Yes! Lydia said she wants to work with a small publisher. I called her and she’s going to come by this afternoon. If I can get her to sign with us then all of my problems will be solved. Her manuscript is that good.”

“So how are you going to reel her in?”

“That’s the best part,” I say, leaning in conspiratorially. “She’s obsessed with Escape and it’s made her idolize me, a little. It might be a little sleazy, but I think if I just give her some personal attention I won’t have to do more than ask.”

“Well, look at you.” He smiles, proudly. “My little Annie Steele is all grown up and ready to take over the world.” 

Ready to? Bitch, I’m already half-way there.” He laughs again, but I’ve only just joined in when I have a sudden realization that has me diving for my phone. 

“What’s wrong?” he asks. I shoot him a guilty look.

“I told her I’d send her a car.” He rolls his eyes as Penny picks up the phone and dictates my instructions to Abby.

At fifteen past two, the car I’d hired to bring Hailey to GSP pulls up in front of our building. I’m waiting there with Luke and Taylor, who had to come down from GEH to keep away the paparazzi currently attacking me with questions about Christian. She steps out of the sleek town car with that same, nearly hysterical, smile plastered across her face. Her cheeks are flushed. Her eyes turn slightly glassy. I open my arms to hug her, and when she steps into my embrace, I can feel her shaking. 

“Thank you for coming, Hailey.”

She lets out a whiny squeal through her nose that is so high I can barely hear it. “Are you kidding me? Thank you for asking me to come! I feel like I’ve won the lottery or something having you basically mentoring me through this.” 

“Who’s the girl, Anastasia?” a papparzo asks as the men around him continue snapping photos of our conversation. It’s a hard fast rule with both Christian and security that I’m not supposed to engage with the paparazzi, but this isn’t about our personal lives and I’m trying to cultivate a best-seller here.

“Hailey Lewis,” I call back. “A phenomenal new author who is about to shake up the entire fiction world, mark my words.” 

The guy who’d asked the question smiles and moves toward me, pulling his camera to his face. Luke shoves him back.

“That wasn’t an invitation,” he says coldly.

“Always so violent, this one,” one of the photographers in the crowd says. Then every camera moves to Luke with the promise of a juicy new headline.

“Come on,” I say to Hailey, pulling her under my arm and turning her to the building. “Let’s go upstairs and talk.” 

Taylor lectures Luke about getting physical with the paparazzi the entire elevator ride. Both Hailey and I stand awkwardly in the corner, avoiding eye contact, while Luke is left to nod at the floor like a chastened child. He won’t challenge anything Taylor says to him, but I can tell by the twitch of tension in his jaw that he doesn’t think he was wrong. 

Honestly, I don’t think he was either. 

It can be terrifying being caught in the middle of the horde, unable to see through the flashes or hear over their shouts and questions. Luke’s gotten me out of some unnerving situations multiple times, and if the worst that comes of that is a few trashy articles about our security team abusing the paparazzi, then I’ll just ask Kate to put the power of Kavanagh Media behind us and we’ll defend him. 

“Thank you, Taylor,” I say, dismissing him the moment we step out onto our floor. He nods to me once, then moves back in the elevator, and I place a reassuring hand on Luke’s shoulder. 

“I appreciate what you do to protect me, Luke. Fuck that guy.” 

He chuckles, instantly perking up. “You know I always got your back, Steele.” 

With a smile, I turn back to Hailey and gesture for her to lead the way. She’s shaking her head when I close my office door behind us.

“See, that’s why I’m not interested in the big publishers and big contracts and big… anything. I couldn’t handle paparazzi like that. Having no privacy… how do you do it?” 

I wave her off. “Oh, they’re not here for me. The only time the paparazzi ever call my name is if it’s followed by, ‘is your husband…’. If you want to stay private, all you have to do is refrain from marrying an ambitious tech guy.” 

“Noted.” She laughs.

“So tell me about what happened with Lydia.” 

Hailey takes a deep breath and recounts essentially everything that’s happened since I left her in that restaurant with my agent months ago. She’s been put through the ringer, strung along, manipulated, told one thing and then presented with something completely different. By the time she’s finished, I’m a little surprised she’s even interested in publishing anymore.

“I’m so sorry,” I tell her. “I had tough negotiations when I published Escape too. They controlled everything. They even made me change the title.” 

“They did?” 

I nod. “I get it. Your art is personal and you want to protect it. I want to help you do that.” 

“I know.” She blushes and looks down at her hands, fighting the smile that threatens the corners of her mouth. “You feel a little like my guardian angel. You’ve inspired me. You’ve read and encouraged my work. You’ve made me feel like my voice is important. You’ve given me the avenue to publish under my own terms… I don’t know what I did to deserve your kindness, or your guidance, and I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay it.”

“You could start by working with me.” I lean on my desk, giving her the warmest look I can summon. “I want to sign you, Hailey. I want to help you bring your words and your message to the world on your terms, and I want to do it with you personally.”

Her brow furrows. “What?” 

“I’m being very honest with you when I tell you that I haven’t found anything that has inspired me the way Phoenix has since I brought you to that lunch with Lydia. Before that, even. I want to publish your story, Hailey. And I want to help you use it to launch a career.” 

She looks overwhelmed, her eyes darting quickly back and forth before she collapses against the back of her chair. “But… I thought you already did?” 

I shake my head. “I know, but I got overruled last time. It’s different now. I’m the Editor-in-Chief and it’s my call who we sign. I want that to be you.” 

“No, I mean… you already did. I just signed with Grey Publishing like four days ago. Elizabeth told me that your husband brought my manuscript to her personally. That was you… wasn’t it?” 

The smile on my face melts away into shock. “No.” 

“Then, why did Mr. Grey give her my manuscript?” 

Because he has a death wish apparently

I take a breath and smile again. “Because you’re brilliant and Grey Publishing is known for excellence. He’s a savvy businessman.”

She beams again. “We’ll still work together though, right? I mean, if I have questions or need advice… can I reach out to you?”  

“Of course.” The words come out a little strained, but I manage to keep my face pleasant. She doesn’t seem to notice and that’s good, because I mean it. It’s just that my heart is thundering in my chest so hard I can hear the blood pounding behind my ear drums and my entire body is singing with nervous energy.

She smiles and stands from her chair, so I move around the desk to wrap her in a hug.

“I can trust Elizabeth. Right, Ana?” She glances up at me, looking for reassurance. I nod.

“Yeah, Elizabeth is one of the best. You’re in good hands.” 

“Good.” She exhales in relief, then regains her smile as she turns to leave. I follow her out, but only so I can go straight to Luke’s desk after waving good-bye.

“We’re going to GEH,” I snap. He looks up at me and he must be able to read exactly what just happened on my face because his lips slowly lift his cheeks into a broad grin. 

“He didn’t…” 

“Yup.” 

Laughter follows me all the way to the parking garage and occasionally fills the otherwise quiet car. I’m happy that Luke is amused, because I’m certainly not. I sit there stewing, then silently rehearse the angry speech I’m going to hurl at my husband the entire elevator ride to his floor. 

“Hey, Ana,” Andrea greets me brightly as Luke and I emerge through the security doors. I stalk towards her desk and she frowns at my less than welcoming expression. “He’s got an important meeting in like ten minutes, but I’m guessing you don’t care about that.” 

“Not even a little,” I reply, storming past her desk. I hit the double oak doors to his office hard, throwing them open with enough force that they bounce off the walls behind them.

“You son of a bitch!” I snap, stomping forward. His eyes move up to me from his computer screen and, immediately, an amused smile touches his irresistible lips. 

“Don’t talk about my mother that way, Ana. She adores you.” 

I move past the chair I’d normally take and place my palms flat on his desk, staring straight into his ashen eyes. “I specifically told you to stay the fuck away from Phoenix. I just had Hailey Lewis in my office and she told me that she signed with Grey Publishing earlier this week.”

His smile widens. “Yes, she did. And honestly, it couldn’t have come at a moment too soon since our strongest local competitor is about to launch a subscription application that’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to contend with going forward.”

“What happened to all the talk about wanting to see me rise to the top of my industry and watching me rule over it like a Queen?”

“Nothing, I still feel that way.”

“Then why would you swipe Phoenix out from under me? You knew what that manuscript meant to me, you knew how hard I fought for her.”

“Not hard enough, clearly.”

“Oh, sorry. You’re right. I should have been strategizing on how to win Scott to her side but instead I was waiting for the EMTs to pull you out of a burning building!”

“Come on, Ana. It wasn’t burning.”

I set my jaw in place. “How did you even get her manuscript? I know she didn’t submit it through GP.”

“You store it on our home server and your password on the encryption is ‘Calliope’. You basically gave it to me.”

“No, that’s called stealing.” 

He gives me a slanted look. “Remember a few months ago when you broke into my GEH profile to access Elena Lincoln’s records?” He lifts his hands, weighing them like a scale. “Pot, meet kettle.” 

“I found her, Christian.” 

“And I signed her.” He leans back and the tight leather around his chair groans. “This is the game, baby. You are the one who wanted to play against me.”

“I’ve never done anything underhanded to Grey Publishing. I defend you. I’ve worked around Elizabeth’s bully tactics to keep from having to clash against you head on. You built my app for Christ’s sake! I thought we were a team. I thought we were going to grow together and build each other up, not go behind the other’s back to make shady deals. And you knew! This is sabotage!” Each word picks up the anger from its predecessor like an avalanche rolling down the hill. Christian’s eyes glint with delight. 

“You know, you’re incredibly sexy when you’re mad.”

Automatically, my thighs clench in reaction to his tone, my body already preparing for submission. I fight back the instinct and spit my words out at him through gritted teeth. 

“You wanna turn this into a war, then suit up, Grey.” I stand up straight and cock an eyebrow at him. “Because now I’m coming for you.” 

He smirks. “Not yet, you’re not.” 

With an irritable scoff, I whip around to storm out, which only makes him chuckle. As I yank the door back, I shoot him a death glare that only seems to humor him more, then move like a threatened animal back out to the lobby. Luke is leaning over reception, laughing at something Andrea said when I erupt from the hallway. When he glances up at me, the same heckling smile from the car returns to his face. 

“That was quick.” 

“Oh we’re not finished yet,” I snarl. “We’re not nearly finished.” 

Luke winks at Andrea. “This is gonna be fun.” 

She laughs, then looks up at a man who enters, carrying a temporary guest badge. I watch her greet him warmly, and invite him to take a seat while she lets Chrisitan know he’s arrived, then wrap my arm around Luke’s and pull him toward the elevators. On the way down I’m so heated that I can’t stop myself from pacing. I almost decide that I need to pop into Calliope’s daycare and cuddle her for a few minutes to get myself calmed down, but when I reach for the round number 7 on the elevator panel, I pause. Then I choose 4 instead.

Luke furrows his brow. “Fourth floor? That’s Grey Publishing.” 

 “I know.” The elevator dings and the doors slide open. We have to take a left down a small hallway to get to the double set of doors, and since there’s no security down here, I’m able to walk straight in. 

Claire, the receptionist, is chewing on the end of a pencil, concentrating very hard on something in front of her. When I approach her desk and cough softly, she looks at me and lights up like a snowy street at Christmas time. “Hi, Ana! What are you doing here?” 

“I just wanted to talk to Elizabeth, is she in?” 

“Yeah, let me check and make sure she’s not busy.” 

Claire picks up the phone while I glance nervously over my shoulder. The paranoid part of me is convinced Christian is going to appear at any second and bust me, but for now, it’s just Luke.

“All free,” Claire says. “Her office is just around the corner there.” 

“Thanks.” I give her a toothy smile as I move past reception, waving to the people who are still here from when I was in charge. Elizabeth’s door is closed, so I knock softly and wait for her to invite me inside.

“Come in, Ana!” 

“Hey!” I somehow manage to widen my smile even further as I step into her office and settle down in a chair across from her. This room is bigger than mine at GSP is, which makes me feel a little bit better about what I’m about to do. “How’s it going?”

She lets out a deep sigh. “Well, it would be better if you decided to scrap the Greenwich Library. Our submissions have dropped 30% over the past three weeks, and I’ve only signed two new authors.” 

Really? Excellent.

“I heard,” I lie straight through my teeth. “In fact, Christian and I were just talking about ways we could try to recruit more talent.” 

“You were? Why didn’t he ask me to join you?” 

“Oh, it was informal. I was just popping in to say hello, telling him about my day, and we started talking about work…” My hands flutter away the rest of my sentence, and I settle more comfortably in the chair. “I’m actually here because I wanted to get your opinion on hosting a joint writing conference. Christian and I were thinking it would be a good way to cement our influence in the greater publishing world while also drawing in a larger pool of new authors.” 

I’m careful to include Chrisitan in the decision making process so that she won’t immediately turn around and tattle on me. It seems to work, because I can see her considering it through her silence.

“Those conferences are a good opportunity for our agents and editors to make contacts, and it would be nice to not have to pay travel and lodging for them to go…” 

“And think of all those Grey Publishing branded marketing materials that will be sent out to collegiate English departments and the competition circuit. I bet even that will be enough to give your submission numbers a boost.” 

“That’s true.” She nods, like she hadn’t considered that angle, and then starts to smile. I’m almost sure I’ve got her when she glances up at me and creases her forehead. 

“But why do you want to do this with us? I’ve been in this rivalry with Greenwich for several years and it’s not exactly friendly. Wallace and I have nearly come to blows fighting over authors before.”

I give her the answer I would have given her this morning. “Scott’s gone, Elizabeth. It’s just me now and, from what I can tell, the only thing GSP has gotten out of this rivalry is 2nd place. I want to try something different.” 

She rocks slightly in her chair, letting my words settle before she reacts. It’s an exercise in patience, so I do my best to imitate Christian, keeping my expression passively pleasant, and staring straight back. 

“Well, I love it,” she says at last. “Honestly, it’s the perfect fix for what Grey Publishing needs right now and if you’re willing to take on half the work, I’m willing to let you do it.” 

I laugh. “That’s excellent. What does your calendar look like for October?” 

For the next fifteen minutes, we toss around ideas for dates, venues, and the types of courses and services we want to provide. The deeper into the conversation we get, the more excited Elizabeth becomes. I’m almost high off the sense of victory just at my fingertips. I can feel the power pulsating through my blood.

This must be why Christian is always at his most dominant when he’s in the middle of a hostile takeover. 

“This is going to be faaantastic,” she says, stretching her hands out for emphasis. “I can’t wait to really get started. Should we set up a weekly meeting time?” 

“I’ll have my assistant call yours,” I say, casually. Then I get up from my seat and reach a hand across her desk. “I’m really looking forward to working with you.” 

“Me too. And I gotta tell you, Ana. You left me with some big shoes to fill here. They all still think you’re kind of a legend.” 

I place a hand over my chest, trying to look taken aback, even though I really am flattered. 

“Are you kidding me? You’re so good that my people think of you like the boogeyman. When I told them Lynoel Pierce had an offer from GP, my editors said I was crazy for even trying to pursue him further because we’d never beaten you on a signing before.” 

“And you still haven’t.” She smirks and there’s an arrogance to her statement that plays right into my hands. I laugh, then shake my head in dismay as I turn for the door. Just as I’m about to step out though, I stop and turn back to face her. 

“Oh, before I forget. Would you send me a copy of your new author contract so I’ll have it on file for the conference?’ 

“Yeah.” She smiles. “Sure thing.” 

“Thanks, Elizabeth. Talk to you soon.” 

“Bye, Ana.” 

I leave the room and close the door behind me, taking a moment to pause and bask in the feeling of triumph. It was almost too easy. Maybe I wasn’t actually being facetious earlier. Maybe Christian really does have me trained. 

The thought makes me smile as I make my way out to Luke, who’s hovering awkwardly in the lobby like he’s not really sure what he should be doing. I don’t say anything to him as I wave goodbye to Claire and walk through the main door and into the hallway. He follows close behind me all the way to the elevator, respecting my silence until I reach out for the call button. 

“Well?” 

I turn a satisfied look in his direction. “I can play dirty too.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 34

“Well…” Barney’s voice is nervous. He’s been watching me wearily for the last five minutes while I swipe through the barebones beta version of the application he’s designed. “What do you think?”

 Even at this early stage, the interaction with the interface is flawless. Everything is so intuitive, I don’t have to ask him for help navigating anything he’s got programmed even once.

“I think it’s exactly what I asked for,” I tell him, smiling.

He lets out a relieved breath. “That’s really good to hear. I’ve also added a few features you didn’t ask for, if you’ll let me demonstrate?”

I nod and pass him back the iPad we’re working on, but he pulls out a laptop instead. The rest of his presentation is much less engaging as most of what he shows me is code, rather than a usable feature on an app that comes with sound and animation. But, his ideas are ingenious. He’s added an algorithm within the app that can personalize recommendations for each user according to their download history, and a rating system that will push popular titles to the top of each collection.

“Is there any way we could break each collection down to be more specific?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, this mostly sorts by genre, but there are all kinds of subcategories within each genre. Like, Nature . What if I’m looking for something specifically about bird watching, but the only thing I’m finding while I scroll through the library are books about sea life or temperate forests? Could we create a filter to narrow it down further?”

“I can do whatever you want,” he says. “It’s just about how much time you want to give me to manipulate the library data you send. Every criteria has to be set up to test every title I’m going to add. The more specific we get, the longer that’ll take to program.”

“And we don’t have that much time,” I sigh.

He shrugs. “It could be done in a post-release update. The individual data will be much easier to manipulate once the infrastructure is finished being programmed into the system.”

“But… I won’t have you after the launch. My contract with GEH was for the design of the application, not the administration.”

Barney furrows his brow. “Mr. Grey seemed to imply otherwise. He actually had all of my in-house projects reassigned so that I could make the Greenwich Library app my top and… only priority. He wouldn’t do that if I was going to be done after I’d designed it.”

That makes me fall back into my chair. Christian is going to do maintenance for me too? We hadn’t talked about that, and it’s not written in anything he’s signed. And why would he?

“I only gave him eighty grand.”

“And trust me, that’s a hell of a discount.” He laughs in a familiar way, like it’s a joke that’s been told several times. When I don’t join in, he shakes his head and leans forward across the table. “You really don’t get just how insane that man is over you, do you? The fight he and Bailey got in after she found out he agreed to do this app in the first place was so bad that I don’t think she’d be here if he hadn’t managed to pull off the fusion project. He was ‘sabotaging his own publishing company in the middle of a crisis.’ But he didn’t care. He’d move mountains for you. Literally. I think the man would figure out how to relocate Rainier if you said it was blocking your view.”

I smile, and reach out for the iPad again to distract from the elated flush that rushes to my cheeks. It’s useless though, because before I even wrap my fingers around the smooth edge, there’s a knock on the door and Luke pokes his head inside.

“Sorry to interrupt, but we’re going to be late unless we leave right now.”

I nod at him, then take a deep breath and turn a smile back on Barney. “Thank you so much for all of your hard work. This is so much more than I was realistically hoping for. You’re doing a phenomenal job.”

He beams. “Thanks, Mrs. Grey. Feel free to mention that to your husband.”

“I will,” I laugh. He slips his laptop and the iPad back into his briefcase, then shakes my hand and leaves. Luke helps me gather what’s left in the conference room and walks with me to dump it all in my office before we head out.

“I’ll be unavailable for the rest of the day, Abby,” I call to my assistant as we hurry past her desk.

“Have fun!” she shouts back. I wave, then Luke yanks me through the door.

In the elevator I slip a pair of gigantic sunglasses over my eyes, and instinctually move closer to Luke. By the time we reach the ground floor he’s nearly pressed up against me, and I don’t move until I feel the pressure of his hand on my lower back that tells me to.

“Keep your head down,” he instructs me. He pushes open the main doors of the building, and I’m hit with a sudden swell of shouting and cameras shuttering.

“Anastasia, what can we expect from your husband’s announcement tonight?”

“Will he put on a demonstration of his new fusion technology?”

“How did he do it?”

Luke roughly shoves an overzealous paparazzi who gets a little too close, and the guy stumbles backwards and falls into a bush. The flashes from the other cameras still pointed at me become more frenzied.

“Wait,” I say to Luke, pulling on his suit jacket to get him to stop. I look back at the fallen photographer. “Are you alright?”

He grins, lifts his camera, and starts clicking. I’m momentarily blinded by the flash, so I’m not entirely sure that it’s Luke who yanks me away and starts pushing me through the crowd. Thankfully, it is. But he has to struggle to keep an acceptable distance between me and the photographers all the way to the SUV in the parking garage.

“Get away from the fucking car!” he shouts, trying to clear a path so that he can put me in the passenger’s seat. There’s no movement ahead of us, so he slides his body around mine, keeping one hand wrapped around me and holding me tightly against his back while he pushes us forward. When he gets the car door open, I have to crawl under his arm to get inside.

Ever since Christian let it leak to the press that, actually, GEH had developed a technology that could generate unlimited energy without combustion or greenhouse emissions, the groveling has come from all angles. I’ve never seen a media narrative reverse so quickly. He’s gone from being a borderline scam artist who grifted his investors, his employees, and the tax payers of Seattle, to the undisputed, reigning king of the green tech industry whose brilliance and ingenuity will safeguard the future of the entire planet. All in the span of one news cycle. 

The paparazzi swarmed our gate the following morning and they haven’t left us alone since. Christian’s been on every local and national morning show, and requests for more appearances haven’t let up.

This is different from the other accomplishments he’s made throughout his career. It’s so much bigger, and that quasi-worship has transformed him from well known business tycoon, to bonafide celebrity overnight.

I even received a very large bouquet of flowers from Bill Fitchett, apologizing for his behavior at 44 on the night of our anniversary. He’d blamed his callous remarks on too much alcohol. Christian had blamed buying his last block of profitable apartment buildings out from under him as “too much not giving a fuck.”  

Once Luke is in the car with me, he lays on the horn and inches forward until they get the hint and make a space large enough for us to drive through. Then he punches the gas and we fly from the parking garage. Two cars follow us, and at every stop light, photographers jump out and rush our car to try and get more photos. Thankfully, Christian has had the glass tinted dark enough that we mostly stay concealed all the way to Laurelhurst.

“Who are they?” I ask when we pull up to my house and find two men I’ve never seen before manning the gate.

“They work in security at GEH. Taylor’s decided to start vetting them for your personal security team now that all this media stuff’s blown up. This photoshoot is a kind of test run for them. They’ve been specifically instructed not to interact with either you or Calliope while they’re here, so don’t be offended if they won’t talk to you.”

“How inviting.” I eye them speculatively as we inch forward, evaluating them as though I could tell whether or not they’d be a good addition to my security team just by looking at them. They do manage to keep the swarm far enough back that Luke can safely input the code to my gate, and then guide us into the driveway without any trouble. So I guess that’s something.

Although Kommer used to have a kind of death stare that was very effective at keeping paparazzi away too, and that stare ended up meaning something very different to me in the end.

Once the heavy metal bars slam closed and lock behind us, I let out the apprehensive breath that feels heavy in my chest. I never realize how much anxiety the constant barrage of flashes and strangers shouting causes me until I’m removed from the situation. It leaves me feeling tired and drained, but Luke seems to be having the opposite reaction.

“Ready?” he asks, much brighter now that we’re shut inside the garage and he doesn’t have to worry about shielding me from the paparazzi anymore. I roll my eyes, knowing there’s no ready for what we’re about to walk into, but climb out of the SUV and make my way inside anyway.

It’s chaos. Photographers, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe specialists, and countless crew members move in a panic through my entire downstairs. Several rooms have been sectioned off as photography sets. There are catering tables set up in the dining room, makeup vanities in Calliope’s playroom, and racks and racks of clothes in my office. When I drop off the things I’ve brought home with me from work on my desk, I glance at the rack with my name on it. There are so many designer outfits here, that if I didn’t know better, I’d think we were posing for Vogue instead of Forbes.

“Ah, she’s in here!” a woman calls behind me. She’s short, but the inky black hair she’s pulled up into a tight bun on top of her head, paired with her light gray power suit, gives her a definitive air of authority. I turn, smiling, and reach out a hand for her. She ignores the gesture, grabbing me by the wrist and dragging me into Calliope’s playroom instead.

“Start light,” she instructs the makeup artist once she’s sat me down in the chair, “and we’ll get heavier the closer we get to the cover shoot.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the makeup artist replies. She turns and picks up a cleansing cloth and as she starts sweeping it across my face, the woman in the power suit finally smiles down at me.

“Mrs. Grey, I’m Viola Carlson. I work for Forbes Magazine and I’ll be running the shoot this afternoon. Mr. Grey has requested that we make sure you have absolutely anything and everything you need, so is there something I can get for you?”

“Is Christian here?”

She frowns. “No, he’s running a little behind. But his assistant has assured us he’s on the way.”

I give her a tight smile that I hope conveys I don’t need anything more and a nod that’s meant to dismiss her. She picks up on my cues, turns around, and scurries away, yelling at a production assistant before she’s even out of the makeshift makeup studio.

Despite the pleasantness of her words, I have a strong feeling I’m very low on her list of priorities today.

“Your skin is fantastic,” the makeup artist says. “They’re not even going to have to airbrush you, I swear.”

“Thank you, uh…”

“Leisel.” I smile, then tilt my chin so that she can blend my foundation down my neck. I’ve only been in a chair like this a few times, but Leisel works faster than anyone I’ve ever had make me up before. I feel like I’ve barely started to relax when she makes the last, artful swipe of liquid eyeliner across my lid and takes a step back to appreciate her work.

Once she disappears, a man named Victor comes in and starts on my hair. I expect him to weave some kind of complicated updo on top of my head, but he takes out a flat iron and pulls it through my hair until it falls pin-straight over my shoulders. Mixed with the smoky eye and nude lip Leisel left me with, I look much more severe than I’m used to. Edgy. Like I’m trying to imitate a model in a high end fashion spread.

They take me into wardrobe next and a welcome sense of comfort washes over me when I see Christian standing in the center of the room, twisting in front of a long mirror to get a better look at the immaculately cut black suit they’ve dressed him in. Some of that comfort wanes, though, when I see the decently pretty redhead squatting down next to his leg, tugging on his inseam. When he catches sight of me though, he quickly shoos her away so he can move around her to me. I have to hold up a hand to stop him from sweeping me up into a deep kiss.

“Lipstick,” I warn him. He frowns, then lets out a disappointed sigh and kisses the top of my head instead.

“Mr. Grey?” Viola calls. I hadn’t noticed her standing in the corner. “Can we finish going over the concepts for today’s shoot?” She has a clipboard in her hand and she’s looking at Christian expectantly, like they’ve been interrupted.

“Fine,” Christian replies. He takes my hand and pulls me back to the stylists with him, shaking his head at the ties they offer and instructing them instead to get a very specific tie from his own collection upstairs. A new set of hands thrusts a white button down, a short, gray pencil skirt, and a pair of black thigh highs at me.

“For the shoot in your office, we’ll have you pose behind the desk,” Viola says. “Mrs. Grey will wear this and we’ll perch her up on the corner with some kind of prop. A pen and paper, maybe. Or a laptop.”

“Why would she have a pen and paper?” Christian asks.

“She could be taking a memo.”

“Like a secretary?” He sounds disgusted and Viola immediately starts shaking her head, stuttering over her words.

“No, it’s just uh… an illusion to the idea of the sexy secretary. I mean, look at her! Look at those legs. She absolutely wreaks sex appeal and we need to capitalize on that. She’ll look beautiful, I assure you. This is Forbes after all, not Penthouse.” 

Christian doesn’t look convinced. “Anastasia is the Editor-in-Chief of a bi-coastal publishing house and a New York Times best selling author. That is what makes her sexy. If you think I’m going to participate in a shoot where she’s treated like a prop, I have some very disappointing news for you. I don’t wear my wife like an accessory.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean… Of course not. We just… I… um…” Still stammering, Viola turns to the wardrobe specialist who had been practically groping Christian when I walked in. “Kiera, can we please find something else for Mrs. Grey? Something that makes a statement?”

“I thought he was supposed to be the focal point? Isn’t this all about that fusion thing…” Keira clarifies. Viola’s mouth opens, but it’s Christian who answers. 

“No, this shoot isn’t about me. It’s about us, as a power couple.” 

“Right,” Viola agrees, quickly. Keira lets out a frustrated sigh, grumbling about how all of her looks are ruined now as she turns back to the racks behind her.

I end up in a suit just like my husband, though mine is so pristinely white, I’m afraid to even lean against anything. Christian isn’t exactly thrilled that they’ve buttoned the jacket on me without a shirt underneath, leaving my cleavage on full display, but once he comes up, tugs on the lapels, and finds they’ve been taped down to my breasts so they won’t move, he doesn’t make me change.

They move the chair in front of Christian’s desk for me, and I’m supposed to lay down in it with my feet propped up on his desk. All while exuding confidence and power for the camera.

“Think Cleopatra,” the photographer tells me.

 It takes several minutes of coaching, so while they’re working on me, Christian excuses himself. Just as they’ve finally accepted that what I’m giving them is the best they’re going to get, he re-enters the room and places a copy of Escape against the pile of fake paper manuscripts that have been artfully strewn around me, displaying it prominently. Then he winks at me and settles down behind the desk.

“Alright, Mr. Grey,” the photographer calls. “Give me strong and dominant.” I snort and devolve into a short, but powerful fit of giggles and the photographer glares at me. “Mrs. Grey? Is there a problem?”

I quickly smooth out my face and shake my head. “No, sorry. I’m just nervous.”

“Then quiet on set.” He drones the words, making them pointed at me, and Christian glares at him.

“Perhaps you’d have an easier time if you didn’t bark at us like a cartoon character,” he snaps. “It’s ridiculous and it’s distracting.”

“Excuse me?” The photographer looks incensed, but Viola quickly sets in.

“Whatever you say, Mr. Grey.” She turns to her photographer and gives him a please-just-cooperate kind of look. “I think Mr. and Mrs. Grey would look much more natural without so much direction.”

“Fine,” he says sharply, then lifts his camera and starts to snap away.

I’m not sure what I’m doing, so I don’t move very much. It feels silly every time I actually try to pose the way the photographer wants me to or make a specific expression, so I focus on keeping my face as neutral and soft as possible.

“Good, good. That’s very sexy, Anastasia. Look right at me… like you’re gonna fuck the camera. Excellent. You’re going to have every man in America hard.” The photographer kneels to change the angle of the shot. Christian coughs and shoots a sharp look at Viola.

“Alright, let’s stop there,” she says, briskly. Christian bolts out of his seat and comes to me, pulling me up out of the chair and holding me against him as we move to look at the pictures. It doesn’t escape my notice that he positions himself between me and the photographer as we all crowd around the monitor.

“These are all great,” Viola says, sounding pleasantly surprised. “I like this one…”

“This one,” Christian says, pointing at a picture on the bottom left hand side of the monitor. “She looks gorgeous in that one.”

“Yes,” Viola agrees. “Then I think we’ve got it. Let’s get you in your next look.”

The photo shoot takes most of the afternoon. I’m dressed in a flowy, floral summer dress that shows off my arms and legs, then made to pose against the oak bookshelves in the living room. Christian takes a few solo shots with his Lamborghini, then we’re both dressed down in jeans and t-shirts and photographed barefoot in front of the fireplace on our veranda. They ask several times if we’ll let Calliope be in the picture with us, but after I go pale from the question, Christian makes it clear that it’s not even up for discussion. He does kiss me in the middle of a shot though, and that ends up being the photo Viola selects.

For the cover, we move into a formal great room that we’ve only ever been in on Christmas. There’s an honest to god throne sitting in the center of the rug, a lime green backdrop set behind it. I give Christian an incredulous sideways glance as they situate a crown on top of his perfectly coiffed locks.

“That’s a little much, don’t you think?”

“Our tagline for the article is ‘Christian and Anastasia Grey: American Royalty,’” Viola says, sweeping her hands as though she’s spelling the headline out in the air in front of us, then she gestures for the throne. “Mr. Grey, if you’ll take a seat.”

“One moment,” he says. He turns to the stylist that’s been haunting our footsteps, strips out of his tuxedo jacket, and rolls the sleeves of his shirt up to expose his forearms. I smile down at the blue letters emblazoned over his skin. They look brighter now that he’s fully healed.

He unravels his bow tie and lets it hang loose around his neck. Then he slowly lowers himself onto the red velvet seat of the gold plated chair. “That’s better.”

I’ll say.

With the top button of his shirt undone and those incredibly alluring arms on display, he looks like sex on legs.

Viola and the photographer exchange nervous looks, but they don’t say anything. They look too nervous to say anything, and that strikes me as odd. They’ve been tiptoeing around him all day, giving in to every demand he makes the moment he barks out the order. I get that Christian can be intimidating, but this is more than that. It’s like they’re terrified he might pull the plug at any minute. I just can’t figure out why they would care enough to put up with the deluge of commands.

Is it really this big of a deal to get him on their cover?

I move to sit on the armrest and lean back on Christian, resting my head on the back of the throne. It’s difficult to balance, mostly because the Balmain gown they’ve dressed me in constricts my movement, and the studded pattern that covers the entire dress looks powerful, but is uncomfortable to sit on.

“It’s missing something,” the photographer says after he snaps probably his tenth shot. “We need something to tie them together a little bit better, they’re too disconnected. Anastasia, can you lean towards him more?” I do, and he shakes his head. “No, that’s not it…”

“Here,” the stylist says. She races forward with the dark, charcoal jacket Christian stripped off and drapes it around my shoulders. Christian plucks the crown off the top of his head and places it gently over my hair. There’s no protest from Viola, so I lean back again and the photographer starts snapping photos.

“That looks amazing,” Viola says. “Christian, relax the face a little bit. Sit up straighter. Push the shoulders back, make that chest nice and broad… Perfect. Ugh, you two were made for the camera.”

“Mr. Grey?” Taylor pokes his head into the living room, and as both Christian and I turn in his direction, the camera flashes stop. “Your limousine for this evening has arrived.”

“Then we should be going,” Christian says. He gets up out of his chair and turns to nod toward the crew hovering in the back of the room. “Thank you for your time, everyone.”

“Wait!” Viola cries in panic. “The interview. We still have to do the interview!”

“Then I hope whoever will be conducting it wants to take a limo ride.” Christian turns to look at me, his eyes sweeping over the gown I’m wearing. “I’m just going to wear this to the event tonight, but you don’t look very comfortable.”

“I’m not,” I say quickly, trying to adjust the skin tight dress that’s nearly cutting off my ability to breathe. He nods his head.

“I’ll wait here if you want to change.”

With a grateful smile, and after giving him a swift kiss on the cheek, I dart upstairs. My makeup and hair are flawless from the shoot, so all I have to do is strip out of the Balmain, which, apparently, I get to keep. In its place, I choose an eggplant, Grecian style dress, made of silk, that falls just a few inches above my knees and is belted at my waist. It’s comfortable and a little flowy, which is a relief after a day of squeezing into one stiff outfit after another. I change my jewelry and spritz some perfume on my neck, then scurry back to the foyer.

Christian is waiting with the interviewer and our security team. I catch the tail end of his instructions to Taylor as I start down the stairs.

“… and we’ll be home around eleven.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you two to go alone,” Luke chimes in. “The paparazzi were pretty aggressive this afternoon, it’ll be worse tonight and with you there.”

Christian brushes him off. “We’re not using the street entrance and there’s security at the venue. She’ll be by my side the entire night, and I assure you there is no safer place for her to be.” He stares at my bodyguard for half a second, then smirks. “You should take the night, Sawyer. I’ve been told you’re mending a broken heart. Tonight’s hotel can be on me.”

I watch the Adam’s apple in Luke’s throat bob as he swallows back whatever smartass remark I know is waiting on the tip of his tongue, but he just nods. 

Christian reaches his hand out for me, guiding me down the final two steps and leading me outside with the interviewer, who he doesn’t even address until we’re in the limo and we’ve pulled past the gate. Even then, he offers half-hearted answers while pouring me a glass of champagne or staring at me like all he wants in the world is for the man to disappear so he can ravage me.

As the questions become less and less about the two of us and more and more focused on his fusion project, Christian starts getting evasive. Somehow, he always manages to bring every answer back to me. 

He credits my support to the project’s completion, and he suggests the first time he truly saw the importance of putting together a highly competent team was when he hired me to turn around his newly purchased publishing company. That’s a lie, but it doesn’t really taint the sentiment behind it at all. When the interviewer asks what he’s looking forward to now that his device is functional and about to hit the market, Christian answers, “The Greenwich Library. I can’t wait to see just how far Anastasia is going to surpass everyone’s expectations.”

We’re pulling into the garage beneath Columbia Tower when I wrap up my final answer about the GSP subscription service, which will have launched by the time this article runs. Christian tosses a hasty thank you in the direction of the interviewer and steps out of the limo, pulling me with him. Andrea is there waiting for us, an iPad already in her hand. She gives him a quick rundown of the itinerary for tonight’s event and hands him a copy of his speech to take to the podium with him. He shakes his head at it and reaches for the button on the elevator. The doors slide open, revealing Ros is already inside. She perks up the moment she sees Christian.

“I was just coming to look for you. This event is going to be incredible, Christian. All the right people are here. The governor, your dad, every member of the city council…” She bites her lip, as if she’s holding back a big surprise. “Senator Blandino.”

“Ah, that must be why Olivia asked for a plus one,” he jokes.

I’m surprised by his indifferent response, like he couldn’t care less that the very man he needs to help him make the connections necessary for the kinds of contracts he’s chasing now has come to see his launch. Ros looks at him as though she’s worried he might be intoxicated, and if I hadn’t been with him all afternoon, I’d probably be wondering the same thing.

He only had one glass of champagne in the limo.

The elevator stops and we’re released into the same elegant lobby I’ve been paraded through countless times at events just like these. The same brown nosing people desperate for Chrisitan’s approval immediately flock to us and extend their hands in congratulations. Jaqueline once again stalks us into the ballroom, giving him the exact same speech about staying on message and speaking in sound bites. 

The only thing that’s different tonight is Christian, who suddenly doesn’t seem to care about any of that.

We don’t meander in the lobby and make small chat with the Seattle business elite. He doesn’t stop to schmooze with the city council members. In fact, the only person he stops for at all is his father, and once their conversation is interrupted by someone else, he excuses himself and pulls me straight for the table where our name placards are laid before beautiful, silver place settings

“How do you think the shoot went?” he asks, pulling out my chair and flagging down a waiter so he can order our drinks.

“Fine…” I glance over at Ros, who is standing alone with a group of men I don’t know. She’s staring daggers at Christian, desperately trying to get his attention, but his eyes are trained exclusively on me as he lowers himself into his own seat. “Don’t you think we should go socialize a little? I think Ros might be sending you an SOS.”

He shakes his head. “When I’m ready to speak to those gentlemen, they’ll come to me. Until then, I’d like to talk about how absolutely stunning you looked this afternoon.” He leans in close to me, his voice low and sensual. “I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being awestruck by your beauty, Anastasia.”

“Stop it,” I giggle, closing the gap between us. His eyes move down to my lips, and a smile starts to tug at the corners of his mouth. I’d guess he was about three seconds away from saying to hell with the suits all around us and started attacking my lips, but then the lights dim and the crowd starts to disperse for their seats. Ros slides in the chair next to us.

“That was the COO of Chrysler, Christian,” she says in a strained voice. “He wants to schedule a meeting with you.”

“Well, did you tell him how to get in touch with Andrea?”

“Of course I did.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“It’s… It-I-you… uh…” She stutters, then presses her lips together angrily. Christian chuckles under his breath then turns his attention to the stage where Jaqueline is approaching the podium.

“Good evening, everyone,” she beams. “On behalf of Grey Enterprises Holdings, I hope you all enjoyed our cocktail hour and everyone has a drink… right?” She looks around the room as if to check, and gets a smattering of laughter from the audience. “We’re going to be serving dinner now, then we’ll hear from our COO, Ms. Rosaline Bailey about all of the exciting things GEH has been working on this year. And last, but most certainly not least, Mr. Christian Grey will come up here and…” she pauses for emphasis, “unveil the future of Grey Enterprises Holdings.”

This time, the applause is resounding. A small, gracious smile crosses Christian’s lips as he acknowledges the eyes that turn in his direction. Then he turns to the waiter approaching the table, and chooses each of the dinner options for us so we can share. The food is better than I expect, and the dinner as a whole is much more intimate.  No one even attempts to disturb us as we sit there passing prawns and bites of chicken back and forth, talking about things that are of absolutely no consequence to GEH. Though several anxious looks turn in our direction throughout the entire course of the meal.

“You’re not going to miss the Harvard/Yale game this year,” he says. “It’s the most important game of the season. Besides, Mia is going to be there.”

“But it’s in November,” I whine. “Last time I was in Cambridge in November, I got snowed in without any power or heat for days.”

A day,” he corrects me. “And that was a once in a century storm, baby. I think we’ll be okay.”

“But even if it doesn’t snow, Calliope won’t be able to stay out in the cold that long. It’s an outdoor stadium and that game went on for four hours last year.”

Fine,” he’s exasperated now. “Then we’ll go on a different weekend and Calliope’s first Harvard game will be against Princeton or Brown.”

I roll my eyes. “As if you could just replace the Yale game. If we beat them this year, it’ll be six years in a row. That needs to be Calliope’s first game, and if you think I’m going to miss a six year sweep, then you clearly don’t know me very well.”

“Okay, so we bundle Calliope up and bring Mackensie. She can take her back to the house when she starts getting too cold.”

I take a deep breath, then let it out in a long, hopeless sigh as I rest my elbow on the table and my cheek on my hand. “I don’t know, I’ll have to check the Seahawks schedule…”

He laughs, then shifts in his chair so that he can hold my hand and rest them both in my lap. It’s only then that I remember we’re on official GEH duty, in a room full of hundreds of very important people. And even then, I only notice because I realize Christian is shifting so he can look at the stage, where Ros is now standing beneath the spotlight, waiting for silence.

Her speech is short, as she’s mostly there to talk about all the other great successes GEH has enjoyed over the last year, and those were few and far between. She perks right up though when she gets to introduce Christian, which she does with such grandeur I almost expect them to start playing Hail to the Chief when he gets out of his chair. As he starts up the stairs, a crew of people sweep across the stage to remove the podium, and a gigantic backdrop begins unrolling from the ceiling. Christian accepts a hug from Ros, then takes a headset from a staff member and turns to face the audience.

The lights dim further, and since the whole room is done in black and silver, even the low glow still emanating from the lamps against the walls seem strangely dark. Then, in the center of the stage, a pink and blue light starts to swirl behind his silhouetted form. It’s surprisingly bright, considering it’s source seems so tiny. But it illuminates the entire room, making the silver ornaments in the center of the tables shimmer with flashes of azure and magenta.

“Ladies and Gentleman,” Christian says at last. “Endurance, by Grey Enterprises Holdings.”

He lifts his arms at his side and the screen behind him comes to life with a dynamic gray background, the word Endurance etched into the gray as if it were a carving in a slab of stone. There’s a stylized infinity symbol above the logo in a blue I recognize immediately, because I can see the same exact shade inscribed across his exposed forearm.

His presentation feels like an Apple unveiling. The speech he gives is technical, but stained through with the emotion of creating a cleaner planet and building a better future and creating a whole new realm of possibilities for the entire human race. The technology that is intermingled with his demonstration is so captivating that by the time he finally gets to the device still glowing on the pedestal behind him, the entire room is hanging on his every word.

Christian picks up a remote.

“Now if you’ll observe how…” he clicks a button and the light is extinguished. And not just the light from the device, all of the lights. Even the thin strip that shines beneath the main ballroom doors. The quiet, but the ever present buzz of electricity is suddenly completely devoid from the room.

“My apologies,” Christian’s no longer amplified voice says through the darkness. Then the light bursts back on, quickly becoming too bright. “Too far?” Christian asks. He holds up the remote, more deliberately this time, and shows that he’s controlling it as he returns the room to its normal state.

“This evening as we’ve enjoyed our drinks and the delicious food the staff has so beautifully served, the entirety of Columbia Tower has been powered by a device just like this one. A single, fusion core capable of providing 100% of the energy needed to power the largest skyscraper in Washington State, and our carbon footprint for the creation of that energy will be…”

He clicks the remote again and the screen behind him comes to life with a large, 0%.

There’s applause, even more raucous this time, then a Q&A session. The engineering and science departments of Washington University are both here and they take up a great deal of time hammering Christian with specifics that I’m surprised to find he can speak to as if he were an expert. The man Ros had said was here representing Chrysler has questions about Endurance’s capabilities, the flexibility of the technology, and exactly how long one device can continuously provide energy.

“Forever,” Christian answers, confidently. 

Another round of applause, then Christian ends the Q&A and exits the stage. I get up to meet him at the foot of the stairs, only to find myself caught up in a sudden onslaught of people clamoring to get their own second alone with him. He shakes hands with various CEOs, hands out his business card to several people looking to make a deal, and finally turns a charming smile on Senator Blandino.

“Ah yes, Senator,” he says jovially, reaching out to shake his hand. “It’s a pleasure to see you again. I don’t know if you remember, but your niece works in my office.”

“Yes. Olivia speaks very highly of you, Mr. Grey.”

“I’m glad to hear it. What can I do for you, Senator?”

“I sit on both the Senate Committee on Armed Services, and the Committee on Environment, Energy, and Technology. I think Grey Enterprises Holdings can be of great benefit to this country, Mr. Grey. I’d like to discuss with you exactly what that means.”

“Then we should set up a meeting,” he agrees.

“Excellent. I’ll probably bring a few other government officials along as the interest in the Endurance project is fairly far reaching. It might be prudent to discuss our future relationship over dinner, if you wouldn’t mind hosting.”

“Of course not. I’ll have my assistant get in touch with your office and we’ll make the arrangements.”

“Perfect. I look forward to speaking with you more, Mr. Grey.” The men shake hands, then Christian wraps his fingers around my arm, just above my elbow, and tugs me away from the others still circling around us like human vultures.

“Let’s get out of here,” he whispers in my ear. I furrow my brow at him.

“We can’t leave, this is your event.”

“And I’ve given my speech and talked to the Senator. I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to tonight, except getting you in the back of that limo and making you come all over me.”

I shiver, unable to respond as my mouth goes instantly dry. He smirks at me, reading the response of my body, and starts to pull me towards the doors again. Both Ros and Jacqueline try to intercept us on the way out, but he barrels past them like he doesn’t even see them.

“Hey!” I squeal as he tosses me into the back of the limo. He crawls in after me, slamming the door hard behind him, then hovering over my body. We kiss for a long, hot minute, then he reaches up for the button on the intercom and instructs the driver behind the privacy screen to take us home. The car moves, Christian grins, and his hands get busy.

“Oh my god! Christian!” I giggle when his fingers grip a little too aggressively to my sides. He smirks at me and dips his face into the crook of my neck. I moan. “What has gotten into you?”

He glances up at me, his gray eyes shining in the muted light. “Ana, I’m about to become one of the most powerful men on the planet. Certainly, the richest. I’m no longer worried about what’s expected of me, or what I should be doing. From this moment forward, I plan on only concerning myself with the things that interest me. This event doesn’t interest me. Talking with all those sycophants who want nothing more than to be invited into this project on the ground level so they can make money off my success, doesn’t interest me. What interests me right now is being as deep inside of you as is humanly possible.”

And that’s exactly what he does. My dress ends up around my neck, my panties fall in tatters to the carpeted floor. He makes me come twice before we pull through the gate to our driveway, and finishes spectacularly as the limo comes to a stop.

Then, he has to carry me inside because my limbs won’t respond, and I’m fucked so dumb that I can’t process the instructions he gives me before he pulls me into his arms.

Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better way to end the evening.

Next Chapter

Chapter 33

This time, when the sun comes up, Christian is wrapped all the way around me. It’s how we’d fallen asleep, and neither one of us moved an inch away from the other all night. Even now, when I need to get up and check on the sick baby I’d put to bed the night before, I’m struggling to wiggle out of his embrace. Instead, I squeeze the arm he has draped over the top of me and push ever so gently back into him. I’d meant it as the best I’m-getting-up-but-I wish-I-wasn’t hug I could manage, hoping that I wouldn’t wake him. I do, though, and his arms immediately pull and hold me tight against his solid form. 

“No, actually I think you’re perfect right where you are,” he says, his voice still hoarse with sleep. I hum in agreement. 

“I know, but I need to get up.” I push away again, but he offers no slack in his hold, so I don’t go anywhere. I smile at his persistence, feeling more wanted and cherished than I have all week. It makes it difficult to continue protesting with any kind of conviction. “Christian, let me go.” 

“Never.” He rolls on top of me, stretching his body over mine and using his weight to hold me in place. “Don’t go to work today.” 

“I’m in the middle of a gigantic project with very tight deadlines, I have to go to work today.” 

“I know exactly where you are in that project and your app is nowhere near ready for testing phases. Anything else you have to do, you can do from home. Stay with me.” 

I roll my eyes. “Coming from the man who has literally been sleeping at work for the last week.” 

“Exactly, I’ve earned a day off and the only thing I want with that time is to spend it with you.” He leans down and nuzzles my nose. “Let’s get on my plane and get out of town for a few days. We could go meet up with Mia in Prague and spend the weekend with her. Or we could go somewhere with a beach. Maybe… Bermuda? Bahama?” He starts to sing softly. “Come on, pretty mama.” 

I laugh. “And what about your daughter?” 

“My daughter would have a fabulous time in Kokomo.”

“Except that she’s sick.” 

The enticing smile he’s using against me disappears in an instant. “What do you mean, ‘she’s sick’?”

“I had to pull her out of daycare yesterday because she had a fever. The nurse at her pediatrician’s office said to give it a day and see if it went down, and if not to bring her in.” 

He leaps out of bed, scooping up the suit pants he’d carelessly discarded on the floor the night before, and pulling them on while he rushes through the door. I try to remind him to take the thermometer with him, but he’s already gone. With a sigh, I climb out of bed to retrieve it myself before I join him. 

He’s speaking in a gentle voice when I walk into Calliope’s room, too low for me to make out the words. I watch him lift our daughter from her crib like she’s a wounded puppy. She curls around him, making the most pitiful sounds as he cuddles her and starts to sway. 

“Owie, Daddy,” she whines. 

“Come here, Calli-lilly,” I say, moving around Christian so I can swipe the thermometer across her forehead. It beeps almost immediately and my heart sinks. 101.2. She’s worse than yesterday. “Well, it looks like you’re going to get your wish. I’m going to have to take her to the doctor, so there’s no way I’m going into work today.” 

He nods and brushes his hand softly over Calliope’s curls. “I’ll call Dr. Robinson if you’ll get her ready?” 

I’m so used to doing absolutely everything on my own that his offer comes as a shock. “Oh, great! Thank you.” 

He passes Calliope to me gingerly, then places a quick kiss against my lips before he darts from the room. Calliope starts to cry the moment her daddy isn’t in her sights anymore, so I sing to her while I get her dressed. To my complete and utter shock, it works. She stops mid-wail, tears still rolling down her cheeks, and stares at me. Either her fever is making her hallucinate or The Beach Boys might actually be the cure for all ailes in life.

Once she and I are ready, we head downstairs to find her dad. He’s in the kitchen talking with Luke and Taylor. 

“Yes, sir,” Taylor says with a nod. He turns away but Luke hangs awkwardly behind, looking as though he’s holding back from saying something. 

“Was I unclear, Sawyer?” Christian asks. 

“No, I just… If she’s not going into work and you’re going to be home all day… Can I… Could I take the day off?” 

Christian raises an eyebrow at him. “You want a day off? You’ve never asked me for a day off in the entire time you’ve worked for me.” 

“Yeah well, we were up late drinking last night and… uh, I hung out with Calliope all day yesterday. If she’s sick, I should probably…” he pauses, unsure of his next words. “Take it easy?”

Christian eyes him suspiciously, but nods. “Sure. Since I don’t intend to let Ana out of my sight, take the day.” 

“Thanks, Grey.” Luke turns to me. “I’m going to get a hotel room, so I’ll see you in the morning?” 

“You’re getting a hotel room?” 

“Yeah. You know, there’s… contamination here, or whatever.” 

I narrow my eyes at him. “What’s going on, Luke?” 

“Nothing,” he says, but it’s the same tone he uses when he says ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Ana,’ which immediately tells me that  whatever this is, it’s about Jade. He walks out of the kitchen. I pass Calliope to Christian and go after him. 

“Luke!” 

He stops and turns to face me, folding his hands behind his back and giving me a passive look. “Yes, Mrs. Grey?” 

“Don’t Mrs. Grey me, and don’t act like I don’t know you well enough to know you’re not getting a hotel room to avoid Calliope’s germs.” 

He laughs. “Brilliant work, detective.” 

Oh yeah, if he’s being this evasive, it’s definitely about Jade. I just need to make him say it. 

“Why don’t you want to stay here tonight, Luke?” 

“Because Taylor has very strict rules about staff bringing random girls back to your house for the night and I don’t plan on adding a request for a background check to my seduction technique.”

The excitement boiling inside of me fizzles out in an instant. He’s not going to see her. He’s just in the grief stage where he wants to fuck anything with two legs.

For all his talk about not being Kate, they’re exactly the same person. 

“Luke… that’s not going to make any of this easier. Don’t you remember what you said to me when Christian and I were broken up and I was dealing with it by partying four nights a week?”

He snorts. “Four nights a week? Really trying to rewrite history here, aren’t you?” 

I narrow my eyes at him. “You can’t lose her by losing yourself, and that’s not the guy you are.”

“Well maybe I’m not ready to lose her.” He turns around and walks through the living room and down the hallway that leads to the staff quarters at the back of the house. I want to go after him, but Christian’s already packing up to go.

“Ready, baby?” he asks. 

“Yeah.” I take Calliope, then grasp his hand and let him tug us both out to the garage. Once again, Calliope lies limply in her carseat, looking miserable. She doesn’t say anything, or make any noises at all really as we head out to the freeway. It makes me wish I’d sat in the back with her again. I reach back to hold her hand and the car is suddenly filled with the sounds of an incoming phone call. Christian pushes a finger into the bluetooth. 

“Ros.” 

“Good morning, you brilliant, magnificent, always right when I am wrong, titan amongst mere mortal men… uh… look I’m really bad at grovelling. Can you just accept that that’s what I’m trying to do here so we can move on?” 

Christian laughs. “But I was enjoying it.” 

She groans. “You were right, okay? I’m sorry that I doubted you.” 

“Thank you, but I actually didn’t ask you to call so I could say, ‘I told you so.’ I’m going to have Jacquline release a statement about the fusion project this afternoon and I expect there will be a good deal of press about it over the next few days. I think that’s a good opportunity to re-evaluate our prospects with Gutierrez in Texas.”

“He signed with Gallagher, Christian.” 

“And once I make a phone call to the Department of Financial Services in New York, Gallagher Corporation is going to be in serious danger of losing their telecom licensing. Guitierrez is about to find himself looking for a licensed fiber optics contractor, and I think the media coverage GEH is about to enjoy might just draw his attention.” 

“I guess I could send him some of our updated numbers… I don’t know, it kind of feels like a dirty move, don’t you think? Gallagher isn’t going to just take this lying down.” 

“It is a dirty move. And it’s only my first. If Gallagher has a problem with what’s about to happen, she should have been a little more respectful when she had the opportunity. Get me Gutierrez, Ros. No excuses.” 

“Alright, I’ll reach out to his office and let you know what he says.” 

“Good. Tomorrow, though. I’m unavailable for the rest of the day.” He hangs up the phone and glances back in the mirror, though I think he’s looking at Calliope instead of the traffic. 

“What was that?” I ask. 

“A statement,” he replies easily. “One every person who tried to come for me is about to hear loud and clear.” 

I feel a strong sense of trepidation brewing in my gut, but before I can figure out how to voice my concerns, a more pressing one presents itself. 

“Where are you going?” 

Christian signals, then takes an exit off the freeway he shouldn’t take if he’s trying to get to Calliope’s pediatrician’s office. 

“Dr. Robinson’s office said they couldn’t see her until three,” Christian says, turning again, and now I know exactly where he’s heading. “So I called my mom.” 

A few minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of Seattle Children’s Hospital. I stare at the imposing stone and glass structure and shake my head. “Calliope has a fever, Christian. Your mother is a pediatric surgeon. This place is for children with cancer. Don’t you think this is a little overkill?” 

“Do I ever think anything is overkill?”

“Your mother’s time is valuable.”

“Then it’s a good thing she values Calliope more than her time.”

He gets out of the car and pulls Calliope out of her carseat. I follow him through the automatic doors into the sterile reception area, but we bypass the desk. He walks straight to the surgery floor, then turns a charming smile on the young woman sitting at the nurses station. 

“I’m looking for Dr. Trevelyan-Grey.”

She blinks up at him and flushes a deep scarlet. “Yes, Mr. Grey. She’s expecting you. If you want to take Calliope down to room 201, I’ll have her meet you there.”

“Thank you.” Taking my hand once more, we make our way to the room she mentioned, flip on the lights, and close ourselves inside. Christian takes the chair in the corner. I perch on the exam table, holding Calliope in my lap. 

Both of us use the time to scroll through our emails. I even reply to a less than thrilled one from Carmen, which is a response to the message I sent letting her know I’d be out again today. She seems less confident than Christian was that I’ll be effective working from home. 

“Good morning,” Grace says, sweeping through the door dressed in a white coat and sporting a huge smile on her face. Her eyes immediately zero in on Calliope, and, as she sees the sad look in her eyes and the pink in her cheeks, she gives an overdramatized look of compassion. “My poor baby, do you not feel good?”

 Calliope recedes into me instead of responding. Grace nods and sets about the room, collecting what she needs to take Callie’s vitals. She’s sluggish, so it’s difficult to get her to cooperate with anything. Grace has to check her nose and throat over my shoulder. 

“Oh, I think we’ve found the problem,” she says when she places the tip of her scope into Calliope’s ear and she immediately screams and jerks away. I offer her soothing words, promising her Gigi isn’t going to hurt her. Grace peers through the device into my baby’s ear. “Yeah, she’s got a lot of fluid build up. I’ll take a swab and run it down to the lab, but I think it’s probable that she’s got a middle ear infection.”

“Oh, Calli-Lilly,” I pout, cuddling her close to me. 

“What does that mean for her?” Christian asks. 

“Well, she’s probably in some pain, so I’d get her some baby Tylenol. That’ll also help with her fever. But other than that, it should clear up on its own in a few days.”

“What?” Christian snaps. “Clear up on its own? She has an infection! Don’t you think she needs… antibiotics or something?”

“No, the fluid will drain in a few days and it’ll take the infection with it. If it doesn’t, then we have a bigger problem and we’ll probably have to put in some drainage tubes, but let’s not worry about that until it happens.”

“So you’re telling me that my daughter has a middle ear infection and the best you’re going to give me is, ‘give her baby aspirin’?”

“Tylenol,” Grace corrects him. “She needs acetaminophen for her fever, there’s no acetaminophen in aspirin.”

“The medical professionals in this town, I swear to God.”

“Christian, this is good news,” I tell him. “It means she’s not as sick as we thought.” He’s grumbling to himself, ignoring me. I turn to Grace. “Thank you. I’m sorry we interrupted your day for this.”

“Oh, it is a terrible imposition. But you could pay me back by giving me another grandchild who will get sick and interrupt another one of my very important days.” She smiles, but Christian gives her a severe look. 

“That’s not going to happen.”

Grace frowns at him. “Then I’ll send you my bill.”

“Good.” Chrisitan kisses his mother’s cheeks, then takes Calliope from me, giving her a look that says he’s sorry no one is taking her debilitating disease as seriously as he is. We wait for about 15 minutes until the lab results come back confirming Calliope’s ear infection, then collect the prescription Grace had written out and given to her MA that just says ‘baby TYLENOL’ on it. Christian crumples it in his fist, but puts it in his pocket instead of throwing it away. 

He insists that we stop by a pharmacy on the way home, despite the fact that I have plenty of baby Tylenol at the house. Then he corners a pharmacist and spends five minutes having a serious discussion about the best way to dispense the medicine, dissolvable tablets or a liquid. 

We end up with both. 

Once we get home, Christian immediately gets to work setting things up for Calliope. He makes her a little bed made of blankets, pillows, and couch cushions, then he sets her up with a humidifier and places a lukewarm compress against her ear. He gives her a dose of Tylenol, lies down on the floor next to her, and turns on her favorite cartoons. 

I bring them both a plate of lunch. 

“I need to go get some work done. Can I get you anything?” 

He looks up at me serenely, his hand gently stroking Calliope’s arm, and shakes his head. I frown down at them, because I want nothing more than to be doing exactly what he is. But I missed most of my day yesterday, and the Greenwich Library is a gigantic undertaking that requires tasks to be completed daily in order for it to be ready in time for it’s launch date. So, I lean down and kiss them both, then drag myself to my office.

It’s rough. There’s more than enough in my inbox alone to keep me busy for hours, but I can’t lose myself in it. My mind is completely occupied with Calliope. Trudging through the hours as I separate manuscript prospects, approve previous titles for inclusion in the library, send a few emails back and forth with legal regarding the changes in our contracts, and review shipping manifests for both the printing press and the warehouse, feels like fighting a war. Each task I accomplish just makes me look at everything I still have left to do. Things I wouldn’t get done today regardless of whether or not I was at home. I can feel myself getting overwhelmed, but I manage to calm myself, remind myself of the stakes, and labor through my endless to-do list. 

Eventually, Christian comes to rescue me. 

“It’s six o’clcok,” he says, grabbing the arms of my chair and physically turning me away from my computer. “You’re off the clock.” 

“Okay, I just need to…” 

He silences me with a kiss, refusing to allow any excuses. “It’s six o’clock, Anastasia.” 

“It’s six o’clock,” I agree. Then I pull away from him, log off my profile, and shut down my computer. He smiles at me. 

“I’ve missed you.” 

“Me too. Where’s Calliope?” 

“In bed. Mackensie put her down about forty minutes ago. I was just going to go wake her up for dinner, but I thought I’d come get you first.” He gives me a pointed look. “I knew you’d be the difficult one.” 

“Kensie’s here?” 

He nods. “She moved back in this morning.” 

I squeal and run out to the living room to hug her, but the moment I walk through my office door, I smell the most enticing smell I could imagine and it makes me stop as suddenly as if I hit a brick wall. 

They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and oh-ho-ho did I not know what I had in Gail until I’d lost her. Every single day has been more overwhelming than the last since she left as I’ve had to face the magnitude of exactly how much she really does for us. 

However much Christian paid her to come back, it isn’t enough. 

The reunion I have with Gail is tearful, as is the reunion I have with her cooking. Actual tears of joy spring to my eyes as I dive into her seared scallops. Christian laughs at me over his glass of wine. 

Having dinner together in our home feels like a rare privilege. We’ve almost forgotten how to work together to feed the baby and ourselves. Each time we bump into one another, or knock something over onto the table trying to get out of the other’s way, we start to laugh. He takes my apparently very clumsy hands in his after I accidentally push down on the serving dish and scorch part of my palm, and brings them to his lips. 

“Better?” he asks, placing one last soft kiss on the already fading red mark. I nod, humming in gratitude. Then we start moving in tandem again, better this time, like taking just a moment to physically connect was all it took to fall right back into our old habits. 

Once dinner is over, Christian carries Calliope to the tub and does most of the work bathing her while I hover over him and enjoy watching them interacting with one another. She’s different tonight, despite the fact that she doesn’t feel well she’s happier and much less resistant. I know that it’s because she’s missed this, having us both here to give her our complete and undivided attention. So when Christian insists he be the one to dress her in her pajamas and then sweeps her into his lap for her bedtime story, my heart feels full beyond capacity again. 

“Hey,”I say, grabbing on to his t-shirt to stop him from walking away after we’ve gotten Calliope to sleep and closed her door behind us. He turns to me, one eyebrow cocked. I move to wrap my arms around his middle. “I love you.” 

He smiles, surprised by my declaration but pleased that I’ve made it. “I love you too.” 

I rise up onto my tiptoes and brush my lips against his, leaving feather soft kisses against his mouth until he finally takes over and pulls me deep into him. We’d talked earlier about maybe cuddling together on the couch and watching a movie tonight, but those plans are quickly abandoned and he walks me back to our bedroom without ever breaking our kiss. 

Once we’re inside, he tosses me on the bed like a ragdoll, an implied warning for me to stay exactly where he’s left me as he turns back to close the door and dim the lights. I sit on my knees and watch him move around the room. My breath catches in my throat when he reaches behind his head and yanks his t-shirt off. 

Even after all these years, he still manages to take my breath away. Every. Single. Time. 

“Get the fuck over here,” I tell him, my voice strained almost as tightly as his pants. He folds his arms over that strong, beautiful chest, and cocks an eyebrow at me. 

“That sounded an awful lot like a demand.” 

“Maybe it was.” 

His eyes flame at me from under hooded lids and the muscles in his arms twitch. It should make me nervous, but it doesn’t. It excites me. Makes me drip for him. Makes me willing to do anything he asks so long as I get my hands on him. 

He licks his lips, unable to conceal his hunger. “Don’t move.” 

A shiver runs through me while I watch him stock off for his closet and I actually feel my clit start to throb. I want to call him back to me, but I know that will only make him take longer. Instead, I strip out of all my clothes and lay back against the pillows, breathing him in while I listen to the ominous sound of leather and metal buckles clinking at me from the closet. For half a second, I almost consider touching myself while I wait. 

“I told you not to move,” Christian’s icy voice calls when he’s stepped out of the closet. I furrow my brow at him.

“I didn’t.” 

“I left you dressed.” He drops a set of restraints on the bed. “I was very much looking forward to peeling every stitch of fabric off of you…”

I swallow and stare at him for a moment, considering my next move. Despite the restraints, I know he intends to make love to me tonight. It’s my decision now if I want to let him follow through with his plans, or if I’d rather coax out the dominant.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have taken so fucking long.” 

Dominant it is.

He’s on me in the next second, his body pinning me to the bed so I can’t move. His hand grabs hold of a fist full of my hair, then he forces me to look in his eyes. 

“You think that smart mouth of yours is going to taunt me into giving you what you want?” he hisses in my ear, the words verging on threatening. The throb in my clit intensifies. “You should know by now that you’re only going to get what I want to give you. What I want to take from you. And I know you fucking love that. No matter how desperate you get for me to make you come, you’d give it up just to please me.” 

I whimper, angling my pelvis to his, trying to get some kind of friction. 

“Say it, Ana.” 

I want to. It’s true, after all. He could force me down on my knees right now and order me to suck his cock, come down my throat, and not touch me for the rest of the night, and I’d still fall asleep feeling accomplished. But I don’t want that. I want his touch. I want his tongue. I want him to fuck me.

“Say it, Ana,” he repeats, his tone harsher this time. 

“Christian, please…” I squirm against him again. “I’ll beg.” 

“I don’t want to hear you beg. I want you to tell me what you really want.” 

It’s a final warning. If I don’t give him what he wants, he’ll spank me next. Although, that just makes me feel like I shouldn’t say it…

“I want to please you, Christian,” I say anyway. “Nothing else matters, just use me.” 

He gives me a wicked smile. “Put your hands over your head.” 

I do, and he reaches down for the restraints, securing each one to my wrists and to the bed. He pulls them so tight that I can’t even adjust the way my arm stretches helplessly over my head. The leather bites into my skin when I try, and it makes my nipples harden. 

“Beautiful,” he says, bending down to flick his tongue around my pebbled flesh. I moan, arching my back to push my breast deeper into his mouth. To my surprise, he doesn’t punish my rapacity. He sucks, hard, against my breast, while his hands move up to firmly kneed the other one. My mouth drops open, the moans turning into silent screams of pleasure. I almost think I could come just like this. 

Then he stops. 

“Wait, no…” I beg. He climbs onto the bed, sliding his knee across the comforter until it’s pressed into my ribs. Then he swings the other over me and leans over to support himself on the headboard. His cock swings heavily, directly in front of my lips. 

“Suck.” 

I comply without hesitation. There’s only so much of him I can take, since I can’t really move, and that makes him start to thrust. I moan around him, looking up at him, and then letting my eyes roll back into my head when he pushes into my throat. He groans and the gentle strokes he’s making in and out of my mouth, suddenly become much more insistent. 

I refuse to let his brutality be the factor behind his orgasm. While he grips my hair and thrusts deep into my throat, I swallow to make it tighter. I move the flat of my tongue around every part of him I can reach. I pull hard on him with my cheeks and with my lips. I feel him stiffen, swollen now to his absolute limit, so I expect him to pull back. 

He doesn’t. 

“I’m going to come,” he warns me. “Swallow.” 

I can only hum my response and pull as much of him into my mouth as I can manage without breaking my restraints. It’s enough, because he calls out a strangled version of my name, and I feel him explode in a salty surge down my throat. Once he’s empty, he thrusts a few more times. Slower. More shallow. Then he pulls out, moves down the bed, and yanks my legs open with a kind of rude indifference that tells me he’s the one in control. 

I can’t help it. The display of ownership has me burning with need for him. So the second his tongue slides across my clit, I come apart. It’s intense, weeks worth of missed connection and unreleased desire compounding the pleasure until my entire body trembles and I’m screaming his name. One long arm reaches up my body, his hand moving up to silence me while his mouth continues to devour me. The second I come down, he starts building me towards my second orgasm. It hits just as hard as the first and I end up thrashing so violently against my restraints, his hand slips and I accidentally bite down on his finger. 

“Fuck, Ana!” he rasps, pulling away and then slamming his cock into me as I ride the final waves of my orgasm. He grunts, fighting against the pulses of my inner walls that try to push him out. Forcing himself in anyway.

“Yes!” I cry out. “Oh, god! That’s so good!” 

“Quiet,” he warns, his mouth licking and sucking at mine between words. “You’ll wake the baby.” 

I press my lips together, so hard my teeth are digging into them from the inside, and choke down my screams. 

“Good girl,” he praises me. The angle changes slightly as he pushes my knees up into my breasts and opens me more to him. Again, I force a deep, pleasure induced sob back down. “Can you take more and stay quiet?” 

I nod and he thrusts harder. 

“More?” he growls again. I close my eyes, wrap my fingers around the leather restraints, and nod again. 

It’s harder to hold back once he really lets himself go. The dirty words he whispers in my ear and the punishing rhythm he uses to pound in and out of me all have me so hot, I feel like I could combust. 

When I do, my orgasm sparks deep in my gut and explodes through my entire body like fireworks. He once again brings his mouth to mine. With his lips muffling the sounds of my cries, I let them go. I don’t even try to hold back, and it has him thrusting into me so hard there’s a worrying creak coming from the frame of our bed. 

He looks up at the headboard, taking his lips from mine, and I have to bite down on his shoulder to keep myself from screaming again. He hisses in pain, but it makes him start to thrust more urgently. His eyes are strained as he stares down into mine. Then every part of him tightens and the low but guttural sounds that force their way out from deep inside his chest make me feel like the sexiest woman alive. When he comes, I feel it fill me with surprising force. I wrap my legs around him, holding him inside of me, making sure he gives me all of it. 

Maybe I am greedy tonight

We lie there for a long time. Our breathing slows, and our heart rates return to normal. He doesn’t roll off of me. He nuzzles me, leaves soft kisses against the skin of my throat. 

“Christian?” 

“Hm?” he hums, his content obvious. 

“Can I have my hands back?” 

“Oh, sorry…” He gives me a guilty look as he reaches up and releases the restraints. There are angry looking marks on each of my wrists, which he kisses tenderly before I wrap my arms around him. 

“God, this feels good,” he says, and I laugh.

“Well, I should hope so…” 

“No, not that.” He rolls his eyes. “Though, also that… But I mean just being here with you. Seeing Calliope during the day, getting to spend time with her while she’s awake… it feels so fucking good.” 

“I know. It feels good to have you home too.” 

“And I am home. Until Calliope is ready to go back to daycare. I’ll stay home with her so you can focus on your project.”

My face morphs with shock. “Really? You will?” 

“You did it for me.” 

I bite my lip, the gratitude and love swelling in my chest warring with one another so the victor can tumble out of me and land on Christian. I don’t wait to see which wins out, I release them both by molding my lips to his and whispering, “thank you,” over and over again. 

He grins against my mouth and wags his eyebrows at me. 

“Don’t thank me yet…” he says, then he starts to move down my body again. 

Next Chapter

Chapter 32

A week later, I wake up in my bed alone. I want to groan when the vibrations of my phone on the nightstand pull me from a deep sleep, and ignore it. Cling instead to just a few more minutes of sleep. Then I remember Calliope is in the bed with me and my eyes snap open, my hand flies out, and I roll out of bed as gently as I can, tip toeing toward the bathroom while the phone continues to buzz in my palm. I don’t have to look at the name, don’t even have to check the time. Christian’s phone calls have been so consistent over the last week that I’m pretty sure he’s set an alarm on his phone for several times throughout the day to remind himself to call me.

“Hello?”

“Good morning.” His voice is rough, like he’s swallowed a handful of gravel and each word gets caught in the jagged carnage on its way out. He sounds worse than he did yesterday, and yesterday he’d sounded so bad, I nearly went down to GEH just to drag him back here myself. “How did you sleep?”

“You’d know if you were here.”

“I know. I will be. Soon. We’re close. So fucking close.” The strain in his words worries me. Whatever revelation he’d had the night of our anniversary had started something with his R&D department, but he hasn’t told me what it is. Every time I ask what he’s doing, the only response I get is, “saving my company.” So, I don’t even ask anymore. Instead, I find myself repeating the only question I actually do care about.

“When is soon? Tonight? Tomorrow? Next week?”

“I don’t know. Just… soon.” I hear him take a deep breath, then he changes the subject. “Are you going to work today? I had Andrea schedule some time with Flynn, if you need it.”

So he hasn’t forgotten that today is the anniversary of the Lincoln incident. 

My chest tightens at the mention of it, and deep in the recesses of my gut, I feel the ghost of an urge to lock myself away with Calliope and shield her from the dangerous people in the world. But it’s not the overwhelming, uncontrollable compulsion it was a year ago.

“Yes, I’m going to work, and no, I don’t need Flynn,” I tell him. “I’ve got a full day so I don’t think I’ll have much time to think about it, and Kate’s coming over tonight.”

“Good,” he replies, though the relief I hear in his sentiment makes my stomach drop. I guess that means he won’t be home tonight after all. “I have to go, but I wanted to tell you how much I love you and that you’ve been on my mind every second I’ve been away.”

“Is that why it’s taking so long?” I ask, sarcastically. He laughs.

“Maybe.” Another pause, another breath. “Soon, baby. I’ll be home soon and then this nightmare will be over. You still believe in me?”

“Always and forever.” 

He hums in satisfaction before he continues. “I love you, Ana. I’ll call you later, okay? If you need anything today, anything, Andrea is on stand-by waiting to make it happen.”

“Thank you, but I’m fine. And I love you too. Bye.”

He hangs up and I slowly pull the phone away from my ear, staring down at the blank screen for a long time. He’ll call again at 11:30, right after my meeting with the New York office. But the perfectly scheduled phone calls throughout the day don’t make up for the fact that he isn’t here. It makes me wonder if this is how he felt while I was in Cambridge, and if so, how he survived it for as long as he did. It’s only been a week and I feel like my heart has been stolen right out of my chest. I don’t think I’ve taken a good, solid breath since I last saw him.

I shake away the thoughts souring my mood and step into the shower.

Calliope sleeps much later than is normal for her. I manage to get fully dressed for work, and she’s still completely zonked out by the time I come to collect her. She wakes though, when I lift her into my arms.

“Daddy?” she whimpers, her breath already hitching with the tears she’s got on standby. I gently graze my fingers over her back and lean down to kiss the top of her head.

“Daddy’s at work, Calli-lilly.”

“No!” Her face devolves into a look of tortured misery and she picks right back up with the tantrum she’d thrown until I’d finally gotten her to sleep the night before. I groan and start to bounce her on my hip, offering soothing words as I do my best to get her ready. Ultimately, she ends up in clothes that are maybe a little too close to pajamas for daycare and her hair is ratty, even in her ponytail, but I can’t fight with her anymore, I’m too drained.

And, apparently, I’m not the only one.

Luke’s standing in the kitchen over the coffee pot when I get downstairs, looking like the walking dead. The circles under his eyes are stark against his pale face, and he looks so drained that he can’t even hold his body up straight. Everything about him sags.

“You alright?” I check while I wrestle my still screaming daughter into her high chair. He looks over at me as I start moving around the kitchen to prepare her breakfast and gives me a weak smile.

“Yeah, I just… didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.” I frown, wondering if anyone should be worrying about how he’s going to handle today the way Christian worries for me. He was shot after all, surely there’s some kind of PTSD that goes along with that.

“I’m sorry. I’m trying my best not to think about it myself.”

He pulls a mug from the cupboard next to him, turning a questioning look on me as he pours himself a cup of coffee. “Not think about what?”

“Lincoln. Today’s… the… day it happened.”

“Oh, shit. It is? Fuck, Ana, I didn’t realize…. A-are you okay? Do you need me to take you to Flynn or maybe, I don’t know… take the day off and we can drive up to the lake and hang out with your dad?”

“No, I packed my day full so I won’t even have time to give it a second thought. I…” My words falter as I realize that, if it’s not Lincoln that kept him up, it’s something else. “Wait, why didn’t you sleep last night? Is everything okay?”

His cheeks pink ever so slightly, though I can’t quite figure out the emotion behind it. “Yeah, I was just… thinking about stuff.”

“About Jade?”

His whole body stiffens, and the mug he’s lifting to his lips freezes in midair. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you not sleeping because you’re thinking of Jade?”

“Oh.” He looks relieved. “Yeah, I guess…”

“Have you tried calling her?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t want to talk about it, Ana.”

“You never want to talk about it.”

“So you think you’d have gotten the fucking hint by now.”

I’m putting fruit and cereal on Calliope’s tray, but I stop in the middle of what I’m doing because I’m actually a little shocked by the bite in his tone. Luke’s never spoken to me that way before, and now that the words are floating in the empty space between us, the remorse is immediately apparent on his face.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just cranky because I’m tired and apparently that turns me into a dick so… sorry. I’ll chill out, I promise.”

I nod, but while his tone suggests he’s ready for the conversation to move on, I’m not. “I hate watching you being torn apart over her and not being able to do anything for you. I wanna help you, Luke.”

“There’s nothing you can do.” He places his empty mug in the sink, and turns a hard look at Calliope, who is throwing handfuls of her breakfast onto the floor while she wails into the ether in complete and utter misery. “Just like there’s nothing you can do to stop that.”

I look over at her and drop my head, groaning in frustration. I swear to god, If Christian isn’t home soon…

Luke helps clean up the mess while I clean Calliope’s hands and wash the tears from her flushed face, then we pile in the car and make our way straight to GEH. Calliope doesn’t reach for her teacher when we walk through the door the way she normally does. She treats the woman’s smiling face and friendly words like they’re a threat and screams when her teacher tries to take her out of my arms. Prying my baby’s fingers off of my blouse is the last straw.

I march out of her daycare, straight to the elevators, and start pounding the button for Christian’s floor.

“You sure it’s a good idea to bother him?” Luke asks.

“So now it’s bothering him to spend any time with his daughter? To even see her?”

“Fair point.”

We take the elevator all the way up to the top floor, where I find Andrea and Olivia sitting behind their desk, looking bored. There’s a deck of cards between them, though it looks like they’ve abandoned whatever game they were playing. Now they’re just leaning back in their chairs, chatting casually while sipping coffee from GEH branded mugs.

“Ana!” Andrea starts when I come through the door. “You’re here. Uh… Mr. Grey said that I should… um… Can I get you anything?” 

Lincoln. She thinks I’m here because of Lincoln.

I push the thought away and ignore her question while I ask one of my own. “Is he in his office?”

“No.” She cringes, like she’s afraid I’m going to yell at her or something. I stop and turn a questioning look on her.

“Then where is he?”

“I assume he’s in the R&D lab. He’s not exactly checking in with me right now.” She waves to the cards on her desk, signaling she has nothing to do.

I frown, feeling all the fight drain out of me. Half of it is because I actually do want to give him this space to work out his problems with GEH. Especially today, knowing that a large part of his motivation for the fusion project was the power it would afford him, power he only wanted so he could protect me from exactly the kind of thing that happened one year ago. That’s probably a big part of why he’s been constantly apologizing to me over the past few weeks, constantly seeking reassurance. He feels vulnerable, and now that he doesn’t even have the full power of his company or the vast majority of his fortune to use in order to protect what he loves, he’s wounded.

Maybe the same way I need to bury myself in work to get away from today, he does too.

The other half is that I can’t actually get into the R&D lab. There’s a code and it’s so secretive that Christian hasn’t even entrusted it to me.

“Well,” I hesitate, chewing over my words as I decide exactly how to say them. “If you see him, tell him he needs to go down and spend some time with his daughter. If he doesn’t see her today, then all of these things that he’s killing himself trying to fix right now will be the least of his problems.”

She nods, hurriedly. “Yes, Mrs. Grey.”

I look down at my watch. Shit, I’m late.

“Good,” I tell her, then offer a small smile to Olivia before I turn back to the elevator. “Have a good day, ladies.” I eye the deck of cards again. “Try not to fall asleep, huh?”

Andrea laughs then waves back to me as I follow Luke through the glass doors and back into the elevator.

We rush to GSP, but I still have to go straight into my Monday morning meeting without even stopping into my office. There isn’t much to go over since I still haven’t found the diamond in the rough I’ve been searching for, but I have loosened the reins a little on what is currently being approved. It’s just the titles that I’ve accepted so far have been sent to New York to be added to the Greenwich Library, which means they will all be talked about in the meeting I have directly following this one.

I have fifteen minutes after I’m finished with my conference call to New York to prepare for my next meeting. This time with Welch and Barney. I’ve sent them a preliminary wish list for the app design, and today I should get to see how much of that list is actually possible. When I get to my office, I start to pull up the communication we’ve sent back and forth, going over it all again even though there isn’t really anything I can do before speaking with the GEH engineers. I expect Christian to call me and take up what time I have anyway. Except that he doesn’t. I’m left completely to myself until Abby pages me to let me know that the GEH team has arrived. 

I thank her and move to open my door, only to be surprised by the two men who step inside. Barney, I know. The other man, I’ve never seen before.

“Where’s Welch?” I ask.

Chagrin immediately washes across Barney’s face. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey. Welch has been reassigned to a very, high-priority project within GEH. This is my new partner, Jared Cole.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Grey.” Jared reaches out a hand to shake mine. I take it, then motion for the two men to take the chairs on the other side of my desk. As I settle down, I place my elbows on the hard, cherry surface in front of me, and rest my chin over my folded hands.

“The contract I signed with Christian said Welch.” I don’t want to sound as harsh as I think I do, but this is a point of contention for me. I agreed to Christian’s proposal because I wanted to work with Welch. He’s the best, and while I know Barney was instrumental in the app we designed together last time, he’s still not as good as his mentor.

“Can I level with you, Mrs. Grey?” Barney asks. I nod, and he continues. “I’ve been waiting for this chance for years.. Mr. Grey’s expectations are very high. He told me to make anything you asked for happen, no excuses. And if I can, if I can really impress you with what I’m able to build, I’m pretty sure he’ll promote me up to the same level as Welch. This is a huge opportunity for me, and I’d really appreciate it if you gave me a shot.”

I take a deep breath and let it out in a low sigh. “And I’d love to give it to you, Barney. Really, I would. But… this is my business. I don’t have any wiggle room here to leave anything up to chance.”

“I know, believe me. Can I just… show you some of the things we’ve been working on? I think if you can see it, if we can talk through some of the things you’ve asked for, we might be able to win you over.”

And he does. Everything from the art renderings to the accessibility functions are exactly how I’d pictured them. Sleek and intuitive, but warm and inviting. The app we designed for Grey Publishing was perfectly on brand for GEH, all chrome and thin, capital typeface. The images he shows me are filled with color and whimsy, like a children’s book. There’s a wholesomeness that somehow combines with the smart, cutting-edge technology in a way that makes me feel like I’m in a modernized, fantastical bookshop drinking a warm cup of really good, artisan coffee.

“This is exactly what I’m looking for,” I tell him, sitting back in my chair thoroughly impressed. He lights up.

“Really?”

“Really. I’m sold. I—“ I’m cut off by the paging tone through my desk phone, then Abby’s voice fills my office.

“Ana, you’ve got a call on line one.”

I shoot an astounded look down at the phone. “I’m in a meeting, Abby…”

“It’s Calliope’s daycare.”

My face goes blank and I reach for the receiver so quickly that I’m already accepting the call by the time the thought crosses my mind to at least apologize and politely excuse myself from our conversation. I try to convey exactly that with the conciliatory smile I offer to both of them.

“This is Ana,” I answer.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your day, Mrs. Grey, but I’m calling to let you know that Calliope is running a little bit of a fever.”

“What?”

“She’s been unusually fussy all morning, so we decided to check her temperature and sure enough, 100.4.”

“Oh, Callie… Have you given her anything? I think I’ve already given you her pediatrician’s number but I can email it to you if you need it.”

“Mrs. Grey, the reason I called was actually because our facility has a policy that doesn’t allow us to accept any child who’s running a temperature. For the safety of the other children, you understand. I’m afraid you’re going to have to come get her.”

Shit! I don’t even have to glance at my calendar, I know it’s completely packed. Even if I could dip out and pull her out of daycare, I can’t just send her home alone.

I don’t have Kensie. 

I don’t have Gail.

“Could you call her father? I don’t think I can get out of here…”

“We called Mr. Grey first, he didn’t answer. His assistant didn’t know how to reach him.”

Of course not.

“Okay.” I let out an irritable sigh into the phone. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

I hang up the phone and turn regretful eyes on the men sitting across from me. “I hate to call this short when everything you’ve shown me has been so amazing, but unfortunately, I have to go.”

“That’s fine, Mrs. Grey. We’ve got some good direction to go on. Now that we know you’re happy, we can start programming. I should have a basic beta version for you to play around with in a week? Just so you can get a feel for the functionality.”

“Perfect. How soon until I can send you the file loads with the library data?”

“Probably closer to three weeks, if everything goes according to plan.”

And with my luck, nothing will. “That’s cutting it close but I think I can work with that timeline. You’ll keep in touch, let me know how you’re progressing?”

He smiles a familiar kind of smile, like he’s dealt with this kind of hovering time and time again. When I remember that he works for my husband, I realize he probably has.

“I’ll send updates as often as you want them, Mrs. Grey.”

“Good.” I stand and wave to the door, offering them each a handshake once I’ve led them back out to reception. As soon as they’re out the door, I turn and peer through the low, glass walls separating each workspace in search of my CPO.

“Luke, I’ve got to go.” He looks up from his laptop and gives me a questioning look. “Calliope’s sick, I have to pick her up.”

With a nod, he closes the lid to his computer, slides it into a messenger bag, and starts across the room towards me. We don’t say a word to each other until we’re in the car, and I feel like I can take a second to fall apart under the stress compounding on top of me.

“What am I going to do?” I ask him. “I’m supposed to be in a meeting with marketing all afternoon, we’re launching the publicity materials for the app next week…”

“Can you call Kate or Elliot?”

“They’re at work.”

“Grace?”

“Surgery.”

“Carrick?”

“He’s literally running the city right now, Luke.”

“Well, I can watch her,” he offers. “You can do your meeting remotely from your office at home, Calliope and I will hang out and watch some dope ass cartoons.”

“That’s not your job, Luke.”

“Not my job as your CPO, maybe. But, it might be my job as your best friend.”

I turn to him, feeling a sudden burst of gratitude that so intense it nearly leaks through my eyes. “Really?”

“Yeah. To be honest, after the night I had, I can’t think of anything better than having your husband pay me to lay on the couch for the rest of the day and watch Darkwing Duck with my favorite little munchkin.”

I laugh. “Good luck with that. I bet she gives you two minutes of the duck before she starts screaming for Dora.”

“Gross.” We laugh together this time, but as the sound dies off, I start to feel a nagging sense of guilt eating at the inside of my stomach. Then, when I realize that I’m only feeling it now because I’ve figured out how I’m going to meet all of my other obligations, that guilt intensifies.

“Do you think I’m a bad mom, Luke?”

His head spins so fast, part of me worries if he’s going to experience whiplash. “No! Why would you even say that?”

“Because it never even occurred to me that she could be sick. She slept in late, she was crabby all morning, she didn’t eat any of her breakfast, and she was extra clingy to me when we took her to daycare. All the signs were there. I just thought she missed Christian.”

“So did I.”

“But I should have noticed something, right? I’m her mom.”

“And you’re doing a lot right now, all on your own. It’s okay that you made a mistake. We’ve fixed it. She’s going to get to come home and get some rest and once you’re finished with your meetings, you’ll get to love up on her for the rest of the night.”

I nod, even though I’m still not fully convinced.

After we pick up Calliope from daycare, we make our way back to the house. I sit in the backseat with her for the ride, gently stroking her hair and leaning into her as much as I can while still confined by my seatbelt. Now that she’s not throwing a tantrum like she was this morning, it’s easy to see the difference in her behavior. She’s quiet, and she’s slumped in her car seat as though every part of her is miserable. It makes handing her over to Luke once we’re home feel like a cinch tightening around my heart, but somehow, just barely, I manage to let her go.

My thought’s never stray far from her, though. Not even as I spend the next three hours pouring over dozens of different types of promotional materials, obsessing over everything from what’s written in context, to the font it’s written in. I feel brain dead once I finally do end the call, but that doesn’t stop me from bolting out of my seat and rushing for Calliope.

Unsurprisingly, she’s laying across Luke’s chest on the couch, staring at Dora the Explorer on the TV. I grin at him.

“How’s Darkwing Duck?”

He lifts a finger to his lips. “That fox is back. If we don’t say the thing then he’s gonna steal the map and she’s never gonna find the magical rainforest.”

“Oh, this is actually kind of a good one.” I crawl onto the couch, nestling between his feet and contorting the rest of me around his legs since he’s taking up the whole couch. As Luke and I talk, my eyes move down to Calliope and I watch her snuggle against him every so often, rubbing her cheek against his shirt or pushing her fingers into his chest. I don’t know if he even notices, but it makes me feel like the gentle, summer rain that has started outside has swept through the house and washed away all the shame and worry I’ve felt all afternoon. She loves him just as much as he loves her. I didn’t actually abandon my sick baby for my work. I just left her in very good hands.

“Can I get you anything?” I ask, smiling down at him.

“A catheter?”

I laugh, then reach out for Calliope, pulling her into my lap and wrapping as much of myself around her as possible. Luke rolls off the couch and moves down the hall to the bathroom. She sniffles, but simply cuddles into my embrace and starts playing with my hair, her eyes still glued to the TV. She really must be sick because I’ve never seen anything hold her attention this long.

Luke and I trade off with Calliope until around six, when Kate shows up with tacos and tequila. The tacos we dig into right away, the tequila we decide can wait until after Calliope goes to bed.

“It’s probably good that she gets a little extra sleep,” I tell them after I’ve gotten her dinner cleaned up. “I’ll go put her down now.”

“And I’ll get the blender,” Kate says. She reaches into a bag and pulls out another bottle, margarita mix this time, and starts doing her own, goofy celebration dance. I nod enthusiastically and tell Luke where he can find the salt for the rims in the pantry, then scoop my daughter into my arms to carry her off to bed.

“No!” she protests after the very first step. She turns her body in my arms and searches for Luke, reaching out for him to take her the second her eyes find him. “Daddy!”

“No, that’s not Daddy, silly girl,” I say, taking the hand she’s holding out for Luke and tucking it back into me. Luke, meanwhile, starts blinking wildly and looking into the corners of the room.

“What are you doing, spaz?” Kate asks.

He blinks again, then looks between us. “I swear to god I just heard Grey tell me I’m fired.”

Kate devolves into a fit of laughter. I roll my eyes.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes and there’d better be a margarita waiting for me.”

“Sure thing!” Kate says. I wink, then turn to carry Calliope up the stairs and to her bedroom.

She goes down easy. In fact, I don’t even get all the way through her favorite bedtime story before she’s completely out. But even only being away for a few minutes wasn’t enough to get in the way of Kate delivering on her promise. I descend the stairs and the moment I cross the threshold into the living room, she pushes an ice cold margarita into my hands.

“You’re my hero,” I tell her, taking a welcome sip. Mmm.

“Well there’s plenty more where that came from. Christian’s not gonna be here, I get a night off from being a mom, it’s only the three of us–just like the good old days… I’m getting you drunk, Steele.”

“Here, here!” I clink my glass against hers and follow her to the couch. Luke eyes us both with interest.

“You’re not going to want to go anywhere tonight, right?” he checks.

I give him a look like he’s insane. “God, no.”

“Then fuck it, let’s get wasted.”

“Oh my god, you’re actually going to drink with us?” Kate asks, her eyes go wide in astonishment. Not once in the entire time we were in college would Luke even take a sip of alcohol while Kate and I were drinking. She looks now like someone just told her Christmas was coming early. Luke just shrugs.

“It’s been a rough few weeks.”

“Well then let’s get you something to make you feel better!” She smiles at me excitedly as she gets off the couch to make another margarita. I turn to make eye contact with Luke.

“Drinking while on duty is breaking the rules and you’re not a rule breaker. Wouldn’t have anything to do with Jade, would it?”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Ana,” he says, his tone teasing. I grin back, then get off the couch and pull him into the kitchen after Kate.

“Maybe you will after you have a bunch of tequila.”

The night is everything I didn’t know I needed. Not only do I manage to go the entire night without once devolving into tears over Lincoln, I don’t even think about him. Not once. I don’t think about work and the deadlines I have to meet, and the still crushing weight of what I have left to accomplish hanging over me. I don’t even spend much time worrying about why Christian hasn’t called me one time since this morning, despite the fact that his phone calls have been eerily regular every other day this week. The only things I concern myself with are the drinks Kate keeps pouring, and the music we’re singing, and dancing to together.

It’s freeing, like all this time I’d been holding my breath, and getting the chance to blow off steam with Kate and Luke is the first time I’ve been able to release it.

“Take it, Luke!” Kate says drunkenly, pointing across the kitchen at him dramatically while she sways to the smooth sounds of the Beach Boys. Luke picks up the broom leaning against the wall and pulls it to him as though it were a microphone.

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya.” 

He points back to Kate and she starts to sing, “Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama.”

I take over. “Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t go?”

Luke sweeps through the kitchen, between Kate and I, pulling the broom with him. He sways with it like a Latin crooner while he sings along with Mike Love. “Off the Florida Keeeeeeeeys, there’s a place called Kokomo…”

Kate and I let him take the lead vocals and start dancing around him, trying to keep up the island theme despite the fact that it means we’re just doing a very uncoordinated hula dance around my kitchen island. Luke belts the song out perfectly though, so none it feels stupid or embarrassing. It’s all just fun, like old times.

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya…”

“To Bermuda, Bahama, come on, pretty mama.”

“Key Largo, Monetego, baby, why don’t we go…”

“Down to Kokomo…” The three of us freeze and turn to the doorway that leads into the kitchen from the garage. Christian is standing there and he’s… grinning. He sways into the kitchen toward me. “We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow.” 

Kate and Luke look at each other and at the same time, they practically shout, “That’s where we wanna go!” at each other. 

Christian laughs as I dance into his arms and finishes, “Way down to Kokomo.

“You came home,” I say ecstatically once the song has ended, my smile somehow managing to find a way to widen even further. 

“Welcome to Kokomo!” Kate adds. She throws her hands in the air and starts to spin, losing her balance halfway through and toppling over onto the kitchen counter. She laughs as she looks back up at Christian. “Wanna drink? We have plenty.”

“I can see that,” Christian replies. There’s an easy humor in his voice, but there’s also a finality that even I recognize as dismissal. Kate blinks back unwittingly, but Luke goes to her and picks her up off the counter.

“Come on, let’s go to bed.” He guides her out of the kitchen, but even he stumbles on the way out, and Kate’s giggles echo at back to us from the hallway.

“You’re so drunk, Luke.”

“Snitches get stitches, Kate.”

I laugh once more, then turn back to Christian. I don’t have time to register the kiss that hits me before I’ve even turned my head. I let out a surprised yelp that he quickly swallows as he pushes me back into the wall.

“I’ve missed you,” he says into my mouth, too desperate for the contact to even break away from the kiss for a second. “So fucking much.”

I moan and he picks up my hands, securing them over my head against the wall. Briefly, I get a peek of my name emblazoned across his forearm in blue ink, peeking out from under the rolled up sleeves of his wrinkled white shirt. It’s exactly the reason why I picked that spot and desire begins to bloom hot and urgent inside of me while I eye it.

“Are you home?” I whisper, needing to know before I fully give myself to the lust I know will wipe all questions from my mind.

“It would appear so,” he laughs. His erection grinds into me and I moan.

“I mean for good. Whatever you have going on at work, are you finished?”

That makes him pull back and when he does I see something powerful burning in his eyes. Not lust. Not love. Victory.

“I did it, Ana.”

“Did what?”

“The fusion project, the prototype. It works. I did it.”

All thoughts of getting this gorgeous man naked drain out of me like someone pulling the plug on a bathtub. My mouth drops open, my eyes go wide in shock. I actually wonder for a second if I heard him correctly.

“The fusion project? That’s what you were doing? You went back to the fusion project?!”

“And I did it.”

“You… Christian! That project is unstable! It blew up! Twice!”

“Not this time.”

“You put yourself—“

“It works, Anastasia,” he says, placing a hand over my mouth to silence my protests. “I figured it out. Well, me and a team of very specialized experts. It works. I broke the laws of fucking physics and I created perpetual motion. Unlimited energy. I. Did. It.” 

That breaks through the angry fear filling my heart, but I’m left speechless in its absence. “What?”

He kisses me again. Harder this time, maybe. A thousand emotions are released into me at once, overwhelming me until I just surrender to him and let him unload everything that’s been boiling inside of him since this all started. He takes everything I give him and demands more. His tongue commands the kiss, his lips tell me where to go, his hands keep me there. When he finally pulls away, I’m breathless and his eyes are wild.

“It’s because of you. Because you believed in me. Because I knew that I’d have you. Because you gave me ‘no matter what.’ You have no idea what that means to me, Anastasia. I don’t know if I could ever make you understand just how much that carried me through everything I’ve had to deal with these past few months.”

His lips move to mine again, and he uses his body to tell me what words can’t. The connection between us has never felt stronger or more imperative than it does in that moment and I wonder if it’s because, while he consumes me so absolutely, I can feel that bond from his side too. I can feel the way he wants me. I can feel the way he needs me. I can feel the way he loves me. All in that one kiss.

I can’t get enough of it.

I wrap myself around him, clinging to him, trying to convey my pride and my happiness for his accomplishments just as much as I give him the joy I feel having him back again and the love that has always been his. I can’t be certain he feels it the way I can feel what he’s giving to me, but I hope so.

When he makes love to me in our bed that night and he shouts my name with near religious devotion as he comes deep inside of me, that hope changes to certainty. 

Next Chapter