Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Fifty Shades Darker CHAPTER 22
All the color drains from my face as my blood turns to ice and fear lances through my body. Instinctively I step between her and Christian.
“What is it?” Christian murmurs, his tone wary.
I ignore him. I cannot believe Kate is doing this.
“Kate! This is nothing to do with you.” I glare venomously at her, anger replacing my fear. How dare she do this? Not now, not today. Not on Christian’s birthday. Surprised by my response, she blinks at me, green eyes wide.
“Ana, what is it?” Christian says again, his tone more menacing.
“Christian, would you just go, please?” I ask him.
“No. Show me.” He holds out his hand, and I know he’s not to be argued with—his voice is cold and hard. Reluctantly I give him the e-mail.
“What’s he done to you?” Kate asks, ignoring Christian. She looks so apprehensive. I flush as a myriad of erotic images flit quickly across my mind.
“That’s none of your business, Kate.” I can’t keep the exasperation out of my voice.
“Where did you get this?” Christian asks, his head cocked to one side, his face expressionless, but his voice . . . so menacingly soft. Kate flushes.
“That’s irrelevant.” At his stony glare, she hastily continues. “It was in the pocket of a jacket—which I assume is yours—that I found on the back of Ana’s bedroom door.” Faced with Christian’s burning gray gaze, Kate’s steeliness slips a little, but she seems to recover and scowls at him.
She’s a beacon of hostility in a slinky, bright red dress. She looks magnificent. But what the hell is she going through my clothes for? It’s usually the other way round.
“Have you told anyone?” Christian’s voice is like a silk glove.
“No! Of course not,” Kate snaps, affronted. Christian nods and appears to relax. He turns and heads toward the fireplace. Wordlessly Kate and I watch as he picks up a lighter from the mantelpiece, sets fire to the e-mail, and releases it, letting it float afire slowly into the grate until it is no more. The silence in the room is oppressive.
“Not even Elliot?” I ask, turning my attention back to Kate.
“No one,” Kate says emphatically, and for the first time she looks puzzled and hurt. “I just want to know you’re okay, Ana,” she whispers.
“I’m fine, Kate. More than fine. Please, Christian and I are good, really good—this is old news. Please ignore it.”
“Ignore it?” she says. “How can I ignore that? What’s he done to you?” And her green eyes are so full of heartfelt concern.
“He hasn’t done anything to me, Kate. Honestly—I’m good.”
She blinks at me.
“Really?” she asks.
Christian wraps an arm around me and draws me close, not taking his eyes off Kate.
“Ana has consented to be my wife, Katherine,” he says quietly.
“Wife!” Kate squeaks, her eyes widening in disbelief.
“We’re getting married. We’re going to announce our engagement this evening,” he says.
“Oh!” Kate gapes at me. She’s stunned. “I leave you alone for sixteen days, and this happens? It’s very sudden. So yesterday, when I said—” She gazes at me, lost. “Where does that e-mail fit into all this?”
“It doesn’t, Kate. Forget it—please. I love him and he loves me. Don’t do this. Don’t ruin his party and our night,” I whisper. She blinks and unexpectedly her eyes are shining with tears.
“No. Of course I won’t. You’re okay?” She wants reassurance.
“I’ve never been happier,” I whisper. She reaches forward and grabs my hand regardless of Christian’s arm wrapped around me.
“You really are okay?” she asks hopefully.
“Yes.” I grin at her, my joy returning. She’s back onside. She smiles at me, my happiness reflecting back on her. I step out of Christian’s hold, and she hugs me suddenly.
“Oh, Ana—I was so worried when I read this. I didn’t know what to think. Will you explain it to me?” she whispers.
“One day, not now.”
“Good. I won’t tell anyone. I love you so much, Ana, like my own sister. I just thought . . . I didn’t know what to think. I’m sorry. If you’re happy, then I’m happy.” She
looks directly at Christian and repeats her apology. He nods at her, his eyes glacial, and his expression does not change. Oh shit, he’s still mad.
“I really am sorry. You’re right, it’s none of my business,” she whispers to me.
There’s a knock on the door that startles Kate and I apart. Grace pokes her head around.
“Everything okay, darling?” she asks Christian.
“Everything’s fine, Mrs. Grey,” Kate says immediately.
“Fine, Mom,” Christian says.
“Good.” Grace enters. “Then you won’t mind if I give my son a birthday hug.” She beams at both of us. He hugs her tightly and thaws immediately.
“Happy birthday, darling,” she says softly, closing her eyes in his embrace. “I’m so glad you’re still with us.”
“Mom, I’m fine.” Christian smiles down at her. She pulls back, looks at him closely, and grins.
“I’m so happy for you,” she says and caresses his face.
He grins at her—his thousand megawatt smile.
She knows! When did he tell her?
“Well, kids, if you’ve all finished your tête-à-tête, there’s a throng of people here to check that you really are in one piece, Christian, and to wish you a happy birthday.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Grace glances anxiously at Kate and me and seems reassured by our smiles. She winks at me as she holds the door open for us. Christian holds out his hand to me and I take it.
“Christian, I really do apologize,” Kate says humbly. Humble Kate is something to behold. Christian nods at her, and we follow her out.
In the hallway, I gaze anxiously up at Christian. “Does your mother know about us?”
“Oh.” And to think our evening could have been derailed by the tenacious Miss Kavanagh. I shudder at the thought—the ramifications of Christian’s lifestyle revealed to all. Holy cow.
“Well, that was an interesting start to the evening.” I smile sweetly at him. He glances down at me—and it’s back, his amused look. Thank heavens.
“As ever, Miss Steele, you have a gift for understatement.” He raises my hand to his lips and kisses my knuckles as we walk into the living room to a sudden, spontaneous, and deafening round of applause.
Crap. How many people are here?
I scan the room quickly: all the Greys, Ethan with Mia, Dr. Flynn and his wife, I assume. There’s Mac from the boat, a tall, handsome African American—I remember seeing him in Christian’s office the first time I met Christian—Mia’s bitchy friend Lily, two women I don’t recognize at all, and . . . Oh no. My heart sinks. That woman . . . Mrs. Robinson.
Gretchen materializes with a tray of champagne. She’s in a low-cut black dress, no pigtails but an updo, flushing and fluttering her eyelashes at Christian. The applause dies down, and Christian squeezes my hand as all eyes turn to him expectantly.
“Thank you, everyone. Looks like I’ll need one of these.” He grabs two drinks off Gretchen’s tray and gives her a brief smile. I think Gretchen’s going to expire or swoon. He hands a glass to me.
Christian raises his glass to the rest of the room, and immediately everyone surges forward. Leading the charge is the evil woman in black. Does she ever wear any other color?
“Christian, I was so worried.” Elena gives him a brief hug and kisses both his cheeks. He doesn’t let me go despite the fact I try to free my hand.
“I’m good, Elena,” Christian mutters coolly.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Her plea is desperate, her eyes searching his.
“I’ve been busy.”
“Didn’t you get my messages?”
Christian shifts uncomfortably and pulls me closer, putting his arm around me. His face remains impassive as he regards Elena. She can no longer ignore me, so she nods politely in my direction.
“Ana,” she purrs. “You look lovely, dear.”
“Elena,” I purr back. “Thank you.”
I catch Grace’s eye. She frowns, watching the three of us.
“Elena, I need to make an announcement,” Christian says, eyeing her dispassionately.
Her clear blue eyes cloud. “Of course.” She fakes a smile and steps back.
“Everyone,” Christian calls. He waits for a moment until the buzz in the room dies down and all eyes are once more on him.
“Thank you for coming today. I have to say I was expecting a quiet family dinner, so this is a pleasant surprise.” He stares pointedly at Mia, who grins and gives him a little wave. Christian shakes his head in exasperation and continues.
“Ros and I”—he acknowledges the red-haired woman standing nearby with a small bubbly blonde—“we had a close call yesterday.”
Oh, that’s the Ros that works with him. She grins and raises her glass to him. He nods back at her.
“So I’m especially glad to be here today to share with all of you my very good news. This beautiful woman”—he glances down at me—“Miss Anastasia Rose Steele, has consented to be my wife, and I’d like you to be the first to know.”
There are general gasps of astonishment, the odd cheer, and then a round of applause! Jeez—this is really happening. I think I am the color of Kate’s dress. Christian grasps my chin, lifts my lips to his, and kisses me quickly.
“You’ll soon be mine.”
“I am already,” I whisper.
“Legally,” he mouths at me and gives me a wicked grin.
Lily, who is standing beside Mia, looks crestfallen; Gretchen looks like she’s eaten something nasty and bitter. As I glance anxiously around at the assembled crowd, I catch sight of Elena. Her mouth is open. She’s stunned—horrified even, and I can’t help a small but intense feeling of satisfaction to see her dumbstruck. What the hell is she doing here, anyway?
Carrick and Grace interrupt my uncharitable thoughts, and soon I am being hugged and kissed and passed around by all the Greys.
“Oh, Ana—I am so delighted you’re going to be family,” Grace gushes. “The change in Christian . . . He’s . . . happy. I am so thankful to you.” I blush, embarrassed by her exuberance but secretly delighted, too.
“Where is the ring?” exclaims Mia as she embraces me.
“Um . . .” A ring! Jeez. I hadn’t even thought about a ring. I glance anxiously up at Christian.
“We’re going to choose one together.” Christian glowers at her.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Grey!” she scolds him, then wraps her arms around him. “I’m so thrilled for you, Christian,” she says. She’s the only person I know who is not intimidated by the Grey glower. It has me quailing . . . Well, it certainly used to.
“When will you get married? Have you set a date?” She beams up at Christian.
He shakes his head, his exasperation palpable. “No idea, and no we haven’t. Ana and I need to discuss all that,” he says irritably.
“I hope you have a big wedding—here,” she beams enthusiastically, ignoring his caustic tone.
“We’ll probably fly to Vegas tomorrow,” he growls at her, and he’s rewarded with a full-on Mia Grey pouty grimace. Rolling his eyes, he turns to Elliot, who gives him his second bear hug in as many days.
“Way to go, bro.” He claps Christian’s back.
The response from the room is overwhelming, and it’s a few minutes before I find myself back beside Christian with Dr. Flynn. Elena seems to have disappeared, and Gretchen is sullenly refilling champagne glasses.
Beside Dr. Flynn is a striking young woman with long, dark, almost black hair, cleavage, and lovely hazel eyes.
“Christian,” says Flynn, holding out his hand. Christian shakes it gladly.
“John. Rhian.” He kisses the dark-haired woman on her cheek. She’s petite and pretty.
“Glad you’re still with us, Christian. My life would be most dull—and penurious—without you.”
“John!” Rhian scolds, much to Christian’s amusement.
“Rhian, this is Anastasia, my fiancée. Ana, this is John’s wife.”
“Delighted to meet the woman who has finally captured Christian’s heart.” Rhian smiles kindly at me.
“Thank you,” I mutter, embarrassed again.
“That was one googly you bowled there, Christian,” Dr. Flynn shakes his head in amused disbelief. Christian frowns at him.
“John—you and your cricket metaphors.” Rhian rolls her eyes. “Congratulations to the pair of you and happy birthday, Christian. What a wonderful birthday present.” She smiles broadly at me.
I had no idea Dr. Flynn would be here, or Elena. It’s a shock, and I rack my brains to see if I have anything to ask him, but a birthday party hardly seems the appropriate venue for a psychiatric consult.
For a few minutes, we make small talk. Rhian is a stay-at-home mom with two young boys. I deduce that she is the reason Dr. Flynn practices in the US.
“She’s good, Christian, responding well to treatment. Another couple of weeks and we can consider an out-patient program.” Dr. Flynn’s and Christian’s voices are low, but I can’t help listening in, rather rudely tuning out Rhian.
“So it’s all play-dates and diapers at the moment . . .”
“That must take up your time.” I flush, turning my attention back to Rhian, who laughs sweetly. I know Christian and Flynn are discussing Leila.
“Ask her something for me,” Christian murmurs.
“So what do you do, Anastasia?”
“Ana, please. I work in publishing.”
Christian and Dr. Flynn lower their voices further; it’s so frustrating. But they stop when we’re joined by the two women I didn’t recognize earlier—Ros and the bubbly blonde whom Christian introduces as her partner, Gwen.
Ros is charming, and I soon discover they live almost opposite Escala. She is full of praise for Christian’s piloting skills. It was her first time in Charlie Tango, and she says she wouldn’t hesitate to go again. She’s one of the few women I’ve met who isn’t dazzled by him . . . well, the reason is obvious.
Gwen is giggly with a wry sense of humor, and Christian seems extraordinarily at ease with both of them. He knows them well. They don’t discuss work, but I can tell that Ros is one smart woman who can easily keep up with him. She also has a great, throaty, too-many-cigarettes laugh.
Grace interrupts our leisurely conversation to inform everyone that dinner is being served buffet-style in the Grey kitchen. Slowly the guests make their way toward the back of the house.
Mia collars me in the hallway. In her pale pink, frothy babydoll dress and killer heels, she towers over me like a Christmas tree fairy. She’s holding two cocktail glasses.
“Ana,” she hisses conspiratorially. I glance up at Christian, who releases me with a best-of-luck-I-find-her-impossible-to-deal-with-too look, and I sneak into the dining room with her.
“Here,” she says mischievously. “This is one of my dad’s special lemon martinis—much nicer than champagne.” She hands me a glass and watches anxiously while I take a tentative sip.
“Hmm . . . delicious. But strong.” What does she want? Is she trying to get me drunk?
“Ana, I need some advice. And I can’t ask Lily—she’s so judgmental about everything.” Mia rolls her eyes then grins at me. “She is so jealous of you. I think she was hoping one day that she and Christian might get together.” Mia bursts out laughing at the absurdity, and I quail inside.
This is something I will have to contend with for a long time—other women wanting my man. I push the unwelcome thought out of my head and distract myself with the matter in hand. I take another sip of my martini.
“I’ll try and help. Fire away.”
“As you know, Ethan and I met recently, thanks to you.” She beams at me.
“Yes.” Where the hell is she going with this?
“Ana—he doesn’t want to date me.” She pouts.
“Oh.” I blink at her, stunned, and I think, Maybe he’s just not that into you.
“Look, that sounded all wrong. He doesn’t want to date because his sister is going out with my brother. You know—he thinks it’s all kind of incestuous. But I know he likes me. What can I do?”
“Oh, I see,” I mutter, trying to buy myself some time. What can I say? “Can you agree to be friends and give it some time? I mean you’ve only just met him.”
She cocks her eyebrow and I flush.
“Look, I know I’ve only really just met Christian but . . .” I scowl at her not sure what I want to say. “Mia, this is something you and Ethan have to work out together. I would try the friendship route.”
“You’ve learned that look from Christian.”
I flush. “If you want advice, ask Kate. She may have some insight as to how her brother feels.”
“You think?” Mia asks.
“Yes.” I smile encouragingly.
“Cool. Thanks, Ana.” She gives me another hug and scuttles excitedly—and impressively, given her high heels—to the door, no doubt off to bother Kate. I take another sip of my martini, and I’m about to follow her when I am stopped in my tracks.
Elena breezes into the room, her face taut, set in grim, angry determination. She closes the door quietly behind her and scowls at me.
“Ana,” she sneers.
I summon all my self-possession, slightly fuzzy from two glasses of champagne and the lethal cocktail I hold in my hand. I think the blood has drained from my face, but I marshal both my subconscious and my inner goddess in order to appear as calm and as unflappable as I can.
“Elena.” My voice is small, but steady—despite my dry mouth. Why does this woman freak me out so much? And what does she want now?
“I would offer you my heartfelt congratulations, but I think that would be inappropriate.” Her piercing cold blue eyes stare frostily into mine, filled with loathing.
“I neither need nor want your congratulations, Elena. I’m surprised and disappointed to see you here.”
She arches an eyebrow. I think she’s impressed.
“I wouldn’t have thought of you as a worthy adversary, Anastasia. But you surprise me at every turn.”
“I haven’t thought of you at all,” I lie, coolly. Christian would be proud. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have much better things to do than waste my time with you.”
“Not so fast, missy,” she hisses, leaning against the door, effectively blocking it. “What on earth do you think you’re doing, consenting to marry Christian? If you think for one minute you can make him happy, you’re very much mistaken.”
“What I’m consenting to do with Christian is none of your concern.” I smile with sarcastic sweetness. She ignores me.
“He has needs—needs you cannot possibly begin to satisfy,” she gloats.
“What do you know of his needs?” I snarl. My sense of indignation flares brightly, burning inside me as adrenaline surges through my body. How dare this fucking bitch preach to me? “You’re nothing but a sick child molester, and if it was up to me, I’d toss
you into the seventh circle of hell and walk away smiling. Now get out of my way—or do I have to make you?”
“You’re making a big mistake here, lady.” She shakes a long, skinny, finely manicured finger at me. “How dare you judge our lifestyle? You know nothing, and you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. And if you think he’s going to be happy with a mousy little gold-digger like you . . .”
That’s it! I throw the rest of my lemon martini in her face, drenching her.
“Don’t you dare tell me what I’m getting myself into!” I shout at her. “When will you learn? It’s none of your goddamned business!”
She gapes at me, horror struck, wiping the sticky drink off her face. I think she’s about to lunge at me, but she’s suddenly shunted forward as the door opens.
Christian is standing in the doorway. It takes him a nanosecond to assess the situation—me ashen and shaking, her soaked and livid. His lovely face darkens and contorts with anger as he comes to stand between us.
“What the fuck are you doing, Elena?” he says, his voice glacial and laced with menace.
She blinks up at him. “She’s not right for you, Christian,” she whispers.
“What?” he shouts, startling both of us. I can’t see his face but his whole body has tensed, and he radiates animosity.
“How the fuck do you know what’s right for me?”
“You have needs, Christian,” she says her voice softer.
“I’ve told you before—this is none of your fucking business,” he roars. Oh crap—Very Angry Christian has reared his not-so-ugly head. People are going to hear.
“What is this?” He pauses, glaring at her. “Do you think it’s you? You? You think you’re right for me?” His voice is softer but drips contempt, and suddenly I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to witness this intimate encounter. I’m intruding. But I’m stuck—my limbs unwilling to move.
Elena swallows and seems to draw herself upright. Her stance changes subtly, becomes more commanding, and she steps toward him.
“I was the best thing that ever happened to you,” she hisses arrogantly at him. “Look at you now. One of the richest, most successful, entrepreneurs in the US—controlled, driven—you need nothing. You are master of your universe.”
He steps back as if he’s been struck and gapes at her in outraged disbelief.
“You loved it, Christian, don’t try and kid yourself. You were on the road to self-destruction, and I saved you from that, saved you from a life behind bars. Believe me, baby, that’s where you would have ended up. I taught you everything you know, everything you need.”
Christian blanches, staring at her in horror. When he speaks, his voice is low and incredulous.
“You taught me how to fuck, Elena. But it’s empty, like you. No wonder Linc left.”
Bile rises in my mouth. I should not be here. But I’m frozen to the spot, morbidly fascinated as they eviscerate each other.
“You never once held me,” Christian whispers. “You never once said you loved me.”
She narrows her eyes. “Love is for fools, Christian.”
“Get out of my house.” Grace’s implacable, furious voice startles us. Three heads swing rapidly to where Grace stands on the threshold of the room. She is glaring at Elena, who pales beneath her St. Tropez tan.
Time seems suspended as we collectively take a deep gasping breath, and Grace stalks deliberately into the room. Her eyes blaze with fury, never once leaving Elena, until she stands before her. Elena’s eyes widen in alarm, and Grace slaps her hard across the face, the sound of the impact resounding off the walls of the dining room.
“Take your filthy paws off my son, you whore, and get out of my house—now!” she hisses through gritted teeth.
Elena clutches her reddening cheek and stares in horror for a moment, shocked and blinking at Grace. Then she hurries from the room, not bothering to close the door behind her.
Grace turns slowly to face Christian and a tense silence settles like a thick blanket over us as Christian and Grace stare at each other. After a beat, Grace speaks.
“Ana, before I hand him over to you, would you mind giving me a minute or two alone with my son?” Her voice is quiet, husky, but oh-so-strong.
“Of course,” I whisper, and exit as quickly as I can, glancing anxiously over my shoulder. But neither of them look at me as I leave. They continue to stare at each other, their unspoken communication blaringly loud.
In the hallway, I am momentarily lost. My heart pounds and my blood races through my veins . . . I feel panicked and out of my depth. Holy fuck, that was heavy and now Grace knows. Crap. I can’t think what she’s going to say to Christian, and I know it’s wrong, I know, but I lean against the door trying to listen.
“How long, Christian?” Grace’s voice is soft. I can barely hear her.
I cannot hear his reply.
“How old were you?” Her voice is more insistent. “Tell me. How old were you when this all started?” Again I can’t hear Christian.
“Everything okay, Ana?” Ros interrupts me.
“Yes. Fine. Thank you. I . . .”
Ros smiles. “I’m just going to fetch my purse. I need a cigarette.”
For a brief moment, I contemplate joining her.
“I’m off to the bathroom.” I need to gather my wits and my thoughts, to process what I’ve just witnessed and heard. Upstairs seems the safest place to be on my own. I watch Ros stroll into the drawing room, and I bolt two stairs at a time to the second floor, then up to the third. There’s only one place I want to be.
I open the door to Christian’s childhood bedroom and shut it behind me, taking a huge gulping breath. Heading for his bed, I flop onto it and stare at the plain white ceiling.
Holy cow. That has to be, without doubt, one of the most excruciating confrontations I’ve ever had to endure, and now I feel numb. My fiancé and his ex-lover—no would-be bride should have to see that. Having said that, part of me is glad she’s revealed her true self, and that I was there to bear witness.
My thoughts turn to Grace. Poor Grace, to hear all that. I clutch one of Christian’s pillows. She’ll have overheard that Christian and Elena had an affair—but not the nature of it. Thank heavens. I groan.
What am I doing? Perhaps the evil witch had a point.
No, I refuse to believe that. She’s so cold and cruel. I shake my head. She’s wrong. I am right for Christian. I am what he needs. And in a moment of stunning clarity, I don’t question how he’s lived his life until recently—but why. His reasons for doing what he’s done to countless girls—I don’t even want to know how many. The how isn’t wrong. They were all adults. They were all—how did Flynn put it?—in safe, sane, consensual relationships. It’s the why. The why was wrong. The why was from his place of darkness.
I close my eyes and drape my arm over them. But now he’s moved on, left it behind, and we are both in the light. I’m dazzled by him and he by me. We can guide each other. A thought occurs to me. Shit! A gnawing, insidious thought and I’m in the one place where I can lay this ghost to rest. I sit up. Yes, I must do this.
Shakily I get to my feet, kick off my shoes, walk over to his desk, and examine the pin board above it. The photos of young Christian are all still there—more poignant than ever as I think of the spectacle I’ve just witnessed between him and Mrs. Robinson. And there in the corner is the small black and white photo—his mother, the crack whore.
I switch on the desk lamp and focus the light on her picture. I don’t even know her name. She looks so much like him but younger and sadder and all I feel, looking at her sorrowful face, is compassion. I try to see the similarities between her face and mine. I squint at the picture, getting really, really close, and see none. Except maybe our hair, but I think hers is lighter than mine. I don’t look like her at all. It’s a relief.
My subconscious tuts at me, arms crossed, glaring over her half-moon glasses. Why are you torturing yourself? You’ve said yes. You’ve made your bed. I purse my lips at her. Yes I have, gladly so. I want to lie in that bed with Christian for the rest of my life. My inner goddess, sitting in the lotus position, smiles serenely. Yes. I’ve made the right decision.
I must find him—Christian will be worried. I have no idea how long I’ve been in his room; he’ll think that I’ve fled. I roll my eyes as I contemplate his overreaction. I hope that he and Grace have finished. I shudder to think what else she might have said to him.
I meet Christian as he climbs the stairs to the second floor, looking for me. His face is strained and weary—not the carefree Fifty I arrived with. As I stand on the landing, he stops on the top stair so that we are eye to eye.
“Hi,” he says cautiously.
“Hi,” I answer warily.
“I was worried—”
“I know,” I interrupt him. “I’m sorry—I couldn’t face the festivities. I just had to get away, you know. To think.” Reaching up, I caress his face. He closes his eyes and leans his face into my hand.
“And you thought you’d do that in my room?”
He reaches for my hand and pulls me into an embrace, and I go willingly into his arms, my favorite place in the whole world. He smells of fresh laundry, body wash, and Christian—the most calming and arousing scent on the planet. He inhales with his nose in my hair.
“I’m sorry you had to endure all that.”
“It’s not your fault, Christian. Why was she here?” He gazes down at me, and his mouth curls apologetically.
“She’s a family friend.”
I try not to react. “Not any more. How’s your mom?”
“Mom is pretty fucking mad at me right now. I’m really glad you’re here, and that we’re in the middle of a party. Otherwise I might be breathing my last.”
“That bad, huh?”
He nods, his eyes serious, and I sense his bewilderment at her reaction.
“Can you blame her?” My voice is quiet, cajoling.
He hugs me tightly and he seems uncertain, processing his thoughts.
Finally he answers. “No.”
Whoa! Breakthrough. “Can we sit?” I ask.
I nod and we both sit at the top of the stairs.
“So, how do you feel?” I ask, anxiously clutching his hand and gazing at his sad, serious face.
“I feel liberated.” He shrugs, then beams—a glorious, carefree Christian smile, and the weariness and strain present moments ago have vanished.
“Really?” I beam back. Wow, I’d crawl over broken glass for that smile.
“Our business relationship is over. Done.”
I frown at him. “Will you liquidate the salon business?”
He snorts. “I’m not that vindictive, Anastasia,” he admonishes me. “No. I’ll gift them to her. I’ll talk to my lawyer Monday. I owe her that much.”
I arch an eyebrow at him. “No more Mrs. Robinson?” His mouth twists in amusement and he shakes his head.
“I’m sorry you lost a friend.”
He shrugs then smirks. “Are you?”
“No,” I confess, flushing.
“Come.” He stands and offers me his hand. “Let’s join the party in our honor. I might even get drunk.”
“Do you get drunk?” I ask as I take his hand.
“Not since I was a wild teenager.” We walk down the stairs.
“Have you eaten?” he asks.
“Well you should. From the look and smell of Elena, that was one of my father’s lethal cocktails you threw over her.” He gazes at me, trying and failing to keep the amusement off his face.
He holds up his hand.
“No arguing, Anastasia. If you’re going to drink—and throw alcohol over my exes—you need to eat. It’s rule number one. I believe we’ve already had that discussion after our first night together.”
Oh yes. The Heathman.
Back in the hallway, he pauses to caress my face, his fingers skimming my jaw.
“I lay awake for hours and watched you sleep,” he murmurs. “I might have loved you even then.”
He leans down and kisses me softly, and I melt everywhere, all the tension of the last hour or so seeping languidly from my body.
“Eat,” he whispers.
“Okay,” I acquiesce because right now I’d probably do anything for him. Taking my hand, he leads me toward the kitchen where the party is in full swing.
“Goodnight, John, Rhian.”
“Congratulations again, Ana. You two will be just fine.” Dr. Flynn smiles kindly at us, standing arm in arm in the hallway as he and Rhian take their leave.
Christian closes the door and shakes his head. He gazes down at me, his eyes suddenly bright with excitement.
“Just the family left. I think my mother has had too much to drink.” Grace is singing karaoke on some game console in the family room. Kate and Mia are giving her a run for her money.
“Do you blame her?” I smirk at him, trying to keep the atmosphere between us light. I succeed.
“Are you smirking at me, Miss Steele?”
“It’s been quite a day.”
“Christian, recently, every day with you has been quite a day.” My voice is sardonic.
He shakes his head. “Fair point well made, Miss Steele. Come—I want to show you something.” Taking my hand, he leads me through the house to the kitchen where Carrick, Ethan, and Elliot are talking Mariners, drinking the last of the cocktails, and eating leftovers.
“Off for a stroll?” Elliot teases suggestively as we make our way through the French doors. Christian ignores him. Carrick frowns at Elliot, shaking his head in a silent rebuke.
As we make our way up the steps to the lawn, I take off my shoes. The half-moon shines brightly over the bay. It’s brilliant, casting everything in myriad of shades of gray as the lights of Seattle twinkle sweetly in the distance. The lights of the boathouse are on, a soft glowing beacon in the cool cast of the moon.
“Christian, I’d like to go to church tomorrow.”
“I prayed you’d come back alive and you did. It’s the least I could do.”
We wander hand in hand in a relaxed silence for a few moments. Then something occurs to me.
“Where are you going to put the photos José took of me?”
“I thought we might put them in the new house.”
“You bought it?”
He stops to stare at me, and his voice full of concern. “Yes. I thought you liked it.”
“I do. When did you buy it?”
“Yesterday morning. Now we need to decide what to do with it,” he murmurs, relieved.
“Don’t knock it down. Please. It’s such a lovely house. It just needs some tender loving care.”
Christian glances at me and smiles. “Okay. I’ll talk to Elliot. He knows a good architect; she did some work on my place is Aspen. He can do the remodeling.”
I snort, suddenly remembering the last time we crossed the lawn under the moonlight to the boathouse. Oh, perhaps that’s what we’re going to do now. I grin.
“I remember the last time you took me to the boathouse.”
Christian chuckles quietly. “Oh, that was fun. In fact . . .” He suddenly stops and scoops me over his shoulder, and I squeal, though we don’t have far to go.
“You were really angry, if I remember correctly,” I gasp.
“Anastasia, I’m always really angry.”
“No you’re not.”
He swats my behind as he stops outside the wooden door. He slides me down his body back to the ground and takes my head in his hands.
“No, not anymore.” Leaning down, he kisses me, hard. When he pulls away, I’m breathless and desire is racing round my body.
He gazes down at me, and in the glow of the strip of light coming from inside the boathouse, I can see he’s anxious. My anxious man, not a white knight or a dark knight, but a man—a beautiful, not-quite-so-fucked-up man—whom I love. I reach up and caress his face, running my fingers through his sideburns and along his jaw to his chin, then let my index finger touch his lips. He relaxes.
“I’ve something to show you in here,” he murmurs and opens the door.
The harsh light of the fluorescents illuminates the impressive motor launch in the dock, bobbing gently on the dark water. There’s a row boat beside it.
“Come.” Christian takes my hand and leads me up the wooden stairs. Opening the door at the top, he steps aside to let me in.
My mouth drops to the floor. The attic is unrecognizable. The room is filled with flowers . . . there are flowers everywhere. Someone has created a magical bower of beautiful wild meadow flowers mixed with glowing fairy lights and miniature lanterns that glow soft and pale round the room.
My face whips round to meet his, and he’s gazing at me, his expression unreadable. He shrugs.
“You wanted hearts and flowers,” he murmurs.
I blink at him, not quite believing what I’m seeing.
“You have my heart.” And he waves toward the room.
“And here are the flowers,” I whisper, completing his sentence. “Christian, it’s lovely.” I can’t think of what else to say. My heart is in my mouth as tears prick my eyes.
Tugging my hand, he pulls me into the room, and before I know it, he’s sinking to one knee in front of me. Holy hell . . . I did not expect this! I stop breathing.
From his inside jacket pocket he produces a ring and gazes up at me, his eyes bright gray and raw, full of emotion.
“Anastasia Steele. I love you. I want to love, cherish, and protect you for the rest of my life. Be mine. Always. Share my life with me. Marry me.”
I blink down at him as my tears fall. My Fifty, my man. I love him so, and all I can say as the tidal wave of emotion hits me is, “Yes.”
He grins, relieved, and slowly slides the ring on my finger. It’s beautiful, an oval diamond in a platinum ring. Jeez—it’s big . . . Big, but oh-so-simple and stunning in its simplicity.
“Oh, Christian,” I sob, suddenly overwhelmed with joy, and I join him on my knees, my fingers fisting in his hair as I kiss him, kiss him with all my heart and soul. Kiss this beautiful man, who loves me as I love him; and as he wraps his arms around me, his hands moving to my hair, his mouth on mine. I know deep down I will always be his, and he will always be mine. We’ve come so far together, we have so far to go, but we are made for each other. We are meant to be.
The cigarette end glows brightly in the darkness as he takes a deep pull. He blows the smoke out in a long exhale, finishing with two smoke rings that dissolve in front of him, pale and ghostly in the moonlight. He shifts in his seat, bored, and takes a quick shot of cheap bourbon from a bottle wrapped in shabby brown paper before resting it back between his thighs.
He can’t believe he’s still on the trail. His mouth twists in a sardonic sneer. The helicopter had been a rash and bold move. One of the most exhilarating things he’d ever done in his life. But to no avail. He rolls his eyes ironically. Who would have thought the son-of-a-bitch could actually fly the fucker?
They have underestimated him. If Grey thought for one minute he’d go whimpering quietly into the dusk, that prick didn’t know jack shit.
It had been the same all his life. People constantly underestimating him—just a man who reads books. Fuck that! A man with a photographic memory who reads books. Oh,
the things he’s learned, the things he knows. He snorts again—Yeah, about you, Grey. The things I know about you.
Not bad for a kid from the gutter end of Detroit.
Not bad for the kid who won a scholarship to Princeton.
Not bad for the kid who worked his ass off through college and got into publishing.
And now all of that’s fucked, fucked because of Grey and his little bitch. He scowls at the house as if it represents everything he despises. But there’s nothing doing. The only drama had been the stacked, blond broad in black, teetering down the driveway in tears before she climbed into the white CLK and fucked off.
He chuckles mirthlessly, then winces. Fuck, his ribs. Still sore from the swift kicking Grey’s henchman delivered.
He replays the scene in his mind. “You fucking touch Miss Steele again, I’ll fucking kill you.”
That motherfucker will get it good, too. Yeah—get what’s coming to him.
He settles back in his seat. Looks like it’s going to be a long night. He’ll stay, watch, and wait. He takes another toke of his Marlboro red. His chance will come. His chance will come soon.
End of Part Two . . .