Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Fifty Shades Darker CHAPTER 6


My hands fist in his hair while my mouth is feverish against Christian’s, consuming him, relishing the feel of his tongue against mine. And he’s the same, devouring me. It’s heavenly.
Suddenly he drags me up and grasps the hem of my T-shirt, whipping it over my head and throwing it on the floor.
“I want to feel you,” he says greedily against my mouth as his hands move behind me to undo my bra. In one smooth move, it’s off and he pitches it aside.
He pushes me back down onto the bed, pressing me into the mattress, and his mouth and hand move to my breasts. My fingers curl into his hair as he takes one of my nipples between his lips and tugs hard.
I cry out as the sensation sweeps through my body, spikes, and tightens all the muscles around my groin.
“Yes, baby, let me hear you,” he murmurs against my overheated skin.
Boy, I want him inside me, now. With his mouth, he toys with my nipple, pulling at it, making me squirm and writhe and yearn for him. I sense his longing mixed with—what? Veneration. It’s as if he’s worshipping me.
He teases me with his fingers, my nipple growing hard and elongating under his skillful touch. His hand moves to my jeans, and he deftly undoes the button, tugs the zipper down, and slips his hand inside my panties, sliding his fingers against my sex.
His breath hisses out as his finger glides into me. I push my pelvis up into the heel of his hand, and he responds, rubbing against me.
“Oh, baby,” he breathes as he hovers over me, staring intently into my eyes. “You’re so wet.” His voice is filled with wonder.
“I want you,” I murmur.
His mouth joins with mine again, and I feel his hungry desperation, his need for me.
This is new—it’s never been like this except perhaps when I came back from Georgia—and his words from earlier drift back to me . . . I need to know we’re okay. This is the only way I know how.
The thought unravels me. To know that I have such an effect on him, that I can offer him so much solace, doing this—my inner goddess purrs with pure pleasure. He sits up, grasps the hem of my jeans, and tugs them off, followed by my panties.
Keeping his eyes fixed on mine, he stands, takes a foil packet out of his pocket, and tosses it at me, then removes his jeans and boxers in one swift motion.
I rip the packet open greedily, and when he lies beside me again, I slowly roll the condom on to him. He grabs both my hands and rolls on to his back.
“You. On top,” he orders, pulling me astride him. “I want to see you.”
He guides me, and hesitantly I ease myself down onto him. He closes his eyes and flexes his hips to meet me, filling me, stretching me, his mouth forming a perfect O as he exhales.
Oh, that feels so good—possessing him, possessing me.
He holds my hands, and I don’t know if it’s to steady me or keep me from touching him, even though I have my road map.
“You feel so good,” he murmurs.
I rise again, heady with the power I have over him, watching Christian Grey slowly coming apart beneath me. He lets go of my hands and grabs my hips, and I place my hands on his arms. He thrusts into me sharply, causing me to cry out.
“That’s right, baby, feel me,” he says, his voice strained.
I tip my head back and do exactly that. This is what he does so well.
I move—countering his rhythm in perfect symmetry—numbing all thought and reason. I am just sensation lost in this void of pleasure. Up and down . . . again and again . . . Oh yes . . . Opening my eyes, I stare down at him, my breathing ragged, and he’s staring back at me, eyes blazing.
“My Ana,” he mouths.
“Yes,” I rasp. “Always.”
He groans loudly, closing his eyes again, tipping his head back. Oh my . . . Seeing Christian undone is enough to seal my fate, and I come audibly, exhaustingly, spinning down and around, collapsing on top of him.
“Oh, baby,” he groans as he finds his release, holding me still and letting go.
My head is on his chest in the no-go area, my cheek nestled against the springy hair on his sternum. I am panting, glowing, and I resist the urge to pucker my lips and kiss him.
I just lie on top of him, catching my breath. He smoothes my hair, and his hand runs down my back, caressing me as his breathing calms.
“You are so beautiful.”
I lift my head to gaze at him, my expression skeptical. He frowns in response and sits up quickly, taking me by surprise, his arm sweeping round to hold me in place. I clutch his biceps as we are nose to nose.
“You. Are. Beautiful,” he says again, his tone emphatic.
“And you’re amazingly sweet sometimes.” I kiss him gently.
He lifts me and eases out of me. I wince as he does. Leaning forward, he kisses me softly.
“You have no idea how attractive you are, do you?”
I flush. Why’s he going on about this?
“All those boys pursuing you—that isn’t enough of a clue?”
“Boys? What boys?”
“You want the list?” Christian frowns. “The photographer, he’s crazy about you, that boy in the hardware store, your roommate’s older brother. Your boss,” he adds bitterly.
“Oh, Christian, that’s just not true.”
“Trust me. They want you. They want what’s mine.” He pulls me against him, and I lift my arms to his shoulders, my hands in his hair, regarding him with amusement.
“Mine,” he repeats, his eyes glowing possessively.
“Yes, yours.” I reassure him, smiling. He looks mollified, and I feel perfectly comfortable naked in his lap on a bed in the full light of a Saturday afternoon. Who would have thought? The lipstick marks remain on his exquisite body. I note some smears on the duvet cover though, and wonder briefly what Mrs. Jones will make of them.
“The line is still intact,” I murmur and bravely trace the mark on his shoulder with my index finger. He stiffens, blinking suddenly. “I want to go exploring.”
He regards me skeptically.
“The apartment?”
“No. I was thinking of the treasure map that we’ve drawn on you.” My fingers itch to touch him.
His eyebrows lift in surprise, and he blinks with uncertainty. I rub my nose against his.
“And what would that entail exactly, Miss Steele?”
I lift my hand from his shoulder and run my fingertips down this face.
“I just want to touch you everywhere I’m allowed.”
Christian catches my index finger in his teeth, biting down gently.
“Ow,” I protest and he grins, a low growl coming from his throat.
“Okay,” he says, releasing my finger, but his voice is laced with apprehension. “Wait.” He leans behind me, lifting me again, and removes his condom, dropping it unceremoniously on the floor beside the bed.
“I hate those things. I’ve a good mind to call Dr. Greene around to give you a shot.”
“You think the top ob-gyn in Seattle is going to come running?”
“I can be very persuasive,” he murmurs, hooking my hair behind my ear. “Franco’s done a great job on your hair. I like these layers.”
“Stop changing the subject.”
He shifts me back so I’m straddling him, leaning on his propped-up knees, my feet on either side of his hips. He leans back on his arms.
“Touch away,” he says without humor. He looks nervous, but he’s trying to hide it.
Keeping my eyes on his, I reach down and trace my finger underneath the lipstick line, across his finely sculptured abdominal muscles. He flinches and I stop.
“I don’t have to,” I whisper.
“No, it’s fine. Just takes some . . . readjustment on my part. No one’s touched me for a long time,” he murmurs.
“Mrs. Robinson?” The words pop unbidden out of my mouth, and amazingly, I manage to keep all bitterness and rancor out of my voice.
He nods, his discomfort obvious. “I don’t want to talk about her. It will sour your good mood.”
“I can handle it.”
“No, you can’t, Ana. You see red whenever I mention her. My past is my past. It’s a fact. I can’t change it. I’m lucky that you don’t have one, because it would drive me crazy if you did.”
I frown at him, but I don’t want to fight. “Drive you crazy? More than you are already?” I smile, hoping to lighten the atmosphere between us.
His lips twitch. “Crazy for you,” he whispers.
My heart swells with joy.
“Shall I call Dr. Flynn?”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” he says dryly.
Shifting back so he drops his legs, I place my fingers back on his stomach and let them drift across his skin. He stills once more.
“I like touching you.” My fingers skate down to his navel then southward along his happy, happy trail. His lips part as his breathing changes, his eyes darken and his erection stirs and twitches beneath me. Holy cow. Round two.
“Again?” I murmur.
He smiles. “Oh yes, Miss Steele, again.”
What a delicious way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I stand beneath the shower, absentmindedly washing myself, careful not to wet my tied-back hair, contemplating the last couple of hours. Christian and vanilla seem to be going well.
He’s revealed so much today. It’s staggering, trying to assimilate all the information and to reflect on what I’ve learned: his salary details—Whoa, he’s stinking rich, and for someone so young; it’s just extraordinary—and the dossiers he has on me and on all his brunette submissives. I wonder if they are all in that filing cabinet?
My subconscious purses her lips at me and shakes her head—don’t even go there. I frown. Just a quick peek?
And there’s Leila—with a gun, potentially, somewhere—and her crap taste in music still on his iPod. But even worse, Mrs. Paedo Robinson, I cannot wrap my head around her, and I don’t want to. I don’t want her to be a shimmering-haired specter in our relationship. He’s right, I do go off the deep end when I think of her, so perhaps it’s best if I don’t.
I step out of the shower and dry myself, and I’m suddenly seized by unexpected anger.
But who wouldn’t go off the deep end? What normal, sane person would do that to a fifteen-year-old boy? How much has she contributed to his fuckedupness? I don’t understand her. And worse still, he says she helped him. How?
I think of his scars, the stark physical embodiment of a horrific childhood and a sickening reminder of what mental scars he must bear. My sweet, sad Fifty Shades. He’s said such loving things today. He’s crazy for me.
Staring at my reflection, I smile at the memory of his words, my heart brimming once more, and my face transforms with a ridiculous smile. Perhaps we can make this work. But how long will he want to do this without wanting to beat the crap out of me because I cross some arbitrary line?
My smile dissolves. This is what I don’t know. This is the shadow that hangs over us. Kinky fuckery, yes, I can do that, but more?
My subconscious stares at me blankly, for once offering no snarky words of wisdom. I head back to my bedroom to dress.
Christian is downstairs getting ready, doing whatever he’s doing, so I have the bedroom to myself. As well as all the dresses in the closet, I have drawers full of new underwear. I select a black bustier corset creation with a price tag of five hundred forty dollars. It has silver trim like filigree and the briefest of panties to match. Thigh-high stockings, too, in a natural color, so fine, pure silk. Wow, they feel . . . slinky . . . and kind of hot . . . yeah.
I am reaching for the dress when Christian enters unannounced. Whoa, you could knock! He stands immobilized, staring at me, gray eyes glimmering, hungrily. I blush crimson everywhere, it feels. He is wearing a white shirt and black suit pants, the neck of his shirt is open. I can see the lipstick line still in place, and he’s still staring.
“Can I help you, Mr. Grey? I assume there is some purpose to your visit other than to gawk mindlessly at me.”
“I am rather enjoying my mindless gawk, thank you, Miss Steele,” he murmurs darkly, stepping further into the room and drinking me in. “Remind me to send a personal note of thanks to Caroline Acton.”
I frown. Who the hell is she?
“The personal shopper at Neiman’s,” he says, spookily answering my unspoken question.
“I’m quite distracted.”
“I can see that. What do you want, Christian?” I give him my no-nonsense stare.
He retaliates with his crooked smile and pulls the silver ball egg-things from his pocket, stopping me in my tracks. Holy shit! He wants to spank me? Now? Why?
“It’s not what you think,” he says quickly.
“Enlighten me,” I whisper.
“I thought you could wear these tonight.”
And the implications of that sentence hang between us as the idea sinks in.
“To this event?” I’m shocked.
He nods slowly, his eyes darkening.
Oh my.
“Will you spank me later?”
For a moment, I feel a tiny fleeting stab of disappointment.
He chuckles. “You want me to?”
I swallow. I just don’t know.
“Well, rest assured I am not going to touch you like that, not even if you beg me.”
Oh! This is news.
“Do you want to play this game?” he continues, holding up the balls. “You can always take them out if it’s too much.”
I gaze at him. He looks so wickedly tempting—unkempt, recently fucked hair, dark eyes dancing with erotic thoughts, that beautiful sculptured mouth, lips raised in a sexy, amused smile.
“Okay,” I acquiesce softly. Hell, yes! My inner goddess has found her voice and is shouting from the rooftops.
“Good girl,” Christian grins. “Come here, and I’ll put them in, once you’ve put your shoes on.”
My shoes? I turn and glance at the dove gray suede stilettos that match the dress I’ve chosen to wear.
Humor him! my inner goddess barks at me.
He holds out his hand to support me while I step into the Christian Louboutin shoes, a steal at three-thousand two hundred ninety-five dollars. I must be at least five inches taller now.
He leads me to the bedside and doesn’t sit, but walks over to the only chair in the room. Picking it up, he carries it over and places it in front of me.
“When I nod, you bend down and hold on to the chair. Understand?” His voice is husky.
“Good. Now open your mouth,” he orders, his voice still low.
I do as I’m told, thinking that he’s going to put the balls in my mouth again to lubricate them. No, he slips his index finger in.
Oh . . .
“Suck,” he says. I reach up and clasp his hand, holding him steady, and do as I’m told—see, I can be obedient, when I want.
He tastes of soap . . . hmm. I suck hard, and I’m rewarded when his eyes widen and his lips part as he inhales. I’m not going to need any lubricant at this rate. He puts the balls in his mouth as I fellate his finger, twirling my tongue round it. When he tries to withdraw it, I clamp my teeth down.
He grins then shakes his head, admonishing me, so I let go. He nods, and I bend down and grasp the sides of the chair. He moves my panties to one side and very slowly slides a finger into me, circling leisurely, so I feel him, on all sides. I can’t help the moan that escapes from my lips.
He withdraws his finger briefly and with tender care, inserts the balls one at a time, pushing them deep inside me. Once they are in position, he smoothes my panties back into place and kisses my backside. Running his hands up each of my legs from ankle to thigh, he gently kisses the top of each thigh where my hold-ups finish.
“You have fine, fine legs, Miss Steele,” he murmurs.
Standing, he grasps my hips and pulls my behind against him so I feel his erection.
“Maybe I’ll have you this way when we get home, Anastasia. You can stand now.”
I feel giddy, beyond aroused as the weight of the balls push and pull inside me. Leaning down from behind me Christian kisses my shoulder.
“I bought these for you to wear to last Saturday’s gala.” He puts his arm around me and holds out his hand. In his palm rests a small red box with Cartier inscribed on the lid. “But you left me, so I never had the opportunity to give them to you.”
“This is my second chance,” he murmurs, his voice stiff with some unnamed emotion. He’s nervous.
Tentatively, I reach for the box and open it. Inside shines a pair of drop earrings. Each has four diamonds, one at the base, then a gap, then three perfectly spaced diamonds hanging one after the other. They’re beautiful, simple, and classic. What I would choose myself, if I were ever given the opportunity to shop at Cartier.
“They’re lovely,” I whisper, and because they are second-chance earrings, I love them. “Thank you.”
He relaxes against me as the tension leaves his body, and he kisses my shoulder again.
“You’re wearing the silver satin dress?” he asks.
“Yes? Is that okay?”
“Of course. I’ll let you get ready.” He heads out the door without a backward glance.
I have entered an alternate universe. The young woman staring back at me looks worthy of a red carpet. Her strapless, floor-length, silver satin gown is simply stunning. Maybe I’ll write to Caroline Acton myself. It’s fitted and flatters what little curves I have.
My hair falls in soft waves around my face, spilling over my shoulders to my breasts. I tuck one side behind my ear, revealing my second-chance earrings. I have kept my makeup to a minimum, a natural look. Eyeliner, mascara, a little pink blush, and pale pink lipstick.
I don’t really need the blush. I am slightly flushed from the constant movement of the silver balls. Yes, they’ll guarantee I have some color in my cheeks tonight. Shaking my head at the audacity of Christian’s erotic ideas, I lean down to collect my satin wrap and silver clutch purse and go in search of my Fifty Shades.
He is talking to Taylor and three other men in the hallway, his back to me. Their surprised, appreciative expressions alert Christian to my presence. He turns as I stand and wait awkwardly.
Holy cow! My mouth dries. He looks stunning . . . Black dinner suit, black bow tie, and his expression as he gazes at me is one of awe. He strolls toward me and kisses my hair.
“Anastasia. You look breathtaking.”
I flush at this compliment in front of Taylor and the other men.
“A glass of champagne before we go?”
“Please,” I murmur, far too quickly.
Christian nods to Taylor who heads into the foyer with his three cohorts.
In the great room, Christian retrieves a bottle of champagne from the fridge.
“Security team?” I ask.
“Close protection. They’re under Taylor’s control. He’s trained in that, too.” Christian hands me a champagne flute.
“He’s very versatile.”
“Yes, he is.” Christian smiles. “You look lovely, Anastasia. Cheers.” He raises his glass, and I clink it with mine. The champagne is a pale rose color. It tastes deliciously crisp and light.
“How are you feeling?” he asks, his eyes heated.
“Fine, thank you.” I smile sweetly, giving nothing away, knowing full well he’s referring to the silver balls.
He smirks at me.
“Here, you’re going to need this.” He hands me a large velvet pouch that was resting on the kitchen island. “Open it,” he says between sips of champagne. Intrigued, I reach into the bag and pull out an intricate silver masquerade mask with cobalt blue feathers in a plume crowning the top.
“It’s a masked ball,” he states matter-of-factly.
“I see.” The mask is beautiful. A silver ribbon is threaded around the edges and exquisite silver filigree is etched around the eyes.
“This will show off your beautiful eyes, Anastasia.”
I grin at him, shyly.
“Are you wearing one?”
“Of course. They’re very liberating in a way,” he adds, raising an eyebrow, and he smirks.
Oh. This is going to be fun.
“Come. I want to show you something.” Holding out his hand, he leads me out into the hallway and to a door beside the stairs. He opens it, revealing a large room roughly the same size as his playroom, which must be directly above us. This one is filled with books. Wow, a library, every wall crammed floor to ceiling. In the center is a full-size billiard table illuminated by a long triangular-prism-shaped Tiffany lamp.
“You have a library!” I squeak in awe, overwhelmed with excitement.
“Yes, the balls room as Elliot calls it. The apartment is quite spacious. I realized today, when you mentioned exploring, that I’ve never given you a tour. We don’t have time now,
but I thought I’d show you this room, and maybe challenge you to a game of billiards in the not-too-distant future.”
I grin at him.
“Bring it on.” I secretly hug myself with glee. José and I bonded over pool. We’ve been playing for the last three years. I am ace with a cue. José has been a good teacher.
“What?” Christian asks, amused.
Oh! I really must stop expressing every emotion I feel the instant I feel it, I scold myself.
“Nothing,” I say quickly.
Christian narrows his eyes.
“Well, maybe Doctor Flynn can uncover your secrets. You’ll meet him this evening.”
“The expensive charlatan?” Holy shit.
“The very same. He’s dying to meet you.”
Christian takes my hand and gently skims his thumb across my knuckles as we sit in the back of the Audi heading north. I squirm, and feel the sensation in my groin. I resist the urge to moan, as Taylor is in the front, not wearing his iPod, with one of the security guys whose name I think is Sawyer.
I am beginning to feel a dull, pleasurable ache deep in my belly, caused by the balls. Idly, I wonder, how long will I be able to manage without some, um . . . relief? I cross my legs. As I do, something that’s been niggling me in the back of my mind suddenly surfaces.
“Where did you get the lipstick?” I ask Christian quietly.
He smirks at me and points toward the front. “Taylor,” he mouths.
I burst out laughing. “Oh.” And stop quickly—the balls.
I bite my lip. Christian smiles at me, his eyes gleaming wickedly. He knows exactly what he’s doing, sexy beast that he is.
“Relax,” he breathes. “If it’s too much . . .” His voice trails off, and he gently kisses each knuckle in turn, then gently sucks the tip of my little finger.
Now I know he’s doing this on purpose. I close my eyes as dark desire unfolds throughout my body. I surrender briefly to the sensation, my muscles clenching deep inside me. Oh my.
When I open my eyes again, Christian is regarding me closely, a dark prince. It must be the dinner jacket and bow tie, but he looks older, sophisticated, a devastatingly handsome roué with licentious intent.
He simply takes my breath away. I’m in his sexual thrall, and if I’m to believe him, he’s in mine. The thought brings a smile to my face, and his answering grin is blinding.
“So what can we expect at this event?”
“Oh, the usual stuff,” Christian says breezily.
“Not usual for me,” I remind him.
Christian smiles fondly and kisses my hand again. “Lots of people flashing their cash. Auction, raffle, dinner, dancing—my mother knows how to throw a party.” He smiles and for the first time all day, I allow myself to feel a little excited about this party.
There is a line of expensive cars heading up the driveway of the Grey mansion. Long, pale pink paper lanterns hang over the drive, and as we inch closer in the Audi, I can see they are everywhere. In the early evening light, they look magical, as if we’re entering an enchanted kingdom. I glance at Christian. How suitable for my prince—and my childish excitement blooms, eclipsing all other feelings.
“Masks on,” Christian grins, and as he dons his simple black mask, my prince becomes something darker, more sensual.
All I can see of his face is his beautiful chiseled mouth and strong jaw.
Holy fuck . . . My heartbeat lurches at the sight of him. I fasten my mask and grin at him, ignoring the hunger deep in my body.
Taylor pulls into the driveway, and a valet opens Christian’s door. Sawyer leaps out to open mine.
“Ready?” Christian asks.
“As I’ll ever be.”
“You look beautiful, Anastasia.” He kisses my hand and exits the car.
A dark green carpet runs along the lawn to one side of the house, leading to the impressive grounds at the rear. Christian has a protective arm around me, resting his hand on my waist, as we follow the green carpet with a steady stream of Seattle’s elite dressed in their finery and wearing all manner of masks the lanterns lighting the way. Two photographers marshal guests to pose for pictures against the backdrop of an ivy-strewn arbor.
“Mr. Grey!” one of the photographers calls. Christian nods in acknowledgement and pulls me close as we pose quickly for a photo. How do they know it’s him? His trademark, unruly copper hair no doubt.
“Two photographers?” I ask Christian.
“One is from the Seattle Times; the other is for a souvenir. We’ll be able to buy a copy later.”
Oh, my picture in the press again. Leila briefly enters my mind. This is how she found me, posing with Christian. The thought is unsettling, though it’s comforting that I am unrecognizable beneath my mask.
At the end of the line, white-suited servers hold trays of glasses brimming with champagne, and I’m grateful when Christian passes me a glass—effectively distracting me from my dark thoughts.
We approach a large white pergola hung with smaller versions of the paper lanterns. Beneath it, shines a black and white checkered dance floor surrounded by a low fence with entrances on three sides. At each entrance stand two elaborate ice sculptures of swans. The fourth side of the pergola is occupied by a stage where a string quartet is playing softly, a haunting, ethereal piece I don’t recognize. The stage looks set for a big band but as there’s no sign of the musicians yet. I figure this must be for later. Taking my hand, Christian leads me between swans onto the dance floor where the other guests are congregating, chatting over glasses of champagne.
Toward the shoreline stands an enormous marquee, open on the side nearest to us so I can glimpse the formally arranged tables and chairs. There are so many!
“How many people are coming?” I ask Christian, thrown by the scale of the marquee.
“I think about three hundred. You’ll have to ask my mother.” He smiles down at me, and maybe it’s because I can only see his smile that lights up his face, but my inner goddess swoons.
A young woman appears out of the throng and throws her arms around his neck, and immediately I know it’s Mia. She’s dressed in a sleek, pale pink, full-length chiffon gown with a stunning, delicately detailed Venetian mask to match. She looks amazing. And for a moment, I have never felt so grateful for the dress Christian has given me.
“Ana! Oh, darling, you look gorgeous!” She gives me a quick hug. “You must come and meet my friends. None of them can believe that Christian finally has a girlfriend.”
I shoot a quick panicked glance at Christian, who shrugs in a resigned I-know-she’s-impossible-I-had-to-live-with-her-for-years way, and let Mia lead me over to a group of four young women, all expensively attired and impeccably groomed.
Mia makes hasty introductions. Three of them are sweet and kind, but Lily, I think her name is, regards me sourly from beneath her red mask.
“Of course we all thought Christian was gay,” she says snidely, concealing her rancor with a large, fake smile.
Mia pouts at her.
“Lily, behave yourself. It’s obvious he has excellent taste in women. He was waiting for the right one to come along, and it wasn’t you!”
Lily blushes the same color as her mask, as do I. Could this be any more uncomfortable?
“Ladies, if I could claim my date back, please?” Snaking his arm around my waist, Christian pulls me to his side. All four women flush, grin and fidget, his dazzling smile doing what it always does. Mia glances at me and rolls her eyes, and I have to laugh.
“Lovely to meet you,” I say as he drags me away.
“Thank you,” I mouth at Christian when we’re some distance away.
“I saw that Lily was with Mia. She is one nasty piece of work.”
“She likes you,” I mutter dryly.
He shudders. “Well, the feeling is not mutual. Come, let me introduce you to some people.”
I spend the next half hour in a whirlwind of introductions. I meet two Hollywood actors, two more CEOs, and several eminent physicians. Holy shit . . . there is no way I am going to remember everyone’s name.
Christian keeps me close at his side, and I’m grateful. Frankly, the wealth, the glamour, and the sheer lavish scale of the event intimidates me. I have never been to anything like this in my life.
The white-suited servers move effortlessly through the growing crowd of guests with bottles of champagne, topping off my glass with worrying regularity. I must not drink too much. I must not drink too much, I repeat to myself, but I’m beginning to feel light-headed, and I don’t know if it’s the champagne, the charged atmosphere of mystery and excitement created by the masks, or the secret silver balls. The dull ache below my waist is becoming impossible to ignore.
“So you work at SIP?” asks a balding gentleman in a half-bear—or is it a dog?—mask. “Heard rumors of a hostile takeover.”
I flush. There is a hostile takeover from a man who has more money than sense and is a stalker par excellence.
“I’m just a lowly assistant, Mr. Eccles. I wouldn’t know about these things.”
Christian says nothing and smiles blandly at Eccles.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” The master of ceremonies, wearing an impressive black and white harlequin mask, interrupts us. “Please take your seats. Dinner is served.”
Christian takes my hand, and we follow the chattering crowd to the large marquee.
The interior is stunning. Three enormous, shallow chandeliers throw rainbow-colored sparkles over the ivory silk lining of the ceiling and walls. There must be at least thirty tables, and they remind me of the private dining room at the Heathman—crystal glasses, crisp white linen covering the tables and chairs, and in the center, an exquisite display of pale pink peonies gathered around a silver candelabra. Wrapped in gossamer silk beside it is a basket of goodies.
Christian consults the seating plan and leads me to a table in the center. Mia and Grace are already in situ, deep in conversation with a young man I don’t know. Grace is wearing a shimmering mint green gown with a Venetian mask to match. She looks radiant, not stressed at all, and she greets me warmly.
“Ana, how delightful to see you again! And looking so beautiful, too.”
“Mother,” Christian greets her stiffly and kisses her on both cheeks.
“Oh, Christian, so formal!” she scolds him teasingly.
Grace’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Trevelyan, join us at our table. They seem exuberant and youthful, though it’s difficult to tell beneath their matching bronze masks. They are delighted to see Christian.
“Grandmother, Grandfather, may I introduce Anastasia Steele?”
Mrs. Trevelyan is all over me like a rash. “Oh, he’s finally found someone, how wonderful and so pretty! Well I do hope you make an honest man of him,” she gushes, shaking my hand.
Holy cow. I thank the heavens for my mask.
“Mother, don’t embarrass Ana.” Grace comes to my rescue.
“Ignore the silly old coot, m’dear.” Mr. Trevelyan shakes my hand. “She thinks because she’s so old, she has a God-given right to say whatever nonsense pops into that woolly head of hers.”
“Ana, this is my date, Sean.” Mia shyly introduces her young man. He gives me a wicked grin, and his brown eyes dance with amusement as we shake hands.
“Pleased to meet you, Sean.”
Christian shakes Sean’s hand as he regards him shrewdly. Don’t tell me that poor Mia suffers from her overbearing brother, too. I smile at Mia in sympathy.
Lance and Janine, Grace’s friends, are the last couple at our table, but there is still no sign of Mr. Grey.
Abruptly, there’s the hiss of a microphone, and Mr. Grey’s voice booms over the PA system, causing the babble of voices to die down. Carrick stands on a small stage at one end of the marquee, wearing an impressive, gold, Punchinello mask.
“Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to our annual charity ball. I hope that you enjoy what we have laid out for you tonight and that you’ll dig deep into your pockets to support the fantastic work that our team does with Coping Together. As you know, it’s a cause that is very close to my wife’s heart, and mine.”
I peek nervously at Christian, who is staring impassively, I think, at the stage. He glances at me and smirks.
“I’ll hand you over now to our master of ceremonies. Please be seated, and enjoy,” Carrick finishes.
Polite applause follows, then the babble in the tent starts again. I am seated between Christian and his grandfather. I admire the small white place card with fine silver calligraphy that bears my name as a waiter lights the candelabra with a long taper. Carrick joins us, kissing me on both cheeks, surprising me.
“Good to see you again, Ana,” he murmurs. He really looks very striking in his extraordinary gold mask.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please nominate a table head,” the MC calls out.
“Ooo—me, me!” says Mia immediately, bouncing enthusiastically in her seat.
“In the center of the table you will find an envelope,” the MC continues. “Would everyone find, beg, borrow, or steal a bill of the highest denomination you can manage, write your name on it, and place it inside the envelope. Table heads, please guard these envelopes carefully. We will need them later.”
Holy crap. I haven’t brought any money with me. How stupid—it’s a charity event!
Fishing out his wallet, Christian produces two hundred-dollar bills.
“Here,” he says.
“I’ll pay you back,” I whisper.
His mouth twists slightly, and I know he’s not happy, but he doesn’t comment. I sign my name using his fountain pen—it’s black, with a white flower motif on the cap—and Mia passes the envelope round.
In front of me I find another card inscribed with silver calligraphy—our menu.
Well, that accounts for the number of crystal glasses in every size that crowd my place setting. Our waiter is back, offering wine and water. Behind me, the sides of the tent through which we entered are being closed, while at the front, two servers pull back the canvas, revealing the sunset over Seattle and Meydenbauer Bay.
It’s an absolutely breathtaking view, the twinkling lights of Seattle in the distance and the orange, dusky calm of the bay reflecting the opal sky. Wow. It’s so calm and peaceful.
Ten servers, each holding a plate, come to stand between us. On a silent cue, they serve us our starters in complete synchronization, then vanish again. The salmon looks delicious, and I realize I am famished.
“Hungry?” Christian murmurs so only I can hear. I know he’s not referring to the food, and the muscles deep in my belly respond.
“Very,” I whisper, boldly meeting his gaze, and Christian’s lips part as he inhales.
Ha! See . . . two can play at this game.
Christian’s grandfather engages me in conversation immediately. He’s a wonderful old man, so proud of his daughter and three children.
It is weird to think of Christian as a child. The memory of his burn scars come unbidden to my mind, but I quickly quash it. I don’t want to think about that now, though ironically, it’s the reason behind this party.
I wish Kate was here with Elliot. She would fit in so well—the sheer number of forks and knives laid out before her wouldn’t daunt Kate—she would command the table. I imagine her duking it out with Mia over who should be table head. The thought makes me smile.
The conversation at the table ebbs and flows. Mia is entertaining, as usual, and quite eclipses poor Sean, who mostly stays quiet like me. Christian’s grandmother is the most vocal. She, too, has a biting sense of humor, usually at the expense of her husband. I begin to feel a little sorry for Mr. Trevelyan.
Christian and Lance talk animatedly about a device Christian’s company is developing, inspired by Schumacher’s principle Small is Beautiful. It’s hard to keep up. Christian seems intent on empowering impoverished communities all over the world with wind-up technology—devices that need no electricity or batteries and minimal maintenance.
Watching him in full flow is astonishing. He’s passionate and committed to improving the lives of the less fortunate. Through his telecommunications company, he’s intent on being first to market with a wind-up mobile phone.
Whoa. I had no idea. I mean I knew about his passion about feeding the world, but this . . .
Lance seems unable to comprehend Christian’s plan to give the technology away and not patent it. I wonder vaguely how Christian made all his money if he’s so willing to give it all away.
Throughout dinner a steady stream of men in smartly tailored dinner jackets and dark masks stop by the table, keen to meet Christian, shake his hand, and exchange pleasantries. He introduces me to some but not others. I’m intrigued to know how and why he makes the distinction.
During one such conversation, Mia leans across and smiles.
“Ana, will you help in the auction?”
“Of course,” I respond only too willing.
By the time dessert is served, night has fallen, and I’m really uncomfortable. I need to get rid of the balls. Before I can excuse myself, the master of ceremonies appears at our table, and with him—if I’m not mistaken—is Miss European Pigtails.
What’s her name? Hansel, Gretel . . . Gretchen.
She’s masked of course, but I know it’s her when her gaze doesn’t move beyond Christian. She blushes, and selfishly I’m beyond pleased that Christian doesn’t acknowledge her at all.
The MC asks for our envelope and with a very practiced and eloquent flourish, asks Grace to pull out the winning bill. It’s Sean’s, and the silk-wrapped basket is awarded to him.
I applaud politely, but I’m finding it impossible to concentrate on any more of the proceedings.
“If you’ll excuse me,” I murmur to Christian.
He looks at me intently.
“Do you need the powder room?”
I nod.
“I’ll show you,” he says darkly.
When I stand, all the other men round the table stand with me. Oh, such manners.
“No, Christian! You’re not taking Ana—I will.”
Mia is on her feet before Christian can protest. His jaw tenses, I know he’s not pleased. Quite frankly, neither am I. I have . . . needs. I shrug apologetically at him, and he sits down quickly, resigned.
On our return, I feel a little better, though the relief of removing the balls has not been as instantaneous as I’d hoped. They’re now stashed safely in my clutch purse.
Why did I think I could last the whole evening? I am still yearning—perhaps I can persuade Christian to take me to the boathouse later. I flush at the thought and glance at him as I take my seat. He stares at me, the ghost of a smile crossing his lips.
Phew . . . he’s no longer mad at a missed opportunity, though maybe I am. I feel frustrated—irritable even. Christian squeezes my hand, and we both listen attentively to Carrick, who is back on stage talking about Coping Together. Christian passes me another card—a list of the auction prizes. I scan them quickly.
Holy shit. I blink up at Christian.
“You own property in Aspen?” I hiss. The auction is underway, and I have to keep my voice down.
He nods, surprised at my outburst and irritated, I think. He puts his finger to his lips to silence me.
“Do you have property elsewhere?” I whisper.He nods again and inclines his head to one side in a warning.
The whole room erupts with cheering and applause; one of the prizes has gone for twelve thousand dollars.
“I’ll tell you later,” Christian says quietly. “I wanted to come with you,” he adds rather sulkily.
Well, you didn’t. I pout and I realize that I’m still querulous, and no doubt, it’s the frustrating effect of the balls. My mood darkens after seeing Mrs. Robinson on the list of generous donors.
I glance around the marquee to see if I can spot her, but I can’t see her telltale hair. Surely Christian would have warned me if she was invited tonight. I sit and stew, applauding when necessary, as each lot is sold for astonishing amounts of money.
The bidding moves to Christian’s place in Aspen and reaches twenty thousand dollars.
“Going once, going twice,” the MC calls.
And I don’t know what possesses me, but I suddenly hear my own voice ringing out clearly over the throng.
“Twenty-four thousand dollars!”
Every mask at the table turns to me in shocked amazement, the biggest reaction of all coming from beside me. I hear his sharp intake of breath and feel his wrath washing over me like a tidal wave.
“Twenty-four thousand dollars, to the lovely lady in silver, going once, going twice . . . Sold!”


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