Fifty shades darker, p.15
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       Fifty Shades Darker, p.15
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         Part #2 of Fifty Shades series by E. L. James
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  “No hot babe to keep you busy? Last time I saw you, you had half a dozen women hanging on your every word.” I arch an eyebrow at him.

  “Nah, Ana. None of them are woman enough for me.” He’s all bravado.

  “Oh sure. José Rodriguez, lady killer.” I giggle.

  “Hey-I have my moments, Steele.” He looks vaguely hurt, and I am chastened.

  “Sure you do.” I mollify him.

  “So, how’s Grey?” he asks, his tone changing, becoming cooler.

  “He’s good. We’re good,” I murmur.

  “Serious, you say?”

  “Yes. Serious.”

  “He’s not too old for you?”

  “Oh José. You know what my mom says-I was born old.”

  José’s mouth twists wryly.

  “How is your mom?” And like that, we are out of the danger zone.

  “Ana!”

  I turn and there’s Kate with Ethan. She looks gorgeous: sun-kissed, bleached strawberry-blond hair, golden tan, and beaming white smile, and so shapely in her white cami and tight white jeans. All eyes are on Kate. I leap up from my seat to give her a hug. Oh how I’ve missed this woman!

  She pushes me away from her and holds me at arm’s length, examining me closely. I flush under her intense gaze.

  “You’ve lost weight. A lot of weight. And you look different. Grown up. What’s been going on?” she says, all mother hen, concerned and bossy. “I like your dress. Suits you.”

  “A lot’s happened since you went away. I’ll tell you later when we’re on our own.” I am not ready for the Katherine Kavanagh Inquisition just yet. She regards me suspiciously.

  “You’re okay?” she asks gently.

  “Yes,” I smile, though I’d be happier knowing where Christian is.

  “Cool.”

  “Hi, Ethan.” I grin at him, and he gives me a quick hug.

  “Hi, Ana,” he whispers in my ear.

  José frowns at him.

  “How was lunch with Mia?” I ask Ethan.

  “Interesting,” he says cryptically.

  Oh?

  “Ethan-you know José?”

  “We’ve met once,” José mutters, assessing Ethan as they shake hands.

  “Yeah, at Kate’s place in Vancouver,” Ethan says, smiling pleasantly at José. “Right-who’s for a drink?”

  I make my way to the restrooms. While there I text Christian our location; perhaps he’ll join us. There are no missed calls from him and no e-mails. This is not like him.

  “Whassup, Ana?” José asks as I come back to the table.

  “I can’t reach Christian. I hope he’s okay.”

  “He’ll be fine. Like another beer?”

  “Sure.”

  Kate leans across. “Ethan says some mad stalker ex-girlfriend was in the apartment with a gun?”

  “Well… yeah.” I shrug apologetically. Oh jeez-do we have to do this now?

  “Ana-what the hell’s been going on?” Kate stops abruptly and checks her phone.

  “Hi, baby,” she says when she answers it. Baby! She frowns and looks at me. “Sure,” she says and turns to me. “It’s Elliot… he wants to talk to you.”

  “Ana.” Elliot’s voice is clipped and quiet, and my scalp prickles ominously.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “It’s Christian. He’s not back from Portland.”

  “What? What do you mean?”

  “His helicopter has gone missing.”

  “Charlie Tango?” I whisper as all the breath leaves my body. “No!”

  19

  I stare at the flames, mesmerized. They dance and weave bright blazing orange with tips of cobalt blue in the fireplace in Christian’s apartment. And despite the heat pumping out of the fire and the blanket draped around my shoulders, I’m cold. Bone-chillingly cold.

  I’m aware of hushed voices, many hushed voices. But they’re in the background, a distant buzz. I don’t hear the words. All I can hear, all I can focus on, is the soft hiss of the gas from the fire.

  My thoughts turn to the house we saw yesterday and the huge fireplaces-real fireplaces for burning wood. I’d like to make love with Christian in front of a real fire. I’d like to make love with Christian in front of this fire. Yes, that would be fun. No doubt, he’d think of some way to make it memorable like all the times we’ve made love. I snort wryly to myself, even the times when we were just fucking. Yes, those were pretty memorable, too. Where is he?

  The flames shimmy and flicker, holding me captive, keeping me numb. I focus solely on their flaring, scorching beauty. They are bewitching.

  Anastasia, you’ve bewitched me.

  He said that the first time he slept with me in my bed. Oh no…

  I wrap my arms around myself, and the world falls away from me and reality bleeds into my consciousness. The creeping emptiness inside expands some more. Charlie Tango is missing.

  “Ana. Here,” Mrs. Jones gently coaxes me, her voice bringing me back into the room, into the now, into the anguish. She hands me a cup of tea. I take the cup and saucer gratefully, the rattle betraying my shaking hands.

  “Thank you,” I whisper, my voice hoarse from unshed tears and the large lump in my throat.

  Mia sits across from me on the larger-than-large U-shaped couch, holding hands with Grace. They gaze at me, pain and anxiety etched on their lovely faces. Grace looks older-a mother worried for her son. I blink dispassionately at them. I can’t offer a reassuring smile, a tear even-there’s nothing, just blankness and the growing emptiness. I gaze at Elliot, José, and Ethan, who stand around the breakfast bar, all serious faces, talking quietly. Discussing something in soft subdued voices. Behind them, Mrs. Jones busies herself in the kitchen.

  Kate is in the TV room, monitoring the local news. I hear the faint squawk from the big plasma TV. I can’t bear to see the news item again-christian grey missing-his beautiful face on TV.

  Idly, it occurs to me that I’ve never seen so many people in this room, yet they are still dwarfed by its sheer size. Little islands of lost, anxious people in my Fifty’s home. What would he think about them being here?

  Somewhere, Taylor and Carrick are talking to the authorities who are drip-feeding us information, but it’s all meaningless. The fact is-he’s missing. He’s been missing for eight hours. No sign, no word from him. The search has been called off-this much I do know. It’s just too dark. And we don’t know where he is. He could be hurt, hungry, or worse. No!

  I offer another silent prayer to God. Please let Christian be okay. Please let Christian be okay. I repeat it over and over in my head-my mantra, my lifeline, something concrete to cling to in my desperation. I refuse to think the worst. No, don’t go there. There is hope.

  “You’re my lifeline.”

  Christian’s words come back to haunt me. Yes, there is always hope. I must not despair. His words echo through my mind.

  “I’m now a firm advocate of instant gratification. Carpe diem, Ana.”

  Why didn’t I seize the day?

  “I’m doing this because I’ve finally met someone I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

  I close my eyes in silent prayer, rocking gently. Please, let the rest of his life not be this short. Please, please. We haven’t had enough time… we need more time. We’ve done so much in the last few weeks, come so far. It can’t end. All our tender moments: the lipstick, when he made love to me for the first time at the Olympic hotel, on his knees in front of me offering himself to me, finally touching him.

  “I am just the same, Ana. I love you and I need you. Touch me. Please.”

  Oh, I love him so. I will be nothing without him, nothing but a shadow-all the light eclipsed. No, no, no… my poor Christian.

  “This is me, Ana. All of me… and I’m all yours. What do I have to do to make you realize that? To make you see that I want you any way I can get you. That I love you.”

  And I you, my Fifty Shades.

  I open my eyes and gaze unseeing in
to the fire once more, memories of our time together flitting through my mind: his boyish joy when we were sailing and gliding; his suave, sophisticated, hot-as-hell look at the masked ball; dancing, oh yes, dancing here in the apartment to Sinatra, whirling round the room; his quiet, anxious hope yesterday at the house-that stunning view.

  “I will lay my world at your feet, Anastasia. I want you, body and soul, forever.”

  Oh, please, let him be okay. He cannot be gone. He is the center of my universe.

  An involuntary sob escapes my throat, and I clutch my hand to my mouth. No. I must be strong.

  José is suddenly at my side, or has he been there a while? I have no idea.

  “Do you want to call your mom or dad?” he asks gently.

  No! I shake my head and clutch José’s hand. I cannot speak, I know I will dissolve if I do, but the warmth and gentle squeeze of his hand offers me no solace.

  Oh, Mom. My lip trembles at the thought of my mother. Should I call her? No. I couldn’t deal with her reaction. Maybe Ray, he wouldn’t get emotional-he never gets emotional, not even when the Mariners lose.

  Grace rises to join the boys, distracting me. That must be the longest she’s sat still. Mia comes to sit beside me too and grabs my other hand.

  “He will come back,” she says, her voice initially determined but cracking on the last word. Her eyes are wide and red-rimmed, her face pale and pinched from lack of sleep.

  I gaze up at Ethan, who is watching Mia and Elliot, who has his arms around Grace. I glance at the clock. It’s after eleven, heading toward midnight. Damn time! With each passing hour, the clawing emptiness expands, consuming me, choking me. I know deep down inside I am preparing myself, preparing myself for the worst. I close my eyes and offer up another silent prayer, clasping both Mia and José’s hands.

  Opening them again, I stare into the flames once more. I can see his shy smile-my favorite of all his expressions, a glimpse of the real Christian, my real Christian. He is so many people: control freak, CEO, stalker, sex god, Dom-and at the same time-such a boy with his toys. I smile. His car, his boat, his plane… Charlie Tango… no… no… my lost boy, truly lost right now. My smile fades and pain lances through me. I remember him in the shower, wiping away the lipstick marks.

  “I’m nothing, Anastasia. I’m a husk of a man. I don’t have a heart.”

  The lump in my throat expands. Oh, Christian, you do, you do have a heart, and it’s mine. I want to cherish it forever. Even though he’s so complex and difficult, I love him. I will always love him. There will never be anyone else. Ever.

  I remember sitting in Starbucks weighing up my Christian pros and cons. All those cons, even those photographs I found this morning, melt into insignificance now. There’s just him and whether he’ll come back. Oh please, Lord, bring him back, please let him be okay. I’ll go to church… I’ll do anything. Oh, if I get him back, I shall seize the day. His voice echoes around my head once more:“Carpe diem, Ana.”

  I gaze deeper into the fire, the flames still licking and curling around each other, blazing brightly. Then Grace shrieks, and everything goes into slow motion.

  “Christian!”

  I turn my head in time to see Grace barreling across the great room from where she had been pacing somewhere behind me, and there in the entrance stands a dismayed Christian. He’s dressed in just his shirtsleeves and suit pants, and he’s holding his navy jacket, shoes, and socks. He looks tired, dirty, and utterly beautiful.

  Holy fuck… Christian. He’s alive. I gaze numbly at him, trying to work out if I’m hallucinating or if he’s really here.

  His expression is one of utter bewilderment. He deposits his jacket and shoes on the floor in time to catch Grace, who throws her arms around his neck and kisses him hard on the cheek.

  “Mom?”

  Christian gazes down at her, completely at a loss.

  “I thought I’d never see you again,” Grace whispers, voicing our collective fear.

  “Mom, I’m here.” I hear the consternation in his voice.

  “I died a thousand deaths today,” she whispers, her voice barely audible, echoing my thoughts. She gasps and sobs, no longer able to hold back her tears. Christian frowns, horrified or mortified-I don’t know which-then after a beat, envelops her in a huge hug, holding her close.

  “Oh, Christian,” she chokes, wrapping her arms around him, weeping into his neck-all self-restraint forgotten-and Christian doesn’t balk. He just holds her, rocking to and fro, comforting her. Scalding tears pool in my eyes. Carrick hollers from the hallway.

  “He’s alive! Shit-you’re here!” He appears from Taylor’s office, clutching his cell phone, and embraces both of them, his eyes closed in sweet relief.

  “Dad?”

  Mia squeals something unintelligible from beside me, then she’s up, running, joining her parents, hugging all of them, too.

  Finally the tears start to cascade down my cheeks. He’s here, he’s fine. But I cannot move.

  Carrick is the first to pull away, wiping his eyes and clapping Christian on the shoulder. Mia releases them and Grace steps back.

  “Sorry,” she mumbles.

  “Hey, Mom-it’s okay,” Christian says, consternation still evident on his face.

  “Where were you? What happened?” Grace cries and puts her head in her hands.

  “Mom,” Christian mutters. He draws her into his arms again and kisses the top of her head. “I’m here. I’m good. It’s just taken me a hell of a long time to get back from Portland. What’s with the welcoming committee?” He looks up and scans the room until his eyes lock with mine.

  He blinks and glances briefly at José, who lets go of my hand. Christian’s mouth tightens. I drink in the sight of him and relief courses through me, leaving me spent, exhausted, and completely elated. Yet my tears don’t stop. Christian turns his attention back to his mother.

  “Mom, I’m good. What’s wrong?” Christian says reassuringly. She places her hands on either side of his face.

  “Christian, you’ve been missing. Your flight plan-you never made it to Seattle. Why didn’t you contact us?”

  Christian’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “I didn’t think it would take this long.”

  “Why didn’t you call?”

  “No power in my cell.”

  “You didn’t stop… call collect?”

  “Mom-it’s a long story.”

  “Oh, Christian! Don’t you ever do that to me again! Do you understand?” she half shouts at him.

  “Yes, Mom.” He wipes her tears away with his thumb and hugs her once more. When she composes herself, he releases her to hug Mia, who slaps him hard on the chest.

  “You had us so worried!” she blurts out, and she, too, is in tears.

  “I’m here now, for heaven’s sake,” Christian mutters.

  As Elliot comes forward, Christian relinquishes Mia to Carrick, who already has one arm around his wife. He curls the other around his daughter. Elliot hugs Christian briefly, much to Christian’s surprise, and slaps him hard on the back.

  “Great to see you.” Elliot says loudly, if a little gruffly, trying to hide his emotion.

  As the tears stream down my face, I can see it all. The great room is bathed in it-unconditional love. He has it in spades; he’s just never accepted it before, and even now he’s at a total loss.

  Look, Christian, all these people love you! Perhaps now you’ll start believing it.

  Kate is standing behind me-she must have left the TV room-and she gently strokes my hair.

  “He’s really here, Ana,” she murmurs comfortingly.

  “I’m going to say hi to my girl now,” Christian tells his parents. Both nod, smile, and step aside.

  He moves toward me, gray eyes bright though weary and still bemused. From somewhere deep inside, I find the strength to stagger to my feet and bolt into his open arms.

  “Christian!” I sob.

  “Hush,” he says and holds me, burying his face in m
y hair and inhaling deeply. I raise my tear-stained face to his, and he kisses me far too briefly.

  “Hi,” he murmurs.

  “Hi,” I whisper back, the lump in the back of my throat burning.

  “Miss me?”

  “A bit.”

  He grins. “I can tell.” And with a gentle touch of his hand, he wipes away the tears that refuse to stop running down my cheeks.

  “I thought… I thought-” I choke.

  “I can see. Hush… I’m here. I’m sorry. Later,” he murmurs and kisses me chastely again.

  “Are you okay?” I ask, releasing him and touching his chest, his arms, his waist-oh, the feel of this warm, vital, sensual man beneath my fingers-reassures me that he’s here, standing in front of me. He’s back. He doesn’t so much as flinch. He just regards me intently.

  “I’m okay. I’m not going anywhere.”

  “Oh, thank God,” I clasp him round his waist again, and he hugs me once more. “Are you hungry? Do you need something to drink?”

  “Yes.”

  I step back to fetch him something, but he doesn’t let me go. He tucks me under his arm and extends a hand to José.

  “Mr. Grey,” says José evenly.

  Christian snorts. “Christian, please,” he says.

  “Christian, welcome back. Glad you’re okay… and um-thanks for letting me stay.”

  “No problem.” Christian narrows his eyes, but he’s distracted by Mrs. Jones, who is suddenly at his side. It only occurs to me now that she’s not her usual smart self. I hadn’t noticed it before. Her hair is loose, and she’s in soft gray leggings and a large gray sweatshirt that dwarfs herwith WSU Cougars emblazoned on the front. She looks years younger.

  “Can I get you something, Mr. Grey?” She wipes her eyes with a tissue.

  Christian smiles fondly at her. “A beer, please, Gail-Budvar-and a bite to eat.”

  “I’ll fetch it,” I murmur, wanting to do something for my man.

  “No. Don’t go,” he says softly, tightening his arm around me.

  The rest of his family close in, and Ethan and Kate join us. He shakes Ethan’s hand and gives Kate a quick peck on the cheek. Mrs. Jones returns with a bottle of beer and a glass. He takes the bottle but shakes his head at the glass. She smiles and returns to the kitchen.

  “Surprised you don’t want something stronger,” mutters Elliot. “So what the fuck happened to you? First I knew was when Dad called me to say the chopper was missing.”

  “Elliot!” Grace scolds.

  “Helicopter,” Christian growls, correcting Elliot, who grins, and I suspect this is a family joke.

  “Let’s sit and I’ll tell you.” Christian pulls me over to the couch, and everyone sits down, all eyes on Christian. He takes a long draft of his beer. He spies Taylor hovering at the entrance and nods. Taylor nods back.

  “Your daughter?”

  “She’s fine now. False alarm, sir.”

  “Good.” Christian smiles.

  Daughter? What happened to Taylor’s daughter?

  “Glad you’re back, sir. Will that be all?”

  “We have a helicopter to collect.”

  Taylor nods. “Now? Or will the morning do?”

  “Morning, I think, Taylor.”

  “Very good, Mr. Grey. Anything else, sir?”

  Christian shakes his head and raises his bottle to him. Taylor gives him a rare smile-rarer than Christian’s, I think-and heads out presumably to his office or up to his room.

  “Christian, what happened?” Carrick demands.

  Christian launches into his story. He was flying with Ros, his number two in Charlie Tango to deal with a funding issue at WSU in Vancouver. I can barely keep up I’m so dazed. I just hold Christian’s hand and stare at his manicured fingernails, his long fingers, the creases on his knuckles, his wristwatch-an Omega with three small dials. I gaze up at his beautiful profile as he continues his tale.

  “Ros had never seen Mount St. Helens, so on the way back as a celebration, we took a quick detour. I heard the TFR was lifted a while back and I wanted to take a look. Well, it’s fortunate that we did. We were flying low, about two hundred feet AGL, when the instrument panel lit up. We had a fire in the tail-I had no choice but to cut all the electronics and land.” He shakes his head. “I set her down by Silver Lake, got Ros out, and managed to put the fire out.”

  “A fire? Both engines?” Carrick is horrified.

  “Yep.”

  “Shit! But I thought.”

  “I know,” Christian interrupts him. “It was sheer luck I was flying so low,” he murmurs. I shudder. He releases my hand and puts his arm around me.

  “Cold?” he asks me. I shake my head.

  “How did you put out the fire?” asks Kate, her Carla Bernstein instincts kicking in. Jeez, she sounds terse sometimes.

  “Extinguisher. We have to carry them-by law.” Christian answers levelly.

  His words from long ago circle my mind. “I thank divine providence every day that it was you that came to interview me and not Katherine Kavanagh.”

  “Why didn’t you call or use the radio?” Grace asks.

  Christian shakes his head. “With the electronics out, we had no radio. And I wasn’t going to risk turning them on because of the fire. GPS was still working on the Blackberry, so I was able to navigate to the nearest road. Took us four hours to walk there. Ros was in heels.” Christian’s mouth presses into a disapproving flat line.

  “We had no cell reception. There’s no coverage at Gifford. Ros’s battery died first. Mine dried up on the way.”

  Holy hell. I tense and Christian pulls me into his lap.

  “So how did you get back to Seattle?” Grace asks, blinking slightly at the sight of the two of us, no doubt. I flush.

  “We hitched and pooled our resources. Between us, Ros and I had six hundred dollars, and we thought we’d have to bribe someone to drive us back, but a truck driver stopped and agreed to bring us home. He refused the money and shared his lunch with us.” Christian shakes his head in dismay at the memory. “Took forever. He didn’t have a cell-weird, but true. I didn’t realize.” He stops, gazing at his family.

  “That we’d worry?” Grace scoffs. “Oh, Christian!” she scolds him. “We’ve been going out of our minds!”

  “You’ve made the news, bro.”

  Christian rolls his eyes. “Yeah. I figured that much when I arrived to this reception and the handful of photographers outside. I’m sorry, Mom-I should have asked the driver to stop so I could phone. But I was anxious to be back.” He glances at José.

  Oh, that’s why, because José is staying here. I frown at the thought. Jeez-all that worry.

  Grace shakes her head. “I’m just glad you’re back in one piece, darling.”

  I start to relax, resting my head against his chest. He smells outdoorsy, slightly sweaty, of body wash, and Christian, the most welcome scent in the world. Tears start to trickle down my face again, tears of gratitude.

  “Both engines?” Carrick says again, frowning in disbelief.

  “Go figure.” Christian shrugs and runs his hand down my back.

  “Hey,” he whispers. He puts his fingers under my chin and tilts my head back. “Stop with the crying.”

  I wipe my nose with the back of my hand in a most unladylike way. “Stop with the disappearing.” I sniff and his lips quirk up.

  “Electrical failure… that’s odd, surely?” Carrick says again.

  “Yes, crossed my mind, too, Dad. But right now, I’d just like to go to bed and think about all that shit tomorrow.”

  “So the media know that the Christian Grey has been found safe and well?” Kate says.

  “Yes. Andrea and my PR people will deal with the media. Ros called her after we dropped her home.”

  “Yes, Andrea called me to let me know you were still alive.” Carrick grins.

  “I must give that woman a raise. Sure is late,” says Christian.

  “I think that’s a hint,
ladies and gentlemen, that my dear bro needs his beauty sleep,” Elliot scoffs suggestively. Christian grimaces at him.

  “Cary, my son is safe. You can take me home now.”

  Cary? Grace looks adoringly at her husband.

  “Yes. I think we could use the sleep,” Carrick replies smiling down at her.

  “Stay,” Christian offers.

  “No, sweetheart, I want to get home. Now that I know you’re safe.”

  Christian reluctantly eases me onto the couch and stands. Grace hugs him once more, presses her head against his chest and closes her eyes, content. He wraps his arms around her.

  “I was so worried, darling,” she whispers.

  “I’m okay, Mom.”

  She leans back and studies him intently while he holds her. “Yes. I think you are,” she says slowly, glances at me, and smiles. I flush.

  We follow Carrick and Grace as they make their way to the foyer. Behind me, I’m aware that Mia and Ethan are having a heated whispered conversation, but I can’t hear it.

  Mia is smiling shyly at Ethan, and he’s gaping at her and shaking his head. Suddenly, she folds her arms and turns on her heel. He rubs his forehead with one hand, obviously frustrated.

  “Mom, Dad-wait for me,” Mia calls sullenly. Perhaps she’s as mercurial as her brother.

  Kate hugs me hard. “I can tell some serious shit’s been going down while I’ve been blissfully ignorant in Barbados. It’s kind of obvious you two are nuts about each other. I’m glad he’s safe. Not just for him, Ana-for you, too.”

  “Thank you, Kate,” I whisper.

  “Yeah. Who knew we’d find love at the same time?” She grins. Wow. She’s admitted it.

  “With brothers!” I giggle.

  “We could end up sisters-in-law,” she quips.

  I tense, then mentally kick myself as Kate stands back to gaze at me with herwhat-aren’t-you-telling-me-Steele look. I flush. Damn, should I tell her he’s asked me?

  “Come on, baby,” Elliot summons her from the elevator.

  “Let’s talk tomorrow, Ana. You must be exhausted.”

  I am reprieved. “Sure. You, too, Kate-you’ve traveled long distance today.”

  We hug once more, then she and Elliot follow the Greys into the elevator. Ethan shakes Christian’s hand and gives me a quick hug. He looks distracted, but he follows them into the elevator and the doors close.

  José is hovering in the hallway as we come out of the foyer.

  “Look. I’ll turn in… leave you guys,” he says.

  I blush. Jeez, why is this awkward?

  “Do you know where to go?” Christian asks.

  José nods.

  “Yeah, the housekeeper-”

  “Mrs. Jones,” I prompt.

  “Yeah, Mrs. Jones, she showed me earlier. Quite a place you have here, Christian.”

  “Thank you,” Christian says politely as he comes to stand beside me, placing his arm around my shoulders. Leaning over, he kisses my hair.

  “I’m going to eat whatever Mrs. Jones has put out for me. Goodnight, José.” Christian wanders back into the great room, leaving José and me at the entrance.

  Wow! Left alone with José.

  “Well, goodnight.” José looks uncomfortable all of a sudden.

  “Goodnight, José, and thank you for staying.”

  “Sure, Ana. Any time your rich, hotshot boyfriend goes missing-I’ll be there.”

  “José!” I admonish him.

  “Only kidding. Don’t get mad. I’ll be leaving early in the morning-I’ll see you sometime, yeah? I’ve missed you.”

  “Sure, José. Soon I hope. Sorry tonight was so… shitty.” I smirk apologetically.

  “Yeah.” He grins. “Shitty.” He hugs me. “Seriously, Ana, I’m glad you’re happy, but I’m here if you need me.”

  I gaze up at him. “Thank you.”

  He flashes me a sad, bittersweet smile, and then he goes upstairs.

  I turn back to the great room. Christian stands beside the couch, watching me with an unreadable expression on his face. We’re finally alone and we gaze at each other.

  “He’s still got it bad, you know,” he murmurs.

  “And how would you know that, Mr. Grey?”

  “I recognize the symptoms, Miss Steele. I believe I have the same affliction.”

  “I thought I’d never see you again,” I whisper. There-the words are out. All my worst fears packaged neatly in one short sentence now exorcised.

  “It wasn’t as bad as it sounds.”

  I pick up his suit jacket and shoes from where they lie on the floor and move toward him.

  “I’ll take that,” he whispers, reaching for his jacket.

  Christian gazes down at me as if I’m his reason for living and mirrors my look, I’m sure. He is here, really here. He pulls me into his arms and wraps himself around me.

  “Christian,” I gasp, and my tears start anew.

  “Hush,” he soothes, kissing my hair. “You know… in the few seconds of sheer terror before I landed, all my thoughts were of you. You’re my talisman, Ana.”

  “I thought I’d lost you,” I breathe. We stand, holding each other, reconnecting and reassuring each other. As I tighten my arms around him, I realize I’m still holding his shoes. I drop them noisily to the floor.

  “Come and shower with me,” he murmurs.

  “Okay.” I glance up at him. I don’t want to let go. Reaching down he tilts my chin up with his fingers.

  “You know even tear-stained, you are beautiful, Ana Steele.” He leans down and kisses me gently. “And your lips are so soft.” He kisses me again, deepening it.

  Oh my… and to think, I could have lost… no… I stop thinking and surrender myself.

  “I need to put my jacket down,” he murmurs.

  “Drop it,” I murmur against his lips.

  “I can’t.”

  I lean back to gaze up at him, puzzled.

  He smirks at me. “This is why.” From the inside breast pocket he pulls out the small box I gave him, containing my present. He slings the jacket over the back of the couch and places the box on top.

  Seize the day, Ana, my subconscious prods me. Well, it’s after midnight, so technically it’s his birthday.

  “Open it,” I whisper, and my heart starts pounding.

  “I was hoping you’d say that,” he murmurs. “This has been driving me crazy.”

  I grin impishly at him. Jeez, I feel giddy. He gives me his shy smile, and I melt despite my thumping heart, delighting in his amused yet intrigued expression. With deft long fingers, he unwraps and opens the box. His brow creases as he fishes out a small, rectangular, plastic keychain bearing a picture made up of tiny pixels that flash on and off like an LED screen. It depicts the Seattle skyline, focusing on the Space Needle, with the wordSEATTLE written boldly across the landscape, flashing on and off.

  He stares at it for a moment and then gazes at me bemused, a frown marring his lovely brow.

  “Turn it over,” I whisper, holding my breath.

  He does, and his eyes shoot to mine, wide and gray, alive with wonder and joy. His lips part in disbelief.

  The wordyes flashes on and off on the key ring.

  “Happy birthday,” I whisper.

  20

  “You’ll marry me?” he whispers, incredulous.

  I nod nervously, flushing and anxious and not quite believing his reaction-this man whom I thought I’d lost. How could he not understand how much I love him?

  “Say it,” he orders softly, his gaze intense and hot.

  “Yes, I’ll marry you.”

  He inhales sharply and moves suddenly, grabbing me and swinging me round in a most un-Fiftylike manner. He’s laughing, young and carefree, radiating joyful elation. I grab his arms to hold on, feeling his muscles ripple beneath my fingers, and his infectious laughter sweeps me up-dizzy, addled, a girl totally and utterly smitten with her beautiful man. He puts me down and kisses me. Hard. His hands are on eit
her side of my face, his tongue insistent, persuasive… arousing.

  “Oh, Ana,” he breathes against my lips, and it’s an exultation that leaves me reeling. He loves me, of that I have no doubt, and I savor the taste of this delicious man, this man I thought I might never see again. His joy is evident-his eyes shining, his youthful smile-and his relief is almost palpable.

  “I thought I’d lost you,” I murmur, still dazzled and breathless from his kiss.

  “Baby, it will take more than a malfunctioning 135 to keep me away from you.”

  “135?”

  “Charlie Tango. She’s a Eurocopter 135, the safest in its class.” Some unnamed but dark emotion crosses his face briefly, distracting me. What isn’t he saying? Before I can ask him, he stills and looks down at me, frowning, and for a moment I think he’s going to tell me. I blink up into his speculative gray eyes.

  “Wait a minute. You gave this to me before we saw Flynn,” he says, holding up the keychain. He looks almost horrified.

  Oh dear, where’s he going with this? I nod, keeping a straight face.

  His mouth drops open.

  I shrug apologetically. “I wanted you to know that whatever Flynn said, it wouldn’t make a difference to me.”

  Christian blinks at me in disbelief. “So all yesterday evening, when I was begging you for an answer, I had it already?” He’s dismayed. I nod again, trying desperately to gauge his reaction. He gazes at me in stupefied wonder, but then narrows his eyes and his mouth twists with amused irony.

  “All that worry,” he whispers ominously. I grin at him and shrug once more. “Oh, don’t try and get cute with me, Miss Steele. Right now, I want…” He runs his hand through his hair, then shakes his head and changes tack.

  “I can’t believe you left me hanging.” His whisper is laced with disbelief. His expression alters subtly, his eyes gleaming wickedly, his mouth twitching into a carnal smile.

  Holy hell. A thrill runs through me. What’s he thinking?

  “I believe some retribution is in order, Miss Steele,” he says softly.

  Retribution? Oh shit! I know he’s playing-but I take a cautious step back from him anyway.

  He grins. “Is that the game?” he whispers. “Because I will catch you.” And his eyes burn with a bright playful intensity. “And you’re biting your lip,” he says threateningly.

  All of my insides tighten at once. Oh my. My future husband wants to play. I take another step back, then turn to run-but in vain. Christian grabs me, and in one easy swoop while I squeal with delight, surprise, and shock. He hoists me over his shoulder and heads down the hall.

  “Christian!” I hiss, mindful that José is upstairs, though whether he could hear us is doubtful. I steady myself by clasping his lower back, then on a brave impulse, I swat his behind. He swats me right back.

  “Ow!” I yelp.

  “Shower time,” he declares triumphantly.

  “Put me down!” I try and fail to sound disapproving. My struggle is futile-his arm is firmly clamped over my thighs-and for some reason I cannot stop giggling.

  “Fond of these shoes?” he asks amused as he opens the door to his bathroom.

  “I prefer them to be touching the floor.” I attempt to snarl at him, but it’s not very effective as I can’t keep the laughter out of my voice.

  “Your wish is my command, Miss Steele.” Without putting me down, he slips off both of my shoes and lets them clatter to the tile floor. Pausing by the vanity, he empties his pockets-dead Blackberry, keys, wallet, the keychain. I can only imagine what I look like in the mirror from this angle. When he’s finished, he marches directly into his overlarge shower.

  “Christian!” I scold loudly-his intent is now clear.

  He switches the water on at max. Jeez! Arctic water spurts over my backside, and I squeal-then stop, mindful once more that José is above us. It’s cold and I’m fully clothed. The chilling water soaks into my dress, my panties, and my bra. I’m drenched and I cannot stop giggling.

  “No!” I squeal. “Put me down!” I swat him again, harder this time, and Christian releases me, letting me slide down his now soaked body. His white shirt is stuck to his chest and his suit pants are sodden. I am soaked, too, flushed, giddy and breathless, and he’s grinning down at me, looking so… so unbelievably hot.

  He sobers, his eyes shining, and cups my face again, drawing my lips to his. His kiss is gentle, cherishing, and totally distracting. I no longer care that I am fully clothed and soaking wet in Christian’s shower. It’s just the two of us beneath the cascading water. He’s back, he’s safe, he’s mine.

  My hands move involuntarily to his shirt as it clings to every line and sinew of his chest, revealing the hair scrunched beneath the white wetness. I yank the shirt hem out of his pants, and he groans against my mouth, but his lips do not leave mine. As I unbutton his shirt, he reaches for my zipper, slowly sliding the clasp down my dress. His lips become more insistent, more provocative, his tongue invading my mouth-and my body explodes with desire. I tug his shirt hard, ripping it open. The buttons fly everywhere, ricocheting off the tiles and disappearing onto the shower floor. As I strip the wet material off his shoulders and down his arms, I press him into the wall, hampering his attempts to undress me. “Cufflinks,” he murmurs, holding up his wrists where his shirt hangs sodden and limp.

  With scrambling fingers, I release first one and then the other cuff, letting his gold cufflinks fall carelessly to the tiled floor and his shirt follows. His eyes search mine through the cascading water, his gaze burning, carnal, heated like the water. I reach for the waistband of his pants, but he shakes his head and grabs my shoulders, spinning me round so I am facing away from him. He finishes the long journey south with my zipper, smoothes my wet hair away from my neck, and runs his tongue up my neck to my hairline and back again, kissing and sucking as he goes.

  I moan and slowly he peels my dress off my shoulders and down past my breasts, kissing my neck beneath my ear. He unclasps my bra and pushes it off my shoulders, freeing my breasts. His hands reach around and cup each one as he murmurs his appreciation in my ear.

  “So beautiful,” he whispers.

  My arms are trapped by my bra and dress, which hang unfastened below my breasts, my arms still in the sleeves but my hands are free. I roll my head, giving Christian better access to my neck and push my breasts into his magical hands. I reach round behind me and welcome his sharp intake of breath as my inquisitive fingers make contact with his erection. He pushes his groin into my welcoming hands. Dammit, why didn’t he let me take his pants off?

  He tugs on my nipples, and as they harden and stretch under his expert touch, all thoughts of his pants disappear and pleasure spikes sharp and libidinous in my belly. I lean my head back against him and groan.

  “Yes,” he breathes and turns me once more, capturing my mouth with his. He peels my bra, dress and panties down so they join his shirt in a soggy heap on the shower floor.

  I grab the body wash beside us. Christian stills as he realizes what I am about to do. Staring him straight in the eye, I squirt some of the sweet-smelling gel into my palm and hold my hand up in front of his chest, waiting for an answer to my unspoken question. His eyes widen, then he gives me an almost imperceptible nod.

  Gently I place my hand on his sternum and start to rub the soap into his skin. His chest rises as he inhales sharply, but he stands stock-still. After a beat, his hands clasp my hips, but he doesn’t push me away. He watches me warily, his look intense more than scared, but his lips are parted as his breathing increases.

  “Is this okay?” I whisper.

  “Yes.” His short, breathy reply is almost a gasp. I am reminded of the many showers we’ve had together, but the one at the Olympic is a bittersweet memory. Well, now I can touch him. I wash him using gentle circles, cleaning my man, moving to his underarms, over his ribs, down his flat firm belly, toward his happy trail, and the waistband of his pants.

  “My turn,” he whispers and reache
s for the shampoo, shifting us out of range of the stream of water and squirting some on to the top of my head.

  I think this is my cue to stop washing him, so I hook my fingers into his waistband. He works the shampoo into my hair, his firm, long fingers massaging my scalp. Groaning in appreciation, I close my eyes and give myself over to the heavenly sensation. After all the stress of the evening, this is just what I need.

  He chuckles and I open one eye to find him smiling down at me. “You like?”

  “Hmm…”

  He grins. “Me, too,” he says and leans over to kiss my forehead, his fingers continuing their sweet, firm kneading of my scalp.

  “Turn round,” he says authoritatively. I do as I’m told, and his fingers slowly work over my head, cleansing, relaxing, loving me as they go. Oh, this is bliss. He reaches for more shampoo and gently washes the long tresses down my back. When he’s finished, he pulls me back under the shower.

  “Lean your head back,” he orders quietly.

  I willingly comply, and he carefully rinses out the suds. When he’s done, I face him once more and make a beeline for his pants.

  “I want to wash all of you,”

  I whisper. He smiles that lopsided smile and lifts his hands in a gesture that says “I’m all yours, baby.” I grin; it feels like Christmas. I make short work of his zipper, and soon his pants and boxers join the rest of our clothing. I stand and reach for the body wash and the freshwater sponge.

  “Looks like you’re pleased to see me,” I murmur dryly.

  “I’m always pleased to see you, Miss Steele.” He smirks at me.

  I soap the sponge, then retrace my journey over his chest. He’s more relaxed-maybe because I’m not actually touching him. I head south with the sponge, across his belly, along the happy trail, through his pubic hair, and over and up his erection.

  I peek up at him, and he regards me with hooded eyes and sensual longing. Hmm… I like this look. I drop the sponge and use my hands, grasping him firmly. He closes his eyes, tips his head back, and groans, thrusting his hips into my hands.

  Oh yes! It’s so arousing. My inner goddess has resurfaced after her evening of rocking and weeping in the corner, and she’s wearing harlot-red lipstick.

  His burning eyes suddenly lock with mine. He’s remembered something.

  “It’s Saturday,” he exclaims, eyes alight with salacious wonder, and he grasps my waist, pulling me to him and kissing me savagely.

  Whoa-change of pace!

  His hands sweep down my slick, wet body, round to my sex, his fingers exploring, teasing, and his mouth is relentless, leaving me breathless. His other hand is in my wet hair, holding me in place while I bear the full force of his passion unleashed. His fingers move inside me.

  “Ahh,” I moan into his mouth.

  “Yes,” he hisses and lifts me, his hands beneath my backside. “Wrap your legs around me, baby.” My legs fold around him, and I cling like a limpet to his neck. He braces me against the wall of the shower and pauses, gazing down at me.

  “Eyes open,” he murmurs. “I want to see you.”

  I blink up at him, my heart hammering, my blood pulsing hot and heavy through my body, desire, real and rampant surging through me. Then he eases into me oh-so-slowly, filling me, claiming me, skin against skin. I push down against him and groan loudly. Once fully inside me, he pauses once more, his face strained, intense.

  “You are mine, Anastasia,” he whispers.

  “Always.”

  He smiles victoriously and shifts, making me gasp.

  “And now we can let everyone know, because you said yes.” His voice is reverential, and he leans down, capturing my mouth with his, and starts to move… slow and sweet. I close my eyes and tilt my head back as my body bows, my will submitting to his, slave to his intoxicating slow rhythm.

  His teeth graze my jaw, my chin, and down my neck as he picks up the pace, pushing me onward, upward-away from this earthly plane, the teeming shower, the evening’s chilling fright. It’s just me and my man moving in unison, moving as one-each completely absorbed in the other-our gasps and grunts mingling. I revel in the exquisite feeling of his possession as my body blooms and flowers around him.

  I could have lost him… and I love him… I love him so much, and I’m suddenly overcome by the enormity of my love and the depth of my commitment to him. I will spend the rest of my life loving this man, and with that awe-inspiring thought, I detonate around him-a healing, cathartic orgasm, crying out his name as tears flow down my cheeks.

  He reaches his climax and pours himself into me. With his face buried in my neck, he sinks to the floor, holding me tightly, kissing my face, and kissing away my tears as the warm water spills down around us, washing us clean.

  “My fingers are pruny,” I murmur, postcoital and sated as I lean against his chest. He raises my fingers to his lips and kisses each in turn.

  “We should really get out of this shower.”

  “I’m comfortable here.” I’m sitting between his legs and he’s holding me close. I don’t want to move.

  Christian murmurs his assent. But suddenly I’m bone tired, world-weary. So much has happened this last week-enough for a lifetime of drama-and now I’m gettingmarried. A disbelieving giggle escapes my lips.

  “Something amusing you, Miss Steele?” he asks fondly.

  “It’s been a busy week.”

  He grins. “That it has.”

  “I thank God you’re back in one piece, Mr. Grey,” I whisper, sobering at the thought of what might have been. He tenses and I immediately regret reminding him.

  “I was scared,” he confesses much to my surprise.

  “Earlier?”

  He nods, his expression serious.

  Holy shit. “So you made light of it to reassure your family?”

  “Yes. I was too low to land well. But somehow I did.”

  Crap. My eyes sweep up to his, and he looks grave as the water cascades over us. “How close a call was it?” He gazes down at me.

  “Close,” he pauses. “For a few awful seconds, I thought I’d never see you again.”

  I hug him tightly. “I can’t imagine my life without you, Christian. I love you so much it frightens me.”

  “Me, too,” he breathes. “My life would be empty without you. I love you so much.” His arms tighten around me and he nuzzles my hair. “I won’t ever let you go.”

  “I don’t want to go, ever.” I kiss his neck, and he leans down and kisses me gently.

  After a moment, he shifts. “Come-let’s get you dry and into bed. I’m exhausted and you look beat.”

  I lean back and arch an eyebrow at his choice of words. He cocks his head to one side and smirks at me.

  “You have something to say, Miss Steele?”

  I shake my head and clamber unsteadily to my feet.

  I am sitting up in bed. Christian insisted on drying my hair-he’s quite skilled at it. How that happened is an unpleasant thought, so I dismiss it immediately. It’s after two in the morning, and I am ready to sleep. Christian gazes down at me and reexamines the keychain before climbing into bed. He shakes his head, incredulous once more.

  “This is so neat. The best birthday present I’ve ever had.” He glances at me, his eyes soft and warm. “Better than my signed Guiseppe DeNatale poster.”

  “I would have told you earlier, but as it was your birthday… What do you give the man who has everything? I thought I’d give you… me.”

  He puts the keychain down on the bedside table and snuggles in beside me, pulling me into his arms against his chest so that we’re spooning.

  “It’s perfect. Like you.”

  I smirk, though he can’t see my expression. “I am far from perfect, Christian.”

  “Are you smirking at me, Miss Steele?”

  How does he know? “Maybe.” I giggle. “Can I ask you something?

  “Of course,” he nuzzles my neck.

  “You didn’t call on your trip back from Portland.
Was that really because of José? You were worried about me being here alone with him?”

  Christian says nothing. I turn to face him, and his eyes are wide as I reproach him.

  “Do you know how ridiculous that is? How much stress you put your family and me through? We all love you very much.”

  He blinks a couple of times and then gives me his shy smile. “I had no idea you’d all be so worried.”

  I purse my lips. “When are you going to get it through your thick skull that you areloved?”

  “Thick skull?” His eyebrows widen in surprise.

  I nod. “Yes. Thick skull.”

  “I don’t think the bone density of my head is significantly higher than anywhere else in my body.”

  “I’m serious! Stop trying to make me laugh. I am still a little mad at you, though that’s partially eclipsed by the fact that you’re home safe and sound when I thought…” My voice fades as I recall those anxious few hours. “Well, you know what I thought.”

  His eyes soften and he reaches up to caress my face. “I’m sorry. Okay.”

  “Your poor mom, too. It was very moving, seeing you with her,” I whisper.

  He smiles shyly. “I’ve never seen her that way.” He blinks at the memory. “Yes, that was really something. She’s normally so self-possessed. It was quite a shock.”

  “See? Everyone loves you.” I smile. “Perhaps now you’ll start believing it.” I lean down and kiss him gently.

  “Happy birthday, Christian. I’m glad you’re here to share your day with me. And you haven’t seen what I’ve got for you tomorrow um… today.” I smirk.

  “There’s more?” he says, astounded, and his face erupts into a breathtaking grin.

  “Oh yes, Mr. Grey, but you’ll have to wait until then.”

  I wake suddenly from a dream or nightmare, and my pulse is thumping. I turn, panicked, and to my relief, Christian is fast asleep beside me. Because I’ve shifted, he stirs and reaches out in his sleep, draping his arm over me, and rests his head on my shoulder, sighing softly.

  The room is flooded with light. It’s eight o’clock. Christian never sleeps this late. I lie back and let my racing heart calm. Why the anxiety? Is it the aftermath of last night?

  I turn and stare at him. He’s here. He’s safe. I take a deep steadying breath and gaze at his lovely face. A face that is now so familiar, all its dips and shadows eternally etched on my mind.

  He looks much younger when he’s asleep, and I grin because today he’s a whole year older. I hug myself, thinking about my present. Oooh… what will he do? Perhaps I should start by bringing him breakfast in bed. Besides, José may still be here.

  I find José at the counter, eating a bowl of cereal. I can’t help but flush when I see him. He knows I’ve spent the night with Christian. Why do I suddenly feel so shy? It’s not as if I’m naked or anything. I’m wearing my silk floor-length wrap.

  “Morning, José,” I smile, brazening it out.

  “Hey, Ana!” His face lights up, genuinely pleased to see me. There’s no hint of teasing or salacious contempt in his expression.

  “Sleep well?” I ask.

  “Sure. Some view from up here.”

  “Yeah. It’s pretty special.” Like the owner of this apartment. “Want a real man’s breakfast?” I tease.

  “Love some.”

  “It’s Christian’s birthday today-I’m making him breakfast in bed.”

  “He awake?”

  “No, I think he’s fried from yesterday.” I quickly glance away from him and head to the fridge so he can’t see my blush. Jeez, it’s only José. When I take the eggs and bacon out of the fridge, José is grinning at me.

  “You really like him, don’t you?”

  I purse my lips. “I love him, José.”

  His eyes widen momentarily then he grins. “What’s not to love?” he asks gesturing round the great room.

  I scowl at him. “Gee, thanks!”

  “Hey, Ana, just kidding.”

  Hmm… will I always have this leveled at me? That I’m marrying Christian for his money?

  “Seriously, I’m kidding. You’ve never been that kind of girl.”

  “Omelet good for you?” I ask, changing the subject. I don’t want to argue.

  “Sure.”

  “And me,” Christian says as he saunters into the great room. Holy fuck, he’s wearing only pajama bottoms that hang in that totally hot way off his hips-Jeez!

  “José.” He nods.

  “Christian.” José returns his nod solemnly.

  Christian turns to me and smirks as I stare. He’s done this on purpose. I narrow my eyes at him, desperately trying to recover my equilibrium, and Christian’s expression alters subtly. He knows that I know what he’s up to, and he doesn’t care.

  “I was going to bring you breakfast in bed.”

  Swaggering over, he wraps his arm around me, tilts my chin up, and plants a loud wet kiss on my lips. Very unFifty!

  “Good morning, Anastasia,” he says. I want to scowl at him and tell him to behave-but it’s his birthday. I flush. Why is he so territorial?

  “Good morning, Christian. Happy birthday.” I give him a smile, and he smirks at me.

  “I’m looking forward to my other present,” he says and that’s it. I flush the color of the Red Room of Pain and glance nervously at José, who looks like he’s swallowed something unpleasant. I turn away and start preparing the food.

  “So what are your plans today, José?” Christian asks, seemingly casual as he sits down on a barstool.

 
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