I have gotten requests to write more about Ana and Christian and the babies and I will, but please remember, guys… no one lives in a vacuum. Our lives are not just what happens to us, but also what happens to the people we love. 😉
There may be a bonus chapter this week if I can get around to it. I don’t feel like the next chapter is really a stand-alone…
Love you guys!
I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…
Chapter 80—Grey House of Healing
Butterfly was only around for the first portion of the meeting with me and Ros to be brought up to date on the top tier of what happens with GEH—the very basics of how we select companies for mergers or acquisitions, for example, and how many mergers are in the hopper right now. I thought it would be boring for her and tried to keep it short. I was amazed at how many relevant questions she had. Just how deep into business management did she go when she minored in college?
She got a call during the meeting about Valerie’s arrival at the Crossing this afternoon and decided that she needed to make sure all the final touches were in order. I told her to go on and I would meet her at Elliot’s apartment once I had concluded the meeting with Ros. She’s the only meeting that we set for today since we knew that Valerie and Elliot would be moving in this afternoon. I’m glad she decided to leave, though, because I need to speak to Ros alone.
“May I ask why there was so much tension in the room?” I say when we’re alone. Ros raises her eyes to me.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she lies, turning her attention back to the papers in front of her.
“Don’t give me that shit,” I challenge. “You know exactly what I mean. Am I going to be facing issues with you because my wife is part owner of my business?” She chuckles, mostly to herself as she didn’t raise her head. What the fuck is so goddamn funny?
“I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with Ana or the fact that you have given her controlling shares of the company,” she says matter-of-factly, apparently thinking her sarcasm has gotten past me. I fold my arms.
“Okay, so that means that apparently, your issue must be with me,” I say. She doesn’t answer. “I’m waiting, Ros,” I press. She leans one hand on the desk, the other on her hip as she raises her eyes to me.
“Nobody’s allowed to say anything to you about how you run this business,” she begins. “It doesn’t matter if your decisions are sound or if we feel like they’re ridiculous, heaven forbid anyone try to dispute something you may want to do.” She drops her head back down to the papers in front of her. “… Which is even harder when you’re barely even present.” The last part was added almost as an afterthought and I’m not sure that I was meant to hear it.
“Excuse me?” I retort, my voice sharp and causing her to raise her head to me again. “Do you have something that you need to say to me, Ros, because I don’t have conversations in mumbled tones.” She stands up and squares off with me.
“I have never second-guessed your decisions,” she says. “Even when you chopped up Fairlane without even asking my opinion, I followed you blindly. You run off to foreign countries; leave without telling me anything. I have to run things without knowing whether you’re in the building, in the city, even in the country! At a moment’s notice, I have to pick up the ball and run with it and try to figure out where you left off! It can be a crazy ass rat race and I’m just trying to keep up. You make huge decisions; you don’t tell me anything; and I find out along with the rest of the department heads if I don’t find out in the news!”
“So, what else is new?” I ask in amazement. “You knew that was the deal when you signed on. I could be in Seattle today, New York tomorrow, and Tokyo by the end of the week. Nothing has ever changed. Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc is Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc because for years, I’ve followed the opportunities wherever they took me. When you signed up with me all those years ago, you knew that. Nothing has changed! Nothing’s changed except for the fact that I have a family now—a wife and children. I still follow the opportunities wherever they lead me. I still make snap judgements that make me a hell of a lot of money on one hand and may lose me a bundle on another. What’s different?”
“I could account for that time, Christian!” she snaps. “I could tell my wife that I’m working late hours and pulling all-nighters because my boss is chasing a deal—because he’s in Taiwan charming the pants off some businessman or factory owner trying to get his hands on some patent or textile or real-estate that we need for some subsidiary, affiliate, or merger with the company. I could justify canceling our vacation because a deal that we had put thousands of man hours into still hadn’t come to fruition if I could promise her a vacation later in the year—a vacation, by the way, that never seems to happen…” I put my hand up to silence her.
“Wait a minute,” this conversation just went south. “Are you telling me that the basis of this conversation is that you can’t account for my time?” My anger is hanging by a very thin thread now. “And I didn’t know anything about any vacations. You haven’t said anything to me.”
“You’re never here!” she snaps. “And what was I supposed to do—tell you to leave your dying wife’s bedside so I could take my wife to Boca?” she shoots.
“How the fuck am I responsible for that?” I retort. “And I tell you every time we’re taking a vacation—when I took her to Anguilla, our honeymoon…”
“You just got back from Anguilla. I didn’t even know you were gone!” she accuses.
“That’s because it was a goddamn day trip!” I’m yelling now. “I’m supposed to tell you about a goddamn day trip?”
“Northern Washington, Montana, Oregon, Napa…” She begins naming off trips I’ve taken with Butterfly over the last year or so.
“All fucking weekends!” I interject.
“Yet, I spend my weekends in this office!” she counters.
“I don’t require that of you!” I respond. “And by the way, I’ve spent many weekends in this office or working at home!”
“I don’t have a choice!” she replies. “If you don’t do the work, who’s left to do it? Somebody has to keep this company running. Somebody has to be available! Somebody has to answer the questions! Somebody has to answer the door when the suitors come knocking! They want answers when they want answers, not when we’re available or when we feel like giving them to them. The world doesn’t stop for our troubles or our whims and certainly not the business world. Somebody has to be there to put out the fires, to make the decisions, to answer the hard questions. These things don’t happen by themselves. I put my whole life on hold for this company. No matter what happens, rain or shine, hell or high water, I’m here. I’m always here—the good man in the storm…”
And now I’m pissed. She’s still talking, but I don’t hear her anymore. This little sawed-off female acts like she’s carrying my company on her back while I’m jet-setting around the world, spending all the money, wining and dining my wife, and living the high life. She acts like I haven’t put my life, my family, and my company on the line to find computer hackers, long-lost assholes dead set on my demise, mob bosses out to find said long lost assholes, attorneys who have been plotting behind my back to possibly take my company from me, miscellaneous subsidiaries that included illegal activities that could have landed me in the same situation as Edward David not to mention funding ex-submissives and useless security companies that were racking up lawsuits right up under my nose, poison pill acquisitions set on ruining my business and reputation before the ink was even dry on the contracts, income statements and cash flow statements showing capital gains and net income for 2013 larger than any year GEH has ever seen…
No, I haven’t been doing any of that. None of that had anything to do with Christian Grey. That was all you, right, Ros? You’ve been running this company, making all the tough decisions and losing all the sleep while I’ve been sipping Mimosas on the French Riviera, right?
I have no idea how long I’ve been silently staring at her, nor do I recall the last thing she said. I vaguely remember her singing her own praises about her value to GEH. I guess the look on my face must have told her that she made a mistake, but it’s too late.
I begin to speak.
“I’m fully aware of your value to GEH, Ros, more aware than you know. And while I do appreciate the huge contribution that you make to this company and the autonomy that it affords me, you need to know that I extend a liberty to you that I don’t extend to many people, and that’s the liberty of being able to speak freely to me. That’s not something that I intend to withdraw anytime soon, but make no mistake, Rosalind…” Her eyes pierce at the use of her formal name. Yes, Rosalind, I mean business. “I am still the pulse of this company. This company is still called Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc, and I am Grey. So, while my actions and activities may not fall in line with what others might think I should be doing, at the end of the day, I’m still Grey.
“I don’t now, nor have I ever, discounted your value or what you do for me and this company. But unless I’ve missed something on a background check, you haven’t been through half the shit in your entire life that I’ve been through in the last year. Yet, I still manage to come in here and run my damn company—maybe not to your required specifications, but I still manage to get in here and get the job done, turn a little profit in the process, and catch a couple of bad guys.”
I see her visibly begin to shrink where she stands, not totally noticeably… only infinitesimally, but I see it.
“There’s nothing that I do with this business that I can’t do from a satellite office anywhere around the world. However, I like hands-on—face-to-face interaction. When I can’t be there, you’re my person. You’re the other representation of Grey. Your presence has come to strike fear in most boardrooms just like mine does, as if those assholes don’t show you the same respect that they would show me, they usually find their companies at the bottom of the NASDAQ by week’s end. But please be clear.” I stand up and fold my arms. “While I do value you very much, if you ever take that tone with me again about my company or my personal life, I’ll expect your resignation.”
Ros’s piercing green pupils constrict and she swallows, attempting to remain statue still and almost succeeding except for the bobbing in her neck. She licks her lip, pulling the bottom one into her mouth before dropping her gaze, taking a seat in the chair in front of my desk and folding her hands in her lap. I think she’s searching for something to say. She’s accustomed to giving me what for at any time for my shit, but I just reminded her that she’s still a subordinate, and while I hope this conversation doesn’t affect the candor with which we have become accustomed to operating, she still needs to know where to draw the line.
We sit in silence for several moments while I give her a chance to formulate her thoughts. Her next words are crucial. Hell, her next words could be her resignation. I do have to prepare for that. Ros could virtually name her price after working for me, but if she feels like her position gives her permission to speak to me like that, then maybe it is time for her to move on.
She finally clears her throat and starts to speak.
“I hadn’t realized I had become so comfortable in my conversations with you,” she begins. “There are certain things that are appropriate to say, and certain things that definitely should not be said to your superior. After reviewing our conversation, I can see that I have clearly crossed the line. I hope that you can forgive me for that. It won’t happen again.”
Her words are concise and sincere and she makes full eye-contact with me when she says them. I unfold my arms and take my seat.
“I appreciate your edge and candor when we discuss business matters,” I point out. “It helps in the decision-making process. I hope this won’t affect that candor.” She shakes her head.
“No, sir, nothing will change. I’ll just… temper my comments to more appropriate remarks in terms of more sensitive issues.”
She’s choosing her words very carefully. I know that designates a shift in our relationship, but maybe there needs to be. Maybe it’ll be temporary, like mine and Barney’s was. We slipped right back into the comfortable relationship we had before once I realized what an asset he really was to my company and stopped treating him like the computer geek that hid in the basement. Maybe mine and Ros’s relationship will migrate back to the gentle ribbing that it was before, too, but right now, it’ll be candid professionalism for a while.
“Thank you,” I say. “I appreciate that.”
We continue the meeting with me being brought up to date on what’s going with the major deals in the hopper, particularly our progress on Project Fairlane and how his influence is quickly dwindling in the business world. After I made his poison pill stunt known and Farwell backed out of the negotiations with Thomlinson, most of our deals with mutual Fairlane companies have gone through without a hitch. Others are still trying my patience.
Most of the information Ros and I discuss, I already knew with the exception of a few small nuances. Yet, this discussion has brought to light the reality of the changing dynamic of the two business heads of the company—of the fact that each of us have growing relationships and responsibilities. Although Ros hasn’t mentioned it, she may want to start a family. She has a wife after all. To that end, I’m going to have to start putting my feelers out for another Ros—hopefully, not a replacement, just another brain and set of hands to help us out. But I also must prepare myself for the eventuality that I may be losing my second in command.
That had to be the most stressful meeting of the week so far. When it’s over, I call out to Andrea.
“Come in here for a moment, please,” I tell her. She comes in and brings her tablet. “Close the door.” She frowns deeply, but closes the door behind her. I gesture to one of the chairs in front of my desk and run my hands through my hair.
“I need you to see if you can get Sharice Melbourne on the line.” Her brow furrows.
“The head hunter?” she asks with uncertainty. I nod.
“Yes, I may need her services, and Andrea, I need absolute discretion with this. No one knows about this but me and you.” She pauses only for a moment, then nods.
“Should I… I mean… what should I… tell her?” she asks, hesitantly. I know what she’s getting at, especially since Ros just left my office. I sit back in my chair.
“Tell her that I’m looking for an executive vice-president. Once again, discretion is crucial. I’m not looking to replace Ros—at least not right now and hopefully, not ever, but it looks like we’re going to need a third.”
“A third… okay.” She drops her head and starts tapping into her tablet.
“Something you want to say, Andrea?” I ask, firmly. She raises her eyes but not her head and shakes firmly before returning her gaze to her tablet. “Out with it, Andrea,” I press. She raises her eyes again before resting her hands and tablet in her lap.
“Sir, you and Rosalind have very strong personalities. I don’t know how a third is going to fit into that dynamic. Even if they sign on, I wouldn’t expect to see them last more than six months between the two of you.” I fold my hands on the desk.
“I may not have a choice,” I say flatly. “That meeting was ominous, to say the least. My senior vice-president has given me the indication that she is less than enchanted with the status quo. So, although I have no intention of replacing her, I have to prepare for the possibility.” Andrea nods.
“I’ll get in touch with Ms. Melbourne.”
“You were quite the busy little bee,” I say when I get back to Grey Crossing. I had intended on meeting Butterfly at Elliot’s to help retrieve some of his and Valerie’s things, but when I called to tell her that I was on the way, she just told me to come to the Crossing instead.
“Elliot called and told me that he’s pushing to get Val out of the hospital as soon as possible. So, I just grabbed some of the staff, went over to his place and basically packed nearly every personal item they owned and had it moved over here. If I’ve missed something, we can go back for it later.”
I nod. She’s changed into another pair of those damn genie pants that fall over her ass so sexy and a wraparound crop top. Even though she’s moving around like the Energizer bunny, I can’t help snatching her back into my arms and kissing her deeply—so deeply that it feels like we’ll meld into one; so deeply that anybody walking by would feel the passion of our kiss in their lips.
I move slowly, meticulously in this kiss, surprising her and snatching her will away such that she’s spaghetti in my arms, hanging there helplessly, her arms at her side and allowing me to devour her. Her surrender is arousing and I take full advantage of it, my lips bruising and never leaving hers until I’ve completely gotten my fill of this one kiss. Her reaction when I stop is even more arousing.
When I finally pull my mouth away from hers, she stands there hanging in my arms. Her eyes closed and her lips parted like she’s still suspended in the kiss. Her breathing is… strange, like she’s deliberately controlling it. The steady rise and fall of her chest is fueling my need for her. I feel heat radiating from her skin and if there was a mating call for my soul, she’s emitting it right now!
“Baby…” Each syllable of the word drags slowly from my mouth, full of all the need and desire I’m feeling for her right now.
“Huh?” she whispers, never opening her eyes. That doesn’t fucking help.
“You have no idea how much I want to take you to our Playroom right this second!” I breathe against her lips. I literally feel her pulse rate and temperature rise against her skin as I caress her bare back and play in the garden.
“Yes!” she whispers, totally forgetting that we’re expecting my brother and his girlfriend to descend upon us.
Fuck, she’s completely dazed… totally at my mercy… That shit is so hot right now. The things I would do to her in this state… the ways I would make her come, push her limits, fill the minutes and hours with mindless pleasure for both of us.
Fuck! Elliot and Valerie will be here any minute… Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! A new Playroom, a totally willing and subspaced submissive who isn’t even in the Playroom yet, and pending guests… a Dom’s worst nightmare.
“Another time, Baby,” I promise. “We’ve got people coming.” I kiss her neck gently. “Come back to me, you sexy vixen. Come on, breathe.” I remove my hands from the garden, but keep them firmly planted on her hips for stability for fear that if I let her go, she’d collapse into a useless mound of goo on the floor. She breathes with me and slowly comes back to herself and I almost hate to see her leave that trance. Damn! Damn! Damn! I don’t know how I got her into it, but I sure the fuck wish I knew how to repeat it.
“My brother…” I begin.
“… And Valerie… yes,” she breathes, swallowing hard. “I… want to make sure we have… something ready for her to eat when she gets here—in case she’s hungry.”
“You’re a good friend,” I say, fighting hard not to grab her and kiss her again. “Go on. I’ll go get ready to greet them. I know they’ll be here any minute.” She nods once and saunters her sexy ass out of the room and towards the elevator. Fuck, my dick is throbbing. This fucking yearning is not going away any time soon. I know this need has partially been brought on by the slip in my control during that meeting with Ros today. I know that she’s under no misconception that she stepped wrong today and I’m positive that it won’t happen again. Yet, I’m facing the very real possibility of losing her, and that’s definitely not an ideal situation for me.
These things happen. Executives disagree all the time and either they get over it or decide to move on to other opportunities. But I must admit that I never pictured GEH without Ros and it’s causing me more than a small amount of anxiety.
Maybe Butterfly is tuned in to that need, like she was the very first time she subbed for me and knew that I needed to regain control… or like that nearly disastrous time in Anguilla, another instance where I had a desperate need to regain control. I don’t know. All I know right now is that her body and demeanor are screaming to me like a fucking siren call and whatever happens, I’ve got to keep this desire on a leash for at least a few more agonizing hours. It’s going to be a long ass night.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see the inside of this place again,” Valerie says when Elliot wheels her into the grand entry, “that is, unless I crashed Easter brunch looking for Elliot again.” We laugh nervously, but that slight discomfort will change after she’s here for a while. Christian had a private ambulance bring her to the house and much to our surprise, Dr. Moab signed off on Val’s release right after Dr. Hill cleared her to go home. She’s tired right now because she had today’s radiation treatment before she left the hospital. Her nurse will come once a day in the morning. Her radiation treatments will be right before lunchtime, Monday through Friday. Her first caregiver is set to arrive right after she returns from the hospital and will stay through the afternoon and evening. The second caregiver will arrive in the evening and stay all night. Elliot insists on there only being two caregivers right now as he still wants to take care of his “Angel” some of the time, but concedes that the help will allow him some much-needed sleep.
“I’m glad you were wrong about that,” I tell her as we walk to the elevator. “You’ll like what we’ve done for you in the guest room. You should be really comfortable. If there’s anything that you want, please let us know.”
We’re quiet during the elevator ride up and Val is so tired, her head just lolls off to the side while Elliot is pushing her chair. I want to get her to bed so that she can relax.
“You’ll love this bed,” I tell them as we step off the elevator. “There’s a Sleepnumber store in Bellevue and the hospital supply nearby. So, Christian was able to get them to install the hospital bracket on the side of the bed.” Val smiles widely when we get to the bedroom. We’ve moved a lot of her things from Elliot’s apartment in so that they could feel at home.
“Oh, this is really nice,” she says in a soft voice, “so much nicer than the hospital.” Her voice cracks on the last word, but I think it’s more from exhaustion than emotion.
“That bed is the business,” Elliot says. “You wanna test it out, Angel?” Val nods, so he locks the wheels on the wheelchair while I turn down the duvet. He lifts her out of the wheelchair and places her gently into the bed. The comfort registers immediately on her face.
“So much nicer,” she confirms as she settles into comfort. Elliot removes her shoes and she declines having the blankets placed over her.
“How are we doing?” Christian’s voice booms into the room and destroys my entire train of thought. I immediately remember that kiss from earlier, the one that burned through me and turned my body to mush; dominated me without him saying a word. I can suddenly feel my temperature rise as he crosses the room, closing the space between us. I part my lips to get a little air in, imagining his hands on me, his mouth on me…
“Damn, Montana, do you need a knife and fork?”
Now, it’s Elliot’s voice that breaks my train of thought.
“Huh?” I ask, tearing my gaze from my husband and looking at Elliot.
“Oh, nothing. It’s just that ‘fuck me’ look that you just gave my brother made me think you might have wanted to put him on a plate and gobble him up properly.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?” Christian interjects. “And how the hell would you know my wife’s ‘fuck me’ look?”
“Because I’ve seen it before,” he says matter-of-factly. “Anybody who has ever been within 50 feet of you two has seen it before… the wedding, on Thanksgiving when we walked in on coitus interruptus, any given Sunday—but the most memorable one had to be that day right before you went into the hospital, when Kate sent her flowers. You remember, Montana?” I roll my eyes, remembering the Faint Heard ‘Round Seattle.
“How can I forget?” I lament. The week he nearly starved himself to death.
“That was the week I started therapy. I thought you sent the flowers and I made a comment about it. Apparently, the night before must have been a real doozy or something, because at the mere mention of your name, she drifted off into ‘Bend-Me-Over-And-Do-Me-Dirty’ Land with me standing right there and you weren’t even in the room. That’s pussy control!”
“El!” Val scolds, laughing as heartily as her weakened state would allow. I roll my eyes at him.”
“You’re such a child, Elliot,” I say, waving him off.
But is he wrong?
No, he’s not wrong, but I don’t want to get all flushed and flustered while standing here trying to get my friend settled in.
“Why don’t you go do something useful and find me something to eat so that I can talk to Ana?” Val says.
“You tryna get rid of me already?” he asks, gently squeezing her calf.
“Never,” she says softly, giving him a gentle smile. He cups her face and gazes into her eyes.
“I’ll see what I can scare up,” he says, kissing her softly on the lips before he and Christian go to find something for her to eat, leaving us alone. I know that there’s already something prepared for just such and emergency, so I turn my attention to Val as we won’t have that much alone time.
“That hospital room was killing me,” she says. “Whatever help the radiation may have been doing, the depression was killing the effects.” She fixes her gaze straight ahead before closing her eyes and releasing a mournful, anguished sigh. “Six months…” she breathes, “six whole months of my life.” Feeling her dismay, I move around to the other side of the queen-sized bed and climb in next to my friend, just in time to see a tear roll down her cheek.
“I was up for a promotion at work, you know,” she says sadly. “I didn’t mention anything because it was your birthday. I had the best numbers over five quarters… five quarters! I know Stockton was about to offer me ‘partner.’ I’m sure of it.” More tears join the one that fell down her cheek. “I couldn’t have been happier. I had all my friends. I had fallen in love with a great guy. You had just gotten married! And having twins! I was supposed to help decorate the nursery and buy way too many clothes for Mackenzie. I would have had to convince Elliot to buy for Michael. I’m horrible with little boys’ clothes.”
“You’re talking like all of this stuff is over,” I say. “We’re going to beat this. Everything’s going to be fine. Your godchildren are ten weeks old, not going off to college.” She smiles.
“My godchildren,” she repeats. “That sounds wonderful.” She sighs. “But I’ll never get the respect back that I earned in my company. I’m debating not going back to work. Elliot says I don’t have to.” I gasp.
“You love your job!” I exclaim.
“Loved,” she corrects me. “I don’t even know if I can do it now.” She pauses. “I need you to help me through this, Ana. I need a professional to help me and right now, nobody can. I can’t even talk to anybody; I can’t open up. I can’t let them in. I tried. I need you, Ana. I need you to help me.” I know exactly what she’s asking me and I shake my head. This is the one thing that I have to deny her.
“I can’t be your shrink, Val,” I tell her. “I’m way too close to the situation. It affected me, too, remember?”
“That’s why I need you,” she says. “I need someone that was there to hear what I was going through and help me work through it, help me come to grips with a few things so I can have some closure. If you weren’t a shrink and I had to see someone else, I’d have you coming to every session with me. This way, I can have the best of both worlds.”
This is why. I always knew, because I’m a professional, but just like I told Ron two years ago when I quit volunteering at the community center. I’m a person first, and I couldn’t really filter or rationalize the professional through my feelings, then or when this first happened to me, when Maxie first dumped me, but I know now. From the other side, I see what she meant. And the very reason why I would be the ideal person for the job is the very reason why I can’t do it.
“I won’t be able to help you, Val,” I protest, “to give you the professional guidance that you desperately need and deserve… I love you too much to be objective, and the pain goes so deep that it’ll cloud my judgment.”
“That’s why I need you,” she says, finally breaking down into gentle, exhausted weeping. “I swear, I swear I’ll go get some help later. I’ll talk to someone and I’ll get all fixed up, but right now… I need my friend, my sister to help me through this. I need the one who knows me and saw me, the one who was there, to help me work through what I saw and what I said and what I felt… and what I did to others. Someone who doesn’t know me, doesn’t love me, can’t help me break through all this. Can’t begin to help me sort this out. I need you. I know this is a horrible thing I’m asking you to do and I feel like shit for putting you through this. I’ll pay you double if I have to.” What the…? I glare at her.
“You heifer!” I hiss. “If you offer me money…” I scold, leaving the words hanging in the air and allowing her to finish the thought for herself. She looks at me with sad eyes.
The words cut through me like sharp, hot steel. Dammit! Dammit! Dammit. For the very reason that I’m not the person for this job, I have to do this job. I sigh. I can’t turn her down. I rub her arm.
“Okay,” I tell her. “I’ll do it.” The sigh that follows is filled with tears.
“Thank you,” she weeps.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say, trying to make light of the situation so that she doesn’t fall apart. “Of course, you don’t want to start right now.”
“Yes, I do, but in a few minutes… not this very second.” She snatches the scarf off her head. It’s a beautiful scarf. It looks like Hermes. “These things drive me absolutely goddamn, fucking batshit!” she says as I examine the healing scar on her head that looks a lot like a giant question-mark.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the softest cotton, the finest silk, or the smoothest satin, it feels like a fucking vise on my head! I can’t stand it!”
“Well, you’re home now, Sweetie, why do you still wear it?” She gives me a look that tells me exactly why she wears it with no further questions. Elliot. She doesn’t want him to see her without it.
“My hair was nearly as long as yours,” she says, her voice full of sorrow. “When they told me that they would have to cut it all off, it gutted me. I made them braid it and cut it so that it could be donated to another cancer patient.” My heart swells.
“Oh, Val,” I say, grasping her hand. In her own time of sorrow, when the tumor had taken her away from us, she was still thinking of others. She had never left us; she was here all along. She closes her eyes and shakes her head, smiling sadly and pushing tears out of her eyes.
“It is what it is,” she says. “It’ll grow back… maybe… after a couple of years or so.” I lay on the pillow next to her and look at her face.
“You’re beautiful, Val,” I say. “I know you miss your hair, but you really are beautiful.” She nods and wipes her tears.
“This isn’t about me feeling sorry for myself…”
“Yes, it is,” I correct her. “It’s about every single thing you’re feeling and you need to talk about every little thing you feel and don’t hold back.” She nods.
“I know what you all said,” she says, “but I promise to make this up to you… all of you. I have to. You’ve all been my family and I feel like I… God, I was so shitty. I know it wasn’t really me, but I still see it. I still remember it. I still…” I hear Elliot’s voice down the hall and watch Val scramble to put her scarf back on. I feel terrible that she’s so concerned about how her head looks at a time like this, but I help her adjust it before Elliot gets to the room.
“You’ve got your own section of the Subzero down there,” he says with an accomplished smile as he enters the room with the rolling Butler covered with an amazing spread of food and service for four. “Nothing but organic fruits and vegetables, special milk products, grain-fed poultry, the whole nine yards.” He takes a plate and starts to load it for her—fruit salad and vegetables to start. “You can have some protein if you can keep this down. I brought enough for you, too, Montana, but you have to help yourself. I need to feed my girl.”
Christian and I load our plates with chicken and veggie kabobs, fresh steamed vegetables and pita bread with fruit salad and cranberry spritzers on the side. Elliot is comfortable on the bed facing Valerie, feeding her fresh fruits and vegetables, then fresh chunks of grilled chicken and pieces of pita bread dipped in hummus. She eats well, not gluttonous, but good and healthy servings that will give her more strength. Christian and I notice immediately from out perches at the bistro table that we had put in this room for meals for Elliot and Val, but he’s quite content just sitting on the bed and feeding Valerie, both of them sharing private jokes and laughing.
Elliot is always the funny man, serious when it comes to his work, but a joke for you almost every time you see him. Watching him with Val, he’s tender and attentive. His love for her radiates from his skin. I’m beginning to believe that part of the fate that is me and Christian is also that they needed to meet… to be together… so that he could help her through this.
Christian and I eat quietly at the tiny bistro table. He and I are enjoying one right now, a quiet meal fraught with some unknown tension while we watch his brother dote on my friend.
I don’t know what’s happening between us or what’s going on. All I know is that earlier, when he kissed me—at that moment, all I wanted to do was be his submissive. All I wanted was for him to take me and dominate me… do whatever he needed to do to me. I didn’t want to think about it. I just wanted to turn total control over to him and allow him to take me on whatever journey he wanted—I knew no matter where we went, there would be endless and unbelievable pleasure.
It was at that moment that I realized I needed my Dom. We had dabbled and played, but besides punishments, we haven’t had any serious playtime since Escala. I needed it—I need it—and although I don’t know how to ask for it, my body and mind responded to my Dom immediately and waited for commands when he showed up. I ache for him now and I have no idea how to show him this is what I need without blatantly saying, “take me to the playroom.” That’s topping from the bottom and won’t work with my Dom.
I found myself gravitating towards him all evening. Wherever he is, I have to be. I curl into him at every opportunity, like a kitten walking between your feet and rubbing against your leg. I don’t make eye-contact with anybody as I do this, not even him. I don’t want to make eye-contact with anyone. I have a yearning to be his right now and I don’t think I care who knows it. Now, here at this table with hardly no space between us, I just want to crawl into his lap or sit at his feet or something.
When he reaches across the table and touches my hand, I suck in a breath, attempting to be inconspicuous. I think I succeed—Elliot and Val don’t react, but then, they’re so engrossed in each other that I don’t think they could. The reaction doesn’t escape my Dom, though. He gently rubs his thumb over the back of my hand and it’s fire on my skin. I have to fight to keep still, to keep from panting, from this tiny little touch.
What’s wrong with me?
I raise my eyes without raising my head and peer at him through my lashes. He swallows hard, his expression dark and hungry. His lips part just a little, the tip of his tongue caressing the tender, wet flesh of his inner lip. His eyes pierce through me, gray slate cutting through my defenses and breaking through all resistance, reaching into that place where his submissive sits, waiting—quietly on her knees, hands spread on her thighs, anxiously awaiting his instruction as he places his hand on her chin and gently lifts her face so that her gaze meets his…
“The only two people in the world I’ve ever seen who can fuck with their eyes,” Elliot says, breaking the spell between.
“Elliot!” Val scolds as Christian breaks his promise gaze with me, leaving me breathless.
“What?” he laughs. “They’re making it easy. Every time I look at ‘em, she’s looking like a man-eater and he’s looking like he’ll gobble her up in one bite. You can’t miss it! He’d mount her on that table if we weren’t in this room!”
He’s right. I can’t deny it. Christian’s dominant energy is flowing through me and consuming me. If he told me to drop trou, I’d do it… right here, right in front of them.
“Are you saying that you’ve never looked at me with ‘fuck me’ eyes?” Val accuses.
“I’ve looked at you many times with ‘fuck me’ eyes, and the same goes for you to me, but then we usually get down to business. We don’t sit there eye-fucking each other. Those two…” He points at me and Christian. “They can have a whole session without leaving that table, right where they’re sitting,” he adds, with a chuckle.
“You’re making my wife uncomfortable, Elliot,” Christian says, sweetly, but in that voice… and I never take my eyes off him. Elliot laughs.
“She doesn’t look uncomfortable to me,” he says, his voice full of mirth.
“Okay, okay, enough of teasing my friend. El, Ana’s going to be my shrink,” she tells him, “my initial shrink. She’s going to help me work through some things that no one else is going to be able to help me through and then, if I still need it, I’ll get help from an objective stranger. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to need some more alone-time with my doctor and best friend.”
I tear my gaze from my breathtaking Dominant, his pull getting stronger and stronger by the second, then turn to look at Elliot and Val. Elliot’s eyes are unreadable at first, all of the prior mirth now gone from his face, but he says nothing. Christian and I move towards the door, not quite sure how Elliot is taking being dismissed from the room… well, not so much dismissed, but asked to leave nonetheless. Christian kisses me softly on the lips, then again… warming me all the way down to my fucking core, but doesn’t say a word before turning and leaving the room. I swallow hard and try to compose myself as I turn toward Val and Elliot, trying to decide if I should just make a hasty getaway instead.
Elliot gently cups Val’s face, staring for a long time into her eyes before he kisses her forehead, then gently kisses her lips. Without a word, he moves past me and I catch his hand before he gets by me. Is he angry with me for hogging her time? I’m not doing it on purpose. He turns his head slightly to me with red-rimmed, tired, glassy eyes and mouths “Thank you.” I can only nod as I release his hand and allow him to leave the room. I suddenly feel the emptiness and absence of my Dom’s departure, but I refocus and turn my attention to my sister and friend, closing the door so that she can feel more comfortable about opening up.
“Where would you like to start?” I ask, walking back over to the bed. I pull a chair next to her and sit down, giving her my undivided attention.
“I’d like to start at the beginning, but I don’t know where the beginning is,” she says, wearily.
“Are you too tired?” I ask. “We can do this later. There’s no rush…” She shakes her head.
“No, I want to get started now,” she protests. “It doesn’t have to be too in depth, but I want to lay some kind of foundation as quickly as possible.” As she once again removes her scarf and rubs her bald scalp for comfort, I suddenly have a terrible fear… a sickening, familiar feeling from the last time someone wanted to move quickly and looked very much like my friend looks now.
“Valerie,” I say, unable to hide my fear. “This… this isn’t… dignity therapy, is it?” I swallow hard, remember when Melanie needed to rush to get through her words and would see no one but me, right before she gave me that damn video of what happened in Green Valley. Her eyes grow large.
“No!” she says, emphatically. “I mean, I know there’s always a chance, but… nobody told me I was dying!” I sigh heavily, relief flooding my body.
“Okay,” I breathe, “Okay, I’m sorry… it’s just that… Pops isn’t doing too well and I’ve only done dignity therapy twice in my life and… well, never mind… that’s not what this is, so…” Val grabs my flailing hand to halt my rambling.
“I’m not dying, Steele,” she says, using my prior name to ground me. “These radiation treatments are hell, but no one told me that I’m kicking the bucket yet, okay?”
I nod, looking into her sincere blue eyes. Her eyes are a color of blue that mine will never get. Her eyes are powder blue or baby blue, almost silver, even at their darkest. The lightest my eyes will ever get is azure, like the color of a midwinter sky.
“Why… don’t I just let you start?” I say, nervously, now cupping her hand in both of mine. She nods.
“I started feeling different when you were planning your wedding,” she says, dropping her eyes, “after you got back from Montana. The smallest things would irritate me and I didn’t know why. You were the first—the biggest target from the very beginning. I can’t give you a reason… I don’t have one. All I can tell you is what I thought and what I felt, but yeah, it started then.”
I remember that wedding planning meeting we had when I came back from Montana and at Jason’s welcome home lunch when he came back from the hospital. Val was vicious in some of her questions and accusations. Well, vicious may be too strong a word. How about confrontational? Yes, that would be a better description.
“I, um… I remember,” I say. “It was a tense time and some of the things you said were definitely out of character. I chalked it up to the high emotions of the situation at the time, especially since we ‘kissed and made up,’” I say, doing the finger quotes. “You’re saying that you think that might have been the beginning?” She nods.
“At least as far back as I can remember,” she says. “You know how I said that it was like watching a horror film that you couldn’t get out of? Like I was screaming at the screen asking the character what the fuck she was doing?” She shrugs as I nod.
“Some of the shit that was coming out of my mouth, I was like ‘what the hell is your fucking problem?’ As time progressed, I would hear and see little smug comments—even more smug that usual—coming out of my mouth towards you and others, but it didn’t seem like such a big deal. People knew to blow me off, didn’t pay much attention to me… until your birthday.”
I’ve been waiting for months to hear exactly what was going through her mind on my birthday. Even now, even though I know that it was the tumor talking, probably had grown to the point where it was really causing the most damage—I still needed to know what was going through her head when she snapped on me… when she said those horrible things to me. As if she was reading my mind, she pats the bed next to her, a signal for me to join her. I abandon my chair and crawl in next to her. We entwine our fingers like we did in college and she lays her head on my shoulder.
“Everything I said was true,” she begins and I feel a sharp pang in my chest. “Hear me out, please,” she says, clinging to my hand. “You’ve had things that you may have wanted to say to me, but you’ve tempered them because of our friendship. You still got your point across, but your words went through a filter because you love me and I’m not just some random bitch on the street.” She raises her eyes to me.
“Yes,” I say, keeping my words to a minimum, because I want her to do all the talking.
“I remember that entire day,” she says, “the day we broke up. It never stopped playing in my head over and over again. Every time I thought to come and tell you what I thought was really going on, the tumor took over like a demon and convinced me not to do it. Whenever you showed up, the tumor convinced me that you were the enemy, and I lashed… I lashed out to protect myself from you… from the hurt of not having you in my life… from you slashing me with the truth that I was being an irrational, childish bitch even though I couldn’t stop it. There were times when you would walk into the room or you would be sitting somewhere and I would see my friend. I would just watch you and not say anything…”
She did that at Grey Manor last Christmas. I remember seeing her and seeing Val for a fleeting second, right before Tumor Val returned.
“The minute I tried to process the words to come out of my mouth to greet you, they were gone. The feelings were gone, and that bitterness came back.” She sighs heavily.
“I felt singled out because I was the only one in the room who wasn’t married,” she says, even though she wasn’t. Marilyn was there with us, too, but that oversight could be attributed to Tumor Val. “And then the scrutiny I was getting when I said that me and Elliot didn’t want to get married.”
An unknown emotion flashes across her face, but it’s gone as soon as it appears.
“I did think your weddings were large and ostentatious. Max had a double-digit wedding party. You got married in a castle, for Christ’s sake… on the waterfront… and rode away into the moonlight in a classic fucking Bentley! Come on, Steele, that’s as ostentatious as it gets… but that was fine, because that’s what you wanted. You two could afford it; you wanted it; you got it; and you deserved it! I was making the point that it’s not what El and I want or need, but it immediately looked like I was firing off at you and Max, because that’s what you had, and that’s why I said, ‘no offense.’”
I remain silent, nodding while she expounds her tale.
“From there, the whole thing just went downhill. Yes, I felt like you were shutting us out and wanted you to tell me why in the world you and Christian were having problems so soon after you guys had gotten married—what was so bad that caused you to go MIA—and yes, I wanted to know if it had anything to do with cheating since you alluded that Christian was so angry. But there was no way in hell I would expect you to answer that question in front of your mother-in-law and I have no idea why I said it. When you came back about not wanting to talk about it, I saw it as an immediate attack and fled before I said something I would regret.
“When I came back and you were crying, I was livid, and I can tell you that I didn’t know which Valerie was angry. Marilyn had come back to tell me that it wasn’t a big deal, that I could come back and we could just talk things out. But when I saw you weeping and everyone falling at your feet, so to speak, I just felt like ‘Oh, here comes big bad Valerie!’ And though nobody said anything or accused me of anything, I felt like I was the villain that was ruining your birthday. I just needed to leave.”
I remember feeling super-sensitive about what she said about my wedding. Hindsight being 20/20, I most likely contributed to the subsequent blow-up by not knowing that the tumor was fueling the delivery of some of the things that she said. I reached back into the pain that I was feeling from her comments about my wedding when the rest of the conversation was going on.
“I had all afternoon for Meg to talk to me…” I frown and interrupt her for the first time.
“Who… the fuck is Meg?” I ask. She laughs and squeezes my hand.
“The tumor,” she says. “I named it shortly after we discovered it was there. The bitch was the bane of my existence. I figured it deserved an identity.”
I just nod. It seemed logical to me.
“So… that’s the day I think Meg fully took over. It was gradual before that… little things became big things and they would just irritate me. But once Meg took over, I was hearing things that people weren’t even saying to me; seeing things that people weren’t doing; interpreting shit completely the wrong way. ‘Good morning’ meant ‘my day is going fabulous; I bet yours sucks.’ I was so disagreeable, people stopped speaking to me after a while and then I became resentful of that.”
She sighs heavily and I can’t help but hope she gets back to the way she behaved the night we broke up. I had cried for hours, and when I didn’t think I could cry any longer, I had cried some more. This is my chance to get complete closure on that and although I’m letting her talk as part of her treatment, I need this therapy, too.
“That passive-aggressive bullshit I did at the lodge on your birthday…” Here we go… “… that was Meg; that wasn’t me. She niggled my nerve every time your mouth opened and I sighed or heaved or puffed or some other childish reaction. Of course, I knew it would set you off, but Meg didn’t care. And yes, I did feel like you changed… I know you changed, but you had to. The life you’re living, the man you married, all of it required that you change. Logical Me knew that; Meg was like ‘Who does this bitch think she is?’ I know it’s impossible and illogical for you to have lived the same way and done the same things that you did before you became Mrs. Christian Grey.
“And yes,” she admits, “I—Logical Me—felt very slighted that your best girlfriends were being left out of the intimate details of your life. Even now, Logical Me still has to process that not everything is any of my damn business. But Logical Me can process that and still understand that there are some parts of your life that I’m not going to be privy to. Meg… no, just no. This high-and-mighty bitch thinks she’s too good to talk to us now and here we go. Hang out all of your dirty laundry and say the most hurtful things I could think of to say in an attempt to quench Meg’s anger.”
She looks at our hands clenched together and swallows hard, sighing thereafter and stretching her neck as if saying these things is causing physical exertion… it probably is, come to think of it.
“One of the worst things I had ever heard was the next morning when Christian explained what my antics had reduced you to. I’ll never forget that shit. It was like somebody branded the Scarlet Bitch across my chest.”
Okay, I could have gone my entire life without that particular analogy, but I simply must know what brought on that strong a reaction.
“You were gone when I woke. When did Christian talk to you?” I ask.
“He didn’t,” she laments. “He was out by the fire pit talking to Elliot. It had to be about four o’clock in the morning and he was drinking a beer. He didn’t know I was there until… well, until he said everything I didn’t want to hear.”
“What… what did…” I so want to know, but I don’t know how to ask.
“What did he say?” she says, with a sad smile. I nod. “He told Elliot that I had gained ‘Kate status’ with him,” she says, doing the finger quotes around Kate status. “He said he would never forgive me for breaking your heart; that you cried for hours before he forced you to fall asleep, then you woke up all night crying some more and begging him to tell you that you had dreamed the whole thing.” Two tears fall from her eyes, and she quickly wipes them away before she continues.
“He said something about having to force-feed you when you awoke because when you two were fighting, all you did was vomit and sleep and you lost eight pounds even though you were pregnant. Elliot tried to get him to elaborate, but he wouldn’t, saying that you guys only talk to each other about it. When I realized that he wouldn’t even tell his brother and whatever it was caused Grace to stop speaking to you guys, I really felt like shit.”
I had no idea Christian had this conversation with Elliot, and the fact that he didn’t reveal what was going on with us to his own brother even though his mother already knew makes me love him even more.
“Christian was beyond enraged,” she continues. “He was talking about how we fought about your ‘wedding for show…’” Finger quotes again, “… and how I took your worst experiences and threw them back in your face. How I dogged you for having security around all the time when it was something that couldn’t be avoided because of who you were and what had already happened to you. How he planned on taking you away for every birthday after this because every time he plans something, you get hurt, and he thought you would never recover from this. That… that’s when I learned that I was supposed to be the twins’ godmother.”
I raise my eyes to her profile and her face is covered with tears now. She just let them fall while she recited what she heard that night. She starts to weep fully and I take her in my arms.
“Please, don’t cry, Val,” I tell her. “The stress is no good for you. I know you want to let this go, and that’s good—better out than in, but don’t linger, okay?” She weeps a moment longer, then nods on my shoulder and wipes her eyes before straightening herself.
“And so…” she says, pulling herself together, “that’s brings you up to date on Bitchy Val or Tumor Val or Meg or however we’re going to refer to it. Everything after that was like being controlled by puppet strings. I could see what was happening… hear what I was saying… but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t control it. When you ignored me… pretended I wasn’t there, it pissed Meg off even more. I swear there were two people living in my head…” I know that feeling, “… only she was the one with all the control and I could only watch while she ruined my life.”
And there it is, the entire explanation that I’ve been looking for since our break-up last October.
“You know you have to forgive yourself, right?” I say, and she shakes her head. “Yes, Val, you do. We all make mistakes of our own doing, but you didn’t even have control over this. You were severely under the influence and didn’t even have the benefit—if you can call it that—of being drunk or high. We all understand that and we’ve all forgiven you. If you decide to go back to work, they’ll forgive you, too. You have to let yourself off the hook.”
“I’ve changed, Steele,” she says. “I’m not the same person. I want different things… I have different priorities. I’m really not sure I’ll be going back to work. Of course, I have to see what happens with my progress, but…” There’s a knock at the door and then the door starts to open. Valerie gasps and starts to scramble, searching through the covers. I’m wondering what’s wrong and I don’t realize until she covers her head with both hands just as Elliot crosses the threshold.
Elliot’s eyes soften and I can see the transformation from clean across the room… a mix of longing and anguish and need and several more emotions that I can’t name. His eyes are fixed on Val as she sits against the back of the adjustable bed covering her bald head with her hands, her eyes filled with horror and quickly filling with tears.
Elliot slowly makes his way across the room, still gazing at his girlfriend. Her body trembles with a muffled sob, though no tears escape her eyes. Elliot reaches for her hands and grasping them in either of his, he removes them from her head and gently kisses each palm before placing them in her lap. Another shuddering breath escapes her chest as a single tear slides down her cheek. Elliot cups her face in his hands, wiping her tear away with his thumb.
He holds her face up so that her gaze can meet his and stares at her for many moments… many silent moments… and suddenly, I feel like a voyeur.
“Montana? Can you leave now?” he says, never taking his eyes off Val. “I really need to be alone with my girl.”
Without a word, I slide out of the bed and quietly tread to the door. As I’m closing it behind me, I see him placing gentle kisses on her shaved scalp and her scar, her eyes closed in utter bliss.
I stand against the wall and take a moment to remember the time when I didn’t want Christian—or anybody—to see the shaved portion of my head. My hair was still so long, but I felt so ugly and unattractive after losing such a large patch of it behind my ear. Christian massaged, caressed, and kissed it every chance he got. He even bought a shit-ton of accessories so that I could dress it up to make me feel better. Every day, he went out of his way to make me look and feel beautiful, even though I felt just the opposite.
He carried me every chance he got—never breaking a sweat—when I was 894 pounds carrying our twins.
He made the sweetest love to me even when I couldn’t see my feet. Somehow, our bodies always fit together.
He told me and anybody who would listen how beautiful I was, and always made me feel like the belle of the ball no matter where we went.
He’s been my knight in shining Armani since the very beginning, and there are many times I don’t know what I would have done had he not been there to hold me up.
I don’t know how long I stand there, but my train of thought is broken by Valerie’s voice.
“El…” she keens softly, and whatever’s happening on the other side of that door, I need to step away and allow them their privacy.
A/N: drop trou—To lower one’s pants down to one’s ankles, often in a sudden, impulsive manner, thus exposing one’s nether regions; short for “dropping your trousers.”
Three more to go…
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