Raising Grey: Chapter 9—Goodbye, and Hello

So, in case you haven’t already heard, I’ve finished editing my ORIGINAL WORK and I’m about to prep it for publishing. I’m looking for cover art and researching the best way to market it—whether it will be offered electronically only or as a traditional book. We’ll have to see. Anyone with suggestions or leads for good cover artists at a reasonable price, please hit me up on Facebook or in the “contact me” link in the menu. Marketing leads and assistance will be appreciated as well.

Please note that this is NOT the Fanfiction that I am publishing. I’m not ready to close it down, which is what I would have to do if I decided to publish my Fanfic. This is an entirely new story that I wrote and I hope you guys will like it. A sample of one of the lemons from the story can be found in the “More Work From The Goddess” menu on the left under the first “Lemon Drop.”

About the last chapter, all I can say is “people are going to be people.” They’re going to fuck up; they’re going to piss you off; and it ain’t gone stop. If it did, this would have been a very short story—very hot, but very short. When Christian learns all of his lessons and stops being an ass and Ana becomes the perfect wife all the time, the story is over and I’ll stop writing it.

 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 9—Goodbye, and Hello

CHRISTIAN

Butterfly nearly has to hold me up as we follow Pops’ casket out of the church. I’m squeezing her hand for dear life and she’s squeezing mine right back. We file out of the church and move to various positions around the front door and watch in solemn and grieved silence as they load Pops’ remains into the hearse and drive off, headed for the crematorium. We can’t all go to the crematorium, so Dad and his brothers take one limo while Mom, Luma, and Lana ride with Mia and Ethan in the second limo. Elliot and I and our wives will ride in one of the Audis.

One of the Audis.

It’s not until the second limo drives away that I realize that there are a lot of Audis in front of the church—quite possibly every vehicle in my damn fleet. When did this happen? Beyond the line of Audis, basically blocking the view of the entrance to the church, is a police barricade and it stretches around the church as far as I can see. The press is contained on the other side of the street. No doubt, they’re on the rooftops and hanging out of windows with telephoto lenses, too.

I frown and look at Jason.

“What is this?” I ask.

“I got in touch with Alex for back-up. He called in a favor.” I nod and pat his shoulder.

“Thank you,” I say softly before getting into the car with my wife.

*-*

The day is a bit of a blur after that. I meet a lot of people—more of my father’s family came from Detroit than we thought. Everyone readjourns at my parent’s house for the repast, but all I can do for most of the day is stare out onto the patio, where Pops and I had many conversations over the past few months.


ANASTASIA

The service was truly beautiful.  There were many more in attendance than we thought we would see. Ros and her wife were there and Lorenz showed up, too. There were a few others I recognized from department head meetings and a lot of people that I didn’t recognize at all. I could see Carrick’s family resemblance in some of the mourners, so I was happy to know that at least some of his family from Detroit made the trip to pay last respects and see Pops for the last time.

I’ve never been good with seeing my husband break down. Watching him lose his composure during the eulogy was almost more than I could stand. I knew I had to be strong for him during this time, so I fought my emotions and helped him through his. He sat silently in the car the entire ride back to his parents’ house. He almost seemed robotic when we exited the car and walked into the house. I feel kind of lost without him to lean on and now, I must admit that I can’t wait to get to my children.

When I get to the nursery, Minnie is awake, but Mikey is fast asleep. Keri tells me that he’s just been put down for his nap and Minnie is soon to follow. I don’t want to disturb the routine, so I just kiss them both and go back downstairs.

Grace is busy getting everything prepared for guests that she knows will be arriving soon. There’s enough food prepared to feed a small third-world country. I go in search of Christian and find him standing in the great room at the fireplace with a scotch in his hand. At least, I think it’s scotch. I put my hand on his back and feel him immediately deflate.

“Are you okay?” I ask softly. He puts his drink on the mantle and says nothing. He turns around and wraps his arms around me, burying his face in my neck. I don’t remember ever seeing him this forlorn. He clings to me for several moments before I feel him slowly begin to release me. When I turn my attention to him, he’s looking behind me like he’s seen a ghost. I turn my attention to where he’s looking. He’s gazing at the door in disbelief. A group of people enter, and among them is a slightly older version of… me!

What the hell?

I gaze at the woman for a moment. It’s a creepy thing to come face to face with your twin.

Your twin… of course!

“Come on, Christian.” I take him by the hand and lead him into the foyer and over to the group of people who have just entered. As we approach, I hear one of the women say, “Mom… look!” My twin turns to me and has the same reaction that I do.

“Oh… my God,” she says softly.

“Ana, Christian,” Grace says extending her hand to me. I take it while my husband still looks on in stunned silence. I already know what she’s about to say. “This is Shannon Bell and these are Herman’s children…”

She introduces Herman’s children and I try to be polite, but they’re all just staring at me, so I take this moment to address the elephant in the room.

“I know, the resemblance is uncanny. Herman’s already told me. Imagine how I feel.”

“Please, forgive my rudeness,” Shannon says. “It’s just that… you’re a mirror of my younger self. I didn’t think that was possible! You look more like me than my daughters.”

I look around and only see one daughter, who happens to favor the Grey side of the family, but no other daughters. Then I remember that Shannon remarried and has other children.

“Well, you look more like me than my mother… except you’re much taller,” I say, trying to lighten the mood. It works. Shannon laughs a bit nervously as her children whisper among each other. “This stunned gorgeous man is my husband, Christian.” Shannon extends her hand to Christian.

“It’s nice to meet you, Christian,” she says cordially. He takes her proffered hand.

“It’s… nice… to meet you, too,” he stammers, still at a loss for words. More people begin to enter the house and I notice that a lot of the women take a moment to admire my husband.

“How did you know Burt?” Shannon asks, clasping her hands in front of her.

He’s my grandfather,” Christian says. “Was my grandfather. Carrick is my father.”

“Shit! He’s family!” I hear one of the ladies hiss as she passes, and I can’t help but chuckle to myself.

“You’re one of Carrick’s children?” she says, somewhat in disbelief. “Are you the oldest?”

“Middle,” he says. “My brother Elliot is the oldest. My sister Mia is the youngest…”

They hold a short conversation and a few moments later, the Grey Brothers walk solemnly into the house. Each of them gravitate towards their significant others, Luma appearing out of nowhere to comfort Herman. I don’t know if she knows who Shannon is, but she walks right past Shannon to Herman, who nearly crumples over in her arms, making it known that at this moment, there’s nowhere else that he’d rather be. Grace abandons her guests to soothe Carrick, his eyes red-rimmed and tired. Stanley weeps quietly in his wife’s embrace. It must have been very difficult for them having to go to the crematorium and say their final goodbyes to their father before giving the final command to incinerate his remains. Not one of them looks like he’s more than twelve years old at this moment and each of them looks like he would crumble to the ground without his woman holding him up.

This sight seems to syphon the life out of Christian—what was left of it, anyway—and he, too, looks like a broken man. I put my arm around his waist and I feel him leaning on me. He turns his body into me, away from the painful sight before us. He sighs as I literally hold him up for a few moments, then takes another cleansing breath and stands up straight. He nods at me before turning back to his father and uncles.

I turn my attention to the mourning men just in time to see Luma gently wiping tears from Herman’s face. Lana has taken Stan away to somewhere more private, and Grace and Carrick start toward the dining room with one arm around each other, much like Christian and I are holding each other now. Herman looks up and catches sight of his oldest son.

“Junior,” he says in surprise, “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you! Thank you… thank you for coming.” Herman, Jr., hugs his father fondly.

“Don’t mention it, Dad,” he says with a sympathetic smile.

“Hi, Daddy,” Herman’s daughter says.

“Liz,” he breathes. His son releases him and he envelopes his daughter warmly, closing his eyes as if she’s soothing his heart.

“Hey, Pop,” his youngest son says from behind him. With Liz still in his arm, he gathers his youngest into his other arm and sighs heavily.

“Ricky,” he whispers. “I’m so glad you’re all here. You don’t know what this means to me.”

“Sure, we do, Dad,” Junior says. “That’s why we’re here.”

They share a few more moments of warm hellos before Herman finally releases them and takes Luma’s hand again.

“How’s your mother?” he asks them. “I hope she’s well.” Liz points to Shannon now standing behind him and next to us. Herman never even noticed her.

He raises his head and catches sight of Shannon, his gaze disbelieving.

“Shannon,” he says incredulously. “You’re here.”

“Yes,” she says, softly. “I know what Burt meant to you. I know this is hard on you and your brothers.”

“Thank you,” he says, still in shock and awe. A few seconds later, he appears to snap out of it and brings Luma forward. “This is Shannon,” he says, “my ex-wife and the mother of my children. Shannon, this is Luma, my…” He looks down at Luma and she returns his gaze.

“Companion?” she says, her voice uncertain. He shakes his head, still gazing at her.

Girlfriend doesn’t sound right,” he says to Luma, who is still looking at him expecting. “My lady?” he says, and a small smile forms on Luma’s face, as if they had only just come to the decision at this moment. Herman brings Luma’s hand to his mouth and kisses it gently. “Shannon, this is my lady, Luma.”

Shannon smiles widely and extends her hand to Luma.

“It’s lovely to meet you,” Shannon says. Luma accepts her proffered hand.

“Lovely to meet you, too,” she says. “You have beautiful children…”

And just like that, awkwardness averted

*-*

Christian is as cordial as he can be under the circumstances, but I know he’s forcing it. I can tell, and I just want to take him to our room and feed him some hot chicken soup, hold him in my arms and caress his hair until he falls asleep and this day is behind us. I want to help him any way that I can, but I also hope that he utilizes Dr. Baker during this time, because he’s hanging on by a thread right now.

After we meet Herman’s children, we meet some of Pops’ friends from Detroit. I was so surprised to see more than just his children and grandchildren here. Herman’s children are all married and were accompanied by their spouses, though none of them brought their children along. Stan’s children are away at school and one is in high school, so they didn’t make the trip. I was very surprised, though, when he brought two other grandchildren over to meet us.

“Christian, Ana, this is Nolanda and Burton Grey, II. These are Freeman’s children.”

Christian stiffened upon hearing Freeman’s name. Nolanda waved at us and Burton proffered his hand to Christian.

“A pleasure to meet you, sir,” Burton says with a genuine smile. Christian accepts his hand.

“You’re Freeman’s son?” Christian asks cautiously. Burton nods.

“And you’re my cousin… Uncle Rick’s son, right?” Christian nods. Burton releases his hand. “Uncle Stan has told me a lot about you. He said you’re the reason he was able to come down to see Grampa before he died.”

“Indirectly, yes,” Christian says, letting his guard down a bit.

“That was really nice of you,” Burton says. “I know it would have torn him up not to see Grampa before he passed away.” Christian smiles sadly.

“Your uncle is a good man,” he says. “If he didn’t have the reputation and record he has on his job, it’s questionable that I might have been able to get any help in getting him here. It took very little effort on my part.”

“You’re being modest, Christian, but thank you,” Stan says. “I really wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.” Christian acknowledges him with a nod.

“Everyone calls me Nollie,” his daughter says a little solemn, stepping forward a bit. “I hate it, but I’m used to it.”

“Why don’t you have them call you something else?” I ask.

“Because it’s stuck for nearly thirty years and it’s hard to break old habits,” she says with a shrug.

“I’ll call you whatever you want,” I press. She smiles.

“Nollie’s fine,” she says. “The whole family calls me Nollie. It’s okay.” I knew she would rather be called something else, but if anybody referred to her as anything else among her family, she probably wouldn’t answer.

Freeman’s children are nothing like him and while chatting with them, I find it hard to believe that they even grew up in the same house with him. I’m never stereotypical, but from his mannerisms, my bet would be that Burton is gay. He’s obviously Pops’ namesake and he indicates that his father is proud of that fact and that Herman, Jr., didn’t get the name first. I think that’s kind of fickle, but that’s just me. And yes, as I suspect, Herman’s son Ricky is named after Carrick.

“Nolanda’s a very unique name,” I say to Nollie. “Are you named after anyone?”

“Yes,” she says, “the first-born son that I was supposed to be.”

Christian and I both frown, but Stan and Burton don’t react.

“I’m sorry?” I say bemused.

“Yeah,” she continues. “I was supposed to be a boy. No gender typing, no ultrasound pictures, just the good old-fashioned faith in the male-chauvinist gods of the universe that my father’s magic sperm was going to produce a strapping young boy in his image. When I was born, if he could’ve, he would have shoved me back in until I grew a penis… at least that’s how my mom tells it.” I’m staring gape-mouthed at her until Christian has to tell me to close my mouth.

“Surely it can’t be that bad,” I declare.

“Oh, it’s worse,” she continues. “You’ve heard of Anne Boleyn.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“Yes, Anne of a Thousand Days,” I say. She nods.

Image result for anne of a thousand days“It was worse. You know how King Henry blamed Anne for not producing a male heir when the entire time, it was his DNA contribution that determined the sex of the baby.” She says. I nod. “Mom said that my father treated her like she was a failure for having a daughter before a son. She was devastated. She didn’t even want to have any more children. That’s why Burtie is seven years younger than me.” I shake my head.

“That’s horrible,” I say softly.

“That’s Freeman,” Christian says. Nollie raises her gaze to him.

“You’ve met him,” she says. Christian examines her.

“You didn’t know?” he asks. She shakes her head. “Oh, we’ve met alright,” he says. “You’ll forgive me for saying so, but your father’s a real pill.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” she says. “You’re being kind.” By now, Stan has left us to get more acquainted.

Nolanda?” I say, emphasizing her name. “How is that a boy’s name?”

“It’s Nolan with a feminine suffix,” she says. “There was some kind of argument about who got to use Grampa’s name and I don’t know what happened there, but Nolan was a back-up. I think my father lost and Uncle Herman ended up naming Junior Herman after I was born and… I don’t know, but nonetheless, it’s Nolan.”

I can tell that she would much rather talk about something else, so I change the subject and ask about the relationship of the cousins back in Detroit and if they have any family reunions. That conversation goes on until we’re called for dinner, where conversation continues around the table among the cousins, the brothers, and the uncles. Except for the fact that we just paid last respects to Pops, this is an old-style family union… the kind that I, and I can imagine Christian, have never had. He loosens up a bit at dinner, but I can tell that he’s still miles away.

Dessert and coffee are basically a buffet free-for-all, and the house becomes one big mix and mingle again. The conversation in the cluster of brothers eventually wanders around to the elephant in the room—that being the missing brother.

“Actually,” Stan says, looking around for listening ears, then leaning in to the immediate group, “I was surprised when you told me that Nell came out here with him. She’s been unhappy for years… at least that’s what she told Lana a few years ago. As far as I knew, they would be on the outs pretty soon.” We all look at Lana. She gives a non-committal gesture before speaking.

“I’m surprised they’ve lasted this long,” she says. “I was sure after he refused to pay for Nollie’s college that Nell would leave.” Herman frowns.

“I never knew he didn’t pay for her college,” he says. Stan shakes his head.

“He told her that there was no need for her to go to college since he could get her right into Ford.”

“But Burton went to college,” Shannon interjects. “Did he have a change of heart when it was Burt’s chance?”

“Nope,” Stan says. “Burt got a free ride—four years, engineering, U of M.”

“I bet Freeman wasn’t too pleased with that,” Carrick says before taking a sip of his drink.

“On the contrary, he was ecstatic,” Stan corrects and now I interject.

“How so?” I ask incredulously. “His daughter had to go to Ford or else, but he’s happy that his son went to college?”

“His son got a free ride,” Stan says, “further reinforcing male superiority.”

“And there’s that line in the sand,” Herman says.

“Well, what happened with Nollie?” I ask. “She didn’t get to go to school. Did she end up going to Ford?”

“No,” Stan says. “She worked odd jobs at first—clerical, bookkeeping, administrative assistant. Then she got in with the state, the unemployment division, I think. They paid partial tuition reimbursement and she paid for the rest and went to school while she was working. She only just graduated less than a year ago.”

“What’s her degree in?” I ask.

“Finance,” Stan says. “I have a sneaking suspicion that she’s making some serious plans to fly the coup.”

“She’s still living with Freeman?” Carrick asks.

“She moved away from home a while ago, didn’t she?” Herman asks.

“Yes,” Shannon offers, “but she’s still in Detroit. She and Liz are close and I think Stan is right. Expect an escape plan really soon.”

“What makes you think so?” Lana asks. Shannon shrugs.

“Liz shares things with me in confidence. Let’s just say that I’m expecting something to happen. I don’t know what and I don’t know when, but something’s coming.”

Christian is pulled away from the conversation to show Ros and Lorenz out and I immediately start looking for Nollie. I don’t see her anywhere in the immediate vicinity, so I excuse myself and begin searching for her. I don’t know if it’s morbid curiosity or what, but I would like for her to fill in some blanks about her horrible father. After searching all the rooms on the first floor, I look out the French doors and find her on the infamous bench.

You should start charging people for sessions on that damn bench.
I should, shouldn’t I?

I snag two glasses of wine from a passing server’s tray and exit the French doors, headed in her direction. I approach her and hand her one of the glasses of wine.

“I’m a red drinker. I hope you are, too,” I say. She smiles and takes the wine.

“I am, thank you,” she says, taking what looks like a welcome sip. I sit next to her and sip my own wine, more pleased than I thought I would be to get away from the crowd.

“Some of our married-in second cousins are hot for your husband,” she says, still looking out on the lake.

“Well, they can get in line,” I say, sipping my wine again. “He has more admirers than I can count.”

“And he has you,” she says, turning her gaze to me.

“He only has me,” I say, returning her question before looking out at the water. “I know he loves me, so I don’t worry about admirers. I feel that if someone else can take him from me, he wasn’t mine to begin with and I don’t want him.”

“He knows this?” she asks. I shrug.

“He knows that cheating is a deal-breaker for me,” I say, turning back to her. “I’ve been down that road. I have no desire to go down it again. I’d rather be alone.”

“Prenup?” she asks. I nod.

“Yep,” I say without giving any more details.

“And you’d still leave?”

“In a heartbeat,” I say. “If someone else is in his heart, his arms, or his bed, there’s no room there for me. So, I would gladly let him go and disappear from his life if he feels like someone else would make him happy.”

“But you have kids,” she protests.

“He could still be a father to his kids without having to deal with me,” I say finitely. There’s a pause.

“You’ve thought about this.” I’m silent for a while.

“Only because I’ve been through it before,” I say, “not because Christian gives me any cause for doubt. I was dating a real hoe, for lack of a better word. It was agony—there’s no other way to describe it. Once I left that alone, I vowed never to put myself through that again, no matter how much I loved the guy. It’s that simple.”

We’re both silent again for a while before I broach the topic that brought me came out here. I start with the obvious.

Nollie?” I ask, questioning the nickname. She looks down into her wine glass.

“Rhymes with Ollie,” she says, her voice showing a hint of sadness. “Like I said, I was supposed to be a boy. By the time I was three, I thought I was a boy. That’s as far back as I can remember.” She takes a drink of her wine. “Nolanda… no Nalanda, Nolanda—it’s a pretty name… if only it wasn’t supposed to be Nolan.” She sips her wine again and sighs.

“I met Freeman,” I tell her. She chuckles.

“Hit it off really well, didn’t you?” she says sarcastically.

“I should probably correct myself,” I say. “I didn’t really meet Freeman. I learned of his existence when he and Carrick got into a fist fight and my husband tried to kill him.” She turns her gaze to me.

“Really?” she says in awe. “Christian tried to kill my father?”

It sounds so bad when she says it like that.

“Yeah, Dad brings happiness and glee wherever he goes.” She says the word with emphasized disdain as she bottoms out her wine glass. I wave to Liona, not sure that she’ll acknowledge me and shocked as shit when she does. She exits the French doors and walks over to me.

“Will you please get Ms. Grey a refill?” I ask as politely as I can. She turns to Nollie.

“Certainly. What would you like, ma’am?” she says.

“Actually, is there any way I can get a vodka rocks, please?” Liona nods and turns to me.

“Mrs. Grey?” she says. “Anything for you? Another red?” She points at my glass.

“Cabernet Sauvignon, please,” I say. She nods before taking Nollie’s empty glass and heading back to the house.

“I seem to talk to a lot of people on this bench,” I say, thinking about the many conversations I’ve had just a few feet from the Greys’ French door, including the conversation with Elena the day she outed Christian.

“You’re easy to talk to,” she replies.

“It’s practiced,” I tell her. “I’m a psychiatrist.”

“In-house family shrink,” she says without reacting. “That explains it. Well, in case you hadn’t already noticed, I’m not ‘Daddy’s Little Girl.’ I didn’t get to play with dolls, wear cute clothes, or even act like a girl until Burt was about five years old and could catch a ball. By then, it was too late. I was twelve and already a stud. My father wanted me to be a tomboy, so for the first several years of my life, I was—and I was attracted to girls.” She pauses, contemplating for a moment. “Maybe ‘attracted’ is the wrong word. I hung around boys a lot and they liked girls and talked about them, so I appreciated girls. When it became time to ‘pair up’ so to speak, I chose girls. I know it’s not this way for everybody, but mine really was a phase. It was rebelling against my dad, it was shock value, I don’t know, but at first, I liked girls and then I didn’t. I wanted men. Girls didn’t do anything for me. Although I really did appreciate the female form and still do—like yours, you’re pretty hot—you don’t have the right equipment. I could do a ménage-à-trois in a second, but a man must be present…”

She trails off as Liona returns with our drinks. I bottom out the rest of my wine and replace it with the fresh one Liona has brought while Nollie takes her vodka rocks.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she says, taking a sip, “but hey, we’re like cousins-in-law if there’s any such thing.”

“The Greys have never used the ‘in-law’ title with me,” I tell her. “If I ever have to be specific in introducing them, I would use different terms. For example, depending on the situation, I would introduce Grace as the director of Helping Hands or as my husband’s mother. Mother-in-law just doesn’t cut it for me.” She examines me over her glass for a moment.

“You guys must be very close,” she says.

“I’m close with all of Christian’s family,” I inform her. “They’re good people.” She nods.

“In that case, cousins,” she says, taking a healthy swallow of her drink. “If you don’t mind my asking, do you come from money?” I shake my head.

“Hardly,” I reply. “I come from modest beginnings—not poverty-stricken or poor, but humble.”

“Did you get the title?” she asks. I frown, then almost immediately catch her meaning.

“Oh, you mean gold-digger? I certainly did, not from the Greys but from nearly everyone else. I couldn’t possibly want this man because I’m in love with him. It had to be the money. It doesn’t matter that even though I wasn’t rich, I was pretty well off when I met him—thriving practice downtown, a million-dollar condo on Elliot Bay, driving the latest model, pimped-out car. I didn’t need Christian’s money; I had my own, I just didn’t have Christian’s money. So, that had to be the only reason that we were together.” I sip my wine. After a pause, I ask, “How did things turn out with your father—you know, like girls? I hear he refused to pay for college for you and Burt.” She turns a glare to me, but only for a moment.

“Did Burt tell you that?” she asks. I shake my head. “Well, he would have paid for Burt, I can guarantee it. But I’ll just say this. When I get back to Detroit after Grampa’s funeral, I’m running away with my boyfriend Leo. We’ve been dating for two years now and he asked me to marry him. I said, ‘yes.’ We never set a date, but once Grampa passed away, all I could think was, ‘Seize the day!’ My father has never met him. Why? Because he comes from money and is filthy rich in his own right—much like your husband, but I suspect not as rich.”

There aren’t many people in the world as rich as Christian.

“Mom has met him once, but she doesn’t know the whole story. We fly back to Detroit Metro Airport tomorrow and we land at nine pm. Leo will meet me at the gate and we’ll take the redeye to Vegas. By noon Monday, I’ll be Mrs. Leonardo Carpathia and by Wednesday evening, we’ll be starting our new life in California.”

Wow… Freeman even alienates his kids.

“Nobody knows?” I ask.

“My cousin Liz suspects, but no, nobody knows.” I can’t help but wonder why she would fly all the way back east just to immediately come west again. What’s the point in that?

“Why don’t you just catch a flight from here to Vegas?” I ask. “You’re going to be terribly jetlagged.” She ponders the thought.

“I hadn’t even considered it. I don’t want Leo to think I’m getting cold feet. Plus, I already have my return ticket to Detroit.”

“Is it just the money?” I ask. She examines me, then twists her lips.

“Ana, I’ve known you for five minutes. I won’t take your money,” she says skeptically.

“Well, there’s two slight problems with that logic. One, we’re family—by marriage, but family nonetheless. Two, you wouldn’t be taking my money. You’d be taking my jet.” She frowns.

“Your… jet?” she asks. I nod.

“My husband and I own a private jet. So, you would be taking the jet to Las Vegas.” She ponders the thought, so I sweeten the deal.

“Think about it. Four and a half hours back to Detroit, at least, most likely in coach. Wait for the redeye, maybe two hours…”

“Three,” she corrects me.

“Okay, three hours, then nearly five hours back to Vegas, and that’s only if both flights are non-stop.”

“Which they’re not,” she laments.

“Or,” I continue. “Two and a half hours in a luxury jet. You can stay the night here in Seattle or spend an extra night in Vegas, but you won’t have to spend the night in an airport or airplane. And there’s a third perk that I failed to mention.”

“What’s that?” she asks.

“My husband hates your father,” I tell her. “He tried to have Christian arrested after he and Carrick beat the hell out of each other and he ceremoniously insulted everyone in the family standing in his brother’s house, including me. If I tell my husband your plan, I can guarantee he would get a perverse joy out of aiding and abetting your escape.” A devious smile creeps across her face.

“Where would I begin?” she says, excitement lacing her voice.

“Call your guy,” I say. “See if it’s utterly necessary that you come back to Detroit.” She smiles widely and pulls out her cell phone. She dials the number and puts the call on speaker. He picks up on the first ring.

“Hey, baby,” he says, dragging out the last word with longing. “I miss you so much.”

“I miss you, too, Leo,” Nollie says, matching his longing. “I have you on speaker and I’m here with my cousin.”

“Hey, Liz,” Leo says, cheerfully. Nollie smiles.

“Not that cousin,” she says, with mirth. “It’s kind of why I’m calling you.” There’s silence for a moment.

“What’s up, baby?” he says, his voice laced with concern.

“It’s not bad,” she says to calm his obviously rising fear, and I hear him sigh on the other end. He’s got it bad. “Is there any reason why I have to come back to Detroit before we fly to Vegas?” Another pause.

“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” he says. “I thought we wanted to fly together.”

“Baby, I just want to get there and marry you—the quickest and easiest way possible. I’m already on the west coast. I should have just gotten a commercial flight from out here straight to Vegas instead of flying all the way back to Detroit just to get back on a plane and fly back…”

“I thought you wanted to thumb your nose at your Dad when you got on the plane with me,” Leo protests.

“The fact that I’m not in attendance for him to ignore when he comes to pick up Golden Boy will be enough thumbing for me,” she replies. Golden Boy… that sounds spiteful. “Besides, I have filthy, stinking rich cousins who hate my father and would love nothing more than to put me on a private jet straight for Vegas!” I laugh out loud at the “filthy, stinking rich” description.

“Really?” he asks, his voice rising an octave. “No waiting until you get back to Detroit?”

“No waiting, baby. You say the word and my cousin says it can be arranged.”

“Oh my God how soon can they get you there?” he asks all in one breath. She giggles and looks at me.

“How soon do you want her there?” I say into the phone. “I’m Ana, by the way, one half of the filthy-stinking-rich-cousin couple.”

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Ana,” Leo says. “I assume it might take a little fancy footwork to get the jet ready and for my girl to make her excuses to her family. So, I’ll just leave it up to you guys and you just let me know. I’ll be on the first available bird as soon as you say the word.” I nod to Nollie.

“I’ll let you know as soon as I do. I love you!” Nollie says.

“I love you, too, baby. I’ll be waiting for your call.” They end the call and she looks at me.

“So, take a breath and compose yourself, then we’ll go on in and talk to my husband.” She nods while clutching her phone. She’s like a kid at Christmas.

“What about Burt?” I ask, noting the Golden Boy comment. “How’s your relationship?”

“My father’s golden boy?” she says with a small bit of disdain. “It was strained for years, but then he saw how our father drew a line in the sand between us and he tried to make up for it. Unfortunately, your brother can’t make up for your father refusing to be a father. We’re okay, though. We’re great friends and I know it wasn’t Burt’s fault.” She sighs. “By the way, I’m changing my name… from Nolanda to Yolanda.” I frown.

“You hate the name that much?” she nods.

“It’s not my name,” she says. “It’s his first-born son’s name, the one that he never had. It’s not mine. Mom says that she suggested Yolanda when he said Nolanda, and I like Yolanda. Like I said, Nolanda is a boy’s name with a feminine suffix. It’s sloppy seconds! I won’t go through life with that stamp.”

“You said everyone calls you Nollie, though,” I point out. “Won’t the new name confuse your husband?”

He doesn’t call me Nollie,” she says. “He calls me Lanie. And the moment I go to change my married name to Carpathia, I’ll be changing my first name to Yolanda.” I smile.

“It’s a whole new life for you,” I say, “and I have a feeling that you’re well overdue.” She sighs heavily and looks at the sky, the sun starting to set over the water. When she brings her gaze back to mine, they’re glassy with unshed tears.

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” she says, her voice shaking. We finish our drinks and head back to the house.


CHRISTIAN

I hear conversations going on around me and I’m doing my best to focus on what everyone is saying. I’ve gleaned a few important points from a few conversations…

Freeman’s wife will most likely be leaving him.

All of Uncle Herman’s children are married and have families of their own.

Everybody was really happy to see Dad again and meet the cousins they never knew.

Some of my extended cousins have the hots for me.

I’m fairly certain that Courtney and Vickie were fucking in the treehouse. At the very least, they were making out.

Burton is gay.

Elizabeth and Nolanda are very close even though Nolanda is a few years older than Elizabeth.

Uncle Herman will fly back to Detroit with Uncle Stan next week—just for moral support—to give Pops’ remains to Freeman. I’m letting them take the jet.

Speaking of the jet…

“Christian, I have something to ask you.” My wife and Nolanda approach me during my introspection at the fireplace.

“Yes, what is it?”

“Nollie has a dilemma and I offered our services to assist her. I know I should have consulted you first, but I felt that you wouldn’t mind since she’s family.”

Oh, God. Is my newfound family going to start mooching off of me already?

“I’m listening…”

My wife explains the entire situation to me and her offering the jet to Nolanda to fly to Vegas sometime in the next twenty-four hours. I look at her impassively, prompting Nolanda to speak up.

“It’s okay, Ana,” she says with no malice. “I can take the flight back to Detroit.”

“No, no, I’m just thinking,” I say.

“Don’t panic. That’s his ‘pondering’ face,” Butterfly assures her. Nolanda starts to wring her hands.

“I don’t mean to impose,” she says, nervously. “Ana suggested it and… I… just…” I hold up my hand to halt her stammering.

“No… it’s not…” Now, I’m stammering. “Herman and Stan are taking the jet sometime this week to take Pops’ ashes back to Detroit. I just want to make sure the trips aren’t too close together.” Her eyebrows rise.

“Oh,” she says, her voice a few octaves higher than before. “You mean… you don’t mind?”

Mind? Let me think about this. My cousin, Freeman’s daughter, effectively hates him. She’s not only running away to get married without his knowledge, permission, or participation, but she’s also marrying a rich man—seemingly Freeman’s worst nightmare—and I get to facilitate that. Hmmm… one more moment please…” Butterfly gently punches me in my arm.

“Stop torturing the girl,” she says, playfully. “So, when are Herman and Stan supposed to be taking Pops back to Detroit?”

“I don’t know, but either way, I have to get that plane ready to fly.” I put my finger up to tell her to give me a minute while I call Jason.

“Yes, sir,” he answers.

“Jason, can you please call the hangar and tell them that the jet needs to be ready to take off anywhere in the next twelve to twenty-four hours? It’ll be a trip to Vegas and immediate flight back. Also, let them know to be on standby for a similar trip to Detroit in the next couple of days. Let me know about the Detroit round trip. I don’t know if it’ll be overnight or not. I want one of the security staff prepared to go with Herman, too. He’s going with Stan for moral support, but I don’t want any problems out of Freeman.”

“Understood, sir.” I end the call and turn around to my wife and cousin. “So, when did you intend to fly to Las Vegas?” I ask.

“Well, I was leaving with Burt to catch the noon flight back to Detroit Metro tomorrow. I would say anytime tomorrow would be fine. My fiancé is just waiting for the word and we’ll be on our way to our new life.” I text Jason to make sure the jet is ready to fly to Vegas by noon. She’ll go to the airport with Burt, but that’s where they will part ways.

“What are you going to tell Burt?” Butterfly asks.

“I’ll say my goodbyes at the airport so that he doesn’t have time to tell the almighty father,” she says. “By the time my father knows anything, I’ll already be in Vegas probably sipping a cocktail at some fancy hotel.”

“Do you need me to get you a room?” I ask her. She smiles.

“Let me see what Leo has up first,” she says. “He’ll probably want to plan something himself.” I nod.

“Does Burt have a boyfriend?” I ask, not thinking about how inappropriate the question was before it came out of my mouth. Nolanda raises her eyebrow at me before she speaks.

“See?” she says. “The only person who doesn’t seem to want to accept that fact is my father. Every time Burt tries to tell him, he changes the subject—like if he doesn’t hear it, it won’t be true.” She shakes her head.

“I wasn’t trying to pry,” I qualify. “I was only asking because once he gets back to Detroit, he’s going to be the object of your father’s discontent. It’s my understanding that he’s still living at home.”

“He is,” Nolanda confirms.

“Well, he may need somewhere to go, at least for the night.” She nods.

“I’ll ask him when we say goodbye tomorrow…”

*-*

We make plans for Nolanda to be on the jet at noon, right after Burt boards the plane. The rest of the family had already booked later flights or flights for Monday to return to Detroit. I ask Nolanda if she’s concerned about Burt’s safety. She’s convinced that Freeman will only dote even more on his Golden Boy once she gone. Although she tries to convince me that her and Burt’s relationship is fine, her reference to him shows that their relationship has taken an obvious beating.

I want so badly to make love to my wife tonight, but I can’t get in the right mindset to even try. Noting my inability to connect with my amorous side, she snuggles in bed with me, wrapping her body around me and caressing my scalp in that way that she does. I must have unknowingly been exhausted, because in moments, I’m asleep.

I’m awakened by the ringing of my cell phone and the sun shining in my eyes from the window. We forgot to close the curtains before we fell asleep. The bed is empty and I wonder where my wife has snuck off to.

“Hello,” I answer in a groggy voice without even looking at the caller ID.

“Sir, the jet is ready. They just need instructions from you.” It’s Jason. I look at my watch. Shit, it’s 9:30. Burt and Nolanda will need to get to the airport soon.

“Okay,” I reply. “The flight should be around noon. It’ll be my cousin, Nolanda Grey.”

“Yes, sir,” Jason says and we end the call. I sit up and throw my legs over the edge of the bed. It’s now that I realize just how much I drank in my maudlin state yesterday because my head is hurting and swimming and I didn’t even know that I was drunk.

“Fuck, not today,” I lament. I go to the en suite and turn on the shower, vainly searching the medicine cabinet for aspirin or ibuprofen. Finding none, I let the warm water run on my scalp and help to clear some of my foggy brain. Of course, thoughts of Pops flood my thoughts and I have a hard time controlling my emotions. There’s no one here right now, so I just let the tears fall and mingle with the shower water. I so wanted to hope that some miracle would happen and he wouldn’t be taken away from us. I wanted to be so much stronger when the inevitable happened, but seeing my father and his brothers break down after the cremation wiped every bit of fortitude I had left in me. The rest of the night is a bit of a blur except for preparing the jet and falling asleep with my wife.

I don’t want a bigger headache than I already have, so I stop crying, wash my hair and body, and get out of the shower. I put on a T-shirt and jeans with socks and sneakers and go in search of a hangover cure.

The house looks like a tomb. I make my way to the kitchen where Mrs. Thompson is cooking something.

“Well, you look like you’ve had a hard night. Do you want something to eat?” she says. I shake my head.

“Tell me we’ve got something for a headache,” I say, sitting at the breakfast bar and putting my head down on the counter. I hear some rustling around and a few moments later, a cold glass is set next to me. I raise my head to see Mrs. Thompson holding out a bottle towards me.

Ibuprofen.

“You angel from heaven,” I say, taking the bottle and immediately swallowing two pills with no water.

“Drink the water,” she scolds, “all of it.”

“It’s too late for water,” I reply, my voice gravelly.

“Humor me,” she says as she takes the bottle of pills from me. I lift my head and down the water in four or five swallows—before she turns back around—and put my head back down on the counter.

“Where’s the water?” I hear her say.

“I drank it,” I mutter. I know she doesn’t believe me and I see her in my mind’s eye looking around to see what I did with the water. “I drank it,” I repeat, holding my head up to show her my wet lip. She nods.

“Well, I don’t know how you drank it so quickly, but I’m glad that you did.” She takes the glass away and I put my head back down. “Tough day yesterday, huh?” she asks. I nod.

“No walk in the park,” I say. “Where is everybody?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “No one has come down except for your wife and the Jamaican nanny. I’m sorry, I don’t know her name…”

“Keri,” I mumble.

“Okay, Keri. She came down a little while ago to warm some milk and a little while later, Ana left with one of the guards to go for a run, I think.”

A run? Butterfly doesn’t run.

“Who did she leave with, do you know?” I ask. Mrs. Thompson shrugs.

“Christian, you know I only know Gail and Jason,” she chastises. “Short blonde hair, blue eyes… I’ve seen him with her before.”

“Chuck,” I say as I hear someone come into the kitchen.

“Hey, you’re awake.” Butterfly says as she puts her hand gently on my back. “You don’t look so good.”

“Thanks,” I say. “Why didn’t you wake me? I would have run with you.”

“Run with me?” she asks, bemused. “Christian, you know I don’t run.”

“Mrs. Thompson was under the impression that you went for a run.” I look up at Chuck and realize that he’s also in a T-shirt and sweats. That’s probably why Mrs. Thompson thought they were going running.

“No, Chuck took me to the gym,” I tell him. “I have a trial membership there until we go back home, at which time I’ll be making some changes to our own gym.” She gently scratches my scalp and I don’t know if the ibuprofen is kicking in or if she has the magic touch, but I immediately begin to feel relief, causing me to groan. “You slept like the dead,” she says softly.

“I was drunk,” I confess. She pauses her hand only a moment, then continues.

“You were?”

“Um-hmm,” I mumble, relishing the feel of her delicate hand on my scalp.

“Do you remember the discussion about the jet?” she asks cautiously.

“Um-hmm,” I mumble. “Jason called and woke me. He knows it needs to be ready for flight by noon.” I hear dishes set on the counter next to me.

“Eat,” Mrs. Thompson says. “Don’t argue.” Dry toast and orange juice. She’s always been like another mother to me ever since she came to work for my parents. I pick up a piece of toast and take a bite out of it. She’s right, I need to eat it.

“I’m going to jump in the shower really quick. Nollie and Burt will be here any minute. She told him that we wanted to take them to the airport to say goodbye.” I nod. She leaves and Chuck is still standing there. He takes a seat next to me, causing Mrs. Thompson to look at him strangely. She’s never seen me mingle with the help.

Only he’s more than just the help.

“I’m going to ask her to marry me,” he says, his hands folded in front of him. I look over at him.

“No shit?” I say, before taking another bite of my toast. He nods.

“I wanted to wait until after we knew for sure that she had a permanent situation and that she wasn’t pregnant, so that she can know that I want to marry her because I love her and I want to spend my life with her, not because I want her to stay in the country.” I nod.

“Do you plan to get married right away?” I ask. He shrugs.

“I’m not trying to rush to the altar, but I’ll do whatever she wants as long as she says ‘yes.’ She wants to wait a while, I’ll wait a while. She wants to be Mrs. Davenport tomorrow, I’ll take her to Vegas and marry her tomorrow,” he declares. I drink some my juice and my head is starting to feel much better, still throbbing a bit and full of thoughts of Pops, but this conversation is helping to distract me.

“What if she wants a big wedding? In Anguilla?”

“Then that’s what she’ll get,” he says, firmly. “She’s going to be my wife. I’ll give her anything she wants.”

“You’re so certain that she’ll say yes?” I question. He sighs.

“I believe the only reason she didn’t agree before is because she thought I was asking as a means to an end,” he points out. “I love her and I know that she loves me. If she says ‘no,’ I’ll wait for a few more months and ask her again. I’ll keep asking her until she finally agrees.” I raise an eyebrow at him.

“Persistent,” I say. “Have you decided when you’re going to ask?” He shakes his head.

“I haven’t planned anything elaborate, but I’ve got the ring in case the moment just feels right.” I finish my toast and juice.

“Can I get you anything, young man?” Mrs. Thompson asks Chuck. He smiles warmly at her.

“No, ma’am, but thank you,” he says to her before turning back to me. “I need to go shower, too. I took the opportunity to do some free weights while Ana worked out.” He stands from his stool and pats me on the back. “Oh!” he adds. “Mom and I got our court date.” I frown at him.

“What court date?” I ask.

“Against Joe,” he says. “There’s a judge that’s actually going to hear the case.” My eyes widen.

“You’re kidding? Seriously?” I respond.

“Somebody else, somewhere thinks what he did was bullshit.” Chuck shrugs before leaving the room.

*-*

“You’re what?” Burt asks his sister just before he’s about to board the plane.

“I’m not going back,” Nolanda says. “I’m miserable in Detroit. Dad doesn’t want me and Mom has her own issues with him, so I’m going to start a new life out here.” She just says out here, she doesn’t elaborate that she means the west coast.

“I…” Burt is at a loss for words. “What about…” He still can’t find his words.

“Are you worried about telling Dad?” she asks. “If you are, you don’t have to. Just tell him that I wouldn’t get on the plane.”

“It’s not that,” he says. “I mean, I know Dad will be mad, but…” He pauses and looks up at his sister. “This is my only chance to say goodbye.”

Nolanda smiles sadly at her brother, then pulls him into a warm embrace. He hugs her back and closes his eyes tight, a single tear escaping.

“Don’t be silly, Burtie,” she says. “You’re acting like you’ll never see me again. I’ll keep in touch and you will see me. I love you. Our father just won’t.”

“You’re never going to see Dad again?” Burt asks. She shakes her head.

“He’s never been Dad to me,” she confesses. “He never once showed me love… or kindness… or pride. I never had a Daddy and strangely enough, I don’t miss it. I wasn’t supposed to be here and he made that clear. Now, he doesn’t have to deal with his mistake anymore.” Burt shakes his head, tears flowing freely now.

“You are not a mistake!” he nearly barks. “You’re my sister! And I love you!”

“And I love you, too, Burtie,” she says. “You can come to me for anything. I’ll be changing my number, but as soon as I do, I’ll make sure that you always know how to reach me.” She hugs him again as they call for seating for his flight again.

“It was a really dirty thing you did,” he sobs into her shoulder, “waiting until the last minute to tell me.”

“I know,” she admits, “and I’m sorry. I just couldn’t have you trying to convince me to go back and talk to our father. There’s nothing more to say. Trust me, Dad won’t miss me and I’ll call and explain everything to Mom once I’m settled. Then you can come out and see me whenever you want and we can still talk all the time.” He pushes his head off her shoulder and nods.

“I don’t want you to do this, Nollie,” he says, his voice still shaking, “but somehow, I know that you have to.”

“I do, Burt,” she says, gently cupping his wet cheek. “I really do. Now go, before you miss your flight. We’ll talk soon, I promise.” He hugs her again and kisses her on the cheek before walking quickly to the gate and showing the attendant his boarding pass. He doesn’t look back as he boards the plane. Nollie sighs heavily and turns to look at me and Butterfly.

“I’ve got a jet to catch,” she says, tears rimming her glassy eyes.


A/N: Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

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~~love and handcuffs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 8—Bruised, Broken, and Distressed

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 8—Bruised, Broken, and Distressed

ANASTASIA

My husband has avoided my presence ever since Pops’ energy boost waned on Friday and the rest of the family is sulking around in maudlin silence. Early on Tuesday morning, the all-points-bulletin was released through the house.

“Come quickly,” Grace says softly to everyone at the breakfast table. “I’m fairly certain Burt is leaving us.”

And where’s my husband?

Those of us at the breakfast table make our way up to Pops’ room. I’m relieved to find Christian there with Carrick, Herman, and Stanley. Pops looks frail and he’s gasping for air. He doesn’t look like he’s suffering, just like he was holding out until we were all here. Val has Mikey in her arms and Minnie is in the body wrap on my chest.

Yes, Pops, we’re all here.

He opens his eyes and looks around, then he closes them and quietly releases a long breath. Almost instantly, Mikey and Minnie both begin to cry simultaneously, causing Christian to turn his head and glare at me. I almost can’t breathe. It’s like I felt his essence leave the room and I’m suddenly sick to my stomach. The hospice nurse quietly walks over to Pops and checks for breath sounds in his chest with her stethoscope. She then checks for a radial pulse in his wrist, then again for a carotid pulse. She takes a deep breath and looks up at Herman.

“You can make that call,” she says softly. “He’s gone. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Mia starts to weep as the nurse removes Pops’ oxygen mask. Carrick sits there staring at his father’s body as Grace stands near him, her hands on his shoulders. The twins are utterly inconsolable. Stanley is the first after the hospice nurse to touch his father’s body—now quite peaceful and no longer suffering. He leans down and kisses his father on the forehead, a single tear falling onto Pops’ cheek.

“Hang loose, Dad,” Stanley says softly. “Hang loose.”

“You were right,” a familiar voice growls. “Are you satisfied now?” he snarls. That’s my husband… and he’s looking at me. I’m so taken aback, I don’t even know how to react to this.

“What?” is the only thing I can muster.

“You said he was dying and now, he’s dead. You were right. Are you happy now?” He’s… angry with me. It’s like he thinks Pop’s died because I said it, not because his kidneys have been failing for years!

“What are you talking about?” I ask, horrified, tears of grief and confusion falling down my cheeks. “He didn’t die because I said he was dying. He’s been dying for months. You brought his son out to see him. You knew this was coming!”

“He was getting better!” Christian accuses. “He was strong and breathing clearly! He was sitting up talking! Planning Mia’s wedding! Then you said he was dying and he died!”

“Christian!” Grace chastises him. “Stop this! Burt was dying long before Ana said anything! No one is to blame for this…”

But the damage is already done. The disdain in his eyes tells me that I might as well have climbed on Pops’ chest and suffocated him with a pillow while everyone watched as far as Christian is concerned. I finally break. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take his hatred and his contempt anymore. I’ve taken it for several days… more than a week, and I can’t take it anymore. He’s not thinking rationally and I know this—the mental health professional in me knows that this is grief and denial talking, but the spurned wife can’t take it anymore.

I leave the room and lean on the wall next to the door. I can’t breathe and there are shooting pains in my chest. I’m grabbing my breast, trying to make the pain stop, but it won’t. I hear my babies crying. I see Val in my face and she’s saying something, but I can’t hear her. I see Mia in front of me, tears in her eyes and her hands on Minnie, still strapped to my body.

“Catch the baby,” I hear someone say. It’s Elliot. Strong arms catch me, but they’re not my husband’s… that’s the last thing I remember.

I awake in Mia’s bed. Val is the first face I see, then Mia. No Christian.

“Anxiety attack,” I squeak. Mia nods.

“Yep,” she says.

“Why am I in here?” I ask. Mia rolls her eyes.

“Because my brother’s being an asshole,” she says. I frown.

“In what way?” I question.

“He’s locked his bedroom door,” she says. He’s not even in there, but…”

“I can’t go in either,” I finish her sentence. “He’s locked me out of the bedroom.” Mia bites her lip, but doesn’t answer. I rub my forehead with one hand and my scar with the other. “I need to be alone for a while,” I say without raising my head.

“Okay,” I hear Val say. A few moments later, I hear them leave the room and I do the only thing I know to do.

I pray.

I ask God for strength through this and to guide me in what I should be doing. I thought I was doing the right thing by telling him the truth, but it has all backfired on me. What if Grace had told him this before I did? Would he now be shunning her? I have no idea what direction my heart should go and I’m just too tired to figure it out.

I stay in Mia’s bed until well after nightfall, partially wishing that Christian would come to me. Of course, he doesn’t. I get out of bed and go past the bedroom we had been sharing before I opened my big mouth. It’s still locked. I descend the stairs and see that the house is deserted. By now, Pops has been removed and taken to the funeral home and everyone has continued with their day… and evening. I pass the dining room to see that Elliot, Val, and my husband are all there having dinner.

They don’t see me, thank God.

I quietly slip out the French doors to the backyard and walk across the lawn to the gazebo. I look up at the stars and daydream about a more peaceful time… like our anniversary a little over a week ago. God, he was so attentive and so sweet. I curl my knees up to my chest and think about him holding me and kissing me that night. He was playful on the dance floor and we had so much fun. Maybe I should call Chuck to come and get me? I could go back to the Crossing… that feels a lot like running away, though… and the twins are asleep. I can’t leave my babies. I just have to tough it out.

Every corner of that house feels like it’s full of his animosity. Hell, I don’t even know where I’m going to sleep because Stan took the last guest bedroom. I’ll find somewhere to sleep, but for right now, I just want to think about happier times and get lost in the memories and the cool night breeze…

The sun is burning through my eyelids. I open my eyes to discover that I’m still on the gazebo. Fuck, did I sleep out here? I try to stretch, but my body aches too much. I go back into the house and climb the stairs. I try the bedroom door on the off chance that it might be unlocked.

It’s not.

I knock on Mia’s bedroom door, and she opens it, examining me curiously.

“I hope I didn’t disturb you,” I say, groggily. “I’m still locked out of the bedroom. May I please borrow your shower and some clothes?” She frowns deeply.

“Come in here,” she says, pulling me into the room. “I’m going to strangle my fucking brother…”

I feel refreshed once I finish my shower, but I still feel my husband’s animosity floating through the air towards me. We’re connected that way, and I can feel his anger. I try to ignore it… try to be strong… try to be available in a professional capacity for the family if anyone needs to talk, but no one really needs me. Everyone has coupled up and are leaning on each other for support. Even Stanley’s wife flew out and arrived this morning to be with him. Everybody has support, but me… nobody needs me, not even my husband.

That night, I’m back on the gazebo again, but this time, I just go out to call my daddy. I’m lonely and I need someone to love me, so I talk to him and tell him everything that happened. He tells me that men don’t really know how to deal with grief and emotion and that my husband will come around soon. He doesn’t know my husband. Christian can hold a grudge like Atlas holds the sky… or the earth… or whatever he’s holding. It’s late when I finish my call with Daddy, and I feel a little better, but still quite lonely…

“Ana! Ana, wake up!”

“Huh?” I squeeze my eyes together and then open them, the sunlight burning my pupils. It’s cold and I fell asleep on the gazebo again. Grace wraps something around me and I awake a little more, snuggling into the warmth of what’s covering me.

“How long have you been out here?” she asks, handing me a cup of coffee. I deliberately don’t answer, but take a sip of the deliciously warm coffee. My silence doesn’t get by her.

“Please tell me you haven’t slept out here,” she says. I don’t respond. “Ana…!” She sounds like a mother would… a scolding mother…

“His hatred is all over the house,” I squeak, my throat dry from breathing the night air. “I can’t stand it. We’re connected, Grace. We’ve always been connected, almost since the first day that I met him. He hates me right now… and my soul feels that. It can’t take it.”

“He doesn’t hate you, Ana,” she says, softly, as I drink more of the delicious coffee. “He’s hurt and confused and mourning right now. He’s angry that Burt is gone, but he doesn’t hate you.” I shake my head.

“Our souls don’t know the difference,” I murmur. “He’s locked me out of the bedroom.” Grace raises her eyebrow.

“Since when?” she asks.

“Since Pops died.” Grace pauses.

“Ana, that was two days ago. Where have you been sleeping?” I’m silent again. “Have you been sleeping on the gazebo for two nights?” she asks horrified.

“It was an accident the first time,” I defend, “I was looking at the stars and I feel asleep.”

“And last night?”

“I was talking to Daddy,” I say. Her face becomes stern.

“I’ve had enough of this!” she declares. “I’m going to talk to my hard-headed son.” I panic immediately.

“Please don’t. Please don’t,” I beg her. “He’s going to take it that we’re ganging up on him that I tattled on him or something it’s going to make a bad matter worse please don’t say anything to him please don’t…” She grabs my arms.

“Okay! Okay!” she says to stop my rambling. “Get in the house right now and don’t you dare sleep out here again or all bets are off!” I nod.

I get a glimpse of him today. He looks fine, like everything is okay… until he sees me. Then all the disdain returns, and I can’t be in the same house with him again. That’s it. I’m packing up my twins, I’m calling Chuck, and I’ll tell him to take us back to the Crossing. I’ll have to wait until everyone is asleep because if I don’t, it’ll cause commotion around the entire house and somebody might try to stop me. At lunch, I tell Val my plan and ask her to help me. I swear her to secrecy and tell her that we’ll pack the twins’ things after everyone goes to sleep, the last thing we move being the twins. Hearing them stir in the night won’t disturb anyone because that’s expected.

So… just after dinner, I call Chuck and tell him that I’ll ring him when I’m ready to go and to be on standby. I give Val the same instructions. Then I go back to my peaceful spot on the gazebo and let the tears fall, waiting for everyone to fall asleep.


CHRISTIAN 

Three days post-Pops… It seems like I had just fallen asleep when loud banging and commotion awaken me from the hallway. I take a moment to focus and realize that the banging is at my door.

“Open the goddamn door, Christian!” Elliot’s angry voice rips through the fog that is my head. The pounding won’t stop and now I hear Mom’s complaining voice, but he’s still banging on my door. I’m going to rip his Adam’s Apple right out of his goddamn throat! I climb out of the bed and snatch the door open so hard that he nearly falls into the room.

“What. Do you want?” I hiss.

“Do you know where the fuck your wife is, man?” he growls right back at me, unfazed by my anger. I narrow my eyes at him, but don’t answer. “She’s on the goddamn gazebo. She’s been sleeping out there for the last three nights since you locked her out of your bedroom. My wife went looking for her when the babies started crying…”

“Oh, no, not again,” Mom laments.

What? Again? What?  

I think the thickness of his anger shocks me out of mine more than anything. I’m horrified, though, when I replay his words…

She’s been sleeping out there for the last three nights since you locked her out of your bedroom…

Then Mom’s…

Oh, no, not again…

I have immediate flashbacks of my wife sleeping at the Crossing when it was just a construction site. I can see her in my mind’s eye, coming from the house, grasping her belly with sawdust in her hair, then falling to the ground wailing and grabbing handfuls of gravel from the unfinished driveway.

My family is saying something, but I can’t hear them. I grab the pair of pants nearest to my hand and a T-shirt from the floor and take off down the stairs without any shoes. When I get to the first floor, I dash out the French doors to the backyard and run to the gazebo.

She’s not going to be there. She’s not going to be there. She’s not going to be there.

Sure enough, there she is—lying on the floor in the fetal position in the same clothes she was wearing yesterday. She has added a sweater to her ensemble, which is pulled tightly around her. Her hands are under her face acting as her pillow, and she’s shivering in her sleep on the cold, hard wood. It may be the middle of July, but the nights are fucking cold.

I go over to her and sit next to her. The cold from the floor is brutal. I brush her hair out of her face and her skin is so damn cold that if I didn’t see the shivering, I would think that she was dead. And she slept out here. Why did she sleep out here?

Why did you lock her out of your bedroom, asshole? Out of your bed? Your fucking heart? This is probably the farthest she could get from your intolerable ass without leaving the grounds completely!

I reach down and embrace her, scooping her into my arms.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow…” is her only protest as she responds most likely to cold and aching bones before she falls right back to sleep in my arms. I simply turn off my thoughts and carry her back into the house under the watchful eyes of my family, then up the stairs to my childhood bedroom before closing and locking the door behind us. I lay her gently in the bed without removing her clothes and cover her with the comforter. She mindlessly snuggles under the blanket, pulling it up around her neck, but still shivering from the cold. She never opens her eyes, never fully awakens. Her every movement is instinct and reflex, even that shuddering breath that lets me know that she must have been crying not an hour ago.

I lay in the bed next to her, examining her face. I gently brush the hair away from her eyes and just watch her. I’ve looked at her more than once and saw my whole life in her eyes, but for some reasons—reasons that I can’t explain even now—for the last several days, I looked in her face and only saw my grandfather’s death. Every time I saw her, his death was completely her fault and I don’t know why. It seems so clear now that it was utterly ridiculous, but at the time, it’s what I saw and I don’t know why. I stare at her for long moments, I don’t even know how long. I just want to see her at peace after seeing her lying on the floor of the gazebo and knowing that she had done this for three days—shivering, uncomfortable, lonely, and unhappy.

She never moved. She’s sleeping so hard that the sun has changed position in the sky, and I still don’t know what time it is. Noon, maybe? I climb out of bed and sit at my childhood desk. I take out my blackberry and dial a number that I should have dialed well before now.

“This is Sherrill Baker.” I sigh.

“Dr. Baker, it’s Christian Grey.”

“Christian! It’s been a while… and you’re calling me, so this can’t be good.”

“No, it’s not good at all…” Dr. Baker and I have limited our sessions to as needed now since she feels that I’ve made the kind of progress that I’ve needed to make, so constant therapy isn’t necessary.

But right now, it’s desperately needed.

“Do you have a moment?” I ask.

“Only a moment,” she says. “I was about to go to lunch.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t want to disturb your lunch. We can talk another time.”

“No, we can’t because you don’t call me anymore. Now, what’s the problem?” I sigh.

“I have to cremate my grandfather tomorrow,” I say. I hear her sigh, then the sound of a door opening.

“Viv, order lunch in for me, please, and hold all calls and appointments until I give you the word,” she says away from the phone. The door closes and it sounds like her breath releases, like she’s sitting down. “I see. Please continue.”

“Pops passed away from end stage renal disease, which means this was a long time coming. Yet, when he finally made his transition, I blamed my wife.” The line is quiet for a split second.

“Why did you blame Ana?” she asks, clearly without an answer.

“I’m not sure,” I reply. “I knew that my grandfather was dying, but right before he passed, everything was okay for a little while. He was better than we had seen him since he moved to Seattle. We thought he was going to get up out of the bed and start dancing!”

“Oh,” Dr. Baker acknowledges, “the final energy boost.” I nod as if she can see me.

“That’s what Ana said,” I tell her. “She tried to tell me not to get my hopes up, but I wouldn’t listen. Pops was doing well and I wanted to hold on to that—but then, he wasn’t, and I felt like it was her fault for what she said. I’ve never had any experience with death, unless you count my biological mother and I was only four years old at the time. I knew that he was dying; we all knew that he was dying. We all moved back to my parents’ house for about a month in solidarity, so that we could all comfort each other when we lost Pops and there would be no need for those dreaded calls to loved ones. I even arranged for my Uncle Stanley to fly here from Detroit so that he could see his father before he died… yet, when he did, I blamed my wife. He was okay… he was well… and for a brief moment, I believed in miracles…”

My head is down and my eyes are closed. I only pay attention to this fact because I feel wetness on the hand in my lap. I open my eyes to see several drops of moisture on my clenched fist. I reach up and touch my face and realize that I’m crying. I’m broken-hearted. I’m afraid that this experience has caused me to lose faith in all good things—including my ever-supportive, beautiful wife.

“The logical part of me knows that my wife had nothing to do with my grandfather’s death, but my heart and mind wants to blame somebody for this! I don’t want to feel like fate and the universe played this cruel joke on me by giving my grandfather—healthy, whole, and completely lucid—for three days, only to snatch him away from me and let him die anyway!” I’m talking through my teeth and my tears, my chest burning and aching from anger and the sense of loss and… betrayal.

“I need you to listen to me, Christian,” Dr. Baker says, her voice soothing. “You’re at a dangerous point in your grief. You’re going to want to blame more than just Ana for what has happened and you need to be able to pull through this situation with your logical mind. You’re a powerful man and you can make things happen, and right now, you’re blaming the people closest to you because they’re easy targets, but you’re going to come to a point in your grief where you’re going to be blaming people who aren’t close to you, people that you really don’t care about. When that happens, you may be tempted to seek retribution for what you think could have been done to prevent your grandfather’s death, even though your logical mind knows that all avenues that could have been explored have been explored.

“You’re one of my most complex patients, Christian, and I know that I can’t mince words with you. When you find yourself at the point where you want to blame someone or you want to take action, I need you to come back to this place. I need you to understand that when nothing else makes sense, this thing really does. Your grandfather was sick, he couldn’t be saved, and when Death calls, there’s no negotiating. He’s not making any deals. He’s the final collection agency, and he’s taking what he came for. Do you clearly understand what I’m saying to you, Christian?”

“Yes,” I say, weeping. Pops is dead. It’s nobody’s fault. Short of buying a black-market kidney, he had no hope and he didn’t want that. He made his choice. He left on his own terms. Dr. Baker and I talk for several more minutes before I end the call. Then I sit and cry for a little while longer. I had him for a year. I should be grateful for that, but I’ll have to be grateful some other time. Right now, I’m crushed. I’m so hurt that I can’t see or think straight and I just need to sit here and cry.

After several minutes, I turn my attention to Butterfly’s back. I can tell by her breathing that she’s awake now. I pull myself up and go to the en suite, closing the door behind me. I begin to draw a warm bath, pouring some of her familiar citrus bubble bath into the water. I thoroughly wash my face with cold water before going back into the bedroom.

Without a word, I uncoil her from the covers. She doesn’t fight me as I slowly remove her clothes from yesterday. When she’s naked, I scoop her up in my arms and carry her to the en suite. I dip her toes in the water and let her test the temperature. When she approves, I sit her gingerly in the water. We’re both silent as I clean her from head to toe, starting with washing and conditioning her hair, and finishing by making sure every bit of the cold from the gazebo has been washed from her skin. I finally break the silence, telling her to soak for a few more moments to release the ultimate cold from her bones as I go back to the room to find her something to wear. Instead, I find myself back at my childhood desk, weeping… again.


ANASTASIA

The water feels so good. I sit here and soak in the warmth and luxuriousness, contemplating how I got here.

I’m watching the stars for a third night in a row, vowing not to fall asleep on the gazebo. I get lost in stars much like I get lost in the water, only Atlantis isn’t here to take away my troubles. It and my beloved butterfly fish, Marty, are back at the Crossing. So, I’m forced to find comfort in another endless visual body—the celestial body of stars. It helps me forget that my husband is not in control of his emotions right now, but that I nonetheless am unable to stand idly by and observe the hatred in his eyes when he sees me.

I’m hiding, I know it, but anything is better than being ignored by the man that I love. I haven’t neglected our children—I still take care of them, except for the two nights I spent out here on the gazebo. This is what prompted Grace to come looking for me in the first place. When she found me out here on the floor at just about dawn on the second night, I promised her that I didn’t do it on purpose and I wouldn’t do it again.

Now, I’ve done it again.

Even though, I don’t remember how I got into bed, the ache in my muscles, the last shard of cold in my bones, and the absence of malice and anger in my husband’s eyes are enough to tell me that he found me on the gazebo, most likely in the night air, but I can’t remember anything. Being out there in the cold for a long time causes my body to slip into a mild case of hypothermia. When that happens, I sleep a dreamless sleep, unable to remember anything and often unable to be awakened until I’m warmed again to normal body temperature. This can be pretty dangerous if the temperature drops too low, but anything was preferable to being deplored or ignored by my husband and subsequently locked out of his bedroom and denied our marital bed. I didn’t even try the door last night. I knew what I would get.

My intention was to have Chuck come and get me and take me back to the Crossing, but that would mean waking the babies as I had no intention of leaving them behind. I didn’t want to disrupt their little lives that way, nor did I want the entire house in an uproar while I packed up the twins to make an escape. So, I opted to tolerate my suffering which seems so small compared to the loss and confusion that my husband is feeling right now. It’s just that “a few more minutes” on the gazebo turned into “I just can’t risk running into him yet” and subsequently turned into “let me just close my eyes for a minute and enjoy the fresh air.”

The first night, that led to waking when the sun warmed my body enough to release the hypothermia.

The second night, Grace found me out here when she went on a search for the twins’ food manufacturing plant.

The third night, I decided to call Chuck, but I had to wait until everyone was asleep and… well, here I am in a bubble bath after my husband has washed my hair and lovingly scrubbed every inch of my body… but the bath has gone cold, and I’ve spent quite enough time in the cold. I let the water out of the tub and quietly climb out of it, wrapping my hair in a bath towel and my body in a second. I breach the door of the bedroom to find my husband back at his childhood desk, sobbing again. I sigh heavily. I heard most of his conversation with Dr. Baker even though I shouldn’t have. I didn’t want to disturb him and cause him to cut his session short, so I took the lesser of two evils and lay quietly, listening to him pour his feelings out to his therapist and thinking of ways that I could possibly help him through this difficult time, if he’ll allow me. I had already decided to forgive him of his treatment of me, due to grief-driven insanity. Now, I’ll have to find a way to help make him whole again.

I walk over to where he’s sitting, his body shaking with sobs, and simply put my hands on his shoulder. He cries harder for whatever reason, and I almost think that he’s going to burst a blood vessel. Tears begin to stream down my cheeks at his pain and one of my hands instinctively go to his hair in an effort to comfort him. He quickly turns in the desk chair and wraps his arms around me, burying his face in my towel-clad stomach and weeping bitterly. At first, I’m caught off guard, but only for an instant. I cradle my husband’s head in my arms and fold myself over him, wishing I could take his pain away. I dry my tears and focus on him and his hurt as he sobs against my bosom.

After quite some time, his crying finally subsides and he burrows his face into my towel in an effort to dry his tears while I continue to stroke his hair. When he raises his head to me, he looks lost and broken.

“I need you,” he says softly. “I need to be inside of you. I need the pain to go away if only for a moment.”

I look into his eyes and nod, prompting him to stand from the chair and grab me in his hands. Lifting me off the floor, he carries me to his bed and lays me down. He’s hovering over me, looking down at me with sad, bloodshot, gray eyes, begging me to take his pain away. I gently caress his hair and nod, telling him without words that I’ll be whatever he needs me to be right now.

He rises from my body and removes his T-shirt and pants, returning to the bed to undo the towels that cover my hair and body, leaving them both open on the bed. He gazes only momentarily down at my naked body before bringing his eyes back to mine. He places a gentle, chaste kiss on my lips, which was absolutely no indication of what he had planned for me.

Moving his lips from mine, he travels down my body with the same soft kisses, only they’re not as chaste. They’re open-mouthed, like he’s tasting my freshly-bathed skin. It’s not immediately arousing, and I noticed when he kissed me that he wasn’t erect yet—not flaccid, but not erect like I know that my husband can be. He gently courses over my breast, the mound and the nipple, but he doesn’t linger there. He follows my abdomen down, down, down to my pelvis and then to my Mons.

His mouth reaches my core and he begins the ritual of tasting me, slowly at first. His tongue softly explores my crevices, but not in a way to bring me stimulation or satisfaction. He tastes me—the different textures of my skin, the tender meat of my clit versus the pliant meat of my lips and the spongy, moist texture of my opening. I allow him to explore and even enjoy his exploration, still caressing his hair, until his slow and deliberate comfort tasting begins to stimulate me—slow and deep, causing a small stir inside.

I close my eyes and internalize the feeling, something easily done as his skillful tongue softly and slowly causes me to rise. I feel the upsurge in my chest and in my loins as my breath quickens and my hands continue to thrust into his hair—no pulling, just gently combing through his soft curls as he licks and explores me with no rhythm or reason, just random tasting and licking. His hands roam gently over my body—my torso, occasionally my breasts, my hips, my thighs—never staying in one place for long and never holding me down. He grips the sheets as the feeling begins to rise in my hips and I try not to grind his face or pull his hair. The intensity of this gentle, rhythmless massage is so deep, so heavy until…

“Christian…!” I squeak as the orgasm burst through my pelvis, then burns hot and crippling through my core and my chest, causing me to tremble in my torso and all my extremities, unable to make a sound though my mouth is open in the attempt. He continues his gentle tasting until the orgasm finally wanes and I’m able to breathe again. Then he makes his way slowly back up my body, kissing me along the way until he gets to my face. He has nestled himself between my thighs, the head of his erection right at my opening, my legs having crawled up the bed with him and wrapped around his hips, my fingers still tangled in his hair. His eyes meet mine, and they’re not so sad as before. They’re lustful… and desperate.

“I need you,” he breathes, gazing into my eyes. I nod, still breathless from my orgasm and now, his closeness. He slides his arms under my shoulders and cups my head with his large hands. Without breaking eye contact, he slides effortlessly inside of me. I bite my lip and gasp as he enters me. I’m so wet, but he fills me completely. God, I just came, but he feels so good! My breathing is erratic again and I try to control it as he slides in and out of me, over and over, building the burn once again, and never taking his eyes off mine.

“I need you,” he says, again, his voice strained with his arousal and desperation. You have me, I think to myself. I’m yours. I can hardly breathe now as each stroke seems to take away what little breath I pull into my lungs. His strokes are slow and intense, deep and oh, so pleasurable. He’s pushing me higher and higher again with each slow stroke and the intense look in his eye. Oh, God, the feel of his cock against the walls of my core. He feels divine and magnificent, and I want him to kiss me… but he won’t. He just keeps gazing at me, begging me, loving me, his eyes blazing through me like fire.

“I… I… need you…” he breathes, his orgasm now evident in his voice. “I… need you.”

Take me… God, take me, Christian…

His stroke becomes more intense, but his pace remains the same. His pupils dilate and the black almost eclipses his steely gray eyes as they turn almost white around the rims, signifying his nearly unbearable pleasure, even if he hadn’t been stuttering the same three words over and over again…

“I… need you… I ne… need you…”

I feel his knee bend under my hip and his stroke becomes even more intense as he gets the traction he needs, as if that were possible. He reaches behind his head and grabs both of my hands, entwining our fingers and pinning them to the bed as he continues to stroke deep into me.

Oh. Dear. God! Aidez moi…

After several minutes of this exquisite rhythm and torture, I begin to whimper with each stroke right before I explode around him, not daring to move my gaze from his. I’m still rising in this heart-and-pussy-thumping orgasm when he buries his face in my neck and groans deeply as he clenches my hands hard. Each breath is another muffled, agonized groan as he comes hard and long inside of me. I press my head hard back into the pillow and my body firm against his, holding him inside of me with my legs wrapped firmly around his waist, riding through my own intense pleasure and penetrating aftershocks until the jerking of his violent ejaculation finally wanes and calms to a muted throb. He’s panting profusely as his lips repeatedly meet the skin of my neck and shoulder in soft kisses and hot, brushing caresses.

“I need you,” he says, between kisses. “I need you, I need you…”

I know… I’m here… whatever you need, I’m here…


CHRISTIAN

I lay in my childhood bed, holding my wife for hours. I love her… I truly do, and I don’t know what made me shut her out and blame her for Pops’ death. Even now, I can’t even go back in my mind and rationalize why I did that. I still hurt very much over it, but I can’t for the life of me explain why I blamed my wife. She’s been nothing but loving and supportive this whole time and I need her now more than ever, but I shut her out… and I don’t know why.

I felt like hell when Elliot told me that she had been sleeping on the gazebo, and Mom knew. Why didn’t Mom tell me that my wife had been sleeping on the damn gazebo? I can’t blame anyone but myself. I locked her out of my room like a goddamn toddler; out of our bed, out of my heart. I wouldn’t even speak to her. She could have gotten really sick; any number of things could have happened to her out there. Hell, I was so bitter, anything at all could have happened to her and I wouldn’t have even known.

Once again, I can tell by her breathing that she’s not asleep. I’m spooning her, my arms on top of hers around her waist. I caress her hand gently, just because I want to feel her skin under mine.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, and the words sound like shit, not nearly enough…

“I know,” she replies, her voice a whisper, too. I brush my lips against the back of her neck.

“I need you,” I whisper into her skin as I pull her closer against me. “I love you so much. How can you ever forgive me?”

“Because I love you, too, and I know that you’re hurting,” she replies without turning around.

“That’s no excuse,” I retort. “I can’t keep doing this to you. I’m afraid I’ll lose you.” She sighs heavily.

“You’re right,” she says, her voice cracking. “You can’t keep doing this to me… but I love you, and you won’t lose me. I’d never leave you, especially at a time when you need me the most.” She squeaks out the last words and I feel her pain. I don’t have to look at her face to know that she’s crying.

“Please, forgive me, Butterfly.” She burrows backward into my body.

“I do,” she says softly through her tears. “I do forgive you, Christian.”

I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve her, but I thank God that she’s mine. Even when I’m an unmitigated asshole, she still loves me. We lay there for several more minutes, Butterfly weeping softly in my arms and me gently kissing the skin of her shoulder, neck, and back. She calms after a while, but I know my Butterfly. The tears are still falling. I keep repeating phrases to try to ease the ache that I’ve caused:

“I’m a fool…”
“I love you so much…”
“I need you so much…”
“Please forgive me for treating you that way…”
“You’re everything to me…”

Sometime during my confessions, there’s a knock at my bedroom door. We don’t answer. Butterfly doesn’t stir, so I won’t either. We’re naked under the covers and the door is locked. When we don’t answer, the knock repeats, more urgent this time.

“Christian?” My mother’s voice insists. “Open the door. I need to see that you two are alright.”

I have no intention of getting out of this bed, no intention of leaving the warmth of my Butterfly so that Mom can see that we’re alright. I tighten my arm around my wife. If I answer, she’ll just insist that I open the door.

“I have keys to every room in this house, Christian,” she warns. “I’m not afraid to use them.”

Butterfly doesn’t move and neither do I. We need each other right now and we don’t intend to open the door for my mother. She does have keys to every room in the house, though. So, I pull the comforter up over Butterfly’s breasts since we’re facing the door and that would be the first thing my mother sees the moment she walks in.

“Okay, I’m coming in,” she warns, and I hear her key in the lock. I pull my wife closer against me so that I nestle my chin in her neck and lay gently on her head so that we will both be looking at my mother when she enters.

You want to see it, you got it.

I watch the lock turn and Mom opens the door. She freezes, gazing at us both as we gaze back at her.

‘Well, I’m glad you’ve sorted things out,” she says impassively, gesturing to someone beside her. None other than Liona comes wheeling a mobile service into the room. Her eyes scan the room and upon seeing me nestled in my wife’s neck, in bed and obviously naked, her eyes dart to the mobile service she’s pushing into the room. She stops a few feet from the bed, but never raises her head.

“That’s fine, Liona. Thank you,” Mom says. She nods and quickly leaves the room. Mom enters and stands by the service.

“I’m under no misconception what my married children do behind closed doors, but I think that revelation was a bit much for Liona,” she says, shaking her head. “Burt’s service will be at 11:00 tomorrow. I know you like to make your own arrangements for security, but the limos will be here at 10:30 to take the family to the church. It’s late. Eat before it gets cold. Let me know if you need anything.” She throws a knowing look at me before leaving the room and closing the door behind her, using her key to lock it. I kiss Butterfly on her cheek.

“Are you hungry?” I ask softly. She nods.

“I could eat,” she replies. I begrudgingly leave the warmth of our bed and go over to the mobile service, lifting the lids off the plates. Dinner is Caprese chicken and Alfredo and pesto bowtie pasta with snap green beans. I bring a plate over to my wife and she sits up against the headboard. I feed her and myself out of the plate until it’s clean, then start on the second plate. We intermittently sip white wine while we clean the second plate and start on desert—key lime pie. Neither of us says anything until all the plates are both clean, and I put the dishes back on the service.

“Do you need anything from home?” I ask. “Something to wear to the service?” She shakes her head.

“I have a black dress and shoes here,” she says. Of course, she would. We were all preparing for this day.

“Do you want to bring the twins to the service?” I ask. She shakes her head.

“Not unless you do,” she says. “They’re so young…” I nod.

“I agree. They really don’t need to be there.” I pick up my phone and call Jason.

“Yes, sir?” he answers on the first ring.

“We’ve decided not to take the twins to the service tomorrow. The house will basically be empty except for my parents’ staff. Can you arrange for your wife and Keri to be here during that time?” Jason is silent for a moment.

“Sir, my wife and Keri are already here. They’ve been here all day.” I frown.

“Who called them?”

“I did, sir,” he says. “The family is in no condition to take care of the twins and neither were you or Ana. I didn’t misstep, did I?” I sigh.

“Absolutely not,” I respond. “Thank you, Jason. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Another pause.

“You’re welcome, boss,” he says and we end the call.

“Jason is a step ahead of us,” I say to my wife’s inquiring eyes. “Gail and Keri have been here all day.” She nods.

“Worth his weight in gold,” she says. “How did he know?” I shrug.

“Not much gets past Jason,” I say, joining my wife in bed again. “Would you like to watch television or something?” She shakes her head. “What would you like to do?”

“Just lay here in your arms for a while,” she replies. I nod and pull her against my body again.

God, I need her so much.

*-*

The mood is solemn as we assemble in the foyer for the limousines to take us to Pops’ service. Herman and Stan made calls to Detroit over the course of the week to extend an invitation to anyone who wanted to pay last respects before he’s cremated. My understanding is that some of Dad’s family will be at the service, but I don’t know who. Only Stan’s wife, Lana, came immediately and stayed with us, so I don’t know how much more of the family will be in attendance.

While we’re waiting to load into the limousines, the Helping Hands transport van arrives and parks behind the limousines in my parents’ circular driveway. A young girl in neat jeans and a T-shirt with her hair in a simple ponytail exits the driver’s side. You’ve got to be kidding me! They can’t be coming with Center business on today of all days! The girl runs up to the door and enters without knocking. I’m ready to blow a fuse until I see my mother greet her with a warm embrace. Mia, on the other hand, is scowling at the girl, but clings to Ethan’s arm and says nothing.

“Courtney, thank you. It’s good of you to come on such short notice,” Mom says.

“No problem, Ms. Grace,” she replies. “I think the Center can do without me for a day. Where are the girls?”

“Courtney! Will you be staying with us today?” Keri’s accent causes me to turn around. I see her holding Minnie as she approaches Courtney.

Courtney. Courtney. It can’t be!

“Hi, Keri.” She gives Keri a full hug while Keri gives her a one-arm hug. “Yes, I’ll be sitting with Celida and Mariah while Luma goes to the service. Hi, Minnie Mouse,” she says in the sweetest voice as she tickles my giggling baby girl. What the hell? Just last year she came on to my wife and then threatened her, and today, she’s everybody’s best friend? Everybody except Mia, that is.

“Courtney, hi,” I hear my wife’s voice greet her. “I hope you’re not here on Center business. It’s a bad day.” She hands Mikey to Gail and reaches to hug Courtney.

“I know, the worst,” Courtney says, returning Butterfly’s hug. They hug now? Where have I been? “I’m really sorry for the loss. I’m going to stay with the girls so Luma doesn’t have to worry about them.”

“Oh, that’s so kind of you. You’re sure you don’t mind giving up your Saturday for this?” Butterfly says. Courtney shrugs.

“I was at the Center anyway. They’ll be fine without me. Jesse has Myrna and Shel to help out today, so they’re not short-staffed or anything…”

“Court!” I hear a little girl’s voice and Mariah and Celida come running through the house at Courtney.

“Hi, Riah! Lele!” Both girls run to her arms and nearly knock her down. She giggles as they hug her. I gently pull my wife’s elbow over to me.

“Courtney Wilson?” I whisper. She nods. This girl is driving the Helping Hands van and everyone knows who she is. This is not the same brat that came on to my wife at the Adopt-A-Family Affair last winter.

“What the hell happened?” I ask. I knew she was no longer a threat, but I didn’t know she had made this much of a transformation.

“New outlook,” she says. I’m going to have to get the scoop on this new outlook.

“The limos are ready, sir,” Jason says from just inside the front door. Mom hears him and announces that we need to get going, so we all file out of the house. Mom and Dad are in the car with Herman, Luma, Stan, and Lana. Butterfly and I ride with Elliot, Val, Mia, and Ethan. I decide to pick Butterfly’s brain about…

“Courtney?” I ask. She shrugs.

“She lost everything,” Butterfly says. “She decided that she didn’t want to be like her mother, so she’s been quite dedicated at the Center.”

“She’s still a bitch,” Mia says, crossing her legs. I look at Butterfly.

“Why do you think so, Mia?” Butterfly asks.

“She’s got you all fooled,” Mia says. “I see right through that act. ‘Hi Minnie Mouse. Hi Lele.’” She imitates Courtney’s sweet voice. “Once her grandmother gets wind that she’s ‘reformed,’ Helping Hands won’t see her again. She wants everybody to believe that GrandMahMah pulled her trust fund and now she’s suddenly seen the light? None of her snooty friends will deal with her anymore. That’s why she’s slumming with the homeless.”

I feel Butterfly stiffen next to me and I know it’s because of the “slumming with the homeless” statement.

“It might interest you to know,” Butterfly begins firmly, “that I’ve asked her several times to allow me to tell Addy about her progress and she has declined. In fact, she has begged me not to tell her. Not that I’m her champion or anything, but everyone has a reason for the decisions they make, good or bad. And you’ll forgive me for taking issue with your accusation of her ‘slumming with the homeless’ since I found her living in a homeless shelter during the first two weeks that she was working for Helping Hands.”

Oh, hell. Butterfly’s mad.

“Having been homeless myself, I can speak on their behalf when I say that it’s certainly not a choice they make unless the circumstances are dire. And considering the fact that your mother and I spend nearly every day ‘slumming with the homeless’ as you so eloquently put it, you might want to reconsider your terminology when describing our work!”

She folds her arms across her chest like a petulant child and turns her head to look out the window. I turn my gaze to Mia, who looks like she’s been hit in the stomach.

“I’m… I’m sorry, Ana,” Mia begins. “I didn’t mean it that way. It was a terrible thing to say and I didn’t mean it like that, but I know this girl, and yes, she brings out the worst in me. She almost had me arrested for something that she did and I’ll never trust her again. I was only trying to be her friend and she screwed me. Then she grew up being bitchy to everyone around her including her grandmother, and I think she got her just desserts! I’m sorry if I insulted you. I really didn’t mean to, but when it comes to Courtney, once a bitch, always a bitch.”

“Duly noted,” my petulant child wife says without turning her gaze from the window. “I won’t broach the topic with you again.” Mia sighs heavily.

“Ana, I’m sorry,” she says, a small bit of exasperation in her voice.

“And I accept your apology,” Butterfly says firmly. “Now, we’ve got an extremely difficult and emotional day ahead of us. Can we please not talk about this anymore?”

Just like that, the Courtney topic of conversation ends. Mia shrinks down into Ethan’s arms while I attempt to loosen my wife up a little.

“I didn’t think it would cause this commotion. I’m sorry,” I say softly in her ear. Her head snaps back at me and her glare says everything her mouth didn’t…

Didn’t I ask that we not talk about this anymore?

I put my hands up in surrender.

“Okay, okay, I won’t say another word about it,” I say softly. She turns back to the scene out the window. I look over at Mia, who looks completely deflated. I’m almost anxious to get to the funeral and out of this car. A few minutes later, we round the corner to the cathedral and the worst possible sight greets me when we’re pulling up in front of the church.

“Paparazzi?? Seriously? At my grandfather’s fucking funeral?”

I’m yelling so loudly that everyone in the limo falls silent. I pull out my cell phone.

“I see, sir,” Jason says.

“Get my parents and my uncles into the church. Shield them as much as you can and tell them not to engage. I want everybody with a cell phone on the front line right now taking videos—every angle! I want pictures of every motherfucker standing out there!”

“On it, boss,” he says and ends the call. The Audi behind us speeds up and pulls ahead of the limos. Several of my security staff exits each door with large black umbrellas. I see my parents get out along with Uncle Herman, Uncle Stan, Luma, and Lana and they all scramble to the door under the cover of the umbrellas. I turn to Elliot.

“Get my wife to her seat,” I tell him. He nods.

“Sure thing, Bro.”

“Christian?” Butterfly protests.

“I won’t be long, but I need to handle this,” I say firmly. She looks at me with questioning eyes, then exits the car with Elliot and Val. He puts his arm around both women and hastily walk into the church, Mia and Ethan right behind them, all of them under the cover of the large black umbrellas as well.

My grandfather’s fucking funeral.

I step out of the limo in pure CEO mode, my insides burning because I’m so angry.

“Wow, seriously?” I say as I make my way to the front of the line of vultures now shying back from the camera phones of my security staff. The assholes have the nerve to fire off questions at me while I’m standing here in front of them in a somber black suit in front of a church after having my family hurried inside to avoid the flashes of the cameras. After a few moments of my security team recording the group of photographers and Paparazzi, I clasp my hands in front of me and assume the position.

“This is a private ceremony,” I begin, “a funeral, for God’s sake! The gathering of a mourning family and the final memorial of a man who wasn’t noteworthy enough to even have his obituary printed in the local paper. As if my family hasn’t already suffered enough with his passing, you vultures want what… a picture of the coffin? A candid shot of one of my family members in complete distress? What? What are you looking for?”

Although a few cameras flash, an eerie silence falls over the crowd of reporters and photographers.

“To answer your questions, that’s my grandfather, the patriarch of this family. He’s fought a long, hard battle with his health and deserves to be laid to rest in peace. We, his family, have been through an extremely difficult time over the past months and would appreciate privacy as we mourn his passing. That’s all you get. Now, as you can see, for the past several minutes, before and while you were recording me, my staff has been recording you.”

Several of the photographers and reporters turn their attention to the imposing men in black beside and around me, all taking videos with their cell phones.

“I’m sure that you know I can find out who each one of you is and where you work by the end of the week. You all need to cease and desist and disperse, now. That will be my only request. Let my family grieve in peace. If you disrespect my wishes and continue this cruel and heartless invasion of our privacy during this delicate and terrible time, I promise that I will personally make your lives a living hell… and you can put that in print.”

There’s a momentary pause and the same eerie silence. I stand there facing them, waiting for a decision. I need to be with my family, not dealing with this shit right now. It takes a minute or two, a few of them still throwing questions at me while I remain silent, but they finally begin to disperse. Once the throng is down to a few stragglers hoping to get more out of me, I turn around and walk into the church.

As I enter the cathedral, I notice that there’s quite a few more people here than I thought. I see a few of my business colleagues, but I see many people that I don’t know. I make my way over to Butterfly, sitting in the second row behind my mother and father. Dad sits staring at the open casket in front of us, classic mahogany and lined with satin. His eyes swollen and red-rimmed from crying, like his brothers’. Mia sits on the other side of me, trembling with sobs in her fiancé’s arms. Nothing makes death more real than seeing the one you love laying out in a casket.

Pops’ looks good, so peaceful… no more pain and struggling to breathe, only able to speak two words at a time, if any, having to make excuses for his asshole son and wishing he could get them all together one more time before he died. I don’t know why that thought came to mind. I just think the worst thing you can do to the dying is make them stress in their last days about the living.

A picture of Pops at my wedding in his Sunday best serves as his memorial photo. Various people go to the front of the church to view him one last time. A modest number of flowers grace the church and there’s a slideshow playing on the screen behind the pulpit of Pops in various stages of life.

His high school graduation.

His wedding.

The birth of each of his sons.

Him at various graduations and holding various grandchildren.

Dancing with his wife, Christmases, weddings, holidays, fishing with his boys and their boys…

In the rocking chair on the deck at Butterfly’s birthday party.

Sitting in a recliner with Mia on the floor next to him, her head lying in his lap while they watch television.

My wife sitting in a chair across from him, leaning in to hear what he’s saying.

A candid conversation that he and I were having at some point in my parent’s house.

Pops holding Minnie…

That’s when I realize that I’m crying. My chest feels like someone has reached inside and is holding my heart in a very painful vise and I almost can’t breathe. I lean a bit in my seat to get some air, but it’s not helping.

What’s happening?

I put my elbows on my knees and continue to cry, but I still can’t get any air in. I’m feeling lightheaded when I feel a hand on my back and hear my wife’s sweet voice.

“Hands at your feet, baby,” she says softly. “Put your head between your legs.”

I follow her instructions and even though I can’t stop the tears, my breath comes easier. I feel one hand on my back and the other gently caresses my hair. Although my spirit calms a bit, I’m still overcome with grief.

My grandfather is dead. He’s gone and he’s not coming back.

Ever since the crack whore died, I’ve closed myself off from any strong emotions as the pain was too much for me to bear, forcing me into silence for several years. Once Butterfly broke down my walls, I let them back in. I don’t regret that—opening myself to the love of my family and my wife—but this is one time that I wish I could turn them back off again.


A/N: I have abandoned writing Keri’s accent phonetically. It’s hard to write and sometimes hard to read, so you will only see phonetic writing of her accent when and if she speaks in Patois or when the scene calls for it.

Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

You can join my mailing list on the “Contact Me” page. Just click the link and it will lead you to a form to join the list.

~~love and handcuffs

 

 

Lemon Drop: I Don’t Need Another Hand Job

This one didn’t make it to the story because I just couldn’t find a place for it, but I thought it was worth a read, so I’m placing it here. A frustrated Christian has had enough of handjobs while waiting for his wife to pass the six-week mark after giving birth to their twins. He’s snapping at everyone and irritable as hell because HE WANTS TO FUCK. When his beloved wife offers to relieve some stress for him, he disparagingly turns her down. So now, she has something to prove when he says… 

I Don’t Need Another Handjob

“My dick has seen enough of the fist to last a lifetime,” he adds. I’ve come to his study because he’s biting everyone’s head off today and some of the staff has even threatened to quit. He nearly barks at me until he looks up and sees who’s invading his sanctuary. I walk over to where he’s standing behind his desk.

“Enough of your fist,” I say, grabbing his penis inside his pants and rubbing hard, “but not mine.” I push hard against him with my palm, up and down, up and down, and he immediately starts to stiffen.

“Fuck! How do you do that?” he groans.

“Just like you know my body, I know yours.” I push him down into the chair and undo his pants. He lifts his hips and allows me to pull his pants and his boxer briefs down to his ankles. I reach into his desk drawer and remove the oil I know that I’ll find there. I oil my hands thoroughly and begin to anoint his penis from balls to head. At first, he just looks at me, unaffected.

Is that a challenge, Mr. Grey?

“Don’t move your hands from that armrest,” I tell him and turn my attention back to my task.

From this point on, he’s no longer in the room. It’s just me and his penis. I start with the balls, anointing them generously including the underside near the anus and rolling them gently in my hands while I softly stroke the shaft to keep it out of my way. The creases of the thigh look a little dry, so I anoint them, too, along with the pelvic V and get a tiny shiver from the body attached to the penis.

I oil my hands again and wrap both of them around the penis, stroking up and down from root to tip. It’s hard, but not quite pink and veiny enough. I feel the body slide down into the chair a bit more and his legs fall open a little further. Good, more access to the dick.

As it starts to harden further, I twist my hands in opposite directions as I pump it. I watch it carefully. I love what I see. It slowly turns from a hard white rod to a solid pulsing pink, veiny cock—not quite ready to come yet, but surely enjoying itself. Hmm, I’ll taste you a bit, but I won’t suck you off.

I suck only the head into my mouth, running my tongue around the ridge as I continue the oily alternating strokes on the shaft.

“Ssssssssssssssssss, fuuuuuuuuuuccccckkk!” the body hisses. Challenge me, will you? Okay. I pop the head out of my mouth and run my tongue over the frenulum, never looking up at him. He hisses again. I release the dick and let it bob in the air a couple of times, hearing feverish panting from the body attached. With meticulous speed and rhythm, I gasp the base of the dick and run each alternating hand up and over the head, over and over again, causing what I know is agonizing pleasure until I have to instruct the body to slide back up into the seat before he hits the floor—you’re fucking up my rhythm.

I take this opportunity to remove his shoes so that I can slide off his pants and boxers and bring his ass to the edge of the seat, so that I can bring him to the edge of his wits. I pump the penis firmly, not hard, just firmly while I massage the balls between my fingers, just up to the rim of the head and allow him to thrust into my hand. When he pulls back far enough for the head to reach my hand, then I concentrate on just the rim and the head—the most sensitive part of the penis.

“Oh shit shit shit!” he grits out through his teeth. His tortured sounds make me pay attention to him again, to his body and his white knuckles clenching the armrests.

That’s right, Mr. Grey, hold on.

I take the head in my mouth and suckle, just the head, eliciting a primal growl from him. He tries to pump into my mouth, but I won’t let him. Just the head, Mr. Grey, I taunt with my eyes as I push his shirt up to reveal his abs, now glistening with sweat. Catching my drift, he does small strokes into my mouth that only allow stimulation of the head, a grunt, groan, or moans escaping with each stroke. That’s it, Mr. Grey. Ride the torment. You won’t come in my mouth, but you will come extremely hard. Disparage my hand jobs, will you?

Once the head is red and smooth like a pimple ready to pop, I release it again, along with some of the breath Mr. Grey was holding. Once I’ve allowed a few more breaths into his lungs, I decide it’s time to close the curtain on this show. With newly oiled hands, I grasp his dick and stroke, just to make sure I have enough oil on the shaft, head, and balls. He’s purple, veiny, and angry now, with a shiny, tight head and ready for release.

And release you shall have.

With four fingers holding the top of the shaft steady, I use my thumb to massage his frenulum, edging him mercilessly. Through all of his squirming, whining, thrusting, and crying out, I don’t change the rhythm. Edging is magnificent and torturous. It directly manipulates the vein that releases semen, much like prostate massage. Many men don’t know that’s what they are doing when they masturbate and their hand runs across that vein at the top of the head near the rim on the up and down stroke. They just know that it feels good and want to keep the stroke going. When you stimulate this nerve, the natural response is to thrust. However, he would get more stimulation and a harder orgasm if he would just…

“Keep still.”

“Ah!” he cries out. “Ah, fuck! Fuck!” he begins to shiver as he fights to remain still in the chair. “Ana… fuck! Please!” Yes, I know. Keep your ass in that chair. I’m watching the blood rush to the surface of the skin, his abs tighten, and the tormented stretching of the skin on his face when there’s a knock at his office door. He’s totally unable to answer and the uninvited guest opens the door and walks in anyway.

“Sir, what do you want to do about…”

“Jason… get the… fuck… out!” he manages to squeeze out. There’s silence for a moment before Jason says, “Sir, are you okay?”

“Go away, Jason,” I say calmly. After about a second, I hear, “Yes, ma’am,” and the door closes. I’m back to my task and I almost missed the finale. His nut sack has risen and become one hard, rigid ball. That’s what I was waiting for. I lick it once.

“Aaahhhhh! Oh God. Oh my God,” he cries, shaking violently in the seat. I continue the massage and lick again.

“Jesus! Ana!” he begs, his penis twitching in my hand, so ready to blow that if he opens his eyes, he’d probably see planets right now. I run my tongue back and forth across the nut sack, on the underside, everywhere my tongue can reach. He spectacularly lights the candle, semen shooting from his dick in two directions, landing on his stomach and dripping down the sides over my fingers simultaneously. He’s growling and grunting in his chest, squirming violently in the chair, the same time his abdominal and thigh muscles lock as I lick his jumping balls and they wildly empty their contents through the fat pulsing vein leading up to the opening in his dick. My free hand massages the muscle at the base of his balls at his perineum pushing the cum from his prostate to his testicles and up his shaft. So at this moment, every possible muscle that could contribute to his orgasm—except for direct manipulation of the prostate itself—is being stimulated, and Mr. Grey is paralyzed in one of the most massive and intense orgasms that he will ever experience.

I continue the stimulation until I hear the grunting stop, feel the muscle in the perineum stop pulsing, feel the testicles empty and one sack becomes two again, see the pulsing of the main vein of the penis stop; see no more semen release from the shiny head of my little friend, and he too stops pulsing in my hand; and the body attached to it stops jerking and grabs my hand, begging me to stop my manipulation of his tender member.

I think I’ll stop now.

I pick up the towel that was on my shoulder, now on the floor, and clean the mess that was made by the oil and semen. Christian stays splayed out in the seat, wrung out, naked from the waist down. I bet you won’t talk shit about my handjobs again, Sir.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Grey,” I say as I walk to the door. He’s still splayed out, but looking at me when I turn back around. “I’ll tell Jason to wait until you call for him.” I smile and leave his office, closing the door behind me.

I make my way to the elevator and push the button for the first floor. When it opens, Jason is standing there waiting.

“You might want to let him come to you,” I say matter-of-factly, tossing the towel in the laundry room on my way past him.


 

Raising Grey: Chapter 7—Counting Down To The Ferryman

We all seemed to have some powerful reactions to Ana’s and Christian’s behavior. I’m just going to try to keep the story going.

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 7—Counting Down To The Ferryman

ANASTASIA

“You and Christian are fighting,” Pops says, when I come into his room the next day. I sigh.

“Yes, we are,” I say with no hesitation. He didn’t come to bed last night. He wasn’t there when I awoke. I showered and changed and he wasn’t at breakfast… and he’s not here now. Elliot and Val kept looking at me all through breakfast like I might spontaneously combust right there on the spot. Grace kept throwing concerned glances at me while Carrick acted as if he was afraid to even look in my direction.

“Why?” he asks.

“Don’t worry about it, Pops,” I tell him. “It doesn’t even bear repeating.”

“If it doesn’t bear repeating, child, then it’s not worth fighting over.” Well, Pops, my husband wants to blame someone for your impending departure from this earthly coil and I pulled the short straw. How about you help me set him straight before you make your way to the great beyond?

“No, Pops, some things just don’t need to be spoken about… seriously.” He nods and decides to change the subject.

“Where’s Mia?” he asks. “She hasn’t come in to see me today to tell me about the wedding.”

“Oh, she had a die-hard client that wouldn’t let her out of her commitment today, so she had to go cover an event,” I tell him. As of late, Mia has been dabbling both in interior decorating and event planning and she can’t decide which one she likes best.

“Well, that’s better than sitting around waiting for a sick, old man to die,” he says. I pause.

“I don’t think it’s that we’re waiting for you to die so much that we just want to spend as much time with you as we can,” I correct him.

“Spend time with the living…” he begins his spiel again.

“… And you’re still living,” I interrupt him. He smiles at me.

“You’re wise beyond your years, child. Has anybody ever told you that?” I smile sadly and nod.

“It didn’t come easily,” I say in a melancholy voice.

“It never does, child. Wisdom ain’t cheap. It usually carries a hefty fee.” How right you are! We’re silent for a moment before he says, “I’ve been dreaming about my Ruby.” I raise my head and smile.

“Have you?” I ask. He nods.

“Sometimes, we’re sitting on the lawn furniture on the porch of that big house in Detroit, where we thought we would grow old bouncin’ grandchildren on our knee. Other times, we’re walking along the beach at sunset, holding hands and quietly looking at one another. In every dream, she’s as young, healthy, and beautiful as she was before the sickness hit her.” I smile sadly at him. “She’s letting me know that she’s waitin’ for me, child, so that I won’t be scared… not that I would be. This old body’s real tired.” I reach over and squeeze his hand.

“Seeing Stanley again must be nice,” I say. He smiles widely.

“Oh, yes,” he says with true joy in his voice. “Stanley’s a gentle soul. I was worried how he would take it if he didn’t get to say his goodbyes. It would have bothered him for the rest of his life. I’m glad he got here while I was doing better instead of right at the end.”

“I am, too.”

“I wonder what Freeman says about this,” he adds.

“I wonder if Freeman even knows,” I say. Pops makes a considering expression.

“Knowing Stan, he doesn’t,” Pops says. “He probably will soon, but he doesn’t now. Freeman’s the family naysayer. Any information that he gets is on a need-to-know basis and we’ve just decided that there’s a lot that he doesn’t need to know.” I raise my eyebrows.

“Pops, shouldn’t this be different?” I ask.

“I’m dying,” Pops says. “He knows. That’s all there is. His anger towards Rick is keeping him away. I have a problem with that. I have a problem with the fact that he’s so damn selfish that he can’t put his own desires aside for one minute, hour, day, week—however long I have left—to afford me the opportunity to see all my sons together one more time before I die. It’s always about Freeman and I’ve finally had enough. It took me being on my deathbed to finally be done with his selfishness. I only hope that it doesn’t take him being on his to realize how wrong he is.”

Pops speaks with clarity and purpose when he discusses washing his hands of Freeman’s behavior.

“Thankfully,” he continues, “I have three of my sons here with me right now—together, supporting one another and not bickering. Under the circumstances, it’s the best I can hope for, and I thank God for it.” I squeeze Pops’ hand and smile, and he smiles right back.

After I have a talk with Grace about her son’s denial while we feed, burp and bathe the children, I decide that I need a bit of fresh air. Still no sign of Christian as I wander through the house toward the French doors. Maybe that’s a good thing. As I’m walking across the grass, I see someone sitting on the bench in the middle of the backyard facing towards the water. At first, I think it’s Herman, but as I get closer, I realize that it’s not.

“Hi,” I say to Stanley as I walk around the bench to face him. He’s just taking a drag from a cigarette and chokes on the smoke as I startle him. “Oh! I’m sorry,” I say as I pat him on the back, trying to alleviate his coughing spell.

“No worries,” he says as he catches his breath and clears his throat, gazing at me for a moment, somewhat confused.

“We haven’t been properly introduced,” I tell him, something that should have been done by my husband, but he’s too focused on that stick up his ass. “I’m Anastasia, Christian’s wife.” I proffer my hand to him and he takes it gently.

“You’re Christian’s wife?” he says, still gazing at me. I nod.

“Yes. I was actually in the room with your father when you came in last night,” I tell him. He nods, releasing my hand after he shakes it gently.

“Ah, okay,” he says. “I saw someone in the shadows, but I was kind of focused on my dad. When I looked around, you were gone.”

“Yeah,” I nod, while sitting next to him, careful to avoid the pile of cigarette butts sitting next to him. It looks like he’s on his fourth cigarette. He looks self-consciously down at the pile.

“I only smoke when I’m nervous or stressed or… something,” he says.

“It’s a rough time right now, I know. No judgment here,” I respond.

“Don’t tell me wife,” he says nervously. I smile.

“She probably already knows,” I reply. I would know if Christian has a habit like this that only manifests itself during stressful times… like hard fucking. I wish that habit would have manifested instead of the useless brooding and blaming that he’s doing right now.

“So… what do you do, Anastasia?” Stanley asks.

“Please call me Ana,” I say. “I’m a shrink.” He raises his eyebrows at me.

“You are?” he asks. I nod. “Please forgive me, but I don’t have much faith in your profession.” Now, my eyebrows rise.

“May I ask why?” I say. He shrugs.

“I just don’t see the need for it,” he says. “If something’s wrong with me, I can go talk to family or friends, a member of the clergy—all for free, without having to pay someone to… shrink me.” I nod.

“I can understand that,” I say. “And you’ve never had any experience with a psychologist or psychiatrist or counselor… you just feel like it’s money wasted.” He looks over at me.

“Forgive me, but, yes, I do,” he says with no malice. I twist my lips and nod.

“Okay,” I say, turning back to face the water. I can feel his gaze on me without looking at him.

“You’re not going to try to convince me otherwise?” he says. I shake my head.

“No,” I reply.

“Is this some kind of shrink trick to make me see the err of my ways on my own?” he asks skeptically. I laugh good-naturedly.

“Not at all,” I say to him. “It’s not for everybody,” I continue. “Counseling of any kind—medical, religious, free—is only as good as your acceptance of it. If you feel that paid counseling is a waste of time and money, then it’ll never help you. You’re on the downswing of the seesaw before you even sit in the chair…”

“Or on the couch,” he adds. I laugh.

“Or on the ‘couch,’” I repeat with mirth. “I never use a sofa unless someone is ill and wants to lie down.”

“So, if you feel that way about it, why do you practice?” he asks.

“Because it does work for some people,” I tell him. “It worked for me. That’s why I got into it.” I turn my eyes back to the water, trying not to remember the terrible condition I was in after Green Valley, the years of mental anguish and suffering that followed, and the Godsend that was the guidance counselor that suggested I go into psychiatry, ultimately leading me to CCFW in Seattle.

“You’ve got a story,” he says, taking a drag from his cigarette and blowing the smoke away from me.

“A very bad one,” I sigh. “That’s how I know firsthand that mental health professionals have their place and can be very helpful.” He nods.

“I stand corrected,” he says. I chuckle.

“I still agree with you, Stanley. They’re not for everyone,” I secede.

“Call me Stan,” he says. I nod.

“Stan.” He turns his gaze to me and I meet it with my own.

“Has anybody ever told you that you have a doppelgänger?” I nod… you mean besides my husband’s prior harem of petite, brunette submissives?

Now, why the fuck did that come to mind?

“Ah, yes… Shannon.” He raises an eyebrow at my revelation.

“He told you,” Stan says, puffing his cigarette again.

“He showed me the picture,” I say with mirth. Stan nods.

“You guys could have been twins,” he admits. “Losing her was rough on Herm.”

“I know, he told me,” I say. “I had to talk to him about staring at me and my husband’s jealous tendencies when we first met, and he explained to me why he was staring. It’s understandable. I would find it quite unnerving if Christian had a twin.” He twists his lips and looks at me again.

“Not trying to be inappropriate, but she was a real looker in her day,” he says. “You’re very pretty. Christian’s a lucky man.” I sigh and look out over the water.

“Yeah, maybe somebody should tell him that!” I hiss, and immediately regret saying it. Stan looks over at me.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to…” I shake my head as he trails off.

“He’s a wonderful man,” I say looking over at Stanley before looking back out over the water. “We’re very stressed out over Pops’ illness. It’s just taking its toll on us all.” He takes the last puff of his cigarette before he puts it out and places the butt with the others.

“Yeah,” he says sadly. “Even when you know it’s coming, it’s still hard to accept… especially when he looks this good. Christian’s last report was that he was doing pretty badly and I needed to get here as soon as possible.” I nod.

“He was right,” I say nodding. “Christian and I went out on the town Sunday night to celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary. I was almost afraid to leave the house for fear of the news I would get over the phone or when we got back. Then yesterday, he got this good-as-new energy burst…” Stan had turned his attention to me, but now dropped his head and put his elbows on his thighs, clasping his hands between his parted knees.

“Oh… that,” he said with deep sadness and a heavy sigh. I look over at him.

“You know what it is,” I say. He nods.

“It happened with my mom,” he says. “We all got our hopes up because nobody told us to expect it. It was fast, though. She died the next day. We called the doctor asking him what the hell had happened, and he explained it to us. If we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes, we would have thought it was a crock of shit. We thought she was going to get out of bed and dance a jig! For that brief moment, Mom was back!” He smiles widely, his eyes twinkling as he remembers the day of his mother’s energy boost before she passed away. The happiness is soon replaced by heavy sorrow. “That’s how Dad looks today. It won’t be long now.”

He tries to catch the tear before if falls down his cheek and onto his arm. I place my hand on his back and try to soothe him.

“Spend as much time as you can with him right now,” I tell him. “I think this is the gift that’s given to us so that we can say goodbye and relive good times before God takes back what belongs to Him.” He raises glassy eyes to me.

“What a nice thing to say,” he says softly. “That’s such a wonderful way of looking at it.”

Pops was right about Stanley. He is a gentle soul.

“Maybe one of you guys should call Freeman so that he can at least talk to his father during this time,” I suggest. Stanley shakes his head.

“Freem was there when this happened to Mom. He’s knows what’s coming and he chose not to be here. I’m not making that call.” I nod.

“I hate that you guys are all at odds about this,” I say, looking back over the water. “You should all be pulling together and supporting one another during this time. It must be hard on you all.”

“No,” Stan says. “It’s business as usual. Freeman is a self-centered asshole and he always will be. I learned a long time ago to stay out of his way. Unfortunately, that’s how I almost lost my brother, and nearly missed out on the opportunity to say goodbye to my dad. Man, if he knew that Christian made a way for me to get out here before Dad died, he’d be pissing gasoline right now.” He shakes his head. “I’m going to make sure that I tell him.”

I can’t stop the chuckle that escapes my throat. I cover my mouth and try to hide it, with the conversation being so somber and all. He elbows me gently on the arm, informing me that my laughter is okay.

“Well-placed levity in an emotional situation is always a good thing,” he says softly before scrubbing his face and composing himself. “It was nice to finally officially meet you, Ana. You’re good people.” I smile.

“So are you, Stan. The pleasure was all mine.” He gives me a chaste avuncular kiss on my cheek before patting my shoulder. Then he brushes all his cigarette butts into his hand before he rises from the bench we’re sharing and heads back to the house.

I remain on the bench for a few minutes after Stan leaves. My heart is so heavy because I’m doing just what I told him to do—spend this time saying goodbye while he’s coherent and energetic. I feel like I was robbed, like I never got the chance to know this vibrant, wise, worldly man before he’s taken away from us… like there’s so much more knowledge and good times he could share with me that I’ll never get because he’ll be gone.

What’s more is that I want to be there for Christian. I want to be there for my husband because this is going to be hard for him, but he’s too busy blaming me to let me in. I drop my face in my hands, my fingertips massaging my throbbing scar in a vain attempt at relief.

When I feel like I’ve wallowed enough in early grief, I stand from the bench and stretch. There’ll be plenty of time for grief when Pops is gone, and unfortunately, plenty of it to go around. I head back to the house and the closer I get, I can see the outline of someone right beyond the French doors. The closer I get, I see my husband with his arms folded, looking like he’s ready for a showdown.

Well, goddammit, I’m not!

My first instinct is to walk around the house and find another entrance, but that won’t do for many reasons—the first of which is that he already knows that I spotted him; the second being that he would only hunt me down if he’s looking for a fight. So, running would just prolong the inevitable. The third being that it would just be childish, and the list goes on and on…

I open the door for myself since even though he saw me coming, he didn’t feel the need to do so. Arrogant, self-centered, misdirected…

“So, you convinced Stanley that this is all in his head, too, huh?” Christian says with disdain as I walk past him. I look over my shoulder at him in bemused anger and he’s still leaning against the wall.

“What?” I snap. He raises his head and glares back at me as if I have not right to take that tone with him.

“He’s doing better! Why can’t you just accept that? No, you have to be the eternal voice of doom, convincing everybody that this is his last hurrah before he kicks the bucket. If you don’t have any positive thoughts about the situation, maybe you should just stay mute!”

The different levels and variations of anger that flash through me at that moment can’t even be numbered. I turn my body towards my delusional, high-handed husband and face off with him.

“I didn’t have to convince Stanley of anything,” I say, trying not to talk through my teeth. “In fact, he told me. He went through the same thing with his mother right before her death. She died the very next day after her energy boost, so I suggest you enjoy the time you have left with your grandfather instead of trying to place blame for the inevitable on someone completely not at fault. And in the future, if all you have for me is harsh words, take your own advice and keep them to yourself!” I turn on my heels and walk away before he has time to retort. I’ve had enough of this. He’s not going to keep saying shitty things to me and I’m just going to stand there and take it!

*-*

Christian took my advice. For the next several days, he has absolutely nothing to say to me. Stanley tries to convince him that this really is an energy boost and he doesn’t want Christian to fall apart when the decline occurs. Even his mother tries to tell him, but he’s still holding fast to the thought that I’m the naysayer and everything’s going to be fine.

It’s ridiculous… and unfair. I don’t get to properly mourn losing someone that I’ve come to love because my life-mate is too busy blaming me and snarling at me every time he sees me, and I can’t properly express my grief. I avoid him now at every opportunity. I don’t know where he’s sleeping, because he hasn’t been to bed. If I’m at the table for a meal and he comes to the table, I excuse myself and take my meal elsewhere. We don’t even sit with the twins at the same time. If he’s in the room, I let him stay and I leave. If I’m in the room, he doesn’t enter.

The family is in turmoil about it. No one knows who to support and they all refuse to take sides, which is actually good, because that would just make a bad matter worse. Pops is blissfully ignorant of the conflict, if you can call having no idea that your upcoming death is the basis of a fight between your grandson and his wife “blissfully ignorant.”

Christian has been working more now, probably partially because he thinks Pops is out of the woods and partially to avoid talking to me. For once, I’m not letting him win this one. I’m right and I know it and he’s having a problem accepting the truth. Someone else who has gone through this has tried to convince him; another doctor has tried to convince him; yet, he still wants to blame me. I know what this is—I’m a shrink. It’s classic transference—there’s a lot of that going around lately, but I’m not going to sit here and take it. I’m sorry that he can’t accept that his grandfather is about to pass away, but I refuse to be the butt of his blame when I’m suffering emotionally, too.

All hail the red, white, and blue. Friday is Independence Day, but none of us feel much like celebrating. The inevitable happens and Pops’ energy boost has run its course. Christian’s eyes immediately throw daggers at me like I had personally sucked the life out of Pops and not this ever-present renal failure that the doctors have diagnosed him with. I leave the room in tears, not because of Christian’s heartless and selfish behavior towards me… I’m over that. I cry because I know that we’ll be losing Pops very soon. I enjoy our talks about Ruby and about mine and Christian’s travels and adventures. Pops and I are lucky that we share and shared a life of love with people who adored us and made adventures more fulfilling. Even though my husband is treating me like Public Enemy #1 right now, he has nonetheless made this ride called life so worth the trip. I can only hope that when I’m breathing my last breaths, I can remember my life with the same love and admiration that Pops has shared with me about his.


CHRISTIAN

I don’t understand for the life of me why my wife would want to throw dirt on this precious gift that God has chosen to give us. For some reason, He’s performed a miracle. My grandfather is getting better. I don’t know what happened and I don’t know why, but he’s getting better. His energy levels are impressive. He’s not using his oxygen mask. He’s telling unbelievable stories about his life and my dad’s childhood. It’s amazing! I’m so happy about it and I’m not going to let her spoil this for me and my family. If she can’t just be happy and appreciate this miracle, that’s all good for her, but I refuse to let her rain on my parade.

“Christian, your wife is right,” Stanley says to me on Tuesday. “Depending on the illness, people may get a boost of energy right before they pass away.”

“She got to you, too?” I ask him. He shakes his head.

“Have you ever watched someone die before, Christian?” he asks with no malice. I don’t respond. “I have, son. You’re blessed if it’s fast. You’re even more blessed if you get the opportunity to say goodbye while they’re lucid. Don’t waste this opportunity.” He squeezes my shoulder and walks away. She’s convinced someone else to try to take away my hope and I let her know that I’m not pleased when she walks into the house behind my uncle. She declares that from now on, I should keep my thoughts to myself. So, that’s exactly what I plan to do.

I decide to go into the office on Wednesday since it’s pretty clear that Pops is out of the woods. Besides, I’m so displeased with my wife that it’s probably better that we don’t see each other today. I wouldn’t want to bruise her delicate little psyche with my harsh words.

“Mr. Grey, I didn’t expect to see you today,” Andrea says when I walk past her desk. “Mr. Welch just asked if you were going to be in today and I told him that you weren’t expected. You might want to call him.”

I nod, acknowledging the information and continue into my office. There is information on my desk concerning the types of furnishings I want in the quarters behind my office. I’m not too particular about what I want in there. It’s only a just-in-case room—I don’t plan on spending any extended amount of time there. I’m thumbing through the information as I dial Alex’s number.

“Good, you’re here. Can you meet me in Central in fifteen? I’ve got something to show you.” I almost want to say “Well, good morning to you, too,” but I can’t fault the man for wanting to get to the point.

“Will do,” I reply before ending the call.

“So, I put three different people on scanning and recording the people coming and going from Ana’s condo in the two-day span you requested,” Barney says when I get to GEH Security Central. “We’ve accounted for just about everyone that wasn’t a resident—what time they got there, who they visited, how long they stayed, when they left. Even delivery people are required to sign in before they are allowed access to the elevators. It was truly a slow day, thank goodness. Now, right here is where we have one of two discrepancies.”

Barney points to a late-model Lexus driving into the parking structure. Whoever was driving piggybacked off another car driving in, which is easy to do in many circumstances unless there’s a guard booth outside… which there isn’t. We watch as the Lexus pulls into one of the visitor parking spaces at the far end of the lot. Nothing happens for several minutes until someone gets out of the driver’s seat of the Malibu parked next to the Lexus—small frame, dressed in a hoodie, so their face is shielded.

“Okay, so stop,” I say. Barney stops the video. “So, we followed the Lexus in to get to this car. Why didn’t we get to this car, first?”

“Tenacity,” Alex says. I frown at him.

“Excuse me?” I say, not sure what to make of what he’s trying to say. He gestures back to Barney.

“So… I’m going to need you to kind of just keep up with me because different things are going to be happening and I’m going to try to explain them the best way that I can,” Barney says. I nod, intent to try to follow his reasoning. He turns back to the large bank of monitors. “That Malibu has been sitting there for three days. We had to do triple-time to see when the vehicle arrived or we would still be watching the tapes. That car drove into the lot on Thursday the 21st. Ana’s Beretta was stolen on the 24th.

“That person sat in that car for three days waiting for the Lexus?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “That person got out of that car about an hour after arrival. You can tell it’s a man.” We watch as a man leaves the Malibu—long, black trench coat, black Akubra Bogart hat pulled down far that you can’t see who it is. He walks right out of the garage and out of sight of the cameras. Shit.

“So, no activity until this Lexus shows up, then someone gets out of the driver’s seat of the Malibu.”

Barney runs the video back so that we can see the driver’s side Lexus door open and close, then the passenger side Malibu open. The occupant is crouched down so there’s no hope in seeing who they are until about twenty minutes later, when the driver’s side of the Malibu opens.

“So, you know this part,” he says as we follow the small-framed person to my wife’s apartment and back out again a few minutes later—heavy one Beretta, no doubt. They enter the same elevator they exited… but they never get to the garage. After we monitor all the elevators, we see that they get off at the first floor.” The petite frame in way-too-baggy clothes gets off the elevator, only now, she’s scratching at a mass of messy red hair that covers her face as she enters the women’s restroom. Even an amateur can tell it’s a wig. Not three minutes later, a scantily-clad curvy brunette leaves the bathroom, waves at the desk guard, and walks out the front door. Barney switches the camera back to the parking lot. I nearly flip out.

“We’re going to miss the woman with the gun!” I exclaim, pointing to the screen.

“No, we’re not, sir,” Barney says, pointing to the scantily-clad brunette, now on the driver’s side of the Lexus. “That’s the woman with the gun.” She’s carrying a small black clutch that I paid no attention to as she left the restroom, and now she has very large sunglasses on her face. She gets into the Lexus and drives away without further incident.

“I ran facial recognition to see if she was in any of the databases and we got a hit,” Barney says.

“Go back to the lobby,” I say. Barney goes back to the lobby camera. “Zoom in.” When he zooms, a familiar fucking face is smiling back at me.

“You didn’t need facial recognition,” I hiss. “Nobody else came out of that goddamn bathroom?”

“No one else went into or came out of that bathroom except the cleaning crew, and they were all accounted for—long-term employees with impeccable records that were all where they were supposed to be during the course of the days.” Son of a bitch.

“Well, I know who stole her fucking gun, now,” I snap. “What about the Malibu?”

“It’s a rental,” Alex says. “The rental company picked it up three days later. My connections say that he called the company and told them where the vehicle was and that he locked the keys in the car, but was on his way to the airport before he missed his flight and they had to come and get it. Surveillance shows employees of the rental car company taking the vehicle off premises.”

“Did your connections tell you who rented the car?” I ask impatiently. He nods.

“Louis Millfeld,” he says. Of course. I knew it.

“So, now we can tie the three together and link them to Ana’s gun,” I declare.

“Really, we can’t,” Alex says. “All of our evidence is deduced and circumstantial. None of it will hold up in court. But you know and I know that she took that gun.” Yeah, I know. Crazy fucking subs and sub-wannabes. This shit is getting completely fucking out of hand.

“Any luck on any leaks of information from any other sources? Any weak spots of any kind, shit we could have overlooked like the last time we underestimated this bastard?” Barney shakes his head.

“Absolutely none, sir. I’ve even had James consulting on this one and nothing so far.” Well, that makes me feel better. Ever since he wrote that program that basically saved my fucking company last year, he can do no wrong in my eyes. It’s good to know that he’s back on the team with this one, even if only on a part-time basis.

“Good. Very good. Keep me apprized. Excellent work, gentlemen. Alex?” I head towards the door with Alex close on my heels. I don’t start talking until the door closes to the elevators.

“Find out where the hell those other twelve women are,” I hiss. “This is getting fucking ridiculous! One of them tries to break up my engagement. Another tries to kill my goddamn wife and children. A third shows up at my father-in-law’s baby shower! Now, this bitch walks right into my wife’s apartment with a fucking key and steals her damn gun, which was used to nearly kill me—and she wasn’t even a sub!”

My fists are clenched so tight and I’m only glad that whatever voodoo my dick—or in this case, the promise of my dick—put on these bitches that I will never stick it into another woman again besides my currently-errant wife! Submissives act like there’s no other man in the world that can fuck like me; Elena Lincoln lost her goddamn mind; and now…

“What about this situation, sir?” Alex says.

“Find me goddamn Greta Ellison,” I hiss.

*-*

I spend the evening with Pops and Stanley, laughing and happy that he sounds like his old self. While I’m conversing with him, my naysaying wife enters the room and kisses him on the cheek.

“Hmm, one too many in this room,” I say under my breath, but apparently not low enough.

“Then, maybe you should leave,” she retorts, throwing me a stabbing glance before turning back to Pops. I narrow my eyes, but it has absolutely no effect on her. “Minnie was feeling a bit neglected that her brother was getting all of Great-Grampa’s attention,” she says, undoing the body wrap she has around herself and Minnie. Pops’ face lights up as she puts Minnie in his hands. She smiles that beautiful smile at the spectacle before her and I remember how it feels to see that smile directed at me. My heart warms momentarily, but only that much as I remember that she’s only waiting for my grandfather to die. She sits on the bed facing away from me, her attention solely on Pops and Minnie. Feeling quite unwelcome, I leave the room and bump into Mom in the hallway.

“You two really need to stop this,” Mom says. “It’s getting out of hand.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” I retort.

“The hell you aren’t!” she rebuts. “You’re treating your wife like a criminal—a stranger—all because she gave you information that is completely correct and medically sound and you can’t accept it! Why would you do something like that to her? To your family?”

“Have you seen him, Mom?” I say, pulling her further down the hallway and away from Pops’ door. “Have you taken a really good look at him? The color is back in his face. He’s eating. He’s breathing without the oxygen. He’s talking and acting like a normal person. I don’t know how it happened just like no one else does, but that’s not a dying man!” My mother’s face turns to the ceiling as she releases an exacerbated sigh.

“My. Husband’s. Father. Is dying,” she says, her voice deep. “Every day, I fight to hold him together. He cries at night where none of you can see him. We were awake for your argument because he doesn’t sleep. I’m doing everything I can right now to keep my sanity… my husband’s sanity… and your behavior. Is not. Helping.”

Mom sounds like she’s going to break down any minute. I didn’t mean… I don’t mean to cause her any more stress. We’re all here for exactly the opposite, but…

“Anastasia is right,” she adds. “The dying often have a final burst of energy in their last days, and trust me. I would love nothing more than to believe that a miracle from God has fallen from heaven and landed on Burt’s shoulder, if not for his sake or for all of our sakes… for yours!”

Why don’t I like the sound of that?

“I hope to God that you get your miracle, because if you don’t, you’ll be lucky if that woman ever forgives you for how you’re treating her. I know that I wouldn’t if it were me!”

My mother turns on her heels and marches out of my presence, leaving me standing gape-mouthed in the middle of the hallway.

*-*

What a difference a day makes.

One day…
One fucking day…

He’s jubilant and gleeful on Thursday and by Friday afternoon, he’s back on the oxygen, feeble and frail and unable to eat on his own. And yes, she’s standing there, looking all glum, but I know that she’s gloating inside, thinking she was right all along when it was probably her negative energy that brought him back to this. His doctor made a special trip to the Manor by request of the hospice nurse to see just how bad off Pops was. He’s barely conscious—in a lot of pain, drugged up and incoherent. He’s not even present anymore. His body is just… here.

“How long?” Herman asks the doctor, who shakes his head.

“Days,” he says. “Maybe hours. If you haven’t made preparations, Mr. Grey, now is the time.” Dad puts his hand over his mouth and I turn around to see my wife weeping. I’m immediately enraged.

Why are you crying? This is what you predicted! This is what you said would happen! So, why the tears?

As if she could hear me, she turns around and bolts out of the room. My grandfather is dying. After all that hope… he’s dying anyway. Fucking hell…

Saturday morning, Dad and Herman call all the men to his office. It’s time to make preparations and he wants to get a consensus—again—on what should be done.

“Stan,” he begins, “I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this, but every decision that we’ve made about Dad so far, we’ve made together as a family. We’ve tried to keep Freeman in the loop, but he’s so damn disagreeable. Everything that we’ve suggested, he doesn’t want. He wanted us to put Dad on a plane while he was dying and send him back to Detroit. He thought Herman was going back to Detroit with him to take care of him, but when Herman said that he wasn’t, Freeman sent a form to sign over power of attorney and brochures for nursing homes. His message was clear—come home with Dad or when you send him, I’ll put him in a nursing home.”

“I never intended to go back to Detroit,” Herman interjected, “nor did I intend to put my dying father on a goddamn plane. I just said it to see how Freeman would react. He shot down everything we said and he led us to believe that his opinion was both of your opinions.”

“I didn’t even know any of this was going on,” Stanley says. “I just knew that Dad was on his last leg and I was trying to get down here. That’s all. If all I had was a weekend in all of this, I would have come. Freeman didn’t even tell me that he was coming. I would have tried to come with him.”

“Freeman thinks he’s God,” Dad says. “The law begins and ends with him.”

“That’s our fault,” Herman says, “me, Stan, and Dad. He was such a squeaky wheel that we never let him believe anything different if it meant that he would shut up. Dad lit up like a Christmas tree when he got that invitation to Christian’s wedding. Freeman was breathing fire.”

“I remember that,” Stan says. “Once again, I just kept quiet.”

“Dad wasn’t having it,” Uncle Herman says. “If Freeman had laid down and given birth, Dad was still coming.” The three brothers laugh a bit before Dad gets the conversation back on track.

“Dad has already said that he wants to be cremated and everybody agrees,” Dad says. “But Freeman wants us to have whatever service we’re having here since I’m not welcome at the service back in Detroit, and then ship Dad’s body back to Detroit where he’ll have it cremated.” Stanley frowns.

“Why wouldn’t you guys just cremate him here? Wouldn’t it be easier to ship the ashes back to Detroit? Or I can just take them back?”

“That’s what we want!” Uncle Herman says. “Again, Freeman doesn’t agree, and he had us thinking that you shared his opinion.”

“I don’t,” Stanley says. “What sense does it make to ship Dad’s body back to Detroit so that we could cremate him there? It’s still his remains; he’s still going to be gone. Nothing’s going into the grave, but the urn. What am I missing?”

“You’re missing that your brother’s a selfish asshole,” Dad says. “Dad’s last words to Freeman was that he was selfish.” Stanley frowns deeper.

“You’re kidding,” he says. “That’s the last thing Dad said to Freem?” Uncle Herman nods.

“I recorded it,” he said.

“Herm, why did you record that?” Stanley asks. Uncle Herman shrugs.

“I don’t know… but I did.” Stanley shakes his head.

“Our family’s falling apart,” he says sadly.

“Death has a way of doing that,” Dad says. Tell me about it. My wife and I haven’t spoken a kind word to each other all week.

“We were falling apart before this,” Uncle Herman says sadly. There’s silence again before he adds, “So… are we in agreement? Dad should be cremated here?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Stanley says. “It doesn’t make any sense to ship Dad’s body back to Detroit. If I was still in Detroit, I would still say that it doesn’t make sense. Cremate him here and I’ll take his ashes back. If Freem wants to say goodbye, he can come here and do it.”

“He’s not welcome in my home,” Dad says firmly.

“But I’m sure that you wouldn’t stop him from attending the service,” Stanley says.

“You’re correct… even though he told me that I wouldn’t be welcome at Dad’s service in Detroit, he’s more than welcome to attend services here.” Stanley rolls his eyes.

“Geez, Freem,” he says under his breath. “Let’s get this call over with.”

“Who’s doing the talking?” Dad asks. “He doesn’t want to speak to me.”

“I’m probably not his favorite person, either,” Uncle Herman adds.

“I’m sick of this whole thing. I’ll do it,” Stanley says as he gestures to Dad to dial the number. Dad presses the speaker phone and dials Freeman’s number. He picks up after three rings.

“Are you calling to tell me that you’re sending my father’s remains?” Freeman barks. Damn. No “Hello” or “Who is this” or nothing. He’s quite the hateful bastard.

“Yes, Freeman, that’s exactly why we’re calling,” Stanley replies. The line is silent for a moment.

“Stan?” Freeman inquires.

“Yes?” Stanley responds.

“Thank God!” Freeman exclaims. “I was so afraid they were just going to do whatever they wanted without any concern for our wishes. I’m so glad you’re there!”

“Oh, they’re not going to do anything that I don’t approve of, Freeman, but you should know that I approve of cremating Dad here in Seattle and I’ll bring his ashes back to Detroit to be buried next to Mom.”

“You what?” Freeman roars. “Has my entire goddamn family lost their minds?”

“Freeman, the only person who has a problem with this is you,” Stanley says. “Dad doesn’t care either way, as long as he’s laid to rest next to Mom. What’s the big deal if we cremate him there or here?”

“I want to say ‘goodbye’ to my father properly,” he hisses.

“I thought you did,” Stanley retorts. “I thought you came here and saw Dad while he was still living. That’s a proper goodbye. Once he’s dead the spirit is gone. The essence has left. There’s nothing left but a shell. Who cares if the shell is a body or ashes?”

“I care!” Freeman barks.

“Then fly to Seattle and say ‘goodbye’ to his body when he passes on, because he’s being cremated here.” There’s silence again for a while.

“He’s not even gone yet?” Freeman asks.

“No, but it’s sure to be any day now, and he’s going to be cremated here when it happens.”

“I’ll get an injunction, I’ll do something to keep you from cremating my father’s body in Seattle.”

“Well, good luck with that, Freeman. In the meantime, if you want to pay your last respects to Dad’s body, you should probably be making arrangements to get to Seattle very soon. The doctor has already been to the house and he says that Dad has days if not hours left.”

“They’ve gotten to you, too,” Freeman says with disdain. “They take my father away from his home, away from his family and fly him clean across the country where none of us can get to him. They make all his decisions for him so that on his deathbed, he can’t be in his home with his family. His family is not there! His family is here! Your family is here! And if you cremate my father in Seattle, you’re a fucking traitor!”

“What home are you talking about, Freeman? That cave on Chicago? That place was falling apart around them! It’s even worse now. It’s not even worth the ground it’s standing on!” I look at Uncle Herman.

“Is he talking about Pops’ house?” I whisper. Herman nods.

“It’s worthless,” he whispers back. “It’s dilapidated and deteriorated. Freeman thinks it’s still worth something because it’s in the historic district. Maybe it is if someone is willing to restore it, but I’m not. When I went back to Detroit, I was ready to wash my hands of it then. I was just trying to see what Dad wanted.”

All this fighting and bickering or a house that’s ultimately worthless?

“Our father worked his whole life for that house! To grow old and spend his last days there…”

“Freeman, I’m not arguing with you about this,” Stanley says. “It was Dad’s choice to come out here and Dad’s choice to stay here. You can split hairs all you want to about the house, but nobody wants to argue about it anymore. Dad doesn’t want the house and neither do we.” Stanley raises his eyes to his brothers who both make gestures indicating that they don’t care about the house. “So, it’s yours, but in the meantime, if you want to see Dad one last time, you need to get on a plane.”

“Fuck you, you little pussy. Fuck you and fuck them! You better fucking get my father’s body back to Detroit in one piece if you know what’s good for you.”

Stanley sighs and shakes his head. His entire demeanor changes before he starts speaking to his brother again.

“God, Freeman,” Stanley says, his tone exacerbated. “Has it ever not been about you? Have you ever once thought of anyone else… considered anyone else except yourself?” The line goes silent for a moment.

“What was that, Stanley?” Freeman says, his voice obviously condescending.

“You know what?” Stanley says, his voice a bit gravelly and menacing, “I’ve stayed silent… for years, I’ve stayed silent just because I didn’t want to fight with you. I didn’t want that battle and I don’t want it now. There are three of us here. Herman has power of attorney and majority rules. Dad is being cremated in Seattle.”

“The fuck he is!” Freeman declares. “You get your ass and my father’s body on that plane and you bring him back here intact!”

“Or what?” Stanley roars. “What are you going to do, Freeman? You’re going to kick my ass? Did you forget I’m a grown ass man? What the hell are you going to do? You want to alienate me like you did Rick and Herman because they won’t kowtow to your ass anymore? You’re not the only one who counts here. We’re all his sons and we all have families that are all suffering in this, but for some reason, you seem to think that you’re the only one who counts in this equation. How can that be? How can you possibly be so selfish?”

“Dad’s family is here! In Detroit! Those bastards out there are not Greys! Rick kissed his family goodbye when he left and as far as I’m concerned, Herman can kiss my ass, too!”

“Is that so?” Uncle Herman chimes in. The momentary silence indicates that Freeman didn’t know that Uncle Herman was in earshot.

“Yes, that’s so!” Freeman says, definitively. “You want to turn your back on your family, then fuck you, too!”

“That’s fine by me, Freeman,” Uncle Herman says. “I thought one day that you’d wake up and not be such a miserable son of a bitch, but I guess that’s the way you’ll always be. I’m not turning my back on my family. Just you.” He raises his gaze to Stanley. “You say whatever it is you feel you need to say to him, but I’m done talking to that blowhard!” Herman marches out of the office and slams the door.

“I’ve said what I need to say,” Stanley says. “Get to Seattle, or I’ll see you back in Detroit with Dad’s ashes.”

“You ungrateful little bitch!” Freeman shouts. “Don’t you ever fucking come to me again when you need something!” Stanley laughs loudly.

“You’ve got me confused with someone else, Freeman!” Stanley shoots. “Think. Really. Hard. When’s the last time I called your ass for anything?” The line is quiet again.

“You called me when Dad went to Seattle. We agreed that he should be at home with his family!”

“Think again, Freem! You called me! I didn’t decide anything—you decided for me. You called Herman and Rick like it was both of our idea that Dad come back to Detroit. I just wanted Dad to be happy! He’s got an entire family of people out here who lined up to give him a kidney and you couldn’t even give them credit for that!”

“A lot of good it did him!” Freeman hisses. “He’s still dying!”

“Because no one matched!” Stanley retorts.

“That’s because they’re not his family!”

“We didn’t match either. What does that say?” The line is quiet again. “I’m sorry you don’t feel like this is your family, but they’re mine,” Stanley adds. “They’ve been nothing but kind to me since I got here and based on the way you treated them, they had every right to shun me, thinking that I was going to be like you.”

“They haven’t done anything for you, Stanley. You’re letting that big house and that money get to your head just like it did Herman!” Stanley shakes his head.

“You’re sick, Freeman,” Stanley says. “You and this rich-phobia you have, it’s out of hand. Dad is as comfortable as he can be under the circumstances, and this entire family has shown him nothing but love since he’s been here. He’s had his energy boost…” Stanley’s voice cracked on the words. “… And he told me about getting to hold his great-grandchildren, and about seeing a beautiful wedding… about meeting wonderful people and seeing a beautiful countryside. He told me about watching the sunset over the lake many nights. He told me about a young raven-haired girl who brightened his days by laying on his lap and calling him ‘Granddaddy…’ things our kids could have done if we hadn’t decided that we were too busy and that Herman had it all under control. But never… not once… did he mention money to me. Not once did the fact that he has a millionaire son and a billionaire grandson ever come into our conversation. Just that he’s loved and happy and comfortable… and that Mom visits him in his dreams. He’s at peace, Freeman. He was lucid and at peace… and you. Missed it.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it if they hadn’t taken my father away from me.”

“They didn’t take your father away, Freeman,” Stanley corrects him. “Renal failure took him away and you’re throwing away what’s left.”

“You’re a goddamn traitor, Stanley, and I want nothing else to do with you,” Freeman says coolly.

“Boo-hoo-hoo!” Stanley retorts. “If the way to stay in your good graces means I have to kiss your ass, then I’ll gladly walk my ass out of them. Just remember… when I get back to Detroit, I’m the one that’s going to have his remains, so don’t fucking cross me!”

“You assholes do what you want to do, but when you send my father back here, he had better be inta…” Stanley pushes the speaker button to end the call before Freeman concludes his rant.

“Are you going to be okay taking Dad’s ashes back to him?” Dad asks.

“What’s he going to do?” Stanley says.

“Did you forget Freeman likes to fight?” Dad says. “He came here and got into a fight with me and my son.”

“Well, that explains the shiner,” Stanley says.

“You should see the other guy,” I murmur. Stanley looks over at me and laughs before turning back to Dad.

“Freeman never could take me, Rick,” he says. “You guys assumed that because I wouldn’t fight him that I couldn’t fight him. Make no mistake, if Freeman steps wrong to me, I will stomp his ass so far into the ground, he’ll have to go to China to find it.”

Dad scoffs a laugh and I choke on nothing at the statement.

“Well, damn,” Elliot says. Stanley was pacing during the conversation, but now he takes a seat. He rests his elbows on his thighs and clasps his hands in front of him.

“Rick, I don’t know if Herman ever told you this, but it wasn’t that we weren’t speaking to you. We just never made to effort to contact you. Had you ever contacted us, we would have reciprocated. Freeman was the only one angry… the rest of us weren’t. He was just so… verbal with his anger and we just never said anything. Our lack of action is no excuse, but it was never because we held a grudge. It just seemed like something we would get to, eventually, you know…” Stanley trails off like he’s trying to find his words. “I’m surprised Nell came out here with Freeman. They’re on the verge of separation. His daughter barely speaks to him. I know this because our kids talk. I’ll be the one that spreads the word when Dad dies. Nobody speaks to Freeman… well, somebody does, but not many. With all his talk, he knows that I have to plan the memorial when I get back or no one’s coming. Herman’s right, he’s a miserable human being.

“I just want you to know that it wasn’t that we weren’t speaking to you. It was just easier to keep the peace if no one mentioned your name. It was a pussy-ass move and I’m sorry man and I hope that we can mend that situation. I just don’t understand why he was so pissed that you went out and found a wife and a family when he went out and did the same thing.”

“There’s nothing to mend, Stan,” Dad says. “I love you and I’ve always loved you. I’m glad I got a chance to spend time with my father before he passed away. It’s a sucky way for it to happen, but I got two of my brothers back, too. I feel bad for Freeman, but it is what it is.” Stanley sighs.

“Thanks, Rick.”

Elliot and I look at each other, silently swearing to one another that what we’re seeing here will never happen between us. It’s going to be a rough few days ahead, to say the very least.


A/N: Counting Down To The Ferryman—Ancient Greeks put coins in the mouths of the dead, believing they would have to pay the ferryman Charon to take them across the river Styx to the underworld.

I stand by my comment to the last chapter. I totally understand that grief can make us not act like ourselves, but when grief makes you lash out and treat other people like shit, you should expect whatever you get. So, for those of you who think that Ana should allow Christian to kick her because he’s grieving when she’s grieving, too, you will be sorely disappointed. And as always, if your comments become disrespectful, I will delete them. 

Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

You can join my mailing list on the “Contact Me” page. Just click the link and it will lead you to a form to join the list.

~~love and handcuffs

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 6—Changing Lanes

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 6—Changing Lanes

CHRISTIAN

“Like I said before, I’ve studied your vision for many years. I’ve always wanted the chance to work with you, not only for what you think I can bring to the company, but also for whatever knowledge I can glean from you, Mr. Grey,” Lorenz says as we take an informal tour of Grey House on Monday morning. I’ll be introducing him to the other departments at the department head meeting later. Right now, Ros and I are giving him a somewhat lay of the land.

“Your reputation precedes you, Lorenz,” I tell him. “Ros and I are on a first name basis, a privilege not shared with many on my staff. I would think it would be a bit awkward if I didn’t extend the same courtesy to you.” I gesture to him to enter the company cafeteria, which always has a chef on staff and a large selection of food for nearly every palette. “What’s most important to me in this relationship is that I have someone on my right and left hand that I can trust. There were many qualified candidates that applied for the position, but they didn’t fit the bill for more reasons than one.” I take the coffee from the counter. I rarely come down to the cafeteria in the morning, but when I do, they know that I want a fresh cup of black coffee.

“You have them trained well,” he says after he and Ros places an order, noticing that I didn’t need to. I raise my brow at him.

“They’re not trick ponies, Lorenz,” I chastise gently, and he immediately catches my meaning, “but they like to keep me happy.” I turn around to see who’s working today. “Thank you, Misty.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Grey,” she says with a bright smile. When Lorenz and Ros take their orders, we head back out of the cafeteria and continue our tour.

“As you already know, Ros and I both have families, so only the two of us running things has become a bit of a trial as of late since my wife just gave birth to twins. I was never very social as such before I met my wife, so my life has taken on a new dynamic. Even now, I really shouldn’t be in the office because my grandfather is in a very bad way, but there were things that needed to be handled—one of which was officially welcoming you to the company.”

“How is Burt?” Ros asks sympathetically as we are heading to the floor with the executive offices just under mine. I clear my throat and hide a sigh.

“Any day now,” I tell her as we round the corner towards Lorenz’s office.

“There are so many new technologies now, Mr. Gr… Christian,” Lorenz says sympathetically. “Maybe there are ways that they can prolong his life.” I shake my head.

“We wouldn’t want that,” I say. “He’s suffering right now and we try to keep him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. We don’t want to prolong his suffering just so that he could have a few more seconds with us.”  Lorenz nods.

“I understand,” he says. “This must be very hard on you.”

“It is,” I sigh. “It’s a long story that I don’t want to repeat right now, but I haven’t had him in my life for very long and now I’m losing him. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.”

“Well, I’m a praying man, Christian, and I’ll pray for your family.” I nod again.

“Much appreciated, Lorenz.” I straighten up. “Now, enough about me. I’m going to leave you in Ros’ very capable hands while I get some things done in my office. You know where to find me and I’ll see you at the department head meeting at ten.” I leave him and Ros to finish the tour as I make my way back to my office. I’ve decided to finish the quarters behind my office that have been dormant and unfinished for over a year now. Security is tighter this time around and workers must be registered and scanned with temporary badges into GEH’s security grid and then scanned again before they are allowed off the elevator onto this floor and the stairwells are guarded—no access. The work was nearly done before the Pedophile made her appearance that day, so there’s not much left to do. As such, the work can go on behind me without much noise or disturbance.

I sit down at my desk, still pondering Uncle Stan’s situation. It really shouldn’t be that hard to get him the time off that he needs to come and say goodbye to Pops. I just don’t know how to go about doing it without direct connections within the company. Sure, I know some people on the mountaintop, but by the time they even make their way to top level executives on the factory food chain, let alone down into the trenches, Pops will have passed on. I’ve got to come up with something fast.

“Andrea, come in here for a moment, please,” I beckon her over the intercom.

“Yes, sir.” A few moments later, she’s in front of my desk with her tablet.

“I need you to skip the department head meeting this morning. Let Luma take the minutes for you…”

“Luma’s not here, sir,” she says. “You gave her permission to take time off due to your family crisis.”

Shit, that’s right. I completely forgot.

“Dammit!” I exclaim, running my hands through my hair.

“What is it, sir?” I lean on my desk and fold my arms.

“I know how hard it is to transcribe minutes after they have been recorded, but I may need you to do that. I have a time-sensitive issue that requires your immediate attention. I may still be working it from other angles, but I need every possible angle explored.” She looks at me expecting.

“Okay,” she says. “I’ve become accustomed to being in two places at the same time. What do you need?” I sigh.

“Will you see if you can find out who I would need to talk to if I want to get some time off for a factory worker in one of the Big Three in Michigan? He’s out of paid leave and can’t get a leave of absence, so I think they’re throwing the book at him. I don’t want to rock the boat, though, because he still has to return to this job when all is said and done.” She bites her lip in contemplation and nods.

“I’ll see what I can find out,” she says. “I’ll start in the obvious places and work my way up. You better get to the meeting, though. You’re about to be late.” I look at my watch and push myself off the desk.

“It’s not like they can start without me…”

The announcement of Lorenz being added to the team is met with a bit of a lukewarm reception. Many of the department heads are wondering why I didn’t hire from within. It’s because I’m not 100% pleased with the performance of some of the departments and putting one of these people in an executive position over the company when they can barely handle an executive position over a department would have been a huge tactical error.

“Who would you have suggested that I choose from inside?” I ask, directing the question at the department head who raised the issue.

“Well, I’m just saying that… we would have liked the opportunity to have applied for the position,” he retorts, his voice lacking the conviction and accusation that it held moments ago. “We weren’t even extended the invitation.” It’s a very valid argument, but still doesn’t address the question.

“And again, I pose the question to you… who would you have suggested that I promote from the inside?” I ask. “You’ve been in the department head meetings nearly every Monday for the past several years with most of the people in this room. Tell me—honestly—who would you have suggested that I promote from the inside?” He looks around from person to person and doesn’t provide an answer. What’s more remarkable is that he doesn’t even offer himself as a viable candidate. I turn my attention to the hand that I see raised to my right.

“Mr. Grey, are we to understand that there’s no further room for advancement from where we are now?”

The million-dollar question. All eyes are on me. I am now presented with a situation where most high-level executives or owners find themselves—where I must put my foot down and show these people who’s boss without prompting a mass work stoppage or walkout. This situation must be handled both firmly and gingerly.

I stand from my seat, something I very rarely do in a department-head meeting. Accusing and expectant glances now become cautious. You’ve rattled the boss’s cage and he can no longer sit here quietly and observe the show. Now you’re nervous… and you should be. The sleeper has awakened—again.

“Mr. Carlton,” I say, buttoning my jacket, “besides the introduction of Mr. Fineman, what has prompted this line of questioning?” He considers his answer.

“Nothing, sir,” he replies. “Nothing before this made me think about possibly being able to advance—nothing but the creation of a position into which one of your senior managers could have advanced, but were never given the opportunity.” There’s a small murmur in the room.

“I see,” I say, stepping away from my seat and beginning my circle of the table, much like my wife did a few months ago when I announced that she was a major shareholder, which brings me back to the conversation. “So, before the creation of this vice-presidential position, were you satisfied with your station? Your salary fair? Your benefits and incentives suitable? Your company car and other executive perks acceptable? That’s not a trick question—there’s no wrong answer. This is not a trap.” He pauses for a moment.

“Well, yes sir,” he says. “My salary is quite generous and I’m very happy with my perks.” I nod.

“How about anyone else in this room?” I ask. “Is there anyone in this room who feels that their annual raises should be more? Their bonuses are not adequate? Not enough vacation time? Anything? Again, not a trick question and no wrong answer.”

I can see the honest contemplation on the faces of many of the people in the room, but none of them show discontent with their compensation.

“Okay, so let’s address another issue,” I say in the most diplomatic way possible. “How many of you feel restless, like the position that you’re in has you locked in a fishbowl and there’s nothing else to offer?” I’m looking for the Dodds in this one. I can’t have another person in an executive or management position trying to find a way to sabotage my company. Dodd’s fate was never made public. Hell, I don’t even know what happened to him. To that end, no one knows what would become of them if they cross me in such a manner, and this situation is the perfect environment for mutiny. A few hands are raised, some quickly and others more slowly. I make a mental note of the hands that I see in the air.

“That’s understandable,” I respond, to the surprise of many of the people in attendance, “especially if you’ve been here for any extended period of time. There are a few points that I feel compelled to make at this juncture,” I say, still circling the room. “First of all, as you all know, my life has taken on some major twists in recent years, which requires that I immediately have a more flexible schedule. For that reason, I was forced to seek out a qualified professional who could effectively be me in my absence with little to no training as quickly as possible. Being totally honest, who among you would have been able to stand from this table at this very moment and do that job?”

I emphasize the fact by pointing to Lorenz. They look from one to another and once again, no one can produce a suitable candidate.

“As I pointed out in his introduction, Mr. Fineman’s qualifications, resume, and references are impeccable. He comes highly recommended and leaves nothing but success in his wake. GEH is lucky to have acquired him and I hope that my executive management staff will be respectful and cooperative as he familiarizes himself with the intricacies of this organization.” That’s more information than they really deserve, but that’s okay. I’m only building up to tearing down that false sense of security.

“Every ladder has a certain number of rungs, which means at some point, you reach the top of that ladder. My management staff are all at the top of that ladder. Mrs. Bailey and I are not on that ladder. Being on that ladder insinuates that you can go down… and you can go down.” I add that last part in as a pre-warning for what’s coming next.

“Mr. Carlton, I’ll answer your question, now. This room is full of the elite of my company. Most of you worked your way to these executive positions. Others of you—like Mr. Fineman—were hired based on your qualifications. You are the cream who have in one way or another risen to the top and yes, this is the highest that you can go in the company. Having said that, please note that should you feel discontent in your position, you are more than welcome to tender your notice and resignation. Upon proper notice, I will be more than happy to honor your contracts with any severance packages promised as well as adequate references based on your performance with this organization. I’m very certain that there are other positions that would offer an opportunity for advancement, but I’m not remiss to say that you would be very hard pressed to find the kind of compensation offered by GEH.

“I did not add an additional rung to the advancement ladder,” I continue. “I hired someone to assist me with executive job duties, which are the duties that perform. Listening to your concerns and weighing them with your answers regarding your compensation packages, I conclude that had I continued doing what I was doing—trying to spread the work between me and my second in command, which was causing us undue stress and grief—you all would have been happy with your compensation and positions as long as I didn’t hire anyone over you to perform job duties that any of you have yet to say that you could step up and perform at a moment’s notice.”

There is still silence in the room. Even the quiet got quieter. And now, the death blow.

“While you are the best of the best of GEH, know this. This is a non-stock corporation. There are no stockholders, no board of directors and no members. There’s only me, my wife, and very soon, my infant children. This means that I. Answer. To no one. I decide I want something done, it’s done. Your ideas, concepts and departmental needs must be approved. Mine. Do not!

“I’m not accustomed to having to explain the decisions for how I run my company to anyone except my wife, who is also a majority shareholder in this company. The only other shareholders in this company will soon be my infant children, and I only answer to them for food, shelter, and the occasional diaper change. While your questions were justifiable based on your positions and concerns, and warranted answers, understand that this will be the last time I will ever be urged to address executive decisions made by me for Grey Enterprises Holdings, Incorporated. I know and understand that as of late, I haven’t quite been the ballbuster that I once was, but make no mistake… he’s not dead. I can bring him back anytime anyone feels the need to be reminded just how far my reach can go.

“Mr. Fineman came from an exclusive talent pool assembled for immediate need. With your qualifications, you can all join that talent pool, but you can also be replaced from it. Also remember that while there are unfortunately no positions above you that can be filled by you at this time, there are talented people in this company that would be only too happy to take the positions you choose to vacate. I will only remind of your NDA’s and your legal obligations concerning proprietary information. I will also caution you that your positions are based on skill… and loyalty. Breach of my trust comes with severe penalties. I would tell you to ask around, but I would first challenge you to find anyone who has breached my trust in any prominent or desirable position anywhere.”

I’ve made my way back to the head of the table and face the occupants of the meeting. Many of them appear to have shrunk in their seats… or something. I unbutton my jacket, sit back in my seat, and cross my ankle over my knee.

“Are there any questions?”

And there’s that rat pissing on cotton again.

“Then this meeting is adjourned. Ms. Bailey, Mr. Fineman, Mr. Forsythe, Mr. Welch, can you remain behind, please?” The other department heads rightly take this as their cue to scramble out of the conference room like roaches.

“Well,” Lorenz says, “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you in action so soon.”

“Neither did I,” I say, “but that’s nothing. Wait until you see me in negotiations.” I turn to Alex. “Did you make note of who raised their hands?”

“I did, sir,” he says.

“You know what to do. Keep reports and let me know if anything develops.” Alex nods.

“Yes, sir,” and he leaves without another word. I turn back to Ros, Al, and Lorenz, who raises his eyebrow at me. “You can’t be too careful,” I say.

“I’ll make sure to stay on your good side,” he says. I nod. I decide to direct the conversation to Uncle Stan.

“I have a delicate situation on my hands right now. It’s time sensitive—extremely time sensitive—and if I can’t find a sensible solution to the issue by day’s end, I’m going to have to roll through this thing like a bull in a China shop and I really don’t want to do that.”

“What’s up?” Ros asks.

“It’s one of the reasons I hired you, Lorenz, to give me time with my family. I need to know who I would talk to if I want to arrange so time off for an employee of a company that we supply steel to. Human resources have proven to be a no-go, so there has to be another way. This is of the highest immediate importance.”

“Detroit?” she asks. I sigh.

“Yes. One of my uncles works for the Big Three, but he’s taken all the time that he can and can’t get any time off to see Pops before he dies. I’m open for any suggestions.”

“You’re sure there’s no luck with human resources?” Al asks.

“Nobody to sweet talk,” I admit, “or threaten. I don’t want to strong-arm my way through this. I know that I could if I wanted to… money talks. But my uncle has to go back to work at that place when this is all said and done. If there’s any way that this can be done the same way that any other employee would be able to get help in an emergent situation, I’d prefer that, but I don’t have time to dawdle. If I can’t get this done in a reasonable manner by the end of business today, then I’ll strong arm, but I would prefer not to.”

“Steel workers… Have you tried the union?” Lorenz asks. I twist my lips.

“I don’t know what the union could do besides collective bargaining. Am I missing something?”

“They’re supposed to be on the side of the worker. I know most of them have funds to help with bills and whatnot when they decide to strike. There has to be something in place for a situation like this. A leave bank or something? With time being at a premium, I’d say go as high as you can in the UAW.” I don’t want to admit this early that the guy’s a fucking genius, but the guy’s a fucking genius. I never even considered going to the union.

“Okay, I’m ashamed to say that this is the first time I’ve tried to help the little man, so to speak, so I don’t know which direction to go,” I confess.

“That’s not true, Christian,” Ros says, frowning deeply. I turn my gaze to her. “Jim Radcliff? The Martins? Luma?” she reminds me.

“The Johnsons?” Al interjects. “Marlow? Sophia Taylor? Val?”

“Those people are all family,” I remind him.

“There weren’t when you helped them,” he retorts. “The Radcliffs and the Martins aren’t your family and the others are only family because you welcomed them, except Val, who married your brother… after you helped her. Which reminds me… Chuck and his parents? Keri?” I put my hands up in surrender.

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I say waving my hands. Apparently, I’ve been fairy godfather to more people than I thought. Lorenz smiles at me.

“You’re a secret philanthropist, sir?” he asks.

“Apparently so,” I say, running my hands through my hair. “Lorenz, can you help me out, here? I’m usually not at such a loss and my only care is normally that things are just handled—thoroughly and properly. This time, it’s different. The situation is out of my hands and it involves a direct family member, so it also needs to be handled carefully.” Lorenz runs his hands over his chin and beard in contemplation.

“Can you give me an hour?” he asks.

“Not much more than that,” I say. “I have to make something happen really soon. I’m already on borrowed time.” He nods once and excuses himself.

“I think he’ll do fine,” Ros says, once he leaves the room. “He comes with his own contacts, you know.”

“I know,” I tell her. “That can be a good thing or a bad thing. We’ll just have to wait and see which…”

I was about to find out sooner rather than later which…

*-*

“I have Dennis Williams on the phone for you, Mr. Grey,” Andrea’s disembodied voice informs me. I was standing just inside the door of my nearly-complete sleeping quarters when I get the alert.

“Dennis Williams?” I ask, frowning. Who the hell is Dennis Williams? “Did I have a conference call that I wasn’t aware of?”

“No, sir,” she informs me. “Mr. Williams is calling from the UAW Solidarity House in Detroit. He’s the sitting president of the United Auto Workers union.”

The sitting president… The fucking sitting president… Are you kidding me?

“Which line?” I ask, quickly taking a seat at my desk.

“Line one, sir,” she says. I press the blinking light for line one.

“Christian Grey,” I say into the phone.

“Mr. Grey, hello. This is Dennis Williams from the UAW in Detroit.” I can tell he’s an older gentleman. I would have liked to have been better prepared for this call, something I’ll discuss with Lorenz in the future, but in this case, I’ll make an exception. I did pretty much tell him that my ass was on fire.

“Hello, Mr. Williams,” I respond. “I wish I could say that I was expecting this call. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I hear that a colleague of mine is now in a senior position in your company… Lorenz Fineman?” A colleague?

“Yes, he’s accepted the position of executive vice-president with Grey Enterprises Holdings,” I confirm.

“I should clarify, he’s not really a colleague,” Williams adds. “He’s helped us with some difficult situations in the past—strictly legitimate business, of course. When he called asking for my assistance with an urgent matter, I couldn’t possibly turn him down. He says it has to do with your uncle and the steel company that supplies the Ford plant. Do you have time to talk to me about it?”

Oh, boy, do I!

“I’d appreciate any help you can give me,” I inform him. “I should first tell you that I own controlling shares of Severstal.” The line is momentarily quiet.

“You do?” he says.

“Yes. So, if I wanted to push people around and be a bully and get things done, I could, but I don’t want to do that. My uncle is an honest working man and I don’t want to cause any trouble for him.”

“Grey!” Williams says, finally. “Of course! How did I not make that connection?” I laugh to myself.

“For some reason, a lot of people don’t. Maybe that’s a good thing. My own uncle didn’t even know until this past weekend, but that’s a different story. The situation is pretty simple and I just want to know if there’s anything that can done about it.”

“Well, let’s hear it. We’ll do whatever is in our power.”

“That’s all I ask. His name is Stanley Grey and he’s in the Dearborn Ford Plant. He’s used all of his leave time due to other emergent family issues. However, his father—my grandfather—is out here in Seattle with me and my father. He’s dying of kidney failure and he doesn’t have long left to live… a week, maybe. All his sons have been out here to see him before he passes except Uncle Stanley. It would mean a lot to my family if we could get him out here before Pops dies. He can’t use FMLA because he’s not the primary caregiver and Pops isn’t dead yet. So, you see my dilemma.”

“Yes, I see,” he says. “This is a fairly easy fix, though, and totally legit.” I hear him typing into his computer. “Stanley Grey… yes, there’s only one Stanley Grey in the Dearborn plant.” He types some more. “Yeah, I see he has used all of his time.” More typing. “He’s got an impeccable record, though. Long-term employee… no disciplinary action… We shouldn’t have a problem getting him some time from the bank.” I frown.

“The bank?” I ask.

“Yes, the paid-leave time bank,” he replies, still typing. “Employees have an option to donate time to the paid leave bank for situations like this. You never know what might happen. The union is a team, Mr. Grey. We have to look out for one another.” More typing. “Your Uncle has probably donated to the bank himself, but once the time is donated, it’s just classified by pay grade, not by person.”

“Does my Uncle know about this? Why didn’t he just ask for some of the time?” I ask.

“He might have, but there’s a process in getting the time approved and by the time it’s approved, it sounds like your grandfather would have already passed on.” He continues typing. “Yes, he applied for emergency time—two weeks. He withdrew it, though. I’m assuming it was just too close.” I hear more typing. “I’ll admit, Mr. Grey, this is partially special treatment because Mr. Fineman is a friend that we would like to keep in our good graces; but this is also the very reason why we have this time bank, for situations like this. Your uncle is entitled to this time and with his record, he most likely would have been approved. But based on what you’re telling me, it probably would have been too late for him to see his father before his death.” I hear shuffling on the other line, then a woman’s voice before Williams answers her.

“Can you get Dearborn HR on the line?” he tells her. “Tell them to check the leave bank database for Stanley Grey. This is his employee number. His leave bank request for two weeks has been approved effective immediately and he needs to be released as soon as possible. Tell them his father is gravely ill—use those words, Karen… gravely ill.” I hear the female voice say something on the other end and then a door closes.

“I appreciate you contacting the union, first, Mr. Grey,” Williams continues. “I’ll honestly say that I’m not really sure what you may have been able to accomplish through other channels, but even if you were unsuccessful in your plight, it still would have caused us problems.” I frown.

“I don’t quite follow,” I say.

“Well, HR works with us with the banked time, but the union maintains it and submits the requests for approval. Let’s say you went the traditional ‘heads will roll’ route, calling in favors or raging at whatever executives you knew. That shout would have started in Severstal’s hallowed halls, which would have made its way to through Severstal executive offices. After bouncing around shivering executives for a while, it finally would have made it to Ford’s board of directors… if you’re lucky. They would run around for a day or so trying to find out who should be blamed. Big man from one of our largest steel vendors is trying to get something done for his uncle. Who the hell is his uncle? They would be so busy running around scared that it would probably take them another day to figure out that Stanley Grey was in the Dearborn Plant.

“Now, they call HR and they go through the entire process all over again of discovering that Stanley doesn’t have any time left, even though you’ve already made this known in your request. Now, I must inform you that this information is not moving as quickly as it did between you and me—you talk to the source on the phone, I type in his name, find the request and get it approved and rushed through HR. No, this is going through a series of emails and executive memorandums that read like a game of CLUE with no one wanting to take any responsibility for this situation going into the crapper and Ford possibly losing its biggest supplier of steel since we know that Severstal has other large customers worldwide.

“After all this—probably three to four days after you’ve made the request—some clerk happens to see the notice and mentions it to someone in the know in HR that Stanley Grey needs some emergency leave and the request is coming ‘straight from the top.’ Keep in mind that the union may or may not get that ‘straight from the top’ information, assuming that we’ve been notified at all since no one thought to tell us.

“One of the reps on-site or at the local in Detroit is now trying to get this pushed through, but it still has to go through some kind of process at the union level. Let me tell you, Mr. Grey, news from the top gets to the union at a snail’s pace unless it’s something that directly has to do with us. Even then, it’s usually on a need-to-know basis and they decide who needs to know. By the time your ‘get this done yesterday’ request gets to us, it’s five days later. Your grandfather may have already passed away, and everybody’s now passing the buck until it lands in the lap of the union. So, by Mr. Fineman knowing to bring this matter straight to us, we’ve saved each other a lot of headache.” I hear a chime or some kind of notification. He’s silent and I hear typing. “And while I was telling my little story, your uncle has been notified of his approval and is clocking out as we speak.” I sigh heavily.

“Mr. Williams, you have my eternal gratitude. I don’t know how to thank you for this.”

“All I ask is that if there’s ever a reason for our paths to cross again, listen to Finney. He knows what we need.” Finney? Really?

“Thank you again, Mr. Williams. I don’t mean to be rude, but I need to make travel arrangements for my uncle… and I need to tell my father.”

“You’re quite welcome, Mr. Grey. Until and if we meet again, it was my pleasure.” We exchange pleasantries and end the call. I dial my uncle’s number.

“Hello?” he answers and I can tell that he’s in the car.

“Uncle Stanley?” I respond.

“Christian!” he exclaims. “You did it! I don’t know how you did it, but you did it!

“Are you driving, Uncle Stanley?” I ask, unable to mask my concern.

“I’m hands-free,” he says, chuckling. “You’re just like my wife. Your voice is coming through the speakers.”

“What do you need?” I ask, relieved. “How soon can you get here?”

“Well, I’ll have to get a flight,” he says.

“Let me see what I can do,” I tell him. “I would send my jet, but it’s too short notice. If I can’t get you a flight within the next six hours, I’ll send my jet.” The line is silent for a moment.

“You have a jet?” he says, quietly.

“Yes, sir,” I tell him. He chuckles.

“Freem didn’t stand a chance,” he says. I don’t bother answering. Freem has a problem with money that I can’t explain.

“Will anyone be traveling with you?”

“No, not yet,” he says. “My wife may try to come later. There are some things going on with her job and our home that need our attention. She was more concerned about me getting to see Dad before… before he’s gone.” His voice cracks.

“Uncle Stanley, I’m going to try to make some travel arrangements for you. I’m going to end this call now. I don’t want you to be upset while you’re driving. How soon would you want to leave?”

“I’m going home to pack and wait for your call, son,” he says. I nod.

“Then I’ll call you with a flight as soon as I get one.” We say our goodbyes and end the call. I buzz my PA.

“Yes, sir?”

“Andrea, I need a first-class, straight through flight from Detroit to Seattle as soon as you can get it booked…”


ANASTASIA

I split my time today between cooing at my twins, talking to Pops, and being a buffer between Mia and her parents when they discussed continuing with her wedding plans. That last one was totally unnecessary as Grace and Carrick both agree that Mia should continue with her planning, just like Pops said. A few times, she came into Pops’ room with plans for the wedding and each time he saw her enter, his face lit up while she talked about small details like napkins, floating votives, centerpieces, and favors. I asked Pops if he wanted to rest and he politely said, “I’ll rest when I’m dead!” before turning to Mia and saying, “Nix the candle stands. I like the floating votives better. And the stones on the bottom should be gray—not iridescent. The iridescent stones look like dollar store dressing!”

“I thought that, too!” Mia had said. “I’ll let you know as soon as we narrow down the flower choices.”

“Whatever you choose, use lilacs instead of baby’s breath,” Pop’s calls out to her. “It’s prettier and aromatic, and it symbolizes new love.” Mia smiles widely.

“Thanks, Grampa,” she says sweetly before leaving his room. I turn back to Pops. “She’s doesn’t treat me like I’m dying,” he says as an explanation. “She’s giving me that gift, so I’m giving her the gift of showing interest in her wedding. That will be her final memories of me.” I smile as a tear drops down my cheek.

“Would you like to hold your great-grandson?” I ask. Pops toothless grin spans his entire face.

“I sure would,” he says, his gums on full display. I take Mikey out of the carrier attached to my body and place him gently in Pops’ arms.

“Hey, there, little fella,” he says sweetly to a sleeping Mikey. Again, Pops’ face lights up and I vow to keep as much life around him in the coming days that I can. His room is serene, welcoming death quietly and calmly like his life is already over, and that’s not what Pops wants. As he spends some quality time bonding with his great-grandson, I open the window and let some fresh air in. I come back over to his bed and sit down.

“You seem in good spirits today,” I say. He smiles at Mikey as he rocks him back and forth.

“You’re a doctor, child,” he says, still smiling at his great-grandson. “You know what this is.” I cringe inside. I know exactly what it is.

“You know what it is, Pops?” I ask cautiously. He nods.

“That last burst of energy that allows me to be coherent and say goodbye to my family,” he says, somewhat solemnly. “Ruby had it before she went home. It won’t be long, now.” I nod.

“I would say that you’re right,” I say, stroking Mikey’s silky brown hair as he sucks his binky intermittently without opening his eyes. “I can’t help but feel sad. I know what’s to come, but…” I hold my head down and quickly wipe away a tear. “… It just seems like we haven’t had enough time.”

“But we certainly made the best of what we had,” he said. “I loved reliving my life with my Ruby through talking to you. It was the most wonderful gift anyone could give me.”

“I’m glad I could do something for you during this time,” I say, feeling helpless.

“You’ve done so much!” he says. “Your wedding made it possible for me to reconnect with my son, meet my grandchildren, and know that the Grey name will continue to flourish well after I’m gone. Look at this!” He looks adoringly at Mikey. “Look at this gorgeous little man, this wonderful bundle of hope. I know that Ruby is so pleased that I got a chance to meet you all—to bond with you all and see my complete family before I pass on. This is why I’m not afraid. I have love and fulfillment on this side and I’ll have it on the other side. I just have to make the transition. What more could a man ask for?”

My tears flow freely now. I admire his strength and courage and I wish I had the chance to know him better before he’s taken away from us. A year seems so short.

“Tell me about your greatest adventure,” he says, catching me completely off guard.

“What?” I ask, a little shocked.

“I’m lucid and for the moment, I’m not dying. I want to hear about the living. Tell me about your greatest adventure.” I laugh softly.

“That would have to be marrying your grandson,” I reply. He scoffs at me.

“You’re supposed to say that,” he says in disbelief.

“Well, in my case, it’s true,” I say. “This relationship has been one roller coaster ride after another. I never know what’s going to happen next. There’s never a typical day in the life of the Greys. Everything we do, we do big… even screw up. I tell you, Pops, it’s been a wild ride.” He chuckles.

“Okay, then tell me about one of the adventures you’ve had since you married my grandson… a good one!” he clarifies. I only think for a moment.

“I would say that one of our best was our honeymoon, before it was cut short…”

I spend quite some time telling Pops about our trip to Europe. He’s never been, even though he’s taken a trip or three here and there with Ruby before she passed away. I relive the splendor of the Arc de Triomphe and the fact that Christian made me wear flats before we could see it. I hate flats because I’m already short, but I was already pregnant with the twins and didn’t know yet, so my feet were swelling in the stiletto boots I had been wearing for the last six hours. Pops sat in silent awe and wonderment as I talk about the wine tasting at a historic Paris champagne bar, seeing a show at the famous Moulin Rouge, and visiting the Eiffel Tower. He knows something else happened with the Eiffel Tower as I physically feel my face flush when I start talking about it, but he doesn’t press for details.

I continue with the beautiful sites and shopping of Paris, then take him on a mental trip through Greece. His eyes shine as if he can see the sites in his head and is traveling right along with me. We talk for hours about the Parthenon and the Acropolis, the bronze statues in the museum and church on Lycabettus Hill; the Olympic Stadium and the religious experience that was the prison and death place of Socrates; the wonder that is Delphi and the Santorini sunsets. Just as our virtual trip is coming to an end, I hear my husband’s voice and the whisper of a male voice that I don’t recognize. It’s only now that I realize that the sun has long since set and my son has slept for more hours than normal nestled in his great-grandfather’s arms.

“Pops!” Christian says in amazement as he enters the bedroom. “You look great! What… what happened?” Pops smiles at Christian, but doesn’t bother to repeat what we already know. Instead, he opts to enjoy what time he has left.

“Mikey here kept me content while Ana regaled me with fabulous tales of your honeymoon. It’s enough to put a little life in this tired old soul,” he replies. Christian smiles widely.

“Well, if that’s all it takes to get you looking and sounding this good, maybe I can put a little more life into you.” Christian leans out the door and gestures to someone. What looks like a young version of Carrick walks into the room.

“Stan!” Pops says with enthusiasm. “Son! Oh, my God! I’m so glad you made it!”

“Hi, Dad,” Stan says, walking into the room and approaching his father’s bed. Christian relieves Pops of Mikey, who promptly starts to fuss. Pops and Stan look at each other and embrace for long moments. Christian hands Mikey to me and we step out of the room to give father and son some much needed time together.

“He really looks good,” Christian says. “I haven’t seen him look this great since the wedding.”

“Yeah,” I say sadly. Christian examines me.

“What’s wrong?” I look up at him, almost not wanting to tell him what’s going on, but there’s no use in getting his hopes up.

“Christian,” I say softly, “often, during their last days, terminally ill patients get one last burst of energy right before they pass on. It could last anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days, but once the energy wanes, death comes pretty quickly. Pops is convinced that this is what’s happening and so am I.” I give him a sympathetic look as I comfort Mikey. He frowns deeply.

“What are you talking about? He looks great,” he protests. “He might be turning around. I think he’s on the mend.”

“On the mend?” I ask, gently. “Christian, you know that’s impossible. You know his condition. What exactly is mending? Do you think his kidney is suddenly becoming whole and healthy again?” His face transforms from hopeful and jubilant to angry.

“Look,” he says, squaring off against me like I’ve challenged him to a fight, “my grandfather is healthy and in good spirits. I don’t know how it happened, but he’s the best he’s looked in months, and I’m not going to let you take that away from me!” I gape at him in horror.

“Me?!” I say aghast. “What in the world makes you think I have control over anything in this situation? I’m just telling you what I know as a doctor!”

“Well, doctor, I know you went to school and you’ve got all that fancy learnin’…” He’s mocking me! He’s totally mocking me! “… But I think I’ll take the condition of my grandfather over your expertise!” He hisses before storming off angrily.

What just happened? What the fuck just happened? We’ve all been sitting here waiting for that inevitable day that Pops leaves us—we all even moved in so that we wouldn’t have to hear the news over the phone! Now, somehow, I’ve become the Angel of Death and my beloved husband ridicules my education and hard work because I point out that he’s having his last energy burst? Am I in the fucking Twilight Zone? Fuck Ashton Kutcher, where the fuck is Rod Serling??

I storm off in the same direction Christian did, stopping in the nursery to deposit Mikey into his crib. The energy in the house must be too much for my little man because he’s been asleep for hours, only stirring every now and then when he’s moved. He slips back into slumber when I lay him down, and I continue to Christian’s childhood bedroom. I change into a pair of yoga pants, a sports bra and my runners and dial the pool house.

“Williams,” Chance answers.

“This is Ana. I need an escort out front in five minutes. One second longer and you’ll lose me.” There’s a moment of silence.

“Um, yes ma’am,” he says before I end the call. I put on a hoodie over my sports bra, grab my purse, phone, and keys and I’m outta here.

*-*

“I’d like a three-day pass, please,” I say to the girl behind the counter. She hands me an application which I complete and pay her for a three-day pass. I’m at one of those 24-hour gyms to work off my frustration. I go straight for the heavy bag and let loose on it.

How the hell can he even wrap his mind around the concept that Pops is suddenly “on the mend” when he’s been suffering from chronic kidney failure since before he even got here?

You know what this is. The day is near and he’s battling the first three stages of grief all at once… emphasis on the bargaining with the energy burst.
That’s bullshit! This isn’t bargaining! He’s placing blame for the obvious on me and then he’s treating me shitty for knowing what’s going to happen next!

I wail away at the heavy bag, feeling even angrier that at a time when we should be soaking up our last moments with Pops, we’re actually fighting because he’s feeling better!

You’re the doctor. You know what’s going on here and you’re supposed to be the level headed one.
I don’t want to be the level head. I don’t deserve this abuse! I’ve had just as much time to get to know Pops as everyone else except Herman and Carrick. I love him, too, and I don’t want him to leave us either! I’m not taking my feelings out on anyone else! Why does he get to take his feelings out on me? Because of his title? Because him being adopted means he’s actually related and I’m not? He’s at home spending time with Pops and I’m here beating the hell out of leather and sand and arguing with you!

For the first time ever, I’m not feeling the burn I need from the heavy bag. There’s no one on the other end of my fist screaming and moaning in pain or begging for mercy, so I’m feeling no satisfaction. On that note, I take my sadistic ass over to the barbell weight bench to cause myself some real pain. There’s 100 pounds on the barbell and I quickly and easily do two reps of ten bench presses.

Not enough weight.

I add more weight up to 110 and still don’t feel anything after ten reps. I feel like I’m wasting my time.

“Chance,” I call and he’s by my side in moments. “Add ten more pounds to this.” He frowns.

“Ma’am?” he questions. Oh, fuck, do I have to go through this with everybody who ever sees me workout for the first time.

“Ten more pounds please take it up to 120!” I say all in one breath. He chews the inside of his cheek, but does what I ask, staying close by as I press 120 for two reps of 10. There, that’s a little more burn, but I still want just a little more.

“Fifteen,” I tell him. “Take it to 135.” He frowns, but does as I ask, removing some of the lighter weights and adding heavier ones to bring my total weight to 135. I lift the barbells and begin to feel the burn, but still not certain that we’re at 135. At my strongest, that’s the most I’ve been able to press and this doesn’t feel like 135.

“Are you sure this is 135?” I ask after my first rep of ten. He nods.

“You can look at the weights yourself. It’s 135,” he says. I sigh. I guess I’ll just do reps of ten until I can’t do anymore. I’m very likely to hurt myself doing more than 135 and I have nothing to prove to anyone. I just want to feel the burn in my muscles, but the first thing I’m going to do when we get back to the Crossing is have a heavy bag installed so that I’m not spending my nights at a 24-hour gym whenever I feel the need to kill someone.

“I assume you can spot,” I inquire. He gets into position at my head, ready to take the barbells should I hit the wall. I begin a second reps of ten with Chance spotting me, then a third, and barely make it through a fourth. On the fifth rep, I tap out at eight and Chance has to spot me. When he takes the barbells from me and put them back on the hook, I’m puffing and trying to catch my breath. I think I may have only slightly overdid it, but I’ll find a hot bath when I get back to Grey… Compound.

I see Chance’s hand as he extends it to me to help me off the bench. I grab his hand and he helps me sit up before handing me a bottle of cold water. I gladly take it and down half of it before I take a breath.

“Why do you need a bodyguard?” he asks, after taking a seat on a nearby bench. I frown.

“What?” I question.

“I just watched you bench press more than your own body weight for four reps of ten and one rep of eight after you pressed 120 for two reps of ten, 110 for one rep of ten, and 100 for two reps of ten. That’s ten reps totaling 98 presses in about 25 minutes after you damn near tore the heavy bags off the wall for twenty minutes… and you’re proficient with a firearm. Again, I ask, why do you need a bodyguard?”

His summation of the situation is somewhat facetious and draws a small chuckle from me.

“I don’t need a bodyguard, but my children do,” I tell him. “I need back-up,” I add. He raises his eyebrow at me. I dry the sweat off my body with one of the gym towels then proceed to clean the machine I was using. “The one time I was overtaken in my adult life, I was double-teamed and drugged.” We won’t talk about the pesky Green Valley situation when I was poly-teamed or jumped or whatever you want to call it. “I can take care of myself, but I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. That’s why I have a bodyguard.” He nods.

“I’d hate to ever have to go one-on-one with you,” he says. “You’re tiny and you’re strong and you’d slip out of my grasp and beat my ass.” I chuckle again.

“Yeah, I could take you,” I tell him, “maybe not face-to-face, one-on-one combat, but in a self-defense situation, I could take you. I’m just smart enough to know that I can’t take two of you.” I finish drying the machine off and put my hoodie back on. I didn’t bring a change of clothes, so showering and putting these sweaty clothes back on would be my only option. No thanks, I have a hot bath in mind when I return anyway.

“I don’t think anybody could take on two of me,” he says. I just shake my head.

“If you think so, but you’re not invincible, Chance. You’re just well-trained. You’re not the only one. Don’t get cocky,” I say as I walk out of the health club.

“I don’t,” he says, “except now, I feel a little better at times like this when I have to shadow you.” I turn a bemused gaze at him, questioning with only my eyes. He shrugs. “After what I just saw, you could be my backup!”

I laugh at him as we get in the car and head back to the Greys.

*-*

It’s quiet when I get back to the Manor. I go to the kitchen and quickly down a glass and a half of cold water before refilling my glass and heading up the stairs. I quietly open the door to the nursery and check in on the twins. It’s well past their feeding time and I can only assume that either they haven’t awakened yet or…

“They’ve already been fed.”

His voice has ice in it as I look over my shoulder at him. His eyes are laced with anger as he glares accusingly at me. I don’t have the time or the energy to go at it with him at this hour. I quietly close the door and head towards our temporary bedroom.

“Where have you been?” he demands, his voice low. I whirl around and look at him with incredulous impatience.

“Look at me,” I begin, gesturing at my attire. “I’m wearing gym clothes. I’m sweaty and funky. Where does it look like I’ve been? I went to work out!” I put a hand on my hip and await his rebuttal.

“It’s 3:00 in the morning,” he accuses. “Our children woke and you weren’t even here. Nobody knew where you were in the middle of the damn night!” I narrow my eyes at him, not in anger, but in disbelief.

“Security knew where I was!” I retort quietly. Like he says, it’s 3AM and we’re standing in the middle of the hallway. “I called them first to ask someone to go with me.”

“That’s strange, because when I called out there, they had no idea that you were gone!” he snaps. I shake my head. Chance answered the phone and I told him that he had five minutes to get out here or I was leaving. He may not have had an opportunity to tell someone, although that’s not very likely, but whatever. Why is he standing here hissing at me like a dog?

“Well, that’s strange to me, too, because I don’t recall hearing my cell phone ring questioning my whereabouts or even my safety. Hell, I’m surprised that you’re concerned where I was at all!” I retaliate before I even realize it. “You were so ready to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when I explained Pops’ burst of energy, just throwing shit on all my studies, my internship, my knowledge because you suddenly can’t accept that your grandfather is passing away. Why the hell would you even care about me when this is obviously all my fault, right?” My voice is getting a little louder than it should and Elliot sticks his head out of one bedroom while Grace and Carrick are now looking out of a room from down the hallway.

“We’re not talking about that right now. We’re talking about what’s bringing you home at 3:00 in the damn morning!” he shoots.

“I told you! I went to work out!” I rebut.

“At three in the damn morning? Yeah, I believe that.”

What the fuck? Does he just want to fight? No, Christian, no. Fucking no.

“Fine. Ask Chance—he was with me. Call 24-hour Fitness. Track the GPS you finally put on my damn car. Do whatever the fuck you want to verify if I’m lying to you. Let me know what you find out.” I turn to go into his room. I need to get out of these sweaty, nasty clothes and into some water, pronto. Only, for some reason, I can’t move forward. I hear my husband’s voice and I turn around and see fire in his eyes, though I don’t know what he’s saying. His words are lost in the haze in my head and the fact that he’s firmly gripping my arm. It feels like slow motion when my eyes travel from his down to his hand squeezing my arm and back up to his eyes.

“Like I said,” I begin, my voice slow and calculated as I look up at him through my eyelashes in a way that’s anything but sexy, “ask Chance; call the gym; check my GPS; check traffic cameras; find an eye-in-the-sky; track the Space Needle Weathercam; pray to a higher power; hold a séance and ask the dead. I really don’t care. Do whatever the fuck you need to do to get your answers since my fancy learnin’ word is no longer good enough for you! Now please! Remove your hand! From my arm! Before I take it the wrong way!”

He glares at me with a look that not only relays his fury, but also the fact that he doesn’t know who the hell I am right now. Damn straight, Grey. I don’t even know who the hell I am, so I think you better let go of my fucking arm. After a few seconds, he does just that. I go into our room without another word and close the door behind me.


A/N: Ashton Kutcher and Rod Sterling reference—Somewhere earlier in the story,  maybe in another book, something unbelievable happens to Ana and she asks, “Am I being Punked? Seriously, where’s Ashton Kutcher?” So, this situation is so much more unreal than that one that she’s certain that she’s graduated from Punk’d to The Twilight Zone and she’s now asking for Rod Serling, who was the host of the original series from 1959 – 1964.

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~~love and handcuffs