Raising Grey: Chapter 52—Just In Case…

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

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 52—Just In Case…

CHRISTIAN

“You told me not to talk about it anymore, so I’m not talking about it. However, I am a professional, and my concerns are real, tangible, and valid. That asshole got way too close last night, and you got way too comfortable. You may not see urgency in this situation and you may be right, but I’m not going to take any chances.”

Just as I’m finishing my coffee, my head of security informs me that we’ll have another detail following us today. So, instead of just me and Jason, it’s going to be me, Jason, and two other guards in a separate vehicle. I understand urgency—I felt it last night, but I fucked it out with my wife and I’m fine now. Apparently, Mr. Professional here didn’t fuck it out with Gail, and now I have an entourage.

“Don’t you think this is a bit drastic, Jason?” I ask. “I’m all for increasing security. I totally get it, but three guards in one car for one man?”

“You told a hired killer that you were getting your affairs in order last night. You’re inviting him to do something. You’re testing his hand, basically telling him, ‘Come and get me.’ It’s like you want to die.”

“I don’t want to die,” I seethe, “I’m just not afraid of death.”

“I’m not afraid of death either, Christian, but I’m not gunning to meet my Maker anytime soon. I have a wife, and I have a child, and I’d like to see her go to college, get married, maybe punch out a couple of grandkids for me. I know that my job comes with certain hazards, but I’m not jumping in front of bullets that don’t have to be aimed at you. So, as many times as you warn your wife to be careful, you need to do the same thing because last I checked, you got a couple of nuggets that you’d like to see get through college, too!”

“Does my wife know about this?” I demand.

“She’ll know that security has been increased when she leaves for Helping Hands, but she won’t know why. I thought I’d let you tell her, or if you prefer, I’ll have Chuck do it.” I look in his eyes and I realize that he’s not backing down on this.

“Shit,” I hiss. I stand from the breakfast bar to go find my wife.

I dread having to tell her this, but whenever I try to keep something from her, it causes so much angst between us and ultimately turns out to be a disaster. When I find her, she’s helping to pack up the twins.

“Hey, beautiful,” I say, when I walk into the room. Mikey is already buckled into his carrier and Butterfly is buckling Minnie into her seat.

“Hey, yourself,” she says after she gets my squirming daughter securely into her seat. “I thought you were already gone.”

“About to,” I say. “I need to talk to you about something before I go.”

“Oh?” she asks. “Is everything alright?” I look at Keri and Gail.

“Can you two excuse us for a moment?” I ask. Gail puts a diaper bag on her shoulder and lifts Mikey’s carrier. Keri does the same with Minnie.

“Ah’ll see ya downstehs,” Keri says as she’s the one who always goes to the Center with Butterfly and the twins. Butterfly was talking about getting Keri her own car. We may have to revamp that decision for a while. In fact…

“What’s wrong, Christian?” Butterfly asks.

“Chuck may have to drive you into town for a while… in your car, of course.”

“Why?” she asks. “What’s happened?” I sigh.

“Do you remember me telling you that Myrick made some enemies in Detroit which is why he’s in witness protection?” She tilts her head.

“Vaguely… really bad guys, that I remember.”

“Well, one of those really bad guys came to see me yesterday,” I confess. “He found out that I was in Detroit and decided to fly out here to tell me to get his boss’s permission the next time I decide to travel to Detroit.” Butterfly raises her brow.

“I see… and you said?” she inquires.

“I told him to kiss my ass,” I reply. “I feel like it was nothing more than a dramatic show of bravado for him to fly all the way across the country to try to get me to bow to his will. I was in Detroit for 24 hours. They found out that I was there, but never confronted me while I was there—probably because I was never alone. They would have had to barge into my uncle’s home, an attorney’s office, or a PI’s office to talk to me. Instead, he shows up at Grey House in a black car, his goon opens the door and tells me to get in… fuck you!” I say that last part more to myself than to Butterfly.

“So… did he threaten your life?” she asks.

“Not overtly, but it was easily implied,” I admit.

“Ah… hence the fuck me like it was the last time fuck last night,” she says, a little perturbed. Why is she perturbed? Didn’t she enjoy it? “And that confused look on your face says you don’t have a clue why I’m irritated.”

“Um… no,” I admit.

“What if it was the last time, Christian?” she scolds. “You don’t think I deserved to know something was up?”

So… um… now I don’t dare tell her that I was afraid of her being taken away from me as opposed to being afraid of me leaving her.

“I can only say that I’m sorry, Butterfly, but there’s a condition to that. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you immediately, but I couldn’t—not because the time wasn’t right, but because I was physically unable to talk about it. It was on me so hard that I couldn’t even think to talk about it. I was too stressed out and I had to release it before I could even approach it. I was going to go to work and talk to our security team and come up with a plan of action. Then, I planned on talking to you about it. Jason beat me to it and beefed up security.”

“So, if Jason hadn’t beefed up security…” she begins.

“I would have told you after we had a plan of action,” I interrupt her.

“What if something had happened before you had a plan of action?” she snaps. I don’t have an answer for her, and I’m getting drawn and tense again.

“I was wound tighter than a dollar store watch when I came into this house last night,” I say, forcing my voice to be calm. “I simply cannot regurgitate everything that’s going on with me when I’m wound that tight. You have to give me time. My options were to fuck you or avoid you, and I needed you so badly…” I trail off and clench my fists, trying to relax and not lose my temper. “I wasn’t fucking you like it was the last time. I was loving you until I could think again, until I could breathe again. And the burden was so heavy that when I finally released it, I could do nothing else but sleep. I would have told you. I just. Needed. To think. I thought after being with me all this time and knowing me and knowing how I handle things…”

“You’re right,” she says, her hands moving quickly to cup my cheeks. She kisses me firmly on my lips. “You’re right. I’m sorry,” she says, rubbing my arms and furrowing her brow. “Boogeyman.”

Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

“I’m sorry, too,” I say. “This is not the Boogeyman, baby. We’re just being careful, okay? With all my heart, I think this man is all hot air or he would have done something by now. He even said as much.” She sighs heavily and drops her head.

“What do you mean he said as much?” she asks, somewhat resigned.

“He told me that if he meant me harm, it would have been done by now.” She sighs again.

“Well, that’s comforting,” she says sarcastically.

“That’s why Jason has added extra security,” I tell her. “We’re being cautious, not taking any chances.” She nods.

“Okay… what about Marilyn?” I roll my eyes. I forgot about Marilyn.

“We probably want to get another guy on her, too,” I say. “You’ll let her know or do you want me to do it?” She shakes her head.

“I’ll tell her,” she says. “Now, I’m having second thoughts about the exposé.”

“Not that I’m trying to scare you, but you have to know… there’s nothing that the exposé will show that these people didn’t already know. The biggest trump card that I have in my pocket right now is that we have a mutual enemy and quite frankly, that’s all we have in common…” which makes me even more fucking anxious to find Myrick wherever the hell he’s hiding.

“Okay, so… yeah, I better get to the office. I guess the sky is falling for all of us.” She mumbles the last part. I don’t bother asking what she means.

“I need to get going, too, baby,” I tell her leaning down and kissing her on the cheek. “Are we okay?” She touches my cheek again.

“Yes, we’re okay,” she says, but I’m not convinced. “I’m working on chasing away the demons. They don’t leave overnight, you know.” She smiles weakly.

“Yes, Butterfly,” I say, cupping her face. “I know.” I kiss her lips gently, then leave to join Jason. I can’t help but notice what looks like a convention of black suits in the garage. I don’t even bother asking.

“Let’s go,” I say, listlessly while climbing into the back seat and closing the door behind me.

My mind wanders to everything happening right now that requires my attention. The implications of Aragon’s visit and the subsequent need for two men in the car with me; whatever the hell is going on with the storage bins in Detroit—I have to call Smalls. He didn’t call me back yesterday and I can only assume that either Uncle Herman was able to get all the authorizations needed or it was just too late to do anything once and if clearance was given. So, that will be the first thing I deal with when I get to the office. While I’m pondering what other dilemmas will most likely confront me, Jason answers his phone through his earpiece.

“Taylor… fuck!” He snatches his earpiece from his ear and swerves a bit to regain control of the car.

“What the hell, Jason?” I demand, our passenger holding on to the door handle and glaring at Jason as well.

“My apologies, sir,” Jason says through his teeth, his fingers rubbing feverishly at his ear. “It’s your wife.” Well, shit, he doesn’t sound happy. I turn to the other guard.

“Put his phone in the cradle. Put her on speaker.” He really didn’t need to because the moment he picks up Jason’s phone, I can hear Butterfly screaming.

“Shit,” I whisper before Butterfly’s screaming voice is piping through the car speakers.

“Ana,” I say, trying to get her attention. She’s still screaming.

“Ana.” Still no acknowledgement from my screaming wife.

“ANASTASIA!”

“WHAT?” she shoots back at me.

“You know Jason is driving, Anastasia. What the fuck are you doing calling him screaming in his ear?”

“So, he hands the phone to you so that I can scream at you?” she asks sarcastically.

“No, your voice is piping through the whole damn car. Jason nearly killed us getting his earbud out of his ear!” There’s sweet silence, but only for a moment.

“There’s a goddamn caravan following me to work, Christian,” Butterfly complains. “What the hell is that? Is all of this really necessary?”

“There’s no need to be dramatic, Butterfly…”

“Don’t patronize me and I’m not being dramatic! I work at a fucking shelter, for Christ’s sake! You know, sanctuary? The press is going to be all over me!” I throw a look at Jason, who looks everywhere but at me. “What aren’t you telling me, Christian?” my wife demands.

“I’ve told you everything. There’s nothing else,” I say. I see Jason’s posture shift. He knows I haven’t told her everything, but there’s no way in hell I’m telling her that man said that he would come to my house.

“There’s apparently something you missed!” she declares. “I look like the French delegation driving across the bridge. The only thing that’s missing are the damn flags. What’s going on!”

“I’ve told you what’s going on,” I reinforce. “Jason just feels that we should have more protection for a while since that guy came to Grey House last night.” Jason’s shoulders relax a bit. I’m certain he thought I gave her some sugar-coated version of what happened. I told her exactly what happened… except that I told the guy that I wasn’t afraid of death, and that he threatened to come to my house.

“What the hell happened, Christian?” she barks. “There are eight people following me! In the other vehicles!”

“What?” I exclaim, my eyes widening. She’s not exaggerating. That’s fucking ridiculous. “Jason…!”

“It’s because there’s four of you,” Jason interjects impassively. “We’re just trying to keep you all safe, Your Highness.”

“This is bullshit and you both know it!” she says, most likely convinced that I knew the entire Delta Force was going to be following her this morning. I kinda did know. The MIB convention in the garage somewhat gave it away. I just chose to ignore it.

“Jason is just being extra cautious,” I hiss through my teeth, mostly at Jason.

“Well, guess what? I don’t give a fuck how cautious Jason is right now. This is fucking ludicrous! Every time you make some kind of change to security, I go along with it. There are eight fucking people following me! This is outrageous!”

She’s right. It is outrageous, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. They’re headed across the bridge. It’s not like I can tell them to go away. I guess I was pondering the situation a little too long because the next thing I hear is…

“You know what? Never mind.” She ends the call abruptly. She. Is. Pissed.

“Fuck!” I hiss loudly. I look over at Jason who refuses to make eye-contact with me and we ride silently to Grey House.

*-*

“Fix this. Now,” I say to Jason once I’ve had a macchiato and a glazed apple fritter and calmed my nerves. “What the hell, sticking eight guards behind her? She’s more of a target with all these people behind her than she was before. You must see that.”

Jason and Alex are sitting across from me in my office, a unified front against my demands about this insane increase in security, I suppose.

“She’s got some of our best men around her, sir,” Alex replies. “Nobody’s getting near her and those babies…”

“At this point, I couldn’t get near her and those babies!” I retort angrily. “Don’t you see the problem with that?”

“Sir, Russo is mafia. There’s no other way to put that. This is big time. If he wants you dead, you’re dead. Your family’s dead. Your friends are dead…”

“And if that’s the case, eight guys surrounding my wife and drawing attention to her isn’t going to stop him, now is it?” I interrupt. “I’m not highly impressed with his techniques or intimidated by his reach and ability. He hasn’t presented me Myrick’s head on a platter, yet.”

“Myrick’s in hiding. You’re not,” Jason points out.

“Which further proves that he’s not as omnipotent as both of you seem to think he is!” I snap. “When I had a message for Myrick, I went to Ionia—I didn’t send Jason. When I had a message for Elena, I went to the Washington State Prison—I didn’t send Jason. When I had a message for Courtney after she threatened my wife, I trapped her in the ladies’ room—I didn’t send Jason. When I had a message for Loverboy Investigator, I went to the State building—I didn’t send Jason. Hell, when Butterfly had a message for David before he offed himself, she went to the prison—she didn’t send Chuck. She went to some hick hole trailer park in California to personally confront the bitch that was responsible for her beating in Vegas. She had security, but she went, and I’m supposed to be shaking in my boots from some motherfucker that doesn’t even have the guts that my wife has?

“He keeps sending his consigliere every time he wants to make a point. Big fucking deal! I’m not talking to that guy anymore and I mean that! If Russo wants a war, he can do it, and I can’t win it, but these scare tactics are not fucking going to work with me!”

I’ve had enough of this shit. I’ve had enough of all of it. I know that these men sitting before me can do more than what they’re doing without sending the fucking A-Team around with my wife.

“I want my wife and family secure as much as you do, but this? No. If those bozos in the FBI can keep Myrick hidden and safe, you can keep my wife safe without drawing this much attention to her. You’re doing a fan dance for this fucker and you know it, and I’m not going to play his game. I’ll accept reasonable security enhancements, but this is overkill. Whatever point you’re trying to make, you’ve made it. You’re pissing me off and you’re scaring the fuck out of my wife. Call them off.” Jason finally decides to speak.

“With all due respect, sir, the threat that’s facing us is a real and present danger. I’m not trying to make a point; I’m trying to keep you safe!”

“I don’t think you heard me,” I say crisply. “Call. Them. Off. This is not a request.”

Jason glares at me and I don’t back down. He’s going overboard, and my wife is right. This is ridiculous.

“If imminent danger comes at my wife or our children, there can be ten men coming at her and as long as someone’s got her six, two to five of them will fall at her hand from her bullets. She doesn’t need eight people and you know this. Call them off.” Jason’s lips purse as he visibly prepares his retort.

“Two extra guards, one extra vehicle when the children are with her. That’s it. Make it happen or call them all off besides the regulars. Your choice,” I say.

“Less vehicles means a lower tactical advantage,” he warns.

“It’s all chance, Jason,” I inform him. “You and I both know that tactical advantage won’t mean shit if they really want her.” My words are grave, but true. Everything we do is a precaution. My home is a fortress, but if anyone is willing to risk their life to get to her, they can do it. Jason shakes his head.

“What’s going on with you?” he asks. “You’re usually the most cautious guy I know. Now it’s like you’re staring death in the face like you really don’t care.”

“Oh, make no mistake, I care. If anything happens to my wife, I will personally find whoever’s responsible, shoot them in every extremity several times and watch them bleed out. I can’t very well do that if I’m dead, so yes. I care very much about life. But my wife is teetering on the edge of a proverbial cliff every damn day. We’ve had this discussion. I don’t have time to be meek. And after she and I have both confided in you about her fears and how she’s feeling, I can’t for the life of me fathom how you thought it was a solid idea to trail her with three vehicles and eight damn guards!”

The military man in Jason suddenly slips away and his expression is now unreadable. I have no idea what’s going through his head, but just like that…

“I’ll take care of it,” he says. I know you will. You were bordering on insubordination and I was about to suspend your ass.

“Thank you,” I nearly hiss before turning to Alex. “What’s the word on Myrick? Anything?” He shakes his head.

“The trail is cold, sir. No new leads at all,” Alex replies.

“Well, heat it up!” I say firmly. “Put some pressure on whoever you need to put some pressure on—the ex-wife, the offspring, that kid in the service, the FBI, the CIA, the fucking President, I don’t care! I want this motherfucker out of my hair! Start turning over some goddamn rocks and I guarantee you’ll see some bugs start running! And I never want to fucking see Aragon again!”

Alex’s eyes widen, and Jason sits up straight.

“That’s what I said,” I reinforce. “I never fucking want to see his ass again. Put his mug on facial recognition so that if he shows up within ten feet of my building, this place lights up like a fucking Christmas tree! I will wear my harness and that gun that he seems to think is useless every damn day and I’ll make sure that my wife stays strapped like Calamity fucking Jane, but he gets nowhere near any of us and you don’t need eight extra guards to make that happen. He’s starts shooting, you shoot back! And aim for his fucking head!”

I am totally beyond reason. I want blood, and I want it now. This situation has gone on for way too long and I’m tired of it taking over my goddamn life.

I don’t even think I hear them when they leave my office. I’m seeing red. I know that my station puts me and my family in a position of danger on a regular basis, which is why I want that exposé to air. That’s only a small message to the somewhat little fish that we won’t sit around and be fucked with anymore, but what about the big fish? How do you get that message to them?

Every time Russo sends that fucker out here, he’s acting like a cat playing with a mouse.

“Mr. Grey, if I was looking to cause you any harm, the deed would have been done by now…”

Well, fucking do it, then, you pussy ass bastard, because I’m not running, hiding, or cowering from you anymore.


ANASTASIA

“Turn this fucking car around.” Chuck looks at me in the rearview mirror, bemused.

“What?” he asks, his eyes wide. That’s when I realize that we’re still on the bridge.

“As soon as you can, turn this fucking car around and take me back home. There’s no way in hell I’m taking all this attention to Helping Hands.” He’s silent for a minute.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, and I’m not even pissed that he’s calling me ma’am. I am pissed, however, that half of GEH security appears to be following me to work. Where are they supposed to stay while I’m working and meeting with residents—on the goddamn bleachers?

I’m fuming. Something’s going on and he’s not telling me what it is. I call Grace and try not to sound too agitated.

“Grace, I’m working from home today. There seems to be some kind of development that I need to get sorted with my husband.” There’s silence.

“I’m not prying but is everything okay?” she asks.

“I’m not sure, but it’s nothing you should be worried about. I’m certain we can figure out what’s going on with the situation. Is Marilyn there yet?”

“I don’t think so. If she is, I haven’t seen her.”

We get to the end of the bridge and Chuck takes the exit and makes to get back on the bridge headed home.

“If you see her, tell her to come to my house,” I say. “I’ve been thinking about something since I had to recruit members of security to help move office furniture yesterday. What do you think about having a full-time custodial crew instead of a contracted cleaning service? I know we would need consider the financial implications like benefits and whatnot, but I think the benefits of having someone in-house would outweigh those of having a service. You know, building maintenance, per se.” There’s a pause.

“I hadn’t considered it,” she says. “Have you done any research on it?”

“Well, no,” I say, “but I was thinking that with the problems that we had a couple of years ago with the cleaning service not covering certain areas of the building and having to inspect their work all the time and renegotiate the contracts, it’s worth looking into for several reasons. There are going to be more people in the building that are not just residents. The classrooms are now going to be utilized. There’s obviously going to be a need to have someone around that can fix things in a pinch—be a handyman, a janitor… Not only that, but having a staff makes people more accountable for the work that needs to be done.”

“Yes,” she says. “I can see where you’re going with that. And we’re going to have to look into offering benefits for staff anyway because we’re expanding. We’re going to be eligible for federal funding and grants now with our accreditation and we’re not as slim as we were before on our donations with the publicity we’ve been getting from your appearances and from the PSA that I’ve learned is still airing in some areas. We should probably put together a PSA of our own once we have the foundation of our programs in place.”

“Oh, that’s a fantastic idea, Grace,” I tell her. “It’s great that we have the Faces of Abuse campaign still airing, but now we’re going to be offering many more services, and we definitely need to get that word out there.”

“When is your segment with Christian supposed to run again?” she asks. “Cary and I don’t watch much television and I don’t want to miss it.”

“It runs on Monday night,” I tell her. “I thought about a little viewing party, but not on a Monday night.”

“Why not?” Grace says. “With a few minor exceptions, we basically write our own schedules. I think a viewing party is a great idea.” I shrug.

“I’ll talk to Christian about it. See what he thinks.” I was so critical in my viewing of the segment before that I didn’t really see it. I was just watching for “bloopers,” so to speak. Our conversation has gotten our caravan back across the bridge and onto Mercer Island.

“Marilyn and I will start researching the pros and cons of a service versus in-house custodial staff and see if we can come up with the numbers for you. Keri’s looking into her teaching credentials in the states, by the way. She informs me that she should have some solid information by the end of the week.” I look to Keri for confirmation and she nods.

“Okay. I’m going to start looking into some benefit packages for the employees of the center. Who was putting together the grant paperwork and request for funding?”

“That would be Courtney,” I tell her. “She’s also supposed to be getting us some kind of presentation by week’s end. She’s been pretty diligent with it and her studies.”

“Speaking of studies, Harmony is here today. I saw that she was here yesterday, too.” I told her to spend time with her mother. She doesn’t have much time left.

“Did she tell you about Tina?” I ask.

“Yes, and her unfortunate situation with that wretched husband of hers,” she adds. “Unfortunately, this is the way the divorce game is played, my dear. I don’t know anything about divorce law, but I know that divorces have held up lives for decades from people who don’t want the divorce and won’t sign the papers. A lot of cases have been won—or lost, depending on which side you’re on—because one party is just tired of fighting and simply gives up and gives in. I’m not sure there’s much that she can do but let him wait it out and give him want he wants short of paying him off to hurry up and sign the papers so that Tina can die in peace.”

“I have Al on it,” I reply. If all that needs to be done is he sign the papers and this is over, I’m not beyond paying this bastard off to go away. Maybe I’m getting too involved, but to me, this is just another way that the Boogeyman is bearing his teeth, even though he’s not bearing them at me. “What’s Harmony doing there anyway? I told her to spend some time with her mom.”

“Tina shooed her away and she doesn’t know how to deal with it. She’s young and going through some things herself right now. Handling two major life changes is taking its toll.”

“What about her classes?” I ask.

“Not until this afternoon.” I shake my head.

“Where is she now?”

“She’s helping Michelle out in the dorms—busy work for the most part.” We drive into the gate at the Crossing.

“Well, keep her busy until it’s time to go to school. I’m sure something’s going to give. Maybe have her help you with researching benefit packages.”

“Oh, yes, that’s a good idea,” she concurs.

“I’m going to touch bases with my husband and have him get in touch with the guy who did the Faces PSA—see if we can get a meeting.”

“Excellent, and I’ll get to work on Project Harmony and the benefits research.”

“Indeed, you know where to find me.” I end the call and text Marilyn to meet me at the mansion before I exit the car.

“Is everything okay?” A frowning Gail is walking quickly through the portico to help get the twins from the car. I gesture to the train of vehicles behind me.

“Imagine this driving up to Helping Hands,” I say. “We’d have news helicopters hovering over the Center!” She looks back at the Caravan of Love while I try not to slam the door after Keri has removed Mikey from the car. Chuck has already unbuckled Minnie’s seat and hands the carrier to Gail.

“Oh,” she says with a frown, looking at the line of Audis. “Why the entourage?” she asks. I shake my head.

“Ask His Highness,” I say, waving my hand disgustedly while breezing past her into the house.

*-*

“I don’t know if I’ve told you, but I’m redoing my office here, too,” I say to Marilyn as she types away on her MacBook while sitting in one of the seats across from my desk. She raises her eyes to me.

“Why?” she asks. “It’s so comfy and pretty.”

21d54a5af21611b9705d7f44ebc4c980

“It served the original purpose, but now, it looks too executive. It’s not Zen enough.”

“Oh… the Zen,” she says, tapping at her MacBook again. “How’s that working for you?”

“Some days it helps. Others, I’m struggling,” I admit.

“Well, you just started. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know.” Yeah, I know. I just wish the Boogeyman would stop rearing his ugly head at me. I’m fighting him. I’ve decided not to take his abuse lying down anymore. But damn, it’s exhausting! I’m trying not to internalize Harmony’s issue; Christian has the entire Intergalactic Force following me; and I haven’t even bothered to ask Marilyn if she’s taken a pregnancy test. She seems in better spirits, but who knows what that means. I need to talk to Ace in the worst way and I’m trying to wait until my appointment on Friday, but it’s hard as hell. I need some damn guidance.

For some reason, my need for guidance leads me to call my husband instead of my shrink.

“Butterfly… are you okay?” he answers frantically, another reason for me to believe that something more is going on than he’s letting on.

“Why wouldn’t I be okay, Christian?” I ask, keeping my voice even. He sighs.

“Don’t read anything into it,” he cautions. “I just got the word the you went back to the house instead of going in to work and just as I was about to call you, you called me. It startled me, that’s all.” I raise my eyebrow in disbelief.

“Well, I couldn’t take the Observation Committee to the Center,” I say stoically. “It would be counterproductive.”

“Yeah, about that,” he says. “Jason went all commando-special-ops on me and pulled that shit, but I straightened it out. You’ll have a couple of extra details with you, but that caravan shit is a wash. I’m sorry if it scared you.”

It didn’t scare me, it pissed me off.

“We’ll keep the detail to your car and one additional with the usual guards and maybe two others, and Butterfly, it’s just a precaution. You know me—I’d rather be safe than sorry any day, but even I know when too much is too much.”

I try not to react, but I can’t help the sigh of relief I release knowing that Jason was just going overboard and that there was no sniper or something waiting to pick me off at the Center.

“You do still carry your firearm with you, don’t you?” And just when I was starting to relax…

“Yes,” I reply.

“Good, because I had to remind him that you’re a proficient shot and that you stay armed so that he would back off a bit. Hell, you’d probably pick off somebody coming at you faster than any of them would… I’m reminded of a certain Monster Bitch.”

I can’t help but laugh, and the tension is broken again, which I’m sure was his intent.

“I have a purpose for my call,” I say, not noticing that Marilyn has left the room. Where did she go?

“What is it?”

“Well, first, I want to see if you can set a meeting with that guy who did the Faces of Abuse PSA. We’re thinking of doing one for the new services at Helping Hands and we need direction.”

“I’ll give him a call,” Christian says. “And second?”

“I don’t know if you’ve been informed, but Tina Franklin has taken a turn for the worst.” I hear him sigh.

“Really?” he says, his voice deflated.

“Unfortunately, yes. She’s at home on hospice. Harmony’s not doing very well, so this portion kind of has a two and a three.” He pauses.

“I’m listening.”

I tell him about how Tina is pushing Harmony away in her last days. I’m certain she thinks it’s an attempt to spare Harmony the pain of watching her fade away. The problem is that she’s going to need these last moments to cling to when her mother is gone, and Tina is unintentionally taking those away from her. I beseech Christian to go and see her, maybe see if he can talk to her since he knows Tina so much better than I do. When he hesitates, I ask him how he would feel if this were Grace and he was in this position. He sighs.

“I’ll stop by after work,” he says, surrendering.

“There’s more,” I tell him.

“More than this? Sweet Jesus, what else?”

“Harmony’s divorce isn’t final. She had an attorney, but it turns out that the asshole was a spy for her husband. I’ve talked to Al about helping but he hasn’t gotten back to me yet. Her husband is stalling the proceedings waiting for Tina to die. He knows that Harmony is going to get an inheritance and if she gets it before they’re divorced…”

“He may be entitled to half,” Christian finishes. “Yes, the dirty business of divorce. Dad always talked about hating to see two people who once loved each other rip one another apart in court.”

“Isn’t there something that can be done?” I ask. “Can’t the court force that asshole to sign the papers? If not, Tina’s going to die or Harmony’s going to give in and—either way—he’s going to get what he wants.

“Short of busting the guys kneecaps and making him sign the papers, there’s no way around this.”

“Can we bust his kneecaps?” I ask, only half-serious.

“Butterfly…” my husband scolds.

“I know, I know,” I say, “it’s just that this guy has been dirt from the very beginning…”

I tell him the whole story about how the marriage was a farce from day one, the whole time the soon-to-be-ex-husband hoping to get his hands-on Harmony’s money not knowing that the money wasn’t Harmony’s. I explain that Harmony is not a trust fund kid like Tina’s other children may have been; that Harmony is the adopted great-granddaughter that her parents didn’t want and how Tina kept her money out of the snake’s hands when she saw through him. I told him about the guy’s philandering and how horribly he treated Harmony once he realized he wasn’t getting a hold of her money, forcing her to leave to avoid the terrible treatment and infidelity.

“Now, it looks like he’s going to get what he was after all along,” I conclude.

“Well, that explains a lot,” Christian says. “I was wondering how Tina could have a daughter so young. I’m also wondering if all of her children are going to come home now that she’s in hospice, or if they’re all still too busy with their lives.”

I don’t say what I’m thinking… that they’ll all show up after she’s dead looking for their cut.

“So, we have a parasite on our hands,” Christian says, “and short of going the old-school route and giving him the beating that he so richly deserves or making him an offer he can’t refuse, he’s going to get off Scott free with half of Harmony’s inheritance. I’m not buying that. There’s a way around that somehow.”

“I don’t see that there is, Christian, except for Harmony not to get the money… and that’s punishing Harmony for her asshole ex-husband’s actions.”

“I’m a businessman. There’s always a way,” he says confidently. “I don’t mean to rush you, baby, but there’s a ton of shit that I have to get to today and you just gave me a couple of additional projects to add to the pile. Was there anything else you needed?”

“No, that was it. I’ll call you if I think of anything else.”

“Okay… now I’m going to see Tina after work. Unless I can get out of here early, that means I’ll be home late today.” His voice is placating, like he thinks I’ll break—not that I can blame him.

“Okay, that’s fine. I won’t wait up,” I say.

“Not that damn late!” he adds.

“I get it, Christian. You’ll be home later. I’ll see you when you get here.” We exchange I love you’d and end the call. So, the threat’s not so bad that I need eight people following me, but he wants to make sure that I’m carrying my gun. Like he said, Ana, don’t read anything into it.

The whole thing with the adoption has made me think about my biological family—or the lack thereof—and I go to that website I logged into last year. The damn thing’s been charging my account every month for a year and I haven’t even been paying attention to it. I think I remember Mare saying something about it right before the twins were born and I said that I would get to it, but nothing since then.

Nothing from Marilyn anyway.

When I log into the website, it’s full of hits and notifications. Holy cow, Batman! Are these all people who are related to me? Shit, it’s going to take me months to get through all this data and all these people!

I log out of the site. My brain can’t even absorb that shit right now. Is this a box that I really want to open? After nearly 30 years, here comes cousin Ana? And are these people legit or are they just people on the site who may know who I am and are trying to get a piece of the rock?

“Dear Jesus, not now,” I say, opening my email program instead. I see the email from Mia that I’ve been avoiding, the one with the link to her wedding site. I roll my eyes and sigh.

“Might as well look,” I say aloud and click on the link.

The site opens to a background of Mia and Ethan on their wedding day, all smiles and gleefully posing as Mr. and Mrs. Kavanaugh. There are so many links and features that I don’t know where to begin. My first destination is the guest list. I have no idea who put this together, but each person who signed the guest book is featured in this section—pictures with their scribbled names underneath and their relation to the bride and groom, if any. I quickly find the picture of me and Christian. Someone caught us walking into the ballroom together, I have no idea when. We’re very casual and he’s holding my hand. It’s a simple picture of us and I like it—not posed or phony, just me and Christian as we are… well, most of the time.

Most of the other pictures of the guests were either pictures from the photo booths or candid shots like me and Christian. I don’t know if Adelaide will peruse Mia’s website, but if she does, the guestlist will alert her that her granddaughter is still in town, or at least was for the wedding. Her photo is with Vickie, protectively holding her around the waist. Her smile is large and genuine. She looks radiant, and Vickie’s adoration of her clearly shows through the photograph. I won’t alert her that the picture is here. I think it’ll only cause her undue anxiety. She travels in some of the same circles as her grandparents. If it’s meant to be that they bump into each other, then they will.

I get lost in the website, reliving the night through many of the photographs and enjoying the journey. I even get a little miffed watching Marlow dance with his little walking-fart-dress-wearing date. Geez, I hope she’s not a girlfriend. Then there’s the picture of Carrick holding Grace close to him on the dancefloor and planting a tender kiss on her cheek. Elliot and Val didn’t escape the smooch-cam either. And of course, me and Christian. There’s even a picture of Christian placing a tender kiss on Tina’s cheek when she and Harmony were about to leave the reception.

A kinder, gentler Christian Grey…

I didn’t, however, expect to see a video clip of us singing for Mia. I guess somebody couldn’t resist.


CHRISTIAN

I hope I’ve convinced my wife to resume going into the office. I haven’t had a cooking lesson from Gail in over a week and I’m certain that I’ve completely forgotten how to crack an egg… which is ridiculous. I proceed with what I was about to do when my wife called me and interrupted my thought process.

“Terry Smalls here.”

“Smalls, Grey. I’ve been waiting for an update on my grandfather’s storage bins. What’s the news?”

“We’re still sorting, sir,” he says. “It’s like one of those boxes where you open it and there’s another box and you open it and there’s another box and you open it and there’s another box. I think you or your uncle should look at these manifests…”

“Why don’t you just tell me what’s in there?” I ask impatiently.

“Where do I start?” he laments. “We’ve got about five bins full of antique furniture—real quality stuff. We’ve got at least two and maybe three bins of knick knacks, and when I say ‘knick knacks,’ I don’t mean ‘whatnots.’ I mean old fashioned baby clothes, bronzed baby shoes, somebody’s wedding dress—According to the manifest, there’s a collection of Waterford Crystal somewhere in one of these bins. You know they don’t make that anymore, right?”

“Yes, I’m aware,” I say.

“Oh! Yeah, and three more cars.” I nearly drop the phone.

More cars?” I ask.

“Yeah, three,” he confirms. “We haven’t located them yet.”

“Then how do you know they’re there?” I inquire.

“They’re on the manifests,” he says.

“Classics? Restored, like the Mustang?”

“I don’t know, sir. We haven’t found them yet…”

“Goddammit, drop everything and find the cars first! My grandfather was sick well before he died. Those things might have been sitting there for years!”

“Will do, sir.” I end the call and push my hands through my hair. My grandfather was fucking rich, or he spent his money in such a way as to accumulate an array of valuable things that he must have horded for his sons—four classic cars, four brothers. That’s got to be what that is.

I must shake the thought from my head about the cars because there’s nothing I can do about this until I know what the cars are and what kind of shape they’re in.

I spend the morning and part of the afternoon pretending to concentrate on the business of mergers and acquisitions, but it’s no use. I want to know what the fuck is taking Smalls so long to unearth those damn vehicles. Then, I get the news that one of my safe havens is about to fall prey to the worst type of vermin and, like I said, short of breaking his kneecaps, I don’t know that there’s much I can do to help her.

Short of breaking his kneecaps… I’m not beyond breaking his kneecaps, but let’s see what we can get done legally first.

“Well, truth be told, Chris,” Al says once I summon him to my office, “I know about assets and I love a good juicy fight, but I never really got into divorce law.”

“It’s a contract,” I tell him. “It’s the same thing. Think about a merger that’s about to happen. We’ve got assets that we want to hide without tipping off the buyer or the SEC.”

“I didn’t say that I didn’t know what to do. I said that basically, this isn’t my area of expertise.”

“Okay, so get to the point. What does this all mean?” I ask, impatiently.

“Nothing. He can’t touch her inheritance. If they were still in love and planning to be married for life, he still couldn’t touch her inheritance. The only way that he could touch her inheritance is if she intermingled the money together with the marital assets somehow, like if she put the money in a joint account or if it was property and he paid to repair it. Other than that, he can hold the divorce up until hell freezes over. He’ll never get that money.” I just stare at him.

“I thought all money that came into the marriage after the vows was automatically community property,” I protest.

“Nope,” he says. “Even in community property states, inheritances are not ‘his, hers, and ours.’ If that money is deposited into an account that belongs only to Ms. Harmony, Mr. Harmony can’t fuck with it.” Well, I’ll be damned.

“Have you told Harmony yet?” I ask.

“I haven’t had the chance.”

“Let me do it,” I say. “I’m going to see Aunt Tina this evening and I’d love to be able to put both their fears to rest simultaneously.”

“Be my guest,” he says.

That fucker better be glad I’ve discovered that he can’t get any of Harmony’s money. I’m not the vigilante-save-every-damsel-in-distress-that-crosses-my-path guy, but any discomfort I’ve ever inflicted on any woman with few exceptions has been consensual. I hate for men to take advantage of women, especially emotionally and even more so financially, but I hate it even more when a jerk or a crook gets over on the good guy, and that seems to happen a lot.

Hearing the news about Harmony and Tina helps me to relax a bit and I get a little more done during the afternoon than I do during the morning. I decide to leave the office early to go see about Aunt Tina, but not before I touch bases with Smalls. How fucking hard can it be to find four whole ass vehicles?

Just when I’m about to lose my complete patience with Smalls and send someone else to Detroit to get the job done, my intercom comes alive.

“Mr. Grey, I have Terry Smalls on line 2.”

Without even answering her, I pick up line 2.

“It’s late afternoon here, so I know it’s after dark there. What took so long?” I bark into the phone. “They’re cars. What took hours to find cars?”

“Well, sir, all the cars are parked behind packed boxes like the first one was. Knowing that at least one of them has fine crystal in it, I’m sure you didn’t want us to go tearing through them like a bull in a china shop.” His voice is crisper than I would like, but he has been rummaging through storage bins all day. I bite back the urge to reprimand him.

“Oh, you found the damn cars?” I ask.

“Oh, we found the cars. Your grandfather apparently has a wonderful sense of humor,” he says mirthlessly. Watch it, Skippy.

“Meaning?” I say, nearly growling.

“Meaning,” he begins, softening his tone, “finding the cars meant going through riddles on the manifest. We unpacked at least two rows in four bins before we found the last car. One of my guys apparently likes logic problems, so he was quickly able to figure out the last two saving us a massive amount of time.”

“Riddles?” I ask incredulously. “Like what?”

“Oh, God, sir, please don’t put me through that again,” he laments, but continues anyway. “Things like two farmers go to the market to buy wheat one buys 45 bags the other buys 75 bags when they get home they split it evenly between three farmers but only one farmer paid for it and… you get the idea.” He says the entire thing without stopping. “When you solve the riddle, you get the number of a manifest or a storage bin, only we didn’t figure it out until after we found the second car. We’ll be here all night putting these boxes away.”

“You’ve got the boxes out already. Why not work in shifts getting some of that stuff sorted instead of shoving it back into the bins? I only suggest that because it’s got to be a better use of time than to shove it all back in there just to pull it back out again.”

“My guys are tired. I’ll run it by them, but I’m worried about accuracy with an exhausted crew.”

“You’re right. Not a smart idea. What can you tell me about the cars?”

“Well, we can see the cars, but we can’t move them. They’re open, but the keys and the titles are all hidden in RiddleLand again, and I have a feeling these are personal.” Oh, dear Lord.

“Please, explain,” I sigh.

“Well, in the glove box of each car, there’s a riddle. After each riddle, it says, ‘Ask the boys.’” I wish I had more patience for this. I’m not flying back out to Detroit. I don’t care if he finds gold bullion in one of those bins.

“Can you give me an example?” I ask.

“’What has four fingers and a thumb but is not living?’ That one was easy enough, a glove. But what does that mean to me? At first, we thought it meant look in the glove box of the other cars, but there were just more riddles. That’s when we saw the words, ‘Ask the boys.’ So, like I said. I think these are more personal.” Now, I’m exhausted and I haven’t even done any of the work.

“Send me pictures of the cars and the riddles, please. I’ll talk to my uncle. By the way, what kind of condition are the other cars in?”

“Cherry,” he says. “You have to see them. There’s no way I can explain it.” Cherry… that’s pretty ripe.

“Email them, pack up the boxes. Go have dinner and get some rest. I’ll be waiting for your call tomorrow.” My way of telling him that I won’t bother him since I know it’s going to take forever to get the boxes back into the bins.

“Yes, sir.”

*-*

It’s about five thirty when we arrive at Aunt Tina’s. The butler doesn’t recognize me when he opens the door, not that he has any reason to, but at first, he denies me entry or access to see her.

“I know what condition she’s in and she’s a very dear friend of mine. I’d like to see her please. Tell her it’s Christian,” I insist.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” he says, his nose in the air. “Mrs. Franklin is not seeing visitors.”

“She’ll see me,” I persist. He doesn’t relent. “Is Harmony here?” His face distorts in distaste. What the fuck is that all about?

“No, she’s not,” he announces. As if in answer to his question, a late model Jetta drives up the round drive. One of the other staff opens the driver side door and Harmony steps out.

“Christian,” she says, recognition setting in as she approaches the door. “How are you? It’s good to see you.”

“I wish I could say the same,” I complain. “I mean to say that it’s good to see you, but I can’t seem to get in to see Tina.” Harmony frowns.

“She’s not doing very well,” she says.

“Yes, I know. My wife told me. She explained her condition to me at Mia’s wedding and she asked me to come by and see her. Here I am, but I can’t get in.” She looks at the butler.

“Roger, what’s the meaning of this?” Harmony says. Roger looks at her but doesn’t acknowledge her. “Let Christian in. What’s wrong with you?”

“Ms. Tina is not in any condition to see guests,” he says snootily.

“That’s not for you to decide!” Harmony retorts. “Are you her doctor, now? Move.”

He says nothing but refuses to grant me access.

“Roger, I know you’ve worked for my mother for many years and you know the lay of this property like the back of your hand, but this. Is not. Your. House!” she hisses. Roger’s lips form a straight line. “Now, step aside, and please allow multibillionaire and mega-entrepreneur Christian Trevelyan Grey into my home!”

She’s glaring at him and he glares right back at her like she’s nobody. I’ve had enough. I shove this fucker aside and step into the house.

“Harmony, where’s Aunt Tina?” I ask, ignoring Roger’s appalled gasps and scoldings.

“She’s upstairs in her room,” she says. I take the spiral stairs two at a time. I don’t know why I feel such a sense of urgency, but I need to get to her to tell her what I’ve discovered and to let her know not to push Harmony away.

“Which room?” I ask Harmony when we get to the top of the stairs.

“Third door on the right,” she says.

“You can’t just go barging in on someone like this!” Roger protests. I whirl around on him in an instant.

“I’ve had all I’m going to take from you!” I hiss. “Now, if you don’t shut up…” I let the words hang in the air. Jason comes casually up the stairs behind me and stands behind Roger. He deflates at the sight of Jason and shrinks back a bit.

“How do you get anything done with him around?” I ask.

“It’s a trial,” Harmony admits.

“Let me guess. He knows more than you do and won’t listen to anything you say because he’ll only take orders from Tina. What’s more is that he walks around with a haughty ass entitled attitude looking down on everybody even though he’s nothing more than the help.” I’m staring at him waiting for a response or reaction from him. I get none.

“You’ve hit that nail right on the head,” Harmony says. Yes, I said the help. Gail, Jason, Chuck—that’s my family that happen to be my employees. They don’t act entitled and they certainly don’t treat my guests like vermin. So, yes, he’s nothing more than the help.

“Does he have any idea that everything he gazes upon and holds dear is going to you when your mother dies?” Roger’s eyes widen and his face pales. Harmony’s eyes widen as well.

“How do you know that?” she asks, surprised.

“I’m Christian Grey. I have my ways.” I say, never taking my eyes off Roger. I don’t know that, but he doesn’t know that I don’t know. “The very reason for my visit is to let you know that I’ve discovered some information about your inheritance and your asshole husband that should put your and Tina’s fears to rest.”

“I… I thought Ana had her friend Allen working on it,” Harmony says. I finally break my gaze with Roger and look at Harmony.

“She did,” I tell her. “Allen’s my head of legal. He’s a specialist in asset law, but he’s not a divorce attorney. No worries, though. I spoke to my father, too. He’ll be representing you in your divorce. But, first, I need to share some news with you and Aunt Tina.” I gesture to her to lead the way. She steps in front of me and walks to Tina’s door. As we’re about to enter, Roger makes to enter with us. I hold my hand up at his chest.

“We won’t need you, Roger,” I say. “Jason?” Jason steps in front of Roger as Harmony and I step into the bedroom.

“Sir!” Jason stops me somewhat urgently. He leans in to me.

“Sir, I’m getting feedback on my earpiece,” he says lowly. My brow furrows and I shake my head. What does that mean?

“This room is bugged,” he informs me. I’m instantly horrified.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m positive,” he confirms.

“There’s no way to scramble the signal?”

“Don’t dawdle there at the door! Come in!” Tina demands, her back to us. I look to Jason.

“I can call Alex. It’ll probably fuck up your cell signal, too.” I nod and put my hand in the small of Harmony’s back.

“Careful what you say,” I whisper to her as we walk across the room to Aunt Tina.

“Mom?” Harmony says softly. Tina takes her hand.

“You just don’t listen, do you, child?” she says sweetly. Harmony can’t control her emotions.

“It’s my fault, Aunt Tina,” I say, emerging from behind the chair. Her face is worn and tired but lights up when she sees me.

“Christian!” she says with excitement. “Are you being a bad influence on my Harmony?” Harmony kneels at her mother’s feet and lays her head in Tina’s lap. She weeps quietly, and Tina gently strokes her hair.

“This is why I don’t want you here,” she says, trying to comfort Harmony.

“This is exactly why she needs to be here, Aunt Tina,” I say softly touching her shoulder. “These will be her last moments with you. She needs every one of them.” Aunt Tina looks up at me and nods, still stroking Harmony’s hair.

“At least do your mom a solid and don’t cry every time you see me,” Aunt Tina says to Harmony, who tries to control her sniffles.

“Yes, ma’am,” she says, her voice soft. Tina shifts a bit in her chair.

“See? I’m not gone yet,” Aunt Tina says. “I just saw a commercial that you’re going to be on that program next Monday—you and your wife. What’s that about?” I look at my phone and I still have a very clear signal.

“We did a segment somewhat introducing ourselves to the world.” Aunt Tina tsk’s.

“You don’t need to be introduced to the world,” she says. “They all know who you are.”

“No, they don’t,” I smile. “They just think they do. Your butler certainly doesn’t know me. And he doesn’t like me either.”

“He’s just protective,” she says. “He’s been with me for a long time.”

“Is that why he doesn’t respect Harmony either?” I ask. Harmony raises her head from her mother’s lap.

“Christian…” She shakes her head.

“My dear, if Tina is the only one he’ll listen to, then Tina is the one that has to let him know he can’t treat you that way,” I inform her. Tina’s frail hand lifts Harmony’s chin.

“Is this true?” she asks. “Is he disrespectful to you?”

“He just doesn’t know me, Momma,” she says sweetly.

“Nonsense!” Tina says, pressing a button on the table next to her bed. Roger bursts through the door almost immediately, pushing past Jason and appearing before Tina.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says, making eye-contact only with Tina.

“Roger are you being a pompous asshole again?” she says. His brows furrow.

“Ma’am?” he says.

“You treat my daughter as if she were me, today and from now on, or you can pack your things and leave this house tonight! Are we clear?” His eyes widen.

“Ma’am!” he says shocked. “Ma’am, I assure you…”

“I’m not looking for any of your English butler-school-taught bullshit right now, Roger. I am looking for a yes or no answer. Are. We. Clear?” He straightens.

“Yes…” he says. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Now, apologize to my daughter for how you’ve apparently been treating her when my back is turned.” He turns to Harmony.

“Ms. Harmony, I’m deeply sorry for my behavior…”

“Your insolence!” Tina demands. Roger clears his throat.

“For my insolence,” he corrects. “I humbly beg your forgiveness and assure you that it will never happen again.” Harmony turns away from him and rests her chin on her mother’s lap.

“It’s my understanding that you were rude to my guest as well,” Aunt Tina says. “I’m appalled, not only because he’s a dear friend of my family but also because you felt you have the right to treat anyone who visits my home that way. I’m dying, Roger, but I’m not dead yet! You should be glad I don’t fire you right now. I’m waiting.” Roger raises his gaze to me and I raise my hand to stop him.

“I don’t want his apology,” I say. Aunt Tina looks up at me.

“Christian, is that the behavior of a gentleman?” she scolds.

“No, ma’am,” I say, “and I don’t feel the need to be a gentleman in his presence.” I turn back to Aunt Tina while he continues to glare at me. “Forgive me, Aunt Tina.” She covers my hand and nods.

“You can go now,” she says to Roger. When he leaves, she opens her mouth as if to yawn. “Ah,” she says.

“What is it, Mom?” Harmony asks.

“There’s almost always a constant humming in my ears,” she says. “It’s gone.” I look at my phone. There’s no signal. Jason has found a way to scramble the signal in the room. I examine Aunt Tina.

“Aunt Tina, do you have a hearing aid?” I ask. I can’t see one, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have one. Sure enough, she pulls a device out of her ear that’s no bigger than a fingertip.

“I’ve had it calibrated a hundred times, but it doesn’t help.” I sigh.

“Both ears?” I ask. She nods. “Aunt Tina, I have some things to tell you.”


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

The new question and answer thread is always open for questions about the story. be sure to read it and please adhere to the rules when asking questions. You can find it on the left, second from last in the menu our you can click HERE.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Raising Grey: Chapter 45—Doing What Must Be Done

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 45—Doing What Must Be Done

ANASTASIA

True to his word—and probably out of a sense of duty—Christian comes to the connection room with me in the morning and tries to meditate, which is probably the reason that it doesn’t work.

“It’s no use, Butterfly,” he says, interrupting me ten minutes into my meditation. “It’s not helping.” I sigh.

He’s sitting cross-legged lotus style in front of me. I move to sit in front of him in the same position.

“Are you comfortable?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, almost sarcastically.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Work and us and the twins and…”

“That’s your problem,” I tell him. “That’s not meditating.”

“It’s so quiet!” he says, somewhat whiney. “When I try to clear my mind, a million thoughts pop up. Our trip to Detroit, having to deal with Freeman, what color is the sky…” I think he threw that last one in there to be sarcastic. “It’s the same as when I was trying to do it before. The only difference was that then, the quiet let the monsters in.” I move closer to him until our knees touch.

“Give me your hands,” I instruct him. He dutifully gives me his hands. “Now breathe with me… slowly. Slow deep breath in, fill your lungs completely…” I take in a deep breath. “Now count slowly to yourself as you exhale through your mouth.” He blows his breath out a little fast, so I have to instruct him a little more.

“Make an ‘o’ with your lips and exhale soft and slow, like you’re blowing on a dandelion. Count at least three seconds.”

“I’ve never blown a dandelion,” he protests.

“Okay, pretend like you’re blowing something else,” I say. I thought of gently blowing out a candle. I can tell by his facial expression where his mind goes.

Figures.

“In through your nose, deep breath,” I coach again. “Out through your mouth…”

Of course, it’s perfect this time, and I have to fight the visual of him blowing on my clit.

“In through your nose, out through your mouth… In… Out…” Once I see that he’s gotten the hang of the breathing, I move to the next step.

“Now, close your eyes and calm your breathing,” I tell him. “Breathe normally, but still feel the good air coming in, and the bad air going out. Concentrate on that serene feeling of cleansing and freedom.”

I can see when the serenity hits him. His face softens, and his shoulders relax. His breath becomes more and more even and a few moments later, he sinks into a complete sense of calm.

I don’t release his hands. I just sit there with him, close my eyes and finish my meditation.

Several minutes later, I stretch my neck and come out of my meditation. I open my eyes to see Christian still sitting across from me, still breathing, still relaxing. I gently stroke his hand with my thumb so as not to startle him too much. He slowly opens his lids, and cool, gray irises look back at me.

“How was that?” I ask. His eyes shift for a moment, then he breathes again and nods.

“Good, actually,” he replies. “Better than the last time. My mind still wandered every now and then, though.”

“That’s okay,” I tell him. “Meditation is about focus, but the silence tends to make you focus on the wrong things. We’ll try this a bit and see if it works for you, then we’ll try some more advanced techniques. Tell me, how do you feel?”

“More… relaxed,” he says as if searching for the word, “like thinking isn’t such a trial. Maybe ‘trial’ is the wrong word…” He trails off.

“I think you’re getting it,” I say, rewarding him with a sweet smile. His expression is soft, though he doesn’t smile. I gaze into his eyes and see a myriad of emotions there, things that I know he can’t verbalize. Last night at the lake was the first time I’ve ever seen my husband so sadly and desperately passionate about anything. If there was another time, it’s been erased by the accident. Even Montana didn’t have him this passionate or openly maudlin, that he showed me. The Elliot misunderstanding was certainly maudlin, but not this passionate. This time…

God, we’ve been through so much in such a brief period of time, and goddammit, we’re both amateurs! My only gauge is a psychopathic cheating ex who eventually hanged himself in a jail cell. Christian has no prior gauge at all. Some days, I wonder how we make it out alive.

At first, I think it’s my imagination, but I realize the space is closing between us… like in slow motion. The emotions prevalent in his eyes now are longing and, I think, hope.

Kiss me…

He doesn’t say it, but I hear it. I release his hands and take his face gently in mine. Closing the space between us, I press tender kisses on his lips, closing my eyes and feeling the softness. I slant my mouth over his and deepen the kiss only slightly, and he slides his hands around my waist. I push my hands into his hair and massage his scalp with my fingertips. He pulls me to my knees while rising to his own and envelops me in his arms, pulling me closer to his body.

We taste one another, slowly and gently, and I feel our connection—like it was before Madrid… and Liam. I feel my Christian, my lover and my protector, and I chance the moment of feeling safe and loved in his arms, like we used to be. He pulls slightly away from me and looks into my eyes.

“We… should get our day started,” he says, his voice soft, but raspy. “There’s a lot we need to do.”

“Yeah,” I say, gently brushing his uncut hair off his forehead. We share another gaze before he rubs his nose against mine and I reciprocate with another gentle kiss to his lips.

Crawling…

He lifts me effortlessly from the floor and places me gently on my feet. He takes my hand and leads me out of the connection room.

“I’m going to work from home today,” he says as he closes the secret door, “get some things settled for the trip to Detroit. Leave the twins here. I’d like to spend some time with them.” I smile. He’s been quite the doting father since his return. He was attentive before. I mean, he never neglected them except for his momentary check-out after Burt died and then this time—going off to Madrid and not seeing or speaking to them for weeks. I’m sure that he wants to make up for lost time, but he has his whole life to do that, as long as he doesn’t continue to do that check out thing when times get tough.

Try to think positive, Dr. Grey. It’s all you’ve got right now.

“I need to go to the Center, but I won’t be gone long,” I tell him. “I’d like to spend some time with them, too.” He smiles at me and releases my hand before going off to his bathroom. There’s still a small rift between us, but we’re working on it. I just want things to be the way that they were before Liam darkened our door.

Liam…

I swear to God, if I ever see that guy again, I’ll nail him square in the balls!

*-*

“No, we’re not going, dear,” Grace says to me while were sitting in my makeshift office. My office is being painted for my self-funded remodel. “Unfortunately, it’s too short notice. The Center will once again be without administration and I also have my shifts at the hospital. I couldn’t go if I tried. And Luma has a job, too, though I’m sure her generous boss would be willing to give her time off for this,” she says playfully. I often forget that Luma works for Christian. I just see her as family.

“Nonetheless,” Gail continues, “she has the girls to tend to. She needs to get them off to school in the morning and such. I do wish we could go, but to be honest, Christian is the one that’s going to need the moral support. Detroit was home to Carrick and Herman. Their worst memories are probably of Freeman, and they can handle that. Christian, on the other hand…”

She doesn’t finish her sentence, but she doesn’t have to. The monsters of Motown are often still chasing my husband during his darkest hours.

“I sincerely wonder what made him agree to go to Detroit in the first place,” she continues. “I certainly know that Carrick wouldn’t have asked him. We’re both only too aware of the horrible impact that place has had on him.”

“If I know my husband like I think I do, he just wants to be there to support his father,” I reply. “Don’t worry, Grace. He’ll be okay. I’ll keep my eye on him.” She sighs and shakes her head.

“You know how it is, dear,” she says, looking at her feet, “or at least you will. You never stop worrying about them no matter how old they get or how successful they become.” I squeeze her hand.

“Let’s go look at my office space,” I say, changing the subject. “I hear the painting is just about done and I can tell you what I’ve got planned…”

I’m delighted to find that the painting is completely finished, but unfortunately, it’s not dry yet. No matter, the furniture isn’t set to be delivered until Monday anyway as I was certain that the painting wouldn’t be done until then. Once we moved the furniture out, I realized that there was much more space in there than I thought. So, I’ve decided to make the office into two distinct spaces—a sitting area and the office area. The “office” portion is painted two tones of yellow, both muted, and the “Zen” sitting area is covered in a textured gray wallpaper. I wouldn’t have thought the two would go together, but when I looked at the furnishings that I chose, they were both the perfect choices to blend and separate the offices at the same time. Tongue and groove wood flooring will be laid over the weekend to finish things off.

“It’s going to be pretty minimalist,” I tell Grace as she’s eying the two separate colors of the room. “The need for change is prominent in my life right now… for obvious reasons.”

“Mmm,” Grace says in contemplation looking around the office. Does she not like the colors?

“What is it?” I ask.

“Oh, nothing, it just… This made me realize how long it’s been since I’ve changed my office,” she says. “It’s never been a priority. I came here, I did what I did, and I left. I’m only just realizing how much time I spend in that room.” She looks at me. “My office at the hospital is pretty cozy—warm and inviting. My space here looks like the principal’s office! I was so dead set against using any outside funds for the Center that I didn’t think about using my own funds for my personal space.” She turns to me. “Even though I’m only here on a part-time basis, it’s still something like 20 – 25% of my life.” I gesture around my empty office.

“You don’t have to convince me,” I point out. “I’m here more than you are, but then, I don’t have a full-time job either. How long has it been since you’ve updated the space?” She folds her arms and leans against the outside door jam.

“Like… never.” I just look at her. “Yes, I think it’s definitely time for a change,” and I can see the wheels turning.

“Grace, have you spoken to John?” I ask. He’s been MIA and mute for months now, even before Pops died. Exactly what’s going on with his son?

“Yes, I did,” she says, and her voice turns somber. “I’m not sure he’ll be coming back, dear.” My eyes widen.

“Why not?” I ask. “What happened?”

“His son is very sick,” she says. “I told you that he contracted something when they went home a while back. Well, the doctors here were no good in diagnosing what it was. They kept treating the flu and he kept getting worse—knocking on death’s door, in fact. So, they took him to a doctor overseas. They began treating him and he began to show improvement. What’s more is that they were able to isolate the virus. It’s a coronavirus that behaves a lot like SARS…”

“Were they treating him for SARS?” I ask.

“They weren’t treating him for anything because they thought it was the flu,” she replies. “You don’t treat the flu. You treat the symptoms and wait until it passes. When it didn’t pass, they started treating him for pneumonia. He was getting marginally better, but you’re looking at a virus, not an infection. That’s when John and Rhian decided to take him overseas. Too much time had gone by and he wasn’t showing enough improvement. Long story short, after lots and lots of brutal testing and agonizingly long nights, he’s been diagnosed with MERS.” I frown.

“What the hell is MERS?” I ask. I may need to do some continuing education for this one.

“Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome,” she says. My frown deepens. It’s sounds just like SARS.

“Is this something somebody made up?” I ask. “I swear, this sounds like somebody trying to get into a medical journal or something, and they’re using this kid to do it.”

“Well, he’s not the first case. In fact, several people have died from it over the last two years.”

“But you said he went to England,” I protest. “How can a kid who went to England contract something from the Middle East? Did they visit Iran, too? And why do they name illnesses after regions? It makes it sound like the entire area is infected.”

60662cdbb617d5bbbfb4c15950e146c6The West Nile Virus and the German Measles immediately come to mind. I’m seeing the old pictures in my head of children singing Ring Around the Rosie during the time of the Black Death. I know those origins are questionable, but the impact is just as strong as the uncertainty around this MERS thing.

“There were cases if it across parts of Britain as well,” she says. “It’s not unheard of that John’s son could have contracted it.”

“Well, what’s different about MERS? Why not just call it what it is? It’s SARS.”

“I’m not completely versed on this, dear, but the virus is a different mutation. It doesn’t spread as quickly as SARS, but it can be deadly nonetheless.” I sigh. It frustrates me when I can’t clearly understand things.

“Okay, so, that still doesn’t tell me why John’s not coming back,” I say.

“Well, the government won’t let his son back into the country until he’s well.” Now, I’m appalled.

“What?!” I nearly roar. “He’s an American citizen! Wasn’t he born here?”

“Yes, but he has a very aggressive strain of a disease that we’re not really schooled on yet, and if they have advanced knowledge and feel like he’s going to infect other ‘citizens,’ the government and the CDC can deny him re-entry. As a result, John is discontent with the United States right now and is questioning his intent to return.” I shake my head in disgust.

“I’d be discontent, too, if I were him,” I say. It’s not that John is one of my favorite people, but we’re talking about watching your son suffer, then being told that you can’t return to the land of the free and the home of the brave because someone slapped a label on what he has and they’re still discovering what’s under this label. I still think it’s SARS, but I’m not qualified enough to say.

“Have you told Christian?” I ask. She shakes her head.

“I only just found out… this morning, in fact. I was going to tell you, but you asked me first, so…” She trails off.

“I’ll tell him,” I say. “I won’t spring it on him yet with the lovely trip that we have ahead of us, but I’ll find the right time.” He considers John a friend, so he would definitely want to know.

*-*

“Help!” I hear Christian declare. “I’m being baby-mangled!”

I follow Minnie’s maniacal giggles to find my family. Christian is on the floor on his back, dramatically pretending to struggle to get free of a smiling and drooling Mikey, who’s on his hands and knees on top of Christian, pounding his flat hands on his father’s chest. Minnie is sitting up on a blanket nearby surrounded by pillows, bouncing and laughing hysterically at her brother and her father. I quietly take out my phone and begin recording.

“This looks like the end for King Christian,” my husband says in a narrating voice. “The Incredible Mikey has him subdued with no hope of escape!”

“No! No!” he continues, changing his voice to remain in character. “I’ll never yield!”

“Try though he might…” the narrator is back, “King Christian cannot defeat the Incredible Mikey. He tries one last tactic—the Terror Tickle!” Christian tickles his son and Mikey bursts into joyous laughter, his sister following suit for no particular reason whatsoever as she launches a plush toy across the pillow fort that connects with Christian’s tickle hand. Christian throws a mock-horrified look at his daughter.

“Hey!” he protests. “That’s outside interference! Whose side are you on?”

I have to cover my mouth to keep from bursting into laughter. Mikey’s hard guffaws result in a healthy amount of drool leaking onto Christian’s shirt.

“Uuuuugghh!” he exclaims. “The Toxic Droll Attack! I’m done for!”

I’m nearly choking on air over here. I can barely hold my phone straight.

“That’s it, ladies and gentlemen,” the narrator says, “King Christian is throwing in the towel, which he needs now for the toxic baby drool…”

Oh, dear Lord, help me.

My husband uses a burping cloth to clean the drool from Mikey’s mouth and as much of it as he can from his shirt before declaring the Incredible Mikey the new babyweight world champion. He stands to his feet, lifting his son in the air and presenting him as the new champion, spinning around and imitating crowd cheering sounds…

And then he sees me and stops in his tracks.

I’m finally able to release the laughter I’d been choking on ever since I started recording. My husband twists his lips.

“How long have you been standing there?” he asks, acting perturbed.

“Ever since you cried about being baby-mangled,” I tease. His expression doesn’t do anything to curb my laughter. “Do you realize how hard it is to take that stern look seriously while you have drool on your shirt and that adorable baby in your hands?”

He looks at his shirt, then at Mikey.

“She doesn’t understand how hard this Daddy thing can be,” he says to Mikey, “but that’s okay. You get me, don’t you?” I chuckle as I stop recording.

“It can’t be any harder than being the milk-producing snack bitch for two little people,” I laugh. Christian frowns.

“Oh, Butterfly, that sounds terrible,” he laments. I laugh it off.

“Well, it’s true,” I say, grabbing my swollen boobs. “Have they eaten?”

“They have, in fact,” he says, “maybe about an hour ago.”

“In that case, I have a date with a breast pump… and you might want to stop swinging the babyweight champion around or he might give you back his lunch.” Christian looks at Mikey who only laughs at his father.

“That might be a good idea,” he says, securing his son in his arms.

“Ms. Solomon is there anything ready that I can eat?” I ask as I’m passing through the kitchen. “I skipped lunch and just came home.”

“What are you in the mood for?” she asks, opening the Sub-Zero.

“Anything quick and dead,” I tell her. When I’m hungry, I’ll inhale whatever’s in that refrigerator. Ms. Solomon laughs.

“Give me fifteen minutes,” she says. “I’ll put something together for you.”

It only takes a few minutes this time to empty my pounding tits and change into some genie pants and a wrap shirt. I take a few moments to myself to meditate and re-center before I go back downstairs to join my family.

A heavenly smell greets me as I bend the corner from the hallway to the dining room, causing me to nearly sprint to the kitchen.

“My God, what did you do?” I ask when I see the spread on the breakfast bar.

“Nothing,” Ms. Solomon says, “Glorified grilled cheese and tomato soup.” She has a place set at the breakfast bar with a steaming bowl of creamy tomato soup. I sit at the breakfast bar and she sets a plate next to the bowl with the grilled cheese sandwich that she made—thick slices of bread with oregano and parsley grilled with Canadian bacon, Monterey Jack cheese… and something yellow. I bite into the heavenly creation and realize that it’s a slice of pineapple. I never would have thought to put that combination together, but it’s absolutely delicious!

“What made you think of this combination?” I say, rudely talking with my mouth full as she puts a cranberry spritzer down next to me.

“My stepmother was Samoan,” she says. “She used to make them for me and my brothers all the time.” I nod and take another healthy bite of my sandwich.

“Damn, what smells so good?” Christian comes into the kitchen and sees my sandwich. “Can I have a bite?”

“Touch my food and you’ll pull back a nub!” I exclaim, still chomping on Canadian bacon and pineapple. Holy cow, Batman, this is delicious. Christian actually looks at me in surprised horror. Ms. Solomon laughs.

“Sit down, Mr. Grey,” she chuckles. “Five minutes.” She turns around and gets to work on his sandwich.

“What happened to what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine?” he says while taking a seat next to me at the breakfast bar. I swallow the bite of heaven that I’m chewing.

“She’s fixing yours,” I say, as I take a spoonful of the creamiest tomato soup I’ve ever tasted. I groan in satisfaction and he tries to take my sandwich again. I smack his hand so fast and so hard that he snatches it back swiftly.

“Ow!” he exclaims. “Okay! I believe you!”

“You better,” I say, taking another spoonful of my soup and groaning again in satisfaction.

“Here, sir,” Ms. Solomon says, sitting a bowl of soup in front of him. “Work on that while I finish your sandwich. I don’t want to be responsible for any death or dismemberment.” I chuckle as Christian picks up his spoon and tastes the soup.

“This is delicious!” he says taking another spoonful. “Tomato bisque?” Ms. Solomon shrugs.

“I guess you could call it bisque,” she says. “I use different ingredients, though.”

“Another recipe from your stepmom?” I ask. She shakes her head.

“No, from my mom, before she passed away.” I get quiet. I don’t know anything about hers or Windsor’s family, but I just didn’t think to assume that her mother was dead.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Don’t be,” she replies, waving me off as she flips Christian’s sandwich. “It was a long time ago.” Christian tastes some more of his soup.

“This is so good,” he croons, taking spoonful after spoonful of the soup. I’m glad he likes it, so he can leave my damn sandwich alone.

“I’m glad you like it,” Ms. Solomon says, plating and slicing his sandwich before putting it in front of him. “What would you like to drink?” He looks over at my spritzer.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” he says before taking a huge bite of his sandwich. “Mmm… mm, mm, mm…” He chews the sandwich hungrily like a savage, so much so that I have to stop eating to observe the spectacle. He pays me no attention as he devours his food.

“I knew it would taste good,” he says, taking another monstrous bite that annihilates half of the half of sandwich that he had in his hand. I shake my head and tuck back into my food. It’s silent in the kitchen for about three minutes and then it dawns on me.

“Where are the twins?” I ask between bites of food.

“Still in the family room,” he says. “They’re safe in their Pack-n-Plays watching television. Keri’s in there with them.” He has already gobbled down half his sandwich—in three bites! And he wanted a piece of mine. I don’t think so, Hungry Jack!

“Is it safe to approach?”

Christian and I both stop eating and turn our heads to the voice coming from nowhere. Elliot is hiding behind one of the marble columns and all we see is his arm and a white handkerchief waving in the air.

“You tattled on me to my father, you fucking snitch,” Christian scolds. “I should kick your ass, you pussy.”

“Hey, I just wanted to make sure everything was okay,” he excuses. “You weren’t giving me any information and you looked like shit. No offense, but so did you, Montana.”

“Thanks,” I say sarcastically as I’m finishing off my soup.

“And now, you insult my wife. Don’t you have a home, now? Hell, for that matter, don’t you have a fucking job?” Christian snaps.

“I could say the same thing to you,” he says coming over to the breakfast bar and looking at what’s left of my sandwich. Without making eye-contact with him, I quickly grab what’s left of my sandwich and gobble down the last bite.

“You’re in my house,” Christian retorts. “Don’t ask me why I’m in my house. Why are you here?”

“I was in the neighborhood,” he admits, taking a seat next to Christian and now eying the other half of his sandwich.

“Elliot, so help me, if you touch my sandwich, you’ll leave this house in a body bag.” I look horrified at my husband.

“Damn,” I protest. “I only threatened to maim you.”

“Well, can I have one?” Elliot says. “I’m starving… and you know I’d never take your food.” He rolls his eyes at his brother.

“Well, then, you should have eaten before you got here…” The entire time that they’re sparring, Ms. Solomon has already put another sandwich in the frying pan and started the microwave to rewarm the tomato bisque. I shake my head and take my dishes to the sink.

“I could have done that, Mrs. Grey,” Ms. Solomon says.

“It’s alright,” I say, wiping my hands on a dishtowel.

“Go find lunch somewhere else, you moocher,” Christian says, still antagonizing his brother.

“So, Elliot, you said you were in the neighborhood,” I say, breaking the sparring match. “What were you doing in these parts?”

“Oh, the Miller place,” he says. “Mrs. Miller hasn’t changed anything since her husband died. It’s been ten years and she’s ready for a redo.” Christian finishes his lunch just as Ms. Solomon is putting the soup in front of Elliot.

“Careful, it’s hot,” she says as she takes Christian’s dishes and put them in the sink.

“You’re doing less building and more remodels now, bro?” Christian says.

“No, still doing builds,” he says, blowing a spoonful of soup to cool it. “Gia called me on this one. Said Mrs. Miller saw the pictures of your house on a preview of that show that supposed to be coming on, where you guys did the interview…” I look at Christian.

“I thought we were supposed to approve the showing before they aired it,” I say.

“We are,” he says, pulling out his phone. “Mac… call that woman, Sanchez… we’re hearing through the grapevine that people are seeing previews of our interview and we haven’t approved anything… yeah, my brother’s getting remodel requests because someone’s already seen the inside of my house… I’ll wait for your call.” He ends the call with Vee. “She hasn’t heard anything either. I hope we haven’t made a mistake letting this woman into our lives.”

“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding,” I say, afraid to let on that I’m thinking the same thing. By now, Ms. Solomon has set yet another of her delectable sandwiches in front of Elliot. He has already dug into it and opted for apple juice. “So, Elliot, who’s Gia?” I ask, trying to change the subject until we hear from Maria.

Elliot was thoroughly enjoying his sandwich but stops mid-chew at the mention of this woman’s name. He looks over at Christian, then back at me.

“She doesn’t know about Gia?” he asks, his mouth full. What’s in this damn sandwich that makes us all forget our manners? Christian shrugs like, “No big deal.”

“Why should I know about Gia?” I ask.

“Elliot used to fuck her,” Christian blurts out before finishing his cranberry spritzer. Elliot quickly swallows his food.

“More importantly,” he retorts, “she did your boat.

Aah, the plot thickens. This is the woman’s touch that I saw all over the Slayer.

“I see,” I say, taking my husband’s glass and walking over to the sink.

“Thanks, Lelliot,” I hear him hiss. “I think I’d like for you to leave now!”

“I just started eating!” Elliot protests quietly. “Besides, you’re the one that blurted out that we used to fuck.”

“Oh, but the fact that Gia did my boat—that needed to be known, right? I don’t talk to the woman anymore, but you’re doing remodeling jobs with her…”

I know exactly what Elliot’s doing. He’s trying to take the focus off himself by casting it on Christian. I know how to deflate that agenda.

“So, Elliot,” I turn back to the bickering brothers, “Gia’s a decorator?” He nods. “And how does Val feel about you working with an ex-girlfriend?” He stops mid-chew again and raises his eyes to me.

“She doesn’t know,” he says after swallowing his food, “and she wasn’t a girlfriend.”

“Do you think it’s a good idea for you to be working with someone whom you’ve previously bedded, and your wife doesn’t know?” I press.

“I’m not screwing the woman now,” he protests. “It’s just a lead. A lead is a lead.”

“So, she’s not working on the remodel with you.” It’s a question formed as a statement.

“Well, yeah, she’s working on the design plans but… I’m not messing around with her…”

“But you used to,” I press. Elliot gets quiet. “Trust me, Elliot, secrets in a relationship can be disastrous.” I look over at Christian, who raises his gaze to me. I know only too well of what I speak. I could have lost my marriage because I didn’t come to my husband when I knew Liam was attracted to me and I still had to work with him.

“Tell her before she finds out from somebody else, like some gossip rag that may see the two of you together at the Miller mansion.”

Before he has the chance to respond, I leave the kitchen and go into the family room with my babies. The topic is a bit too much for me to stomach right now. My mood immediately turns sour and I need little bundles of pink and blue to reverse its affects.


CHRISTIAN

“Nice fucking going, Elliot!” I hiss. “Did you intentionally come over here to upset my wife or do you have a purpose?”

“You know I wasn’t trying to upset her…” His excuse is weak.

“What the fuck were you doing, then?” I counter. “More importantly, she did your boat.” I mock his voice in a very unflattering manner. “I realize that you were in the Caribbean enjoying the sun and surf, but I’m certain that Valerie told you what we just went through.” He slaps his forehead.

“Shit, man, I forgot all about that,” he laments.

“I. Haven’t!” I bark. “I’m still fucking living it! You wanna know why we looked like shit last night? It’s because we were out on the lawn crying over whether we should even continue being married or not!” Elliot’s eyes widen.

“Dude… I’m sorry. I just panicked. The spotlight shined on me and I just… panicked.”

“So, you thought you’d get the heat off you by throwing me under the bus? How’d that work out for you?” I glare at my brother.

“It was a fucked-up thing to do, man,” he admits. “I’m really sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” I twist my lip.

“Yeah, whatever.” I stand from the stool. “She’s right. Tell your wife that you used to fuck Gia and that you’re working together. Now, finish your fucking lunch and get the hell out of my house.” I brush past him.

“Christian, really, I’m sorry, man. It was a bonehead…”

“I agree,” I say, interrupting his apology. “I heard you the first time, and I accept your apology, but I can’t talk to you right now. Finish your lunch and leave.”

I turn away from my brother and walk into the family room. My wife is sitting on the floor with a baby on each shoulder. She’s humming softly while simultaneously and masterfully rocking them to sleep. I sit on the sofa next to where she’s sitting on the floor and watch my children contentedly falling asleep on her shoulder as she sings to them. I can’t make out the tune, but they’re slipping comfortably into slumber. I take out my phone and snap a few pictures of my son and daughter lying peacefully on their mother’s shoulder. When she’s certain that they’re asleep, she asks me to help her put them down. We put each of them in their Pack-n-Play. They’ve gotten too big for the nappers. We stand there for a moment, silently looking down into the Pack-n-Plays.

“I… slept with Victoria once,” I blurt out. She turns her gaze to me.

“Victoria who?” she says, and then it hits her. “Vickie?” she asks incredulously. “Courtney’s Vickie? She’s gay!”

“She… was indecisive at the time,” I say.

“Indecisive,” she says in the same incredulous voice, low enough not to wake the twins. “So, you made her realize she was gay?” I roll my eyes.

“No,” I say defensively, “I mean, she was already gay, but I was her last hurrah,” I clarify. I sigh. “I was still Elena’s submissive and I didn’t want a girlfriend, but I was away at college and I wanted to fuck. She wanted one last round. It was a means to and end for us both.” She raises her brow at me but says nothing.

“Elena beat the hell out of me when she found out,” I continue. “I think that was the last real punishment she ever gave me. I resented it. I was young and horny, and she was always there to fulfill that need when I had it. Yet, at college, she wasn’t—so what was I supposed to do?” I sit on the sofa as I recall my short stint at college. Two years. Two agonizing years, the first year I was completely celibate. It was torture.

“She wanted me to be all hot for her when I came home on vacations, and believe me, I was, but this time…”

I recall the not-so-fond memory of telling my Mistress that I had been with someone else…

“What’s going on?” she asks while were having dinner at her estate. “Something’s different.”

“No, Mistress,” I say, trying to hide the truth from her.

“Don’t lie to me, pet,” she purrs… more like growls. “What’s going on?” I sigh. I can’t keep if from her. I couldn’t if I tried.

“I’ve… been with someone… else,” I choke, unable to raise my gaze to my Mistress. There’s a long pause before she responds.

“I see,” she says, putting her wine on the table. “So, I assume you’ll be wanting to end our arrangement.”

“No!” I retort, quickly, raising my eyes to hers but dropping them just as quickly. “No, Mistress, I don’t.”

“You can’t mean that!” she barks. “You’ve been with someone else. You touched someone else without my permission, and you let her touch you! Surely, that means this is not what you want anymore.”

“That’s not true, Mistress,” I say, nearly begging. “I was counting the days to get back to you…”

“While in the arms of another woman!” she scolds viciously. “Then, I had to pull the truth out of you. Would you have even told me?” I nod.

“I would have,” I choke, “eventually. I just… didn’t know how.”

“I’m sure you didn’t!” she hisses, tossing her napkin on the table before standing. I stand as well, just like she taught me. “Go to the playroom. Strip, and wait for me there.”

I listen to her heels click angrily across the marble floor. Son of a motherfucking bitch…

I’m in for it now…

I remember some pretty bad beatings at the end of the Pedophile’s tools, but that was one of the worst. It was awful. Then while my skin was bruised and on fire—broken in some places—she made me fuck her and fuck her until she had enough, commanding me not to come. Then she sent me away, horny and in pain. She didn’t see me for the rest of spring break.

I remember coming home that summer and announcing that I wouldn’t be returning to school. It was a two-fold reason, the main one being that I could do what I needed to do without a Harvard education. The second was her. I was back at school afraid to even look at another girl for fear that Mistress had a bird on a wire somewhere that would fly back to her and tell her what I was doing. I was miserable. I wanted to be back in Seattle with my Mistress, where I could fuck. And I wanted to start my own business.

“How did she end up in Seattle?” Butterfly asks, breaking the silence between us. “Did she follow you?” I shake my head.

“No,” I tell her. “That’s how we connected. We were both from here. She finished her degree and with her business knowledge and her design savvy…” I flourish my hands to demonstrate that Victoria is now exactly where she wants to be.

“Well,” she says, walking over to where I’m sitting and stands in front of me. “You should be more worried about her with me at this point than I should be about her with you.” I shrug. “You told me because of what I said to Elliot?” I raise my eyes to her, then drop them again with a nod.

“It would have come out at one time or another,” I say. “It really didn’t mean anything… to either of us. It was just sex, but it’s better that you hear it from me than you hear it from anyone else.” There’s a short silence.

“And Gia?” she says. I raise my eyes to her. “You were a bachelor before you met me,” she says. “There was no reason for Jack and Jill bathrooms in the master suite. There was no reason for his and hers parlors/saloons when it was just you. The whole place should have been decked out like a bachelor pad, yet there were areas specifically designed with a woman in mind. You’re saying that there was no reason for Gia to think that woman was her?”

“Absolutely not!” I say definitely. “I was under no misconception that she was hopeful of wanting more, but that was by no encouragement from me. With the exception of Victoria in my college years, my only sexual relationships before you were with submissives… and one Domme.” God, I’m glad that part of my life is over.

“Fine,” she says, leaning down taking my hand. “That’s all that needs to be said about this issue. Let’s go get packed for Detroit.” She gives my hand a pull and I rise from the sofa. I look back at our children once more to make sure that they’re asleep and fall in line behind my wife.

Butterfly removes a garment bag and puts three outfits in it with lingerie, accessories, and toiletries. We’re only going to be there overnight—why is she packing so much?

“Is that, like, a rule with women or something? Pack enough clothes for a long weekend when we’re only staying for a day?” She looks at me.

“I have something casual, something business, something semi-formal. You never know what’s going to happen.”

“I know that we’re not going to be there long enough for you to need all those clothes,” I say, packing a single suit, linen shirt, shoes, and accessories in my garment bag, along with my toiletries pouch.

“Then if we don’t, no harm done,” she says as she begins to brush her hair. I don’t harp on it because I know she’s been having this doomsday mentality about everything lately. This could be another one of those things.

I’m heading to my bathroom when I hear my phone buzzing on the nightstand. I go back to the bed and pick it up. I don’t recognize the number.

“Grey,” I answer.

“Christian, I am so sorry!” I don’t recognize the voice immediately. “It’s Maria. Sanchez. I swear to God, I don’t know who dropped the ball, but those promos were not supposed to run until I spoke to you.” Indeed. I just bet.

“One minute.” I get my wife’s attention when she comes back out of her dressing room.

“It’s Maria Sanchez,” I say, waving at her and changing my phone to speaker. “You’re on speaker, and my wife is here.” She clears her throat.

“I was just telling Christian that I don’t know how the promos started without my knowledge. We’re still trying to find out who dropped the ball on this one, but I was going to call you tomorrow to see if your weekend was free. I was going to bring the footage to Seattle and we could all view it together in that beautiful theater of yours—promos and all—and you could tell me what you think.”

“Before we discuss that,” my wife interjects, “I’d like to know how footage of our interview—promo or not—made it on the air without our permission and apparently, also without your knowledge. Isn’t there some kind of order about things, some kind of clearances that have to be in place and some programming manager that has to organize what’s being shown and approve the lineup or something before it’s aired? Or is there some buffoon like grip boy grabbing things and handing them to someone and they just put it on a reel?”

Bravo, Butterfly! I couldn’t have said it better myself! I’m having flashbacks of the conversation that I had with Maria about Butterfly being the real firecracker between the two of us, and my beautiful wife is showing that it doesn’t do to fuck with her.

“Ana, I assure you, this doesn’t happen often. I’ve had all your footage placed under lock and key—the clips, the finished product, the promos, everything. The only thing that I can say as an explanation is that we’re planning for you guys to lead Sweeps Week, and this is the time that we start showing the promos for that week. Someone may have seen the schedule and pulled the promo not knowing that we didn’t get clearance from you yet. I’m so sorry about that. I know that this incident along with the incident with Reggie doesn’t really give you a feeling of security and faith in my network right now, but please, this was my fault for not being clear in my communication and handling of the promos. I take full responsibility for this and I beg your forgiveness for my carelessness.”

At least she owned the mistake. That counts for something and restores some of my faith in her. Butterfly, I’m not so sure.

“What’s next, Maria?” I ask impatiently. She sighs.

“We need you to view the footage as soon as possible,” she says. “Like I said, I can fly out to Seattle on Friday…”

“We won’t be here,” I interrupt. “We have urgent business in Detroit and we’re flying out tomorrow.”

“Will you be there all weekend?” she pries. “I can meet you in Detroit if you like…” Oh, hell, no!

“No, that won’t be necessary,” I tell her. “Plan to meet us Sunday morning back here in Seattle. We should be done with our business by Friday evening and that gives us a day to get back home and settle down.”

“Good, I’ll do that. And again, I’m really sorry.” I nod as if she could hear me and end the call. I raise my gaze to Butterfly.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” she reinforces.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say as I go back to my closet for casual wear and another suit to pack for our trip.

*-*

I hate this place.

I sincerely hate this place.

The last time I came anywhere near this hellhole, I discovered that the man who tormented me as a child and haunted my dreams for decades thereafter was indeed not tucked away in a jail cell somewhere but is somewhere wandering the world right now free as a fucking bird. Then I returned home to find that my wife was nearly killed by one of my crazy ass ex-subs. This place has absolutely no good memories for me—coming or going.

The minute we enter the airspace for DTW, my stomach starts churning and my spirit drops. My only comfort is that I’m holding the hand of my beautiful wife as we descend into Dante’s hell. My father doesn’t think I see him eyeing me out of his peripheral, and I think he’s more concerned about me than he is about the purpose of this trip. That’s exactly the opposite of what I want. I want to be moral support for him. It’s counterproductive if he must worry about me while we’re here.

“Are you okay?” my wife asks as I gaze out the window at the view beneath us while we descend into the airport. I nod.

“I’m fine,” I fib, “but I wouldn’t be lying if I said that I’ll be glad when this trip is over.” She squeezes my hand and smiles at me. She’s probably thinking the same thing that I am—It’s too late to back out now, so I might as well be useful.

We land at Detroit Metro at a little after 5:00pm local time. Jason has secured two vehicles for us while we’re here–one for Dad and Uncle Herman, and one for the three of us. Dad will be going to the private investigator’s office to see if there’s any information that he can get from them. He knows that legally, they don’t have to tell him anything, but armed with the fact that he’s an attorney and that his and Uncle Herman’s notices of the will reading mysteriously disappeared from the US Mail, he’s hoping that he can get someone to break under pressure. There’s no confidentiality between the agency and Freeman; they’re just not under any obligation to tell my father anything.

“No Audis, huh?” I ask when I see the generic SUV that my best friend has procured… maybe not generic, but generic to me. He raises his eyebrow at me.

“You’re kidding, right?” he asks. “In the land of the Big 3? You’re lucky if you find a Volkswagen.” I shake my head and help my wife into the large Lincoln Navigator. Thank God this is only for one day.

The attorney, who used to have an office in downtown Detroit, has now moved his practice to Troy. Thank God! We reserved a hotel room in Birmingham, halfway between Troy and Uncle Stan’s place in Farmington. Since Detroit Metro Airport is in the southeastern portion of the Mitten, and Farmington, Birmingham, and Troy are all in the northern metropolitan suburbs, the drawback is that unless we want to take some insanely crazy and unnecessary detour, we have to drive through the west side of Detroit.

The good news is that we don’t have to stop.

Dad drives the Navigator with me, Uncle Herman, and my wife inside to Uncle Stan’s house, while Jason takes the MKS to the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham to get me and my wife checked in. He’ll meet us later at Uncle Stan’s house to take us back to the hotel.

I’m in contemplation as we travel down the I-94 headed for the Southfield freeway that will take us to the northern suburbs. I fucking hate being here. I fucking hate it. I see nothing that rings any bells or causes any feelings of déjà vu, but I hate being here anyway. I hate what this place represents. I hate everything about it.

There’s a giant ass fucking tire on the side of the road. A giant ass fucking tire. It’s great advertising, but whose fucking idea was that? Uniroyal… yeah, while I’m driving down the fucking freeway, I’m going to remember Uniroyal.com, right? Shit, I’ll remember it if I have a blowout right there by the damn giant tire.

We turn onto Southfield Road and there are more residential areas—nice ones, and I realize that we must not be in Detroit yet. Even at night, I can tell that we’re in a nicer area.

“Remember the Glass House, Rick?” Uncle Herman’s voice breaks my train of thought and I see him pointing to a ten or twelve-story glass building to the right of the freeway.

“How can I forget?” Dad says as we pass the building. “Dad used to take us to every event that ever happened at that place,” he says to me in the mirror, “like he owned the place.” He turns his attention back to the road. “He was really proud to be a Ford employee. It meant something back then.”

“It doesn’t anymore?” I ask, turning my attention to my father. He half shrugs.

“I don’t know, son,” he says, his voice nostalgic. “Back in those days, everybody wanted to work at Ford or one of the Big Three. It meant that you made it in Motown, because even though it was hard work, it was really good money. For a lot of people, the factories made the American Dream come true. It… just doesn’t seem that way anymore.” He falls silent and that’s when I see the sign.

Joy Rd, 1 mile…

We’re in Detroit.

I take a deep breath and look around at my surroundings. Again, even in the dark, you can tell by the change of scenery that we’re in the city. It doesn’t look run-down that I can tell, except for certain patches of it, but it’s not as vibrant-looking as the neighborhoods and areas surrounding the airport. Sensing my tension, Butterfly squeezes my hand. I squeeze back but continue to look out the window at the city. Large, vacant fields can be seen by the sides of the freeway—lots where buildings once stood. The landscaping is splotchy and some of the grass that lines the inclines has died. Even the freeway itself is unkept—badly patched tar jobs that look like someone just spilled the compound over the road; brown stains dripping down the concrete of bridges and overpasses from badly rusted fences. I’m sure this is not the only city in America that looks like this, but right now, I’m only seeing Detroit.

Plymouth Rd, Schoolcraft Ave, 1 mile…

There are orange construction cones on this part of the freeway, but I swear that I can’t see any work being done—just the right lane of the freeway being blocked off and slowing our commute out of this God-forsaken city. I think Dad says something to me, but I’m not sure. I see a few more houses on the edge of the freeway, and then we pass another main street.

I feel like I’m holding my breath. I feel like my bio-mom’s decomposing body is going to jump in front of the car at any moment… or one of the fucking Myricks… or somebody—another crackhead or a john or…

96, Downtown Detroit, Lansing, 1 ¼ mile…

Trash discarded from cars or from God knows where collects in masse at the base of fences where the wind has carried it as far as it can go and the metal acts like a net gathering the debris. Graffiti lines the concrete walls and even some of the overpasses and medians. How the hell do you vandalize a median on a busy freeway?

5, Grand River, Fenkell Ave, 3/4 mile…

More small houses line the side of the freeway and even though they don’t look as bad as some of the prior houses, the neighborhood is still run down. I hold my breath as we drive under an overpass that’s so rusted and corroded that I’m afraid it’s going to collapse on our car!

McNichols Rd, 1 mile…

I can see more trees. The houses are getting larger. A church with a steeple… but still quite a bit of debris and dead shrubbery on the freeway.

More trees, more houses. The grass is greener down here, but the road and the medians and walls are still very unkempt.

7 Mile Rd, ¾ mile…

Another church. Damn, how many churches are on this road? With this many churches around, there shouldn’t be a junkie, a pimp, or a crack whore in sight, and yet…

The walls are tall in this part of the freeway. It makes me feel… trapped. I take a deep breath, but I don’t think I release it.

102, 8 Mile Rd, ¾ mile…

Eight Mile. Eight Mile Road. Eight Mile marks the end of Wayne county and the beginning of Oakland county. This far west, that means Southfield and Oak Park, three-quarters of a mile away.

As if the grass and the trees know that we’re about to leave Detroit, they begin to show beautiful autumn colors and the lush fullness of green that precedes a long winter’s sleep. There’s very little—if any—debris in the road and the overpass we just went under actually looks ornate, with fresh, black wrought iron fences lining the banister. Even the road itself looks newer.

102, 8 Mile Rd, ½ mile…

Now the signs are taunting me. None of the other signs had any ½-mile markers, just ¾ and 1 mile. Come on, Oakland county…

The walls get tall again, like prison walls, and as the road rises towards the 8-Mile exit, there are more houses—a lot more—and another ornate overpass with wrought iron fencing. And then we cross 8 Mile, and that breath that I took in a mile or so back comes rushing from my chest with so much force that I nearly choke on air.

North 10 to West 696, Lansing, ¾ mile…

39, Freeway ends, ¾ mile…

Southfield Rd…

I’m still choking on air and my wife is squeezing my hand and rubbing my back. Dad says something about pulling over and Uncle Herman is asking if I’m okay.

“I’m fine,” I gasp, “Keep going. Keep driving.” For God’s sake, please don’t stop.

Smooth roads, beautiful lush trees and grass, quaint houses and impressive businesses and office buildings… Not the crème de la crème of the area, but we’ve definitely left Detroit.

I made it.

*-*

“God, am I glad to see you guys,” Uncle Stan greets us when he opens the door. “I hadn’t heard anything, so I thought you just decided not to come.”

He gives Uncle Herman a robust hug before looking at his brother with sincere adoration in his eyes. They say a few words about missing each other and such before Uncle Stan takes Dad in his arms and hugs him just as robustly. I somewhat usher my wife in front of me to give myself more time to prepare for my hug. I’m still very uncomfortable with people hugging me, and even though Uncle Stan is family, he’s still a virtual stranger for the most part. I don’t want to offend him, though, by shunning his hug or stiffening up when he embraces me. Dad whispers in his brother’s ear, squeezes his forearms and smiles widely. Uncle Stan returns the smile and nods before turning to my wife.

“May I?” he says, opening his arms to Butterfly.

“Of course, you may,” she says sweetly, opening her arms to welcome him. “It’s so good to see you again,” she says as they embrace. I plaster a half-smile on my face and wait for their exchange to end, steeling myself for my turn. When they part, Stan’s smile widens, and he grabs my hand, shaking it vigorously and jovially with the other hand clasped on top.

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Christian,” he says cheerfully. “I don’t know if I thanked you properly but thank you… thank you for everything!”

His smile is bright like sunshine, like a naïve child. If I had to categorize the brothers, I would say that my dad is the intellectual, Herman is the caretaker, Freeman’s the asshole, and Stanley is the sensitive one.

“Anytime, Uncle Stan,” I reply, still waiting for the death grip hug.

“Welcome! Welcome to my home.” He releases my hand, but only touches my arm. “Please,” he says, flourishing his other hand in front of us to usher me inside, “come in. Make yourself comfortable.”

“What smells so delicious?” Butterfly asks, as we enter the living room. I realize that Dad must have quickly said something to Stan about my haphephobia. I try not to sigh audibly when I realize that he’s not going to hug me, but he still managed to make me feel as welcome and loved as everyone else.

A/N: DTW—the airport code for Detroit Metro Airport. It stands for Detroit/Wayne.

Christian references “the Mitten.” For those who may not already know, the lower peninsula of Michigan looks like a mitten.

~~love and handcuffs

Raising Grey: Chapter 39—Shattering Dreams

So I got a little sensitive with the last couple of chapters. However, this storyline was written several months ago and it’s not like I’m going to change it, so I think I’ll just shut up and let you guys read 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 39—Shattering Dreams

ANASTASIA

I’m horrified to discover that my husband has flown the proverbial coop when I return to the Crossing. Liam apologized for his forward behavior and ran, embarrassed, from the Center. We’re lucky that he didn’t want to press charges against Christian for grabbing him that way. Christian was incensed and ready to kill that man. I had to put that fire out quickly or I would have been trying to bail my husband out of jail. He’s already got one strike against him—a big one, and it’s on the books!

As much as tempers were flaring, I couldn’t allow it to happen again. Allowing Liam to leave without talking to him might have led to just that. Even though he’s a bonehead for trying to kiss me in the first place, he would have been within his rights to make a police report because he was in the course of his job duties when this shit all happened. I would have defended my husband by telling the powers that be that Liam was making an advance at the time, but who needs that shit? Put the fire out now and deal with Christian once I’ve successfully kept him out of jail.

Or so I thought…

I knew there would be no talking to him at that moment, and I knew that he wouldn’t calmly wait around while I tried to talk to Liam. So, I asked him to go home and wait for me…

Then I get here, and he’s gone.
No note…
No explanation…
Just gone.

I’ve called him like a hundred times and he won’t even answer my calls—won’t yell at me, won’t tell me to go to hell, nothing. Gail only knows that he and Jason are gone. So, I know that means that he’s leaving town. She doesn’t know where; she doesn’t know how long… or at least she’s not telling me. She just knows they’re gone.

“What happened?” she asks. “What’s going on?”

Nobody was privy to what happened in the community room tonight but me, Liam, and Christian… and he hasn’t told anybody. At least, I don’t think he has told anybody.

I’m not telling them either.

I leave message after message after message on his phone until it finally just goes straight to voicemail…

“We said that we would talk about it if anything like this ever happened and you’re shutting me out. Please… call me.”

“How can you do this to us? To our family? Our children? I didn’t even kiss him! I’m being punished for something that never happened!”

“This is really fucking mature, Christian. Really mature! You need to stop acting like this and call me so that we can talk about this.”

After leaving something like twenty messages until his voice mail is full, I revert to text messages, still calling and hoping that he’ll answer the phone…

**Please, Christian, this is getting out of hand. It’s been four days… you can’t just cut me off like this. I’m your wife. **

I discover on the fifth day that he could, in fact, just cut me off. I dial his number like I do every five minutes or so of every day and after a while, I’m greeted with the same message that I got when Daddy blocked my number.

My heart clenches. That can’t be… this can’t be. I dial the number again, slowly choosing each digit to make sure that I’m dialing the right number.

“The party you have dialed…”

I sit frozen in my seat at my desk, my throat constricting, my vision blurred, and my chest feeling like a giant hand is squeezing the life’s blood from my heart and it’s literally bleeding onto the floor. He’s blocked me. He’s gone and he’s blocking my calls. He doesn’t want to talk to me. Doesn’t want to hear my side. Doesn’t want to work this out. He’s gone… and he’s cut all contact. The words I said to Liam that last night come back to me in haunting relevance…

I know a hopeless situation when I see one.

I dial his number once more and when the haunting voice begins to tell me that my communication is unwelcome, I let out a soul-shaking scream and mightily launch my phone across the office until smashes hopelessly against the opposite wall and disintegrates into a thousand tiny little pieces. I drop my face into my hands and wail my dismay.

He’s left me.

*-*

I spend the next four days locked in the office at the Center, still trying to revamp our plans for accreditation. I don’t feel any hope for anything, but I must keep up the façade that I’m functioning just fine because if I don’t, I have to answer questions about me and Christian, which I utterly refuse to answer right now.

I made the mistake of calling Jason a few times to see if I could get any information from him or try to get him to talk to his boss on my behalf. My attempts at both were flaming failures though he made a point to let me know that my estranged husband was okay, and he would do his best to keep Christian safe.

Fucking yippee.

I can’t taste food and at this point, I don’t know how many of my own tears I’ve ingested. I just know that I must feed my babies and if I don’t eat, I can’t feed them.

One day runs into the next as I spend my days in my office at the Center, doing my job and my nights in the nursery with the twins. I’ve become a permanent fixture in their window seat, looking out over the water with a perfect view of the bridge to and from Seattle. I think I’m subconsciously waiting to see if a familiar black Audi will come across the bridge at any moment. I know better, but I watch anyway, holding the phone that Marilyn replaced for me in her ever-present efficiency. I dare not dial the number again. I can’t stand the automated voice repeating that my husband doesn’t want me anymore. So, I just hold the phone and hope that he’ll have mercy on me and call me one day.

By the second Friday, I’ve had enough of waiting for that mercy. The walls are closing in on me and I need to get out of that house—away from the Crossing, the happy memories, even our beautiful children. I just don’t want to think or feel anymore. I’m so tired of this never-ending dismay and I just want it to stop. On my way out to the garage, I stop at the bar in the entertainment room and grab a bottle of Tennessee whiskey. Then I get into my car—my beautiful scuba blue metallic Audi with the huge moonroof that my once-loving husband bought me as a push gift and drive to the gate. After I threaten to drive through the gate if whatever guard on the night shift didn’t open it in three seconds, he opens the gate and I punch the gas.

I open the moonroof and turn IheartRadio to the driving station. This is not the kind of music that I normally listen to. The problem is that the kind of music that I do listen to would only remind me of Christian or love or love lost or some other sappy shit and I just can’t deal with that right now.

Years ago, I found an old access road at Discovery Park that no one seemed to know about and it looks to still have gone undiscovered. I happily go down the road and park at the lookout point over the water. I turn off the engine and let my seat back. I stare out the moonroof at the stars and crack open the bottle of whiskey. Taking it straight to the head, I throw back a large gulp. It burns like hell going down and I welcome the singe in my throat.

Just last week he was making love to me nearly all night long… or was that the week before last? It doesn’t matter, he does it all the time. Well… he did it all the time. Now, he can’t stand the sight of me… or the sound of me. As I feel the tears building up behind my eyelids, I hear my phone ringing in my purse. Hope springs in my chest as I answer the phone without even looking at the caller ID.

“Hello?” I say with anticipation.

“Ana? Are you alright?” It’s Chuck. My heart sinks immediately, like someone hit me in the chest.

“Oh, God, leave me alone,” I say before ending the call. I take another large gulp of the whiskey attempting to burn away the pain and disappointment that call caused me. It doesn’t help. I should have known it wasn’t Christian anyway. It wasn’t our ringtone.

Oh, God, this pain…

I swallow another gulp of the whiskey, hoping to burn away the slicing agony—or at least get so drunk that I forget it for a while. My riding music is beginning to sound like typical angry instrumentals, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect contrast to my sorrowful maudlin mood, so I just let it play.

I feel myself begin to settle in the seat and the several swallows of alcohol are beginning to kick in. Of course, it only makes me relax, because except for wine, I’m a logical drunk. If I want to forget, I have to keep drinking.

Chuck’s face in my moonroof scares the shit out of me and for a moment, I think I’m hallucinating.

“Son of a bitch!” I cry out, startled almost to the point of pissing myself.

“You can’t do that, Ana,” he scolds.

“I can do whatever the fuck I want,” I say. I really don’t give a damn what he thinks. Really… I really don’t give a damn.

“You leave the Crossing without telling anybody where you’re going. Now, you’re sitting out here on a goddamn cliff, keys in the ignition, drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. You’re lucky the police didn’t catch you!”

“What are they going to charge me with? Drunk in public? I’m not in public, I’m in my damn car. Driving under the influence? I’m not driving, I’m sitting still.”

“How the fuck were you going to get home?” he scolds.

“I was going to call you! I’m not a complete idiot!” I say, taking another swallow from the bottle.

“Give me that.” He reaches for the bottle and I snatch it away before he can get to it.

“No!” I declare. “Get the fuck away from my car.” He glares at me in disbelief. “Somebody knows where Christian is,” I say, unwelcome tears falling down my cheeks. “Somebody knows what’s going on and nobody’ll tell me. So, get the fuck away from my car!”

He examines me for a moment, then nods.

“Fine,” he says. He opens the door, reaches in and takes my keys from the ignition.

“Hey!” I protest, stumbling out of the car behind him. “Give those back! I can’t listen to my music!”

“Nope. When you’re ready to go, I’ll take you home. Until then, these stay with me.”

“Asshole,” I say, now sobbing.

“I’ll give you that one, because you’re hurting, but you’re still not getting the keys.” I shake my head. I couldn’t possibly hate this man any more than I do right now. I stumble away from him and sit on the hood of my car, having a few more swallows of whiskey and lamenting my situation even more now that I don’t have music to occupy my mind. I feel my body shaking with sobs before I hear them, and the sound of my crying breaks my heart even more and makes me want to cry harder. I feel like Luma when I took her to the woods and let her wail and mourn Richard’s death—a deep-seated, burning, consuming pain that truly makes me want to die just so that it would end.

And the whiskey is only amplifying it—dulling my reflexes, but not the pain.

Angry that it’s not doing its job and lost in a sea of pain and confusion, I leap off the hood of my car and chuck the damn bottle over the cliff, hoping it’ll shatter into a thousand pieces…

When I open my eyes, I have no idea where I am. It takes me only a few moments to realize that I’m in the hospital—head spinning, ankle throbbing, but no worse for wear.

Ankle throbbing. What happened?

I try to remember what happened the night before, but I can’t. I only remember chucking that damn bottle off the cliff and then, nothing. I must have slipped somewhere, because my ankle is wrapped tight. Besides a horrible hangover, there’s nothing else wrong with me that I can tell.

But there’s definitely something wrong.

When I look around the empty room, the fact that I’m here alone isn’t the only indication that whatever happened to me didn’t incite him to come. It’s the empty feeling, the lack of fullness to my spirit that lets me know that he’s still miles away. I begin to remove the electrodes from my chest and the other monitors hooked up to my arms, my fingers, my wrist…

A doctor, a nurse, and Chuck all rush into the room—Chuck’s face full of worry. Not the face I was hoping to see.

“Mrs. Grey, please,” the doctor says, “we want to keep you for observation.”

“I’m fine,” I say, now ripping the wires from myself. I need to get out of here. “I’m leaving.”

“You took a really nasty fall, Mrs. Grey. You were lucky. It could have been worse. With your prior brain injury…”

“I’m going home!” I demand. Home… is there any such place anymore? Now, I know how Christian felt when I went to Montana. Now, he knows how I felt… betrayed. And he felt lost… lost and empty and lifeless with nothing to offer anyone. I get out of the bed only for my head to spin like thunder and my weight to crumble under the pain in my ankle. I’m suddenly overcome with uncontrollable anger and release a string of curse words that would make a sailor cringe.

“I’m fine!” I yell, as the anger is quickly replaced with remorse, sorrow, hopelessness, emptiness, and despair. “I’m fine,” I weep as I try to push myself off the floor, the pounding in my head and throbbing in my ankle making it impossible for me to get up. I crawl over to a chair and try to lift myself into it and off the floor, constantly repeating my mantra…

I’m fine… I’m fine… I’m fine… I’m fine…

If I say it enough times, maybe I’ll believe it.

I finally give up, both angry and forlorn that I can’t get off the floor on my own. I bang my fists angrily against the tile, throwing a tantrum like a little girl. My hands hurt, but my brain doesn’t register that I should stop beating the floor. In moments, Chuck is on the floor with me, trying to wrap me in his arms. I feel myself beating my fists on his chest, hear my mantra squealing from my throat and burning in my ears until the blackness surrounds me.

I’m fine… I’m fine… I’m fine…

*-*

I awake alone in my hospital room again. I don’t know how long I’ve slept, but I just want to see my children now. I turn on my side and face the window… away from the clock. I don’t see what time it is. I curl up into myself and gaze out the window—at the sun, the clouds in the sky… at nothing. My mind is clear, and I don’t formulate any thoughts. No conclusions. I just think about my babies… about Minnie and Mikey… and that I ache to just go home and sing to them… and hold them… There’s nothing else left.

The sun has moved some more in the sky and I still don’t know what time it is, still haven’t eaten anything, and still haven’t moved. The door finally opens and I don’t even turn or stir to see who it is. By the movement behind me and around the monitors, and by the empty feeling in my gut, I already know who it is.

“When can I go home?” I say softly after several silent moments. The movement behind me stills and the nurse finally says, “I’ll get the doctor.”

She leaves, and I never even saw her face.

The door opens again, and the room shifts to an air of familiar… still empty, but familiar.

“When can I go home?” I repeat. I have no more energy left to fight. Another moment of silence.

“Are you feeling any better?” Chuck asks.

“No,” I respond flatly. “When can I go home?” Chuck sighs.

“Ana, I know you didn’t try to hurt yourself on that cliff, but I had to convince the doctors that you were drunk, and you slipped and didn’t need to be put on a 72-hour hold. They’re watching you to make sure I was telling the truth.” I sigh as he walks around the bed to the front of me. I slipped… off the cliff… oh.

“I feel like I’m going to die, Chuck, but I don’t want to die, okay? If nobody else needs me, my babies need me.”

“I’m not the one that needs convincing,” he says as the door opens and the room fills with yet more emptiness.

“Mrs. Grey,” the doctor asks. I don’t even know his name. “How are you feeling?”

“The same as before,” I respond truthfully. “When can I go home?” He looks at Chuck, then back at me.

“We… would like to keep you for a few days,” he says, approaching the topic cautiously, “for observation.”

“Observation of what?” I ask without raising my head.

“Can you tell me what happened on the cliff?” the doctor asks.

“Can you tell me what’s wrong with me?” I retort, calmly. “Do I have internal bleeding or another head injury?”

“No, you don’t,” he responds.

“Then what do you need to observe?” I ask again.

“Mrs. Grey, can you please tell me what happened on that cliff?” I sigh heavily.

“Doctor, we can go around in circles until I finally call my attorney. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that when I tried to leave earlier, you sedated me for no other reason but that I was having an anxiety attack on the floor.”

“You were assaulting your bodyguard,” he says in a non-threatening tone.

“She was not assaulting me!” Chuck interjects. “And if you say that’s why you’re holding her, I’m going to call you a liar!”

“Two other people saw her attack you, Mr. Davenport.”

“Two other people saw her having an anxiety attack, just like she said, but you’re not listening to anything I say and now you’re not listening to her. What, are you trying to make a name for yourself? Forget it, I’m calling her lawyer.” Chuck pulls his phone out and proceeds to touch the screen.

“Please, Mr. Davenport, I assure you that’s not necessary. We’re just looking out for her well-being.”

“Then tell her why you’re holding her here instead of causing her additional stress! She’s had enough! Or can’t you tell… Doctor?” he snaps. The doctor sighs.

“Please, Mrs. Grey, I swear I’ll tell you everything if you can just tell me your version of what happened on the cliff.”

“I can’t,” I reply. “I was drunk. I know that I was drinking whiskey. I remember Chuck took my keys. I remember throwing the bottle off and that’s the last thing I remember before I woke up here. Is being drunk in public suddenly an offense to be held prisoner in a hospital? Do you haul all drunks in for observation?”

“No, but not all drunk people find themselves hurt on the side of a cliff,” he points out with no malice.

“Oh, and I suppose I’m the only person in history who has ever done something stupid while under the influence,” I retort. “You know, that’s why they don’t let us drive.”

“Mrs. Grey, I can assure you…” and here it comes. The politically correct mumbo jumbo line of bullshit where I have to listen to him tell me why he has to keep me locked in this room—or better yet, on the psyche ward. I really don’t have the strength to convince this fucker that there’s nothing wrong with me when there really is something wrong with me. I’m sick with grief and pain and confusion and no fucking sense of direction with no hope or light at the end of the tunnel, because my husband has left me. I’m sad, angry and clumsy, and apparently not too bright sometimes—but I’m not fucking suicidal. The trouble is that I’m not willing to fight the necessary battle to persuade him that I’m at least of sound mind. I put up my hands and slash them across the air. I don’t have any fight left in me.

“You know what? I don’t care. Do what you have to do,” I concede.

“Ana!” Chuck protests.

“I don’t care!” I say, looking at him. Nothing’s going the way that I want it right now; just fucking let me stay. I’ll consider it a mini-sabbatical in a horrible hospital room. Nobody needs me but my babies anyway.

My babies… I sigh heavily.

“Just call my nannies and get me a breast pump,” I say, laying back on the bed and facing the window again.

“Oh! You’re nursing!” the doctor exclaims. How the fuck did he not know that? Now, I show the only little bit of emotion that I can muster.

“Yes!” I snap. “I’m nursing! And I don’t want my milk to dry up while you’re observing! So, can I please get a breast pump?”

*-*

It turns out that my ankle is only sprained and should be back to normal in a few days. The doctor sends me home on Sunday with crutches and tells me to stay off it for a few days. As it turns out, my impromptu request for a breast pump when no one seemed to know that I was nursing prompted Dr. Whatever-His-Name-Was to let me the hell out of there, noting that someone intent on self-destruction wouldn’t readily be concerned about her milk drying up.

How the hell did he not know I was nursing? I only lactate every four hours! Like a goddamn faucet! Although I didn’t lactate while I was in the hospital… I wonder why. Nonetheless, needing to be the milk factory for my twins got me sprung from the pokey.

Lucky me.

I thought I wanted to come home to my own bed and lay down, just to recuperate in my own space, but when I get to the bedroom—our bedroom—the sight of it sickens me… I mean, physically sickens me. I literally become light-headed and I’m afraid I’ll vomit. I turn under the watchful eyes of my brother and bodyguard and go to the children’s room instead.

Minnie is the first to spot me. She starts this wail like she’s fussing at me for leaving her. Gail and Keri look up and watch me hobble over to her crib on my crutches.

“There, there, Mouse,” I comfort her, “Why all the fuss?” I rub her little tummy and she calms immediately. Mikey must have just settled for his nap, because he lay in his crib, eyes closed, totally content and occasionally sucking on his binky. I hobble over to the rocker and Chuck helps me sit down.

“Bring her to me,” I ask. Keri brings the squirmy little thing to me and sets her in my arms. She settles almost immediately, but still looks up at me with her questioning little eyes.

“I know, Mouse,” I tell her. It’s been hard to settle her with Christian away, but she—like me—is settling into discontent acceptance. “We’ll be fine soon.” I start to rock her and sing my babies’ lullaby until she finally falls asleep.

“Gail, can you help me, please?” I say, when I leave the children’s room. Gail looks at me with questioning eyes.

“Sure,” she says, her gaze sympathetic. I go into the owner’s suite, straight past the bedroom and into my dressing room.

“Can you please look in the drawer right there and grab three nightshirts for me?” She examines me, then complies with my wishes. I go over to my lingerie drawer and retrieve three bra and panty sets. With no idea of what I’ll be doing, I retrieve three random business outfits, some jeans and sneakers and then go in search of sweatshirts, yoga pants and T-shirts.

“Will you get the toiletries out of my shower? And two bath blankets from the main bathroom?” She hesitates.

“Ana… are you going somewhere?” she asks. I smile a reassuring smile.

“Yes, but I’m not going far,” I tell her.

Once we’ve gathered everything I need for right now, I ask her to have someone help her move the things to guestroom one. She smiles sadly.

“Ana…” she protests.

“Gail, my husband is gone,” I say, bravely fighting tears that I probably don’t have left to cry anyway. “I don’t know if he’s coming back and if his behavior is any indication, he’s probably not. This was our room… and I can’t sleep in here anymore.”

There’s no argument after that, just a silent nod of concession.

“Let me know when those things are moved, please. I’ll be in the nursery.”

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Gail had more of the things that she knew I would need moved to the guest room. I feel the same stab of burning rejection in this room that I felt in Escala when he ignored me for those weeks after the fundraiser fiasco. The difference is that he was there with me, in the same house even if not in the same bed, and now, I don’t know where he is… and no one will tell me.

I run a bubble bath in the tub that’s just about half the size of mine, strip and carefully climb in. Of course, the tears start. My nerves are stretched to their very ends. It’s no wonder the doctor thought I was trying to kill myself. I couldn’t put a cognitive thought together if I wanted to. At first, all I wanted was for my husband to come back… to forgive me for having the slightest moment of weakness when Liam looked into my eyes, even though I didn’t let him kiss me. Now, I don’t know what I want. I didn’t do anything wrong. Yes, I was tempted by an attractive man, but I didn’t cross the line. And now, I’m suffering consequences for something I didn’t even do.

Can I ever forgive him for that?

Isn’t this the same irrational behavior that he pulled on me when he thought I was sleeping with Elliot? Of course, Elliot wasn’t breaths away from me trying to kiss me. Oh, fuck, I can’t think about this anymore. It’s all I’ve thought about night after night after night since this shit started and I just can’t do it anymore.

But I can’t stop the tears either.

I just let them fall into the bubbles, dissipating them with the heaviness of my sorrow.

*-*

“So, as it turns out, you were right about Gloria Felton,” Al says, while visiting my office at Helping Hands a few days later. “I delivered your conflict complaint to the Office of the Director with the threat of a possible personal discrimination lawsuit, and they pulled Helping Hands’ file. It was unreasonable how she was spending the taxpayer’s money to personally persecute you guys. The reports, inspections, and compliances that she was asking for were way out of line. Organizations with more quote-unquote violations than Helping Hands were accredited in one-quarter of the time that you all have been struggling for validation. You guys should have been accredited months ago.” I sigh, though not as relieved as I should be from the news.

“So, in effect, Liam’s presence was totally unnecessary.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“Not really,” Al says, “although his report helped to put it over the top that you all should have your accreditation by week’s end. No more stalling.”

That’s just great. The man inadvertently ruined my marriage and we didn’t really need him. Oh, joy. Gloria should be proud of herself. I gained accreditation and lost my happy home in the process. I may have won the battle, but she won the war. Maybe that was her M-O all along.

“Well, there is that, I guess,” I say with little enthusiasm. “What about Gloria?”

“Administrative leave,” he says. “It doesn’t look good for her. It’s very serious to let personal feelings interfere with your job, especially on the licensing board where you have people’s lives and businesses in your hands. The director already had complaints about her on his desk. He just couldn’t do anything with them and they weren’t official complaints because the people had gotten what they wanted. It was an ear-to-the-ground type of thing and he had no power until he got an actual complaint. You with your valid complaint that spread across seven departments and, as it turns out, could have been more, gave him exactly what he needed.”

“Well, that’s just great. What’s to stop her from talking badly about us after she’s fired or disciplined?”

“Way ahead of you.” He pulls out some papers and hands them to me. “A gag order—if she says anything about the current situation or you or any member of Helping Hands, we will ruin that bitch… and she knows it.” I smile weakly, looking at the paper.

“My knight in shining armor,” I say, patting him on the shoulder.

“Jewel?” I raise my eyes to him. “What’s going on?”

I knew it was coming. I look and feel like hell these days, no matter how I try to put myself together. It’s not like I could avoid his questions, but I just don’t want to talk about it… not even to Al. I guess not saying it makes it seem like it’s not really real, but it can’t get any more real than my empty bed.

“I just need you to be a friend and not ask, okay?” I say, almost beseeching.

“I just can’t stand seeing you like this,” he says. “Nobody sees what I see and it’s unbearable.”

“Just be a friend… please,” I repeat. “I’m holding it together by a thread.”

“But you don’t have to…” he continues.

“Al… please?” I beg, my voice shaking. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. He pauses for a moment.

“Okay,” he says, finally. “You’ll… call me if you need me?” His voice is beseeching, too. I nod, unable to look at him as he leaves my office. I take a deep breath when he has cleared the door and rein back the tears that threaten to fall. My heart still aches—a dull ache that never goes away—but I’m getting used to it now. It’s become a constant companion along with the occasional dream of Edward David taunting me that my marriage has fallen apart. The mind is a funny thing. At least it’s not fucking Harris.

It’s like that old Billie Holiday song tragically playing on repeat in my head…

Wish I’d forget you, but you’re here to stay,
It seems I met you when my love went away, 
And now I start each day by saying to you,
Good Morning, Heartache, what’s new?

The heaviness in my breasts signals me that it’s time to feed the twins or pump. I’m on a cane now since my ankle is much better, but still a little weak. So, I hobble to the nursery to see if either of the little angels are awake.

Keri is there helping with some of the other children while the twins are asleep and, just like clockwork, Minnie starts to stir. I open my suit jacket and gather my pink little bundle from her crib.

“Hey, there, Mouse,” I say, cradling her and slipping a nipple into her eager mouth. “Did you know it was lunchtime…?”

Several minutes later, Minnie had drained both breasts, burped, and fallen back to sleep, which means Mikey will have to take a bottle when he wakes. I was hoping that we could keep them on the same sleep schedule, but as it is, if we wake them before they’re ready, they’re irritable and cranky and hard to get back to sleep. So, we let them set their own schedules, which means that lately, one is awake around 1am while the other isn’t awake until about 4am. I could lament the situation since they had begun to sleep through the night, but hell… I don’t really sleep much anyway, so it’s fine with me.

Grace is waiting when I get back to my office.

“You’ve been hiding,” she says.

“I’ve been working,” I respond, as I take my seat behind my desk. “Al just let me know that Gloria has been placed on administrative leave and we should have our accreditation by the end of the week. I’ll say that’s pretty impressive.”

“Yes, it is,” she says, “but it doesn’t explain why you’ve been hiding.”

“I just wanted some peace so that I could work. Is there anything wrong with that?”

“No,” she says, accommodating. “Not at all, when you’re working and not hiding.”

“Grace, I appreciate your concern, but please understand that there’s just some things I don’t want to talk about.” There’s that thread again.

“Like why you were fighting to get out of the hospital and Christian was nowhere in sight?” I grimace at her discovery. “I work at that hospital, Ana, and you’re family. Of course, I was going to find out.” I sigh.

“Again, there are some things that I would like to keep to myself,” I repeat. Grace sighs and I know that she, like Al, is reloading the gun to try to get me to tell her what’s going on. I haven’t told anybody—no one. I’m carrying it all myself. I don’t want anyone to know that I’ve possibly chased my husband away, broke up our family, and destroyed our happy home. I hear her saying some comforting word—or words that are meant to be comforting—but all they really translate into is “tell me what’s going on, I can’t stand the suspense anymore.” Before I know it, I’m up at out of my seat.

“Why does everybody have to know what’s going on in my head?” I shriek. “Why can’t I just for once be unhappy and everybody just respect my wishes and leave me alone?” And I’m out of the office and into my car, without my cane, without my purse, without my kids—racing towards Grey Crossing.

*-*

“Ana, where the hell are you?” Chuck is livid. I still have my phone in my jacket pocket, which is the only reason that it didn’t get left behind.

“At home… in bed.” I’m surprised the guards at the desk didn’t tell him that I tore into the gate, almost taking the iron off the damn hinges if the gate hadn’t opened fast enough. He sighs.

“I’m bringing Keri and the twins home,” he says, his voice that sympathetic tone that I’m beginning to hate.

“Um-hmm,” I say, before ending the call. I close my eyes and fall asleep.

I awake to the sound of the two-way communications beckoning me.

“Ana,” I say, my voice raspy and my throat dry. I hear my babies stirring. I throw my legs out of the bed and test my foot. I’m still fully dressed and exhausted.

“Ana,” Keri’s voice comes over the two-way. “You rest. We got the babies.” I nod as if she could hear me and lay back in bed.

“Okay…”

I wake again, and the sun has gone down. There’s a U-Dub oversized jersey and some yoga pants at the foot of my bed—one of my favorite lounging outfits—and a note from Grace to call her if she can help in any way. I quickly strip out of my suit and shoes and put on my comfort clothing before climbing back into the bed and falling asleep again almost immediately.

This time when I awake, it’s daylight again. I know that I need to get up, but I can’t bring myself to get out of the bed. I have to feed my babies. I have work to do. I have to…

“So… Billionaire Boy left you high and dry after all. I knew he wouldn’t last…”

Edward emerges from into the white fog, dressed in his prison garb, his face stark white and devoid of life. Around his neck is a sheet twisted into a noose. I can imagine this is how they found him hanging in his cell.

“Why the hell can’t you fuckers stay dead once you die?” I ask no one in particular.

“Because we have to remind you of your mistakes. You should have stayed with me, Rosie. I knew the poor little rich boy would tire of you sooner or later—see you for the sloppy seconds that you really are. Right, Steve?”

“Of course…” Stephen Morton’s emaciated frame joins us in the fog. “Ann never could accept that she was nothing and will always be nothing. Maybe now, she’ll learn her lesson.”

“Oh, look, it’s Moonshine,” I say, unmoved. “Boy, my subconscious is really pulling out the heavy hitters tonight.”

“Not just yet. We’ve got one more,” Edward says. “Oh, Bob!”

My terrorizer joins the threesome in the cloud of white and now they surround me, taunting me.

“He left you for a kiss you never even got. How does that feel? I guess that twat isn’t as deadly as I thought it was. What a pussy!”

Robert Harris doesn’t look as intimidating as he once did, either—oozing bullet wounds all over his body. What the hell is this supposed to represent?

What’s so bad is that I’m not afraid of any of these apparitions. They’re just irritating the fuck out of me, circling me, and teasing me…

“You’re nothing. You always were, and you always will be.”
“Nobody’s ever going to love you or want you. What did you expect—happily ever after?”
“Your head got too big, Rosie; you should have stayed with me. I was the best you could hope for…”

And the obvious…

“He’s left you. He doesn’t want you anymore. You fucked up like you always do, and without even trying this time.”

Suddenly, a fourth figure joins us in the white fog, and I feel a warmth… a connection, the connection that I only feel… felt… with one other person. This is the closest I’ve felt to him since he’s been gone. Christian comes through the mist in that same suit he was wearing when he left. He walks to me with no concern for the apparitions around me. They keep taunting me, but with a wave of his hand, they’re gone—their taunts still echoing in the air…

“He’s left you…”

Christian cups my face with his hands and looks into my eyes.

“I haven’t left you… I’ll never leave you…”

I slowly open my eyes and it’s dark again. I’m not willing to get out of bed right now. There’s really no need. Someone’s been in to check on me. There’s fresh ice water in a pitcher on the night stand and my cane is leaning against it. I pull the covers up around my neck, trying to shake the cold, but the cold is inside, and I’ll never shake it. I’m unmoved by anything that happened in my dream except for one thing…

“I haven’t left you… I’ll never leave you…”

“Yes… you have,” I say aloud. I get out of the bed to go to the bathroom and fail to test my ankle before putting any weight on it.

And down I go.

“Shit!” I exclaim as I hit the floor with a thud, pain radiating through my body and from the fact that I think I twisted my ankle again. I feel helpless and useless and particularly unloved. The tears all come down on me at once and the feeling of loss and hopelessness is more than I can bear.

He’s left me.
My husband is gone, and he’s left me.

Suddenly, the urge to use the restroom floods out of my body as quickly as it came, replaced by the gaping emptiness, the never-ending pain of the abyss that’s swallowing me whole.

Able to do nothing else, I lay on the floor in the fetal position and weep.


CHRISTIAN

“Grey.”

“I’m fragile right now and I don’t need this damn stress. Now would you please tell me what the hell is going on?” Oh, good fuck, it’s my mother. I should have looked at the caller ID. I stopped after I blocked her calls and she could no longer call me nonstop.

“What do you need, Mom?” I ask stoically.

“I need to know what the fuck is going on with you and your wife and I don’t want to hear any bullshit about this being none of my business!” she demands. “I’ve never seen her like this before in my life!”

“You’ll have to ask her,” I respond.

“I have asked her and she’s not talking! Nobody’s talking! You’re nowhere to be found and nobody’s telling anybody anything—not even Ana. Nobody knows what’s going on and she’s walking around here like an apparition! A shadow of herself! Not even that! She’s hiding behind closed doors and when I finally corner her to talk to her, she sounds like a damn toddler! She looks like she’s about to have a goddamn nervous breakdown and nobody can fucking help her! At least tell me what the hell is going on so I can try to help her!” My throat tightens and almost feels like it’s closing on me. “Where the hell are you?”

“Europe,” I tell her honestly. “I had two deals that needed my attention and there’s a third one that I need to take care of.”

“Well, when do you plan to be home?” she asks, demanding. Boy, she’s really pissed.

“I don’t know,” I tell her. I’ve been trying to work through what I saw… what I think I saw, but I can’t. Right now, I just need to focus on the next deal. There’s really not a third deal and the first two could have waited—well, maybe not the first one, but I can find a third. After a long pause, I hear my mother sucking her teeth.

“I see,” she says, and I hear movement on the phone. “Well, like I said, I have no clue what’s going on, but from Ana’s reaction and your disappearance and likewise wish not to be forthcoming, I can pretty much guess.” I hear things slamming around and know that all diplomacy has left the woman on the other end of the line. “Not that you care, but your wife ran out of here after screaming at me to leave her alone and let her be unhappy in peace. She left her purse, her briefcase and her security detail behind… oh, and her children!”

“The twins?” I ask horrified.

“Charles got in touch with her back at the mansion,” Mom continues without reacting to my question. “Since it’s clear that you can take care of yourself, I’m following Charles and the rest of the security detail to the Crossing to see if there’s anything that I can do for Ana. She took the SUV and I have built-in car seats, so I’ll take the twins and Keri. It’s unfortunate that she drove home on her own as she’s not supposed to be driving since she was released from the hospital!” I leap to my feet at this revelation.

“Hospital?” I gasp. “What the hell was she doing in the hospital?”

“Oh, you didn’t know?” she asks sarcastically. “Don’t worry, Christian. Obviously, she didn’t die!” my mother shoots, anger radiating through the phone at me from 5000 miles away. “I’m sure you would have come home after that… then again, maybe not. Nonetheless, she’s fine. She’s still here functioning and taking care of your children—that is, when she’s not in the midst of what appears to be total, complete, and utter self-destruction. If you want to know why she was in the hospital, why don’t you ask her?”

She throws my words back at me and the line goes dead.

She dangles this news in my face and then ends the call like we were talking about the goddamn weather. The last person that had anything to say at all about possible concern for my wife was Allen, and I shot him down hard…

He was talking to Jason when we conferenced back to Seattle for some legal documents for Casa del Escudo Sagrado when Allen asked to confirm that I actually was in Madrid. When Jason confirmed the information with no further explanation, I felt the need to gently nudge my employee to keep his mouth shut.

“Please inform my head of legal,” I said into the air so that he could hear me, “that although his loyalties may be split, he has signed a non-disclosure agreement as a condition of his employment and I do expect him to honor it. If he has any issue with that, I assume he will let me know.”

The line was quiet with one of those pregnant pauses that Allen often accuses me of. Jason makes to speak, but Allen beats him to it.

“Well, that explains a lot,” he hissed into the line. “Please inform my employer that although I love my best friend like my own flesh and blood that I am a professional first. That although I am sick to my stomach watching her suffer physically and emotionally the way that she is right now, that I am not only fully aware of my job duties and description as well as the conditions of my employment, but also of the letter of the law in terms of attorney/client privilege, and he would do well not to insult my intelligence or integrity in the future. Also inform my esteemed employer that whatever may be occurring between him and my best friend affords him no purchase or right whatsoever to be an asshole towards me!”

The words hung in the air as both a chastisement and a warning for me to check my attitude when dealing with Attorney Forsythe, but there was also information there that I’m just now putting together with what my mother said…

“That although I am sick to my stomach watching her suffer physically and emotionally…”

She’s suffering physically. How the hell is she suffering physically?

“It’s unfortunate that she drove home on her own as she’s not supposed to be driving since she was released from the hospital!”

Released from the hospital… That means that this wasn’t an emergency-room visit. She was admitted!

“Jason!” I yell through the suite we share at the Eurostars Suites Madrid. He doesn’t answer right away, and I know he’s not asleep. He doesn’t sleep until I dismiss him and it’s not quite eleven yet.

“Jason!” I call again, exiting the first bedroom of the suite and crossing the span of the living area just as he’s making his way to me.

“Yes, sir,” he answers calmly.

“Where were you?” I demand.

“I was speaking to my wife and daughter,” he says, impassively. Speaking of which…

“Ana was in the hospital,” I inform him. He doesn’t react. “Did you hear me? Ana was in the hospital!”

“Yes, sir, I heard you. I know she was in the hospital.” What the hell…?

“When?” I ask in horror.

“This past Saturday,” he says, still unmoved. “It may have been Friday for them…” He ponders for a moment. “No, it was Saturday.”

“You knew?” I accuse. He nods. “That was the call you got at breakfast… when you left the room. That’s why you looked at me.” He nods again. “Why the fuck did I have to find out from my mother that Ana was in the hospital and not from you?” I roar.

“Why would I tell you?” Jason replies impassively. “Every time I came to you and told you that she had called repeatedly, or she was crying or hurt or upset, couldn’t sleep, forced herself to eat so that she could feed her children, you didn’t flinch. I thought she was calling me because you wouldn’t answer. I only just found out from that call from my wife that you had blocked her calls. I’ve seen this guy before. I know who he is. He’s the same guy that I knew when I had to drag crying, kicking, screaming submissives out of his house who didn’t bat an eye at their pain. After all these years with you, I know not to cross him.

“Yes, I got the call that she was in the hospital. Yes, I got the call that she had a breakdown while she was there, and they wanted to keep her for observation for fear that she would hurt herself. They finally allowed her leave when she asked for a breast pump so that she could feed her babies. Yes, I got the call that she was home. Her life wasn’t in danger, but only because she had angels looking out for her because she could have fallen to her death off that cliff.”

“Cliff…?” The word slips from my lips with disbelief.

“Oh, yeah, you didn’t know that either. She got drunk, stood on the edge of a cliff, lost her balance as she was throwing a bottle of whiskey over and fell. She could’ve died, but she didn’t. Chuck caught her, and she only slipped along the ledge about four feet. She awoke with a sprained ankle and bad hangover. Luckily, nothing’s broken except her heart. Nothing major.”

“Nothing major…?” I’m still at a loss for words. Why is he just delivering this shit like a basic debriefing? My wife could have died!

“No, sir,” Jason says, matter-of-factly. “For weeks, she’s been sitting in various places just staring at nothing. At first, it was that water swing outside over the lake. But lately, she’s been spending the night in her children’s room in the window seat looking out the window—for what, nobody knows. It got to be so bad that Keri just started taking pictures of her with her phone. She calls the series ‘A Tribute to Sadness.’

“She knows that if she doesn’t eat, she’ll not only hurt herself, but the babies, too, so she eats… but only what my wife brings to her. Marilyn keeps me posted on what she does when she’s at the Center. Mostly, she stays locked in her office working on whatever until it’s time to feed the twins again. The inspection is complete, and the inspector is gone. It looks like the center will finally get its credentials.” He pauses for a moment and takes a breath.

“Is that all? Oh, no, it’s not. If she doesn’t sleep in the window seat in the babies’ room, she sleeps in one of the guest rooms now. She doesn’t talk to anybody, not even Marilyn and only Al in an official capacity. So, your secret is still safe. Nobody knows that you’ve left her.”

“Left her?” I finally find some words. “I haven’t left her.”

“Coulda fooled me,” Jason says with a shrug. “Definitely fooled her.”

Shit, that stings.

“I’ve put covert surveillance on her because even though she convinced the doctor that she didn’t want to harm herself, the absent-minded things that she’s doing and the obvious absence of self-preservation will end up causing her more harm than anything that she can do to herself on purpose. The fact that she keeps running off alone without telling anybody is dangerous all by itself.

“I was hoping to go to sleep soon, so I was calling my wife to tell her goodnight and that I love her, and she was telling me that Ana’s back at home shut-up in the guest bedroom in the middle of the day without the babies. I didn’t get a chance to find out what was happening because you summoned me.”

Jason’s not offering me any of his usual sarcasm or opinions. He’s just giving me cold, hard facts in the most impassive manner possible. He won’t tell me that he thinks I’m an asshole for leaving and staying away without a word. He won’t offer any insight into how she’s feeling except broken-hearted and she thinks I’ve left her. No “you’re killing her” or “this is agony for her, don’t you care” or none of the protective emotion that he normally feels when it comes to her or the concerned friendship that he usually gives me as of late… well, not on this trip, though. Is he trying to be here for me… as my best friend, or has he really stoically detached himself from the situation?

“Are you angry with her, too?” I ask, trying to pull the truth from him.

“I wouldn’t know what to be angry with her for, sir—you never told me, but it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’re in a foreign country and I have a job to do and that’s to protect you. I can’t allow anything to interfere with that.”

Stoic detachment. The fact that he knows so much about what’s going on with her indicates to me that he’s not angry with her, but I can’t tell if he’s angry with me. He has a job to do…

“Tell me everything…”

*-*

It takes a full 24 hours to get the GEH jet to Madrid and another hour and a half to get it refueled. Four pilots, three flight attendants, and this is probably one of the most expensive emergency flights I’ve ever taken. There’s no way I was taking a commercial flight to possibly get leaked to the Paps. I probably wouldn’t have made it out of the airport.

We don’t make it back to Seattle until 4am, two days after I had spoken to my mother. The house is a tomb when we arrive because no one is expecting us. I dismiss Jason straight to his suite and climb the stairs to find Ana. He said that she was in one of the guest rooms, so I don’t even bother going to our bedroom. I start with guestroom one thinking that she would opt to be as close to the twins as possible.

I was right… but she’s on the floor.

My first instinct is to rush to her and make sure that she’s alright until I see how she’s lying—in the fetal position with her hands under her face, pressed together and protecting the skin of her cheek from the floor. She’s curled into a ball so small that she looks like a child. I haven’t seen her this small since her shrinking days. I don’t think I even saw her this small back then.

Shrinking…

I walk around her and take a seat in the leather chair across from the bed. I remove my jacket and set it on the matching bench next to me and examine her lying there on the floor. The room is still dark, and dawn is threatening off in the distance, but there’s enough light in the room to make out her comfort clothes, the ace bandage around her right foot and ankle, and the tortured expression marring her face.

Her right foot…
Her driving foot…
She drove home with that ankle…

There’s a note on the floor at the foot of the bed and I pick it up and read it.

Ana,

I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I have a good idea. Keri and Gail said that you haven’t been sleeping, so I didn’t want to disturb you. Please call me if I can help you or if you want to talk. I’m here for you, dear.

Grace.

She didn’t tell anybody anything. All this time, she just kept it to herself… why I wasn’t here… that I wasn’t here. Even my parents didn’t know.

Did she talk to Ace?

I watch her sleeping on the floor for a few more moments before the two-way communications system comes to life. She pops off the floor with a gasp, a wobble, and a whimper—discomfort and confusion evident in her posture and positioning. She mumbles something like she’s coming out of a disturbing dream before she remembers herself and cracks out her name.

“Ana…”

Her voice is frail, high and unrecognizable, but the two-way should still know that it’s her. She clears her throat and it actually sounds painful, then she tries again.

“Ana…”

That was worse than the first time… breathy and painful and aching. She sighs when there’s still no response and scrubs her face with one hand, holding herself up and leaning on the other. Then I remember that she’s not the only person in the room.

“Christian.”

She whirls around in her seat on the floor to the sound of my voice like somebody hit her. She stares at me in shocked amazement, more like dismay, and Jason speaks through the two-way.

“Sir, my wife says that Ana is in guestroom one and she’s been asleep for more than 36 hours.” Shit. I remember when I slept like that… when she went to Montana. The psychotic break. That’s why he told me. He knew I’d come looking for her, but he wanted me to know that she had been asleep for more than a day.

“I’ve found her. Thank you, Jason. End two-way communications.” The two-way system deactivates, and Ana and I stare at each other for several moments. She’s the first to move. She crawls to the bed and retrieves the cane leaning against the nearby nightstand. Using the bed as leverage and the cane for support, she pushes herself off the floor and stands upright. It takes a lot of effort and she doesn’t ask for help. When she gets to her feet, she starts to walk, and I can tell that she’s in pain. Without a word, she hobbles to the en suite and closes the door.

I sit there for a while, pondering what to do next. Knowing her—knowing me—I knew there would be no warm welcome or running to each other’s arms for reconciliation. I don’t know how long I sit there before I realize that there’s no sound coming from the bathroom and she’s been in there for a while. I walk over to the door and knock softly. When there’s no answer, I knock again. Still no answer, so I try the door. She hasn’t locked it. When I open the door, she’s curled up inside the tub, her arms wrapped around her knees. Her hair is wet, and her head is resting on her knees, her face buried.

She looks helpless and broken and I haven’t seen her like this is quite some time.

I pull off my sweatshirt and walk over to the tub. This is a marble tub, too, not as big as hers—raised, so that I can sit along the side of it. I take one of the washcloths from the towel rack and wet it with water from the tub. I squeeze the rag so that the water trickles over her skin. She doesn’t move. I continue to do this until I’ve wet every exposed part of her body. I lift her hair to wash her nape and she cringes.

“No! Please don’t,” she weeps. What? She doesn’t want me to touch her? I put my hand on her shoulder and try to speak, but she protests again, more insistent this time… heart-wrenching…

“Please!” she cries, her voice cracking and broken. “I can’t take it right now… please…”

I can tell by the agonizing sound of her voice that if I touch her again, she’s going to fall completely apart. I put my own pride aside and move away.

“Okay,” I concede, and she sighs heavily, whimpering sorrowfully.

She sighed… she sighed because I stopped touching her.

“How are you going to get out of the tub?” I ask, examining her foot still wrapped in the ace bandage and submerged in the water.

“I’ll get on my knees,” her shaky voice says.

“You could fall.” She doesn’t respond. “Would you rather I leave?”

“You already did,” she squeaks, hugging her knees tighter. Okay, I had that one coming. I stand, moving to leave and thinking this might be better.

“I’ll be in the bedroom,” I say, a bit rejected, but not. “Call me if you need help.”

“I did,” she says, weakly. “You didn’t come…”

I sit in the bedroom, playing her words over and over again in my head.

I did… you didn’t come…

It’s only at this moment that I realize what my leaving really meant. I maintain that I needed some time away from her, from the situation, from how I was feeling, but just like Montana, I left her with nothing. No hope, no explanation, no lifeline. I had my phone. I just didn’t answer when she called. She escaped and we had to find her. I took somebody with me and she still didn’t know where I was. We weren’t married yet when she left, so her answering to me was a courtesy—one that I deserved as her fiancé, but a courtesy nonetheless. We’re married now; we’re next of kin over and above even our parents. We have a bigger responsibility to one another… and we have children.

She was in the hospital and I didn’t even know. Nobody thought I needed to be informed. If the people who know me and knew where I was thought I didn’t care about my wife falling off a cliff and having to be taken to the hospital, imagine how she felt.

Most of all, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Two wrongs? Or was it three? Four? Eleven? Twenty…?

I don’t know how long it is before she comes out of the en suite, but I know it’s a long time—so long that I stop watching the door and waiting for her to emerge… so long that I’m immersed in my own thoughts of the situation and forget where I am, surprised to see her exit the bathroom haphazardly wrapped in a bath blanket. Her long, wet hair hangs in a stringy mess down her back, some of in wrapped under the bath blanket. She’s just as surprised to see me still in the bedroom when she emerges as I am when she comes out. She probably thought I had given up and left by now.

I have to suppress the urge to just take care of her right now—to wrap the towel properly around her body, or better yet, unwrap it; to dry and untangle her extremely long hair; to pick her up and carry her to the bed and get the weight off that ankle and the now-wet ace bandage that may cause her to fall.

I lose the battle with that last one.

“No!” she says in a panic when she sees me coming towards her, my intent evident in my eyes. I stop just as I’m about to scoop her small body up in my arms.

“Please,” I say softly. “At least lean on me so that you don’t fall again. You were on the floor when I came in.”

Our faces are so close together. Her eyes are more empty and lifeless than I’ve ever seen them… ever. Her pupils are tiny, constricted—almost non-existent. I try to remember a time when I’ve ever seen this barren color of blue in her eyes… like an old pair of jeans that’s been washed too many times. I can’t. Not even when she checked out after watching the video of her attack were her eyes this pale. They’re normally deep blue… ocean blue… the bluest right at her height of passion. Right now, they look blanched and devoid of life.

Empty Eyes

I must have been staring too long, because she drops her eyes, then her head, breaking our gaze. I gingerly bend down and put my arm around her waist and she allows me to help her to the bed while she winces every time she tries to put the slightest weight on her ankle. She sighs again when she’s finally on the bed and out of my grasp. I feel a stab of rejection, but quickly push it back because there are too many other emotions swimming around in my head right now… and I really don’t deserve to feel rejected.

“Activate two-way communications,” I say, and the system comes alive. “Locate Keri Illidge.”

“Yes?” Keri’s disembodied voice answers.

“Keri, it’s Christian. I hope I haven’t disturbed you.” There’s a pause.

“Christian!” she says, surprise obvious in her voice. “Um, no, you haven’t disturbed me. I’m with the babies.”

“I’ll relieve you. Can you please come to the first guestroom and help Ana get dressed? Her ankle is bothering her.” Another pause.

“Yes, I’ll be right there.”

“End two-way communications.” The system shuts down and I bring my eyes back to my wife. She’s leaning forward on her hands sitting stock still on the bed and looking down. I sigh and leave the room. I meet Keri in the hallway.

“I don’t think she needs any help getting her clothes on, just getting what she needs to her… maybe combing her hair…” I trail off, still dejected that she wouldn’t let me touch her, but what did I expect?

“Yes, okay, no problem,” Keri says, and walks past me to the guestroom while I proceed to the nursery. An exhausted Gail is tending to Mikey while Minnie fusses in her crib. She smiles weakly when I enter the room. I look at her with apologetic eyes and force as much of a smile as I can. I know that she and Jason were probably making up for lost time when the babies beckoned. I reach into the crib and gather my fussy daughter in my arms. When I cuddle her against me, she settles immediately, nuzzling against my chest.

Sorry, little one, there’s nothing in those to sustain you. It’ll have to be a bottle.

I retrieve a bottle from the warmer and she suckles it hungrily, obviously fighting between hunger and sleep. I sit in the window seat that Jason informed me Ana sat in many days and look out at the view while I feed my daughter. There’s not much to see out this window… the same uninteresting view of Seattle and the bridge…

The bridge… She was staring at the bridge.

Fuck.


A/N: The song Ana is hearing in her head is Good Morning Heartache by Billie Holiday. The video is on my Pinterest page. 

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 38—An Untimely Shift

I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave you guys hanging with that cliffy, but don’t get used to this… This will be the last time I do back to back chapters of Raising in the same weekend. Well, maybe not the last time, but not this frequently. 😉 

Having said that, go easy on me on this one. It took a lot of work and I’m not sure I got everything right, including the laws as they relate to the storyline. Some of this is “shooting from the hip” and trust me—it was hard to write. So, just this once, I’ll ask that you be kind. 

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 38—An Untimely Shift

CHRISTIAN

“They may be stalling,” Ros says, looking over the last numbers from Albien Manufacturing. This doesn’t please me. The numbers from Capito Industries have shifted yet again, and they’re not looking any better than they have been over the last several weeks. Now, it appears, we might have narrowed down the source.

“We’ve been over this and over this. I thought we hammered out all the technicalities. Didn’t we address all their issues or is there something that I missed?”

“That overseas factory,” Lorenz says. “That has to be it. Capito is holding out to see if you’re going to relent on it.”

“What’s so damn important about a small factory in Madrid?” I ask. “It’s barely a blip in comparison to the entire corporation, which is about to crumble into the sea if he doesn’t make a decision soon. These numbers are horrendous by any standards no matter how he tries to dress them up.” Does this asshole think he’s playing with an amateur here?

“That’s what we need to find out,” Ros interjects. “If he’s so reluctant to let it go, it’s not as small as we think. There must be something else.”

“Of course, we need to find out what that something else is… fast!” I tell her. She nods and makes a note in her iPad.

“Speaking of Madrid, have you heard anything else about Casa del Escudo Sagrado?” Lorenz interjects, referring to the Spanish hotel chain we’re considering, also based in Madrid. “There’s been a bit of uncomfortable radio silence on that front, too.”

“No, and I’ve noticed,” I tell him. “Look into that. We may need to put a fire under them, as well. I don’t want any mistakes, so make sure that we’re armed with all the information that we need.”

“On it,” Lorenz nods, now typing information into his own iPad. We’re deep in pulling apart the current mergers and acquisitions on the table when Andrea interrupts us.

“Mr. Forsythe is here to see you, sir,” she says. He doesn’t interrupt meeting unless it’s important.

“Can you two get to work on those projects that we discussed and get back to me as soon as possible?” They both nod and leave my office. Al strides in once they’re gone.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you,” he says, closing the door. “This’ll only take a minute if you want to call them back.” I shake my head.

“There’s only so many fires I can put out at once,” I tell him. “They’ve got two to douse already. The rest can wait.”

“Well, I hate to put another fire in your lap, but I just want you to be prepared.” He drops an envelope on my desk. I open it and pull out a hefty, multi-page packet of documents.

“What’s this?” I ask as I begin to examine the document.

“That’s your copy. I’ve been working on it all morning. Jewel called me hysterical about four hours ago.” I frown. Hysterical? What the fuck? “She’s fed up with the hoops the licensing board is putting Helping Hands through and now, she wants to file a complaint against the director.” I’m thumbing through the document a bit blindly.

“Does she have grounds for her complaint?” I ask.

“And then some,” Al says, pointing at the documents in my hand. “Universities endure less stringent regulations than that. This is harassment, plain and simple, and now I know why.”

“Why?” I ask. “Is it that Felton woman?” He raises his eyebrows at me.

“You know?” he asks. I nod.

“Butterfly vented a few times. So did my mother, once or twice. I didn’t know that it was to this extent.”

“Read that report,” he says, heading for the door. “They’re being harassed—put through unnecessary rigors for no good reason, so much so that I can effectively argue that her actions are not only personally against Jewel, Grace, and the Center, but also against the common good. I know Jewel doesn’t want your involvement in this, but the services that this woman is preventing are detrimental to the community and I would consider it a personal favor if you could somehow get this investigation rushed for me—no special dispensation, just don’t let it get caught up in the bureaucratic red tape.”

“Butterfly won’t be happy if I interfere,” I argue.

“You didn’t hear her on that call, Christian.” Christian, not Chris. “She was devastated. It was like she spent two years on a thesis and the professor failed her work.” The two of them being intellectuals, I can only imagine how painful that would be. I was never a scholar, myself, so I can’t really empathize. “If there’s any fallout, I’ll take the heat—I’ll tell her that I couldn’t stand her crying and that I pulled the strings.”

Crying… enough said.

“I’m on it. I’ll see what I can do.” He nods and exits my office. Licensing… for accreditation. Good fucking grief. As if we haven’t had enough trouble with licensing. Who do I call? I know a lot of people, but I’ll admit that I’m out of my realm on this one. This wouldn’t be the same licensing board that called her into review, I know that much. There are seven agencies named in this complaint—he’s leaving no stone unturned. I start in the only place I know to start.”

“Hello, Christian, how are you? I haven’t heard from you since the wedding, which was beautiful, by the way. How goes things?”

“Getting used to family life,” I say to Charlotte. The Governor and I go way back. She helped to get evidence rushed when David kidnapped Butterfly. It doesn’t hurt that I discovered that she and her husband are also into kink, but we’ve had such a friendly relationship, I’ve never had to strong-arm her, not that I ever would. “You know we have twins now, right?”

“Who doesn’t know that you have twins now?” she responds with mirth. “The collective heartbreak heard ‘round the world when admirers of all ages, colors, and religions discovered that the fair Anastasia was not just the flavor of the month. I laugh.

“I think you exaggerate,” I tell her.

“I think not,” she retorts. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this communication?”

“I need some help,” I tell her. “If you can point me in the right direction, I’d be grateful.” Her tone turns serious.

“Point you in the right direction… this is new,” she says. “What is it?”

“I’m holding a 19-page complaint addressed to several different government agencies—the Department of Early Learning, Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Department of Health, the Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board, the Department of Licensing, the Department of Revenue and the US Department of Education.”

“That’s a lot of departments,” she says. “What’s this about?”

“It’s about the accreditation of Helping Hands,” I tell her. “They’re claiming harassment and discrimination due to a person conflict… one Gloria Felton…”

“Oh, God, her,” Charlotte laments and I fall silent for a moment.

“You know her?” I ask.

“No, but I know of her,” Charlotte replies. “There’s been… rumors… about her tactics, but nothing that can be proven. I don’t know if she’s trying to make a reputation for herself or what, but screwing around with people’s licenses is not the way to do it.”

“Elaborate,” I say. Charlotte sighs.

“I really can’t,” she says. “It would mean breaching confidentiality that even I’m not privy to betray. Let’s just say that I would very much like it if that complaint is filed as soon as possible and with as much detail as possible. She has the tendency to make things disappear or come up missing… especially if they weren’t relevant in the first place.”

“Well, my wife keeps meticulous records and she can tell you every date, time, and meeting they’ve had and every written document exchanged since they’ve been trying to get accredited. My attorney informs me that the requirements and inspections that are being imposed upon this little center are stringent even by university standards.”

“Inspections?” she asks, bemused. “Why inspections? What did they do?”

“Nothing that I know of,” I respond, curious of her reaction.

“Unless there’s something illegal or some kind of threat to the community, there’s no need for an inspection,” she informs me. “I’m not entirely versed on this, but of that I’m certain… inspections are so rare…”

“Well, my wife and mother are going through one of those rare inspections right now!” I inform her. There’s another pause.

“Oh, this is fantastic! In progress? Right now?” she asks, like she’s getting a Christmas gift.

“As we speak and for the last two and a half weeks.”

“Oh, God, we almost missed it,” she says. “The inspection only lasts for three weeks and I can guarantee all traces of it would disappear once it came back clean.”

“You’re certain it would come back clean.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“Oh, yeah, I’m certain. Dr. Grace Trevelyan-Grey and Dr. Anastasia Steele-Grey? Mother of billionaire businessman and not-so-secret philanthropist, Christian Grey, well-known humanitarian who runs a help center by day and saves children’s lives by night along with Seattle’s sweetheart and one-half of AnaChris…” There’s that fucking name, “… who involuntarily lives in the spotlight and appears to be a walking, talking, breathing damsel in distress, but always comes back from some horrible tragedy swinging and takes every opportunity to promote Helping Hands when a camera is shoved in her face, including admitting on television in a public service announcement that she was a victim of abuse? Do I expect that inspection to come back clean? Sparkling!” Okay, since you put it that way…

“My wife doesn’t want me getting involved in this,” I tell her. “She’s certain that the reputation and credibility of the Center would be at stake, but I need this case not to be put in the stack or placed on the back burner. It needs to be pushed to the front. It has to be legit—if my wife’s accusations are unfounded, so be it and we’ll take the fallout from it, but this complaint cannot be left sitting on someone’s desk. Take it on its merit, talk to whomever you need to in order to get to the truth, but please move quickly. This undertaking has caused more disagreements in our home because she has been so diligent in this task. I’m only asking for what’s fair—no special treatment, just don’t let it sit.” There’s a pause.

“And you’re asking me if I think the inspection will come back clean.” Another statement, not a question. “I know just who to turn this over to…” She’s dialing so frantically that I can hear it over the phone. “Nicholas… Charlotte… there’s something I need you to look into for me…”

She goes about explaining the situation to whomever Nicholas is and asks me to rattle off all of the departments involved once more, which I do. There’s a back and forth with her and the person on the other phone. “Let me know as soon as you’ve got the documents in your hands. I want everything airtight and legitimate. If what you say is true, then we need her out of there, soon. She’s a ticking time bomb.”

Damn… What did he say?

“As it turns out, you’re doing the state a favor,” she says to me and I’m assuming she has ended the call with Nicholas. “As I suspected, the rumors that have drifted to my office are most likely true. She’s using the office and its employees as her personal henchmen. No complaints have gone through because she harasses people and small businesses so badly and just when they’ve reached their limit, she gives them what they want. The only thing is that now, she holds power over their heads that they only think she has.

“If any one of those complaints had made it to the right desk, she would have been gone by now. As it stands, it usually only takes a threat to get that woman to fall in line. Apparently, your wife jumped right over the threat and went straight to the complaint. There’s been evidence that she has abused her position before—as most people in power do, unfortunately—but we haven’t been able to catch her on anything because the moment the threat of exposure is revealed, she pushes through whatever initiative she’s been holding up, thereby eliminating the problem. By your wife filing the complaint before the investigation is even finished, she can’t pull the file and the accreditation has to wait until the complaint has been investigated. It appears that she’s been on a personal crusade to terrorize people whom she feels may have wronged her in the past that need licenses for anything in the greater Seattle area. Apparently, she’s ruffled quite a few feathers over the course of time, but no one filed actual complaints. When is this one being filed?”

“My attorney is on his way to file it this moment. He’s probably at his destination now.”

“Stop him,” she says. “He needs a detour. I don’t want Felton getting any warning that this is coming.” I dial Allen on my cell before the words are out of her mouth.

“Chris, what’s up?”

“Allen, where are you?”

“I’m at the complaint desk. There are about four people in front of me and one of them is holding a file as thick as a phone book. This could take a while.”

“Not anymore—change of plans.” I turn back to Charlotte on my landline, just as I hear Allen say, “What?”

“Where should he go? He’s at the complaints desk now.”

“Tell him to go back downstairs to the guard’s desk and ask for the Office of the Director. Nicholas Winslow’s secretary is expecting him. His full name?”

“Allen Michael Fleming-Forsythe, Esquire,” I tell her. She chuckles.

“People still use Esquire?” she says.

“It’s handy in certain situations,” I say, remembering when Dad exercised the Esquire when the police showed up at our house right before Pops died. God… I haven’t even had time to dwell on that loss. I feel a clinching in my chest at the thought of my grandfather before I turn back to my cell and give Allen the instructions Charlotte just gave me.

“Office of the Director,” he repeats. “You’re a goddamn fairy godfather, Chris. I’ll have to think of something really good to convince Jewel that this was my doing and not yours.”

“If you must, tell her that you met the Governor at our wedding and when you introduced yourself, she told you to contact her if you ever needed anything. You’re a concerned citizen worried about the impact of the situation on the community and thought she might be interested, too. You were right.”

“You’re too good of a liar,” Allen warns.

“No, I’m a businessman, and I know how to get out of sticky situations. It was your idea to tell Jewel that this was your idea and not mine, and you did meet Charlotte at our wedding…”

“I did?”

“Yes, you did. You are a concerned citizen and yes, Charlotte is generally concerned, too. The only fudge here is that she told me to contact her if I ever needed anything, not you.”

“Fair enough. The director knows my name?” I turn back to the landline.

“Is he all set to go, Charlotte?”

“I just texted his name to Nicholas, so he shouldn’t have a problem,” she replies.

“You’re all set,” I tell him.

“I’m on it. I’ll let you know how it goes.” We end the call.

“He’s on his way,” I tell her.

“Nicholas was very happy to hear that we have something in progress against Gloria Felton. He’s as certain as I am that she’s been destroying documentation, but we just can’t prove it. Thanks for the heads up.”

“Thank you, and remember… everything on the up and up. Give her no reason to go to the press and call ‘foul’ and no ammunition to discredit my wife, my mother, or the Center.”

“Oh, don’t worry. There are no other complaints against her ahead of you, remember? This will be like shooting fish in a barrel.”

*-*

I spend the afternoon in my office doing my own research on the Madrid companies when I receive a text from Butterfly telling me that she’ll be staying a little later at the Center. I decide to call her and her voice is visibly shaken and irritated.

“I’m going over our initial plans for the Center and trying to find some other ways that we can put these renovations and hopes and dreams to use,” she had said, her voice full of disdain. “I can’t let all our work be a fucking waste!”

She’s livid and more than a little disheartened about the possibility of a long, drawn-out investigation. I want to tell her not to worry, that I was able—with very little effort—to get her investigation fast-tracked because the licensing division and the powers that be already had their eye on the thorn in her side, but now isn’t the time to reveal my interference with her already being so edgy. Since she would be working late, I decide to put in a few extra hours as well and just go by the Center and pick her up when my day is done so that we can ride home together. As I continue to examine the Madrid situation, my desk phone rings.

“Grey.”

“I found out what the delay is,” Ros says into the phone. “It turns out that all of the positive numbers from Capito’s financials stem from that little textiles factory in Madrid. It’s the only thing that’s been barely keeping the company afloat. You wouldn’t know it unless you dissected the financials into basest cash flow, which we wouldn’t do unless we were breaking the company apart.”

“Why didn’t I see this when I asked for the breakdown of the financials last month?” I ask. “And why would he think he could get away with something like this? Of course, he must know that if he holds out on this one factory, we’re going to investigate.”

“You did see it,” Ros says. “You repeatedly said that those numbers didn’t look right. The financial analysis that it took to see the sleight of hand that he did with those statements was damn near rocket science. Once you were able to figure out the algorithm behind one formula and change, he set another into play on another statement or subsidiary and you had no idea what he was doing. Where one set of numbers looked like they should have fed into the next statement, they didn’t. They were close, but not exact. Once one house of cards fell down, the whole deck crumbled.”

“Okay, so he has one strong subsidiary and a garbage company. Sell off the rest of the company or shut it down and keep the subsidiary. Why hide it? Any idiot making an offer is going to look at this one thing you’re hiding behind your back.”

“Maybe he thinks we won’t since the factory is so small, or…” she trails off.

“Or maybe he’s sending us on a wild goose chase,” I intervene in her pause, “drawing attention away from something else.” I rub my chin in contemplation. “You know what to do.”

“I do,” she says and ends the call. I may need to pay a visit to Albien Textiles. Nothing like an unexpected inspection to put things into perspective. Butterfly won’t like the idea of me popping out of the country on such short notice, so I’ll put it off as long as I can—wait to see what information Ros and Lorenz can drum up for me.

My eyes are actually burning and the numbers and words on the pages and screens I’m attempting to read are all running together. Even the computer glasses aren’t helping and now, I know why. I’m reading a bunch of gobbledygook! I rub my eyes and stand from my desk. Shutting down my computer, I summon Jason and let him know that we’re calling it a night. On my way to the garage, I try Butterfly’s cell. There’s no answer, so I call my mother.

“She was still at the office when I left,” Mom tells me as we maneuver through traffic towards Helping Hands. She sounds just as disheartened as Butterfly. “She’s trying to find some way to re-appropriate all of our preparations and renovations. She’s been at it for hours. I wouldn’t be surprised if you walked in to find her face down on her desk fast asleep.”

“Mom, I probably shouldn’t say this. I know that you didn’t want me to get involved, but I made a call today…”

“Christian…” she begins, knowing what I’m going to say.

“Just hear me out, please. I talked to Charlotte…”

“The governor!?” she asks in dismay.

“Yes, Mom, the governor. I only wanted to know who I needed to contact to make sure that the complaint didn’t get buried in a stack of we’ll get to it later. I made sure that she knew I wanted no special dispensation. It turns out that Gloria Felton is a thorn in a lot of people’s sides and if I hadn’t called, the situation may have gone unchecked and unrecognized.” She pauses.

“What are you talking about?” she says, a bit perturbed now. I explain to her how Felton has been antagonizing business owners and license seekers since she got the job at the licensing board, but the slightest threat of an investigation or complaint usually resulted in missing referendums and disappearing proof of harassment as well as the license in question hurriedly being granted.

“As a result, there are no other complaints in front of yours,” I tell her. “People are either glad to get her out of their hair or too afraid to rock the boat once they get the licenses they applied for, but the Office of the Director has been waiting for something in progress so that he can investigate. We had to forego the regular complaint process, or she would have gotten a hold of it and made all of your evidence disappear. Granted, you would have gotten your accreditation—we think—but if any recertification process came up, you’d be going through this again, and God help the next man who couldn’t afford to wait. This is one time where you needed me to make this call, Mom, even though neither of us knew it.”

“My God,” Mom says into the phone. “I thought the woman just had a bone to pick with us. She’s on a crazy power trip.”

“It looks that way. So, yes, your complaint may delay your accreditation for a little while, but most likely not nearly as long as you thought.” She pauses again.

“You should tell Ana,” she says. “This thing has been ripping her apart all day.” So much for Allen taking the fall for me, but hell, I couldn’t have my mom and my wife in unending dismay over this thing.

“I will, Mom,” I promise, “the moment I see her.” We exchange a few more words and I end the call with my mother. A few minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of Helping Hands. Sure enough, Butterfly’s and Chuck’s Audis are still here.

“Stay here,” I tell Jason. “I won’t be long. I’m going in to get her and we’re going home.” He nods at me and begins texting on his phone, no doubt telling Chuck that we’re here. I take the short route to her office and find her light on and her cell sitting on her desk. I’m not alarmed since I see that her laptop hasn’t gone “to sleep” yet, so I know she must have just left the office. My first assumption is that she’s gone to the restroom, so I wait for a minute or two.

Or ten…

Unless she fell in, she’s not in the restroom. I start to make my way around the community areas of the Center until I get to the main community room. Only the lights near the vending machines and the accompanying sofas at the far end of the room are on, but it’s enough light for me to see clearly the last thing in the world that I ever wanted to see.

I take in every detail of the moment like a freeze frame of a motion picture…

The empty sandwich wrapper and tall can of green tea on a nearby table;
The florescent light with one bulb dimmer than the other above the seating area;
The click of someone’s shoes on the floor off in the distance;
My wife with mussed hair sitting stock still and gazing in front of her;
And the man gently caressing her cheek and leaning in for a kiss.

My feet don’t move. They can’t move. My breathing stops and I can hear my heartbeat in my ears, feel it in my eyes. My fists are clenched so tightly that they hurt and I almost feel light-headed.

What. The. Fuck.

She puts her hands on his chest and the picture somehow zooms to close-up. Somehow, I’m now in the frame cursing and yelling and grabbing this fucker by the jacket and demanding to know what the fuck he’s doing with my wife. Her voice rips through my subconscious and stops me just as I’m about to pummel this fucker within an inch of his life.

“Christian! Please! Stop!”

My hand stops inches, and I mean inches, away from his face. I look over at her and she’s crying and shaking, her hands on the arm that’s holding his jacket in my fist.

She’s crying. She’s crying for him. She’s trying to save him.

“Please, Christian, calm down,” she beseeches me. I feel like… fuck, I don’t know what I feel like. I can’t believe she’s saving this fucker. Time feels like it goes in slow motion when she tells me to leave… to go home. She’s saying something else, but I can’t hear her. I see her mouth moving, but I only hear, “leave… go home.” I’m shaking in fury… and hurt and disappointment. I release the fucker’s jacket and walk quickly out of the community room and out the front door. I stride without looking, without thinking to the waiting Audi with Jason.

“Let’s go, Jason,” I huff, getting into the front seat of the Audi and slamming the door behind me.

“Is everything alright?” he asks.

“Drive!” I bark, never turning to face him.

 *-*

Several hours later, I’m sitting in the private lounge at SeaTac, waiting for my pilots and for the jet to be fueled and ready for take-off. The only thing I took from the house when we got there was my Glock. I know that Jason will make the necessary arrangements and get the necessary clearances to get our firearms into the country if he hasn’t already. After I told Jason to prepare for an overseas flight, I gave him exactly fifteen minutes to pack and say goodbye to his family. He knows the drill—a trip can come up at any second. This is the second. This is the goddamn second! I didn’t even pack. I’ll buy what I need when I get there.

My phone is ringing wildly, playing that goddamn song over and over again. I want to launch the damn thing across the room. Instead, I just send each call to voice mail and nurse another glass of bourbon. I don’t know exactly where Jason is, but I know he’s trying to make preparations for the flight and probably for the firearms.

Liam about to kiss AnaShe told me to leave. She told ME to leave—not the fucker that was about to kiss her, me! I throw back the rest of the bourbon and ask for a refill, the scene of this preppy-looking, young motherfucker leaning in to my wife playing over and over and over and over again in my head… for hours! I should have gone down to the gym and worked out before I left the mansion, but that would mean staying there possibly until she came back, and she told me to leave.

“Sir.” I turn around to see Jason standing in the doorway of the lounge. “Everything is ready.”

“It’s about damn time,” I say as I stand from the chair and wobble a bit on my feet. Shit, too much to drink. Jason catches me before I hit the floor.

“Will you be okay to fly, sir?” Jason asks, knowing exactly what my problem is.

“Just get me to the goddamn plane,” I hiss, leaning on him like the worthless drunk that I feel like right now.

Thankfully, I’m able to turn off my phone and stop that fucking song from playing once I get on the plane. It warbled in my pocket all the way through the airport and all the way up the stairs to the jet. It’s daylight by the time we board, and I don’t bother looking at my watch—my beloved Hublot that she bought me as a wedding present. I need a shower and to sleep off this goddamn alcohol. I sit in my seat impatiently waiting for the plane to take off and get me the fuck out of Seattle, away from this shit so I can clear my fucking head.

A hundred years later, the pilot—Norman, I think his name is—announces that it’s safe to move about the cabin. I can’t get to the bathroom fast enough. Endless flows of alcohol stream up my throat and out of my mouth. I empty every possible thing I ingested over the last 24 hours until I’m on my knees on the floor in dry heaves. After the inadvertent tears that follow unending vomiting begin, I turn on the shower and strip out of my suit, underwear and shoes and walk right into the blast of water.

Nothing can wash away this feeling of betrayal and emptiness… or the taste of bile in my mouth…

“Sir, we’re about to land at JFK for refueling.”

I’m asleep naked in the bed and my head feels like lead. Where the fuck am I? Oh, yeah, the jet.

“Where are my clothes?” I ask, my throat feels like gravel.

“Um, the suit is ruined, sir. You don’t want to wear that.”

“Well, I have to wear something unless you suggest I give our flight attendant a peep show.”

“There are no other clothes on the plane, sir. I can only suggest that you wrap yourself in the blanket or bedsheet.”

“Don’t you have something I can borrow?”

“Most likely, but my bag is in the cargo hold.”

“Fuck it, I’ll wear the pants and a T-shirt…”

TogaSo, I find myself awaiting landing strapped in the seat dressed in a toga. The flight attendant doesn’t even blink.

*-*

Jason has secured ground transportation for us in the form of a black Audi Q5. He probably called every rental car agency in the country to find that car. We get to our suite at high noon on Friday morning after he has lent me some of his workout gear. Our insteps are drastically different, so I can’t wear his suits, but sweats are universal. I have to acquire suits of my own if I don’t want to walk around the streets of Madrid looking like a goddamn dork…

… Which is exactly what I do when the valet parks the Audi and Jason and I enter some nameless store in one of Madrid’s shopping districts. To say that I couldn’t care less about my appearance right now is a massive understatement. I walk right into some store where I see Armani in the window in this ridiculous pair of sweats and a T-shirt that Jason has lent me. I proceed right to the counter like I own the joint, pull out my Amex Black and toss it down.

“I need five suits,” I tell the clerk who examines me like an alien from outer space. He takes a moment to take in my attire before showing his obvious distaste for my apparel, his nose and lip rising in that way like he’s smelling something bad.

“Don’t look at the clothes, Skippy. Look at the card,” I growl, irritated, and I think my voice actually scares the guy. As diplomacy totally evades me at the moment, Jason rightfully sees the need to take over as chief communicator. He, of course, is wearing a designer suit as usual, since I allowed him to pack. Obviously, he’s more appropriately dressed to talk to this high-nosed fucker.

“Do you like American cinema?” he asks the fucker.

“It is good enough,” the fucker replies in a heavy accent, as if American movies are beneath him.

“Have you ever seen Pretty Woman?” Jason asks. The fucker frowns at first. Seeing that Jason is serious, he says,

Pretty Woman, yes, Julia Roberts.” Jason points to me as says,

“That’s Edward Lewis.”

It takes a moment for the words to sink in, but the commission dollar signs begin to shine in this fucker’s eyes as he looks down at my Amex Black. When he raises his eyes to mine again, his whole demeanor changes.

“Mr. Grey, of course,” he croons, “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Don’t simper,” I growl again, “it’s too late to impress me.”

He swallows hard and looks over at Jason, who is apparently my diplomatic interpreter. I don’t hear or see what Jason says to him, but the guy turns back to me with the same simpering smile and gestures for me to follow him.

“Right this way, Mr. Grey. You said you needed suits?”

“Five,” I repeat, “Armani, Tom Ford, Corneliani—I at least recognized those on your floor. Black, blue, gray—this is a business trip. And somebody tell me where I can get some goddamn Cesare Paciotti’s…”

I’m led away to a private room and shown several suits while Jason chats with the simpering fucker about God only knows what. Hours later, we leave the shopping district with a hell of a lot more bags than the five suits I asked for.

“What’s all this shit?” I ask Jason.

“Underwear, pajamas, handkerchiefs, shirts to go under those expensive suits you just bought, ties, cufflinks, toiletries, workout gear, three sets of casual clothes, Nikes, and your Amex Black was able to get you three pairs of Cesare Paciotti’s delivered to the store before we left.” He says the entire spiel with a straight face and I almost want to hit him. “Just wanted to save myself another trip, sir.”

I say nothing during the ride back to the hotel. I didn’t really think this trip through. I just knew that I needed to be away from the Crossing… away from the situation.

Away from her. 

Luckily, I was smart enough to bring my laptop when I left the office Wednesday night, so everything that I was working on is at arm’s reach. Otherwise, I would have had to have Andrea overnight the damn thing to me.

“I need your phone,” I tell Jason. He digs in his pocket and hands me the phone. I call mine to see if there are messages from the office. I don’t want to turn my phone on and hear that incessant song anymore. Of course, there are numerous messages from her. The moment I hear the beginning of her number being recited back by the automated voice, I delete the message. I don’t have the strength to even deal with it, with what I saw, with what I felt… what I’m feeling right now. A message from Andrea and two from Ros managed to get through between her calls before she filled my voicemail. I’ll have to write the numbers down when I get back to the hotel.

I ask for Jason’s phone so much over the course of the weekend that he asks if he should just get me a burner. There’s no way that a burner would be able to handle all the business I need to handle, so that’s out of the question. On Sunday night, I finally decide to plug my phone into the charger and contemplate how I’m going to handle the situation at hand.

“You’re calling from Jason’s phone,” Welch says when I speak to him that evening.

“Yes,” I say, with no explanation. “Are you in the office?”

“Yes.”

“I need something, and I don’t know how to get it.”

“Okay,” he says. “Let’s hear it.”

“Is there a way to get me blueprints or a detailed layout for a small factory in Madrid?”

“You’re asking for miracles here,” Alex says. “When do you need it?”

“Yesterday,” I tell him. “Seriously, like right now.” I can see him shaking his head in my mind’s eye.

“I don’t know if I can do that,” he says. “What factory is it? Where is it located.”

“Albien Textiles.” I give him the address.

“Christian, I don’t know if I can do this, but I’ll try. Any specific reason? It might help with the task.”

“Long story short, I think Capito is hiding something. I’m going to try to get into the factory for a standard tour of interest, but I totally expect him to resist. If he doesn’t, he’s going to do his best to keep me out of key areas. I want to know what those key areas are before I meet with this man.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t promise anything,” he says.

“Just do what you can.” I end the call. There’s no piano in the suite, so there’s nothing for me to do for my insomnia but work out. I go to the gym downstairs in the hotel and run until my legs feel like mush.

It’s Monday morning in Madrid. I’ve barely eaten anything all weekend and slept even less. I order room service so that I don’t keel over from hunger. Jason garners enough nerve to ask for his phone back, forcing me to turn mine on and sure enough, it’s full of voice mails and text messages again… from her. You would think she would get the message that I need to be left alone right now, but apparently not. I’m not going to get any peace if I don’t talk to her and I don’t want to talk to her right now. I consider doing something that I never thought I’d do, but I’m immediately concerned that something may happen with the twins and no one can get in touch with me. Then I remember that Gail and Chuck… and even she… can contact Jason. I delete all the voicemails and text messages and send her cellphone number to the block list. It’s the only way I’ll get any work done while I’m here.

It doesn’t help, though. Jason makes it a point to tell me that Gail has called, or she has called crying and upset wanting answers. I tune him out whenever he mentions her and proceed to try to get some work done.

Ros, Lorenz, and I work tirelessly over the next few days gathering inside intelligence on Capito and the mystery factory, nothing much coming out of the woodwork. I have to get into that factory. I know I’m missing something and the key is inside that factory. The team and I set the factory aside for a day and review documents for the hotel instead, but Ros is chewing on that bone that something is going on with Capito and that factory that he doesn’t want to let go of.

Like the miracle worker that he is, Alex somehow manages to get schematics for the Albien factory. It’s a standard operation except for a section near the back that looks like it might be sleeping quarters. I assume it’s for workers that want to stay the night because of crazy shifts. I don’t like sweat shops myself and I refuse to use them for any GEH manufacturing operations, but if that’s what’s going on, that can easily be rectified once GEH acquires the company. Armed with this knowledge and my possible conclusions about the company, I decide to pay a visit to Capito on Friday morning.

“Mr. Grey, a pleasant surprise… Antamonides Capito,” he says with a heavy Spanish accent while extending his hand to me. Fuck, I’m going to have to tie my tongue in a goddamn knot to say that name.

“Mr. Capito,” I say formally, accepting his proffered hand.

“To what do we owe this unexpected visit?”

“I make it a point to try to visit any company that I plan to do business with on this level, particularly those of special interest to me.” He raises an eyebrow.

“Special interest?” he says, gesturing to one of the seats in front of his desk. I undo the button of my jacket and take a seat.

“Yes,” I say as he sits in the seat placed next to me. “I’m particularly interested in Albien Textiles. It seems to be the only… hiccup in our negotiations and I would like to see why.”

“Of course,” he says, the comfort level he exuded moments ago slipping just a bit. “We can schedule a visit to the facility, say, Monday morning?” And there’s the stall.

“I’d like to visit the factory today,” I press. “Unscheduled visits are much more informative than the pomp and circumstance I would expect to see after a weekend of preparation.” He frowns.

“What is this pomp and…” He’s shaking his head. More stalling…

“I would like to see the factory today, preferably immediately. My time in Madrid is limited.” I look at the clock as if in a rush. I’m in no rush. There’s nowhere else in the world for me to be at this moment.

“I… can schedule something this afternoon,” he says. Still stalling. Still time to destroy important information or stage a visit. “You have given us no notice, Mr. Grey. This is highly unusual. It emits an air of distrust.”

“How long have you been in business, Mr. Capito?” I ask, hypothetically, and continue speaking before he has an opportunity to answer. “The business of mergers and acquisitions is cutthroat. The information you receive is only as good as your own eyes. You’re new to this arena, so you may not be aware of the treachery and deception that can occur with a novice in this industry. I have personally had my share of rotten apples passed on to me during my extensive tenure, as has anyone with any extended experience in this line of work. If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned not to believe what’s on the surface—to dig deeper and see for myself what kind of package is being handed to me.

“I don’t charm my way through my business dealings. I didn’t become this wealthy and successful by trying to make friends. I’m shrewd, I negotiate, and in necessary situations, I bully, but I don’t charm. I see things for what they are, so if you feel an air of distrust, go with that. Trust no one. ‘Believe half of what you see and nothing that you hear.’ Always approach a negotiation with a bit of scrutiny and know that the party to which you are speaking is never exercising full disclosure… ever.” I fold my hands in my lap before I add one last bit of information.

“Also know that the fact that I am unable to secure an impromptu visit to this factory that appears to be the jewel in your crown will tell me worlds more than anything I could possibly see when I get there.” He straightens a bit, much more formal than he was when we met moments ago.

“Surely, you can give me until this afternoon,” he says firmly. “A VIP strolling through my factory would be disruptive and may cause mistakes during production, uneasiness and destruction of moral. I would at least like some time to warn my staff of your arrival. As a businessman, surely you can understand the importance of accuracy and precision in any manufacturing operation.” He’s intimidated, but I can tell that he’s dug in and I won’t get into that factory before this afternoon. I push a little harder.

“I can give you until 11am. I have other appointments I need to attend.” I’ll go as late as 1pm, but I won’t tell him that. No matter what they can do, not much can be done between now and 1 o’clock.

“Impossible. You can come at five,” he insists.

“That’s not afternoon, Mr. Capito. That’s evening,” I retort. “As I said, I have other appointments to attend.”

“I can pull it to 3pm, then.” Nope, still too late.

“Unacceptable,” I say. “Noon at the very latest.”

“As you said, Mr. Grey, that’s not afternoon. That’s noon.” And now, he’s being sarcastic. Well played, Mr. Capito, but not well enough. I put my hands on the armrest and make to stand. Never let them believe the you won’t walk away. “I can do 1pm,” he says quickly, halting my progress. I pause before rising out of my seat as if contemplating his offer. I rise anyway.

“One PM,” I confirm. “My driver and I will be here at 12:30.” I walk to the door.

“Please allow me to provide the transportation,” he says. I turn to face him.

“Thank you, but no. My security team follows strict protocols for very good reason. I trust them with my safety,” I say, stressing the word, “so I dare not alter their procedures.”

“Team?” he says, no doubt noting that Jason is the only one he has seen.

“Yes, team,” I reinforce. “My team is with me all over the world and knows where I am every second.”

“Are you fitted with a microchip, Mr. Grey?” he says coolly, and now, he’s trying to get under my skin.

“No, Mr. Capito,” I say, unmoved. “My team is just that damn good. I’ll see you at one.” I leave his office and meet Jason in the lobby. “Did you get that?” I ask inconspicuously as we leave the building.

“One o’clock. We’ll follow him to the factory.”

“Let’s get some lunch,” I say, as we leave the building.

Promptly at 12:30, we’re back at Capito’s building waiting for him to come down. He waits until 12:45 to emerge from the building. Strike one.

“My apologies, Mr. Grey,” he says as the window to the Audi descends. “I was in a meeting that ran over.” I nod once, but don’t respond, noting his glance around the car and realizing immediately that he’s taking stock of its occupants.

Strike two.

We drive for about twenty minutes and I realize that we’re heading out of town, not to the factory. I look at Jason in the rearview mirror.

“We’re not going to the factory,” I tell him.

“I’m aware,” he says, his brow furrowing as he dials a number in his docked phone. A phone on the other end rings twice before someone answers.

“Cox.”

“Where are you?” Jason asks.

“At the warehouse waiting for you. Thought you were supposed to be here by now.”

“We were. There’s been a detour. I don’t know where we’re going.”

“Backup?” I ask. He nods.

“Call Alex. Tell him to initiate satellite tracking on my pendant and the boss’s watch.” There’s tracking in my watch? How did I not know that?

“I’m not wearing my watch,” I tell him. I left it at the hotel in my newly acquired accessories bag. I won’t take off my wedding ring, but I’m not wearing that damn watch. I normally look at it during various intervals during the day and contemplate just how much I adore its gifter. That’s not the order of business for today… probably this entire trip.

“Shit!” Jason hisses. “You wear that goddamn thing everywhere and today you decide to take it off!” He says it under his breath. “Track my second harness. The boss isn’t wearing his watch.”

“Ten-four,” Cox says, and Jason lifts his feet slightly off the gas, causing our lead to pull ahead.

“We don’t want to lose them,” I tell him.

“We’re not going to lose them,” Jason says as he reaches into the console and hands me a harness. “Put this on,” he says. I quickly remove my jacket and slide into the harness, adjusting it around my back like Jason taught me. “Let me know as soon as satellite tracking is activated,” he says to Cox.

“What should we be doing?” Cox asks.

“Hang tight. Surveillance.”

“There’s nothing to survey, sir,” Cox says. “A couple of guys have gone in an out of this place, but besides that, it’s a ghost town. There aren’t even any cars in the parking lot.” I frown.

“Okay. Stand by. Get Welch on the phone.” Jason ends the call.

“This is not adding up and it doesn’t look good,” I say.

“No, it doesn’t,” Jason says. “I can get away with carrying my gun inside of a factory because I’m security. You have no reason to carry yours. I’ll assess the situation when we get to our destination and decide if you should put it in that harness.” I nod as he comes off the gas even more and our lead pulls further ahead of us.

“What are you doing?” I ask him.

“One of two things is happening in that car up there,” he tells me. “Either they’re not paying attention to us at all or Capito is wondering what the fuck is going on back here. If they lose us, we probably want it that way because they just want to get us out of the city. If they slow down or stop, they have something they really want us to see, and it’s obviously not the factory. We’ve got five more miles before cell reception is going to be compromised even though the satellite will pick us up wherever we are. So, four more miles and I turn around.”

“I want to see where he’s taking us,” I protest.

“Is this deal worth your safety, sir?”

He’s right. I can’t be stupid about this. I’m not thinking self-preservation right now. Hell, I’m not thinking at all.

“At least one of us is thinking,” I say, looking out the window at the passing landscape.

Jason has now slowed to a crawl and the sleek silver sedan that shuttles Mr. Capito is slowly disappearing from sight. I guess we won’t be seeing where he’s leading us after all. We pull off by the side of the road.

“About three more miles and we’ve got questionable and possibly no cell reception,” Jason says, looking over the seat at me. Well, this was a wasted trip… maybe not so much. I learned that I’m dealing with someone sneaky and probably don’t want to do business with him.

“Turn around,” I concede, “There’s nothing ahead of us for miles that I can see. Get us back to the main road before they find us out here in the tall grass somewhere.” He nods and makes to turn around when the phone rings.

“Taylor.”

“Satlink is established, sir. We have you on CM-2004 just outside of Madrid,” Cox says.

“Well, would you lookie here,” Jason says, drawing my attention to the silver sedan speeding back in our direction. “Ceej, call me back in exactly two minutes.” Jason tells him to repeat that information and add some additional information to the conversation.

“You got it.” The call ends.

“Ten’ll get you twenty he’s going to say that we made a wrong turn,” Jason says.

“He can’t be that stupid. This is his factory,” I protest.

“But we’re not going to his factory,” Jason points out. “No matter what he says, I refuse to follow him any further out of town, sir. I’ll run him over in the road first.” I nod.

“I concur,” I say, sitting back in my seat and waiting for the show. The sedan screeches to a halt next to the Audi and Capito gets out of the back seat, walking quickly to my window. I don my sunglasses and let my window down.

“Is everything alright, Mr. Grey?” he asks.

“We should be asking you that question,” I say. “My information indicates that we’re heading in the complete opposite direction of the factory. I agreed to follow you to the factory as a courtesy. I could have just met you there at 1pm. I’d like to know where we’re going.” Before he has a chance to respond, the phone rings. I hold up a finger to silence Capito.

“Taylor.” Cox’s voice is piping through the car speakers.

“Satlink is established, sir. We have you on CM-2004 just outside of Madrid en route to one Albien Textiles with Antamonides Capito as indicated in briefing. Intelligence indicates that you’re headed in the wrong direction,” Cox says.

“We’re aware,” Taylor says. “Stand by.”

“Ten-four.” Jason looks back at me and I look up a Capito.

“We’ve… taken a wrong turn,” Capito says. It’s a good thing I didn’t take that bet. “We need to turn around.”

“This is your factory, Mr. Capito,” I accuse, “one that you swore you needed to make preparations before I could see it, and you don’t know how to get there?”

“This is why we wanted to wait for you to see the factory, Mr. Grey,” Capito says. “The main factory is undergoing renovations. We had to set up operations at a temporary location. We have only been their once or twice, which is why we were turned around. A simple error in direction. It can happen to anyone.” I’m losing my patience.

“Where are we going?” Jason asks, his voice completely devoid of emotion.

“If you would just follow me…” Capito begins.

“Where. Are. We. Going?” I repeat slowly. Capito stares at me for a moment and I stare right back as he rattles off an address in Valdilecha, some 18 miles back from the direction we just came.

“Satnav that, please,” Jason says, and we wait for about 20 seconds before Cox responds.

“Location tracked, sir. Directions have been uplinked to your GPS.” Jason looks back at Capito.

“This way, in case we have another wrong turn, you can follow us. I understand how these things happen.” He turns back to face the windshield. Capito doesn’t say another word but goes back to the silver sedan and climbs into the back seat.

“So where are we going?” I ask Jason.

“Cox, any ideas?”

“It’s some kind of storefront in a barred-up part of town,” he says. “It could be a factory. Then again, it could be a grocery store. Alex is working on it. I just Googled it.”

“What about Capito’s story,” I ask. “Could they be undergoing renovations?”

“I suppose they could, but the workers must have Friday off. Like I said, it’s a ghost town out here.” 

“Well, we’ve got about 15 minutes to find out where the hell we’re going,” I say.

“We’ll get something for you, sir.”

The drive was quicker than I anticipated. Sure enough, we drive up to some unmarked building with three large, industrial doors and no information from Alex.

“Sir?” Jason says, awaiting instruction.

“It’s like you said, you can wear your gun without suspicion if we go through metal detectors. I can’t. Besides, Capito knows that we’re Satlinked and we mentioned his name particularly. Unless we’re dealing with the Mexican Mafia, which I highly doubt, we should be okay.” He nods and exits the car.

Sure enough, where given a tour through some small non-descript sweatshop operation, and these women look to be making some kind of plastic bottle tops or something. And I’m supposed to believe that this tiny operation is what’s holding up a billion-dollar merger.

Yeah, okay.

The drive was more exciting than the goddamn tour, but I don’t let on to Capito that I know he’s full of shit. I don’t really have to; he already knows it. I thank him for the very informative tour before Jason and I get back on the road to Madrid.

“So… what now, boss?”

“Is Cox alone at that warehouse?” I ask.

“No, sir. He and Williams took commercial flights in on Wednesday. You can never be too sure with foreign security and I didn’t have enough time to set anything up on our way out of the States.” He’s been very professional about this whole thing. He hasn’t asked me any questions about what may have happened, and I haven’t offered any information. I want to focus on work, not my questionable marriage.

“Thanks for taking care of that,” I say. “Maybe we should pay a visit to the actual factory.”

“I hardly see a need, sir,” Jason says. “With Cox and Williams staked out there, we’ve already got eyes on the location. I can let them know to stick around for a while and let us know if they see anything worth reporting. Tomorrow, maybe? Maybe they are just off on Friday.”

“Yeah, I believe that like I believe the world is flat, but you’re right. There’s not much we can do.”

“Yeah,” he says, somewhat distracted. I watch him for a moment. He continues to drive but keeps looking in the mirror.

“What is it, Jason?” I ask.

“And we’re being followed,” he says, drawing out the and. Goddammit, as if the decoy warehouse wasn’t enough, this asshole wants to keep fucking with me. He must have gotten the same idea that I did, that I would go to the warehouse on my own if he didn’t want to give me a tour. “They’re not professionals,” Jason adds.

“How do you know?” I ask.

“They’re following too close,” he says. “Either they’re amateurs or they’re trying to scare us. Either way, their surveillance sucks.”

“Suggestions?” I ask. He reaches into the glove box and retrieves my Glock.

“Put it in your harness and fasten your seat belt…”

You can only go so fast in the narrow streets of a Spanish town. There are a lot of little alleys, though, that make for good hiding places. Maybe they’re streets, too, but they’re still good hiding places. After what could be considered a chase down the narrow Spanish streets and a detour into one such alley, we exit the car and duck into two nearby doorways, Glocks locked and loaded and waiting for our pursuer to follow. Just as we get into position, a black VW Polo pulls into the alley and blocks our Audi in. Two men get out of the car and walk to the Audi, looking into the windows.

 

Jason and I both come out of the shadows with our weapons drawn. I’m trained right between the eyes of the first guy and Jason walks right up behind the second, placing cold steel to his skull.

“¿Estás perdido amigo?” Jason says in perfect Spanish as both men cautiously raise their hands.

“Mr. Capito requested that we see you back to your hotel safely,” the second guy says to Jason.

“As you can see, we don’t need an escort,” I hiss. “We can take care of ourselves. I made that point very clear to your boss. Should I send him another message?”

The guy staring down the barrel of my Glock catches my meaning loud and clear and although he attempts to remain unshaken, his fear and uncertainty are quite evident.

“Eduardo, vamos. Deberíamos irnos,” the second guy says, his voice betraying his nerves.

“Listen to your friend, Eduardo,” Jason says, his voice cool. “Sal de aquí.” With his hands still in the air, Eduardo inches slowly away from the barrel of Jason’s gun while the unknown man backs away from me, meeting his friend at their vehicle. They hurriedly get into the car and back out of the alley, speeding away down the street with our guns still pointing at them until they’re out of sight. I turn to Jason.

“You’re right, total amateurs,” I say, putting my gun back in it harness. “I need to see what’s in that damn factory.”

“Yes, sir.”

We agree to allow Cox and Williams to remain on the stakeout to see if anything happens while we go back to the hotel and change. I bring Ros and Lorenz up to speed on what happened with the tour of the “factory” and the exciting events thereafter. Ros is as ready to drop the deal as am I, but morbid curiosity won’t allow me to let go of what might be going on at the actual factory.

I get my chance to kill the proverbial cat when we get a call from Cox right after sundown.

“Apparently, it’s a nighttime operation, sir,” Cox’s disembodied voice reports. “Once the lights went out, the building came alive. It’s buzzing with activity, so if you want to see something, now is the time.” I look at Jason.

“How can we get in without being seen?” he asks.

“You can’t, but there’s a back-access road right off the M-20 before you get to the exit for the factory. Take that to the end and it comes up to a hill on the side of the property. We have a clear view of the loading docks and everything going on in front of it.”

“I guess we’re going on a stake-out,” Jason says.

*-*

“Are you shitting me?” I hiss as Cox, Williams, Jason, and I all lay in the grass watching the comings and goings from the warehouse.

“Right before you got here,” Williams says. “Those two on the end made the drop; those two on the dock got the money.”

“Why the fuck does this always seem to happen to me?” I lament, looking through the high-powered binoculars that Cox was using moments before. “The covered trucks, what about those?”

“They arrived about ten minutes ago. I’ve only seen those used to transport people—like troops—but nobody’s gotten out of them yet. Maybe a big job coming, and they need back-up.”

“God. Dammit!” I hiss as I realize exactly what I was looking at on those schematics that Alex sent me. “Nobody’s getting out.” I hand the binoculars to Jason just as Williams silently hisses a curse. “Somebody’s getting in.”

“Fucking hell,” Jason breathes, disgusted.

“Aw, shit,” Cox says as he commandeers Williams’ binoculars. “What are they, teenagers?”

“If that,” I say, running my hands through my hair. The sleeping quarters on the schematics had to be temporary dormitories where their human stock was housed until it was time to move them. Tonight is the night and there’s no way that Capito could let me get to this factory. I’m having flashbacks of the nightmares that were the miscellaneous subsidiaries and the headaches and trauma we had getting out of those situations. Fuck if I’m getting involved with that shit again.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here. Now!” I say, crawling backwards down the hill.

“Boss, we gotta do something!” Jason hisses.

“You’re right! Get the fuck out of here!” I repeat quietly to his dismayed face. “I’ve got a Glock. So do you. Williams? Cox? I assume the same. What do you think they’re carrying?” I wait for a moment for his answer. “They’re. Moving. People! And I can guarantee you that there’s more than four men in that warehouse and they ain’t packing BB guns. Go! Now!”

He doesn’t want to move, but they all know that I’m right. We climb back down the hill and drive back down the access road to the M-20 with no lights. We meet back in mine and Jason’s suite for a debriefing.

“Did you get any kind of pictures or surveillance documentation?” I ask Cox.

“No, sir,” he laments. “We didn’t have those instructions. We had no idea…”

“I know,” I stop him. “Right now, it’s the word of four trespassers against a local, distinguished businessman who has already moved his inventory.” I push my hands through my hair. “Alex will know who to contact. Unfortunately, I know this from experience. Have him get in touch with the proper authorities and drop an anonymous tip… assuming they’re not in on it.”

Everyone at the table nods and leaves with maudlin expressions, myself included. For the first time in ten days, my thoughts settle on my wife. I want to hold her, and my children, and keep them safe from monsters like this—from a horrible, cruel world with no justice. I take a moment to lament that situation before my mind goes back to that fucker closing in on her about to kiss her…

And the wall goes back up.

While Jason is calling Alex, I call Ros and Lorenz and tell them that we’re washing our hands of the deal because something illegal is going on at that warehouse and I don’t want to get involved in it.

“You’re sure about this?” Lorenz says. “I mean about the illegal activity?”

“I’m positive, and I’ve had my share of dealing with companies that were doing similar shit.”

“This is not going to look good—that we’re just pulling out like this with no explanation,” he adds.

“Oh, I have an explanation, and a valid one at that, but I have nothing to prove to this man,” I say, definitively. “There’s nothing that his company or his factory has that I can’t get somewhere else without the hassle and possible headache that I see landing in my lap if I acquire his organization. ‘Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.’ He’s dirty. We’re walking away.” I hear Ros sigh on the other end.

“Okay. You’re the boss. What about the hotel chain?” she asks, not wanting to show her relief.

“I’ll be paying them a visit on Monday morning. Let’s hope that goes better than this did.”

The next morning after a workout and a shower, I’m sitting in the dining room of our suite going over the protocol of our visit to the hotel with Jason. I must admit that I’m glad that he brought back-up as he and I alone now made me feel at a disadvantage, knowing what Capito is up to. Who knows what kinds of ties that man has? I was joking about the Mexican Mafia, but after this, I don’t know who he’s in bed with… I just know it won’t be me. As I’m finishing my egg-white omelet, Jason’s phone rings.

“Hello, Love,” he says, as he takes a sip of his coffee. He’s quiet for a moment before he stands from the table. “How is she?” he asks, pacing a bit around the dining area. “Geez, are you serious?” He must be getting some news about Sophie, but apparently nothing too upsetting since he’s not having a cow. Only… what time is it in Seattle right now? Like, two or three in the morning.

“Well, why didn’t she ca…?” Whatever the question was, he’s cut off mid-sentence. After hearing his wife’s response, he raises his gaze to me and examines me for a moment.

What?

“Oh, okay,” he says, breaking his gaze with me. “Keep me posted. So, everything else is okay?” he says as he goes into his bedroom, most likely to have to private time with his wife. I shrug off the conversation and go back to eating my omelet and reading the financial news.


A/N: ‘Believe half of what you see and nothing that you hear.’ Edgar Allan Poe’

¿Estás perdido amigo?”—”Are you lost, friend?”

“Eduardo, vamos. Deberíamos irnos,”—”Eduardo, come on. We should go.”

Sal de aquí.”—”Get out of here.”

Although all of the pictures from this chapter are actually in this chapter, 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 10—Family Feuds

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 10—Family Feuds

ANASTASIA

Right after we get Nollie to the tarmac and onto the GEH jet, Christian falls into a silence that doesn’t break. He won’t say a word. The entire ride back to Grey Compound, nothing. When we get there, he disappears to parts unknown and I don’t see him for the rest of the night. And when I say the rest of the night, that’s exactly what I mean. He doesn’t come to bed; I don’t see him at breakfast; I can’t find him around the house. I have to ask other people if they’ve seen him.

Elliot saw him briefly Sunday night.

Carrick got a glimpse of him Monday morning.

Sometime between Monday and Tuesday, he spoke to Jason to get the jet in the air again Tuesday evening to get Herman and Stan back to Detroit with Pops’ remains. Stan said there wouldn’t be much of a service in Detroit since most of his family and friends actually came to Seattle to say goodbye. The brothers took the liberty of having urn amulets with a small portion of Pops’ ashes made for each brother—even Freeman—and each grandchild. Carrick secretly gave one to me, too, stating that Pops would have wanted me to have one since I helped so much with his mental transition… Yes, I cried when he gave it to me.

He said that he would hold onto Christian’s until he decided to resurface.

And the evening and the morning were the third day. By the time dusk fell, I had had enough. Minnie was inconsolable as she is accustomed to smelling and seeing her father at least once a day, and when she’s in a fit, so is Mikey. I leave my crying twins with Gail and go in search of my husband. Grey Manor—still Grey Compound for the next couple of days—looks fairly deserted. Elliot and Val have gone to look at a property that they may want to buy and renovate as their new home. Luma and the girls have gone home for a while since Herman, along with Stan and Lana, have gone to Detroit to deliver Pops’ remains. Everyone else has retreated to parts unknown, including my MIA husband. Had it not been for sightings from other people, I wouldn’t know if he was dead or alive!

After searching all the rooms in Grey Manor, including Pops’ old room, I call his cell phone only for it to go straight to voicemail. I’m angry now, wondering where in the fuck this man has been hiding for three days. Standing outside on the grass, my fear begins to turn into worry that he might be having a psychotic break when I turn to my left and find where I think is my husband’s hiding place.

The tree house.

a62d3d805f932f9762f9770ca4d9b2bf

I run double-time to the tree house, scurry up the stairs of the patio and across the gangplank to the main house. If the door is locked, I swear I’m breaking it down. Prepared to use my shoulder as a battering ram, I find that there’s no need to do it. The door is unlocked. I walk in to find my husband sitting comfortably on a chair watching something on television—I couldn’t even tell you what it is. He has three days of growth on his face and he’s wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. He’s just kicking back, doing nothing, with a dead phone next to him. He’s not having a psychotic break. He just hiding out.

“Close the damn door,” he says without looking back to see who has entered his realm.

“Turn around,” I nearly growl, unable to hide my ire and displeasure at this time. He turns to face me, somewhat quickly, a bit shocked to see me. My fists are clenched and it’s everything I can do not to lunge at this man in pure anger. I get that he has a hard time handling grief and loss, but this is the second time in as many weeks that he has lost his ever-loving mind over his grandfather’s death and I. Have had. Enough. He has no consideration for anybody’s feelings but his own and goddammit, that’s just not how grownups deal with things Mr. Grey.

I have to admit that standing here looking at my mountain man husband, I’m really ready to fucking do battle with him, but truth is that he needs to see the bigger picture. He may have gotten lost in his grief, but he completely deserted his wife, his children, his family when we are all in a time of need right now. I. Am. Livid, and for once, I’m not thinking about his feelings this time.

“Is this what I can expect from you anytime there’s a tragedy in our family?” I hiss. “I can expect for you to just check out and leave me to deal with everything on my own? Because if that’s what my future with you holds, tell me now.”

Even I must admit that the statement sounds quite ominous, but I think part of me wants it to sound that way. The one time I checked out on Christian in a time of tragedy, I had no control over it and he and my friends and family were fighting over taking me to the psychiatric ward. I don’t know if he says anything… I think he does, but I just keep talking.

“Apparently, I missed the memo that you clearly got that says that you can pick and choose when you decide to be a husband—and that’s okay. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself. I was doing it before we met and I can do it now since you seem to have decided that you’re not up to the task, but you don’t get to pick and choose when you want to be a father. That’s not an option, Mr. Grey, and it never will be. Now, you get your ass up and get in that house and help take care of your children!”

I don’t wait for a response. I turn around and slam the door loudly behind me. I march down the stairs and across the lawn without looking back. I wanted to yell and fight and curse and call him names. He’s not utilizing his resources. He’s not talking to Dr. Baker. He’s not talking to me. He’s not talking to his parents. He’s not talking to anybody, because if he were, they sure as hell wouldn’t have advised him to hide in his pimped-out tree house! No, he’s turning himself in to his grief and not seeking counsel or solace anywhere, which means those of us who need him can just kick rocks right now for all he cares.

So, what that we all must work through our grief just like he does?

So, what that we all loved Pops and hate it that he’s gone, too?

So, what that he has a family that depends on him, two crying children that he fathered who haven’t seen him three days? Who gives a fuck that we need him, right? We can just all fend for ourselves, right?

I storm into the house and up the stairs into the nursery to my yowling babies. Poor, flustered Gail is still trying to calm Mikey, but he’s having none of it. Since his sister, who is usually the contemplative one, is uncharacteristically screaming at the top of her lungs, Mikey is taking a cue from her and is wailing in utter discontent. They’re displeased and want their voices to be heard. They fucking well should! They need their parents and they know that something’s wrong. I’m sure of it.

“I’ve got it, Gail,” I say, taking Mikey from her hands. She frowns deeply. I know what she must be thinking—two screeching children and I’m dismissing her? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing. My babies need their parents and if their father is too selfish and inconsiderate to see that his children are yearning for him, then I’m going to take care of them myself.

“Ana…?” she protests

“It’s okay, Gail. I got it,” I repeat, taking Mikey to the en suite to prepare his bath. I place him in his bouncer there and start the water running in his portable tub. He’s usually the only one that needs the bouncer because he’s always quite verbal, but Minnie is never this unsettled. I get his bath to the right temperature and begin to strip him out of his onesie. By the time I’ve removed his diaper, he still won’t settle. He’s wailing like a wounded dog and Minnie is attempting to match him cry for cry. The angry tears burn down my face as both of my children seem inconsolable. I don’t weep or scream—I just let them fall. It’s a bad time for the Grey family, and my children are no different and won’t tolerate being ignored.

It only makes my resolve stronger, to focus on my children and get them settled, clean, fed, and content. The angry tears still run down my cheeks and drench my shirt as I gently bathe my son. I look down and realize that it’s not my tears drenching my shirt. It’s my milk. My breasts have suddenly become hugely swollen, and the cries of both of my children are bringing my milk down. Well that’s just great. I hate wasting my breast milk, but there’s nothing I can do about it at least until I get Mikey clean.

I ignore my leaking bosom and continue to bathe my son, the tears still flowing heavily down my cheeks. C’est la vie. I dry my face with my arm so that I can see more clearly, but my tears are as persistent as my children’s tears. They want to be seen, too. Mikey’s cries have calmed to keening as I’m finishing his bath and Minnie is now quiet. Thank God! I lay Mikey on the changing table and begin to dry his little body, starting with his feet. My attention is drawn to the doorway where I see Christian standing with Minnie in his arms. He’s looking at me like I’m some kind of alien being. I must look a fright—face covered in tears and shirt covered in milk.

“Where’s Gail?” He hasn’t spoken to me in three days and these are the first words he has for me—well, besides “Close the damn door.” I turn my attention back to drying my son.

“She’s not her father!” I snap, my voice thick with tears and anger. He stands there for a moment and I don’t raise my eyes to him again. I concentrate on drying my son, putting together an outfit for him in my head as I make sure his little skin is clean and comfy. I don’t know that Christian had moved from the door until I hear the water running in the bath tub and the portable tub being emptied. I put a clean towel between my son and myself as the milk is still flowing from my breasts. After wrapping Mikey in a clean baby towel, I take him back to the bedroom to get him dressed.

No time to dawdle. After quickly proceeding with his grooming routine—baby powder, baby lotion, diaper, T-shirt, and onesie—I settle into the rocking chair and attach the electric breast pump to my left breast and my beautiful baby boy to my right. Only then, do my tears stop flowing. He’s contentedly looking up at me with blue-gray eyes, his hands fondling my breast as he hungrily has his supper. My tears dry uncomfortably on my cheeks as I gaze lovingly at my son, finally quiet.

My attention is distracted by Christian replacing the container on the breast pump—now full—so that he can feed Minnie. I thought Mia was crazy to buy this contraption because the damn thing costs a fortune. I haven’t stopped thanking her for it since the first time I used it. I was concerned about being able to produce enough milk for twins. That, I discovered, was not going to be a problem. Harvesting the milk was the bigger issue. It comes fast and won’t be denied. When we realized how quickly it was coming, Christian bought about four more of those things for different parts of the house, the car, one to stay at Helping Hands and one for here at his parents’ house. He can be very considerate when he wants to, but he can be equally as selfish.

I have filled another bottle by the time Mikey is fed and burped. He has fallen contentedly back to sleep, so I detach the breast pump and place him gently back in his crib. I don’t know if he’s had enough, but he has exhausted himself from crying. Christian is quietly feeding Minnie when I leave the nursery and go back to our bedroom.

Silence.

I strip out of my clothes and leave them on the floor before going to the en suite. I need a shower… and a nap. I’m exhausted, too—mentally and emotionally. Twice, I wanted to be there for my husband, to try to help hold him up and get through this difficult time, and twice he’s just shut me down and shut me out. I’m not sure that I can take this. How do you handle something like this—just being ignored and disregarded because he’s suffering? We’re all suffering! Did he forget that I spent hours in that room and in this house with Pops as we shared the details of our lives and he was slipping away from us? How fucking selfish can you be?

The tears start again and I just cry, weeping audibly now and letting the water cleanse my face and my milk-sticky breasts. The tears don’t stop until after I’m done washing my hair and body and I’m rinsing off the soap. I brush my teeth, certain that I won’t be getting back out of the bed once I’ve laid down, even though I haven’t had dinner yet. I wring the water out of my way-too-long hair before wrapping it in a towel, then wrapping my body in a towel as well.

When I walk out of the en suite, I find him on the floor in our bedroom. It looks like he was standing against the wall and just slid down to the floor. His legs are bent, his arms are resting on his knees and his head is down… and he’s sobbing.

“Baby, I’m sorry,” he weeps. “I don’t know how to deal with this… darkness!” I sigh. My heart immediately softens at the sight of my broken husband. I kneel next to him and lift his face in both my hands.

“Don’t shut me out,” I say. “We’re all we have. Stop shutting down on me at your worst moments. I’m your life mate, your help mate and that’s what I’m here for. If you shut me out, shut your children out… you have nothing left.”

He closes his eyes and continues to weep like a broken little boy. I try to comfort him, but nothing I’m saying or doing helps. He continues to weep bitterly for several minutes and I know I have to stop him somehow. I drop my towel and crawl into his lap, straddling his hips.

“Ana…” he says, his breath stuttering, “I can’t…”

“I know,” I say, softly. I imagine that he feels the same emptiness I felt when Daddy stopped talking to me, only Pops can’t come back and tell him that everything will be okay. I cradle his head against my naked breast. “Just touch me,” I coax. “Wherever you want, just touch me.”

His strong arms slide around my waist and he pulls me against his body with incredible force. I feel everything—his desperation, his loneliness, how rudderless he’s feeling. I kiss his hair over and over as I cradle his head.

Please God… give him peace… please…

I can still feel his tears, but his weeping slows. Good… this is good. I reach for his back and pull his T-shirt up to his armpits. He releases me and allows me to pull it off his head, but quickly wraps his arms around me again when the shirt is gone. His body calms immediately at the touch of my skin against his. This is what I was hoping for. His knees slowly slide to the floor and he crosses his legs lotus style. My butt slides down between his crossed legs and I lift his head from my breast. His eyes are puffy and red; his face streaked with treks of a hundred tears, three days of an overgrown beard prickling his cheeks. I push his soft curls off his face and they just fall back down, so I hold them over his brow as I hold his head up to look at me.

So much pain in his glassy nearly white-gray irises… so much pain.

I kiss him soft and long on his forehead and he breaks down again at the sentiment. We’re about eye to eye now, so he lays his head on my shoulder and continues to weep.

And I let him.

I caress his hair like I normally do when he’s in distress, and I rock him back and forth in my arms and allow him to mourn with me like he can with no one else. I begin to hum a song—I have no idea why, it’s just the first song that pops into my head, about showing that you love someone takes more than words. I continue to rock my husband as he sobs, humming the melody with the hopes that the tune will bring him some comfort.


CHRISTIAN

I’m awakened by the feeling of warmth being draped over my shoulder. I open my eyes and I’m still sitting against the wall in my childhood bedroom, the nearest wall able to hold me when the weight of the darkness I’m carrying hit me like a ton of bricks. I had played my wife’s words over in my head…

“I can take care of myself. I was doing it before we met and I can do it now since you seem to have decided that you’re not up to the task, but you don’t get to pick and choose when you want to be a father.”

I was failing at being a husband and a father because I was wallowing alone in my grief over Pops. God, I loved that old guy… still do. I don’t know if this pain will ever go away. I feel like someone has amputated one of my limbs and I don’t know how to function in a world where he’s not in it, even though I knew that one day, he’d be gone. Looking into the eyes of my unhappy little girl—the same blue eyes that Ana has—made me realize that I had to pull myself together, so I held it together long enough to bathe her, feed her, and put her back to bed.

“Hey Minnie Mouse,” I had said. “Daddy’s a real mess, but I’m going to try to do better, okay? I hope you don’t mind if I come and talk to you sometimes. Tell you about my troubles. You’re a good listener and you make me feel like there’s some hope left in the world.” I sighed heavily. “I lost my grandpa,” I had said. “One day, that will happen to you, too, but hopefully not for a really long time. You have two grandpas, and if you lose them both, Mommy and Daddy will be really sad. But Daddy’s sad right now… Mommy is, too,” I added, thinking about the tear stains I observed on my wife’s face before she put Mikey to bed and left me in the nursery. “I think that’s kinda my fault. I’m sorry, Minnie Mouse. I’ll do better. I promise.”

When I looked back down at my daughter, she was fast asleep in my arms. I kiss her little forehead, and place her gently in her crib. She stirred a bit before she fell into slumber. I went over to my son’s crib. He sucked intermittently on a pacifier, but he was fast asleep as well. I kissed my fingertips and tapped them gently on his forehead.

“Watch over your sister while I’m gone, little man. Daddy loves you, too.”

When I went back to my childhood room, I looked around at the setting and somehow felt like that lost little boy that first walked into this room, when everything was so big and so new…

And so dark.

I suddenly felt out of breath. No matter what I did, I couldn’t breathe. I leaned against the nearest wall and took in deep breaths so that I wouldn’t suffocate. Once I had regained my equilibrium, I was suddenly overcome with endless hopelessness, so heavy that I couldn’t hold myself up. My legs were buckling from under me as I leaned on the wall and slid down to the floor and into the hopeless pit of despair.

“I’m sorry,” my mother says flatly as the blanket covers my other shoulder, and my naked wife. “I knocked.”

“It’s okay, Mom,” I reply, wrapping my arms tighter around my sleeping wife, her body wrapped around mine as she sleeps on my lap.

“I was just coming to check on you,” she says, still standing over us. “It was late and you missed dinner. I’ll have Liona or Mrs. Thompson reheat something for you if you like. It’s late for dinner, but still early… well, only nine.” I nod.

“That would be good, Mom. Thank you,” I say. She returns my nod and leaves the room, closing the door behind her. I look down at my sleeping wife’s angelic face. This couldn’t be easy for her either. I outline the creases of her face and massage the lines in her forehead. Even though she’s sleeping quietly, her rest must be fitful because she’s frowning in her sleep.

“My queen,” I whisper as I kiss her lips softly. “I love you more than life. I know that’s unhealthy, but I do.”

I kiss her forehead and her cheek, then she stirs. Her eyes open and she glances up at me. It takes a moment for her to get her bearings, but when she does, she reaches up and caresses my face.

“How are you?” she asks softly. I nod.

“Okay… for now,” I admit. I have to take this minute by minute. That’s all I can do. “I want to see Dr. Baker tomorrow, or whenever I can get an appointment. Will you come with me? I know you don’t like her and if you don’t want to go…” She puts her fingers over my lips to silence me.

“I’ll go,” she says. “You just let me know when.” I nod and squeeze her in my arms.

“I’m sorry,” I say again. “I’m nothing without you… without Minnie and Mikey…”

“It’s okay,” she whispers, “just please, don’t let it happen again. Don’t shut me out… I can’t be there for you if you won’t let me, not to mention, I feel just as lost without you… Okay?” I nod against her shoulder.

“Okay.”

*-*

“One of you fuckers know where my daughter is and I’m not going to leave you alone until you tell me!”

Butterfly and I had a very productive meeting with Dr. Baker. She and the doctor even saw eye to eye on the best ways for me to deal with my grief. We talked about my need to “cocoon” when I think about Pops and the fact that he’s not here anymore; how the afternoon visits became part of my norm and one of the first things that I need to do is fill that time with something else so that I’m not wallowing in the loss. Dr. Baker emphasized that now is the time to lean on my family, especially my wife, as not only is the family suffering as well, but also my wife is a mental health professional that can help me through my grief process not only as a loving wife, but also as a trained psychiatrist. This went a long way in closing the rift between Butterfly and Dr. Baker and I was glad to see that the emergency session was healing for us all.

I had Jason drop me at the office before taking my wife back to Grey Compound. Mom agreed that since Herman was coming back tonight and Luma and the girls would be returning and staying on for a while that there was no need for the entire family to stick around at the family house. She left the door open for anyone who wanted to stay, but we all agreed that it was probably best for Grey Compound to go back to being Grey Manor. Elliot and Val will be with us at Grey Crossing for a while until they get approved for the house they want to buy. It’s more than Elliot has ever spent at one time and I offered to buy the house for him and have him pay me back whenever he was ready, but he wanted to go through the whole approval process and buy it on his own. He put his condo on the market—a property that’s significantly less than the property he wants to buy, and Valerie had long since paid out the lease on her apartment since living alone in her condition was not an option any of her friends or her new family would entertain.

Jason has not yet returned when I receive a call on my cell from the last person I ever thought would be calling me. I don’t even know how the fucker got my number, and I don’t bother asking. What’s done is done.

“I don’t know how you got my phone number, but you would do well to forget it, because I’m not telling you shit. When and if she’s ever ready to talk to you, she will, but from what I understand, you treated her worse than you treated us and she came from your balls. So, if I want nothing to do with your worthless ass, you can only imagine how she feels.”

“You goddamn fucking son-of-a-bitch. I knew you knew what happened. What did you do to my daughter?” Freeman seethes through the phone.

“Oh, you mean my cousin?” I taunt. “It’s not what I did to your daughter. It’s what I did for my cousin, you asshole.”

“She’s not your goddamn cousin,” he hisses. “You’re not a fucking Grey and you never will be.”

“Well, you’re the only fucker who feels that way, and your opinion doesn’t count,” I say calmly.

“Cut the shit and tell me where my daughter is or I’ll send the cops on your ass!” he threatens.

“Like you did last time, you yellow piece of chicken shit?” I retort. “You do that, and I’ll tell them where to find her. But I’m not telling you shit!” I end the call and immediately put a call in to Nolanda.

“Hello?” she answers.

“Hi, it’s Christian. How’s married life?” I ask.

“Ask me in a year. I’m still on my honeymoon,” she jests. “What’s up?”

“Freeman’s calling, threatening police intervention,” I tell her. “I won’t tell him anything that you don’t want me to, but I may have to tell the police if he goes through with it.” She pauses for a minute.

“He’ll go through with it,” she confirms. “He’s an asshole that way. Tell him anything you want except exactly where I am. You can say west coast, he’ll really hate that, but nothing else. Make it sound as sinister as you want. I’ll be getting a new number on Leo’s phone plan soon and I have a little surprise in store for Daddy when he calls my old number. So, go for it, Cousin Christian. Have fun.”

8970d0126898e82c4ad003cb50345fa2My inner monster is rubbing his hands together and tweaking his handlebar mustache like the villains in the old silent movies.

“That makes me happy. How’s the move going?”

“Fabulous,” she replies. “I love it here. I’m so glad I followed my heart. Thank you, Christian… for everything. Now, let my father have it and give me a play-by-play when you’re done.”

“Why don’t I conference you in?” I suggest. “He’s been calling me non-stop since I just hung up on him. Consider it a housewarming gift. You don’t have to say a word. Just listen.” I can almost hear her smiling through her silence.

“Make it happen,” she says. I put her on hold and dial Freeman’s number. He answers so quickly that I barely have time to bring Nolanda back onto the call.

“Came to your senses, huh?” he says, smugly.

“No,” I replied. “I’m only calling you because I talked to my cousin, Asswipe, and she gave me permission to give you the scoop. So, sit down and have a drink while I tell you a little story.”

“Get to the point, shithead!” he shoots.

“Shut the fuck up or I won’t tell you anything and you can go on and call the police, you useless bag of horse feces!” I couldn’t think of anything… ickier. I think it caught him off guard and he has finally fallen silent. Wonder of wonders!

“My cousin took a one-way flight in my private jet to Las Vegas the day after Pops’ funeral. There, she met up with her fiancé and they were married the same day. She wasn’t kidnapped, you fucker. She eloped.”

“You’re a fucking liar!” he says

“You can only wish, but alas, it’s true. She wanted nothing more to do with you or the fact that you named her after the son that you felt she should have been. She felt like you never wanted her because that’s how you treated her, and that you wouldn’t give a fuck if she was gone anyway, so she went to live her life. Her sole wish is that you don’t know where she is, but I’ll be happy to tell you everything else…

“She’s somewhere on the west coast; she married a millionaire; and she’s changing her first and last name—her last name because she’s married; her first name because she doesn’t want that shit you gave her anymore.”

The line is quiet for several moments, but he comes back with a vengeance.

“What the hell did you say to her?” he asks, enraged. “She gets out there with you fucking nuts and now she’s acting like she’s lost her goddamn mind. What did you do—sell her to one of your rich fuck friends?” he adds incredulously.

“And that’s your problem,” I interject. “You don’t give her credit for having a goddamn mind of her own. What in the world do you think I could have possibly said to Nolanda to make her uproot her life and leave everything she’s ever known, arrange a goddamn marriage, and have her move out here with one of my friends all in one day??” I pause for a second to let it sink in just how stupid that sounds. “You’ve got serious problems, man, and I don’t give a fuck if you solve them, but you better get your head screwed on straight before you lose everything that’s important to you in your life!

“Nolanda’s been dating her fiancé for two years, but she never brought him around you because he has money and she didn’t want to hear your mouth. She was just waiting to finish her finance studies to leave. It just so happened that Pops’ death coincided with her plans to come out west.”

“He’s not your Po…”

“Shut the fuck up, I’m not finished!” I bark. “She had a plane ticket to fly back to Detroit with Burt. Once she got off the plane at DTW, she was catching the red-eye back to Vegas with her fiancé. That’s what she told my wife, who then suggested that she just take our jet to Vegas instead of suffering a day of jet lag after at least ten hours in the air for no good reason. Her fiancé flew out to Vegas to meet her last Sunday and they were married the next day.

“I’m sure you can find her if you try hard enough, Freeman, but it wouldn’t do any good. She’s done with you. She’s done with not being good enough for you. She’s done with feeling like she’s your biggest regret. She’s done with being first-born but second-best, with being the last thing on your mind and in your heart. She’s done with feeling like a fucking failure because she wasn’t a boy even though your dick spit out the other X-chromosome. It wasn’t her fault, not your wife’s fault, not even your fault, because as much as you may want it, you can’t command your balls produce a boy. Yet, you had to blame somebody… somebody, and you blamed her!

“For her entire life, you made her feel like shit. She was never enough. You never treated her like she had a mind of her own. You never even showed her that you loved her. And you can sit there all you want and try to convince yourself and anybody else who’ll listen that you didn’t do that or didn’t know you were treating her that way, but you’ll be the only person who believes it. Hearing her describe the way you treated her while she was growing up, the loneliness and hopelessness she felt—like she would never measure up, it was one of the most heartbreaking things I’d ever heard in my life. I was only too happy to offer my services to assist her.

“She doesn’t even have a term of endearment for you, did you even notice that? She calls you ‘my father,’ and the one time she referred to you as Daddy, she injected so much disdain into the word that it was obvious that she would rather chew nails then say it. I’m certain that had she not run away to get married, she would have eventually just run away alone. So, don’t blame me for her making her escape. I just facilitated it, but it was going to happen with or without me. You have no one to blame for this one but yourself.” The line is silent again for several seconds before Freeman speaks again.

“I don’t know what the fuck she fed you, but it wasn’t like that,” he growls. “I never treated Nollie that way.”

“Oh, cut the fucking crap, Dad!” Nolanda barks. Oops, the jig is up. “That’s a crock of shit and you and I both know it!” Again, there’s silence on the line for a moment.

“Nolanda, where the fuck are you?” he seethes.

“None of your goddamn business!” she retorts. “You’ll be lucky if you ever see me again. How fucking dare you insinuate that I concocted the shitty way you treated me. Years and years… decades of being ‘not-quite-Nolan,’ and you’ve got the nerve to try to tell someone that it was all in my fucking head?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Freeman defends.

“Then what did you mean?” she asks. “Treating Mom like she failed because she produced a girl and treating me like I didn’t exist. Telling me that my favorite color was blue and not yellow, because yellow was too bright. Putting me on a punishment for a month for coming home in lip gloss. Refusing to let me wear anything with flowers on it. I lost my best friend at fourteen because when I brought her to our house, you were talking about her father like a piece of shit because he made more money than you. Did you ever know that she and the girls that used to be my friends teased me until I graduated for that?

“Oh! And graduation! I was the only girl who couldn’t wear heels! And prom? Even the nerds and the fat chicks went to prom… but not me. Nobody wanted to take me. And college! Fucking college! Everybody went straight out of high school or very shortly thereafter. I had to wait for eight fucking years because Daddy wanted me to go to Ford! But you didn’t make Burtie go to Ford, did you? You were all ready to pay his way, but you didn’t need to. Maybe if I wasn’t so fucked up with low self-esteem in high school, I could’ve gotten a free ride, too!

“You believe whatever the hell you want to and you say whatever the hell you want. If you’re lucky, I’ll be at your funeral. You’ll never have to lay eyes on your biggest mistake ever again!” With that she ends the call and Freeman and I are still left on the line. I should have kept my mouth shut and just hung up the phone, but no. I let my presence be known by one word…

“Wow.”

“You turned her against me, you son of a bitch!” he hisses. I roll my eyes.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, goodbye Freeman. Oh, and by the way, your son is gay.” I end the call and immediately put his number on the blocked list. He got wise to that quickly and began calling me back to back from an unknown number. When I had accumulated seven messages of threats, three from his phone number from earlier and four from the unknown number, I call him back.

“You foolishly left seven threatening messages on my phone, which means now I can take legal action against you for harassment. Now, leave me the fuck alone before I really make you hate rich people and show you just how far my arms can reach!” I end the call and summon Alex, because just as I suspect, before Alex even answers the line, my phone is buzzing again.

“Yes, sir,” Alex answers.

“I have a personal pebble in my shoe,” I tell him. “What steps can I take to make it go away?” There’s a pause.

“Details?” Alex presses. I give him the short version of what’s going on with my asshole uncle. “Oh, well, how about you start with an audit?” I frown.

“An audit?” I ask, bemused.

“Yeah. You’d be surprised how much mental distress an IRS audit can cause even if you have nothing to hide,” he says. Oh, an audit! Of course!

“Any way I can be informed when it begins?” I ask.

“Of course. Let me make a few calls.” I end the call with Alex and wait until my phone stops buzzing with Freeman’s latest incoming call to dial my voicemail and check my messages.

“I’ve got connections, too, asshole. I’m not afraid of you.”

“You should be,” I say aloud as I put in a call to Al to get the ball rolling on harassment charges.

Just as I finish the details of the harassment and stalking charges—which, by the way, have caused me to silence my phone for the rest of the afternoon—Mac shows up with what she feels is yet another catastrophe that must be handled.

“Well, congratulations, you’ve made the news again,” Mac says as she and Joshua enter my office. Joshua sits on the sofa facing us while Mac cues up an internet article on the screen behind me:

Grey Promises to Make the Lives of Intrusive Reporters “A Living Hell”

I don’t react to the headline. I said what I meant and I meant what I said. Who wants to film a fucking funeral? Pops wasn’t famous, but these bottom-dwellers want to get a shot of me or my wife, so they violate my family’s privacy and intensify their grief by shoving a camera in their faces at one of the worst possible times of our lives! They’re lucky I didn’t start swinging or have security start shooting!

“Threaten the press, Christian. That’s a great idea!” Mac says to me with Josh sitting on the sofa, silently cosigning her sentiment by twisting his lips. When I don’t respond to her, she presses on.

“I don’t need to tell you this, Christian,” she warns fervently. “The press has power. They can destroy you.”

“I don’t care, Mac,” I tell her. “They can tear me apart in the press, but at that moment, they needed to leave that funeral, and they did—well, they backed off, anyway. My father and his brothers were hanging on by a thread, and those fuckers didn’t care. I don’t care what they say about me—I’m young and rich. I’ll bounce back! My father and uncles did not deserve that scrutiny while they were trying to bury their father! It’s everything my family can do to hold ourselves together during this loss and they’re looking for a sound bite! Well, they got one! They can do what they want to me! I’m a big boy! I can take it, but I meant what I said! Leave! My family! Alone!”

The more I think about it, the angrier I get. The press can destroy me. Well, fuck the press! My voice comes back seeping with the fury that I feel for those inconsiderate vultures.

“They’re there when someone is born. They’re there at every tragedy. They’re there when someone dies. Why? I haven’t done anything notable! I haven’t found the cure for cancer, made some crippled kid walk or brought the dead back to life. All I did was work—work my ass off and made something of myself and they’re punishing me for it! My best friend gets shot, my wife nearly dies, my children are born and they’re there at every turn! I sneeze and they’re there. My wife changes clothes and they’re there. My grandfather dies and they’re there. And why? Because I’ve got money… something that any one of them could have had they just put forth the same effort that I did. It’s getting such that if I have a prostate exam, it’s going to be a goddamn televised event!”

My anger is boiling out of me faster than I can contain it.

“They want to destroy me in the press, let them destroy me! I’m worth more than Fort Knox right now. I could move to a small island with my entire family and live the rest of my life off my investments alone! They want to destroy me, have at it. If they do, at least at some point, I’ll finally be yesterday’s news! Maybe then I can get some goddamn peace!”

I didn’t know that I had graduated to yelling until Mac and Josh stare at me in stunned silence. I shake my head and turn my attention back to my laptop.

“If they have something else to say about me, let me know what you’re going to do about it. Otherwise, I don’t give a fuck.”

*-*

“He did what?” I roar when I walk into the small meeting in the great room. Butterfly is sitting there looking quite maudlin with my mother sitting next to her. Dad is leaning against the mantle of the fireplace while Uncle Herman stands behind one of the sofas with his arms folded.

“I don’t know how he did it in the middle of a crowded airport, but he beat that kid within an inch of his life,” Uncle Herman says. Apparently, Freeman was furious when Nolanda didn’t return to Detroit, so he took it out on Burt and beat the hell out of him in the middle of Metropolitan Airport. “By the time airport security pulled Freeman off Burt, he was unconscious. He had multiple contusions, a smashed eye-socket, and he’s going to need some serious dental work.”

I just stand there shaking my head. I feel some small amount of relief that this happened at the airport and not after I told him that Burt was gay, but horrified that I’m feeling any relief at all.

“So, why isn’t he in jail right now?” Butterfly asks.

“He was,” Uncle Herman says. “His attorney posted bail and he was released just as we were landing. At the same time, Nell was calling Stan to tell him what happened.”

“He landed Sunday night. Why are we just now hearing about this?” Mom asks.

“Nell was really in no condition to speak to anyone,” Dad says. “She was at the hospital with Burt and he was unconscious for an entire day.” Shit, shit, shit. I never would have thought this would happen. I know Freeman’s an asshole and I don’t know much else, but I still wouldn’t have expected this.

“So, where’s Burt, now?” I ask. “I mean, what now? He can’t stay in that house with Freeman.” There’s no telling what he’s going to do now that he knows Burt is gay. Uncle Herman sighs.

“When Stan and I got off the plane, Nell had called Stan and left a message that they were at Beaumont, but she gave no more details. We went to the hospital not knowing what to expect, but fully expecting to see Freeman. When we get there, Burt’s mouth is wired shut and he’s writing on a dry erase board, drinking his dinner from a straw. He was barely recognizable. He said that he told Freeman that Nollie said that she was staying, but that’s all he knew. He didn’t even see it coming when his father hit him and he woke up in the hospital two days later. It wasn’t until his mother told him what happened that he knew that his father had attacked him.

“Nell could barely explain what happened,” Uncle Herman continues. “She had to watch the video playback of the beating and identify her husband as the assailant. The way she and Burt described it, Burt was unconscious after the first hit. So, Freeman just kept beating his unconscious body in a blind rage. He couldn’t even defend himself. He got in several good hits and kicks on Burt’s limp body before bystanders tried to get involved and he started hitting them, too. By the time airport security got to him, they had to hogtie his ass to restrain him and the ambulance took Burt to the hospital.

“What’s worse is that Freeman was the emergency contact in his wallet. So, every time they try to call Burt’s emergency contact, Freeman’s phone is ringing. I can only imagine what they must have been thinking when they found out that this man’s father beat him this badly in the middle of an airport.” Uncle Herman shakes his head and runs his hand through his hair, pushing it off his forehead.

“Long story short, they finally got in touch with Nell and she stayed at the hospital with him the entire time. Freeman’s been in lock-up all this time and when he was released, it was with a restraining order to stay away from his son. Burt was released earlier today and the guy that you sent with us went back to the house with him and Nell so that they could get some of their things. They got as much as they could fit in the SUV we rented because she’s sure that he’s not going to let her back in the house again.”

“Where did they go?” Butterfly asks.

“To Nell’s mother’s house,” he says. “He has to stay one-hundred feet away from Burtie, so he can’t go to the house. Stan and I came back to get some more of their things before we left and he was already destroying their stuff. We tried to stop him, but he rounded on Stan and…” Dad looked up at Uncle Herman. This is the first time I’d seen a protective streak in my father and I knew he would feel responsible for anything that happened to his little brother after hearing what happened to Burt.

“And what?” Dad asks as if he would fly to Detroit himself and beat Freeman’s ass if he hurt Uncle Stan. Uncle Herman laughs.

“Stan came back on him with one blow and the ‘fight’ was over,” Uncle Herman chuckles. “Didn’t even hit him in the face. He hit Freeman in the chest. So. Hard, that an involuntary whimper escaped from his throat along with all the breath from his lungs.”

I could almost feel the pain from that blow. That’s one of those hits that causes noise to come from your voice box even if you’re saying nothing.

“Stan moved so fast, I didn’t even see the hit. I heard it and I saw the aftermath. Freeman just crumpled on the sofa like an invisible force was pushing him inward. Stan said, ‘Stay there, Freem, or I’ll lay you down. I’ll give you the beating that Burt should’ve.’ Freeman looked at him like he had seen a ghost. When Freeman tried to get off the sofa, Stan told him again, ‘Stay down.’ Reminded him that there’s an active restraining order against him and that he just got out of jail. If they got into a fight, he just violated his bail and would be back in jail by midnight. Freem stood still while we gathered as much as we could and put it in that SUV.” I shake my head.

“Well, he’s going to have two restraining orders now,” I say. Everyone frowns and looks at me. I pull out my phone, go to the call logs and hand it to Dad. “All of those missed calls are him, and most likely all of those messages.” Dad frowns.

“How do you know it’s Freeman? They’re all unknown,” he says as he scrolls through them.

“It’s him, Dad,” I say. “He started calling today. He wants to know where Nolanda is.”

“You know where Nollie is?” Uncle Herman says.

“We both do,” Butterfly responds. “She confided in me with her plans and I shared them with Christian—with her permission—so that we can aid her escape.”

“Well, where is she?” Dad says.

“It’s up to her to reveal that, Dad,” I say. “All I can say is that she’s safe, she’s happy, she’s gotten married, and she’s not going back.”

“Nollie got married?” Uncle Herman asks. I nod.

“She knew Freeman wouldn’t approve, so she eloped,” I respond. “I more think she eloped, though, instead of having a wedding because she just wanted to get away from him, and her new husband is rich. She was conferenced in on one of the calls with him today and it was bloody. She unloaded on him mercilessly. Now, he’s calling me because… well, obviously, he has to blame somebody—anybody, but himself. So, my attorney is filing harassment charges against him. I’m told that my phone logs and his threatening messages are more than enough to charge him with stalking, which—according to Al—he can go to jail for a year and be fined $1000.”

“Oh, it’s better than that,” Dad says. “If he’s already served with a restraining order and he’s already on bail and he continues to stalk you, those numbers go up to five years and $10,000.” I frown at my father. How did he know that? “I practiced law in Michigan before I moved here, son,” he says, answering my unasked question.

“Oh, that would be lovely,” I say with no remorse. “His last call was 5:17pm Seattle time, so that’s 8:17pm Detroit time. I’ll find out from Al tomorrow what time the restraining order was served… if it was served.”

“Freeman’s life is going to be shit when this is all over,” Uncle Herman says, “and somebody has to tell Nollie what’s going on.”


ANASTASIA

“We can’t tell Nolanda,” Christian says immediately.

“We have to tell Nolanda!” I retort. “This happened to Burt because she wasn’t on the plane!”

“This happened to Burt because her father’s a fucking asshole!” he yells back, his fists clenched. Grace looks at him but says nothing. “She has a right to live her life and if we tell her this happened, she’ll never forgive herself.” I take a deep breath and speak in a calming voice.

“She’s going to find out, Christian,” I say softly. “How do you think she’ll feel knowing that we knew first and didn’t tell her?” Christian’s eyes dart back and forth between mine.

“Fuck!” he roars, slamming his hands so hard on a nearby table that it rattles. People from the kitchen come running into the great room, Elliot and Val included. I quickly put my hand on my husband’s back, trying to soothe him. Christian leans on the table with the table runner bunched in his fingers.

“He’s a fucking monster,” he says through clenched teeth, “a goddamn, fucking monster. All the girl wanted to do was live the life he never afforded her! All she wanted was peace, and he takes it away at every turn. He beat the hell out of that kid because he couldn’t control the other kid’s life.” Christian shakes his head. I have no doubt that he’s feeling part of the responsibility for putting Nollie on the jet to Vegas this past weekend. “How could my kind, caring grandfather had produced such an evil, heartless, selfish bastard?”

“There’s always one,” Carrick says, garnering Christian’s attention. “Uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins, daughters, sons, brothers, and sisters—all kind-hearted, good individuals… and one asshole.” Christian shakes his head.

“I was the asshole at one point,” he says defeated.

“You were nothing like Freeman!” Elliot interjects.

“But I was still an asshole,” he protests.

“Okay, I can attest to that,” I say to stop the back and forth, “but now you’re not. You’re a kind-hearted, loving and devoted husband, a doting father, and grateful son and a philanthropic human being. You’re nothing like Freeman and you never will be, and even though you’ve had your moments, you’re a wonderful man now and we all love you. Freeman has no one that’s saying that about him right now.” Christian takes a deep breath and his body settles.

“I can’t tell her,” he says, still leaning on the table and shaking his head. “I can’t tell her that Freeman nearly killed Burt because of her.” That’s not what happened. Freeman nearly killed Burt because he’s an evil and selfish asshole.

“I’ll talk to her,” I tell him.

*-*

“Hi, Nollie, it’s Ana.”

“Hi, Ana… why so glum?” she asks.

“I need you to sit down, honey.” I hear her pull out a chair and take a seat.

“Is it Mom?” she asks. “Is she alright?” I swallow hard.

“She’s left Freeman,” I say. “She moved in with her mother and she’s going to be filing for divorce as soon as possible.”

“Did he hit her?” Nollie asks in a panic.

“No, Nollie, he didn’t hit your mother. He did… hit Burt.” The line is quiet.

“He hit Burt,” she says. It’s a statement, not a question. “Why did he hit Burt?” I sigh.

“He was angry that you didn’t return to Detroit,” I tell her. “Christian and I just found out. Apparently, he attacked Burt almost the moment he got off the plane.”

“You’re telling me that my father attacked my brother because I didn’t come back to Detroit?” she summarizes. I sigh.

“It’s not your fault, Nollie…” I begin.

“I know it’s not my fault! It’s my father’s fault! He’s a fucking asshole!” she declares. I pull the phone away from my ear as she rants, but can’t hide my relief that she knows it’s not her fault. Christian examines me for a moment, then instructs me to put the phone on speaker, which I do.

“… And a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch. Burt wouldn’t hurt a fucking fly and he knows it and his Cro-Magnon bully ass did this shit to my brother? Somebody needs to…”

“Nolanda!” Christian says forcefully. Nollie stops mid-rant. “What can we do to help?” She sighs.

“Where’s my brother?” she asks.

“He and your mother are staying with your grandmother,” Christian says.

“Why didn’t anyone call me?” I sigh again.

“It’s been a real mess,” I tell her. “Burt had to be hospitalized and your mom went straight from the hospital to her mother’s. She’s been nursing Burt back to health, but most likely didn’t know what to say to you. She sighs.

“They didn’t want to upset me,” she says sorrowfully. “I have my grandmother’s number. I’m going to call them right now. Christian, if it’s not too much trouble, I would like to use the jet again… I just… don’t think I can get a commercial flight soon enough… and the layovers and delays…” Her voice starts cracking.

“You let me know when you’ll need it,” he says. Nollie starts to cry.

“Thank you, Christian,” she weeps. “I’ll call you soon.” I end the call and he calls Jason.

“Back to Detroit again,” he says into the phone.


A/N: So, Freeman’s a bigger fucking asshole than we thought and he’s well on his way to losing everything he every cherished.

The song that Ana is humming to calm Christian is called “More Than Words” by Extreme. 

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 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/

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 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