Raising Grey: Chapter 72—Searching for Blue Skies

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 72—Searching for Blue Skies

ANASTASIA

I haven’t been at the Center all week. It may be a bit selfish of me, but I just can’t reconcile myself to making executive decisions or putting in a year’s worth—or more—of work on a project just to have my work, expertise, decisions, and opinions dismissed and disregarded because I’m not the number-one-head-honcho. I don’t have a problem relenting when my idea may not be the best one or with taking orders, being a team player, or taking one for the team. Hell, trying not to rock the boat with Liam caused me to keep my guard down and not cut him off at the knees like I would have done anybody else who came on to me, and look what the hell happened there!

Courtney hasn’t called me either and that makes me feel like she’s certain that I betrayed her trust and set up a meeting between her and Addie. That pisses me off to no end considering all the time and effort she and I both put into building the relationship that we had.

I feel crappy getting Ebony into the Center and just disappearing like a specter in the night, but every time I think about going into the Center, I see Grace’s cocky smirk looking back at me outside of my office door. I don’t think anything felt more like a betrayal than her standing there with that smug expression on her face like she was right all along, and I was supposed to bow to her knowledge and wisdom. I’ve decided that if she can preserve herself from having one of her “episodes,” I need to exercise a little self-preservation as well and avoid any attacks of PTSD—or just the desire to punch my all-knowing-all-seeing mother-in-law and boss in the nose.

I know that I can’t avoid my responsibilities and commitments. However, when I awake in the morning, I go straight to the empty play area and do my yoga. Then I shower and dress in yet another pair of yoga pants and a comfy shirt before going down to get some breakfast. I know that Christian wants to say something about it, but he just examines my attire and proceeds to discuss what’s happening at Grey House… and with the Pedo-bitch.

“I’ve been trying all week to get in touch with the warden,” he says while sipping his coffee. “I’m fairly certain that he’s just avoiding my calls altogether. He has no reason to do that… unless he’s involved in some way.”

“Could that be the case?” I ask. “Think about it—how could she get manuscripts, excerpts, recordings, phone calls out to a ghost writer without help or permission? She can’t just do that. She’s got to have help.” Christian’s brow furrows.

“Shit, I never even considered that,” he says. It’s safe to say that this is one of the people that Christian may have had in his pocket. I remember that before I even left the building after visiting Edward, the warden knew I was there and was greeting me at the door. It looks like this one may have gotten away.

“So,” I begin, “looks like this problem may be a bit bigger than we anticipated.” I can see the contemplation lines forming in his forehead.

“Yeah,” he says, distracted, “I think you’re right. This may take a different touch.” He finishes his coffee and stands from the breakfast bar. “You’re going to be home today?” I nod.

“Between my office and the babies,” I tell him, finishing my eggs and bacon. “I need to fill in where my two employees aren’t today. Have you heard anything from Chuck?”

“The testimony was over yesterday. From what he said, it was pretty brutal. He’s going to stick around to see if he gets a verdict today, then he and Keri will most likely be on their way home this weekend either way.” He pauses for a moment. “Have you heard from Marilyn?” I twist my lips and shake my head.

“No, and I’m worried,” I say. “She and Gary are both avoiding my calls and I have no idea what kind of condition either of them is in. It’s starting to wear on me.”

“Well, don’t let it stress you out too much,” he says, kissing me on the forehead. “I gotta go, I need to put some things in motion.”

“Love you,” I say to his retreating back and he waves at me. I take my coffee and head down to my office. I need to go through my calendar for the next month and figure out Marilyn’s notes and reminders in case my P.A. decides Seattle just isn’t for her anymore.

The calendar is a bit of a mess to decipher. I can’t figure out what all of these reminders are. I guess when they pop up, I’ll see them and note what they are at the time. I see some interviews scheduled for next week. Right now, I don’t see myself returning next week, and I don’t see Marilyn coming back in that time frame to notify the Center that these people are expected. So, I forward appointment emails to Grace with “no reply requested.” I’m not trying to spark a dialog. I just think it’s only fair that she knows what’s on the agenda if I don’t plan to be there.

I call in and check my voicemails. One of them is one of the aforementioned interviewees requesting a reschedule due to an emergency. I make a note to call her and have her reschedule with Grace. Two are from fellow doctors who saw my interview and want to discuss their experiences with the licensing board. I’ll definitely be giving them a call back today. No time like the present.

Dr. Daisy Sharwin is a dentist who was also accused of sexual misconduct. According to her accuser, Dr. Daisy was touching her inappropriately. Once the findings were reviewed, it was determined that the patient was suffering from a mental illness and had wrongly accused the doctor during a psychotic episode. Dr. Daisy describes the same experience I had, being closed in a room for several hours with a guard who never spoke and no clock before being called before a panel of high-nosed superior officials who treated her with an unbelievable lack of respect. Although she was cleared of the accusations, she felt that she had no recourse for the way she was treated by the board—until I went public with my experience. Now, two voices are better than one.

Make that three.

Dr. Emma Falstaff, a local chiropractor, is accused by the wife of one of her patients of sexual advances. While her case is still pending, she described an experience very similar to mine and Daisy’s, the only difference being that she was able to keep her watch. I’ve instructed her to keep me updated on the outcome of her case. Whether she wins or loses, her treatment during the process is what I’m focused on. However, I don’t want her involvement in this action to compromise her case in any way.

Two more people to add to my contacts and track information. God, do I need Marilyn.

The only other voicemails I had at work were two hang-ups from unknown numbers. Having cleaned out all the voicemails, I turn my attention to my emails. One of Marilyn’s reminders pops up that I have a 3:00 with Lordes Avery. I click the link to follow the reminder and discover how to read the coding on my PA’s calendar without having to take an entire class on the nuances of Outlook, thank God! It’s not that I didn’t know how to use it before now. It’s just that her system of organization is so far advanced beyond us mere mortals that I never would have been able to figure it out without some kind of hint.

Three O’clock with Lordes Avery… hmm…

Should I call him? I didn’t make last Friday’s appointment, but I’m almost certain he didn’t expect to see me. I still get charged if I don’t cancel within 24 hours, so why bother fucking calling at this point? Should I return his oh-so-considerate gesture and send him a text? Naaaahhhh!

I go back to my emails and one pops up that nearly makes my heart stop. After trying to get a response all this time…

To: Anastasia Steele-Grey
Re: MIA
Date: Thursday, December 4, 2014, 23:21
From: Marilyn Caldwell

Dear Ana,

I’m sorry that I haven’t returned your calls. This whole thing has been more of a nightmare than I can even describe.

I had to tell my parents why I needed to stay with them for a while and as I told you, they’re staunch fundamentalists. The moment I confessed, they threw me in Hell. I came to try to get a break from the hurt and the pain and I just swapped one torment for another. My mother plays these wailing songs of repentance every day that drive me up the damn wall! I’m spending most of every day being preached to and cautioned to ask forgiveness for my sin and thrown into the “lake of fire.”

I haven’t been ignoring you, but not looking at my phone is easier than staring at it and waiting or hoping for a call from Gary that never comes. I’m an emotional wreck, Ana. Some days, I wake up so depressed that I just want to jump off a bridge somewhere. Other days, I realize that’s not the answer and I have to live with my decision and move on. Hindsight is always 20/20 and I know that no man—or woman—is an island, but the feelings that are plaguing me right now simply because I chose this path for an unplanned pregnancy is making me never want to touch anyone ever again. I certainly can’t tolerate anybody touching me right now. Being an island doesn’t seem like such a bad idea at the moment.

I’m sorry I can’t tell you when I’ll be back. Being here with my parents is nerve-wrecking as fuck, but it still beats the memories that I face in Seattle and all the things that Gary and I shared. It’s a geographical cure of sorts that’s like putting a bandage over a stab wound but having someone poking at it all the time. The alternative would just be having the wound gaping and seeping and bleeding and having someone just jab that knife in again every day. I’m sure you can see why the former torture is preferable to the latter.

I just can’t stand being in that apartment right now or doing any of the things that I used to do. This hurts so much. I’ve been hurt before, but never like this. There are some times when I truly want to just curl up in a little ball and die—which is different from being suicidal, so don’t worry, doctor. As much as I would like for the pain to stop, I’m not brave enough or stupid enough to end it myself. My parents would probably come into the room and try to exorcise my lifeless body (yes, it is that bad).

If you feel like you can’t hold my job for me, I’ll completely understand, but my mind is so fucked up right now that I would do more harm than good if I tried to work. I would be completely useless right now. I’m not going to read my email anytime soon, because I just realized that this would be another way for Gary to reach me, and I don’t want the disappointment of not seeing a letter from him. I’ll check it at some point, so if you do intend to fire me, it’s okay if you send me an email. I’ll see it eventually.

I’m sorry if I let you down, too.

Marilyn

Jesus, she sounds absolutely hopeless. I’m not so certain that she won’t attempt suicide with the despair I hear in her words. I have to trust her, though. Getting in touch with her parents would only make a bad matter worse, but her suffering all alone and enduring the religious bullying of her mother and father is not a good combination, either. I sigh and begin typing out my reply.

To: Marilyn Caldwell
Re: MIA
Date: Friday, December 5, 2014, 13:45
From: Anastasia Steele-Grey

Dear Marilyn,

Only because I had a hateful, cheating, worthless boyfriend can I say that I can empathize with your pain and the loss you feel. I know it’s not the same and the circumstances are quite different, but I know that feeling of emptiness and the constant inner bleeding that feels like it’ll never end. I’m here if you need to ramble about it.

I don’t feel like you’ve let me down. More than anything, I just want you to be okay. You’ve always been a strong woman and you’ve always known what you want. Looking into a future of pure uncertainty is undoubtedly one of if not the scariest thing that can ever happen to someone. I completely understand that you need time to take self-inventory and regroup. I won’t preach to you as it appears that you have quite enough of that going on in your life. I will say, however, that you may want to reconsider your escape plan as the current one appears to be just another prison. Let me know if you need any help.

I will offer what advice I can as a doctor and as a friend. Get out of that house. If that’s where you choose to stay, okay—but don’t stay there every day all day. If your parents are playing “repentance music” all day, it’s psychological warfare and it’s adding to your misery. Didn’t you grow up in Spokane? Are any of your old friends still there? Maybe catch up with some of them. Go for a walk. Go to the park, the library, anything, but get out of the house and away from the weepin’ and moanin’ music. I can guarantee it’s not good for you.

I want to say more, but I think I’ve said enough. I don’t want you to feel like I’m going to chew your ear off or beat a dead horse. Keep me posted on how you’re doing. I may need to find a temporary replacement while you’re gone as I feel so damn helpless right now without you. I’m home today—not only because I don’t have my trusty assistant, but also because Keri is gone to South Dakota with Chuck for the case against his brother, Joe. Also, there’s been a bit of a development at Helping Hands.

Long story short, Grace engineered a meeting between Courtney and her grandmother without anyone’s knowledge or permission. When I tried to explain to her how wrong she was for what she had done, she basically snubbed me and ignored my concerns. I feel like she doesn’t respect me and any authority that I thought I had as her second in command is imagined. She acted the same way when we found out that she was perimenopausal, but that was understandable. She was reacting to a hormonal imbalance that had her doing things totally out of character. This was done with full consciousness and purpose, and her dismissing all my concerns and authority was equally purposeful.

So, I’m at home. I was trying to decipher what my calendar looks like for the next month and, as soon as I started to think like you, I figured it out. Except for Wednesday when we went to the reading of Tina’s will, I’ve spent most of the days with my babies, which turns out to be a welcome change. You know I already spend as much time with them as I can but spending day in and day out with them has been heaven. Once I’m done with the calendar today, I’ll be with them again for the rest of the afternoon. I’m thinking Mickey Mouse Clubhouse marathons or maybe Bubble Guppies. I haven’t decided yet.

Anyway, you keep me posted on what you’re doing and please call me or write me if you start to feel completely hopeless. I wouldn’t consider you weak, stupid, or cowardly, but grief can be a powerful thing.

Your Friend,
Ana

Dr. Anastasia Steele-Grey
Assistant Director, Helping Hands

I click “send” to transmit the email and immediately begin thinking about Gary. This radio silence is bullshit and I’m not having it anymore. He may not want to talk to me, but he’s fucking well going to talk to someone.

“I’m activating the contingency,” I say.

“What?” Val says over the phone. “Why?”

“He and Marilyn broke up,” I explain. “It was ugly, and I can’t elaborate, but apparently, he’s not speaking to me.”

“Good God, Steele, when did you last speak to him?” she asks.

“Last Monday,” I admit. “I’ve been calling him nearly every day and he’s not responding. I need somebody just to verify that the man is still alive.”

“How’s Marilyn through all of this? Weren’t they living together?”

“Not well. I haven’t heard from her in a week and I just got an email from her last night…”

“An email?she interrupts.

“Yes, Val, an email.”

“Did she quit?” Val asks surprised.

“I don’t know,” I admit. “I know that she’s taking a hiatus right now and I’ve already told you more than I should have.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll call the others. We’ll track him down.” I end the call with Val and decide that I’ve done enough “work” for the day. It’s baby time.

*-*

Line up, everybody. It’s time to go outside!
Outside! Outside! Outside, everybody, outside!
Line up everybody line up line up line up my gup-gup-gup-gup-guppies!
Everybody get out! Get, get, get up, get out, get everybody go outside!!
Line ‘em up, here we go, here we go, here we go,
Everybody line up! Here we go outside!
Everybody let’s go, g-go-go-ga-get out-out-out-out-out-out-out-out-outside!
Bubble Guppieees!

My children are bouncing madly on the floor trying to say something that vaguely sounds like “outside” while I’m clapping along like a toddler singing the words with Mr. Grouper. I’m probably one of the few adults that knows every syllable of the Bubble Guppies Outside Song. The entire thing is only about 20 seconds long, but it’s such a good beat that it’ll probably never get old.

“Are we interrupting?”

I whirl around shocked out of my fucking mind at the sound of my husband’s voice. I’m so caught off guard that I feel like I’ve just been caught masturbating.

“Godda…” I catch myself knowing that our children are beginning to form words.

“Frag-nabbit, Christian, you scared the… ding-dang outta me!”

He and his unexpected guest are both standing there laughing at me and I want to hit them both.

“It’s early!” I scold. “What’re you doing home so soon?” and then I realize who’s with him.

“Vickie?” I ask, in confusion, scrambling to get off the floor. “Is Courtney okay?”

Vickie’s laughter fades and her brow furrows.

“Y… Yeah, Court’s fine,” she says, bemused. “She told me to give her a report on you, though. She said you hadn’t been to the Center all week… now, I’m confused.” I shake my head.

“Well, you can tell her I’m fine and I hope all is well with her. She’s still at the condo? She’s not moving?”

“Why would she move?” Vickie asks. “What am I missing?… Oh, you mean that thing with her grandmother? They’re talking, but she’s not moving back in with her as far as I know.”

“No… that’s… Never mind,” I say, waving her off. “If it’s not Courtney, why are you here?” She looks at Christian.

“She’s here to bring your summer wardrobe early,” Christian says, removing his suit jacket and tossing it over the sofa.

“Okay… why?” I ask.

“Because you need to decompress,” he says, sitting on the floor with the twins. “We both do. We’re blowing this popsicle stand and we’re taking our Australian cruise. We’re flying out of here first thing tomorrow morning and we’re leaving the country for a week.”

Well, I’m in shock.

“A… what?” Speechless.

“We’re getting the hell out of here,” he says. “It’s an emergency matter of extreme importance and detrimental to our sanity.”

“But… we… You’ve already told everyone that we’re going?” I inquire.

“I’ve told no one and neither will you,” he orders. “Only our staff knows that we’re going.”

Good Lord. I know we have that jet-setting kind of money and ability, but this still seems so sudden. At the moment, things seem so… undone.

“Baby,” he takes my hand, “we’ve been wound tight ever since Madrid—you more than me—we need to decompress or we’re going to self-destruct. The world will be here when we get back. It probably won’t even miss us while we’re gone.”

“My babies…” I protest.

“There’s enough breast milk stored to feed our children for a month and they have the best hand-picked nannies in the world. Keri should be back this weekend, and Harmony is here to help out. We’ll call them every day if you like.” I take a deep breath and hold it. Even though I hate leaving my babies for the slightest bit of time, he’s right. I need a severe change of scenery or I’m going to implode. I release my breath.

“Okay, Vick, show me what ya got…”


CHRISTIAN

“May I ask, is the warden in at all today?” I question. I’ve called Holstein every day this week. I’ve left messages on his voicemail and with this sow of a secretary of his who is now behaving like I’m taking up her precious time, and he doesn’t even have the decency to return my calls.

“Yes, sir. He’s here, he’s just not available,” she says, her voice a little impatient.

“Has the warden been in the office all week?” I further inquire.

“Mr. Holstein is a very busy man!” she says, her tone now scolding.

“That’s not what I asked!” I say, dropping decorum, my voice sharp. “I asked if the warden has been in the office all week. If you can’t answer the question, simply say, ‘I can’t answer the question!’” I’m calling on a business matter, you disagreeable cunt, so you can save that smart-ass attitude for someone else.

The line is silent for a moment or two. I completely expect her to hang up in my ear, but she surprises me by answering the question.

“Yes,” she replies, “the warden has been in the office this week.” That informs me that the fucker is simply ignoring me.

“I see,” I say, understanding that this asshole is going to evade my calls until I give up. You don’t want that, Ronnie, but since reason won’t prevail…

“Thank you,” I say roughly. “I know what I need to do now.”

“Wha…?” I don’t allow her to finish her statement—or question—before I end the call.

“Andrea, get Josh Shaler down here, please,” I say into the intercom. I’m already online planning my week before she acknowledges that she heard what I said.

My wife turned her entire life upside down to be available to my mother and Helping Hands, and now, she doesn’t even know if she’s going to stay there.

Her assistant exercised her right to choose, and now, she’s hiding out in eastern Washington somewhere—which is also putting a strain on my wife.

One of our nannies is in South Dakota with my wife’s trusted security detail dealing with a case against his brother that I can’t even describe.

And now, a woman who shouldn’t be able to reach us in any way whatsoever because she’s locked away for the rest of her miserable life is yet finding another way to reach out and cause us grief from inside prison walls and her fucking zookeeper won’t answer my goddamn calls.

It’s time for a vacation… a real one… now!

Before Josh even arrives in my office, I arrange for the jet to be fueled and ready to get us to Sydney, Australia. Take off will be 5:30am tomorrow morning and we’ll have a layover in L.A. to refuel and pick up a second pilot for the flight to Australia. I send off a text to Lanie to tell her that we’ll be in L.A. for a few hours in the morning, suggesting that we get together for breakfast. I’ve just requested that we activate our contingent cruise seating with the cruise line when Josh knocks on my office door.

“You wanted to see me?” he says, sticking his head in the door. I gesture for him to come inside.

“Are you still freelance?” Josh laughs as he takes a seat.

“No offense, sir, but when I leave here, I’m in disguise. So, yes, I’m still freelance.”

“Good. I’m sure you’ve heard about Elena Lincoln’s book,” I tell him, trying to keep my ire in check.

“I have,” he says. “I thought you were going to talk to the warden about that.”

“He’s avoiding my calls,” I declare. Josh raises one brow.

“Really?” he says. “I thought he was on our side”

“I thought he was, too. Apparently, he’s had a change of heart. Now, I’m completely in the dark and I want to know what the fuck is going on.” I punch out a text to Alex that I have a situation and he needs to come to my office.

“Okay, so I’m assuming that you want me to put my ear to the ground…” he begins.

“All the way to the ground,” I tell him. “I don’t like to be on the outside of critical information, and this is as critical as it gets. I don’t understand why this witch can’t just shut up and let people get over what she’s done to them. Does she really believe that crock of shit she said in court?”

“So, how badly do you need this information?” Josh asks. I raise my eyes to him. What the fuck is he asking me?

“What do you mean by that?” I ask him.

“I mean how low do you want me to go?” I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that.

“As low as you can go without getting caught,” I tell him. “I’m ready to pull some down-in-the-valley switches on this shit. I’ve had enough of running behind the eight ball on this woman…” Alex sticks his head in the door as I’m releasing to Josh. I gesture him inside. “She has caused immeasurable harm to more people and families than just me and mine and she won’t stop. I’ve had enough of this.”

“I take it we’re talking about Lincoln,” Alex says, taking the seat next to Josh. “No luck with the warden?”

“Yes, we are and none at all. He won’t take my calls and his smarmy ass secretary had the nerve to get a little salty with me on the phone today.” Alex purses his lips.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “The story is sensational. If she promises him just a couple of points or something off the publishing rights, let alone any possibility of screenplays and such, that’s enough palm oiling to buy her protection.” I ponder it.

Future palm oiling,” I point out. “The book has to be written first.” I look over at Josh. He raises a brow to me.

“I need as much information as you can get,” I tell him. “If you can find out who she might be talking to—even if it’s just family and friends. And I know they’re called ghost writers for a reason, but I’ll be forever in your debt if I can somehow get a name.”

“I’ll do what I can.” He stands to leave. “And Alex?” Alex turns to Josh. “Whatever you’re about to do, can you give me a couple of days before you do it? I’m just a reporter looking for a story. Your type of looking attracts attention.” He nods.

“I got you,” Alex replies, “but I can’t give you long.”

“If I can’t get what I need in a couple of days, I won’t get it,” Josh says. If I need more time than that, I’ll let you know.”

“Fair enough,” Alex says, and Josh leaves the room.

“So, I take it that I don’t need to explain anything,” I say to Alex.

“Nope,” he confirms. “Now, how low do you want me to go?”

“To hell,” I tell him, “and get me something on that high-nosed-ass secretary, too. I’m done fucking playing nice. I’m out of the country for the next week, but I’ll have my cell. Try not to use it if you don’t need to and get Jason in here for me.” I dial Victoria’s number as Alex leaves the room.

“This is Victoria.”

“Vickie, it’s Christian.”

“Christian, hi. Courtney was just asking me about you guys. Is everything okay?” I frown.

“Yes, why wouldn’t it be?” I ask.

“She hasn’t seen Ana in a week,” she says. “She wants to know if everything is okay.” Oh, that.

“Well, you’ll be able to ask her yourself shortly. I need you to meet me at the Crossing. I have one of those impossible tasks for you.”

“Oh, dear, what is it now?”

“My wife needs a summer wardrobe—casual, formal, and swimwear—a week’s worth in twelve hours or less.” The line is silent.

“You’re fucking kidding, right?” she says.

“No, I’m not. We’re on a plane tomorrow morning to an Australian cruise and excursion and we’ll be gone for a week. Can you do it or should I call a personal shopper?”

“Can I do some shopping?” she demands. “There’s no way that’s going to get done unless I can get some shit off the rack—and I gotta hit my best consignment shops.”

“Do what you must, just get it done. I’m going to be home at four and I prefer that you are there with me,” I inform her.

I’m going to charge you out the ass for this, Grey,” she says.

“What else is new?” I say.

“If I still liked men, I would make you fuck me till my hair curled!” Okay, she’s pissed.

“Your girlfriend wouldn’t like that, and my wife already gave me one pass when it comes to you. I doubt she’d do it again.” The line is quiet again.

“You told her?” Vickie asks horrified, “about us?

“Yeah,” I reply casually. “Months ago.” She scoffs.

“You’re fucking insane, you know that?” she says before hanging up on me. I look at my phone.

“See you at four.”

*-*

“I’m sorry, son. I’m not trying to pull you into this, I promise. I was just hoping that you could tell me what’s going on.”

“Nope, Mom, I’m sorry, I can’t,” I say. I came home from the Family Affair and heard my wife pretty much tell my daughter that she doesn’t like being married to me. I’m out of this shit.

“I haven’t seen or heard from her all week. I haven’t seen Marilyn for two weeks. When I hear from Ana, she forwards me the appointments that she’s scheduled for next week. So, it’s safe to assume that she’s not coming back?”

“It’s never safe to assume anything, Mom. You need to talk to my wife.”

“I—” She stops abruptly. “She doesn’t want to talk to me.” Well, that’s obvious.

“Well, I’m really sorry, but I don’t have any answers for you, Mom. You have to talk to Butterfly.” She sighs.

“Can you tell me… if she’s alright? Does she seem hurt… or angry?” Nope, Mom, not giving you that either. I can hear it now… Christian told me you were mad…

“She seems like herself,” I reply. “She gets up in the morning, gets dressed, exercises, eats her breakfast, and goes to her office—and I go to work. When I come home, she’s watching television or playing with the children… she’s being herself, like she normally does.” She sighs again.

“Okay,” she says. “Can you at least relay a message that I called, and I would like to know what’s going on please?”

“I can let her know that I spoke to you and that you’d like for her to call you.” She scoffs into the phone.

“You’re not crossing that line at all, are you?” she accuses.

“Not in the slightest, Mother,” I confirm, “not on your life.” She chuckles aloud.

“Smart man,” she says. “Love you, son.”

“Love you, too, Mom.”

Vickie’s driving up just as I’m getting out of the car. I hope she didn’t get too much shit off the rack. I don’t want my wife walking down the streets of Sydney or strolling down the halls of a luxury cruise ship looking like a dime-store tourist.

“If she swings at me, I’m going to kick you square in the balls,” she says, dragging a roller bag behind her while her assistant is carrying several shopping bags and a garment bag.

“Are your choices that bad?” I ask with a raised brow.

“You know what I’m talking about,” she says. Oh, the college fuck.

“I can guarantee you that she doesn’t care. Let’s go.”

The family room is strewn with bathing suits, summer clothes and evening wear, and my wife goes about the tedious task of trying to pick her wardrobe for the next week while Gail scurries to get her packed as she chooses certain pieces and vetoes others. Jason comes in with some packages that I need, and I’ve set up shop on the pool table nearby to make sure that all necessary arrangements are being made while my wife is giving instructions to her personal stylist and to Gail for pieces to commandeer from her dressing room. Two hours later, she’s packed and ready and I’m finishing up the necessary changes to our itinerary and accommodations while Jason makes plans for our security and moving to and fro in Australia.

“Tell Courtney for me that I’m fine and we’ll definitely talk in detail when I’m back from my trip,” she says to Vickie.

“Good,” Vickie says. “She’ll be glad to hear that.”

“Tell her that I may need her help on a task, too. And let her know that Harmony will be staying here with us indefinitely. I won’t be here, so she’s going to have double duty.”

“Will do,” Vickie says closing her bags and cases. “I’ll send you my bill,” she says to me. “I’d give it to you now, but I hate to see a grown man cry.”

“Just charge it to the Black,” I tell her. “You’ve got the number.” She shakes her head.

“Men like you with that kind of play money make me happy and irritate me at the same time.” She waves to Butterfly. “Have a wonderful trip.”

“Thanks, Vickie!” My wife calls as she leaves, then turns to me. “What is it with you and these crack-of-dawn flights?”

“You know where we’re flying, right?” I ask. She shrugs.

“Australian cruise—somewhere in Australia, I presume,” she says.

“Exactly,” I say. “That’s about a 20-hour flight without a layover, and we have one. Not only that, but we’re going to lose a day traveling to Australia. We’re going to leave Saturday morning, but we’re not going to get there until Sunday night.” She frowns.

“Well, that sucks,” she complains. “We’re going to lose a day of our vacation.”

“No, we’re not,” I inform her. “We’re going to get it back at the end of the week. That reminds me…” I reach into my pocket and pull out Jason’s latest acquisition for me. “Phones age in dog years. What do you have—like the iPhone 4?” She nearly growls at me.

“Four S,” she hisses. I reach into the bag and pull out an iPhone 6 Plus.

“Still dog years,” I tell her, handing her the 6 Plus.

“Ooo, pretty,” she says, examining the gold-toned phone.

“I’m glad you approve,” I say. “I couldn’t commandeer your number because it’s not my phone, but this one has been updated with all the usual apps that I know you use and the tracking software. Any apps that I don’t know you use, you’ll have to update yourself. You can forward your calls to this number or put a message on your old phone that your number has changed, but this is an international cell. You never know when I want to whisk my bride away to some exotic foreign country—like today.”

“Good point. I’ll just notify the necessary parties that my number has changed… maybe I’ll do it when I get back. I’ll forward the calls until then.” I nod.

“I can help you transfer all of your contacts and app information when you’re ready.”

“Naw,” she shakes her head. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll get Maril…” She trails off. Force of habit was about to cause her to say that Marilyn would do it. “On… second thought, yeah, when we’re back, I’d appreciate your help.” I nod.

“No worries,” I say, walking past her and proceeding to the stairs.

“I know you have a lot of power, Mr. Grey,” she says, falling in step behind me, “but can you please tell me how you decided on Friday morning that we were going to Australia and on Friday night, we’ve got travel arrangements? That’s a lot, even for you, sir.”

I pick her up and playfully throw her over my shoulder. She yelps as I take the staircase, two at a time with her over my shoulder. I place her back on her feet when we get to the top of the stairs.

“I had open tickets for the cruise, so I exercised my option,” I say walking to the bedroom. She falls in step behind me again. “I own a jet, so I had Jason arrange my pilots this morning. We’re making a bit of a change to our cruise. It was a seven day—we’re only doing five because I have plans for the weekend, so we’ll be disembarking at our last port of call.” I walk into my dressing room and try to figure out what I need to pack.

“Doesn’t that cost extra?” she asks, quickly selecting suits and a tux from my closet area. “Isn’t there a fee for disembarking early or something?”

“Yes, there is,” I say, watching her gather my wardrobe like a pro, complete with underwear, while it took her two hours to organize hers. “But this is what I wanted, and I have money, so…” I trail off.

“Do I get to know where this special destination is that requires us to disembark from a luxury cruise to get there?” she asks as she lays out my clothes. “Where are your garment bags?”

“They’re in storage,” I tell her, “and maybe I’ll tell you, maybe I won’t. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Will I like it?” she asks as I head for my en suite.

“You’ll love it,” I call behind me. “Activate two-way communications… Locate Windsor.”

“Windsor,” he responds.

“Windsor, I need you to bring my Alfred Dunhill luggage to the owner’s suite. I need the black rolling suitcase, the duffle, the toiletries bag and the garment bag.”

“Yes, sir,” he replies.

“End two-way communications,” I say.Alfred Dunhill Luggage--Chapter 72

“Hmmm, Alfred Dunhill,” she says, coming out of my dressing room. “And I’m carrying the Louis Vuitton. We’re going to look so pretentious.”

“And you care?” I ask. She shrugs.

“Not really,” she remarks, laying out more clothes on the bed… and I’m perfectly outfitted without lifting a finger—except to choose my toiletries from the en suite. I shake my head and scoff a laugh. “What?” she asks, bemused.

“How do you do that?” I ask. She looks at my cruise wardrobe and smiles.

“You have your special gifts and I have mine.”

*-*

“Are you sure you don’t mind us leaving you like this?” Butterfly asks Harmony as we’re about to leave the Crossing. “I know this can be a delicate time for you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Harmony replies. “Courtney and I are going to the mansion today so that I can start going through my things and Mom’s things that aren’t going to be confiscated and donated to charity. I really want to get the house cleaned out as soon as possible. I’ve got so much to do and lots to keep me occupied. I know I need to mourn Momma, but right now, I just want to keep busy.” Butterfly hugs her.

“Call if you need us. I have a new international phone now.” Harmony looks over Butterfly’s shoulder at me and I raise my brow.

“I won’t be calling you, Ana,” Harmony says. “Now, get out of here and have a great time.”

Butterfly says goodbye again to everyone and we get into the Audis with our luggage and head to the airport.

She sleeps for the entire flight to Los Angeles. It’s only three hours, but she’s dead in her seat the moment the seat belt light is off. I’m going through and responding to emails, giving instructions for the next week in my absence and putting out feelers on who might be Lincoln’s ghost writer. I may be sinister in my thinking, but she’s one of only two people that I can think of at the moment that I wish would just die.

I’ll also have to remember to tell Butterfly about Rossiter’s “settlement”—him agreeing to get the fuck out of our lives and stay the fuck out of our lives from now on. It’s my understanding that he’s actually going to lay down roots somewhere else, but not without the assurance that we’re going to be watching him wherever he goes. The very idea that he thought he would flash a raw, naked pussy painted on his arm at my wife and somehow get a payoff for it—the fucking nerve of this guy.

“I didn’t know if you would make it,” I say to Lanie and Leo when we disembark at LAX to refuel. “It was such short notice I thought we may have to just wait until next time.”

“I’m trying to be like you, man,” Leo says, grasping my hand and shaking. “I’m flirting with a couple of options for a private jet, but the right number of zeroes can get you a charter anytime. It’s only an hour flight for us from San Fran.” My wife and Lanie greet each other with a hug. That’s when I see Burtie.

He seems… shy and small for the lack of a better description. There’s a guy walking with him as he approaches us. He’s a little taller than Burtie—a nice looking guy with stylishly cut black hair and a medium to stocky build. He takes Burtie’s hand as they get closer and I note that this must be Leo’s cousin.

“How was your flight so far?” Lanie asks.

“I wouldn’t know,” Butterfly admits. “I was up most of the night preparing for the trip, so the minute we took off, it was ‘Goodnight, Nurse’ for me.”

“I couldn’t tell you either,” I say. “I assume that it was pretty smooth since I was able to work uninterrupted the entire way.” Butterfly glares at me.

“Yeah, that’s the only time he’s going to be able to work,” she declares, “when I’m asleep. This vacation is going to be a damn vacation, so I will definitely have a problem with him working during any of the time that I’m conscious!”

“Hear, hear!” Lanie says. Butterfly smiles widely at Burtie and opens her arms.

“Don’t I get a hug, cousin?” she says sweetly. He coyly returns her smile and walks into her open arms.

“It’s so good to see you,” I hear him say softly. She embraces him warmly.

“It’s good to see you, too, Burtie,” Butterfly says. I lean over and kiss Lanie on the cheek.

“And who is this?” Butterfly asks when she and Burtie release their embrace.

“This is Bernard,” Burtie says, taking the young man’s hand again and pulling him into the fold. Bernard waves like a shy little girl and smiles.

“Hi,” he says sweetly.

“Bernie, these are my cousins, Ana and Christian. Bernie is my fiancé.” Butterfly raises her brow.

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Bernie,” Butterfly says extending her hand to him.

“A pleasure,” he responds. “I know this is going to sound so stereotypically gay, but I saw you the moment you stepped onto the tarmac and that outfit is to die for!” Butterfly beams at the compliment.

“Thank you!” she says.

“I so love Jackie O!” he gushes.

“That’s exactly what I was going for!” Butterfly exclaims.

“Oh God she was like only one of the most elegant women that ever lived!” he says all in one breath.

“Absolutely! She was unbelievably iconic. You can’t go wrong matching any of her fashions…”

And this conversation is going to go on forever,” Leo says. “I should mention that my cousin is one of the most sought-after designers and personal stylists in the San Francisco Bay area. Right this way, please… we have a car.”

“To fit eight people?” I ask, thinking of Jason and Ben.

“Yes,” Lanie replies. “We procured a limo for just such an emergency.”

As Butterfly and Bernard continue to discuss the polished grace and timeless, easy elegance of Jackie Kennedy, we all make our way through the airport to the taxi stand where our limo awaits us. On our way to brunch in Beverly Hills, Leo and I talk about the strides we’ve made in identifying the variations in the XRC90 transmitter. The ink on the Waymark deal should be dry just after the new year.

“How’s Aunt Nellie? Why didn’t she join us?” I ask. Lanie looks over at Burtie who’s in an animated conversation with Butterfly and his fiancé.

“She’s better than she has been, but still not great,” Lanie says in a low voice. “She didn’t feel like coming out so early on a Saturday morning, but she sends her regards. She’s had a small setback though. She got word that my father is moving towards signing the divorce papers soon. Their lawyers are just hammering out the terms. It should be final any day now.”

“I thought that’s what she wanted,” I say bemused, “to put this thing to rest. You know how these things can drag on forever.” Lanie sighs and checks to see that her brother is occupied.

“Mom explained it to me like this. Imagine one of your children comes up missing. You search for them for months or even years, but you never find them. You finally give up hope and resolve yourself to the fact that if they were alive, they would have found a way to get in touch with you by now. You go about the business of living your life, putting yourself back together again and sometime later, the police show up. They inform you that they’ve found your child’s body.

“Now, even though you knew the child was dead because there was just no way that they could still be alive, the body makes it final. It makes the loss tangible and real. This is the equivalent of hearing that my father is going to sign the divorce papers. She now has the body, and it’s tearing her up all over again. He’s a horrible, wretched person, but that doesn’t negate the fact that she loved him for thirty-some-odd years.” Lanie finishes with a sigh.

“Does she know about the life insurance policy?” I ask. “And what about the house?”

“She knows about the life insurance policy and she knows that he’s protesting Carrick’s share of it. She’s sure that he’s just protesting it until the divorce is final, and she’s not waiting for that. As for the house, she’s never going back to Michigan, so he can have that, too, but his other assets are going to have to be split.” I shake my head.

“He got Pops’ house,” I tell her. “That’s what he wanted. He’s going to sell his house and pump the money into rebuilding Pops’ house.” Lanie’s eyes widen.

“What??” she exclaims, garnering the attention of everyone in the car, which is exactly what she was trying not to do.

“Sorry,” she says, trying to play the situation down. “Don’t pay me any attention, you know how I can get.” She waits for Bernie and Ana to attract Burtie’s attention again before she turns back to me.

“That dilapidated old hole?” she hisses just above a whisper. “That stack of sticks is worthless! I don’t even know how Grandpa and Herman stayed in it for so long. That place should have been condemned years ago!” I shrug.

“That’s my understanding, too,” I tell her. “But he’s going to put his house on the market and use the money to rebuild that ‘stack of sticks.’” She shakes her head.

“Well, it doesn’t matter. Mom’s ready for the ‘funeral.’ She’s had enough. There’s no way she can possibly move on with this divorce still in progress, and she’s not really sure how she’s going to move on when it’s over. Hell, my father has a girlfriend—it was over a long time ago. Mom just didn’t know it.”

“Why didn’t he just let her go instead of dragging her through all this hell?” Leo asks. “It’s cruel and unusual punishment to put someone through this.”

“Freeman’s so cocky, he thought it would never come to this,” I reply.

“I think it was just cheaper to keep her,” Lanie says. “Once he reached the 10-year mark, half his shit was hers.” I twist my lips.

“Yeah, I guess there’s that, too,” I cede. I look down the row at Burtie.

“How about Burtie?” I ask not much above a whisper. Lanie shakes her head.

“Bernie’s good for him, but he’s having a really hard time with this situation, too,” she says. “I don’t know which of these are harder to swallow, so I’m just going to toss them at you.

“His parents are getting divorced. That sucks for anybody under any circumstances. Now, before you say, ‘Hey, Lanie, they’re your parents, too,’ you need to see the difference. That’s his mom and his dad. That’s my mom… and my father. All these years, he’s just been my father, just the man who nutted and brought about my creation. All these years, before this shit, that’s been his dad. So, his mom and his dad are getting a divorce, and he has to contend with that.

“Also, just like Mom, he loves Freeman. All he has ever wanted was for Freeman to be proud of him, and this is what he gets to take with him—the fact that for whatever reason, he wasn’t good enough; that his beloved dad battered him so badly that his face is slightly deformed and some of his teeth were knocked out or had to be removed. And that’s number three.

“Burtie was always an attractive young man, but now he keeps his face down and he tries to fade away and not be seen. He’s got several teeth missing and that makes him feel subconscious, and then he has those two horrible scars on his face. He’s getting his implants this week and the surgery for the scars will be in the next two weeks, but that’ll take care of the physical damage. What about the emotional damage?”

I look down the row in the limo again and Butterfly has moved next to Burtie. She’s holding his hand and his head is down. Bernie is leaning forward very close to Burtie, holding his hand as well.

That looks like a session.

“Has anybody pointed out the name thing?” I ask, “Burtie and Bernie?”

“Several times,” Leo says, looking at his cousin and brother-in-law. “They appear to be really in love. I wondered how it could happen so soon. Burtie’s only been here for a few months, but Bernie says he’s been stricken ever since he first met Burtie in Michigan. According to them, ‘When you know, you know.’”

“Yes, I can attest to that,” I say, looking over at Butterfly.

“Was it love at first site for you, Christian?” Lanie asks.

“Oh, I know this story,” Leo interrupts. “So do you, babe. Remember the interview?”

“Oh, yeah,” Lanie says, looking at her husband and then back at me. “She hated you at first, but you were quite taken with her.”

“Bingo,” I confirm, “So, I can understand being stricken very early on. At the risk of being Devil’s Advocate, however, just be mindful that Burtie’s in a vulnerable and compromised position at the moment…”

I don’t know how to say what I’m trying to say without making Bernie sound like he’s trying to take advantage of Burtie’s predicament or without making Burtie appear to be a weakling looking for someone to hold him up. Luckily, I learn that I wasn’t alone in my concern.

“I’ve had the same conversation with my brother,” Lanie says softly. “His response assured me that he realizes his position and he’s aware of his feelings. He even admits that he’s susceptible to the smallest act of kindness right now, but that he’s certain that with Bernie is where he wants to be.”

“And I’ve spoken to Bernie,” Leo continues, “both because he’s my cousin, I love him, and I don’t want to see him hurt and because if he hurts Burtie, he’ll hurt my Lanie, and then I’d have to kill him. I’m certain that he’s going into this with both eyes open, but in all honesty, they’re both grown men and will make their own decisions. Only time will tell.”

I nod. I know that he’s right, but that poor guy is fighting some serious demons and some of them are written right on his face.

“At least pretty soon he won’t have the visible reminders of what happened,” I say with a sigh.

“At least there is that,” Lanie says. “He’s been seeing a therapist. He’s been working through some of his issues, but I’m afraid that the emotional betrayal is probably going to be there forever. He’s heartbroken. All he has ever wanted was for his father to be proud of him and now, the betrayal he feels from that unprovoked attack…” Lanie trails off and shakes her head. We’ve had this entire conversation in hushed tones, trying not to let it appear that we’re keeping a secret.

“So, we’re planning a spring wedding as Burtie is certain that all of his scars will have healed by then, and Bernie is willing to give that man anything he wants. Bernie does very well financially and Burtie has a very promising future in engineering. Neither of them is in a particularly destitute situation,” Leo says.

“Burtie just has a long way to go,” Lanie adds. “His self-esteem has taken a hit with the scars and the missing teeth, and he’s fighting depression and rejection from the man who, like Mom, he still really loves.”

“What about you, Lanie?” I ask. “You don’t feel anything, honestly? Nothing at all.” Even I feel a bit of a tug when discussing the crack whore every now and then. Lanie shrugs.

“I feel bad that my family was torn apart—that my mom and my little brother are struggling to find balance,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But I was abandoned a long time ago, cousin. You can’t miss what you never had.”

And there you have it.


A/N: I originally had Christian carrying a different brand of luggage, but changed it when that whole “black face” shirt came out. I’m sure can figure out which one he had before.

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.

There has been yet another development where if you feel the need to talk to fellow readers about personal issues, you need a sounding board, you want to vent about something in your life, please feel free to visit the link on the left in the menu entitled “Do You Need To Talk.” No subject is taboo. I just ask that you approach the link with respect for those who have concerns as well as those who respond. You can also get to the link by clicking 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

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Raising Grey: Chapter 71—Chain Reactions

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 71—Chain Reactions 

CHRISTIAN

We put Chuck and Keri on a plane to South Dakota yesterday to be present for the case today. Butterfly was not happy to see either of them go as Chuck is her detail and Keri is her nanny.

“I feel like my limbs are being cut off one by one,” she says. “My detail, my nanny, my PA…” I had forgotten that Marilyn had taken some time off as well in light of recent developments. I can imagine Butterfly feels a bit rudderless. Thank God Harmony’s here and has agreed to help Gail with the twins.

We haven’t discussed anything that happened Saturday night. I’m not sure how to approach the topic or even what needs to be discussed at this point. After talking to Jason, I somewhat understand the “Cinderella” concept, but how do I voice my displeasure with the way she spoke to my mother? Is this one of those situations where I should just “butt out” since it really had to do with the Center and wasn’t anything personal? It became personal, though—the comments that she made. However, had she said these things at Helping Hands in the course of her job, would I feel the same way? Am I only feeling this way because these things were said in my presence?

She was talking about her professional stance, and the position that my mother put her in by revealing to Adelaide that Courtney was still in town. To Mom, she was trying to help a friend, but to Butterfly, this was a professional betrayal.

I should have stayed out of this.

“You going in this morning?” I ask my wife who has been silent at the breakfast bar.

“Yes,” she says coolly. “I have new employees starting today and I should be there. And I have to figure out what’s going on with my calendar because I’m like a fish out of water without Marilyn.”

“Do you want to meet for lunch?” I say, attempting to offer an olive branch. She looks over at me.

“I’ll… let you know,” she replies uncertainly. “The morning is kind of heavy…”

“I’ll wait,” I interrupt. “You say what time.” She pauses for a moment, still gazing at me.

“Okay,” she says softly. “I’ll call you, then.” I give her hand a squeeze and kiss her on the forehead.

“I’ll see you later, then,” I say, and she nods.

*-*

“Kavanaugh wants nothing to do with you,” Lorenz says at the executive meeting that morning. “He’s shutting down any attempts from this camp to contact him.”

“Well, there’s always a hostile takeover… buy him out,” I suggest.

“Yeah, he thought of that, too,” Ros says, “so he’s not selling.” I nod. My lips form a thin line.

“Fine,” I say. “We’ve got plenty of Kavanaugh’s stock. Start dumping it.” Lorenz frowns deeply.

“Are you crazy?” he asks. I turn to him.

“Do you remember my interview, Lorenz?” I ask. “You’ve seen my portfolio—controlling interests or substantial participation percentages in 28 industries comprised of 419 subindustries in 165 countries on all seven continents. Kavanaugh is one subindustry in one industry in one country on one continent. This is only one of my holdings. It’s his entire life. He doesn’t want a financial and industrial powerhouse to bail him out when he’s on a proverbial dingy with a hole in it about to sink simply because the bailout is coming from me, well then let his ass sink. Start dumping stock 2% at a time. Once the NYSE and the NASDAQ reports that information, he’ll be lucky if he can still be considered penny stock.”

“Christian, this sounds dangerously close to insider trading,” Ros warns.

“Far from it, Ros,” I tell her. “It’s only insider trading if I use inside information not available to anyone else to further my position or unload a disadvantage. This is not inside information. It’s public knowledge that he’s on the skids. ‘Pump-and-dumps’ do it all the time. They buy low, drive up the price, watch the trends, and when it looks like it’s about as high as it’s going to go, they drop it. I’m an investor, and I see an opportunity to save my investment that’s very crappy right now and getting crappier by the second. I’m throwing him a life preserver and he’s kicking it back to me. He’s only looking at one side of that investment coin and that’s the fact that I don’t have enough to do a hostile. And he’s right, I don’t. However, I do have enough to make other investors sit up and take notice if I start dumping my shares.”

“There’s going to be no coming back from this,” Lorenz warns.

“There’s already no coming back from it,” I tell him. “He’s made it clear that he wants no part of my golden parachute. So be it. If I were so shrewd as to drive the price down, make him open sales again and gobble up the market before anybody else, guaranteeing at the very least a hostile takeover, he’d poison pill the company before I got my hands on it. I can tell when a company is on that final spiral down the drain, and Kavanaugh already has his feet in the grates—he just doesn’t think anybody knows it.”

I raise an eyebrow at Lorenz whose expression confirms that he agrees with me.

“Someone can still reach in and save him, and it doesn’t have to be me, but when and if they do, they’re going to be dealing with a company that’s worth at least one-third less than it is right now if not even less than that. Start dumping the stock. If I’m wrong and it turns around for him and the investors are making money, by dumping 2% at a time, I’ll still have a portion of my investment left. So… let the market decide.”

I wave the whole thing off. Buying Kavanaugh Media would have been a personal coup, but nothing more. I’ve got enough money to use C-notes to wipe my ass for the rest of my life. I don’t need this shit.

“And what’s going on with Kate Kavanaugh?” I ask. It makes me nervous when people just disappear.

“It appears that the Kavanaugh Princess is hiding out in the Hamptons with young Kevin… at least we think Kevin’s with her. You know her career is tied up in Kavanaugh Media and shortly, there’ll be no Kavanaugh Media. So, unless she has an endless money pot stashed somewhere, she’ll be looking for a job soon.” Ros replies.

“Make sure we keep our eye on her… just in case.” Lorenz nods.

“Excuse me, sir. Mr. Welch is in the lobby and says he needs to talk to you immediately.” Andrea’s voice surprises me as she never interrupts when I’m in a meeting. “He has Ms. McIntyre with him.”

Oh shit. Mac. What the hell is going on?

“I’m going to have to take this meeting,” I say to Lorenz and Ros. “Alex and Mac usually isn’t good news. Have we covered everything?” Lorenz looks at Ros, who nods.

“For now, it seems,” he says. “I’ll keep you posted.”

“Good man,” I say. “Send them in on your way out.”

I pop my neck as Ros and Lorenz leaves preparing myself for whatever the Gruesome Twosome have to tell me. I know it’s bad when I see their faces. Alex is serious, and Mac is a bit somber.

“Okay, out with it,” I say. Don’t beat around the bush, just give it to me. Alex closes the door and Mac drops a gossip rag on my desk.

“Tell me what I’m looking for here,” I say. “I really don’t feel like combing through stories of back woods women having babies by Elvis, aliens, and Michael Jackson.”

“Bottom left hand corner,” Mac says taking a seat. Alex stands behind her. I look at the bottom left corner of the tabloid.

Incarcerated Socialite to Write Tell-All Book of her Ordeal

“What?” I ask horrified. “I thought the law was written as such that she couldn’t exploit her crime for profit!”

“If she writes it as a fiction novel and changes all the names, she can,” Mac informs me.

“She’d have to change the events, too,” I nearly screech. “That woman molested children! It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who she’s talking about in her story—just a really good critical thinker, and I’m not just talking about my experience. One of those kids killed himself!” I suddenly want this woman to just disappear from the face of the earth.

“You’ve confirmed that this is true?” I ask them both. “This isn’t just some nasty rumor?”

“It’s confirmed, sir,” Alex says. “She’s been corresponding with ghost writers, publishers… even attorneys to make sure that she’s following the rules to get the book published.”

“And they’re going to publish this garbage.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“Are you kidding?” Mac says. “Like you said, it won’t take a rocket scientist to tell who the characters are, even if she changes the names and events. A tell-all about Christian Grey and other possible prominent members of Seattle society? Right after you do an exposé of you and your lovely wife and your lovely life? Her timing is perfect—for her, that is. Depending on what she puts in that book, she can blow your image of your happy home right out of the water. But there’s so much more at stake here…”

“You don’t have to tell me,” I say. The damage that can be caused by the implications of this book are nearly fucking endless.

“So many pictures,” Alex laments. “So many boys…”

“Exactly,” I sigh. “We don’t even know if we found them all. Decades and decades of that shit—the embarrassment, humiliation, and pain this could cause is endless.”

Hasn’t she caused enough fucking heartache? What the fuck is she after? Before she died, Aunt Tina told me that Elena was corresponding with people, trying to get responses. What is she really doing? She can’t possibly hope to profit from this. Her only chance of release is escape. What’s really going on?

“Why is she trying to get attention?” It’s a rhetorical question.

“How did this story hit the mainstream?” I ask.

“There’s no telling,” Mac says. “She could have done it, it could be a publicity leak—nobody’s paying attention right now, but they’ve got their breach. All they need from this point is momentum.”

“And me visiting the prison would be momentum,” I observe.

“I’m so glad you figured that out on your own,” Mac exclaims. “I could just see you in my mind’s eye flying to the prison to ruffle some feathers and all you end up getting is a front-page spot.”

“Okay, so,” I stand from my desk and clasp my hands, “I’m open for suggestions on how to proceed with this because you know me—I’m ready to run in like a bull in a China shop.”

“We could get an injunction,” Mac says, “but we’d have to know what was in the book before we could do that.”

“So, an injunction’s out. Next plan?”

“Get in touch with the warden,” Alex offers. “He knows you, if I recall.”

“Yes, we’re acquainted,” I remark, remembering the very uncomfortable circumstances I arranged for Mrs. Lincoln after I discovered that she was responsible for the false accusations of sexual misconduct against my wife. “Anything we can do about her possible publishers and ghost writers? Make this endeavor look unattractive?”

“Here’s the thing about writing, Christian,” Mac says. “Once something is out there—articles, print, pictures, books—it’s out there. It’s so much easier to undo something someone said, even on television, than it is to undo the backlash of the written word. Any attempts to make something like this look unattractive would only have the opposite effect because believe me, no one is more aware that the pen is mightier than the sword than the person holding the pen.”

“So, I basically have no recourse now outside of talking to the warden?” I ask appalled. “He can’t possibly be ignorant to this, and he hasn’t done anything yet!”

“It’s very likely that he’s not,” Mac replies. “Why he’s not doing anything is yet to be determined.”

I scroll through the contacts on my computer and locate the information for Ronald Holstein. After going through a million transfers, I’m finally connected to his receptionist who, upon hearing my name, informs me that he’s unavailable but that she could take a message or patch me through to his voicemail. Since I’m not really sure if he’s aware of what’s going on, I leave a professional message on his voicemail to contact me as soon as possible no matter what time.

“So, now we wait,” I say.

I just got the damn Pussy DJ off our backs and now this? Jesus, it never ends!

*-*

I’m irritated when I get home as Holstein didn’t return my call, and surprised that Butterfly is already there since I’m home a little earlier than usual.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re here early.”

“So are you,” she says matter-of-factly. She’s sitting in the family room with a bowl of popcorn watching old movies like she’s been kicked back for the entire day.

“Is everything okay?” I ask, sitting next to her.

“I would really rather not talk about it,” she says. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you for lunch, but I was terribly distracted.” I nod.

“I have some news,” I say. She picks up the remote and silences the television. Placing the popcorn on the seat next to her, she brushes off her hands and sits up straight, like she’s preparing herself to go into battle.

This must have really been a pretty fucked-up day.

“Elena’s trying to write a book,” I spit out. She rubbernecks to me, her expression horrified.

“What?” she gasps. “I thought… I thought criminals weren’t allowed to profit from their crimes. I mean that’s the only thing she could possibly be writing about.”

“There are ways around it,” I tell her. “There’s no law against her writing a book. If she changes the names and events and it becomes a work of fiction, she’s in the clear assuming that no one can determine that she’s talking about real people—but everyone will know that she’s talking about real people. Conspiracy theorists and bloggers and motherfuckers with too much time on their hands may even be able to match her story with timelines and events and point a compass to specific people…”

“Like us,” she says.

“More than us, Butterfly, we were all over the trial. We’ll just be her anchor. Think of all those boys and their families. Some of them are adults and have families of their own, and if you remember, at least one that we know of didn’t make it. This woman has no fucking scruples!”

“And apparently absolutely nothing to lose,” Butterfly says flatly. I thought I proved that she did have something to lose in our last conversation, but maybe I wasn’t firm enough. We’re silent for a moment, and then my wife drops a bombshell on me.

“I’m considering leaving Helping Hands,” she says calmly. My turn to rubberneck.

“You’re what?” So much for not wanting to talk about it.


ANASTASIA

I can barely decipher what’s going on with my calendar. Marilyn has a lot of shorthand going on here and several reminders for her to do certain things. I really should have taken a better look at this thing last week when I wasn’t all a-flustered from the weekend’s events, but c’est la vie. I may have to draft someone somewhere to help me with this mess, but we’ll have to see.

I shoot a text off to Marilyn simply saying that I hope she had a nice Thanksgiving and I hope she’s taking care of herself. Every call I’ve tried to put in to Gary has gone straight to voicemail. I’ve left a few messages for him but stopped after the third one. After having that treatment from my father when he didn’t want to speak to me and then from Christian when he escaped to Madrid, instant defer to voicemail calls leave me with a very icky feeling to the degree of stirring up remnants of the Boogeyman. How about I choose not to do that to myself.

In an attempt to make sure that my friend hasn’t fallen to an ill fate, I recruit the assistance of the rest of the Scooby Gang to try to contact Gary. I only tell them that it appears that there has been a break-up and Marilyn is with her parents right now. None of us have had any luck contacting him.

Marilyn hasn’t returned my text either and I deduce that they’re both still radio silent. I just hope that she has me listed somewhere as an emergency contact so that someone will know to inform me if something really bad happens.

Ebony is doing well in the day care center and I’m hoping that we can convince her to put some of her other skills to use in the Center. God knows we need them in the worse way. We have a few new employees on the cleaning staff as well. We’re planning to end the contract with Sherwood and Clean It Up for You in January. So, we want to have a core team in place by that time and hire additional staff as needed.

Another development we’ve had since the interview is the outpouring of support from the community as well as the influx of donations right in time for the holiday season—clothing, non-perishable food items, cash and pledges, even additional volunteers. I’ve been able to get some applications from various sources for people who may be able to fill the many positions we’ll be needing to fill since we finally received our accreditation. I wasn’t kidding when I told Christian that my morning would be full—even fuller than I thought with me having to do my own administrative work. That must be why I was totally bowled over by the voice that greets me in the middle of the morning.

“Ana?”

I raise my head to see Addie standing in my office door. Oh, dear God.

“Addie!” I say, standing quickly from my seat and nearly knocking it over. “Please, c… come in.” Come all the way in and close the door behind you!

“I…” She timidly walks into my office. “Your office… it looks really different.”

“Yes,” I say, gesturing her further into the office and closing the door behind her. Sweet Jesus, this is a disaster. “I was able to make some changes with… all the different things that have been going on. We’ve finally gotten our accreditation, you know. There’s a lot that needs to be done in such a short time.”

“I’d…” She takes a seat in the Zen sitting area. “I’d like to make a donation… if I could.”

“Addie… that’s so kind of you.” She reaches into her purse and hands me a check. I don’t really focus in on the amount, but I see a whole lotta zeroes. “Addie, this is so generous.”

“It’s the very least I can do,” she says, lowering her head. “I turned that child away—ready to feed her back to the dogs that she came from. You’ve worked miracles with her.” I sigh.

“I didn’t do anything, really, Addie,” I tell her. “Courtney did all the work on her own…” and if she sees you here, the work may all be undone.

As if the fates heard my lamentations, my door flies open and in marches a distraught Courtney. She never enters my office without knocking when the door is closed. I know why she’s coincidentally here now.

“G… Grandmother!” she says, her voice more horrified than anything. Oh, shit. Addie stands and turns to her.

“Courtney!” she breathes. “Yo… you’re so… beautiful.” Courtney never takes her eyes off her grandmother but begins to frantically wring her hands. Addie takes a step towards her, but Courtney takes a step back, the dams bursting immediately and causing massive waterfalls down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” Courtney says, her voice full of tears, “I’m sorry, Grandmother, for the horrible person that I was and the terrible things that I did…”

“Oh, Courtney…”

“I’m sorry… that I hurt you… and that I hurt Grandfather… but you hurt me, too.” She weeps. Addie looks a bit horrified.

“You said I was worthless… nothing… you said I was better off dead…”

“Courtney!” Addie exclaims. “I did not say that! I would never say that!”

“Spare parts!” Courtney cries accusingly. “You said I was worth nothing but spare parts!”

Addie stands guiltily looking at her granddaughter.

“I felt like the world would be a better place without me. I was horrible and awful and even my spare parts were worthless. Maybe that’s how I made you feel… maybe I made you feel like you’d be better off dead and that’s why you made me feel that way. It’s a horrible, awful, wretched feeling and if I did that, I swear to God that I’ll never do that to anybody else as long as I live!” Courtney cries.

“Court…”

“I didn’t change my ways because of that,” she sobs, cutting off her grandmother. “I changed because I didn’t want to go back to Chuktapaw. I didn’t want to end up in a dead-end life like my mom! She has no hope! No future! And she doesn’t want to change! She wants to stay in that rat-infested lean-to that she’s lived in with that low-life man that she’s been with for years and she’s going to die there, and I don’t want that to be me!

“Somebody showed me that I was worth something even when I thought I wasn’t… even when you thought I wasn’t. Ana could have let me rot in that shelter, answer ads to be a stripper, but she and Ms. Grace took pity on me—after how I treated her, the things I said to her! She took pity on me… somebody thought I was worth something…

She weeps harder and Addie doesn’t speak. She must know that Courtney is just reloading.

“But I don’t care how horrible someone is to me. I’ll never in my life ever make them feel like they don’t deserve to be alive. I’ll walk away forever and never speak to them again before I ever make them feel like the earth would be a better place without them!”

“Courtney…” Addie says finally, “your mom is gone.” Courtney’s eyes pierce.

“What?” she asks incredulously. “When?”

“June,” she says.

“How?”

“Some rare virus,” Addie says. “I didn’t get the details. I didn’t even know she was sick.” Courtney purses her lips and clears her throat.

“Hence, my point,” she says nodding through her tears. “My mom’s gone, and nobody cared. Nobody knew. Nobody felt anything, not even me. Not even now, I don’t feel anything. I didn’t wish her dead and it’s tragic that she’s gone, but I knew,” she says, her voice still cracking, “I knew that’s how she would die. That’s how I would have died, and you were okay with that.”

“I was not okay with that, Courtney, I was hurt…”

“But that’s not what you said!” she wails. “I hurt you! I accept that and I’m sorry. I knew I would get money when you died, but I didn’t wish you dead! I never wished you dead!” she sobs. “I didn’t expect for you to account for what you said or how you felt. I just couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t look at you and know that you felt that I was nothing more than an organ donor. I can’t change the things that I did and the way that I treated people, but there’s enough bad crap going on in the world and enough bad memories in my head to not subject myself to any new agonies.”

She straightens her back even though the tears continue to fall.

“Things have changed for me, Grandmother,” she says. “I found a life that I didn’t know I could have—a real life, with real people and purpose! I see a future beyond dollar signs. All I could see before was money and what I could do with it, and now I see so much more…

“I found somebody who loves me, who doesn’t care that I’m broke, who’s not looking for the next big trust fund. I had to find me first, but once I did, she saw what I couldn’t see. She helped me see that there’s so much more to me. I’m in school now. I want to help kids—troubled kids, kids who don’t think anybody understands them. She helped me see that I could do that. I didn’t think I could, but she wouldn’t let me give up… and now, I’m on my way. And I love it, and I love her, and she loves me!

“I have friends and people like me, and I can be myself—not what I think people want me to be. I don’t hang out with any of the ‘cool kids’ anymore, because just like I was a bad influence on them, they were a bad influence on me.

“Mrs. Franklin died. Did you know that?” she asks but continues talking before Addie can answer. “I didn’t go to her funeral. I didn’t know who would be there, but her daughter—Harmony—we’re friends. I’ve been talking to her and helping her through this time as much as I can. Mrs. Franklin’s children… they’re horrible. They’re worse than I ever was and old enough to know better, and now Harmony has to deal with them. I’ll never be like them again, but Harmony is good people, and I’ll be there for her…”

Courtney is rambling on and on and on about the person that she has become, and I realize that this is something that she needs to do. We let her talk and talk through her tears for a solid twenty more minutes until she’s physically exhausted. I catch her before she collapses on the floor in tears and help her to the seating area where she crumples onto the sofa and continues to weep.

Addie tentatively moves next to her and takes Courtney’s shuddering body in her arms. Her own tears flowing from her eyes, she expels a string of apologies, telling Courtney how much she loves her and never stopped.

Now is my cue to leave. I’m emotionally exhausted myself.

I leave my office and close the door behind me. When I raise my head, Grace is standing there with her arms folded, a triumphant smirk on her face.

“Don’t give me that look,” I say, firmly. “You were still out of place and you still meddled where you shouldn’t have. You got lucky. This could have been disastrous.” She still smirks at me.

“But it wasn’t, was it?” she says haughtily and turns away, beginning her victory stroll down the hall.

“Grace!” I call, my blood boiling. She turns to face me, ready for battle.

I’m not.

“I love this place,” I say closing the space between us, “but you know that I don’t have to do this. You know I’ve worked hard with Courtney and I respected her wishes because just like Addie, she was traumatized. You threw that out the window like it was nothing because you felt like it. I’ve built up her trust and you could have destroyed that because you thought the outcome should be different. You could have undone everything I did, everything she did, and you walk around haughtily flexing your plume because the situation happened to work out this time without any consideration for the damage you could have caused. I know that I’m only second in command, but if you ever undermine my authority like that again, you can find yourself another second.” She folds her arms, frowning.

“Is that a threat, Anastasia?” she confronts. Oh, dear God. She does want a fight. She can’t see for the life of her that she could have undone all of my hard work, and nor does it matter to her. I sigh a scoffing sigh and cover my face with my hands shaking my head. That’s it. I give up. I can’t put in this kind of work to have someone look at it like it’s nothing.

Nothing. That’s what it is.

“Absolutely nothing.”

I didn’t know I verbalized the words until I hear myself say them. I shake my head and walk away. I can’t even go to the nursery to see my babies because I didn’t bring them with me. I need alone time and my office is occupied. I walk to the other side of the building to the empty rooms that will soon be classrooms and activity rooms. I sit at one of the tables with the lights out and focus on my breathing…

In with the good air, out with the bad…
In with the good air, out with the bad…
In with the good air, out with the bad…

I don’t know how long I sit in that room meditating, but when I emerge and go to my office, the coast is clear. I go inside, closing the door behind me. I don’t think about anything. I just move, closing my laptop and putting it in its bag, packing small personal items into my messenger bag—nothing dramatic. I take a little time to scribble a note on my notepad. I know she’ll come back looking for me.

Dear Courtney,

I’m sorry if this situation caused you any grief. However it turns out, please know that I didn’t engineer this meeting. I hope you don’t feel like I’ve betrayed your trust and that we can still be friends. Please continue to stay in the condo for as long as you need to, and if you choose to leave, just let me know.

Anastasia

I fold the letter, seal it in an envelope, and write Courtney’s name on it in large letters. I put on my coat, pull my purse out of my desk drawer, and put my laptop bag and messenger bag over my shoulder. I snap off a piece of tape and tape the letter to Courtney on my office door. I retrieve my briefcase, walk to the door and turn out the lights without looking back, closing the door behind me.

I look carefully up and down the hallway and, spotting no one, I leave the office and quietly make my way to the service door and the parking lot behind the Center. I type a text to Chuck, then I remember that he’s not here with me. He’s in South Dakota in court with his family. I copy the text to Ben’s number and inform him that I’m in the parking lot and ready to go. Moments later, he comes out to join me.

“Is everything okay?” he asks when he gets into the driver’s seat of the Audi.

“Yes,” I lie. “I’m just ready to go home.”

*-*

“Why are you thinking of leaving Helping Hands?” Christian questions.

“Because my opinion is no longer respected or valued,” I reply.

“Baby, don’t you think that may be a bit dramatic?” he asks.

“I certainly do not!” I retort. “Do you see the progress Courtney has made in the last year? Even you have to say that’s remarkable. Do you know what kind of work it took to get her there? Do you know how hard I had to work to gain her trust—to get her to confide in me? She was living in squalor and I had to convince her to move into my condo. You can look at her face and see that she’s a completely different person than the girl we met. Even her showdown with Mia—it was extremely emotional, and it showed just how much she had grown, evolved. It took forever to earn her trust and she only asked one thing of me—not to tell her Grandmother that she was still in Seattle. I tried everything I could to convince her to talk to her Grandmother and she. Was not. Ready, and Grace just dismissed her wishes, my promises, all the work she had done, everything.”

“You guys are still fighting about that?” he asks.

“No, were not,” I say finitely. “We’re not fighting about it because one, she dismisses anything I say about the situation and two, she engineered a meeting between them.”

“Really?” he asks, his eyes wide. “How did that go?”

“I don’t really know!” I reply perturbed. “Courtney flipped the fuck out, sobbing and rambling for about half an hour, telling her grandmother how worthless and awful she made her feel. Things that Courtney was feeling that I didn’t even know came out in this meeting. She was devastated. She talked and wept until she collapsed in exhaustion.”

“Then what?” he questions, his mouth hanging open in awe.

“Addie hugged her, they were crying, and I left the room,” I finish. My husband’s head snapped back.

“Okay, what happened after you left?”

“Grace is standing outside with this smug I told you so look on her face, and I’m trying to explain to her that situations don’t always turn out that way. They could end up disastrous if you don’t handle them carefully.” My mind immediately goes to Stoley and to Ace’s shark tooth. “I tried to get her to understand that things could have gone astronomically wrong and she totally dismissed me—smugly, too!”

“But baby, can’t you just count this one as a win? I mean, all’s well that ends well, right?”

“NO!” I yell. “How can you two not see this? This was a four-way stop where the traffic lights don’t work, and everybody went forward at the same time! They were just lucky they didn’t crash and end up splattered all over the street! Somebody has to be out there to direct that traffic and that’s what I was trying to do, and she totally disregarded me. She disregarded everything and she’s proud of it. She told everybody to just drive, and the accident did happen. I’m just waiting to see if there are any survivors.”

“Baby, don’t kill me… but… could it be that you’re angry because my mother was right?” he asks.

“No, I’m angry because your mother was wrong!” I correct him. “What she did was the equivalent of playing Russian Roulette and the gun just didn’t go off. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief that her brains didn’t end up splattered all over the wall, she’s doing a taunting victory dance that the bullet happened to be in a different cartridge.

“But here’s the thing,” I say, moving the pillow from my lap and putting it back on the sofa, “I don’t have to be right. I’m just not going to be in a place where someone doesn’t respect my authority or wishes. She hired me because I’m a doctor—a professional, licensed psychiatrist. Then she completely ignored my professional recommendations on a case that was mine—a case that I had cultivated and groomed personally for a year—and then she gloated about it and she taunted me, and she disparaged everything I said. I can’t work like that. I can deal with being wrong, but I can’t… and won’t… work like that.”

I stand up and walk out of the family room, not because he doesn’t agree with me but because he and I shouldn’t be fighting about this. I won’t argue with him anymore about things that happen between me and his mother at the Center, assuming I go back to the Center.

“I’m not walking away angry,” I call back to him through the kitchen. “I’m just walking away… okay?”

“Fair enough,” he says after a pause.

I don’t even change out of my pajamas on Tuesday. I deliberately spend the entire day playing with my children, eating junk food, and watching romance movies with Harmony while deliberately ignoring my phone. Harmony plays hooky from school, too, because tomorrow, she has to go to Carl’s office and face off with her mother’s children for the reading of the will. She asks if Christian and I will come with her. I promise to be there and told her that we would have to approach Christian when he gets home. As it turns out, he knew about it before I did and had already planned to attend.

So, D-Day comes, and we put our war clothes on and head to Carl’s office. Harmony wears a turban so that her shaved head won’t be the topic of discussion. I’m not looking forward to this meeting, but Harmony admits that she’ll be glad when this is over so that the vultures can get their money and go away forever. She’s certain that she’ll never see them again unless they try to get her out of the house. In fact…

“I’ve decided to put the house up for sale,” Harmony says as Jason parks the Audi and we exit


CHRISTIAN

“Are you sure about that?” I ask her.

“I’m positive,” Harmony replies. “Not only are there just too many memories for me to stay, but it’s just too big. I know Momma only put the place in my name so that they wouldn’t put me out the moment that she passed away and to give me some time to figure out what I would do next. I’m certain she won’t mind. I like having space, but it’s way too much space. With the money from my trust alone, I’m sure that I could find a really nice place—maybe even downtown somewhere not so set apart from the rest of the world.”

“What are you going to do with the money from the sale,” I ask, “if you’re going to use your trust to buy a new place?” She shrugs.

“Replace the money from my trust,” she says. “I’m not going to spend the whole trust on a place. Maybe I’ll just rent something in town until I sell the mansion. Let’s face it, I’m a twenty-something girl in a big ass mansion out in the suburbs all by myself. I have all the makings of a recluse while I’m fighting off my brothers and sisters. The sooner I get away from the house, the better. I’m going to hold on to it long enough for Momma’s estate to be properly disposed of and then as soon as it’s done, I’m finding a real estate agent.”

“Would you be interested in a downtown penthouse?” Butterfly and Harmony both snap their heads over to me.

“Would I!” Harmony says, her interest piqued. “You know of one available?”

“I do,” I say, and my eyes shift to Butterfly’s.

“You’re selling Escala?” she asks in disbelief. I sigh softly.

“You love your condo,” I begin. “It had great memories for you, and I don’t have a problem with that. Escala… not so much.”

“Escala? Are you serious?” Harmony says. “You have a penthouse in Escala?”

“Yes, I do,” I say. “I’m having a few renovations done to it, and if you can wait until they’re done and I’ve gone through it to make sure that there’s nothing remaining that I want, we can negotiate a fair price and you can take it with all the furnishings.”

“That would be perfect,” Harmony says. “How long do you think the renovations will take?”

“Everything should be ready by the new year,” I inform her. The playroom will have been converted back to a regular bedroom by then and all of the BDSM paraphernalia removed. “You can stay with us until then if you don’t want to go back to the mansion.”

“Yes, please,” she says. “I’m thinking that I’ll just have to go on and dismiss the staff,” she adds as she steps onto the elevator. “I’ll give them some kind of severance once I hear what Mom has done and decide who I’d want to come with me… and who would want to come with me.”

“You can’t have Windsor,” I tell her.

“I figured as much,” she laughs as the elevator rises.

When we enter the office, all of the siblings have already arrived. They look at Harmony in distaste and with narrowed eyes and all I can think is that Paige and Theo sure don’t look like they’ve recently spent time in jail.

The receptionist leads us to the conference room and we all take a seat at the large conference table—the siblings on one side and Harmony, myself, and my wife on the other.

“Why are there strangers at the reading of my mother’s will?” Ilsa says haughtily.

“They’re only strangers to you and I want them here, so they’re staying!” Harmony claps back, her voice so sharp that no one else dare question our presence. There’s a fierce stare-off between Harmony and Ilsa, but Harmony doesn’t stand down. I’m a little entranced waiting to see which of them is going to blink first when I’m jolted from the spectacle by someone calling my name.

“Christian!” Carl greets me, surprised. He enters the room and shakes my hand. “I’m sorry, I didn’t expect to see you. I’m glad someone could be here for Harmony.”

“Thank you, Carl. This is my wife, Anastasia.” He smiles at Butterfly.

“Mrs. Grey,” he extends his hand. “A pleasure to meet you. Thank you for being here.”

“Ana, please,” she says. “So, it’s okay that we’re here?”

“It’s absolutely okay,” Carl confirms. “In fact, it’s welcomed. Please, have a seat.” He moves to the head of the conference table. “Everyone, please sit. Let’s get started.”

“So, all he saw was the guy and the tart sitting at the end of the table?” Ilsa hisses to Paige. What the fuck!

“Watch it, you bitter, cantankerous, old bat!” Butterfly shoots across the table, and all eyes turn to her. Ilsa gasps and literally clutches her pearls.

“How dare you!” she exclaims, appalled.

“How did you know that I was talking about you?” Butterfly asks matter-of-factly. “Was it the bitter part, the cantankerous part, or the old bat?” As if they could, Ilsa’s eyes widen further and she gasps again. “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out,” Butterfly adds and Paige scoffs.

“Young people these days have no respect for their elders!” Paige hisses.

“Says the woman who waited for her mother to die, then showed up and asked for her diamond earrings back!” Butterfly barks. Now it’s Paige’s turn to gasp. “You don’t think I saw you examining your mother’s body jewelry—for your precious earrings, you grave-robbing, greedy ass vulture? You don’t know the meaning of the word respect, so you certainly won’t get it from me!”

Paige’s gasping is audible, like she’s having an asthma attack.

“Are you gonna die, Paige?” Harmony asks. “You might want to hold off until you at least find out what you’re getting.” Paige’s performance ceases and her evil glare is now turned to Harmony.

“I want them removed!” Ilsa barks at Carl. “I will not be treated this way at the reading of my mother’s will!” Them? Who is this them of whom you speak? I haven’t said anything to you yet, Ms. Daisy!

“It’s like she said, Ilsa,” Carl says, “If you don’t want anybody throwing adverse comments about you, don’t throw adverse comments about them. It’s a simple concept—a variation of The Golden Rule, you remember that? We learned it in Sunday School.”

Ilsa is even more appalled than she was before.

“Now, can we get started, or would you rather throw more insults across the table?”

“I didn’t insult anyone. I simply spoke the truth.”

“That woman,” Carl says, pointing at my wife, “is a highly-regarded member of the community, just like your mother was. She’s a doctor, a respected businesswoman, and a philanthropist well known in many social, business, and professional circles—more well-known than you are if for nothing else but her philanthropic work alone. So—Ms. Ilsa—calling her a twat simply because you don’t like the fact that she’s young, rich, and beautiful is the furthest thing from the truth! Now, shall we get started?”

Ilsa’s already prune-like face shrivels up even more as she absorbs Carl’s words, but she says nothing else.

“I have here Tina’s last will and testament. It’s quite detailed as to the disbursement and disposition of her estate and reading it will most likely take all afternoon. To that effect, I have a video that I will present before we proceed.”

Carl pushes a button on a remote and a screen descends from the ceiling against the wall behind him, much like the hidden screen in my office. Everyone in the room sits silently as we await whatever presentation we are about to see. The lights dim only slightly and after several seconds, the screen comes alive.

The setting is the second-floor library at the Franklin mansion, and Tina sits comfortably in a large chair in her shawl with her afghan over her lap.

All of the women gasp, including my wife.

“My name is Ernestina Eloise Franklin. I am of sound mind and not-so-sound body, and this is my last will and testament, recorded September 14, 2014. A written, signed, detailed, and notarized version of my will is currently in the possession of my attorney, Carl Richardson. This informal recording is for my family.

“I don’t know how many of you have gathered for the reading, but I assume that at least the immediate children will want to know what my will contains. Unless one or more of you have preceded me to the afterlife and nobody bothered to tell me, I know you’re all here, so let’s get right to it, shall we?

“My written will is solidly eighteen pages of very small print. I won’t put Carl through the tedious process of having to read the whole damn thing as I’m certain that each of you would much rather I just get to the point. So, without the hitherto’s, whitherto’s, therefores, and whatnots, this is what my will says.

“Let me start by saying that none of you get to contest it—none of you! I’m fully aware that the only person that I’m not allowed to disown is my husband, and he preceded me in death. Don’t make me disown any of you post-mortem. Trust me, I found a way to do it.”

The siblings all look at each other while Harmony never takes her eyes off the screen. I don’t even think she’s paying attention to her mother’s words; she just gazes lovingly at her mother’s image and barely takes a breath.

“You all have houses—sprawling mansions on huge estates afforded to you by the fortunes you acquired from me, Daddy, or your profit sharing from Franklin Steel. Some of you even have vacation homes and timeshares in exotic locations. To that end, you don’t need another house, but Harmony does as she doesn’t have one. On that note, Franklin House and the contents therein are to be passed down to Harmony.”

She must have made this tape before she did the quit deed. This, however, is no surprise to anyone in attendance.

“I have various other investment, ventures, stock options, mutual funds, CD’s, and the like in my portfolio. Carl has compiled individual portfolios for each of you to indicate how these investments will be divided among you. The particular numbers and dollar amounts are in my written will, but I guarantee you that the amounts in your portfolios are accurate. You may consult with Carl—or your own private attorney—concerning the disposition of these various assets. They can be transferred, or they can be liquidated—the choice is yours.

“My current liquid assets including all bank accounts, CD’s, the family trust and cash on hand total approximately $62 million. This does not include Harmony’s trust fund, which she has not yet received. The amounts will be divided as follows:

“All of my estate expenses are to be settled first—funeral costs, hospital bills, any outstanding debts or claims against the estate. The remaining members of my house staff are to receive $200,000 each. This will be considered severance pay should they decide they do not wish to continue under the employ of Franklin House upon my passing.

“Each child will receive $500,000 to distribute among their families—children, grand-children, etc.—as they see fit. Those funds will be disbursed to whichever of your descendants that you indicate. My grandson Damien’s share will be given directly to him as well, as his mother preceded me in death. Harmony, as you have no children, your $500,000 will be put into a separate trust for your future descendants. I hope you don’t think me cruel or think that I’m trying to force you to have children. I just want to be sure that, in that eventuality, your children have something as well. I think 40 is a good age to decide if you’re going to procreate. So, if by that age, you haven’t decided to have any children, the $500,000 is yours to use as you see fit.

“Once all expenses have been settled and the disbursements executed as requested, the remainder of my liquid assets are to be divided evenly among my five surviving children, the disposition thereof to be overseen directly by my attorney, Carl Richardson.

“As for the distribution of the family business, each of you will retain your voting shares in Franklin Steel. My shares will be divided as follows:

“Harmony, since you don’t have any shares yet, you will get 60% of my shares. Ilsa, Theodore, Jonah, and Paige, the remaining 40% will be split among you. If my calculations are correct, that means that the five of you will now have equal voting shares each. If you have sold any of your previous shares, that’s not my problem.”

There’s a whole lot of scoffing and gagging on the other side of the table as had Tina’s voting shares been split evenly among the children, each of the siblings would have had much more than Harmony—significantly more, in fact.

Each sibling currently holds approximately one-sixth, or just over 16%, of the Franklin family voting shares… every sibling except for Harmony, that is. Tina held the other one-third. Had she split her one-third five ways, each sibling—Harmony included—would have gotten 20% of her shares. With the shares that the current siblings should already have in their portfolios, that would have put each of them at over 23% of the voting shares each, leaving Harmony with less than 7% for herself. I can imagine that Tina spent quite some time calculating the value of her shares and comparing them to what each of her biological children had to arrive at the calculations she reached. If each of them held on to their voting shares, they will now each have 20% of the Franklin Family voting shares.

It’s obvious that several of them are displeased with this outcome. Jesus, they’re worse than Freeman.

“If you pay attention to my body, I shouldn’t have had a single piece of jewelry on me—not a diamond, not a piece of platinum, not even my wedding ring. Why? Because you can’t take it with you… right, Paige?”

Everyone looks over at Paige, who doesn’t seem surprised that her mother singled her out.

“Yes, Paige, I remember what you said. Each time you asked me for those diamond earrings back—12 times over the last several years to be exact—and I told you that I loved them so much that I wanted to be buried in them. Well, Paige, I lied.

“You bought those earrings and gave them to me for my 50th birthday. I wore them at that party and I never wore them again. They’re huge, they’re gaudy, they’re highly overstated and unattractive and you bought them for yourself! You made this big production of giving them to me in front of all my friends only to ask for them back six months later. Well, here’s what’s going to happen now.

“Christian, I’m assuming that you or your lovely wife has accompanied my Harmony to this reading…”

Okay, I’m a bit in shock, as are each of Tina’s children… including Harmony.

“If you haven’t, not to worry. Carl will apprise you of this portion of the will. All of my jewelry—all of it—is to be sold at auction and the proceeds donated to charity. That means every. Single. Piece of it, and I’ve already had it inventoried. I’d like for you to oversee the disposition of the jewelry and assure that the final donation be forwarded to Grace or Anastasia at Helping Hands.”

Paige gasps when she hears the fate of her beloved earrings… or so she thinks.

“Paige, your earrings aren’t part of that inventory… because they’re already gone. I donated those gaudy things to Habitat for Humanity four years ago. I have no idea what sum they rendered, but you can rest easy knowing that some poor family now has a home because of your generosity.”

So, this is priceless. She’s had her heart set on getting those earrings back for years, to the degree that she examined her mother’s body in the casket to see if they were there. She even has a charge of breaking and entering against her to get those earrings back, and they weren’t even in the house. They’ve been long since gone. I can’t help but laugh out loud when I hear this. She throws a look of death at me when she hears me chuckling and I give a sinister look right back, the one that I give cocky CEO’s or opposing board members when they think they want to challenge me. I can see her get a chill right down to the bone.

“I have various other knick-knacks and small items that will be distributed according to that multipage document I had to sign to keep you vultures from picking my estate apart like a rotting carcass. You’ll each get a copy of it to read at your leisure, but unless you are that interested in what’s going to happen to the damn fountain on the front lawn or the rubber ducky I used to play with as a child, I think you’ve pretty much heard what you we’re primarily interested in.

“So, there you have it. My fortune is yours now, you greedy, heartless leeches! You’ve got what you wanted—except for your precious earrings, Paige. Now, go away and leave my Harmony alone! I know that none of you have had a single kind word to say to her! Be gone with you all and leave her in peace.”

The screen goes black, and Harmony releases a held breath. I’m sure she had no idea that her mother had recorded her will, and this was more than a bit of a surprise to her.

“Carl’s going to see to the distribution of the will. Carl has the inventory of the jewelry. Carl is going to tell us what we get from the portfolio. Whose side are you on?” Jonah accuses. “You two are in cahoots to get the biggest chunk of the estate?”

“I’m on Tina Franklin’s side, sir,” Carl hisses, “as you have well known for decades. I’m the executor of her will and that’s what I’m doing—executing it! Now, you’re free to contest Mrs. Franklin’s will if you like. Just know that Ms. Harmony’s trust is untouchable as is the house. So, Harmony will have her fortune and the home, and you’ll simply be jeopardizing your and everyone else’s share of Ms. Tina’s fortune. Now, what would you like to do… sir?”

“A video will… indeed! I don’t think my mother did that without coercion for a moment! You’re not fooling anybody! Either of you!” Jonah barks. “I’ll have you disbarred for gross misconduct…”

“Oh, cut the shit!” Carl exclaims, causing the entire room to glare at him.

“You can’t speak to me that way…”

“You’re in my office—I can speak to you any way I damn well please!” he hisses, and the room falls silent. “I’ve been your parents’ attorney nearly since the day I passed the bar. Ever since the moment I met you—all of you—you’ve all been a bunch of insufferable brats! Uncontrollable, never satisfied, entitled little vermin who have run around the entire time I’ve known you asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ‘Where’s my share?’ You’re like those goddamn seagulls in that cartoon, running around screaming, ‘Mine! Mine! Mine!’

“Your. Mother. Was dying. For months! And none of you—not one of you—could be bothered to even come and say goodbye. This woman sat on the floor at her feet and wept in her lap, more times than I care to count! She’s had to battle crooked house staff, a greedy ex-husband, you—all while watching her mother deteriorate day after day. And you have the audacity—the unmitigated gall—to harass and besmirch the one person who stayed by her side and cared for her until she took her last breath when you didn’t even make the effort to show up? How dare you!” He growls the last words, and four stunned siblings continue to stare at him in awe and silence.

“Thurgood Franklin was my friend,” Carl continues. “And when he passed away, I made sure that his affairs were in order and that his wife taken care of, and you all know that because you were there. Now, Ms. Tina has passed away—also my friend—and because her spoken will is not to your liking, not only do you attack the one person who lovingly and painstakingly took care of her, but you also have the audacity to sit in my office and try to accuse me of misconduct? I’ve been your parents’ attorney for so many years that I’ve lost count! Your selfishness and greed have taken over your senses, and you should be ashamed of yourselves. I’m sure that Thurgood and Tina are thoroughly ashamed of you!”

For the first time since I’ve seen any of them, Tina’s children all look a bit contrite.

“Your mother. Is gone,” he continues. “She’s dead. She’s not coming back, and I think I shed more tears at her funeral than all of you combined. And I’ll tell you one thing that’s really going to piss you off. If I had my way, none of you would have gotten a goddamn dime! I told her more than once not to leave any of you anything, but she didn’t listen to me. You are her children, and she felt that you were entitled to it, but she made it clear that she was going to have her last say before any of you got a nickel.

“So, if you want… please, go ahead and contest the will. You’ll hold it up, but when it’s done, your proceeds will be divvied up between all of the remaining siblings… all of them!” Including Harmony, you assholes.

“You’ve heard your mother’s verbal rendition of the will. The printed rendition is exactly the same, with a little legal jargon thrown in. Do what you choose with that information. I have all of your contact information and you’ve heard what you’re getting. I swear to have the will executed and have the proceeds disbursed as soon as humanly possible just so that I never have to see any of you again. Now, get the fuck out of my office.”

He turns away to try to compose himself. Four siblings sit stunned, staring between each other and back at Carl—waiting for the punchline, I guess. After several moments and no one moving, Carl glances back over his shoulder to see the siblings still sitting there stunned.

“Are you all deaf?” he yells as he whirls around to face off with them. “Do you need a map? Or should I arrange for an escort for you? Get the fuck out!” He points to the door and stares at Theodore. It’s a standoff. One of them had better move.

Theodore stands, straightens and buttons his jacket, and with a last glare at Carl, turns and leaves the room.

Without moving his pointing arm, Carl turns his glare to Jonah, who repeats all of the gestures of his brother and leaves. Ilsa and Paige are out of their seats before Carl can turn their glares to them. I see them hovering outside the office waiting for Harmony when Carl puts his arm down, drops his head and sighs mournfully. Harmony stands, and I stand with her.

“My friend is dead,” he says, his voice low. “Over forty years of camaraderie and memories reduced to this. She and Thurgood are the main reasons I went into law in the first place. She’s the reason I stayed. I’m too old for this.” He raises glassy eyes to Harmony.

“I’m going to carry out my friend’s wishes and get this will executed as soon as humanly possible. I’m going to have her liquid assets divvied up and have millions of dollars distributed to four ungrateful, greedy, hateful ass children who don’t deserve a fucking dime!” he barks loud enough for the vultures in the hallway to hear him. “And then I’m out. I’ll be available if you ever need a consult or advice, but I’m not doing this anymore.”

“Carl!” Harmony says, her voice heavy with concern. “Don’t do this! Don’t leave your profession—what you worked so hard to achieve—because of them.”

“It’s not just them!” Carl retorts. “Do you think this is the first time this has happened? It certainly won’t be the last. People don’t have hearts anymore! They’re just walking, talking shells filled with evil and greed. People have come into this office for will readings and gotten into fist fights. Your loved one is dead! You’ve lost a part of your family! These people lost the woman who carried them for nine months, went through incredible hell, pain, and suffering to bring them into the earth. Paige was breech—she ripped your mother’s body apart so that she couldn’t have any more children. Tina nearly died trying to get her here and they couldn’t even say ‘goodbye?’ Did you know that, Paige?” he yells out into the hallway, and Paige moves away from the doorway and out of visibility.

“None of them have any conviction! Hell, they’re not even mourning. They’re sitting here more upset that she left you the house than they are that she’s gone and she’s never coming back! Who does that?” He falls into his chair.

“My last moments with your mom… she cried, and she asked me what she did wrong. She asked me what she did to cause her children to hate her so much. She talked about how she did her best to raise them and to make sure that they had everything that they needed their entire lives, and that they deserted her and left her to die alone. She thanked God for you, though,” he adds. “She knew that as long as you were around, she wouldn’t die alone.

“She was tired, Harmony. She was bone tired, and she waited until that deed was filed, and she let go. She didn’t take her last breath that night when she went to sleep and didn’t wake up. She took her last real breath when I told her the house was yours. She smiled and sighed deeply. Then she closed her eyes and said, ‘thank you.’ She was still alive after that, but it was all mechanical. She was already gone—already content to go home.

“She loved you so much, Harmony,” he says, his voice cracking. “She never regretted one minute of having you in her life. She understood what you were going through as a teenager, but she was immensely proud of how you turned out. If you take nothing else from this horrible experience, please take that.”

Tears are flowing from Carl’s eyes and Harmony, along with my wife, is openly crying.

“Thank you, Carl,” she whispers through her tears. “That’s the most precious gift I could ever receive.” Carl nods and composes himself.

“I hate to dismiss you this way, child, but I need to hurry and perform my last act as an estate attorney. My friend is gone, and I have no reason to do this anymore.” Harmony nods and takes his hand, giving it a firm squeeze. “If you need me…” he adds. She nods again and turns to leave. Butterfly puts an arm around her and Harmony returns the gesture. I think, at this moment, they’re holding each other up. I shake Carl’s hand.

“You’re a good man,” I say. He nods and purses his lips—his form of “thank you,” I think, as he fights to keep from completely breaking down. I quickly fall in step behind Butterfly and Harmony as they both watch the floor to avoid bumping into anything. They don’t make eye-contact with any of the siblings as they exit the office. Jonah moves to speak, and I throw a look of death at him.

Say something and I’ll knock your fucking dentures out!

I see a visible chill run through him as he takes a step back and clams the fuck up. As we’re waiting for the elevator, I hear Carl’s disembodied voice speaking through the intercom to his assistant—the siblings still hovering around her desk.

“Mrs. Andreini, please get the ball rolling on the Franklin file immediately. I want it executed and closed as soon as inhumanly possible. Also, close my door and get those people out of my office. Call the police if you have to.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Richardson.”

The elevator comes, and we don’t wait to see the outcome. I usher the ladies inside and push the button for the first floor, leaving the siblings behind us as the elevator doors close.


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.

There has been yet another development where if you feel the need to talk to fellow readers about personal issues, you need a sounding board, you want to vent about something in your life, please feel free to visit the link on the left in the menu entitled “Do You Need To Talk.” No subject is taboo. I just ask that you approach the link with respect for those who have concerns as well as those who respond. You can also get to the link by clicking 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

Raising Grey: Chapter 70—The Women

Hello my friends,

One of my readers and Facebook friends Charlette Bishop has lost her son and is unable to properly lay him to rest. As many of us are parents, I’m certain that we can empathize with the unimaginable pain of possibly losing a child. Couple that with the distress of being unable to provide that child with a proper burial, and the situation becomes utterly unthinkable. I’m asking anyone who can to please follow the red link below and donate to the family’s efforts to bury their loved one. There’s strength in numbers, y’all, and I can guarantee you that ANY AMOUNT will be appreciated. Please help if you can.

Help A Family Bury A Beloved Son

I know every week, it seems like it’s something else, but you can’t time when these things are going to happen. Please, PLEASE help if you can. Thank you in advance.

GOLDEN—I’m getting a lot of inquiries about her. I haven’t abandoned the story, but I have to follow the Muse. I’ve been battling (and I do mean BATTLING) with a particular storyline for Raising and if I break off of it, I’m going to lose it. 

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 70—The Women

ANASTASIA

“All the Grey women have gone on shopping sprees for our weddings,” Mia begins.

“I didn’t!” Val protests.

“Well, then, we rectify that now—for you and for Luma,” Mia protests.

“But I don’t need anything, child,” Luma says sweetly. “Herman gives me everything I need and more. I don’t even have to work if I don’t want to.”

“There’s not one little thing that you can think of that you may want for yourself?” I ask. “That’s the whole idea of the Black Friday shopping spree. I can almost guarantee that none of us actually needs anything. I’ll probably be loaded down with baby gear—since Harry is quickly introducing my son to the joys of walking. Val, I know you’re going to be on the lookout for cute maternity clothes and stuff for the baby’s room. This is the time to not think about prices and do the impulse shopping thing. Hell, I hate shopping, but I look forward to this every year.”

“Don’t worry, Luma,” Grace says, hooking arms with her. “I’ll show you how it’s done.”

By the time we’re getting ready to head to Miana’s, Luma has shed her timidity of shopping and has purchased some beautiful new pieces. She admits that she could use a color and trim but won’t go overboard at the salon. As usual, Sophie sticks close to me in this setting, but doesn’t say too much. I guess it’s up to me.

“So,” I say as we’re getting our pedicures. “Thanksgiving.” She twists her lips.

“Yeah—food, fun, family, yippee,” she says with little enthusiasm.

“You’re beginning to sound like a surly teenager,” I say, raising my brow. She sighs.

“Usually, it’s just me and Mags, talking about… whatever, and Mariah and Celida and let’s face it. They’ve been through some crappy stuff losing their mom and their dad, but they’re basically the same person and they’re both… so young. At first, hanging around them was kinda fun. Now, it’s more like babysitting.” She looks down at her toes as the technician trims her nails.

“And Marlow?” I ask. She twists her lips again but doesn’t make eye-contact with me.

“What about him?” she says, trying to be impassive.

“He was pretty upset when he left yesterday,” I inform her.

“Hmmm,” she says, unmoved.

“Why do you think that was?”

“Because his girlfriend was mad,” she informs me matter-of-factly.

“So, what was her problem?” I ask.

“She can’t take a joke, I guess,” Sophie mumbles.

“Is that what happened?” I press. “You were joking?” She looks up at me and her expression says that she’s aware that I already know what happened.

“I wasn’t talking about her,” Sophie fibs. “Maggie doesn’t like her—I don’t know why. She’s says Britney’s a phony and that she’s anorexic because she so skinny.” I nod.

“I see. So… you didn’t say anything about Britney needing a gravy sandwich.” Sophie twists her lips and looks back down at her toes.

“That’s what I thought,” I say.

“That’s not what I said,” she mumbles.

“Well, what did you say?”

“I said she should have some more gravy. That’s all,” she says petulantly.

“And of course, that had nothing to do with her being skinny, right?”

Maggie said she was skinny, not me!” she defends.

“But did the gravy suggestion follow Maggie’s comment?” I accuse, and my little friend is quiet again. I’m a shrink, kid. Don’t try to pull anything past me.

“Listen, Sophie, I’m not really sure what the issue is with you and Marlow’s… dates, but this sparring really needs to stop. It’s only going to piss him off, and it’s only going to make him—and you—feel uncomfortable at family gatherings. Since we consider you both part of our family, that would certainly be a less-than-ideal development. From what I gather, what you said about Britney hurt her. Now, I know that twit Maya was a real piece of work, but did Britney do anything to bring that on?” She twists her lips again. She twists her lips a lot. I think that’s her tell.

“No,” she admits, looking back at her toes again.

“Listen,” I say turning to her, “you know that if anybody does anything unfair to you or treats you badly, I’ve got your back. But I can’t defend you when you’re deliberately mean to people for no reason. You wouldn’t want anyone to treat you that way, would you?” She nervously starts to twitch and fiddle her fingers. “Is something going on? Do you want to talk?”

She raises beseeching eyes to me as if she’s begging me to understand how she’s feeling and just as I swear she’s about to open up and talk to me, Mia and Val gleefully burst into the room to get their pedicures. She looks at them and clams up again, shaking her head that she has nothing to say.

And the moment is lost.

I reach over and take her hand, causing her to bring her eyes to mine again.

“Anytime, Sophia,” I promise her. “You can talk to me about anything, anytime.” She drops her eyes and nods again, but says nothing else. How long is this poor girl going to carry this torch and bear this burden by herself? She either needs to say something about it or get over it and move on.

When we arrive at Grey Manor after the shopping and the primping, Marlow’s car is visibly one of the vehicles in the circular drive and Sophie suddenly has the look that she would rather be anywhere but here. She looks like a caged rabbit, like if I open the door and let her out, she’s going to run into the woods and disappear.

“Chuck, Keri, can you take Minnie inside and start unloading the bags? I need to speak to Sophie.”

Chuck looks at me for an instant, then nods and exits the car. Keri quickly leans into the back where Sophie and I are sitting and removes Minnie from her car seat, leaving me and Sophie alone in the car.

“Okay, Sophie, the last time you looked that green was at Mia’s reception. Shortly thereafter, you had one of the guards take you home. There’s nowhere to run. What’s going on?”

She gives me that same look again and I’m just waiting for someone to come knocking on the window or throw the car door open to ruin the moment once again. Thank God no one does.

“You have to swear to me that you’ll never tell anybody—nobody, ever—or I’ll never speak to you again!” she vows.

“I’ll never tell anybody anything that you tell me unless I feel like you’re in danger,” I promise. She sighs and looks down at her lap.

“I like Marlow,” she says, her voice small, “a lot. I know he doesn’t like me like that. I know I don’t stand a chance. I know I’m too young. I know this will never happen, but it doesn’t make me stop liking him. I look forward to family gatherings and holidays because I’ll get to see him—and then he shows up with some twit or some scarecrow. Last year at Thanksgiving, we had a great time! We talked, and he didn’t make me feel like a kid. We could always talk. At Christmas, and New Year’s… and then at Aunt Val and Uncle Elliot’s wedding, he danced with me. It was…” She trails off, looking straight ahead out the windshield. “… Really nice. And then, the girls started coming around and… he stopped talking to me.”

Her gaze drops back to her lap as she tries to find her words.

“It was just like one day, I didn’t exist anymore,” she says, her voice cracking. “He used to ask me about school and talk to me about what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go to college. Now, he doesn’t even speak to me when he comes into the room! I’m not stupid! He’ll be graduating soon and I’m not even in high school yet. He’s way out of my league. Geez, I don’t even have a league, but did he have to start treating me like I’m nobody? Like he doesn’t even know I’m alive? What does it matter what I say about his scarecrow, vomit-dress-wearing girlfriends if he doesn’t even know that I’m alive?” she wails.

She buries her face in her hands and begins to sob. I put my arms around her and let her cry. I can’t offer her any comfort. She’s right. Crushes are painful, and she’s got a crush on someone that she can’t have. They might as well be on two different planets for the chance that she has to be with him—at all. It’s good that she understands that, but it’s bad, too. There’s no hope for them, yet she has to see him at every. Family. Outing. And he’s not going to stop bringing his girlfriends around. Now is not the time for me to tell her to buck up and get over it. It’s just going to make it worse, so I just let her cry.

Her crying doesn’t subside, and she eventually lays in my lap and continues to weep. After she’s been there for a few moments, Marlow comes out of the house. He looks left to right as if he’s looking for someone, then he quickly strides to his car. I realize that Sophie and I are the only ones who haven’t come into the house, and he’s looking for us… or at least he’s looking to avoid us.

Don’t worry, Marlow, the coast is clear. She doesn’t want to see you right now any more than you want to see her.

After belting himself into the seat, he starts the car and drives off, unknowingly leaving Sophie in a puddle of her own tears.

*-*

I didn’t realize that I had completely skipped my session with Ace until Christian asked me about it at brunch the next day. I don’t even know if Ace expected me to keep a session on Black Friday. Nonetheless, I didn’t hear from him and he didn’t hear from me, so…

It’s time for the Greater Seattle Adopt-A-Family Reunion and I’m ready to see the families that we’ve helped throughout the years. Granted, Helping Hands isn’t the only charity that takes part in this occasion, but I’m still anxious to see the families that we’ve helped thus far. Last year, I was elegant in maternity green, but this year, I’m fierce in an elegant black halter gown with a beaded back and a pair of crystal-encrusted Circonvolu Strass Christian Louboutin stiletto strappy sandals. So that I don’t freeze my ass off, but I’m still able to showcase my gown, I’m wearing a burgundy custom-made full-length maxi coat that only buttons to the waist then flares out like a cape.

The rest of the ladies are equally elegant in their jewel-toned gowns and fancy footwear—Mia in rich magenta, Val and Mandy in brilliant blues, Luma in yellow topaz, and Grace in a deep, cheery pink. Our gentlemen all accompany us in sleek Brioni, Tom Ford, and Cesare Paciotti. Even my dad dons Armani for the occasion.

The initial portion of the evening has been changed from the usual cocktail hour to a more family-friendly meet-and-greet as some of the older children of the adopted families were invited to join us tonight. This, of course, means that Marlow is in attendance. I don’t know why I was fretting him bringing a date with him, but my concerns are unfounded as he accompanies his mother instead.

I can’t help but stare in wonder at the changes I see in them both since that day that we met. He was so angry, and she was so… small. She’s still a petite woman, of course, especially next to her very tall son, but back then, she was… emotionally miniscule. Her abusive husband had beaten all the life and energy out of her, and she was just here. Today, she looks vibrant and beautiful, refreshed. She’s telling me about her new beau, Zack—well, maybe not so new, she’s been seeing him for a few months now, but she won’t allow anything to become too serious too quickly. That’s the reason we haven’t met him yet.

We talk for a moment about Maggie and Marlow and the strides they’ve made in the last two years. She mentions that Maggie sometimes asks what happened to her father. She’s gotten older and understands the world a little better, but still doesn’t know the whole story. Marcia just glosses over it when the topic arises.

“It may be time to tell her the truth,” I counsel Marcia. “She’s old enough to understand and whatever hypotheses she formulates, you want them to be based on facts.”

I shouldn’t be surprised that I have to don the Dr. Steele-Grey hat tonight. I don’t mind, though. The families have all come a long way.

We’re seated for dinner and we enjoy a delicious rack of lamb with trimmings while we congregate and share stories. As usual, a slideshow comprised of pictures of the families and various happenings with the supporting charities follows dinner, I get a kick out of hearing the various exclamations of recognition when people see their family or their organization on the screen. When the slideshow is over, I begin to make my way around the room to do the necessary networking required to make connections and keep the donations rolling in. While I’m mingling, I scan the room hoping to see the one person that I haven’t talked to in eons.

“Thelma!” I say once I finally spot her. She’s wearing a beautiful evening gown, silver with a hint of blue, lace back and crisscross scooped front with a special extra feature.

“I see congratulations are in order,” I add, taking a seat next to her once we greet one another. “When are you due?”

“This little bundle is due in March,” she says, rubbing her belly, “but if he’s anything like little Jimmy, he’ll be here by Valentine’s Day.”

“Couldn’t wait to meet Mommy and Daddy, huh?” I ask. Thelma smiles.

“No,” she laughs. “He was in quite the hurry.”

“How are things going?” I ask.

“Oh, Ana,” she says. “Things couldn’t be better. Jimmy fought to shake that infection at first, but he never took time off—that’s why it wouldn’t leave completely. I fussed a little, but you know my Jimmy… he’s hard-headed. Once he was finally well, though, he put some healthy weight back on, and he was feeling like himself again and…” She points at her stomach with both index fingers and smiles.

“I can’t remember a time we’ve been happier except when we first got married. His bosses saw how serious he is about his job and how well he works, and they made him a supervisor—a raise, better benefits… I’m able to put money away for a rainy day now. It’s been so wonderful. I’ve been meaning to call you and catch you up on things, but it’s kind of hard to do these days,” she laughs.

“I can imagine,” I say.

“It was wonderful to get the invite to the gala,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to see you and tell you turned our lives around. I can’t begin to thank you…”

“Ana!”

I’m caught off guard by a man’s voice exclaiming my name. I turn around and see a very stocky James coming towards us carrying two large glasses of what looks like orange juice.

“James, hi,” I say, rising from my seat. He places the glasses on the table.

“Oh, I was so hoping I would see you,” he says wrapping me in a warm embrace.

“I’m glad to see you, too, James,” I say, returning his embrace.

“Please, call me Jimmy,” he says, releasing me with a smile. “Bella only calls me James when she’s mad at me.” I raise my brow.

“I’m Bella,” Thelma says, raising her hand, and I nod. Jimmy turns to his wife.

“Isn’t she glorious?” he says, looking lovingly at Thelma before kneeling down to her.

“Stop it, now,” she says, playfully swatting his shoulder. He gently kisses her cheek and takes her hand.

“Do you need anything else?” he asks. “Are your feet okay?”

“My feet are fine, Jimmy,” she says cupping his cheek. “And you can have one glass of champagne if you want…”

“Oh, no,” he says. “I’m not taking any chances. It’s orange juice for us both tonight. I have to get my packages home safe and sound.” He smiles at her before turning to me. “Is Christian here?”

“Right behind you.” I turn to see Christian approaching us with a half-smile. “I saw some man wrapped around my wife and figured I better come and investigate.” Jimmy laughs heartily as he stands.

“Well, you have no worries here,” Jimmy says giving Christian’s hand a firm shake. “I only have eyes for that beauty right there,” he adds, gesturing to his wife.

“How have you been, man?” Christian asks. “Things been okay?”

“More than okay,” Jimmy emphasizes. “I can’t begin to thank you for everything you’ve done for us. You saved my life, man.”

“Think nothing of it,” Christian says. “It was the right thing to do.”

“No, really,” he says, gesturing for Christian to take a seat. Christian holds my chair out and I sit while James continues to make his point as both gentlemen take their seat.

“I was living in a death trap. I foolishly had my family there. I don’t know what would have happened if you two hadn’t come along. Ana gave my family a safe place to be while I was going through my insanity—and Christian, what you did for me…” His voice cracks a bit while he’s trying to speak. “Just… thank you, man… thank you the whole world.” Jimmy quickly wipes away a tear.

“You’re thanking me by living a good life and taking care of your family,” Christian encourages, “which I see is growing! Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” Thelma says with her full-beam glowing pregnancy smile. Jimmy’s right—she really is beautiful. She wears maternity quite well. As Christian and Jimmy discuss due dates and daddy duty, I catch Val’s attention in the crowd and gesture for her to join us.

“I miss champagne,” she says playfully as she comes over to the table.

“Thelma, this is my sister, Valerie,” I introduce. Thelma takes her hand.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Thelma greets. “How did I not know that you had a sister?”

“Well, we’re not blood sisters,” Val says, “we’re sisters-in-love, in a lot of ways. We’ve been friends for years and we happen to marry brothers.”

“Well, sisters-in-love are the best kind,” Thelma says. “Please join us…”

Very soon, the women are chatting away about babies and marriage and what have you. Val shares her experience with Meg while Thelma talks about how we met and how our family helped her family. After a long conversation, Christian, Val, and I excuse ourselves and head back to our table.

“I’m going to desert you guys for a moment,” Val says. “Nature calls.”

“By all means,” I say as Christian and I head back to our table.

“Well that’s a success story if I ever heard one,” Christian says pushing in my chair for me.

“I’ll say. I barely recognized Thelma. She looks so healthy and happy. She was barely holding on when I last saw her. She was doing better, but you could tell that being without Jimmy was taking its toll on her.”

“I kinda get it,” he says. “Think about how well we did when we were apart.” I can only assume that he’s talking about me trying to take a nosedive off a cliff when he went to Madrid and him turning into Death when I went to Montana.

“Yeah, not the best times of our lives,” I say, trying to brush away the memories. I glad to hear a soft voice over my shoulder at just that moment.

“Ana, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude… may I please speak to you for a moment?” Addie comes over to our table. She’s frowning, but not angry. Her face is… troubled.

“Sure, Addie. Do you want to go somewhere more private?” Addie seems rudderless. Christian stands and pulls a chair out for her.

“Please, Adelaide, sit,” he gestures. “I’ll go and refresh my drink.” Adelaide looks at him and nods before taking the seat he’s holding for her. He touches my shoulder gently and heads to the bar.

“What’s wrong, Addie?” I ask. “Are you okay?” She clears her throat.

“The Center,” she says. “It seems to be doing very well.”

“It is,” I say cautiously. “Once we got over our last speedbump for accreditation, things began to move very quickly. We can barely keep up.” She nods.

“I barely recognize the place from the pictures,” she says. “Grace had been working on it for so long. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t taken much interest in it as a project until you brought it to my attention.”

Oh, hell. Is she about to tell me that she wants to become involved in Helping Hands? I can’t turn her down, but…

“Unless it’s true what they say and you’ve found my granddaughter’s physical twin, is it safe to assume that the woman in the apron that looked like her was indeed Courtney?”

I’m caught off guard by the question. I thought I took special care not to use Courtney in any of the pictures to protect her anonymity from her grandparents.

“Yes, Addie… it’s Courtney,” I confess.

“I see. How long has she been here?” she asks.

“She never left,” I inform her. Addie nods and twists her lips.

“So much for teaching her a lesson,” she laments. I shake my head.

“Oh, Addie,” I say, “you have no idea. Courtney learned that lesson and more.” I turn towards her in my seat. “She made me swear not to tell you that she was still here. She feels like she’s hurt you and Fred enough and your words cut her to the quick.” Addie raises her head and her gaze meets mine.

“Am I supposed to feel guilty about what I said… after how she treated me?” she asks, appalled. I shake my head.

“You had every right to say what you were feeling after what you had been put through,” I reply, neither condoning or condemning her choice of words. “I’m only stating that they had the desired effect. Courtney feels that you two are better off without each other because of the way she treated you and because of your words to her. She was at Mia’s wedding reception.” Addie’s eyes widen.

“Mia’s…” Her words trail off. “They’re friends again?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I admit, “but they’re cordial enough where Mia was okay for her to come to the wedding. It didn’t come easily.”

“I can bet,” Addie says. I catch her meaning, but I don’t bother trying to smooth it over. Apparently, Courtney was right. That bridge is too badly burned for them to walk back across it.

“I discovered her in a homeless shelter right before I had the twins,” I tell her. “She had asked me for help, but I turned her down. Like you, I felt she was a lost cause. Our security had been keeping an eye on her because she threatened me, and they informed me that she was at the shelter. I found her going through the classifieds looking for a job.

“Grace put her up at the shelter at Helping Hands and gave her a part-time job there. She moved to subsidized housing and she lived there for quite some time—in a terrible part of town—but she was grateful as she said anything was better than going back to Putchatoowak or whatever that place is called.” Addie turns her head to me, and I just keep talking.

“She enrolled in school.” That piques her attention. “I got her a laptop as she was in no position to buy one herself. However, she took the bus to and from school and got back to that horrible little apartment after dark. She said that she wasn’t afraid because the neighborhood guys looked out for her, but she was a young girl living alone going to and from school and work leaving in the early morning and returning after dark. I couldn’t in good conscience leave her in that position.

“I offered her my condo. She refused. I convinced her that it was an investment and begged her to take it. The place where she was living was roach-infested and unsafe. It was deplorable. We worked out rent that she could afford and she moved in, a condition of her stay being that she get good grades, she continues to work with Helping Hands, and she becomes an asset to us upon graduation.”

What is she studying?” Addie asks in disbelief.

“Social work.” She frowns.

“You’re kidding.” I shake my head.

“I’m not,” I tell her. “She wants to work with children. More than one abused or troubled teenager has come through the Center and Courtney has brought them out of their shell or made them feel safe. That’s what made her choose social work. You know that she had no skills and no direction before. Now she does.

“I’ve asked her several times to allow me to contact you and tell you about the change in her life—in her attitude and her outlook. She refused. She begged me not to tell you. She spotted you at Mia’s reception and made a hasty retreat before you spotted her.”

“No, she didn’t,” Addie says, now looking at the table. She didn’t what?

“She didn’t get away before I saw her,” Addie says as if I had verbalized my question. “I did see her. She was… beautiful… and I didn’t recognize her. I assumed that my eyes were playing tricks on me, not only because I had sent her back to Chuktapaw nearly a year ago, but also because I thought there was no way in hell that Mia would allow her to come to the wedding. So, I blew it off. I figured if I didn’t hear from her after what happened this summer, I wouldn’t hear from her at all.” I frown.

“What happened?” I ask. Addie raises her eyes to mine.

“Her mother died,” she says. “I was listed as next of kin and when they contacted me, I didn’t even ask about Courtney. Her father had disappeared years before apparently and nobody was there to claim the body. I had her cremated and interred in the family tomb. There was nothing much else to do.”

Shit. Courtney’s mother is dead. I’m sure she doesn’t know. Should I tell her… or just let sleeping dogs lie? Jesus, what a conundrum.

“Then, when I saw her in the picture—smiling and wearing an apron… and serving fruit bowls to children…” She trails off again.

“Well, she’s here,” I say, crossing my legs. “She’s living in my condo, she attends Seattle Central and she’s at Helping Hands every day.” Addie raises a brow at me.

“Are you trying to arrange a meeting?” she asks. I sigh. I can’t believe I’m about to say this.

“No, Adelaide. I’m trying to avoid one.” Her eyes widen.

“How is telling me where she’s going to be every second of the day considered a diversion tactic from a meeting?”

“Because the way that I’m understanding what you’re saying and how you’re feeling, if anything happened to Courtney, assuming you could get to her, you’d cremate her, inter her remains in the family tomb, call it a day and forget she ever existed—assuming you don’t opt to donate her body to science for spare parts.”

Addie glares at me. Yes, Adelaide, she told me what you said.

“You’re our friend,” I continue. “Your daughter died this summer and there was no funeral—no mourning of the loss of your child that we knew of. We didn’t get the chance to comfort you, to give you condolences… you sent your respects when Burton Grey died, and we don’t even know your daughter’s name. Either you’re the coldest woman in existence—and I don’t believe that for a second—or this candle has been burned from both ends and is completely destroyed.

“I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Courtney is a changed person. I’ve watched the transformation myself for an entire year. She has a meaningful relationship—someone in her life who loves her very much. She’s got direction, drive, determination, but her wicks have disintegrated, too. She turned into a stuttering mess when she saw you at the reception and she got out of there as quickly as she could. She acknowledges what she did to you and how she treated you and for that reason, she doesn’t want to trouble you anymore, but she’s hurt, too.

“You wanted to hurt her, and you did,” I continue. “You wanted your words to cause her pain, and it worked. That knife cut through the bone. Nobody’s putting you in judgement because you were responding to an equally deep cut, if not a deeper one. But you can’t get offended because someone acknowledges the fact that what you said hurt her. It’s what you wanted, and you succeeded. Judging by how you feel about your daughter’s death and the fact that her passing gave you no concern for her daughter shows me that your pain and wounds are beyond the point of healing to the degree that you couldn’t even have a constructive conversation with Courtney.

“On the other side of that coin, Courtney’s in some place of martyrdom where she feels she needs to pay penance for what she’s done… not just to you, to everybody she’s ever hurt. In the process, she’s dealing with the gaping wound that your words left. So, the thought of even seeing you causes her anguish let alone speaking to you, not only because of what she did to you, but also because of what you said to her. To that end, it would be totally counterproductive on both ends for you two to see each other.

“If there are arrangements that need to be made in case of Courtney’s demise, let me know what you would like to do, and I’ll be the liaison to tell you that she has passed away should something happen to her. I won’t say anything about her mother unless she specifically asks. I think it’s better that she doesn’t know since there’s nothing that she can do about it.”

Addie shivers a bit, looking down at her frail, wrinkled hands.

“Thank you for being honest with me, Ana,” she says, her voice shaking, “though I wish you had told me this sooner.”

“I couldn’t,” I tell her. “I was sworn to secrecy, but I can’t avoid you seeing her on the screen. I wish I had been more careful about the pictures that we sent to the Greater Seatt…” Who sent the pictures? Who okayed pictures of Courtney? I wouldn’t have done that.

“Ana?” Addie says, bringing me back from my musings. I shake my head.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just couldn’t tell you. She asked me not to and I had to respect her wishes. Had you not seen her in the presentation, she would still be somebody you thought you saw at Mia’s reception.” She nods.

“I’m going to find Fred,” she says. “I think I’d like to go home, now.” Without another word, she rises from her seat and walks off in the direction she came. I pop my neck like I’ve just finished a prize fight.

“Well, she didn’t look happy.” Christian is back by my side the moment Addie leaves.

“Where’s Grace?” I snap, and he immediately jumps back.

“Um, I don’t know,” he says a bit defensively. I begin to scan the room for her, and I see her in a conversation with some other guests. Ignoring my husband, I rise from my chair and stride over to her.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt,” I interject. “Grace, can I speak to you for a minute?”

“Of course, dear,” she says. “Excuse me, ladies.” I walk out into the hallway, not sure if Grace is following me. When I turn around, Christian and Grace are bringing up my rear.

“Ana, what is it?” she asks.

“Grace, I didn’t okay the pictures for the slideshow. Did you?”

“Yes,” she says, “I picked them all.”

“Including the one with Courtney in it?” I ask. She straightens her stance.

“Yes,” she says unapologetically.

“Knowing that Fred and Addie would be here?” Realization dawns on Christian’s face.

“Yes,” she replies finitely.

“Why would you do that?” I ask. “She has feverishly asked that we don’t tell her grandparents that she’s still here.”

“Because this is her family,” she says firmly. “Family needs to stick together, and you never know when you’re going to lose someone.”

“That’s not your place, Grace,” I say flustered. “You can’t push somebody’s hand until they’re ready!”

“And what if they’re never ready?” she retorts. “One of them will be looking down in a casket at the other and have nothing but regrets!”

“Then they’re never ready!” I say louder than I intended. “God, Grace, you may have caused more harm than good!”

“Then I’ll take that responsibility!” she snaps. “That girl is out on a limb doing everything she can to make something of herself and her life and she’s estranged from the only family that means anything to her. Her mother certainly doesn’t care…”

“Her mother’s dead,” I deadpan. Grace freezes.

“What?” she says.

“Addie’s daughter died this summer. I don’t even know what killed her. Addie never said a word. She retrieved the body, cremated it, interred it in the family tomb, and washed her hands. Courtney’s transformation is balancing on the head of a pin at any moment. I don’t have to tell you that—you’ve seen it. Yet, you think it’s a good idea to shove reconciliation down their throats that neither of them is ready for and probably don’t want because you feel like they should be speaking. How much sense does that make to you, Grace?” She’s struggling a bit for her words.

“You’ve proven my point,” she says. “She hasn’t seen her daughter in many years and when she does, she’s dead. She could have seen her before this, made amends before it was too late.”

“She hadn’t seen her daughter in years and when she did retrieve her body, she felt nothing,” I retort. “I would most likely do the same thing with my mother right now. She didn’t want to make amends! Unfortunately, Grace, some hurts don’t heal. So, while you’re trying to force a meeting that you think should happen, you might want to leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals!”

Grace gasps as I march away, and I hear Christian’s scolding tone behind me. I don’t care. She was wrong and it’s that simple. I head back into the ballroom and straight for the bar. I get a full glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t drink any hard liquor since I’m still here representing Helping Hands.

“Anastasia!” Christian hisses quietly, joining me at the bar. “That was totally unnecessary! You had no right to speak to my mother that way!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Christian,” I say, taking my cabernet and moving away from the bar. “I didn’t speak to your mother that way. I spoke to a coworker—the director of Helping Hands—who used a charity function with our organization’s name on it to engineer a possible reunion that had nothing to do with her! She used her position to meddle in someone else’s affairs, a situation directly related to the Center no less. So, no, I wasn’t yelling at your mother and this has nothing to do with you!”

Christian’s face becomes stone and he pulls up to his full height.

“Very well, then,” he says. “The director of Helping Hands asked me to tell you that you can represent the Center tonight as she’s going home before she has one of her episodes.”

“Hmph,” I say, sipping my wine. “Her episodes. Didn’t her doctor warn us about her conveniently-placed episodes?”

Christian’s eyes become a metallic gray and he looks like he’s going to explode.

“Conveniently-placed or not,” he nearly hisses, “you yelled at my mother and she’s going home. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He turns around and strolls coolly away from me as if we were just talking about the weather.

And that’s the last thing he says to me all night. It’s a fucking repeat of Val’s housewarming.

I try to keep up appearances, that London is not burning in the Grey camp, but everyone in our family can clearly see that Grace and Carrick have left and that Christian is avoiding me. Just when I’m sure that I’ve had just about enough of Christian hobnobbing with everyone else at the affair but me, I realize that he’s not quite finished making me feel shitty.

“You yelled at Mom?”

I turn around and find Elliot confronting me about mine and Grace’s altercation. I know that my mouth is hanging open, but I have no idea what my face is saying, because Elliot’s expression is clearly saying, “Oh, shit, what the fuck did I just do?”

I quickly scan the room for my husband. When I see him, he makes eye-contact with me almost immediately, then turns away and continues his conversation.

Welp, that’s enough for me.

I grab my clutch and wordlessly walk away from my brother-in-law. I retrieve my coat from the coat check and go out front to one of the waiting taxis.

Jesus, that’ll add fuel to the fire.

I say a prayer for my safety and get into one of the taxis, giving the driver my address and promising a huge tip if he gets me there quickly and in one piece.

He does.

“Mrs. Grey!” the guard says when I get to the gate. “What… where’s your detail?”

“Please open the gate,” I say, emotionally exhausted. The cabbie drops me at the portico, and I give him a hundred-dollar bill.

“Thank you, ma’am!” he says, awestruck.

“Thank you for getting me home safely,” I tell him. “You have a good night.”

When I walk into the grand entry, Windsor is rushing over to me. He has a puzzled look in his eye, no doubt wondering where everyone else is.

“Windsor, do you ever sleep?” I ask handing him my coat. He smiles.

“Yes, ma’am, I do.” I just nod and climb the spiral staircase. I look at my bedroom door, then I look at the nursery door. I opt for the nursery. I check on my children, and Mikey is sound asleep with his two middle fingers in his mouth. I check on Minnie and she’s silently looking up at me. No fussing, no fidgeting, just looking at me.

“Were you waiting up for me, Minnie Mouse?” I say to her sweet little face. I take her out of the crib and lay her on my shoulder, gently patting her back. She’s bringing me comfort, not judging me for how I spoke to her grandmother or for being Mrs. Grey or not saying something I should have or…

I sit there silently for a long time with my daughter, drawing on her unconditional love to give me some strength. It seems like I have to be strong for a lot of people, and lately I don’t have time for myself anymore. That can actually be a good thing, since it means that I don’t focus on my PTSD so much. I twist my lips and think about how I feel the need to journal right now. Then I remember Jason’s advice:

Talk to anyone who will listen.

Minnie will listen. She may not be able to respond or give me advice, but she’ll listen.

Then, I have visions of her subliminally absorbing what I’m saying and having nightmares about whatever incarnations of the Boogeyman that a baby’s brain can conjure.

That’ll never do… so I come up with another idea.

“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella,” I begin, sitting in the rocker with my daughter. “She lived in this great apartment and she had great friends and a great life. She didn’t have a boyfriend or anything besides this one psycho guy who thought they were meant to be together but that’s a different story.

“One day, she met this really beautiful prince with a really bad attitude. She just wanted to get away from him, but no matter what she did, she couldn’t escape. She fell in love with him and her whole life changed. People thought she didn’t have a right to be the princess. They called her names and talked about her being a bad person and only wanting the prince’s money and castle, but she loved him anyway. So, she ignored what the people said and stuck by her prince.

“As fairytales go, they got married in a beautiful castle and drove away in a classic chariot and flew away on a magic carpet to a faraway land to spend time together. Now, you would think that they lived happily ever after, but that’s not what happened.

“They had to come back to the real world from their faraway land, and terrible things happened, too many things to tell you, but Cinderella no longer felt like she lived in a castle with her prince. She felt like she was running from demons and devils and monsters all the time. People were always making her account for her thoughts and deepest feelings even when they were scary. People were sometimes trying to hurt her or even kill her…”

Too graphic.

“She longed for the days when the members of the court had nothing to do with her life, when it was just talking to the Mad Hatters all day and drinking wine and spending time with her friends all night.

“She misses quiet nights on the balcony and driving down the coast to nowhere, letting the sea breeze wash away her troubles.

“She misses unassuming daydreams about what her future holds—the things she could see and what she could become.

“She misses not being expected to be perfect because she’s married to the prince.

“She despises what people think they know about her and how they expect her to behave and their preconceived notions and theories about who she really is.

“She misses the simple, unassuming life that she once led…”

I sigh as I hold my daughter, now sound asleep on my chest.

“I don’t like being Cinderella,” I whisper matter-of-factly.

I sit with my sleeping baby for several more minutes, until I actually drift off myself in the rocker. When I wake, I put her back in her crib and slide out of my sleek silver strappy stiletto sandals. When I look out the door, the hallway is quiet. I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep, but it appears that no one’s home yet. I quietly close the door to the nursery and look at the door to our owner’s suite.

Cinderella’s room.

I don’t want to go in there.

I try to remember which room isn’t taken, assuming anyone wants to come back to my house tonight, the wicked old Cinderella who yelled at the queen.

I go into guestroom three and drop my shoes on the floor. I lie on top of the blankets fully dressed and fall asleep.

*-*

I’m disoriented when I awake. I don’t know where I am and for a brief moment, I forgot what happened the night before. I stretch and I feel an arm around my waist. I know how my husband feels so I don’t need to turn around. He’s coiled around me like he normally is and he, too, is fully dressed—well, at least shirt sleeves and pants that I can see. I need to get up. I slept like the dead and didn’t empty my breast all night. If I don’t relieve them soon, I’m going to ruin a perfectly good gown. I move a bit to wake Christian, but he shifts and pulls me closer to him. Well, that didn’t help. I sigh, thinking that I’ll have to jolt him from his sleep in order to get away.

“I heard you tell Minnie that you don’t like being Cinderella.”

I freeze. Shit, he heard my conversation with my daughter? I fucking hate that shit. I’ve done my fair share of eavesdropping, but I hate that he heard that—for many reasons. I was emotional when I said it; it was a private moment with my little girl; and it sounds really bad.

“You don’t like your life as it is?” he asks when I say nothing. I think about my response.

“I don’t like what’s expected of me simply because of who I am,” I reply honestly. “I have to behave a certain way, do all the right things, say all the right things, make all the right decisions and if I don’t, there’s hell to pay.”

“But, baby, that’s part of being an adult.” I wrench out of his grasp and sit up.

“No, Christian, that’s part of being Anastasia Grey,” I say, turning to face him. “I was an adult before I was Anastasia Grey, and I wasn’t under scrutiny for everything I said and did. Anastasia Steele came and went as she pleased. There was no one looking over her shoulder, no security details, nobody watching her every move. She was an adult, too, and she was not under the microscope. No one accused her of being a gold-digger. Nobody turned their noses up to her because of who she was or what she had. She only had to prove who she was, prove she was worthy, when she met you. Anastasia Steele became Cinderella and suddenly, her entire life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are on display for everybody to see, and no matter what happens, Cinderella has to keep smiling. Cinderella has to keep representing the castle. Cinderella’s not allowed to hurt in public or fall apart in public and heaven forbid if Cinderella has a human moment at all. Le gasp, call the congeniality police! We have a major violation here! So, yes, there are many times when I don’t like being Cinderella!”

I rise from the bed and leave the guest room. I need to get to my breast pump or the shower before Niagara Falls releases from my boobs.

CHRISTIAN


“She’s not in the ladies’ room, Christian,” Val informs me after I’ve combed nearly every inch of this place looking for my wife. At first, I thought she was just being childish. Now, I’m scared shitless because I don’t know where she is. Bad things happen when my wife disappears.

“Sir,” Jason darts over to me and puts his hand on my arm. “I’ve tracked her phone. She’s at the Crossing.” I frown.

“How did she get all the way to Mercer and we didn’t know she was gone?” I bark.

“Because Chuck’s not here and she’s not wearing a tether, sir, except for her phone,” he retorts. “Remember tonight’s protocol? Chuck’s leaving town, we’re around family and friends, no need for extra security…”

He’s right. I agreed to lighter security tonight. Chuck has to be in South Dakota for his and his mother’s case against their brother. I can’t blame anyone for this one except myself…

And my careless wife.

She probably didn’t want to face me because of how she treated Mom.

“Let’s go,” I growl, heading for the door.

Everyone thought it best to head to their own abodes instead of coming to Grey Crossing, anticipating a showdown between me and my wife. The house is a tomb when I enter, only Windsor stirring to greet me.

“Mrs. Grey?” I hiss.

“She’s upstairs, sir,” he responds. “Will anyone else be coming tonight?”

“No,” I say, loosening my tie and taking the stairs two at a time. I head straight for the closed doors of our suite, but then I hear her voice to the right of me…

“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella…”

It’s coming from the cracked door of our babies’ nursery. Well, isn’t that adorable, I think angrily to myself. I’m tearing up a banquet hall looking for her and she’s here reading bedtime stories. I’m particularly livid after discovering that she took a goddamn taxi home!

“One day, she met this really beautiful prince with a really bad attitude. She just wanted to get away from him, but no matter what she did, she couldn’t escape. She fell in love with him and her whole life changed. People thought she didn’t have a right to be the princess. They called her names and talked about her being a bad person and only wanting the prince’s money and castle, but she loved him anyway. So, she ignored what the people said and stuck by her prince.”

Wait a minute. I’m new to this Disney thing, but even I know that’s not how that story goes. I lean against the wall next to the door and listen to her describe Cinderella’s life after she married the prince—the scrutiny, her fears, the dangers that followed her. I sigh heavily listening to her talk about how she misses how simple her life was before she met the “prince.”

“I don’t like being Cinderella…”

And it didn’t take a rocket scientist or even that statement to know that she was talking about us.

This conversation—this altercation or whatever it was that happened with her and Mom and more importantly, her leaving in a damn taxi without security—it needs to be addressed, but not tonight. She sounds raw and a bit vulnerable and this is not the time.

I go to our room and remove my jacket, tossing it and my tie onto the bed. I want a drink but think better of it. Instead, I’ll just sit here and wait.

And wait…

And wait…

And wait.

My mind replays the conversation she had with my mom. From what I understand, Mom was trying to orchestrate a possible meeting between Adelaide and her granddaughter and apparently, Butterfly and Courtney knew nothing about it. I don’t have all of the details, but she was pretty hard on my mom and I really thought that was very unnecessary. Mom left shortly after Adelaide did and… to be honest, I’m pretty gray—pun intended—on what happened after that.

My wife and I had some words, they weren’t kind, and I refused to argue with her in public. According to Mom, she would have to represent Helping Hands for the rest of the evening, and I was doing my best not to hinder that, but when Elliot asked me where Mom was, I told him the truth. The last time I saw her, she was glaring at me and Elliot was glaring at her, so I assumed he had asked about the altercation. I turned my head for a second, and when I looked back, she was gone.

I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she had taken Elliot aside to tell him her side of the story, but when a while later I saw Elliot and no Butterfly, I thought she had explained things, and everything was okay…

Until…

“Man, if looks could maim, I’d be castrated by now,” Elliot says. “All I could think was ‘back away slowly’ which is what I was trying to do, but then she just whirled around and took off out the door.” I frown deeply.

“Out the door?” I ask. “Where did she go?” Elliot shrinks a bit.

“I assumed she went to the ladies’ room,” he says. I look at my watch.

“Elliot, that was over half an hour ago. Nobody has seen her since!” I announce.

“Hey,” Val says, interrupting our conversation, on purpose no doubt. “Why so serious?”

“Val, would you mind terribly checking out the ladies’ rooms and seeing if my wife is hiding out in one of them?” I ask. She raises her brow knowingly to me then looks at Elliot.

“Mom and Montana had words,” he tells his wife. “It hasn’t been a good night.”

Grace and Ana,” she says, a statement, not a question.

“And me,” I admit, “but we didn’t fight. I was just not happy about her yelling at my mom.” Val twists her lips and rolls her eyes.

“I’ll be back,” she says as she heads off to the restrooms.

And now, I’m here, waiting and waiting for her to finish her remix of Cinderella with whatever child has her attention now. After waiting for I don’t even know how long, I toe out of my shoes and go back to the hallway. The nursery door is closed now, so I peek inside.

She’s not there.

I go down to the kitchen to see if she’s gone in search of a snack or a drink. She’s not there either. She’s not in the family room, the entertainment room, the movie room, her parlor, the office, or the gym.

Where the fuck is she now?

I’m almost tempted to activate the two-way but decide against it this late at night. I go back up to the second floor and begin to check the guest rooms. I would have thought not, but with the whole hating Cinderella thing…

Sure enough, I find her in the last guest room, curled up on the bed in her evening gown fast asleep.

And we’re sleeping in our clothes again.

I crawl in bed behind her and spoon her, falling asleep almost instantly.

*-*

“I had no idea that being married to me was such a goddamn trial,” I say to Jason while running on the treadmill the next day.

“You’re kidding, right?” Jason says. I look at him bemused. “No offense, sir, but working for you is a trial. I can only imagine what being married to you is like.” I frown.

“Don’t try to be cute,” I hiss. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“I’m not!” he snaps back. “That woman has been in your life for two and a half years. I know it’s not all bad, but I haven’t seen anybody go through the trials and tribulations that woman has been through just being married to you. Everybody’s watching her, people are gunning for her, she’s got to prove herself all the damn time… She can’t step wrong, she can’t be unhappy, she can’t be human. It’s a miracle she hasn’t had a nervous breakdown by now.”

“But she couldn’t have expected it to be easy when she agreed to marry me,” I protest. “Look at my life! She knew what she was signing up for.”

“Yeah,” he says, and nothing else. There’s something else behind that.

“Yeah, what?” I ask. He looks over at me without losing his stride.

“She’s still human, boss,” he says with a running shrug. “Whether you know what you’re signing up for or not doesn’t necessarily mean that you take it all in stride when it comes at you. And last night’s episode had nothing to do with being married to Christian Grey…”

“I didn’t say that! She did!” I protest.

“You didn’t let me finish,” he says. “It had nothing to do with being married to you, but it had everything to do with her version of Cinderella. She’s got responsibilities to people. One of those responsibilities was exploited last night and she was supposed to be okay with it—plaster a smile on her face and keep the night going. Nobody acknowledged her point of view last night. Whether it was right or wrong, nobody bothered to say, ‘I get it.’ Mrs. Wilson wanted to know why no one told her the truth about her granddaughter and she left upset. Dr. Grey was dug in that Mrs. Wilson had a right to know that her granddaughter was still here no matter what the consequences and she left upset.

“You heard your wife yelling at your mother and your mother left upset and that made you upset and you cut her off. Granted, you did it to prevent a public spectacle—which was smart—but she still got cut off. Then, whatever you told Elliot, he confronted her, and she was already burning the wick at both ends.” He does that imitation of an explosion with his hands and mouth. “We’re lucky she didn’t check into a hotel somewhere and turn her phone off. We were downtown after all.”

“God,” I sigh. “Our marriage isn’t going to survive this constant up and down.” Jason slows his treadmill down.

“Yes, it will,” he says, catching his breath. “This is marriage. It’s a constant up and down until you die, and you haven’t even hit your highest ups or your lowest downs. Why do you think they say love is a roller coaster? You didn’t expect it to be easy, did you?”

Yeah, I kinda did. My mistake.


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.

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~~love and handcuffs

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 69—Big, Huge “Guess What Happened’s”

Thanks, you guys for your encouraging words to me… and thank you more for your encouraging words to each other. It makes me happy to see us lifting each other up when we’re down. I’m so proud of you guys!

Send healing vibes, prayers, and positive thoughts out to my reader and Facebook friend Alyson. She just had a stint in the hospital and by the Grace of God, she’s home and hopefully doing better. Smoochies, Alyson!!!

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 69—Big, Huge “Guess What Happened’s”

CHRISTIAN

“She did what?” I ask my wife when she calls home to see who’s here for Girl’s Night.

“She shaved her head,” she confirms. “It really looks good on her, but Christian, she shaved her goddamn head!”

“Where is she now?” I ask. “Can she hear you?”

“No, she’s in the back getting the rest of her stuff. Oh, God, I’m so sorry, Tina,” she mumbles.

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Butterfly,” I comfort.

“I want to fucking fire somebody, but she’s a grown woman! I can’t tell her not to shave her head!” she rants.

“Don’t fire anybody,” I coax. “Women do this all the time nowadays. It’s not a strange thing.”

“So, if Minnie came home with her head shaved, you wouldn’t have a problem with it,” she states matter-of-factly. My blood actually curdles when she says that.

“We’re not talking about Minnie,” I divert. “We’re talking about a grown woman who has just lost her mother, went through a nasty divorce, and has had to contend with horrible siblings who have now broken into her house.”

“Well, it feels the same to me,” Butterfly says. “I feel like Tina trusted me with her daughter and I took her out and got her scalped.”

“Believe me, my mom is laughing right now,” I hear Harmony say, and I know that she’s caught us in the middle of our conversation.

“You scared the shit out of me!” Butterfly scolds.

“You shouldn’t be talking about me,” Harmony teases, and it’s good to hear the humor in her voice. “Hi, Christian!” she yells.

“Hi, Harmony,” I reply, and Butterfly relays my sentiment. “Just so that I can prepare the staff, are we talking Bruce Willis bald or Demi-Moore-G-I-Jane cut?”

“Demi,” she says, a bit reserved. “I just… wish she had warned me.”

“You were the one talking about detoxing and cleansing. This is very cleansing. I love it. It feels clean and free and I look great. I think I’m going to leave it this way for a while.”

“It’s not like you have a choice!” Butterfly points out.

“I do have a choice,” Harmony says. “I could let it grow back. I’m thinking not.”

“Well, it’s your head,” Butterfly says.

“Yes, and let’s stop talking about it. I’m starving.”

“Good, ‘cause we’ve got Girls Night. On our way babe,” she says into the phone. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you what happened at your house…” and the line goes dead.

Harmony shaved her head. Good grief.

I don’t know what my wife meant by Girls Night, but as it turns out, only Victoria and Courtney show up. Gail and Ms. Solomon keep them well stocked with food and snacks while one of us guys plays bartender from the bar in the entertaining room. We offer to spare Chuck the trouble of transporting drinks, considering that he’s a recovering alcoholic, but he assures us that he’s not even tempted. I have no doubt, considering that we couldn’t even get him to take ibuprofen when he was suffering from broken bones.

The women retreat to the movie room and burrow in for the night, watching a plethora of movies from different genres. We’ve each been unlucky enough to walk in during some scene or conversation that has the entire group weeping like fools and are quick to make a hasty getaway. Somewhere around three or so, all four women are kicked back in the luxury chairs, calling the sandman.

In the morning, they all pile into the big SUV and head to breakfast—somewhere—with two of the guards and I’m ceremoniously summoned to my father’s house.

“Elliot finished the room on Thursday right in time for delivery,” he says as he leads me to a newly renovated room in the house. I’m by no means prepared for what I see when I open the door.

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” I breathe when I step inside, “Freeman was teasing you for getting this?”

“Remember, son, we’re clearly talking about an asshole here,” he reminds me. Oh, yeah, how could I forget.

I walk around the room completely stunned. Every wall is covered with display cases, and there are more of them lined up in the middle like library shelves. Case after case after case of model, wood, and Diecast cars—antiques, roadsters, sedans, trucks, you name it. The higher portions of the walls have been decorated with old pictures of Dad and his brothers, Pops and Granma Ruby, Mom and Dad when they were younger, and even old pictures of me, Elliot, and Mia. Atop the display cases are my old rowing trophies from the boathouse, Elliot’s judo trophies, and awards and accolades that Mia has received throughout the years. There are also some older trophies that I don’t recognize, and I assume that they’re from years gone by of Dad and his brothers.

“With real cars, Dad may have been a Ford man, but when it came to his models, he didn’t discriminate.” He leads me to one display case that’s full of Chevys and I’m amazed at how realistic they look.

“I tried to get the room as close as I could remember to how Dad kept it,” my father says, touching the display lovingly. “Look at this…” He gently opens one of the cases and pulls out one of the model cars. The doors actually open and you can see the detail inside the car.

“Dad painted those seats himself,” he says as he holds the car up to eye level. “The paint’s faded a bit over time…”

“… But I can tell,” I say, examining the car closely in my father’s hand. “Wow…” The amazement in my voice brings a warm smile to my father’s face.

“We spent hours in here,” he reminisces as he closes the doors to the model in his hand and replaces it on the shelf, “or I should say in a room that looked just like this one. The other brothers never really got into it but me…” He put his hand on my shoulder and leads me to a table in the corner, clearly built as its own showcase, and there it is. I gasp a bit when I see it.

“The Coupe!” I exclaim quietly in wonder. On the small table is a perfect replica—almost—of the classic ’32 Ford Coupe that we had shipped here for Dad. The purple isn’t as deep as the real car, and the model has racing flames on it. But other than that, this car is Dad’s Coupe.

“Uncle Herman was right,” I say, looking at the model then at Dad. “Pops meant for you to have that car. He built it damn near just like the model.” Dad nods.

“That was my dad,” he says. “He always paid attention to the small stuff, and it made all the difference in the world.” He chokes up for a moment but quickly recovers. “I hope that one day your son will be able to enjoy this room with me… or with you…”

I don’t like the ominous undertone of his suggestion.

“He’ll get to enjoy it with you first, Dad,” I say, putting my hand on his shoulder. “You’ll tell him the history of the cars and how they made it to the collection. I’m sure that you remember each one.” Dad smiles.

“That I do, son,” he says.

As predicted, Dad and I spend hours in his model car room, talking about each car and how it became part of the collection. We don’t have time to review each and every car, but each car that we talked about had its own story attached to it. Freeman is a real asshole if he can’t see how priceless a gift this really is.

“This is really incredible, Dad,” I say, trying to absorb everything he’s told me about each car. “This is a car enthusiast’s dream.”

“Or the fairytale-land of a little boy who really looked up to his dad,” he says, gazing over the room fondly.

“Where’s Uncle Herman?” I ask when I realize that I haven’t seen him since I got here.

“He and Luma have gone out of town, I think,” Dad says. I frown.

“You think?” I ask. He shrugs.

“I think seeing Mom’s things made him a bit melancholy. So, he asked me and Grace to keep an eye on the girls and he whisked his woman away for the weekend. You can’t deny they need some time to themselves. Herman’s been dealing nonstop with the disposition of Dad’s estate. Luma has the girls and although I’m sure that you’re a very nice boss, she works 40 hours a week. She and Herman don’t really get much alone time together.” I nod.

“Maybe she should consider going part-time,” I suggest.

“I didn’t tell you that so that you could cut her hours, Christian,” Dad informs me. “I get the feeling that Luma really likes her job, and she hasn’t complained about it once. Had I not told you that she was away with Herm, you wouldn’t have known. Did she ask for any time off?”

“Well, no…”

“Then leave it be,” Dad instructs. “She likes going to work and she’s not the least bit unhappy. And even though Andrea is her superior, Luma’s very fond of her. She talks about Andrea like she’s her daughter and she respects her—and you—immensely. So, if you suggest that she shorten her workweek, she’s going to do it even if she doesn’t want to. Catch my drift?” I sigh.

“Yeah, Dad, I hear you,” I say, sounding like a scolded child.

“Good. Now come and have a scotch with me and let’s celebrate my fabulous Dad and this incredible car collection.” I smile.

“You got it, Dad.”

*-*

“You’re not going to believe whose about to lose their shirt,” Lorenz says coming into my office Monday morning. He’s piqued my attention.

“Who?” I ask.

“William Kavanaugh,” I raise my brow.

“Kavanaugh?” I say in surprise. “What the hell is going on with Kavanaugh?”

“It appears that Willie Boy has another heir to the Kavanaugh fortune on the way, and Mrs. K has had enough. She’s got herself a cutthroat attorney and Kavanaugh will be lucky if he escapes with his shirt!” I whistle.

“So, the chickens have come home to roost on Kavanaugh, huh?” I say.

“Looks that way,” Lorenz confirms taking his seat.

“How much time before he’s ripe for the picking?” I ask.

“Now,” Ros says, striding into my office and joining into the conversation like she had been there the whole time. She’s got the latest Financial News in her hand and she drops it on my desk, open to the page announcing that Kavanaugh Media is officially on the block. “You heard, too?” she says to Lorenz, who nods.

“This must have been going on for quite some time,” I observe while reading the announcement.

“Their marriage has been falling at least since Kavanaugh became a grandpa.” That long! Geez, that’s back when Kate tried to pin her kid on Elliot. I wasn’t even married yet.

“And the newest heir to Kavanaugh Media?” I press.

“Due any day now,” Lorenz says. “The misses filed for divorce nearly a year ago. He’s selling Kavanaugh Media because the selling price is worth more than the company would yield in its current state and he knows he can get it.”

“That’s because he doesn’t have time to hold out,” I say, finishing skimming the article. “I’m not interested in the media but selling that bitch off piece by piece could turn quite the hefty profit no matter what we pay for it.”

“You were reading my mind,” Lorenz say. I raise my eyes to Ros.

“You think we could put a decent bid up for it?” I ask. “We all know I’m the last person that fucker wants to sell to.”

“I’ll see what we can do,” Ros says, standing. “You never know, Christian. People do strange things when they’re desperate.”

“That they do,” I concur as she leaves my office.

“Lorenz, how did you guys land on this before I did?” I ask after Ros leaves.

“It’s my job to keep my ear to the ground,” he tells me. “I know a lot of people; I go to social events. One person’s rumor is another person’s truth… That’s pretty much how. Kavanaugh’s next love child was no more than water-cooler talk at the champagne fountain of some fundraiser somewhere. It snowballed into divorce and the sale of Kavanaugh Media because the guy is about as discreet as a Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping down 4th Street. He was able to keep it out of the press for most of the year because—face it, he is the press. But once that media giant went on the block, all the rumors and speculations became leads and…” He makes an exploding sound and motion with his hands.

“So, basically, getting him to sell could be as simple as the right approach,” I reply, because Kavanaugh truly is going to be desperate after child support and alimony hits his ass, but still maybe not desperate enough to sell to GEH.

“That’s possible,” Lorenz replies. I twist my lips.

“Any word on his daughter, Kate, these days?” I ask. The last I had heard of Kate was when she crashed Mia’s bridal shower.

“She’s been under the radar,” he replies. “You smellin’ something?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe not. Just see if you can scare her up. Use Alex if you have to.”

“Will do.”

So, Kavanaugh’s in the proverbial hot seat. Jesus, he’s older than I am—old enough to be my father—and still making babies… outside of his marriage, no less. Not that I condone infidelity of any kind, but if you’re going to stray outside of your marriage, why the hell wouldn’t you at least use a condom?

And Kate—is that why she showed up at Mia’s shower? Was she hoping to get back into the family’s good graces because she knew that Dad was headed down the tubes? And where is she now? She was aching for publicity a while back—why the silence? And where, pray tell, is the not-the-father baby? That kid just disappeared into thin air!

Now I really want to know what’s going on with the Kavanaughs. As I’m pondering what might be going on with Daddy Kavanaugh and his ice-queen daughter, I get a distressing text from my wife.

**Dealing with a crisis. I may be late. **

Harmony’s at our house, so what crisis is this?

**Something at the Center? **

I wait for a moment for a response to put my fears at ease.

**More personal. It’s not me, but still important. I can’t talk about it right now. **

You can’t drop an ominous fucking text on me and then tell me that you can’t talk about it.

**You know me better than that. **

I love you, Butterfly, but you know I can track your phone. As if she’s reading my mind, she replies:

**Keep your damn shirt on! I’m fine, but I can’t talk to you right now. I was just letting you know I’ll be late. Would you rather I not in the future? **

And that’s a threat.

**Sorry. See you when you get home. **

Now, I’m fucking dying to know what’s going on.

I stay a little later at the office finishing some things up since I know that Butterfly’s going to be late. While I’m trying to wrap up the days reports and some year-end tasks, my phone buzzes. I look at the display and it’s Dad.

“Ethan called today,” he says once I answer. “Says he wants to reimburse me for some of the expenses of the wedding.”

“He did?” I ask.

“You put him up to that, didn’t you?”

“Why would I put that man up to anything?” I ask. “The only thing I put him up to was giving me the guest list to his bachelor party so that I could vet those fuckers.”

“He just knew all the right things to say,” Dad accuses. “He sounded a lot like the conversations that you and I have.”

“He talked to me, yeah, but I didn’t put him up to shit. He’s a grown man. He came to me for advice and I gave it to him. There’s a difference, Dad…”

“Okay, okay, settle down,” Dad scolds, and it’s not until now that I realize my voice is rising and I sound defensive.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but when you said that, it made it sound like I was being manipulative, and I wasn’t. He wants to contribute to the expenses of the wedding, and he didn’t know how to tell you. In fact, I want to contribute, too.”

“The wedding’s all paid for, son,” he says.

“I figured as much, Dad, but did you have to cash in yours and Mom’s retirement for that shindig?” I ask. He sighs.

“Christian, a month ago, I gave each of my brothers $750,000. Do you think I would have been able to do that if I had been strapped for cash?”

“I’m quite aware that you have a dime or three to rub together, Dad, but so does Ethan and he wants to contribute to this wedding.”

“He doesn’t need to contribute,” Dad says. “There’s nothing left to pay for.”

“That may be the case, but that tens of thousands of dollar bakery bill came to his house.”

“What?” Dad exclaims into the phone.

“Yeah,” I tell him. “And you should know that right before they got in their helicopter and left for the night, Ethan cornered me and Butterfly and lamented about the largess of those cakes—just the cakes! He had a few other things to say about the over-the-topness of the entire production, but the cakes had him in dismay, much like they did for me at first, and you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know what you mean,” he cedes.

“Well, my fears were put to rest when I discovered that the food was going to the homeless and to shelters. His concerns were multiplied exponentially when he saw that bill—paid or not. It’s going to emasculate him if you don’t allow him to give you something on that wedding.”

“What about me?” Dad asks. “What about emasculating me? That’s my only daughter and I gave her the wedding she wanted. Isn’t that a father’s responsibility?”

“Yeah, Dad. And you did it. Everything was beautiful—though a bit crazy—and Mia loved it. You did good. Now, let Ethan give you something towards your expense. I’m aware that you don’t need it, but he needs to give it to you. That may be your only daughter, and having a daughter now I get it, but that’s his wife.” Dad sighs again.

Fine,” he relents, “but I’m not taking a damn dime from you. Got it?”

“Okay,” I give in. I can deal with that if it means that he’ll allow Ethan’s pride to remain intact by contributing to what I now know had to be more than a million-dollar wedding. I got married in a damn castle. Wayne Brady sang to my wife walking down the aisle. We rode away in a classic Bentley, had a shopping spree in Paris, and were supposed to stay abroad for a month and I can still guarantee that my sister’s nuptials cost more than mine.

“How did you end things with Ethan?” I ask.

“I told him that I would give some thought to his request and get back to him,” Dad says.

“God, Dad, that sounds so formal. He’s family now, you know…”

“Yes, I know, but I had to see what his intentions were when he was suggesting helping out with the financial portion of the wedding,” he says. I frown.

“Now, I’m not catching your drift… what do you mean by that?” I ask.

“I’m old-fashioned, son,” he says. “I think a father should pay for his daughter’s wedding unless she specifically asks him not to—like with you and Ana. You wanted something specific and you got what you wanted. I’m sure there was no hard feelings with Ray on that…”

“Right,” I concur, coaxing.

“Well, with two money families, I’m ashamed to say it, but I didn’t know if Ethan was trying to make the statement that he could pay for this wedding and was just throwing money at me like, ‘I got it, old man…’”

“Dad,” I interject scolding, “did he give you that impression?”

“That’s why I asked if you had spoken to him,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being handled.”

“Jesus, Dad, you have to stop being so suspicious.”

“Says the man who will vet the pizza delivery guy if he can,” Dad retorts. Touché.

“Okay, okay, I get it. But still, the man married your daughter. If we really thought he was up to anything, it’s a bit late, now, isn’t it?”

“It’s never too late,” Dad says, “but you’re right. I should have given him the benefit of the doubt.”

We talk a little longer and I feel that I’ve killed enough time in the office trying not to worry about what’s happened in Butterfly’s day that’s going to cause her to be late. Should I go to the Center and check on her? Hell, no! We know how badly that turned out the last time. It’s not that I don’t trust her, but… no. Just, no.

My eye catches one more email as I’m about to shut down for the evening. It’s from Ted Friedson informing me that he received the Apollo and that it arrived in better condition than expected. Although he admits that it’s still pretty worn, it’s in pretty awesome shape for a 100-year-old piano. He promises to have it in tip-top condition in a few weeks. I take a little comfort in that and think about where in the house I’m going to put it as I pack away my laptop and head to the elevator.


ANASTASIA

If she’s afraid of this guy, he must have been talking a really good game,” Alex informs me when I speak to him on Monday. “He’s a small-time hood—drug dealer, never more than a street runner. He’s got no connections—none. The only people he has fled a drug bust, left him to take the rap, and haven’t been in contact with him since. I still can’t tell you why she’s moving from place to place, but I’ve got a good theory.

“She’s obviously a battered ex—there’s a little proof of that… questionable injuries and hospital visits with no police report filed, leaving against medical advice and things of that sort. For whatever reason her family is non-existent, she’s on her own and he knows it. He must’ve preyed on it while they were together, I’ve seen it before, but to have her so petrified that she’s moving from place to place…? He had his own delusions of grandeur, no doubt, but he must’ve fed them to her, leading her to believe that he has power that he doesn’t have. So, in her mind, a few months, a half year or so is a safe amount of time to stay put, then it’s time to move on.

“I can’t swear to it, but in my eyes, this is one of those ‘if it looks like a duck’ situations. If she’s as spooked as you say she is, she had a co-dependent relationship with him where he filled her head with stories, threats, and the usual ‘you’re nothing without me,’ and he’s just got her scared shitless and she’s not sure what to do. Unless he’s got some power that I haven’t seen, he’s nobody—just some punk who preyed on a weak young woman.”

“Well, this is really good news,” I tell him, “not that he preyed on her and has her so afraid, but that he’s not this big bad person that she thought he was. She’s got skills and education that I really want to put to some use, and now I can… if I can just convince her that this Ge guy isn’t a threat to her.”

“I don’t know how to tell you to do that,” he says. “You can tell her that our investigation shows that he still incarcerated and that there’s actually no way that he could find out where she is unless he has the type of resources that we have—which he doesn’t. Besides, we’re swimming in security. How the hell is he going to get to her?”

“She’s not with us 24/7, Alex,” I remind him. “I think the best thing right now is for me to keep it simple—just tell her that as far as we’re concerned, everything looks good and she’s got a job, and then extend the services of the Center to her if she feels that she needs sanctuary. Fear is a powerful thing and unfortunately, other people can’t make you not be afraid.”

Ebony is thrilled to learn that we’re willing to give her a shot to see how things work out. She insists on working in the daycare to get the feel of things and maybe venture out into some of the areas that I think she’ll be a better fit for.

“Right now, I’m just really desperate for a paycheck,” she admits. “My emergency fund is nearly gone, and I need to have income soon. I’d love to see where else I can go and what else I can do, but… let’s start off small, if you don’t mind.” I nod.

“Not a problem,” I tell her, “whatever makes you comfortable. Welcome aboard.” I proffer my hand to her and she shakes it, sighing heavily.

“Thank you,” she breathes, as if the weight of the world has been lifted off her shoulder. I summon Courtney to show her around and get her started as Marilyn took the day off today.

I’m very soon to find out why.

“Hello?” I answer my phone shortly after having a late lunch.

“Yes, is this… Anastasia Grey?” the female voice asks.

“It is. To whom am I speaking?”

“This is Sylvie Cooper. I’m calling from Seattle Women’s Services and Family Planning.” Okay, maybe this is something to do with the Center.

“Yes, Ms. Cooper, what can I do for you?”

“I’m calling because one of our patients has you listed as the emergency contact. She’s had an outpatient procedure performed and… she came alone. She shouldn’t be driving, so she asked us to call you.”

This is strange. Outpatient procedure, Seattle Women’s Serv… oh, shit.

“Who is the patient?” I ask, as if I didn’t already know.

“Marilyn Caldwell.”

*-*

Marilyn looks like hell when I get to the clinic. I’m sure she’s had an abortion. I’m only hoping that she and Gary talked about this before she did it. I have a sinking suspicion that either they didn’t or that he’s vehemently against it, because he’s not here with her.

“Hey,” I say to her downcast face. “You ready to go?” She nods without saying anything and allows me to lead her out of the clinic. The ride back to the apartment that she shares with Gary is mostly silent. I simply concentrate on getting her to where she needs to be. I won’t give her the third degree and I won’t badger…

“Don’t you want to ask what happened?” she says, breaking my inner coaching.

“Only if you want to tell me,” I reply after a pause, even though I can pretty much tell.

“I was eight and a half weeks pregnant,” she says. “I terminated the pregnancy.” I nod.

“Considering the facility, I figured as much,” I reply. It’s quiet for a few more moments.

“Gary wanted to keep it,” she says. “I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t ready to have a baby right now and I wasn’t going to be forced into the decision to have one. He totally stopped speaking to me.”

“Does he know that you were terminating the pregnancy?” I ask. She doesn’t respond. Did she tell him or not? What does she plan to do—just present herself to him and say, “Hey, baby’s gone?” I pull into the parking lot of their apartment complex and put the car in park.

“Will you come up with me?” she asks. Is she serious? What does she want me to do, stand between her and Gary while she tells him that she terminated the pregnancy? Gary wouldn’t hurt her… at least I think he wouldn’t hurt her. He loves her… but she’s about to tell him that he’s not going to be a father if he doesn’t already know. I sigh heavily and turn the car off.

“Let’s go,” I say.

The apartment is bone quiet when we get there. I figured it’s because Gary’s not here, but she goes to the back where the bedroom is, and I can hear her talking.

“What are you doing?” I hear her ask. There’s a long pause.

“I…” It’s Gary’s voice. “I need some time,” he says, and I hear shuffling. Oh, shit. Should I leave?

“What do you mean?” Marilyn squeaks.

“I can’t be here,” Gary says. “I need… I just can’t.”

“So, you’re just going to leave?” she accuses.

“You had to know this would happen!” Gary shoots. “You killed my baby! You had to know I wouldn’t stay! I couldn’t! I can’t even look at you right now!”

He is pissed! I don’t know how to react to this because it’s Marilyn’s body. She would have had to carry that child for nine months. If she and Gary broke up, most often, the man has the option to walk away faster than a woman—although in this case, I have a feeling Gary would have stuck around—but he’s right. It was his baby, too, and she aborted it. I hate seeing them in this position because there’s nothing I can do. There’s no right or wrong, but it’s all bad.

They scream at each other for another minute or two, and just as I’m deciding I should leave, I hear Marilyn begging him not to go and Gary telling her that she can have the apartment since she left hers to move in with him. The bedroom door opens to an angry Gary storming out with a duffle bag and the sound of Marilyn’s weeping, still begging him not to leave. When he raises his head and sees me, he stops in his tracks and glares at me.

“Did you take her there?” he seethes. I’ve never seen him this angry in my life. I’m frozen for a moment, but then I shake my head.

“No,” I say, finally finding my words. “She… drove herself. The clinic called and asked me to pick her up. I couldn’t just leave her.” I don’t tell him that had she asked me to go with her, I would have gone. Although the thought of terminating my own pregnancy never crossed my mind, I agree with a woman’s right to choose.

His eyes soften, and I can see that he’s been crying, most likely for more than one reason. His lips form a thin line.

“Take care of her,” he chokes angrily. “She’s gonna need you.”

“Gary…”

He storms past me without another word and out the door, slamming it behind him. Marilyn hasn’t emerged from the room yet, so I approach with caution. When I breach the doorway, I see her crumpled on the ground weeping.

He left her like this?

I go over to her and kneel on the floor next to her. Her cries are so mournful, like someone cut off one of her limbs. She sounds like Luma when she was mourning the death of her son-in-law. I put my hand on her arms, and she starts to wail. She knows that my being there means that Gary is gone, and you can hear her anguish sinking all the way down to her feet. I just sit there with her, and let her wail…

I’m wrung down to my soul when I get home that night. It’s well after midnight and I’m so emotionally drained that I just go to the kitchen and sit at the breakfast bar. The house is dark, and I lay my head on my arms on the countertop. I have such an unreal headache that it feels like my brain is going to explode out of my head.

I’m not startled, nor do I raise my head when the lights in the kitchen come on. It’s tomorrow—of course, he’ll be waiting up and expecting to know where I’ve been. I don’t say anything as I feel rather than hear him cross the span of the kitchen in his bare feet.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks, his voice controlled as he opens the refrigerator.

“Vodka,” I say from under my arms. I hear movement stop, then the cupboard open. I know he’s mad—or at least not pleased with me for coming home this late, and I don’t have the strength to justify my tardiness, for lack of a better word.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” he says, and I can feel him stroking my hair. I raise weary eyes to him wondering what I should and shouldn’t tell him. His eyes change, and he rubs my forearm.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Butterfly,” he says, his voice heavy with concern. Fuck it, I can’t carry this shit.

“I just put Marilyn on a plane to Spokane,” I tell him while worrying my horribly throbbing scar. “She’s going to spend some time with her parents, I don’t know for how long.” He raises his brow.

“You can’t be this upset about Marilyn taking a vacation,” he says.

“You’re right, I’m not… and it’s not a vacation.” He places a tumbler in front of me with a shot of vodka in it. I throw it back immediately and gesture for another. He fills it to a double-shot this time and I throw that back just as quickly.

“She’s escaping,” I say, after the double-shot burns its way down my chest. “She was pregnant.” His eyes sharpen.

“Okay, wait. I’m confused. She’s escaping because she’s pregnant?” he asks. “Is Garrett pissed? Did he threaten her?” I gesture to my glass again and he fills it with another double-shot. I just take a sip this time.

“No, yes, and no,” I reply, answering his questions as I replace the glass on the counter. “I’m telling you more than I should, but I wasn’t acting in a medical capacity today, so…” I take a deep breath. “No, she’s not escaping because she’s pregnant as she is no longer pregnant. She had a termination today. Yes, Gary is extremely pissed. He wanted this and one of the first things I heard him say when we got back to the apartment is, ‘You killed my baby.’ And no, he didn’t threaten her, but he did leave her and from the looks of it, he ain’t comin’ back.” I take another swallow of my drink.

“Oh, God,” he says, his brow furrowed, “that’s fucked up all around.”

“Tell me about it,” I lament, rubbing my forehead for the first time in forever. I have no idea what to do. Gary and Marilyn are both my friends and Marilyn’s my employee. They’ve both talked to me about how they felt about this situation and I’ve done the best that I can to give them both objective opinions without betraying the trust of the other. I can’t take sides, but I may be forced to, depending on how this plays out.

“I can only imagine what it must feel like being caught in the middle of this,” he says sympathetically.

“It was awful, Christian,” I bemoan. “Gary was so hurt, and Marilyn was devastated. I don’t know what to do. Her parents are in Spokane and with Thanksgiving coming up, she couldn’t stand to stay in that apartment alone. So, I helped her pack some things and she was on the redeye across the state.”

“So, no one’s in the apartment now?” he asks. I shake my head.

“I tried to call Gary, but he’s not answering. He probably thinks I’m going to ream him a new one for leaving Mare, but he has a right to his feelings, too.”

“So… any idea what now?” he asks. “I mean, whose apartment is it?”

“It’s Gary’s. He paid the lease for a year and near as I can tell, the only way out of it is to sublet or have someone buy out the lease. She gave up her apartment to move in with him, so he left and said she could stay. That makes me think that he might come back, because he only took a duffel bag, but…” I shrug and rub my head again, then my scar.

“Jesus Christ, what a mess,” he says as he retrieves another tumbler and fills it with ice and water from the refrigerator door.

“I can’t even fathom what to say to either of them right now. I can’t villainize either of them because they both have a right to feel what they’re feeling. What do you think?” My husband raises a brow and twist his lips before he places the tumbler of water in front of me. Yeah, I know—two double-shots and a single. Chug, chug.

“I can’t answer that question, Butterfly,” he says. “For obvious reasons, I avoid this particular topic of conversation at all costs.” I raise my eyes to his.

“What if it had been us?” I ask.

“But it wasn’t,” he says.

“But what if it had?” I press. He leans forward and takes my hands in his, then kisses both sets of knuckles before looking me in the eye.

“At all. Costs,” he repeats, letting me know that no matter how I press, we won’t be having this discussion. I sigh and drop my head.

“Dear, God, help me,” I groan. This can only get worse before it gets any better.

*-*

I receive a text from Marilyn when she lands in Spokane, then she—like Gary—falls into radio silence. Only two days without her this week and I feel as if I’m falling into oblivion. My calendar looks like hieroglyphics and when I suggested nabbing Luma again, Christian informed me that she had just returned to town herself and was needed at Grey House. No matter—Thanksgiving is here, and I plan to relax with my family for the next few days.

Harmony was not keen on coming to Thanksgiving dinner with our family, but Courtney and Vickie invited her to the condo and she gladly accepted—nothing as formal as a family gathering, but still with people she likes to be around… and she’s not alone on the first Thanksgiving without her mom.

I try to reach Marilyn and Gary on Thanksgiving, but neither of them answers or responds to my texts. I decide to leave them alone until and if they reach out to me.

Chuck reminds me that he and Keri will be going back to South Dakota for his and his mother’s case against his brother. I can’t believe he’s actually going to sue his brother. I mean, I can believe it… the bastard deserves it, but I guess I just can’t believe that it’s really happening.

Thanksgiving—a time of giving thanks, being around family, watching football and eating way too much food. Yet, all around me, I see sorrow and heartbreak and disappointment… people just trying to cope…

Harmony just buried her mother and her siblings are conspiring against her and treating her like the enemy.

Marilyn terminated her pregnancy and is now mourning the loss of the man that she loves.

Gary is mourning the loss of a baby and the dashed hopes of having a family.

No doubt, Carrick and his brothers are feeling the loss of their father right now. Even though Burt passed away months ago, going through the family heirlooms must have opened some of those old wounds, and like Harmony, they’re spending their first Thanksgiving without him.

And Freeman’s family—Lanie may feel no love lost, but Burtie and Nell loved that man and are no doubt having their own regrets today about the total breakdown of the family.

And of course, Chuck and his mom—having to sue his hateful brother for keeping the family apart with his lies.

And here I sit, journaling before I go to Val and Elliot’s for Thanksgiving, once again nothing on the pages about myself—just everyone else and their problems.

Thanksgiving… yeah.

*-*

“We’re not going to have a repeat of you two acting like children and Christian catching the plague, are we?” Val says when she opens the door.

“No,” I promise her, “we’re fine and we’re not bickering about the… sunshine yellow stucco!” I say with too much enthusiasm.

“Butterfly…” my husband scolds, coming in behind me and carrying our overnight bags.

“Yes, dear,” I say sweetly and obediently. He leans over and kisses me while Val and Elliot’s usual staff takes the bags from Christian.

“Are they permanent?” I ask, noting the same woman in the kitchen that was here for the housewarming.

“No, we just asked for them back,” she says, hooking her arm into mine. “Come sit with me in the living room.”

Val is positively giddy having the family over for Thanksgiving, much giddier than she was at her housewarming. Elliot sees to everyone getting their things settled in their various rooms before we all sit down for our various fall-spiced beverages.

Christian is dead set and determined to make sure that I don’t feel the ostracization that I experienced at the housewarming. He’s all snuggly with me and we’re playing with the babies in front of the fireplace. Val and Elliot already have their Christmas tree trimmed, so all of the babies—including my little brother Harry—are spellbound by the sparkling lights.

Sophia is playing with Mariah and Celida—more like keeping them occupied while her father and stepmother watches over them all. Herman, Grace, Carrick, and Luma all seem to be having a very interesting conversation of some sort. Val is bending Mandy’s ear about something while Mia and Ethan listen attentively, and Elliot and Daddy are probably talking shop. Just as I’m taking in my surroundings, I see Harry with Mikey, and they appear to be having a conversation. I watch them more closely and see Harry pulling Mikey’s arms. Is he…?

“Phone… phone…” I say, trying to be as calm as I can. Nobody’s listening to me, so I reach for Christian, who is cooing at his daughter, and tug on his pants. He raises his eyes to me and follows my gaze to my brother and my son.

“Son of a gun!” he says, fumbling in his pocket and finding his phone. People start looking to see what the commotion is, and before we know it, at least four phones are recording now.

Harry appears to be giving Mikey instructions in whatever gobbledygook he’s speaking, and Mikey follows instruction by grabbing both of his uncle’s arms with his grubby little hands. Harry’s unsteady little gait pulls Mikey forward until he’s standing, but Harry can’t comprehend why Mikey doesn’t start walking immediately after he stands. As a result, Harry pulls him forward again and Mikey stands only for a moment before tumbling over onto his little hands.

Harry’s getting a little frustrated with Mikey’s lack of pedestrian progress, but this entire thing is just a game to Mikey who, after each tumble, breaks into fits of baby giggles. Being on the same mental wavelength, his sister breaks into giggles as well and, let’s face it—who can’t laugh after hearing an infectious baby giggle? Soon, there’s an entire room of giggling adults and children, and the whole thing has been caught on video.

“Wow, what did we miss?”

I turn around to see Marcia and Maggie walking into the dining room from the vestibule. Maggie is getting so big. I remember when she just disappeared behind her mom.

“Hi, Marcia,” I say, rising from my seat on the floor. “It’s good to see you.” I hug her and compliment her on how good she’s looking these days while Maggie joins the other girls in the dining room. “Where’s Marlow?” I ask. I catch Sophie perk up in my peripheral vision.

“Oh, he’s here. They should be in shortly.” They? Who’s they? Did Marcia finally decide to bring her “plus-one” along? I find out shortly that there’s definitely a “plus-one,” but it’s not Marcia’s “plus-one.”

“Hi everybody,” Marlow greets as he enters the foyer. Behind him—and attached to his hand—is a tiny girl who looks a bit like a pre-teen. I try not to stare, but what’s more, I can feel Sophie glaring at them from behind me. I plaster a smile on my face and walk over to them.

“Hi, Marlow,” I say, kissing him on the cheek. “Who’s this?”

“This is Britney,” he says, pulling the girl closer so that she’s not lagging behind him. “She’s a sophomore at my school.”

Well, thanks for telling me that! The child doesn’t look more than twelve! Seriously, I’m petite, but she’s… thin, like really thin… like “Calista-Flockhart-when-everybody-thought-she-was-anorexic” thin, only thinner.

“Britney, this is Anastasia Grey. I told you about my mentor, Christian. This is his wife.” Britney smiles a smile that looks bigger than her face.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Grey,” she says politely.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Britney,” I reply with a smile. “Come on in and meet everyone…”

Britney is quite affable as Marlow introduces her around, and everyone returns her warm greeting—everyone, that is, except Sophie. Sophie’s polite, but cool, and either Britney doesn’t notice it, or she ignores it. Two points for Britney…

As the day moves along, things seem to be going okay. Sophie doesn’t appear to be sneering at Marlow’s date, but she also seems careful to keep her distance. Being shunned by one of Marlow’s dates was probably enough for her.

I’ll have to remember in the future that my children have graduated to cereals, baby food, and some solid foods along with my breastmilk, which means that we may need some form of portable high chairs for them. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with them in our laps while we try to eat… like now. Gail helps out, of course, and Val is eager to get her hands on her niece and nephew, so they allow me and Christian some time to eat.

Once we move on to dessert, the twins have eaten and have had their bottles and are on their way to sleep in their playpens when Herman stands to his feet.

“I’d like to have everyone’s attention please,” he says, and the room falls silent. Herman takes a deep breath.

“This has been a pretty eventful year for the Grey family,” he begins. “We lost our dad… effectively lost a brother…” He and Carrick exchange looks before he continues. “But we’ve grown. We’ve been blessed with a son and a daughter—in my case, a niece and a nephew—Ethan and Valerie. And even though we were already graced with Ana, we were able to add Mackenzie and Michael to village.”

We laugh at his expression, but truthfully, that’s exactly what we are.

“But in my loss, and in our flourishing, God has blessed me with those two sweet little girls right there…” He gestures to Mariah and Celida, who both smile fondly at him, “… and this loving and beautiful woman right here.” He turns to his side and takes Luma’s hand. Pulling her to her feet, he kisses her fingers softly and gives her a loving smile, which she returns.

“I don’t know where I would have been without her,” he says, still gazing into her eyes, “if I would have made it without her. Taking care of Dad’s things and going through his and Mom’s memories, it was like he was talking to me, telling me to live, telling me to grab life by the horns and live! And I realized then that I couldn’t be without this woman—that my mom and dad had a wonderful, beautiful life while they had each other and now, they have it again. I realized that I screwed up big the first time, but God is giving me a second chance… and dammit, I’m taking it.” He’s gazing into Luma’s eyes and I’m only too certain—as I’m sure the rest of us are—that he’s about to propose.

“So,” he turns back to the inquiring eyes, “I’m proud to announce that on November 22, 2014 at 3:17pm, this beautiful goddess officially became Mrs. Herman Grey.”

“Get outta here!” Carrick rises to his feet. “You sly dog! I shoulda known!” He gives his brother’s hand a vigorous shake as he claps him on the back. “Congratulations! Congratulations, man! I shoulda known you were up to something!”

Grace hugs Luma warmly and Mia follows. Warm smiles and congratulations fill the table.

“Not to fret, ladies,” Herman says once the revelry is calming a bit, “you can do your planning and parties and whatever it is that ladies do for weddings and such if my Luma says that’s what she wants. I just couldn’t wait to make her mine.”

There’s a collective swooning coo from the ladies at the table. Luma shows us pictures on their phones of Herman in a suit her in a beautiful vintage wedding dress. She looks twenty years younger.

“Is that…” Carrick looks at the picture again. “Is that… Mom’s dress?” he asks. Herman nods.

“Yeah,” he says, after a pause, “and… one of Mom’s rings,” he says. Carrick looks over at Luma who looks like she wants to hide her hand, but it’s too late.

Carrick looks at the picture again and his eyes clearly moisten. He takes Luma’s hand with the ring on it and kisses it gently before kissing Luma just as gently on the cheek.

“You made a beautiful bride,” he says, his voice cracking slightly. “I wish I could have been there.”

Luma smiles widely and Grace puts her hands on Luma’s shoulders. The cooing begins anew as Luma recounts the story of their nuptials—sweet and romantic. Elliot cuddles Valerie in his arms and she beams as the family enjoy themselves around the table. Once the conversation—and cooing—falls to a gently roar, Elliot stands to his feet.

“I’d like to say something, too,” he says. Val raises a brow and a small smile at him.

“I want to thank you all for agreeing to have Thanksgiving at my house, even though my house is the smallest of them all at the moment.” There’s a laugh following his statement. “But I’m really, really grateful for you all being here because… well, as you all know, my wife is a brain cancer survivor. For those of you who didn’t know already, she named her tumor Meg. It’s a long story but just know that she named it Meg. Well, she’s been suffering from these random dizzy spells, and even though my wife is strong, I could see it in her eyes that she was concerned that Meg was making another appearance.”

The room falls completely silent, even more quiet than when Herman asked for our attention.

“I did my best not to panic… I wasn’t very good,” he says, his voice cracking. Val takes his hand and gives it a squeeze. “But we didn’t dawdle. We went to the doctor and they proceeded to run the regular tests. I’m happy to say that Meg is definitely not making another appearance.”

The room is filled with sighs of relief and thanks to God and such, but Elliot’s not finished.

“We did learn however,” he looks down at Val, “that my angel is having a baby.”

“Get the fuck outta here!” My husband springs to his feet and reaches right across the table to his brother. “You’re going to be the goofiest dad ever!” he says, shaking Elliot’s hand.

“That’s the plan,” he says before turning to Herman. “Sorry, Uncle Herman.”

“Don’t worry about it, son,” he says, shaking Elliot’s hand as well. “There’s plenty of joy and happiness to go around.”

Most of us have forgotten our food and are clustered around either the newly-married couple or the newly-expecting couple cooing over the antique ring that Herman gave Luma or the fact that Val will be having a baby soon. Herman presented his bride with a 13.93ctw smoky-quartz ring set in 14kt yellow gold with leaf accents—another piece from his mother’s priceless collection. Elliot hasn’t presented Val with anything—besides a house, but he indicates that he plans to repurpose one of the rooms into a nursery that would rival ours.

With the attention centered on Val, Elliot, Herman, and Luma, no one sees the small commotion taking place in the corner of the living room. I inconspicuously examine Britney having a harsh word or two in hushed tones with Marlow before she ceremoniously turns away from him and proceeds towards the front door. Marlow rolls his eyes, then throws a glance at Sophie before following his date outside. They still haven’t garnered the attention of anyone else in the house, but I watch as Sophie twists her lips, rolls her eyes, then falls petulantly on the sofa, folding her arms and staring at the fire.

And here we go again.

I wait for a moment before I sneak away from the crowd and go to the foyer. I locate my coat and gloves and step outside in search of Marlow. He’s pacing on the pavement in front of the house like he’s trying to control his temper.

“Marlow?” I call out to him. He whirls around in my direction and upon spotting me, visibly tries to control his ire. “What’s wrong?” I ask as I approach.

“Forgive me for my lack of consideration,” he says in a voice that I’ve never heard before, “but is Sophia Taylor on the rag again?”

Oookay. There will be no scolding of Marlow Johnson today. He. Is. Livid.

“Um… okay, what happened?” I ask cautiously.

“She was awful to my date!” Marlow says, perturbed. “For no good damn reason, she was awful!” He sits down on the retainer wall. Oh, dear.

“In what way?” I ask, sitting down next to him.

“She said some flighty crap about her being skinny… something about needing a gravy sandwich or something like that.” I raise my eyebrows to him.

“Um… well… um… that’s not… horrible,” I try to excuse.

“My date heard her!” he snaps. I cringe.

“Ooo, that’s bad,” I retract. “Any idea why she said that?”

“Because she’s a brat!” he retorts, very angry about his seemingly ruined Thanksgiving. I try to come up with an explanation. I know she has a crush on him even though she hasn’t told me. This lashing out at his dates isn’t going to stop if he keeps bringing them around. Which reminds me…

“It could be attack as a form of defense,” I tell him. He raises a brow at me. “Have you forgotten the little twat who chased her away from Mia’s wedding? What was her name—Maya?”

“Maya didn’t chase her away!” He frowns.

“She most certainly did!” I retort. “That crack about her kid sister having Sophie’s dress; and then that whole ‘I’ll just have to take it off’ thing, as if everybody at the table didn’t know what the hell that meant. Sophie had just spent the entire dinner impressing a table full of adults with her cuisine expertise and here comes this insecure little twit acting like a jealous toddler and cutting her down in front of everybody. If Sophie acts like a brat in front of your dates, blame your first date—or at least the one that you brought to the wedding. That’s why I told you to talk to your women about how they act around us. And what happened to Maya anyway? It wasn’t two months ago, she was hanging all over you!”

“Um…” He rubs the back of his neck. “Yeah, well, she wasn’t really comfortable after the incident either.”

“Um-hmm,” I say, folding my arms. “I bet she wasn’t. I’m not trying to sabotage your dates, but I won’t stand by while they treat someone I love like crap. I’m really sorry about Britney. I’m sure she didn’t deserve what happened, but when it comes to your girls, Sophie may be lashing out before they get the chance to lash out at her. And don’t be surprised if she’s got an entire armory ready. You might want to try and talk to her, get her to understand how her actions are affecting you—and I’m not saying this happened with Britney, but make sure your dates aren’t doing anything to antagonize her. She’s only 13, for Christ’s sake. You, her, and Maggie are the only teenagers we have at family gatherings, so…” I trail off and shrug.

“I may just have to stop bringing dates around altogether,” he laments. “Jeez, at this rate, I may never get laid again,” he adds, his voice low.

I don’t think I was supposed to hear that last part, so I just ignore it.

“Well, I don’t want you to feel like your dates aren’t welcome. You’re always welcome to bring them to family gatherings… as long as they know how to behave themselves, but Maya laid the groundwork for how Sophie’s going to act around your women, so you really need to talk to her.”

She’s got a crush on you, you idiot. Are you truly that dense? Smooth things over and let her know that you at least care about her feelings, even though it can never go any further.

Of course, telling her that he knows would just humiliate her to no end. So, of course, I can’t share my theory with him, but geez… it’s as plain as the nose on my face.

“I think I’m just going to take off,” he says, “try to smooth things over with Britney…”

“But not with Sophie?” I chastise.

“She’s the one who insulted Britney!” Marlow retorts.

“And I just told you why!” I counter. “You don’t think that needs addressing?”

“If I address that with her right now, Ana, I’m going to be pissed. I don’t even know where Britney is. I need to go find her. I’ll talk to Sophia some other time.” He stands. “Tell my mom to text me when she’s ready to go if I’m not back by then.” He marches down the driveway towards his car.

That’s right, Marlow. Run away.

It’s hard to remember that he’s still a child… but not. He’s 17, so his life should be shaping into manhood now, but he disappoints me when it comes down to how he’s handling the complexities of relationships right now. I guess this is when he’s learning.

And poor Sophie. She’s acting like the stereotypical catty jealous spurned female, but at 13, she’s coming off as the bratty ass little sister. Their age difference is wide enough that they most likely will never have any romantic relationship—not to mention the fact that Marlow simply does not see her that way—but at this rate, she’ll not only destroy any hint of a chance of a romance. She’ll also destroy their friendship.


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.

There has been yet another development where if you feel the need to talk to fellow readers about personal issues, you need a sounding board, you want to vent about something in your life, please feel free to visit the link on the left in the menu entitled “Do You Need To Talk.” No subject is taboo. I just ask that you approach the link with respect for those who have concerns as well as those who respond. You can also get to the link by clicking HERE

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 ~~love and handcuffs

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 65—The Glue That Holds Family Together

Please say a prayer for my friend Yanique. She lost her mom recently after a long and diligent struggle with her health. Send her positive vibes, love, and light. I know that is a very rough time for her.

Tiny little chat here…

My last post was November 30—that was 16 days ago. In that time, I’ve gotten about 35 or so emails and messages that were not automated. Only one of them asked, “Are you okay?” There were other emails and comments (two or three) that had the tone, “How are you doing? How are things going?” I have seen them. Forgive me if I haven’t responded yet.  

The rest of them were all, “Where’s the next chapter?” “When are you going to post the next chapter?” “Why are you making us wait so long for a chapter?” One such comment was immediately after the last chapter was posted. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on how that made me feel.

I’ve probably said this 99 times, and I’ll probably say it 99 more until and if I ever decide to just stop writing. I appreciate that people are so invested in my stories more than you all know, but please stop treating me like “just the next chapter.” I’m well aware that not everybody does that, so you all know that I’m not talking to everyone—but those of you who do, you know who you are. For the record, when you do that, it just causes me to lose my motivation and I wait longer to post.

I may come in on a Tuesday night and say, “Hey, I’ve got a little energy. Let me edit a chapter,” then wake up on Wednesday morning, do my tags, upload it, make my links, and get it posted before I start working. If, however, I come in to “Hurry up with the chapter,” I’ll just go do something else. I don’t want anybody to feel like they can say, “Chop, chop! Give us a chapter,” and I’m going to “chop chop.” It has the opposite effect—it slows me right down. Please don’t “out” yourself by saying, “I didn’t mean it that way” because please don’t be offended, but I’m not going to respond if you do. You’re just going to be “outing” yourself. Just put a pin in this and realize that this is how it makes me feel.

So, for those who asked, yes, I’m okay. I’m doing fine, thank you so much for asking. All is well. I’ve been very busy and I’m dealing with a little seasonal depression, but the winter solstice is five days away and then it’s only up from there, so that’s a good thing. Working from home has been fabulous, my beloved Falala, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had to go into the office for a day last week and I’ll have to go in a few days in the future, but for the most part, I love, love, love being at home.

Now, here’s the next chapter. Each subsequent chapter will be posted as time and opportunity—and motivation—allows. Thank you for your continued support.

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 65—The Glue That Holds The Family Together

CHRISTIAN

“Dad had a T-Bird? A fucking ’64 T-Bird? And you gave it to Burt?” Freeman roars through the phone.

Mom gave me the “all clear” this morning, so I came over to Dad’s house to meet with Uncle Herman and see how much of the items from the storage units had been shipped to family. Smalls located the model car collection that was willed to Dad and warned that he would need more than a display case for it before he shipped it out on Monday. Apparently, Dad already knew that and has had Elliot working on redoing another whole room in the house to prepare for their arrival. Another whole room… I have got to see this collection.

Other various items are making their way to different parts of the country. Herman wanted Grandma Ruby’s Waterford crystal and her wedding dress since no one laid claim to them. He said that the younger family members couldn’t see the value in the crystal and that grandma’s wedding dress just sitting in a storage facility somewhere didn’t seem right to him. So, those things are on the way to Washington along with Dad’s model car collection, and my Apollo will be shipped to a restorer on the east coast.

Lanie sent me a picture of Burtie smiling brightly and posing with his boyfriend—Leo’s cousin—next to his new, incredibly pimped out 1964 T-Bird with the ocean in the background. These are apparently Burtie’s engagement photos as he and his new love plan to tie the knot after Burtie’s surgeries. He insisted on waiting because he doesn’t want his scars to be in the wedding pictures.

Word got to Freeman because Lanie posted the pictures on social media. So, either Freeman’s trolling her page, or someone told him about it, and now he’s on Uncle Herman’s speaker phone stomping like Rumpelstiltskin.

“No, Freeman,” Uncle Herman says calmly. “I had a fucking ’64 T-Bird and I gave it to Burt.”

“That was Dad’s car! I’m his son, too, and you can’t pretend I don’t exist no matter how much you want to. As his son, I’m entitled to his possessions just like you are, and I want my share of that stuff!” Freeman demands. A satisfied look comes over Herman’s face.

“Didn’t you hear what Wu said at the reading?” Uncle Herman says. “Dad left all of this stuff to me to distribute as I see fit. You don’t have a share.”

He left you whatever was in that safe deposit box, not what he had in storage!”

“And the key and the instructions to the storage bin were in the safe deposit box. So, dear brother, that means that all that stuff belongs to me, too. Is that why you tried to keep me from the reading of the will? Because you knew that Dad left the disposition of his estate to me? Is that why you wanted to get him back to Detroit before he died—so that you could coerce him to change trustees? Maybe give you power of attorney so you could sell his house before he even died? You tried to screw me and Rick and it backfired on you. How does that feel?”

“You’re just as paranoid as he is,” Freeman shoots. “You can’t prove I did anything!”

“I don’t have to,” Uncle Herman replies. “It still backfired. You lied and you schemed and you went behind our backs and it backfired—in an even bigger way than you think because you’re even cheating yourself out of $500,000 that belongs to you because you’re too busy trying to hurt somebody else. Rick doesn’t need that money, and he proved it to you by giving me and Stan $750,000 each while you watched! Then he told us that we could keep whatever is left of our share when you’re done with your shenanigans. Who’s being hurt here, because it’s certainly not any of us!”

“You’re not going to get away with this, Herman…” Freeman begins.

“Stop right there,” Uncle Herman interrupts. “Before you start getting one of your stupid, dark ideas, don’t forget—if you protest the will, you lose your rights to everything, including that dilapidated house you inherited.” Freeman is silent for several moments.

“The joke’s going to be on you,” he says, finally. “I’m selling this house, and I’m using the money to rebuild Dad’s, and when I’m done, it’s going to be worth far more than those trinkets you all are playing with!”

“Trinkets!” Uncle Herman laughs. “That trinket that I gave your son has been rebuilt, refurbished and it’s currently worth nearly $100,000. How’s that for a trinket?”

Freeman is silent again.

“And you’re selling your house—a perfectly good house with a very high market value so that you can try to repair a money pit in the middle of Detroit where the market values are dropping and the joke’s on us? Didn’t you buy that house while you and Nell were married? That makes it community property. What does she say about that?”

“She moved out. She has no claim to this house anymore!” Not that simple, Freem. “Besides, I’m signing the divorce papers. I’m giving that witch what she wants and getting her out of my hair once and for all.”

“You mean that witch that bore your children and dealt with your bullshit for more than twenty years? Is that the witch you’re speaking of?” Herman retorts.

“They’re all dead to me!” he snaps. “Burt’s pressing charges on me for a little tough love and his pathetic, weak mother is falling in step right behind him. And Nollie—or whatever the fuck her name is now—yeah, it can easily be said that she’s to blame for this entire fucking fiasco!”

“Kind of like Rick has been the root of all evil for all of your problems, but never you, right, Freem?

“You were never to blame for smashing Burt’s face in the middle of a crowded airport.

“You were never to blame for alienating the entire family from Rick because you were pissed that he married a rich woman.

“You were never to blame for cheating on your faithful wife who stuck with you through all of your bullshit and garbage until she just couldn’t take it anymore.

“You were never to blame for treating your daughter like the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your life from the day she was born!

“You were never to blame for making Dad feel like a burden from the day he got sick and couldn’t take care of himself anymore. A week before he died, he pretty much called you a selfish bastard, and he repeated those words from the grave in his will. His final thought for you was that he knew that he never meant anything to you, that you were pretty much waiting for him to die so that you could get that house and you didn’t feel a bit of conviction about it.

“You’re rotten through and through, Freeman, and you don’t have the conscience to feel bad about it. You’re going to die old, lonely, and miserable, and you’re not entitled to a goddamn thing but that house that you got. There’s no hope for you! I wash my hands of you! So, go rebuild your money pit and leave us the fuck alone. Don’t call me again!” Uncle Herman swipes the screen and ends the call and sighs heavily.

“I want to feel bad about it, but I don’t,” Uncle Herman says to me and Dad. “There’s really no hope for him! That man is like Satan, walking through the earth and ‘seeking whom he may devour.’”

“He’s adamant about that house,” Dad says. “He’s an unfeeling, delusional asshole, but he’s not an idiot. You all stayed in Detroit and the surrounding areas all these years. Before you and Dad moved out here, you were there. It’s no secret that Detroit is deteriorating. Schools are closing, families are leaving, neighborhoods are falling to ruin… he has to know that house is worthless! So, what is it? What’s so important?”

“He thought all Dad had was that house. Hell, we all thought all Dad had was that house! He was just the only one who was willing to risk everything to get it—including Dad!”

“There’s got to be something else more important about that house,” Dad says. “It can’t just be sentimental value.”

“He thinks it’s worth something,” I say with a shrug. “Maybe there’s gold in the basement.”

“Well, I hope he finds it,” Uncle Herman says waving his hands. “Jesus, I don’t want to hear from him ever again. I can’t take this anymore.”

“We may have a bigger problem, Uncle Herman,” I say. “He’ll more than likely head down to the storage units and cause some trouble. You might want to call the management office and give them a heads up. I’m going to call my guy and have him ship everything that’s been claimed to those members of the family who claimed it and ship everything else here. We need to wrap this up and everything needs to be on the road no later than Friday. That’s still two days and enough time for him to wreak havoc.”

“Over my dead body,” Uncle Herman says while dialing a number on his phone. I also pull out my cell phone. I call Smalls and explain what’s going on and what needs to be done. That operation needs to be shut down and on the move from Detroit to Seattle in two days.

“That’s impossible, sir,” Smalls declares. “We don’t have the resources here to ship this stuff across the country in two days. It took longer than that just to get a company to secure those cars. And it took even longer to get them prepared to be shipped to you. The way that it was packed in these facilities, it was packed to be stored—not to be shipped. That’s going to take time and care unless you want these things to be damaged when they arrive, and do you want anybody but Grey Shipping to transport these items? Antique furniture? Fragile glassware? Keepsakes? Quite candidly, sir, I don’t want to be held responsible for a botched-up job and you and your family receiving a bunch of pretty pieces of things that obviously have some pretty significant sentimental value.” I sigh heavily.

“Well, what do you suggest, Smalls?” I say, almost through my teeth.

“Well, Mr. Grey, shipping these things piece by piece isn’t a really difficult task, but shipping fragile and valuable items all in bulk, that’s a little out of my realm. I know it’ll take time, but I’d need to consult the experts on the best way to proceed.” I roll my eyes. Was I naïve for thinking that he would do that in the first place?

The truth is that shipping the items quickly isn’t necessarily the priority. Keeping Freeman away from the items is what’s most important. I put Smalls on hold and conference Alex into the call.

“Welch, I have Smalls on the line, the team leader over the project in Detroit. Smalls, how many units do we have out there again?”

Four,” he replies.

“Welch, my uncle in Detroit has gotten wind that my grandfather’s things are being divvied out to the family and he has made it clear that he ‘wants his share.’ We both know that he’s an unreasonable, delusional hothead and very unpredictable. I think you can see where I’m going with this.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex replies.

“So, we need to get a detail out there—something like five guys that can work shifts, more at night than during the daytime. The management team has already been informed that Freeman is to have no access to the units, so that pretty much takes care of business hours even though I would want at least one guy out there during the day just to keep the peace and allow the team to do their job…”

Hm,” Alex says into the phone. Hm? What’s the hm?

“Something I’m missing, Mr. Welch?” I ask.

“Well, no, sir. It’s just that the team is on a few different projects right now, including securing the Franklin mansion. We’re just spread kind of thin at the moment.”

I’m not hearing that. Did I just hear that? Did I just hear my head of security tell me that we don’t have the staff to do something that I need done? I have a large force of elite motherfuckers that rivals the CIA. In fact, some of them came from the CIA—and this fucker is insinuating that I don’t have the security staff to do what I need? We had a guy just sitting at Pops’ house while I was on my honeymoon! I own several security companies! And this fucker is telling me that the staff is “spread kind of thin” right after this other fucker is complaining about shipping four storage units—and not even four anymore—full of stuff from Detroit to Seattle when I control shipping modes on land, at sea, and in the air?

Has married life made me a pussy… or just made me look like one?

“Mr. Grey?” My pondering has caused me to fall silent.

“Okay, so here’s the thing,” I say, rubbing my brow and trying to keep my anger in check. “I am a fucking billionaire, so I’m not very accustomed to the word ‘no.’ Today, I have effectively heard it twice from two different people in my employ…”

“I didn’t say ‘no,’ sir…”

“Are you interrupting me?” I ask whoever it was that dared to speak. The line falls silent. “Now, as I was saying, in just the past few minutes, I have grown fucking tired of hearing what we can’t fucking do, no matter how you try to phrase it. I have an entire shipping department that sends things worldwide—including foodstuffs to third world countries—and my guy in Detroit is telling me that he can’t get my grandfather’s belongings here in a timely manner without busting them all to pieces. So, to alleviate the possibility of my crazy ass uncle coming down to the storage facility and starting any shit while we’re trying to sort this out, I ask for a security detail to be dispatched to the location in case he starts feeling froggy and now, my head of security is telling me how thinly spread they are even though in addition to being able to send a banana to Antarctica and have it arrive intact, I own more security subsidiaries across the country than I can count. Money can do just about anything these days except bring the dead back to life and I’m richer than Midas. So, right now, I need the two of you to act like you have an endless money pot and fix these fucking problems!

“Yes, sir,” they say almost simultaneously. I end the call without another word and thrust my hand into my hair. I’m asking for shit to be shipped and I’m asking for a security detail. How hard can this fucking be?

I turn around to see my father and uncle staring at me.

“It’s not all that important, Christian,” Uncle Herman says. “I’ve talked to the management, and Freeman won’t get off the lot with anything.”

“There’s a couple of problems with that thinking,” I tell him. “The storage facility may be private property, but anybody can get in there—wire cutters, climb a fence, whatever. The management team aren’t going to be there 24/7 and quite frankly, neither are my guys. Freeman is already irrational and delusional. He’s harassed me to the point of having to get a restraining order and he’s beaten his son to the degree that he needs plastic surgery. I don’t put it past him for a second that he’ll go down there and bust in every door until he finds Pops’ stuff, or that he’ll find where they’re working and just start breaking Pops’ shit for the hell of it, or worse yet, hurt one of my guys. Can you guarantee me that he won’t do that?” I ask.

Uncle Herman just looks at me for a few moments. Freeman started a fight with and assaulted my father in his own house, then provoked me to the point of nearly choking him to death. Then he came back with the police and said that we started the fight. He’s a loose fucking cannon and right now, nobody’s there to keep him in check.

“No, son,” Uncle Herman says. “I can’t guarantee that.”

“I didn’t expect you would, but here’s the bigger issue. I run an international company with nearly bottomless resources. If I ask for fresh snow from the highest peak of Mt. Everest, intact and on my desk, I expect to get it—however they have to get it to me, but that’s not what I’m asking for. I’m asking for items—and yes, a lot of items and some of them very fragile—to be shipped across the country as soon as possible and for a security team to be present at the storage facility to make sure everything runs smoothly. Yet, twice in the last few minutes, I have the two HMIC’s telling me what they can’t do. I’m going to assume that they conveniently forgot who they were speaking to, and that they’ll have a game plan for me by the end of business.”

Uncle Herman and Dad look at each other and then back at me.

“You’re the boss,” Uncle Herman says. “I just don’t want you putting yourself or your company out for this.”

“Pops’ preserved all that stuff for his family,” I begin. “I know that he intended for Freeman to have some of it, but if Freeman had his way, he’d sell everything and run off with the money! This way, Pops’ legacy is being spread among all of his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren. The jewelry that you gave me for my wife— Butterfly cried when I gave her those things! And they will most likely one day end up in my daughter’s hands. How do you think Pops’ and Grandma Ruby feel looking down on that right now?” Herman smiles a warm smile.

“Pretty damn good,” he says contentedly. I nod.

“Damn straight! So, if the one selfish bastard who would ruin it for the whole family is the one person that gets cut out of the process, I can live with that, and I’m sure that my grandparents understand. Now, these people that I have in charge of these things are getting paid well enough to lick their wounds later, and if they want to keep getting paid those handsome salaries, they’ll stop dragging their asses, kill the excuses, and find a way to make this happen. So, don’t worry about it one more moment. The only thing you should be concerned about is who gets what and then we’ll make sure that it gets to be where it needs to be.”

“Like I said,” Uncle Herman says, still smiling, “You’re the boss… speaking of which, Ana emailed me about Mom’s wardrobe.” My brow furrows.

“Her wardrobe?” I ask. He nods.

“Yeah. I noticed that Ana wasn’t on the mailing list for Mom and Dad’s things. I thought it might have been an oversight, so I asked for her email address and sent her this list. I hope I didn’t overstep…”

“Oh, no, no, not at all, Uncle Herman. It actually was an oversight on my part. I didn’t even think to add my wife to the list. You know, the whole ‘we have everything we need thing,’” I excuse. I hope Butterfly won’t be too warm with me for not adding her to the list. It really was an accident. “So, what’s this about the wardrobe?”

“Apparently, your wife is a vintage clothing connoisseur,” my uncle says. “Mom’s heyday was the fifties and sixties, and even though she bought new things in the later decades, she kept all of her clothes and had many of them preserved in cedar chests and things like that. Georgie thought to send some pictures with the email of some of Mom’s things. I wouldn’t have thought the kids would be interested in any of those things, but your wife went nuts! As long as I get Mom’s wedding dress, I’ve agreed to send everything else to Ana. She’s going to keep what she wants and consign the rest with the proceeds going to Helping Hands.”

Butterfly in true vintage Lindy-bop dresses. I’m having a separate conversation with Greystone right now to keep him in check.

“Oh, yes, Butterfly loves that era of clothing. Her closet at her condo is nothing but vintage replicas. She’s going to have a field day with this. Thanks, Uncle Herman.” He smiles.

“A very small token, Christian,” he says. “If we didn’t have you, I have no idea how we’d get through this.”

“It’s the very least I could do,” I say


ANASTASIA

Marilyn may not want to discuss her situation with me, but as her employer, she’s going to have to tell me something sooner or later. Nonetheless, I’ve promised to stay out of her business and allow her to sort this out on her own. I won’t approach her about it unless she asks—or if she starts showing, whichever comes first.

“Courtney,” I ask when she comes out of the kitchen after I hang up from Marilyn, “I don’t mean to pry, but what conversation have you had?” She frowns.

“What?” she asks, bemused.

“With Harmony,” I say. “When you mentioned fattening her up, she said you had already had that conversation.”

“Oh, that… she can’t keep anything down when she’s really upset,” Courtney informs me.

“Oh,” I nod. “Could she be pregnant?” Courtney shakes her head.

“I asked the same thing. She’s been celibate for nearly a year now. It’s just her nerves. They’re really bad.”

“I can only imagine,” I say. “And this experience is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.” I rub my scar and sigh heavily.

“What’s wrong, Ana?” Courtney asks. I shake my head.

“I never understood the concept of death bringing out the worst in people. She’s barely hanging on, now she’s going to have to go head to head with these people who are supposed to be her siblings, so to speak.”

“Well,” she says, putting her arm around my shoulder, “That’s why she has us. I told Vick that I’ll be staying here with her tonight, so she might drop by. Should I let somebody know?”

“Yeah, just tell security. It’ll be fine,” I inform her.

I’m not as worn out when I get home as I was yesterday thanks to Courtney’s presence, but I remember that I need to call Val to find out the results of her doctor’s appointment. I’m anxious to know if Meg has returned and I’ll be front and center for her this time if she has.

“What did the doctor say?” I ask immediately after greeting her when she answers the phone.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she says. “Meg has not reared her ugly head. Like I told you, there was a perfectly logical reason for the dizzy spells, so everyone can breathe now.”

“Did he say how often you’ll have them?” I press. “Or how long? Are they like the throbbing in my scar where you just have to deal with them whenever they show up?”

“Something like that,” she says. “We don’t know yet how often I’ll have them or for how long, but we’re pretty certain that they’re not permanent. What’s important is that my healing is still on track—more than on track, in fact—and we don’t have to prepare for any surgeries or radiation, thank God!”

“Were you worried, Val?” I ask, my voice softening. She sighs.

“I try to keep a positive outlook, Steele,” she says. “Life’s too short and you can’t spend it worrying, but… the unknown… that shit is scary as fuck.”

“I know,” I tell her. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t more supportive last weekend. I know you really could have used the encouragement.”

“Honestly, don’t trouble yourself. Just like you were finding your way last week, I had to find mine. There are some journeys that we must travel alone, as you well know.” I nod as if she can see me.

“I well know,” I confirm.

“So, what’s on your agenda for the rest of the week?” she asks, affectively changing the subject. I sigh.

“Tina died,” I say, sadly. “I’m at Harmony’s disposal. I know she needs me.”

“Oh, Ana. That poor girl. I know her pain. Give her my condolences, please.”

“I will. Luckily, there’s not too much that needs to be done. Tina made her own arrangements before she died. She knew that Harmony wouldn’t be able to handle it. And their attorney—he’s cordial and accommodating. He cares more about them than her own children.”

“Could it be the money?” she asks.

“It could be, but I sense a loyalty to the family—or at least, to Tina—that goes far deeper than money. After the mess of Harmony’s divorce and already having to deal with losing a loving mother…” I trail off. I’m grateful for Carl and how he’s handling things, even though I’m not the one who has to deal with all this. “He was at the county office the moment he learned that the quit deed had been registered getting copies of it for Harmony. I have a feeling that Tina was waiting for the deed to be finalized before she let go.”

“Oh, dear, that’s so sad,” Val says. “Those kids of hers must be some gruesome lot.”

“They’ve proven to be just that, but Christian and I are ready for them. It looks like we’ve adopted yet another family member.”

“You seem to do that a lot,” she laughs. “Marlow and his family, Luma and the girls… what about that other lady? Thelma and… what was that guy’s name?”

“James,” I remind her. She wasn’t around for that drama, but I filled her in later. “You should get to meet them at the gala on Thanksgiving weekend. It’s been decided that the Adopt-A-Family Affair is going to be the Adopt-A-Family Reunion. So, invitations have gone out to all of the families who had been listed to be adopted over the last five years.”

“That’s kinda cool,” she says. “Will they still be adopting families this year, or will it all be the Reunion?”

“No, things will still be going as planned,” I tell her. “We’ll just have more guests at the party this year than usual. So, have you had a cooking lesson this week?”

“A small one,” she says. “Chicken alfredo. It was simple, and I caught on pretty quickly…”

I continue my conversation with Val with her reminding me that Thanksgiving dinner will be at her house this year. Jason, Gail, and Sophie will be joining us as will Marlow, Maggie, and Marcia, so I’ll at least have one of my nannies with me. Chuck and Keri will be visiting some of Chuck’s extended “family”—people who have somewhat adopted him like we did. He wants to introduce Keri to them.

Val’s house is large, but unfortunately can’t accommodate a Grey family sleepover, so the Grey siblings as well as Jason and Gail will be staying the night at Val and Elliot’s while the parents—including Dad and Mandy—and Herman and Luma will be at Grey Manor.

Friday, the ladies will meet for Black Friday shopping as usual, then go to Miana’s for our Black Friday spa day. Keri will join us for Black Friday, and Minnie will spend the day with the ladies along with Celida, Mariah, and Sophie while Mikey and Harry hang out with the guys. The family will then all converge on Grey Manor for dinner and be spending Friday night there to have brunch on Saturday, then go to the Adopt-A-Family Reunion from there. Keri and Gail will get the twins home and Jason and Chuck will, of course, be on duty with me and Christian.

After the gala, we’ll all return to Grey Crossing, where the family will spend the night, have their final weekend brunch, and disperse to their homes. This way, all three homes will have hosted part of the Thanksgiving weekend… except for Mia who promises to maybe look for a bigger place and host a holiday next year.

Val is telling me about the Thanksgiving meal that will be catered and served by staff when my husband’s voice breaks into our conversation.

“I hear you’re going to have a sexy new wardrobe soon.”

I look up at him and shake my head.

“I gotta go, Val,” I tell her. “My husband has just arrived and, of course, requires my attention.”

“Of course,” she laughs. “I’ll talk to you soon.” We end the call.

“What sexy new wardrobe are you talking about?” I ask. “Ruby’s things?”

“Yeah,” he says, going into his dressing room. “I hear her entire vintage wardrobe is being shipped here.”

“Yeah, no thanks to you!” I yell into the dressing room. “Herman told me that list was supposed to go to all the children and grand-children. How did I not make the cut? I am your wife.”

“That was a terrible oversight on my part,” he says coming out of the dressing room while unbuttoning his shirt. “I’ll be honest—we already have so much that I wasn’t even thinking about us getting anything on that list. I’m sorry, baby.”

“You’re forgiven,” I say. “And what made you say that the wardrobe is sexy?”

“Lindy-bop dresses?” he says going back to his dressing room. “I’ve seen you in those—all demure and shit. They drive me crazy. And Uncle Herman says that the fifties and sixties were Grandma Ruby’s heyday, so I know she’s probably got some hot stuff in there.” He comes back out in a T-shirt and sweats.

“I don’t know how you fit all your junk in there,” I say. He looks behind him.

“In where? In there?” he says pointing to his dressing room.

“No, in there?” I say pointing to his sweatpants. “That’s a lot of meat and I’ve seen lesser men hang and wobble in those.” He looks down at his sweats.

“Why do you think I wear boxer briefs?” he says. “Jock straps are out of the question, as are tighty-whities, and even soft, I peek out of regular boxers. These were the only option.” I shake my head.

“I guess I should be happy I didn’t fall in love with an itty-bity. That would have been a disaster.” Christian laughs loudly.

“I guess so,” he says, through his laughter. “So, what’s on the agenda for tonight?”

“Food, then sleep, my love,” I say. “I’ve got some things to do at the Center tomorrow and then, I’m going to Harmony’s to finalize things for Tina’s service. It’s going to be Saturday, so we have to wrap things up.”

“No word from the siblings yet?” he asks.

“Not a peep,” I say. “It’s been quiet. Too quiet.”

“Jesus! Won’t they even help with the final arrangements?” I shrug.

“If they don’t get it in gear by tomorrow, they won’t have any input, so…” I trail off.

“Jeez, what a brood,” he says, shaking his head. “Let’s go eat.”

*-*

I discover that I spoke too soon about no word from the siblings. I get a text from Harmony at about 10am that she has to go to the funeral home for the final viewing of her mother before they present her for public viewing. I ask if she wants me or Courtney to go with her, but she assures me that she’ll be fine.

“This is the easy part,” she says. “Making sure a pretty woman in life is still pretty in death.”

She’s livid when I get to her house.

“That was not my mother!” she fumes. “The idea is to make sure that the dead don’t look dead,” she says. She pulls out her phone.

“I gave them this picture!” She scrolls through her phone and shows me a picture of Tina when she was alive.

“This is what they did.” I wasn’t prepared for her to show me a picture of Tina’s corpse, but that’s exactly what it was—a corpse… not in a casket, on a slab. It was clean and neat and presentable… and flaxen white. We know the deceased isn’t with us anymore, but we don’t want them to look that way! And what’s with that fucking hair? That’s not a bouffant, is it? It looks horrendous!

82920f4c350d65dc46d4b246afcc86f3

BOUFFANT 

“Was someone practicing?” I ask before I realize the words are out of my mouth, still gazing at the picture in dismay.

“That’s what I asked!” she seethes and scrolls through her phone again.

“That’s how she looks now!” she nearly hisses. Tina has been redone and is now lying in her casket with an ethereal glow. Her hair is how I remembered her wearing it at Mia’s wedding. Her coloring is perfect and she’s wearing a beautiful blue dress with long sleeves and a high Victorian-style collar. She looks stately and beautiful, and completely at rest.

“Well, at least they got it right the second time,” I say, examining the picture.

“They didn’t,” she says, swiping her phone and clearing the screen. “I did.”

My eyes must look like bowling balls. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

“What?” I ask in disbelief.

“That’s what took four hours,” she says as she put her phone away. “I came back here, got my mother’s makeup and redid it. Then I had to give her a dry shampoo to get all that horrible hair spray out of her hair—something that I’ve never seen her use…” Harmony is furious and covers her face as she shakes her head.

“I must be delusional or insane with grief, because I swear I saw her smile at me when I had finished.” She raises angry eyes to me. “And it brought me peace—for a minute. In my head, I went on this insane rant, this ‘Who the fuck is this woman’ rant when I saw this stranger lying on a slab posing as my mother, but my anger just wouldn’t come out. I wanted it to, but it wouldn’t.”

She walks away from me and starts pacing around the room.

“I tried to tell them that wasn’t my mother, and they tried to tell me that death changes the face. I know that death changes the face, but that wasn’t even close. I asked if they even looked at the picture when they did my mother’s hair and makeup, and they just did this blank stare thing. I told them not to touch my mother and that I would be back, and that’s when I came home and got the supplies. Maybe it’s just the quality of the makeup…”

“No, it’s not just the quality,” I tell her, recalling the first picture of Tina. “She looked like a Halloween costume, and a bad one at that. They could have done much better.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “You did an excellent job.”

“Thank you,” she says, still angry. “I’m so pissed, I just want to hit something.”

As if from Harmony’s mouth to God’s ears, one of the security detail announces that she has visitors demanding entrance to her home. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who it is.

“Let ‘em in!” she says combatively, folding her arms and facing the entrance to the dining room.

Showtime!

I’m standing behind the sofa when they enter. None of them look their age. They look late forties at the latest, but I know from the intel that Christian gave me that the youngest of them—Paige—is 60 years old. The wonders of modern medicine.

They all walk in, stepping in sync, and one of the women folds her arms and adjusts her weight like she’s ready to face off.

I can’t fucking believe this. They all showed up together—unannounced, like a posse. They remind me of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad coming to wipe everybody out, only they didn’t expect to find her fifty guards deep. They expected her to be alone.

I lift my wrist to my mouth, clear my throat, and whisper a single word into the mouthpiece there.

“Backup.”

This is the signal that I want at least five other people in this room right now. I got seven.

“Harmony,” one of the women greet.

“Paige,” Harmony acknowledges with the same indifference.

“What’s with the goon squad?” one of the men jeer.

“You tell me,” Harmony says, folding her arms. “My ringer must be malfunctioning, because Mom’s been dead for two days and I don’t recall a call from any of you.”

“We didn’t get a call from you, either,” the same man retorts.

“Why would I call you, Theo?” she counters. “You never answered any other time I called, or when Mom called. Why would now be any different?” She looks from face to face.

“You got the call that you were waiting for—from her attorney. You comin’ to collect? Well, I hope he told you that you’re going to have to wait until the reading of the will.” The other woman, whom I deduce is Ilsa, scoffs.

“You look awful,” Paige says. “Are you on drugs?” Harmony’s eyes narrow.

“No,” she hisses, “I’m mourning the loss of my mother. You look great, by the way, for having just lost yours!” Paige is taken aback by her frankness. “Did you come to help with Mom’s arrangements?” she asks sarcastically.

“Well,” Ilsa says, “we were coming to help you clean up, get things in order, so to speak.”

“Well, as you can see,” Harmony says gesturing around the house, “everything looks like a shiny new penny, so I don’t need any help cleaning up.

“We mean like packing up Mom’s things,” Theodore interjects.

“You mean like picking through Mom’s things,” Harmony corrects him. “She’s not even cold yet, Theo. Can’t you even wait until she’s laid to rest before you start picking her bones dry?”

“That’s my mother you’re talking about!” he barks.

“Yeah, you might want to remember that!” Harmony retorts. “Mom’s dead. She’s gone! She’s not coming back, and there’s not a tear between you, but you want to ask me if I’m on drugs because I’ve cried a river in three days and I can’t keep anything down because I lost my mom. So, to answer your question, no—I don’t need your help cleaning up. We have a staff here who can help me with that. Anything else?” Paige sighs impatiently.

“I gave Mom a set of diamond earrings,” she huffs. “Unless she’s being buried in them, I want them back. I gave them to her for her 50th birthday. They’re 4-carats each. You can’t miss them.”

“No,” Harmony says firmly. “The stipulation states that nothing will be distributed from Mom’s estate until the will is read and that’s how it’s going to be.”

“So, what’s to stop you from taking her stuff?” Jason says.

“Well, you’ll just have to trust me, now, won’t you?” Harmony retorts, folding her arms. “Mom certainly did.”

“We don’t know that,” Theodore hisses.

“And you never will,” Harmony hisses back, “because you weren’t here to help take care of her, now, were you? You couldn’t be bothered to leave your oh-so-important lives to come and see about your dying mother! I sat here and took care of her for months and watched her slip away and now you want to come and throw darts at me?”

Harmony is drawing on some much-needed anger to fend off her selfish and greedy siblings. None of them have a response for not being there for Tina, so they resort back to accusing Harmony of manipulating her.

“I see you didn’t wait for the stipulation to take the house,” Ilsa says.

“That was Mom’s doing,” Harmony counters. “She put the house in my name before she died so you couldn’t come and put me out, which I fully know was your plan until you found out that Mom made it legal.”

“And stop calling her ‘Mom!’ She’s not your mom!” Theodore huffs.

“She is my mom!” Harmony roars, shocking us all. “And your hateful, belittling, treacherous, greedy, selfish attitudes and behavior is not going to change that. Now, get the hell out of my house!”

Your house!” Paige scoffs. “Couldn’t wait to say that, could you?”

“Damn straight!” Harmony says. “Get these people out of my house please,” she says to the security staff. The security detail begins to move forward toward the unwanted visitors.

“You can’t throw us out of Mom’s house!” Jonah protests.

“It’s my house now, and I can throw you out,” Harmony says definitively.

“If you put your hands on me, I’ll scream,” Paige tells one of the guards.

“And I’ll sue you,” Theodore tells another, “and you, too,” he adds to Harmony.

“Scream your little heart out!” Harmony says to Paige before turning to Theodore. “Sue away if you’ve got money to burn. I told you to leave my house. As of this moment, you’re trespassing. According to Washington law, I and my staff can legally remove you by any means necessary if you refuse to leave. Look it up—it’s public information.” She turns back to the security detail. “Get them out of my house.” The security detail create a half circle around the siblings.

“Ladies, gentlemen?” one of them says to the group while gesturing to the vestibule area. If looks could kill, there would be daggers flying across the room at Harmony, but I’m certain that her determined anger is forming a force field that renders their daggers ineffective, causing them to drop uselessly to the floor. Jonah whispers something to Ilsa, who nods before they turn to leave.

“Oh,” Harmony adds, “and you can forget about the secret doors. They’re locked, alarmed, and guarded… all of them.” Jonah whirls around as does Ilsa, revealing that this was the content of their whispered tête-à-tête.

“I’ll blow this whole house up with you in it,” Jonah threatens. Oh, he’s gone too far now.

“You try it,” Harmony seethes. “I’ll hunt your old ass down to the end of the earth. My trust kicked in after the divorce, so I’ve got the money for it.”

I can’t keep silent anymore.

“And friends in high places who just heard you threaten to commit murder,” I add. He pales a bit when I speak. “You should take her advice and leave now. I’m sure you’ll all get your piece of the pie at the reading of the will, which is all you really want, right?”

“You…” Jonah begins to me.

“Don’t,” I say, holding up one well-manicured finger. “Let me save you the headache and the lifetime of misery because this…” I point to myself with both index fingers, “… is a battle that you don’t want. If you’re slightly concerned about her, then you should be terrified of me because all of these people…” the same two fingers scan the whole room, “… work for me. And if you think her money is power, my money makes hers look like a piggy bank. Do you really want this?”

I’m picking a fight that I know he won’t follow through with. In fact, none of them will. They came to bully Harmony and didn’t expect her to be carrying a baseball bat. Then he turned on me—or thought he was going to turn on me—and got confronted with a wrecking ball.

“Gentlemen,” I say to my security staff, “show these people out by any means necessary.”

The staff moves in and the siblings once again head towards the door. Theodore, determined to destroy something on his way out, kicks over a table in the foyer causing the vase full of flowers to shatter all over the foyer floor. Within a moment, one of the guys from the security detail lifts him into the air by the back of his coat. His feet are flailing and he’s shouting obscenities while the others look on in total shock. The detail gets him to the porch and literally throws him off like that kid from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

200

It takes everything in me to keep from laughing when I see that man fly through the air and land on the lawn with a thud. Harmony isn’t as tactful.

“If you come back here again, I’m going to shoot first and ask questions later,” my security says. “You are all a threat to the lady of the house, and I will treat you as such.” He turns around and glares at Jonah, who doesn’t hesitate the scurry out of the house. Harmony goes to the door, laughing hysterically.

“I’ll send you the bill, Theo!” she yells into the night.

“Good luck collectin’!” he yells back.

“Never mind, then,” she retorts. “I’ll just submit it to the estate and have it taken from your share of the inheritance!”

“Fuck you, bitch!” he yells back while limping to his car.

“No thanks, Unc!” she yells. “I’m afraid your equipment is out of commission!” She turns back to Ilsa and Paige.

“Do you ladies need directions?” Harmony asks, all mirth gone from her voice. “I’m sure this gentleman would be only too happy to assist you!”

The ejection guard moves over to stand next to Harmony, prompting Ilsa to give Paige a little push before both women leave without another word. We watch as the gruesome foursome get into various cars and screech down the circle drive and off the premises.

“God! That felt good!” Harmony says as she walks back to the dining room.

“You haven’t seen the last of them, Harmony,” I warn as I follow her into the dining room and the detail secures the house.

243b0453c83e3f27031b22d2e7c3aa07“Good! Let ‘em bring it. I have a lot of pent-up anger and frustration from being ignored, being mistreated, being abandoned, taken for granted, and now losing the only person in the world that meant anything to me and having the funeral home make her up like the goddamn crypt keeper. This rage needs to be fed and they’re the perfect fucking food!”

She paces angrily around the dining room, her emotions cementing a snarl on her face that could scare the devil.

“I’m fucked up, Ana,” she hisses, pacing around the entire circumference of the dining room. “I’m seeing someone about it, but I’m fucked up. I’ve been fucked-up for as long as I could remember. As a kid, I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t love me—only my Mom. My sisters and brothers had kids that were older than me, and I didn’t get it. Then one day, dear old Dad lets me know why. I’m adopted—Franklin blood, yes, but two generations down adopted. I didn’t even know he was my father, and God only knows where my bio-mom is. That’s why they treated me so distant, why they were so ugly to me. But not once—not once—did my mother treat me like an outsider. Not once did she make me feel like I was not her child.

“I put her through hell,” she continues. “I wasn’t as bad as some kids, but she was too old to be dealing with my shit. I started having sex at 12, trying to find that love—that acceptance and attention that I was missing. I was a goddamn train wreck, and she didn’t deserve that. But you know what? She still made me feel like I was the most valued, most precious treasure in the world.

“When I got older and I met Ken, and he treated me like the sun, the moon, and the stars… an older guy—more mature, right? He knew things about the world and he made me feel good, and…” She shakes her head and continues to pace.

“I thought he was a great guy. I thought he was in love with me. When Mom said that I wouldn’t get my trust if I married him, I thought, ‘Fine, we’re in love. We’ll make it on our own.’ That’s when his true colors came out. He’s a dog and only wanted my money. All the others before him only wanted sex… and I only wanted to be loved.” She sighs heavily.

“So here I am now, all fucked up and trying to get out of the marriage, and I didn’t want to come back home to Mom, because I didn’t want to hear ‘I told you so…’ which she never said, by the way. But then she called me, and she told me what was going on, and I came home as quick as I could. I expected to walk in and find her bio-kids all camped out and clustered around her…” She trails off and shows the first sign of sadness. “And when I got here, she was all alone. She was dying, and she was all alone. I assumed that she hadn’t called them—that she called me first. But she had called us all, and I’m the only one who came. I didn’t know what I could do for her—I just knew I had to be here.”

“You did it, Harmony,” I say, making her pause in her trek. “You were here for her. You were the only one of her children that was here for her. That’s what she needed. She had doctors and nurses to care for her physically as much as they could. She had Carl to take care of her property, her legal issues. Roger was supposed to take care of her home, but he fell through and we came in, so she had someone for that. But she needed you to love her through her final days and her transition, and that’s what you did. That’s why she called you all, and where those losers never even showed up to the game, you were the pinch hitter and you hit that ball right out of the park. Don’t you see that?”

Harmony is breathing through angry tears as she fights to formulate her words.

“It was the least I could do,” she chokes. “She was… is… my angel. My guardian, my savior… she’s everything to me. It was the least… the very least…” She shakes her head and wipes her tears. “So, let them fucking come. I’ll unleash a level of hell on them that they’ve never seen in their entire lives!”

And there’s that fire again.

“Ana, I’m really very fucked up… and I need you to know that I made googly eyes at Christian,” she spits out. She doesn’t look at me as she confesses. “I didn’t want to fuck him… really. He’s a good-lookin’ guy, but… it wasn’t that. It’s that he had done this really great thing for my mom and he’s male and…” She rolls her eyes and continues. “I was grateful, not attracted and it was just… He didn’t give me the time of day. He didn’t even entertain the idea.”

Those last two sentences are the only two full sentences she’s actually formed, I think.

“I understand if you’re mad at me and don’t want to deal with me anymore…”

“Harmony,” I say, halting her rant, “I already know. It’s fine, I get it.”

She freezes again and stares at me.

“Oh, dear God, he swore that he wouldn’t tell you!” she says horrified. “I swore it wouldn’t happen again and he swore that he would never tell you!”

“And he kept his promise initially,” I tell her, “but when I told him how bad off you were after finding Tina had passed and he thought it best that I knew…” I trail off.

“To keep me from running into the arms of the nearest loser,” she completes my sentence. Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but… pretty much.

“You’re golden, Ana,” she says finitely. “If I were you, I would’ve kicked my ass.” I scoff a laugh.

“Only because I understand,” I inform her, “and if you do it again, I will.”

“Understood,” she replies, wiping her tears, “and don’t worry, I won’t.”


CHRISTIAN

It’s well after dinner, and my wife still isn’t home yet. She hasn’t texted me or called to say that she’ll be late, and I’m trying not to panic. Honestly, I’m not panicking. I’m just trying not to let my imagination run away with me. Although mine aren’t as prominent, Butterfly wasn’t the only one left with remnants of the Boogeyman after the whole Westwick situation.

To this day, I don’t know how I could have thought my wife would ever be unfaithful. She had already told me long ago that infidelity was a deal breaker for her. Yet, I believed that she would risk our home, our life, and our happiness for a stranger that she had only known for a few weeks.

Striking blue eyes… asshole!

I ascend the stairs and knock on the door of the nursery. When there’s no answer, I open the door and peak inside. It’s quiet—no nannies. My children must be asleep. I haven’t spent any time with them the entire week, but Mom says that I’m okay now, so I’m coming to see my children.

I step in quietly and close the door. Minnie’s crib is closest to the door, so I peak in at her. She’s fast asleep. I kiss my fingers and gently pat her cheek before I look in on my son. He’s awake, but fitful. He’s not crying and he actually looks sleepy, but he can’t seem to find his slumber.

I take him out of the bed and he immediately lands on my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. I sit in the rocker and rub his little back.

“You havin’ a rough time without her, too?” I ask. He raises gray eyes to me that look like mine. Then he puts his two fingers in his mouth and starts to suck as he lays his head on my shoulder.

I love you, kid, but we’re going to have to break that habit.

I’m concerned about him needing dental work, but their pediatrician actually says that if he must suck a finger or two, these are the best ones. Thumbs push against your upper mouth and teeth and interfere with the formation of bone structure, resulting in overbites and crooked teeth—and the need for ugly and expensive braces. The other prominent fingers push down on the tongue. So as long as they stop sucking before their permanent teeth come in, they should be fine.

I’m not buying it. My son will not be going to the first grade sucking his fingers… but for right now, it’s okay.

“I don’t think I ever sucked my fingers, Mikey,” I say as I rock back and forth. “At least, I don’t remember doing it. There’s a lot I don’t remember, though.”

I look out the window and I can see the light of the moon through the curtains even though I can’t see the moon itself.

“I remember…” I begin, and my thoughts go back to the very recess of my mind. Did the crack whore ever hold me like this? Did she ever rock me to sleep and give me gentle pecks on the cheek? When did she fall into the clutches of the pimp? How could she let that happen to us? Did she ever love me? At all?

“You don’t have to worry about that, Mikey,” I say as I rock him. “You have the most beautiful, kindest, caring mother in the whole world… well, your grandma’s pretty great, too, but you mom… she’s one of a kind.

“I didn’t think about that, you know, when I first met her… what kind of mother she’d be. No, son, I had much more unsavory thoughts which you may never learn about. I don’t imagine any man thinks about that kind of thing when he first meets a woman—unless he’s specifically looking for a wife. Who knows what any man thinks? I’m sure a normal man wouldn’t look at a woman and think about how badly he wants to chain her to a cross and be—”

I stop abruptly, remembering my audience. TMI, Grey. I look down at my son and his eyes are closed. He’s not completely lost to the sandman as he’s still sucking his fingers quite rhythmically.

“I know you do that as a means of comfort,” I say. “Is it because it reminds you of the nipple?”

I almost expect him to answer.

“Yeah, I get it, kid. Nothing tastes like that nipple… well, maybe one other thing for me.” I chuckle quietly as I have once again given my son too much information, even though he doesn’t know it.

“You’ll never have my life, Mikey,” I promise him. “You’ll never see the horrors that I saw or be abused or mistreated. There are so many people who love you if something were to happen to me and your mom, and I thank God for that. You and your sister will be set for the rest of your lives. But make no mistake, young man, I’ll expect you to work hard, follow your dreams and make something of yourself—just like I did.”

Just like I did…

I fell… no—I walked into the clutches of that horrible woman and my life changed forever. I will admit that had it not been for her money, I wouldn’t have been able to start my business. Well, that’s not necessarily true. With a good business plan, I probably would have been able to get a small business loan on the reputation of my last name alone, but I wasn’t thinking about that back then. I was thinking about the fact that my father had turned me down and was nearly ready to kick me out of the house for dropping out of college… and about fucking… fucking her. Right now, I can hardly believe how badly I wanted her. She was all I thought about most of the time. Everything I did was a means to an end to get back to her.

Do well in school. Get back to her…
Don’t get into fights. Get back to her…
Don’t date girls. Get back to her…
Get into college. Get back to her…
Behave myself. Get back to her…
Follow instructions. Get back to her…
Do whatever was necessary to get back to her…

Would she have even lent me the money if she wasn’t fucking and beating me? Probably not. I look back down at my sleeping son. He’s not suckling his fingers anymore.

“Promise me you’ll come talk to me first, champ… about anything,” I beseech him. “I swear, I’ll listen. I’ll even back your dreams, and if I don’t agree with them, we’ll talk about it—to see how sound and feasible they are. We’ll come to a compromise, or something, but I’ll never shut you down, kid. I’ll never feed you to the wolves.”

That’s not what my parents did, but the wolf got me anyway.


A/N: I Peter 5:8—”Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. 

HMIC—there are many connotations, one in particular for those in the UK, but in this instance, “HMIC” is “Head Man In Charge.”

The “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” are the four other characters that tried to kill “The Bride” (Uma Thurman’s character, Beatrice Kiddo aka Black Mamba) in Kill Bill, hence prompting the stories Kill Bill, Vol I and II, where Kiddo sets out to kill all four members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, plus Bill.  

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.

There has been yet another development where if you feel the need to talk to fellow readers about personal issues, you need a sounding board, you want to vent about something in your life, please feel free to visit the link on the left in the menu entitled “Do You Need To Talk.” No subject is taboo. I just ask that you approach the link with respect for those who have concerns as well as those who respond. You can also get to the link by clicking 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

Raising Grey: Chapter 63—Out of Alignment

So, you’re getting two chapters because neither of these could really stand alone without an interruption in flow. For those who celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving.

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 63—Alignment Shift

ANASTASIA

We’ve both come fantastically, but my husband’s hard dick is bobbing in my face right now, and if I can get a repeat of what I just got, I’m all for it! I gently wrap my lips around the head of his cock and lick. He hisses loudly.

“I haven’t picked a card yet,” he protests.

“Then hurry up and pick one,” I chastise. I can feel him frantically reaching over to get a card.

“Slide down and ride that dick,” he says, his voice raspy. “Reverse cowgirl.”

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He puts the card face-up on the floor near his hip so that I can see it. I slide down his body and take his dick in my hand. I guide his head to my opening, still tender and pulsing a bit from my orgasm, and slide down onto him.

“Ssssssssssss! Aw, shit!” he hisses as his fingers caress my hips. I begin to move back and forth over his dick and his fingers never tighten. They only slide with my hips.

“That’s it, baby,” he says, his voice a harsh whisper. “Just like that… ride that dick… fuck that cock…”

He doesn’t move. He just lets me ride and I can feel him getting harder and fatter inside of me as he exclaims several expletives throughout the five minutes. When the timer goes off, he doesn’t make a move.

“Pick a card,” I taunt, still fucking his growing dick.

“Fuck!” he hisses and reaches for another card.

“Stop… stop for a minute,” he begs, “I need to think.” I stop rolling my hips and he’s damn near breathless on the floor. “I don’t know how we’re going to do this one.” He shows me the card and it’s The Sitting V. You normally need a counter or table to pull this one off. I look over at the loveseat and see the highest point in the room that won’t leave me with a bruised or impaled ass.

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“The arm of the loveseat?” I say.

“We’ll give it a try,” he says, slapping my ass, signaling me to get up.

Yeah… no.

We tried everything to get that position right. What’s supposed to happen is that my but is on the edge of a counter, my legs over his shoulders and my hands behind his neck. He supports my back and he just fucks me that way. We tried. We really tried, but he’s too tall to stand and too short to kneel to get the position right. We even tried crouching, but he couldn’t get an angle where his knees didn’t hit the side of the sofa. By the time we try every unsuccessful variation of this position, we’re caught in fits of uncontrollable giggles and realize that we had never set the timer. We throw in the towel on The Sitting V and pick another card.

The T-Position

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“Now we’re talking,” Christian croons as he pulls me from the loveseat back onto the floor. “Lie back,” he instructs me. When I do, he slides between my legs on his side—perpendicular—and lifts my leg over his hip. While I’m trying to figure out how this is going to work, he pushes my other leg away from him so that they’re spread open wider but he’s not lying on my leg. Then he slides into me.

Holy. Cow. Batman.

“There it is,” he says as he begins that masterful stroke that has me rising in a matter of seconds. “Now, we’re back on track.”

He bends his knee so that my leg drapes over his thigh and now, he’s not only free to move his hips, but his hand is also free to caress me as he’s doing this perfect sideways thrust into my core. He’s caressing my thighs and my stomach, kissing my skin wherever his lips and tongue can reach, and I nearly can’t stand it.

I can’t even think of a French exclamation, and I really need one right now.

I open my mouth to get some fair into my lungs and look down at my husband. He’s gazing at me all victoriously, a half-smirk on his face as his body rolls into mine over and over in a perfect water wave, his dick sliding so deliciously in and out of me causing the perfect amount of friction. I reach up and grab my breasts and close my eyes, lost in the perfection of this position that we’ve never tried before. When I open them again, my husband’s expression has changed. He’s still gazing at me, but he’s licking and biting his lips and grasping my leg hard.

“You look so fucking hot,” he says as he plunges into me, his stroke now deeper and seeking his own pleasure while fueling mine.

“Christian!” I breathe, “please…”

“Please, what?” he hisses, grinding and rolling and thrusting his hips into mine, the task seeming harder and harder for him. Yeah, please, what? I don’t know. I groan and fall back onto the floor, welcoming the delicious burn in my core and allowing him to push me higher and higher as he grunts with each thrust.

DING!

I blindly reach for the scattered cards and pull one. I can’t even see it through my passion-induced haze, so I just shove it in Christian’s face. He reaches over and grabs a handful of cards then, wrapping his arms around me, he rises effortlessly from the floor and carries me to the loveseat—with his dick still inside of me. He sits down with me on top, straddling him and just begins to fuck me. I wrap my arms around his neck and ride along with him. His hands are all over me—my back, my ass, my hair—he’s kissing me passionately and loving me deeply. I try to give him back what he’s giving me, running my fingers through his hair, caressing his cheek and chest, kissing him deeply. When his arms slide around my waist, I know that we’re both in passion and chasing the orgasm again. We both groan when the timer goes off and Christian pulls a card from the small stack next to us.

“We’ll change the timer to ten minutes, okay?” he breathes, his voice thick with arousal. I nod and wait anxiously for him to show me the next card.

“Somebody somewhere likes us,” he says, showing me the card. It’s Standing Sex. And again, he lifts me effortlessly and stands to his feet, continuing his stroke right where he left off. Now, we’re both fighting an orgasm and this round has to last ten minutes. I wrap my arms around him and just enjoy the ride.

“Don’t come. Feel the pleasure,” I coach myself inwardly. My body is bursting with sensation all over and I want to come so badly, but I simply can’t let it end yet. It feels too damn good. I know my husband is having the same thoughts and his stamina is much stronger than mine, but he feels so good inside of me that I release a mournful groan that has his knees wobbling and causes him to nearly lose the fight.

“Damn, baby, you’re too fucking sexy!” he exclaims, his face buried in my neck as he pounds into me.

“So are you,” I breathe. “You’re so big and you feel so good…”

“Fuuuuuuuck!” he groans loudly, and I feel him still and pulsing inside me. I thought he came, but he only stops momentarily and starts to thrust again, harder and deeper. The inner coach is somewhere taking a break and I feel myself rising higher and higher…

DING!

“Fuck, that shit was close,” Christian confesses breathily. He sits back on the loveseat with me on his lap and pulls another card.

“And it’s about to get closer,” he says as he shows me another card.

Doggy style.

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Fuck!

I rise off of him and get into position on my knees over the loveseat.

“Fuck, baby,” he says, looking down at me, “I think this is about to be a wrap.”

“I tend to agree with you,” I say.

He falls into position behind me and slides easily inside me.

“Fucking hell!” he says, grabbing my hips and thrusting hard into me three or four times. Oh, shit! I’m startled when he stops, takes a few deep breaths, then begins to move in a long, slow stroke.

Oh, hell. Mr. Grey is going to draw this out.

I try to get my mind ready for the onslaught of pleasure that’s about to come over me, but nothing could have prepared me. His slow stroke intensifies when his grip tightens on my hip and one hand flattens on my back. I open my mouth again to get air in, but I can feel the dew forming on my skin. It won’t be long now.

“Baby, fuck,” he groans, and his whole body is over mine, his hips thrusting his cock deliciously into me. My labored breathing becomes whimpers with each thrust and my body is aching to come now. I don’t want to fight it anymore, but my stubborn brain won’t let go. He licks the dew off my back and his hand grasps my shoulder while the other is flat on the loveseat next to mine, supporting his weight.

“Oh, God,” I protest when he licks my skin again, finishing with an open-mouthed kiss on my back. I shiver and release a breath, begging my sweating body to let go so that I can come.

“Fuck, I need you,” he growls. “I need you so much.” His hand dives into my hair and he roughly twists my head to the side. I cry out from the surprise more than the pain and he slams a bruising kiss onto my lips, his tongue plunging into my mouth. I almost collapse on my arms as my body shivers and aches. He begins to moan shamelessly into my mouth and my body signals that if he releases, I can let go.

“Oh, fuck, no, no, not yet!” he chastises aloud as his dick pulses inside of me. Again, I think he comes, but much to my dismay, he doesn’t. There’s no insane wetness to indicate his ejaculation and only moments later, he’s thrusting into me again. “Fuck, so close… so fucking close.”

“If you let go, I’ll let go,” I breathe, not willing to tap out yet.

“No… no… not yet… too fucking good…” he pants as he continues to thrust into me. I moan inwardly. I want to come so badly, I could cry, but my stubborn brain won’t let my body release before he does, and his body is fighting the feeling because it’s too good.

“Fuck, baby, my dick is burning,” he confesses as he reaches around and pulls my nipple, still drilling into me.

“Oh, God, Christian!’ I protest as I fight to hold myself up against him. I close my eyes as his teeth sink gently into the meat of my shoulder. I shiver with delight, feeling my breast fall into and fill his large hand. He alternates between cupping it and gently caressing it to pulling my nipple until it’s taut and aroused.

DING!

Goddammit to hell, that was the longest ten minutes ever fucking known to man, and I don’t protest when he doesn’t stop fucking me. I can’t take it anymore. I need to come again… seriously!

“This is the last one,” he groans. “I need to come inside you.”

“Okay,” I pant, breathlessly.

“You pull,” he commands, still fucking me and pulling on my nipple. I nod and reach for the cards on the loveseat. When I pull the card for the next position, I know it’s going to be a problem…

Yab-yum.

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That’s our connection position, and this has the potential to be dynamic… or disastrous. I’m spent and aching for an orgasm and can’t be responsible for what comes of attempting this feat, but nonetheless, we agree to try it.

I thought the position would be awkward sexually, but my husband has a goddamn Olympic-length dick. So, when he sits lotus-style with his back against the loveseat, I sit in his lap facing him with my arms and legs around him. He guides his cock to my core and they have no problem finding their counterpart. It’s not the deepest penetration that we’ve had, but it feels good… really good… in more ways than one.

The intimacy that I feel is amazing! Yes, my core is still on fire and in a secondary kind of way, I can still feel the pleasure of my husband inside of me… loving me, but something else is going on.

His fingertips caress my arm very softly, then my neck. Silver-gray eyes never leave mine. My hands slowly slide from his shoulders to his chest, my fingers spread far apart. I feel like that’s where they need to be. His arms slide around me, and his hands move to my upper back. He holds me close to him… not too close, but close… close enough to look into my eyes, close enough to breathe the same air…

And we begin to rock.

We rock and rock until we become acutely aware of the physical as well as the spiritual friction between us. The room fades away. Everything fades away for a moment except the sound of his voice…

You’re beautiful. You’re my life. I couldn’t survive without you.

You’re in my soul… in my blood… everything in me is you…

I live and breathe for you, only for you, my love…

I will take care of you…

I will love you for the rest of my days…

I don’t know where I am, and I only feel heat. I only see light. Heat and light. Well, more like warmth… warmth all over. I feel like some of my life’s energy is leaving me, and it’s scaring me.

Christian… please… help me…

I’ve got you, baby.

I want to wail, but I can’t, and I don’t know why—why I want to or why I can’t. I’m frozen somewhere outside myself and it’s scaring me to death.

Christian…

Butterfly… I’ve got you…

The explosion is cosmic—in my chest, in my head, all over me. Light blinds me completely, and I can even see it behind my closed eyelids. My body is trembling wildly, painfully, and I can’t stop it. Dear God, please make it stop…

This burst of… I don’t know, energy, maybe… is wracking my body. I feel like I’m in a room of nothing but blinding light, but I’m not alone. There’s a warmth wrapped around me, loving me, consoling me, and I don’t want to leave. I don’t know how long it lasts, but it seems like eternity. Slowly, very slowly, the light starts to fade. I can barely make out where I am. I hear crying.

I don’t open my eyes, but I’m now conscious of where I am. I’m sitting in my husband’s lap with my legs wrapped around him. My arms are pressed against his chest, my head back. We’re both drenched in sweat, hair dripping, sitting in the middle of the sitting room floor. My breathing is wild and gaspy and tears are streaming down my face, but the only sound I’m making are the gasps from taking in large amounts of air. My husband’s arms are clasped tight around me like a vice and his face is lying on my chest. He’s weeping. It’s his cries that I hear. I feel his sex pulsing inside of mine and the feeling is magical. I don’t want to move. I don’t want it to end. But the crying…

It’s obvious that we connected while we were having sex… or making love, I should say. Didn’t we do this once before? I don’t remember, but if we did, it was nothing like this. To say that it was powerful would be an understatement. To say that it was earth-shattering would be too cliché. There are no words for what just happened, no words at all.

*-*

“I heard you talking,” he says. “You were saying such… wonderful things… Everything you said, I feel about you.”

“I heard you talking,” I confess. “You were saying…” I swallow hard as I fight to focus. “I wasn’t talking,” I breathe.

“Neither was I,” he says. I’m afraid, but I can tell that he feels no fear. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s going on with us?” I say, my voice shaking.

“Only the best and most intense love known to man,” he says, brushing my hair from my face. “I never thought anything like this was possible in my life, definitely not for me.”

“I’ve never felt or known anything like this… ever,” I admit. “I’m afraid that…” I trail off.

“That what, baby?” he asks.

“That if one of us dies, the other won’t survive,” I finish.

“I already know that,” he admits, “so don’t die.”

We sleep in very late the next morning, saving our appetites for the housewarming party that was sprung on us somewhat last minute. Unlike many gatherings before, this will not merely be family and close friends. Many of Val’s former co-workers will be there as well as some of Elliot’s staff—along with their significant others. Val says that many people asked about her and just wanted to check on her, so she thought showing off her new home was a good way for them to see just how well she’s doing—friends and haters alike. Elliot proclaimed that he wanted a few of the slackers to see “how it’s really done” and he and only the best of the best did the work on his house.

I don’t know anybody there except the family and I’m certainly not trying to impress anyone, so I just don my Freddy jeans and a black oversized cashmere turtleneck sweater. Me being me, I anchor the simple ensemble with Valentino black leather stiletto boots with bow embellishments up the back. No fancy jewelry needed—just my wedding and engagement rings, and my hair is in a messy loosened side braid. Christian is similarly dressed in a pair of black jeans, a white cashmere sweater and black suede ankle boots. I’m going to be helping Val as much as she’ll let me, so we pack an overnight bag with plans to stay until tomorrow.

When we get to my sister and brother-in-law’s home, I admit that I expected the outside to be grander than it is. It looks like a big yellow box and I’m thinking to myself, “Why didn’t they do something more to this?” Elliot is an architect, so… why the massive understatement?

949942852ac3d3397dc9295fe5d61cf9“It’s yellow,” I say to Christian a bit dismayed as we drive up the driveway.

“Yep, that it is,” he says matter-of-factly.

“And it’s stucco,” I continue, my distaste evident. My husband’s extended silence causes me to look over at him.

“You might want to get it all out now,” he says. I frown.

“Get all what out?” I ask.

“Your criticisms,” he states.

“I’m not criticizing!” I declare.

“You don’t have to convince me,” he says, “but if you go into this woman’s house with that tone, she’s likely to put you out. I would.” My mouth falls open.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask affronted.

“No offense, Butterfly, but did I stutter?” he asks. “You haven’t even gotten out of the car yet; you haven’t rang the doorbell or greeted anybody, and the first two things you say about the house are critical.”

“I wasn’t being critical,” I excuse. “I was just making observations.” He twists his lips and stares at me.

“Okay,” he says and proceeds to open the door.

“Don’t placate me, Christian…” I begin, and he turns around and cuts me off with a finger pointed at me.

“I’m not going to fight with you,” he says flatly with no malice, “least of all, about this. We’re here for a housewarming party at my brother’s house—your sister’s house. We’re going to go inside, eat some food, hang out with our family and friends and enjoy ourselves. And we’re not going to argue about the yellow house. Comprende?”

I narrow my eyes at him and say nothing. He opens the door and exits the car.

“I speak French, not Spanish,” I say when he turns back to me.

“And yet, you understood what I said,” he points out as he extends his hand to help me out of the car. I glare up at him and scramble out of the car without accepting his hand. The pause behind me can be heard across Lake Washington. After hearing nothing but my heels clicking on the concrete for several seconds, I hear the door slam behind me.

He’s mad.

Can you blame him? He called you out for acting like the quintessential snob and you get all pissy about it.

I don’t need this shit from you… or him. I didn’t do anything wrong.

“How’d I know you’d be the first one here?” Val says when she opens the door. “You even beat the Queen.”

“Well, I’m closer than he is,” I say, breezing into the room and undoing my coat while kissing her on the cheek.

“Wow, chilly,” she says.

“It’s not that cold,” I say, handing my outerwear to a gentleman standing there waiting for it. “You’ve got staff,” I smile.

“Besides a temporary cook, just for today,” she replies, “and I wasn’t talking about the weather.” My brow furrows and hers rises expectantly. We have an entire wordless conversation where I ask what the hell she’s talking about, then she asks what’s with the chilly attitude, what’s going on. I end the conversation by waving her off.

“Show me the house,” I say. She raises her brow again.

“Don’t you want to wait for Christian? We can show it to you both at the same time,” she points out. I shrug.

“Doesn’t matter,” I say as I walk into the house.

“You drinking?” she asks, and I nod. She uncorks a bottle of Cabernet from the kitchen wine rack. We talk a bit about the portion of the house that I can see from here. The vestibule opens right into the kitchen and dining room with the living room actually facing the back of the house and Lake Washington, much like ours. The living room and dining room are all glass walls and doors. Three sets of double doors make up the far wall that faces Lake Washington, and two more sets make up the westward facing wall along with large plate glass panes. A large patio wraps around the back and side of the house showcased by the glass walls.

The kitchen is a chef’s kitchen with stained oak cabinets and high-end appliances, including a five-burner stove in the island of the breakfast bar. Of course, the living room has a gorgeous natural gas fireplace and I’m already drawn to sit in one of the comfy oversized chairs and stare out at the lake for hours, forgetting my troubles like snippy husbands who become all sensitive about yellow stucco houses.

“I’m taking gourmet cooking classes,” Val says, interrupting my thoughts and placing a glass of wine in front of me. “Maybe you can help me out with some pointers and recipes.”

“Absolutely!” I beam. “Did you cook anything for the party today?” She shakes her head.

“No, I wanted the food to actually be edible,” she jests. “Besides, I haven’t been feeling well. I’ve been a little dizzy lately, but that’s to be expected after brain surgery.” I frown.

“You don’t think…” I trail off. If there’s any possibility that her cancer is returning, I want her to get a jump on it the moment it rears its ugly head. I will not lose my sister.

“I don’t know,” she laments, “but I don’t think so. There’s been no hint of Meg in any of my cat scans…”

Meg?” I say, bemused.

“My tumor,” she says. My face is the picture of horror.

“You named your tumor?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says. “I gave it an identity—a dark intruder that needed to be kicked out of my body. She’s an unwanted passenger and I’m kicking her off the bus. It’s a way of taking control of an uncontrollable situation. You diminish the power of the tumor by giving it a name. You’re the doctor, here, Steele. You should read up on this. It’s a very common practice.” I shake my head.

“I’ll take your word for it,” I say. “There are too many facets of medicine for me to be able to cover them all. Oncology and the philosophies that surround it are way too much for me, but if there’s anything that I need to know to be supportive to you, please tell me.”

“Just ask me every so often how Meg is doing,” she says. “If I tell you that she’s still on vacation, we’re good. If I ever say that she’s making an appearance, then it’s time to put our war clothes on.” I nod.

“So… what now? What about Elliot?”

“Oh, dear God, he was ready to take me to the ER,” she replies. “It’s just a little dizziness. It comes with the territory, but I totally understand his concern, especially since I unconsciously hid Meg for something like six months or so. To that end, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday.”

“Do you really want to wait that long?” I ask. “What if Meg really has made another appearance?”

“Then a couple of days really won’t matter, Sis,” she replies. “I need to see my neurologist first, tell him what’s going on, and take the proper steps. If it turns out that Meg is rearing her ugly head, then I’ll go back to the oncologist and we’ll come up with a plan of action. It’s that simple. Now, please, let’s not dwell on it. I want you to tell me how lovely my house is—don’t make me fish for compliments, and if you don’t like it, lie.” She concludes that portion of the conversation with a smile. Just as the conversation changes, Elliot comes into the kitchen.

“I heard the doorbell,” he begins. “Where’s Christian?” Before I could formulate a lie as to why I’m present without my loving husband, Christian comes into the house with our overnight bags. Geez, there were just two bags and his laptop. What took so damn long?

“Dude, what were you doing out there? Did you guys come in separate cars?” Elliot asks the question for me.

“Nope,” my husband quips. “Just separate minds.” He drops our bags on the floor

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

“Oookay,” Elliot says. “Well, I’ve got just the thing for you,” he adds, taking Christian’s coat and handing it to one of the staff. “My very own man-cave stocked with food and refreshments—even beer for those who want to partake. Martin, can you take those bags to the big guest room, please?” He says to the same gentleman who took Christian’s coat. “Come, brother, let the woman fawn over the house whilst we go grunt and scratch ourselves.”

“Lead the way, Bro,” Christian responds, putting his arm around Elliot’s shoulder and, without even looking in my direction, disappears to parts unknown with him. I twist my lips. It’s going to be like that for the evening, is it? I turn to Val

“Well, I guess you can show me the house now.”

*-*

Five bedrooms and five bathrooms in two separate living quarters; nearly 4000 square feet and the lakeside of the house on all floor boasts glass walls or large windows.

In addition to the open great-room-living area, there are three bedrooms on the first floor—the third has been converted to a small home office—a laundry room, and a wine closet. The master bedroom has a view of the lake and the other two rooms are on the east side of the house and only slightly more modest. The master bedroom and second bedroom both have en suites and walk-in closets. There’s also a powder room on the main floor.

It’s listed as a two-story home, because the front of the house is two stories. However, there are three floors as the back of the house reveals that the main story is actually a sublevel.

The second floor is a mother-in-law apartment boasting two terraces on the lakeside of the house and one larger terrace on the east side of the house. It has a separate entrance from outside that opens into another great room—living room, dining room, and kitchen—with more modest furnishings than the main floor. You can access one of the terraces from the dining area of this room, which also boasts a glass wall, as well as a powder room with a shower. Both the upstairs and downstairs kitchens have granite countertops.

The two upstairs bedrooms are connected by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. The larger terrace can be accessed from one bedroom while the smaller can be accessed from the other.

The third floor is the man cave, Elliot’s workout space, and a small area for storage. It also accesses the full party terrace. We didn’t go up there.

From the front of the house, you can see the 800-square-foot garage and six-car parking spaces inside the security gate. A trail to the right leads to a jungle patio much like ours and a cement water fountain. The trail continues through beautiful landscaping and concludes at a 60-foot dock and a whole lot of private waterfront, which will most likely just be for viewing and swimming since Elliot has no desire to own a boat.

The house is really beautiful and quite spacious on the inside—nothing like my house of course. Then again, not everybody can, nor do they want to, live in the obscenely ginormous brick house with the swinging wrought iron gates that is Grey Crossing. It’s hard not to compare other houses to the magnificent edifice that I call home, but I guess I better stop doing that.

Val tells me that the house is condo, so they only purchased the house from the studs in. The Home Owners’ Association is responsible for the outside and the grounds. I didn’t even know that you could buy houses that way—I thought you could only buy condos that way… you know, apartments. I ask why she didn’t just buy a house, and she says that they want to build their own, so until they can do that, this location will do nicely.

Just as I’m singing the praises of Val and Elliot’s home and its amenities, careful to leave out the yellow stucco, her guests begin to arrive. Of course, Allen and James arrive first after Christian and me. Grace and Carrick aren’t too far behind. After them, many of Val’s former coworkers join the party followed by some of Elliot’s employees. When Maxie and Phil show up followed by Mia and Ethan, Val gives me the unpleasant task of going to the man cave to retrieve our husbands, her excuse being that this is the only part of the house that I haven’t seen. I roll my eyes and do as I’m told.

I make my way to the third-floor man cave—indeed! What a space this is. What happens if Val needs him and she’s all the way on the first floor? Does she send a messenger pigeon?

56238bd948e82c525d10a559c1148b31The first thing I see is a sign declaring the rules of the man cave, referring to things like scratching, belching, farting, and bacon—which are all allowed in the man cave. I enter the room and see my husband and his brother yelling at a large-screen television, and I know they’ve found a football game.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” I say, and they both rubberneck to me like they’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

“Val sent me to retrieve you,” I add. “Most of your guests have arrived.” Elliot stands and frowns.

“Why did she send you all the way up here?” he asks. “She could have used the intercom.”

Interco…? I know why her sneaky ass sent me up here, but I don’t let on.

“She said she wanted me to see the man cave,” I confess, knowing that wasn’t her real motive. “It’s quite impressive, Elliot.”

“Thanks, Montana,” he says, smiling as he walks by me. “Stay put, bro. I’ll see if I can rescue any other unfortunate fellows. If I don’t come back, you’ll know that I was unsuccessful in my mission.” And away he goes. Christian sits on the sofa still watching the game without acknowledging my presence at all.

“So, you’re just going to ignore me?” I bark. He turns to me.

“Oh! Now, you’re speaking to me?” he asks incredulously.

“I was never not speaking to you, Christian,” I snap impatiently.

“You coulda fooled me,” he says, standing from the sofa. “Just like you, I don’t like being ignored, Anastasia, but you’re the one who threw down that gauntlet. I don’t know what’s wrong, but whatever it is, you need to get it in order.”

“There is no ‘right or wrong’ here…” I begin.

“Yes, there is, and you know it,” he says matter-of-factly, and then he glares at me as if he’s waiting for something. When I don’t respond, he turns away from me and starts to leave.

Say something, you twit! You’re acting like a spoiled, entitled, socialite bitch and I don’t like you very much right now.

“Christian I’m sorry!” I call out before he gets to the door. He stops and turns around.

“For what?” he asks. Oh, geez.

“For talking about the house that way and acting like a snob,” I reply. He twists his lips and shakes his head before turning to leave again. What? I said I was sorry!

“Christian!” I call out to him again. He spins around and closes the space between us in a few long strides.

“I don’t give a fuck what you said about this house!” he hisses quietly in my face. “The yellow stucco is ugly, but we don’t have to live here. What pissed me off is the way you treated me. You attacked me for simply telling you not to offend them in their own home. Then you snubbed me when you got out of the car like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. When your feelings of anger or displeasure are justified against me, I deal with them—that’s all I can do, but when you act like this…” He looks at me and points at various parts of me with disdain. “… This catty little thing that I can’t even find the words to describe, you can do this by yourself, because I’ll have no part of it.”

He doesn’t wait for me to respond. He marches out of the room and quietly closes the door behind him.

What am I supposed to do with that? I didn’t deliberately… but… shit.

And now, the Bitch is quiet. No sassy comments, no gloating, no unwanted advice… I guess she’s having no part of it either.

I go back down to the party, certain that Elliot was unsuccessful in “rescuing other unfortunate fellows.” I won’t be a stick in the mud. I’ll help Val entertain and I’ll have a good time. Hopefully, Christian will too.

Her friends seem nice for the most part. More than one of them have made comments about my husband or even tried to put the moves on him, but I keep the green-eyed monster at bay, determined not to make a fool of myself or to march over into a crowd of mixed strangers and “piss” all over my man—especially since it appears that he doesn’t want me to. I don’t know if, at this point, he’s ignoring me or I’m ignoring him. I know I’m avoiding him… I’m giving him his space.

After a while, I get my answer. I hadn’t noticed, but one or two of the single guys have been eyeing me all night. When one blatantly makes his move, I inform him that I’m married and that my husband is in attendance. When he asks who my husband is, I point to Christian who still isn’t making eye-contact with me.

“That’s your husband?” he asks incredulously. “He hasn’t said one word to you all night!”

“How would you know?” I ask affronted.

“I been watchin’, baby,” he says. “I been waitin’ for somebody to make a move or stake a claim and nobody did, so…” He shrugs. “I don’t mean to offend you, but with an ass like that and those sky-high fuck-me boots, I wouldn’t let you out of my sight.” He shrugs again and walks away.

I look over at my husband again who appears to be holding court with about six attentive listeners, male and female, and not even throwing a glance at me. He normally goes Neanderthal when somebody approaches me or tries to put the moves on me. This time, he didn’t even blink. I don’t even think he noticed.

I go to the kitchen and pour myself another glass of wine. I empty the glass just as quickly as I filled it, then pour another and empty that one, too. And suddenly, I’m exhausted. I’ve been smiling and laughing and conversing and being hostess #2 so that my beloved sister doesn’t overdo it, and now, I want to collapse somewhere and rest—alone. All by myself. In peace.

I look around and no one notices that I’ve left the party. Even my beloved sister is occupied with her previous coworkers. She looks very happy. Good. I quietly open the door to the patio and slip outside.

I welcome the cool air, and the silence. With the lights inside, nobody’s likely to see me out here. Solitude. I have to say that I’m glad to have it. I don’t know how long I’ve been smiling at people and making merry, but I’ve had enough. I sit on the chaise which luckily has an afghan thrown over it and snuggle in looking out at the water—the only thing that has never let me down. If I didn’t want to ruin my heels or freeze to death in the water, I’d walk across the grass, take off my boots, and put my feet in it. My blue savior…

A stranger noticed that my husband was ignoring me, but only because he was watching me all night waiting for his chance to make a move. Nonetheless, a stranger noticed that my husband was ignoring me. When I realized that, I suddenly felt like everyone in the room knew that he was ignoring me. I know that’s not true, but that could be why those who felt so brave as to approach him did so. They thought he was unattached.

A chill runs through me. I’m so fucking tired of feeling this way in some way or another—like something in my life always has to fucking be fixed! Give me a goddamn break!

But this does have to be fixed. I’m just too damn tired to fix it now.

Looking at the water now makes me think of Anguilla, the good and the bad. The promises we made to each other; the passionate love we made; me feeling like I wouldn’t be able to handle intense scenes; the first appearance of the nightmares; Christian screaming at me for answering his phone; all that goddamn candy; standing in the water and feeling it cleanse me…

Somehow, my mind drifts all the way back to when we met. God, I hated that guy, he was the most arrogant, spiteful, conceited son-of-a-bitch I’d ever met in my life. God, what an asshole! How someone could be so cold and unfeeling…

“You planning to jump in?”

Val’s voice jolts me out of my inner musings.

“Jesus, Val, you scared the shit outta me!” I scold.

“You didn’t hear me come outside?” she asks. I look behind me into the house, and it’s almost empty. How long have I been out here?

“You’re trying to kill yourself out here, huh?” she says, holding my coat out to me.

“I’m wrapped in an afghan,” I defend, taking my coat. “I’m not completely unprotected.”

“True, but I bet the coat feels better,” she says, and I have to agree with her when I wrap myself in its warmth. I pull my gloves out of the pockets and cover my hands, thankful for that warmth as well.

“Don’t forget your scarf,” she says handing it to me and I wrap it around my neck. We’re interrupted by one of her serving staff coming onto the patio with warm drinks—spiced lattes. They’re delicious, and very welcome.

“Now, tell me what’s going on,” she says. I raise my gaze to her, nearly begging her not to make me reveal the cause of my absconding, but she’s not going to relent.

“Sometimes, I just need a few moments to myself, that’s all,” I tell her, and it’s the truth. “I told you that Jason helped me realize that I’m suffering from PTSD…” She nods. “Well, there are moments when I need to talk it out, and then there are moments when I just need to sit in a quiet place.”

“So, is that what’s going on?” she prods. “You’re having a bout of your PTSD?”

“No,” the word is out of my mouth before I even have the chance to formulate a lie. “Your house is gorgeous. It really is, but that yellow stucco is horrendous. And when we drove up to the house and I saw that yellow stucco, my mouth and brain disconnected. I swear, I didn’t say anything horrible about the house, but my tone was enough to let Christian know that I was not pleased with the yellow stucco.”

“Is that what this is about?” Val says, unable to hide her mirth. “You two are bickering over the ugly yellow stucco?”

“Well, yes and no,” I reply. “He told me not to come in here insulting your house because you might throw me out. Then he said that if it were him, he’d throw me out, too—and I took offense to that. I can’t remember what all happened after that, but the situation just went south and… here I am. I’m just hoping that the situation will blow over and tomorrow, we’ll just be back to normal.

“It seems like I spend so much time exploring my feelings and looking out for everybody else’s. I filled the pages of three journals already—do you have any idea how much writing that is? And when I start to feel the angst of my situation, I’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen…”

Yes, I know,” she interjects, somewhat absent-mindedly. I raise my gaze to her again.

“Does it bother you?” I ask, disheartened. She’s probably heard the lion’s share of my troubles over the last week.

“Are you kidding?” she exclaims. “No! Of course not! Seriously, Steele?” and I think I may have offended her just now. Great… but I can’t focus on it at this moment.

“Day after day after day of rolling over my feelings, trying to be mindful of others so that I don’t say or do the wrong thing, and then nine times out of ten, the wrong thing flies out my mouth anyway. My shrink threw me out of his office yesterday. Did I tell you that?”

“No!” she says in horror. “Why did he do that?”

“Because I probably did the same thing to him that I just did to Christian,” I admit. “If my feelings are all a-scramble, apparently I mindlessly say and do things that alienate people from me.” I sigh and take a sip of the warming coffee, the only inner warmth I’ll probably feel for the rest of the night.

“Well, I only knew something was wrong because I know you,” she says. “You were the picture of decorum at the party tonight. Everybody really liked you.”

“I don’t think they would let on if they didn’t,” I say with a sad smile.

“I would know if they didn’t,” she reassures me. “I know these people.” I sip my coffee again.

“Wait a minute… You called it ‘ugly yellow stucco.’ You think it’s ugly, too?” I ask bemused.

“Well… it wouldn’t have been my first choice,” she replies. I roll my eyes.

“Then why don’t you change it?” I ask in horror. “You live here now!”

“Because like I told you, it’s condo!” she replies, restating the obvious. “I have full reign of the inside of the house, but the outside—nope. I can’t change the stucco, and the HOA requires that the houses all be some kind of uniform related color. The only other options I have are white, tan, or some other dreadful neutral color, so I’ll spare myself the expense and spend my money on the inside. Besides, yellow is the color of sunshine and I’ve psyched myself out to believe that it’s a beautiful blend with the trees when they’re green and with the blue water all year long.”

“Isn’t it exhausting looking on the bright side of the street all the time?” I accuse wearily.

“I have to, Steele. I’m a cancer survivor. I coulda been dead. For me, being alive, living and loving El, having all my family and friends over today to view my beautiful house… that is the bright side of the street.”


CHRISTIAN

The party is over. I’ve surprisingly made a few connections with people at Val’s job. I had no intention of networking, but when they found out who I was, it was inevitable—and surprisingly productive.

I lost track of my wife early in the evening, which is a bit of a good thing. I simply did not have time or energy for her childish behavior. When the party starts to thin, and Elliot suggests going back to the man cave, I jump at the opportunity.

“Well, this was an interesting night,” Elliot says, drinking his soda.

“Besides the obvious, how so?” I ask.

“Well, it depends on what you’re considering ‘obvious,’” he says. “For instance, when you say ‘obvious,’ do you mean the fact that you and Montana didn’t stay in the same area for 30 seconds? Or are you referring to the fact that when the company whore was hitting on you, she didn’t climb over furniture to scratch her eyes out? Or was it more obvious that you didn’t turn into Tarzan when that guy was hitting on her?” My brow furrows. Some guy was hitting on my wife? “And I take it by that expression that the last bit of information wasn’t so obvious.”

“Who was hitting on her?” I ask. Elliot shakes his head.

“What should concern you more is that I was entertaining and watching approximately 50 people today and I knew that you weren’t speaking to your wife. She was so friendly to everybody except you that you would have thought this was her housewarming. What the fuck, man? Is the honeymoon over.” I roll my eyes.

“The honeymoon’s been over for a long time, Elliot, but it doesn’t mean that I love her any less.”

“Then what gives, man?” he confronts again. “You two are generally inseparable at things like this, so much that only an idiot—like Lily—would dare hit on either of you, let alone someone approach both of you. So, what’s up with that?”

I’m still miffed that someone hit on my wife and I didn’t know about it. Why didn’t he tell me when it happened? How many people hit on her tonight that Elliot didn’t see? I know the felines were in rare form clawing at me tonight. I damn near had to beat one off with a stick. That must have been the company whore that Elliot was talking about. How many hounds were sniffing after my wife?

“Look, man,” Elliot says after I pause for a little too long. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. In all honesty, it’s really none of my business anyway. But if your Butterfly means as much to you as my Angel does to me, you better get to the bottom of this instead of letting it fester and hoping that it goes away… just like that fucking tumor.” I rubberneck over to him.

“What?” I ask. “Is the tumor back.”

“No,” he snaps vehemently, “not that we know of, now stop trying to change the subject.”

He clearly doesn’t want to talk about that subject and I hope he was just speaking in retrospect and Valerie’s tumor isn’t coming back. That was a hard time for all of us.

“Tell me, man. Who was hitting on my wife?” I ask.

“I don’t know the guy,” he says. “He either works at Angel’s old job or he was somebody’s plus one. Whatever he said to Montana, he was dismissed pretty quickly, and then I didn’t see her for the rest of the night.” The rest of the night.

“What? Did she go off with the guy?” I ask before my brain can catch up to my mouth.

“What the fuck do you think?” Elliot barks angrily. “Do you think that your wife and the mother of your two children went off somewhere with a strange man at a party that she never met before? Because if you do, then there’s a whole lot more amiss than you’re letting on. And the fact that you had to ask that question means that this conversation is over, and you need to get up, go downstairs and find your fucking wife!”

Geez, and he’s mad. And he’s right. I don’t know what even made me consider the possibility that Butterfly would do something like that. I really feel like shit for thinking that. She’s still beating herself up for letting that Liam fucker get too close.

“What are you waiting for?” Elliot snaps. “Directions?”

“Keep your shirt on,” I retort. “I don’t think my wife went off with somebody else. I’m just pissed that someone approached my wife and it wasn’t brought to my attention sooner.”

“Yeah, save that anger for yourself, because if you had been paying attention, nobody would have had to tell you. You were heading that guy Brian off at her adoption party faster than he could get the words out his mouth. Now this guy makes a move, moves on, and your wife disappears, and you want to blame somebody else for that? Shut up talking to me and go find your wife.”

“I’m not blaming…”

“Shut up talking to me and go find your wife!” he snaps. God! Okay! Damn! I stand up and walk to the door heading downstairs.

When I get to the main floor, Valerie is in the kitchen with one of the remaining staff, and there’s no Butterfly.

“So, where’s my wife?” I ask somewhat impassively.

“Sulking,” Valerie says with a shrug. My brow furrows as I await elaboration, and she points to the glass wall on the other side of the living room. There on a chaise just outside the glass is a mop of mahogany hair. I can’t see anything else. I roll my eyes, shake my head and sigh.

Why does this woman always seem to escape to the coldest part of the world when she needs to be alone? It’s November, in Washington, at two in the morning. Why the fuck is she on the patio? And ten will get you twenty that she’s asleep out there. Elliot appears just at that moment.

“Our lodgings for the night, good sir and madam?” I request.

“Through there and at the end of the hallway,” Elliot says. “It’s the biggest room besides mine and Val’s.” I nod and head for one of the sets of double doors. When I step out onto the patio, I take in the sight of my tiny wife. She’s snuggled in her coat and scarf and wrapped in another blanket so tight and so small that I can barely make out a body under there. Either she’s fighting the cold with a vengeance…

Or she’s shrinking.

“What am I going to do with you?” I lament aloud. I lean down to the chaise and gather her in my arms, blanket and all. She doesn’t even stir—and she’s warm, so it’s not the cold. When I cross the threshold back into the house, Elliot is waiting to close the door behind me.

“Thanks for a great party, you guys,” I tell them. “We’ll see you in the morning.”

“Not too early,” Elliot says with a nod and a smile. I acknowledge his request and carry my shrinking wife to our temporary boudoir. When I lay her in the bed, she shrinks again—so small and so tight that I can’t get her coat off. I can either wake her to get her coat off or just let her sleep. So, I remove her boots and let her stay there before taking my duffel to the en suite for a shower.

Gentle sunrays wake me in the morning and I immediately know that I’m not in my own bed—and that I’m alone. I dress in my workout gear and sneakers and take off for a run. She’s somewhere in the house, I’m sure, and I’ll talk to her when I get back.

I run through all the things I need to be doing today as my feet pound the cold pavement. For me, Sunday is just a day to prepare for the week ahead—meetings to be had tomorrow and mergers to discuss; acquisitions to finalize…

Smalls and his team will be on their way back to Detroit today and everything in the storage units will have a home or a destination by end of business, Friday. Anything that remains will be shipped back here by my shipping department and housed in one of our numerous warehouses. If anyone wants something after it’s been shipped here to be stored, they may have to pay some kind of fee for waiting so long to claim it unless there’s a really good reason for it. There’s nearly two weeks to decide if they want something on the list, and it’s all free!

The bed was empty when I awoke, so that means that Butterfly was already up and about. I didn’t see her anywhere when I left the house, and Elliot and Valerie were still asleep—or at least they hadn’t emerged yet. I don’t know how far I ran, but when my chest starts to burn, I turn around and start the trip back. Good Lord, it feels like my heart is going to explode. It’s most likely from the exertion and the cold air pumping through my chest. When I get back to the house, I take a deep breath and that aforementioned cold air stabs me in the throat. Shit, I need to warm up.

Imagine my dismay when I discover that the house has automatic locking doors.

I walk through the jungle garden to the back of the house to see if one of the patio doors are open and there I find my wife—in the same place I retrieved her from last night. If I couldn’t tell by the change of clothes, I would have thought she slept out here. She looks calm and serene and her eyes are closed. I then realize that she’s meditating. I won’t disturb her.

I go back to the front of the house and knock, hoping that someone besides Butterfly will hear me. Luckily, the woman from the kitchen the night before opens the door and looks at me expecting.

“Yes?” she says.

“I’m… Christian Grey. Elliot’s brother… I locked myself out when I went for a run.”

Her brow furrows, the realization dawns.

“Oh, yes! I’m sorry. Please come in.” She steps aside and lets me in. I have to say, warmth has never felt so good.

“Thank you,” I say. I peek out onto the patio. Butterfly wasn’t disturbed. That’s good. I have time to go take a shower and put on some clean clothes before I talk to her.


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

Pictures of Val and Elliot’s house can be seen at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/val-and-elliots-house-in-kirkland/

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.

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 ~~love and handcuffs

 

 

 

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 61—Memories

You know how you get a plan, and you say, “This is the plan! This is what I’m going to do!” and as soon as you start the plan, life happens and shit just gets dumped on your head?

Of all the times that I’ve said, “I’m ready to publish,” I never took the active steps. I just said it and then beat around the bush… “It’s okay, I’ve got time…” 

This is the first time—the first God’s honest time that I said that I was really ready to publish and I started taking steps to get published… and it seems like the celestial planes opened up and cow manure just started falling from the sky on my head, like my saying that I was really ready to publish was a bad omen. 

So… I’ve decided to keep my mouth shut—to be like Nike and “Just Do It.” You won’t hear me talk about it anymore until the book is being marketed to be sold. I can do this, I know I can, but shit just keeps rolling in front of me to stop me and I can’t keep letting that happen. It’s going to be a slow process because my money just dried up after 1) I had to go to Detroit for my other mother’s funeral and 2) I had to get major repairs on my car. The well is completely dry, and I’m trying to fill it back up again.

But I digress… On with the story. Thanks for listening.

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 61—Memories

ANASTASIA

The accident… of course. How could I forget?

You forgot because you never knew what day it was. You just woke up in the hospital.

That’s right. Nobody ever told me what day it happened… just sometime in November.

“Ana?” Grace says, and I snap out of my daydream.

“I…” I swallow hard. “I never knew what day it happened,” I admit.

“Are you okay?” Marilyn asks.

“I’m… I’m fine, I just…” I shake my head. “I just wonder why Christian didn’t say anything.” Was that what he was referring to when he said he thought I was sleeping in today?

“Maybe he didn’t want to bring it up. It’s such a sensitive topic, after all,” Grace says as she sits in one of the chairs in front of my desk. That could definitely be true. He did seem to be tiptoeing around the conversation… except when I said, “Fuck you.”

“Yeah,” I say with a sigh, suddenly feeling the need to rub my scar. “That’s definitely a day that will live in infamy.”

“I’ll certainly never forget it,” Marilyn says sliding into the seat next to Grace. “I think Al had activated the contingency and he just called Gary and Max. When he told me what happened, I was stunned. It seemed so… surreal.”

“That’s definitely the word for it,” Grace says. “I was in the hospital when they brought you in, but of course, I’m on the pediatric ward. By the time I discovered that you were there, you were already in surgery.”

“Where was Christian?” I ask. They both gaze at me.

“You don’t remember?” Marilyn asks.

“I’m sure if I thought about it hard enough, I would. But right now, I don’t,” I confess. “I remember him being there when I woke up, but the particulars of the moments before I got there are still a bit cloudy. They come and go.”

“Christian had gone back to Detroit to see if Anton Myrick was actually in jail,” Grace says. Oh yes, I do remember that now. “He had told you to come to our house until he returned, but you were already headed back to Escala. He discovered that you had been in the accident when he got off the plane.”

“That had to be horrendous,” I comment, thinking how I would feel if the roles had been reversed.

“Yeah, some unscrupulous photographers got some pretty candid shots of his immediate reaction,” Marilyn informs me. “I know you could probably find them if you Googled them, but the reaction of the public and the huge outpouring of support after your accident kind of shamed the reporters who took the pictures, and they somewhat disappeared into obscurity after that.”

“Hmm,” I say, “they became their own sacrificial lambs.”

“Pretty much,” Marilyn confirms. “Before I forget, I got a message from Val this morning that she and Elliot are going to be throwing themselves a housewarming tomorrow. She says gifts are not expected because it’s such short notice but will be accepted. She just wants to show off the new house.” I shake my head.

“I’m going to give her a pass on this one, because I don’t think she’s ever had a housewarming before in her life, but I’m going to rag the hell out of her for waiting until the last minute.”

“She’d probably just give it back to you, Bosslady,” Marilyn says. “How many last-minute parties or get-togethers of yours has she been invited to?”

Yeah… there is that.

“I didn’t want to say anything to anyone at the time,” Grace says, “but that’s when I first got the impression that something was wrong with Valerie besides her just being an insufferable cow. She was at the hospital every day and she truly looked like she was going to expire without you, but the moment anybody approached her…” She trails off and shrugs.

“Jesus,” I say. “That was just a bad time in all of our lives.”

“You and Christian never talked about it?” Marilyn asks.

“Very briefly,” I admit. “We were more focused on recovery and getting on with our lives than the accident, especially since we knew who had caused it and that I wasn’t in any danger of them anymore.”

“I never really got the details on that one,” Grace prods.

“Unfortunately, Grace, you won’t get them from me, either,” I say. “The most I can tell you is that part of the story is extremely sensitive and if it hasn’t been shared with the family by now, it won’t be.” She shrugs.

“Oh, well,” she cedes, “as long as there’s no threat…”

“There’s no threat,” I interject. There’s silence for a moment.

“Does it bother you to talk about this?” Grace asks. My turn to shrug.

“Not really,” I reply. “I never heard about the reactions of everyone else. I mean, I heard some of them, but not all of them, and not in any great detail. If I’m going to talk about it, now would be the time… before I go talk to my shrink later.”

“A shrink with a shrink,” Marilyn says. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”

“It’s no different than a surgeon who needs a surgeon, or an eye-doctor who needs an eye-doctor, or a dentist who needs a dentist,” I say, and she nods.

“Being a doctor,” Grace says, “it was hard for me to watch. You were in pretty bad shape when you came out of surgery, and while Dr. Hill was gingerly trying to tell Christian what the odds were, I knew the grim truth. I think he did, too—Dr. Hill’s words were of very little comfort to him. He lamented losing you every day.”

“I remember when the cops came to the hospital,” Marilyn says. “I wasn’t in the room, but I saw when they left. They were none too happy, and Ray came out of there barking like a bear.”

“Ray?” I ask. “Daddy?”

“Yeah,” Marilyn nods. “As far as I could tell, they said something to Christian that he didn’t take too kindly to and he kicked them out. I think they came back a couple more times, but they never got anything, of course. Christian was on a plane when this whole thing happened.”

“They tried to pin this on Christian?” I ask incredulously. Marilyn nods.

“Christian wouldn’t talk to them,” she says. “If they didn’t have any information on what happened to you, he had nothing to say.”

“What?” I tease. “Mr. Grey didn’t stomp around the hospital demanding answers?”

“That didn’t happen until you woke up,” Grace says with a chuckle. “He was trying to get Dr. Hill fired because he kicked Christian out of the room.” I frown.

“Okay, I didn’t hear that part,” I say. “I remember losing my temper because Dr. Hill kicked him out of the room, but I didn’t hear anything about Christian coming unglued.”

“Oh, yes,” Grace says. “If I remember correctly, Dr. Hunt said that Christian approached him quite ardently about having Dr. Hill replaced. Christian said that he would call Switzerland if he had to and get the next best neurosurgeon available.”

That sounds like my Christian,” I reply with mirth.

“It turned out to all be a misunderstanding,” she says. “As you can see, all’s well that ends well.” I nod. I guess we really were in a hurry to move on with our lives. We never really discussed the impact this had on us or the people around us.

“Well, it looks like I have something to discuss with Ace this afternoon,” I say, trying to change the subject. Grace takes the hint and stands.

“Just remember,” she says, “I’m always here if you need to talk… about anything.” She leaves my office. I kind of get the idea that Christian may have talked to her at some point about my chosen treatment plan for PTSD. I hate admitting that I have it, especially after that conversation all those months ago with Dr. Baker, but she was completely off the mark. This situation was different, and she was wrong.

“So, Mare,” I say, changing tact, “you’re my employee, but you’re also my friend. Time is ticking into the future, my dear. When are you going to take that test?” She sighs.

“I know, I know,” she laments. “I’m going to take one this weekend. Whatever I decide to do, I definitely need to know soon.”

“Have you talked anymore to Gary?” I ask. She rolls her eyes.

“Gary is of one mind,” she says. “He won’t hear anything else but that I’m keeping the baby. So, talking to him is kind of mute right now, especially if I make a decision he doesn’t like. It irritates me that he rubs my stomach when I haven’t even decided to keep the baby if I am pregnant. And if I decide the terminate the pregnancy, I get the feeling that he’s never going to touch me again.”

I’ve seen this kind of situation break people up for more reasons than one. I don’t even know what to say to her right now.

“You have a tough decision ahead of you, Mare,” I begin. “Whatever you do will have quite the dramatic effect on you both, and that ripple will most likely reach much further than that. However, this is one of those times where I will advise you to carefully consider what you want. You are the first and most prevalent person your decision will affect. Only after that do you consider everyone else’s needs and wants. Either decision is going to affect you exponentially, and you need to decide which of those exponents are most bearable and most favorable.” She leans her head over on her fingertips and closes her eyes.

“Bosslady, can you do me a favor? Stop being PC for a minute and give it to me straight.”

Why am I beginning to hate when people say I’m PC?

“Okay,” I say folding my hands on my desk. “I had my babies because I was ready. I was in love with and married to a billionaire. I was happy. We planned for children, and I’m not so young. Granted, I’m not old, but for motherhood, I’m old enough. Conditions were right for me. Are conditions right for you?

“On the one hand, you’re young and you’ve got things that you want to do. On the other hand, you have a great guy who loves you and is excited about the concept of having a baby. Right now, those are the only two people that matter. There’s no other way to put this, Mare. You must rearrange your entire life for a baby. If motherhood was not in the original plan, that’s going to be fucking hard. It’s not going to be a cakewalk anyway, but it’s going to be really hard if it wasn’t what you wanted. You will make sacrifices. You’ll do things that you never thought you would do before, but all in all, it’ll be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ve ever had.

“However, if you don’t want this, it’ll be the worst decision you’ve ever made if you keep it. Your entire life thereafter will be filled with ‘what if’s’ and ‘woulda-shoulda-couldas.’ You’ll resent that baby and what you feel you had to sacrifice for him or her, and you could possibly come to resent Gary. You’re already resenting him for rubbing your stomach—which is a form of emotional warfare, even though he may not know it or intend it to be. That’s another reason why you need to take that test and make your decision because it’s not really fair to him.

“Now,” I begin, standing from my seat and walking around my desk. “There is, of course, a third party that you have to consider in all of this.” I lean on my desk in front of her.

“I’m not going to preach pro-life to you, but what about the baby? Can you give that baby the kind of life he or she deserves if you have it and don’t want it? You’ve already clearly said the adoption is not an option, but if it somehow becomes an option, can you give a baby away after you’ve carried it for nine months? How will that affect you? And Gary?

“And then there’s the unspoken thing that I don’t know if either of us has addressed. Twelve years ago, I was in your shoes even though I didn’t know it. I found out that I was pregnant after the fact, but knowing that, I knew that had I known before the fact that I would have found a way to get rid of it. The affects are the same—I detached myself from a living part of me enough to know that I never would have kept it; to be glad that it was gone. In my heart, I had terminated that pregnancy even though I had nothing to do with it.

“I never told anybody, but more than a few times, I wondered what would have happened if my baby had lived. Where would we be now living with a mother then who hated having me around much less help raise a child. Would I have turned out like her… or worse? Would Cody and his family have tried to take him or her away from me? Would they even claim it?

“All in all, although it was not a good thing that the baby was murdered, it was a good thing that I didn’t have the baby—but I still wonder…

“Would it have looked like me or would I have had to stare Cody Whitmore in the eye for the rest of my life?

“Would he have the rotten tendencies as Cody? Or my mother? Would I be able to curtail any of that?

“Would I love it anyway… because it was a part of me? Nurture it and do my best to keep it from harm, make sure that it never felt in its life the way that my mother made me feel? I still wonder.

“Technically, my twins are rainbow babies because they were the first born after I lost a child, but I often wonder if they’re considered rainbow babies if you didn’t want the first child in the first place.” I raise my eyes to Marilyn who is on the brink of tears.

“I didn’t get the chance to make that decision the first time, Mare, but you have to.” She quickly wipes a tear from her eye.

“Jesus, I’m not any closer to making a decision than I was before we started the conversation,” she laments.

“Well, if you’re looking for me to give you that magic word that’s suddenly going to be your answer, that’s not going to happen. I’ve given you the real deal—the entire good, bad, and ugly that I know. You have to make the ultimate decision.”

“I love Gary so much,” she says, her voice cracking. “Maybe, one day, I can see having children with him… but today?” She trails off with the question and offers no answer. “It’s… going to be a short day, right? Can you… survive without me for the rest of the day? I think I’m going to need to take some of that perpetual sick leave I’ve accumulated.”

“Go,” I say, waving her off. “I can manage.

*-*

“PTSD,” I snap at Ace after I take a seat on his sofa.

“Excuse me?” he says, closing the door behind me and standing at the seat in front of me.

“I have a question for you,” I say, “and it’s a valid question.” He folds his arms.

“I’m waiting,” he says.

“Are we getting too close?” He jerks his head like I just hit him. “You see, when Maxie and I began to get too close, her ability to help me weakened until it diminished completely. I’m wondering if we may be getting too close… too personal.”

“I sent you out of this office crying last Friday because you were choking on the truth, and now you think we’re getting too close?” he asks incredulously.

“I can’t see any other reason why you would have missed such an obvious diagnosis,” I say matter-of-factly.

“And what makes you say that?” he asks. There’s something hiding in his voice. It sounds like anger or frustration, I don’t know, but quite fucking frankly, I don’t care.

“PTSD!” I snap. “I’m suffering from PTSD because of Christian’s flight to Madrid!”

“Oh, that,” he says, finally taking the seat in front of me.

“Yeah, oh that!” I say in a mocking tone. “Wasn’t it obvious?”

“Was it obvious to you?” he retorts.

“It’s not supposed to be obvious to me! You’re my shrink!”

“And you’re still a doctor!” he snaps back. “Do you think a dentist needs another dentist to tell him that his toothache is a cavity? He may need someone else to look in his mouth and tell him how bad it is, but he knows it’s a cavity! And even he can manipulate a mirror and see a cavity in his own mouth. So, what did you do—take a good hard look in a mirror?”

“No! A friend helped me see what was going on, because my shrink couldn’t do it!”

“No, your shrink wouldn’t do it!” he shoots. “Someone else mentioned PTSD to you and you shut down completely—won’t even be in the same room with the woman. Now, I’m trying to help you work through an extremely difficult situation and you expected me to suggest it? Even if it may have been true?

“There are other ways to get you to understand that you’re suffering from PTSD without saying that you’re suffering from PTSD, like when I told you that you were torturing yourself; like when I told you that you have to find a way to move on or you would be paralyzed in fear if you didn’t; like when I shoved your unrealistic expectations of Christian right back down your throat and you ran out of here like a toddler because you knew that I was right! Had I come out and said, ‘Ana, you’re suffering from PTSD,’ you would have fired me, and you know it. Yet I saw it, your friend saw it, but you couldn’t. Why? I’ll tell you why, because you were so damn tunnel-visioned on it that you couldn’t see it yourself.

“Why do you think I keep calling you ‘doctor’ during our sessions?” he asks accusingly. “You know what’s going on. You’d spot it in a minute if it was somebody else, but you refuse to see it in yourself. Your misery is affecting everyone around you… everyone, yet you prefer to wallow in it and worry about it instead of doing something about it.”

“That’s not fair, Ace,” I say squarely. “You haven’t even asked me how I’m handling this or what I’m doing since I realized what it is. You just start condemning me for not knowing what it was in the beginning.”

“Well, excuse me, but when my patient—who is also a doctor—comes into my office and immediately starts barking at me about not doing my job, I tend to get a little sensitive. And quite frankly, don’t try to feed me that crap about not knowing what it was. You have all the classic symptoms. I can totally understand not being able to see through your shit-colored glasses, but with all that schooling and all the people that you’ve said you helped in your life, there’s no way in hell you didn’t know what you had. You just didn’t want to admit it because someone else said it first.

“Even though Dr. Baker may have been off the mark at the time that she mentioned it, she said it, you shut it down, and you couldn’t hear it or see it again. You deal with it every day in varying degrees with the people who come into the Center and you couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see it in yourself! So, you tell me who couldn’t diagnose you, doctor!”

I sit silently in my seat glaring at him, resenting him for being right… again, but he still didn’t give me a chance to tell him how I’m dealing with it.

That would be because you came into the office barking at him. Would you attempt to reason with a rabid dog?

And here you go. I definitely don’t need your smart mouth right now.

Yes, you do. You’ve been needing it for months, but you haven’t listened to me. I knew what was wrong, but the great Dr. Steele-Grey had this all figured out, so I shut the fuck up. Boogeyman, indeed.

Don’t mock my coping mechanisms.

That’s not a coping mechanism. That’s an excuse. And don’t look now, but your doctor’s staring at you.

Apparently, my inner conversation with the bitch went on a little too long and must have come with some kind of expressive gestures, because Ace is looking at me with a combination of confusion and anger… or frustration.

“I’m journaling,” I say to him.

“Congratulations,” he says sarcastically. “Psychology 101.”

“And now you’re mocking me, too,” I observe.

“Someone else is mocking you?” he asks, sarcasm still evident.

“Skip it,” I say, pursing my lips. “Today is the anniversary of my accident.” He raises a brow at me. “I didn’t know it. Grace and Marilyn told me.”

“How did you not know it?” he asks, frowning.

“Because I awoke in the hospital something like two weeks later not knowing who my husband was,” I retort. Ace scrubs his hand over his face.

“Ana,” he says, rising out of his seat, “I’m going to need you to find a friend to talk to. I can’t do this.” I frown deeply.

“What?” I ask horrified. He’s dumping me, too? Why the fuck can’t I keep a shrink?

“Today,” he says. “I can’t do this today. This conversation started on the wrong foot and I can’t find my professionalism to help you like I know that I need to. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a bit perturbed and this will not be a productive session. I know this is a delicate time and an important day, but I can’t service you like I should feeling the way that I do right now. That’s why I’m advising that you speak to a friend—not just any friend, someone who knows and understands what you’ve gone through over the last year… particularly over the last two months.”

But I don’t wanna talk to a friend. I wanna talk to my fucking shrink!

“Can’t we just… start over?” I protest.

“No, Ana, we can’t start over,” he retorts. “Today is a wash. I told you that your misery is affecting everybody around you. Now, it’s affecting me. You want to blame someone or something for how you feel, for your current state even though there’s not necessarily anyone to blame, but you gotta put it somewhere. Blame Christian; blame the universe; blame the blue-eyed guy who had you mesmerized and almost kissed you; blame the Boogeyman. Now, you’re blaming me.”

“I’m not blaming you!” I excuse.

“The hell you aren’t!” he snaps. “You came in here and screamed a diagnosis at me, then proceeded to try to dress me down like I’m the root of your problem, like I haven’t been telling you ever since this happened—ever since you came to me with this shit—to get to the bottom of how you were feeling. I knew what was happening when I visited your house, the minute you crawled into your shell and refused to talk about it. You wouldn’t even look at your husband and you were a breath off of doing that shrinking shit again.

“What I need you to do—what you need to do—is take some responsibility for your treatment and for how you feel. If you’ve done that already, bravo! But the bottom line is that you should have done it a long time ago. Go ahead and mourn the death of your perfect life—that’s fine. It had to die at some point, and a loss is a loss. It doesn’t matter if someone has not yet taken their final breath. However, after every death, life must go on. Yet you kept behaving like you wanted to crawl into the casket and die with your fairytale, and you couldn’t tell that was PTSD?”

He’s mad. He’s really mad. No, he’s pissed. His voice has escalated, and I know things are getting bad when I hear a knock at the door. A timid Amber sticks her head in the door.

“Doctor?” she says softly. “Are you okay?” Ace scrubs his hand over his kinky hair.

“I’m fine,” he says softly to his wife. “Don’t leave.” He turns back to face me.

“Find a friend to talk to,” he says coldly. “Don’t hold in how you’re feeling today, what today is and what it means. The most professional thing I can do right now is tell you to leave before I really offend you and then you really fire me.” He turns back to Amber. “Shut it down. We’re going home.”

“Yes, doctor,” she says professionally and returns to the reception area, leaving the door open.

The session is officially over.

Ace doesn’t say anything else to me. There’s really nothing else to say after you kick your patient out of your office, now is there?

I put my purse on my shoulder and walk out of the office, then out the front door. It barely closes behind me before I hear the lock engage.

Well, damn.

I walk to the parking lot, not really knowing how to feel or what to think. When I bend the corner, there’s a limo waiting there. What celebrity has come to visit Dr. Avery? Chuck steps out of the Audi and a chauffeur steps out of the limo.

“Apparently,” Chuck says, “your husband has plans for the evening. I’m to follow you and the limo to Miana’s where you will be ‘prepared’ for the night’s events.” He smiles.

It’s such a welcome surprise that I almost want to cry. I guess Christian will have to be the friend that I lean on tonight.

“Mrs. Grey,” the chauffeur says as he opens the door for me.


CHRISTIAN

“I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but did you know that there’s a hidden passageway that leads from the pantry to the foyer?” I ask Aunt Tina when I get to her house that morning.

“Of course, I’m aware of it,” Tina says softly. “I’ve lived in this house for 50 years. There are several. There’s one that leads from the kitchen to the servant’s quarters as well, and from the servant’s quarters to the backyard, but that one’s usually locked.”

Servant’s quarters to the outside… I shoot a text to Jason to check the other two passages immediately. Unless he was just afraid to approach or afraid to be discovered, Roger could be gaining access to the house freely even though he’s not on staff anymore.

“Well, I’m arranging for tighter security and some video surveillance of the outside of the house—not the cheap stuff that kept buzzing in your ear. The good stuff that my team will be able to review. We’ll set up a security room here…” I point to a room on the plan. Tina looks at it and nods.

“That was Daddy’s den,” she says fondly. My face falls.

“I won’t use it if you don’t want…” She waves me off.

“Daddy’s been gone for a long time now,” she says. “I’ll be gone soon, too. Use whatever room you must and do whatever you must to protect my Harmony.” Harmony smiles softly.

“You seem to be doing better today, Tina,” I say, squeezing her hand. She’s sitting in the parlor in a comfortable chair with a hot cup of tea and a roaring fire. There’s a very pretty and feminine shawl on her shoulders and an afghan warming her legs.

“Yes,” she says cheerfully, “getting all the juice outta the old gray mare before she’s put down.”

That sounds awful to me, but I know exactly what she means.

“I’m going to leave you in peace, now, Auntie,” I say as I rise to leave. She catches my hand.

“Harmony, darling, can you give me a moment alone with Christian?” she says sweetly.

“Sure thing, Mommy.” Harmony kisses her mother’s cheek. “I’ll go see how soon lunch will be.”

“Thank you, darling.” Harmony nods at me before leaving the room.

“My children are a dreadful lot,” she begins immediately the moment Harmony leaves the room. “I was hoping at least one of them would have come by now. They’re all old, I understand, but I’m older. They may even be sick, but I’m sicker. We’re all knocking on Death’s door, but he’s going to answer a whole lot sooner for me than he is for them.”

She shakes her head and gazes at the fire. She’s not angry. She doesn’t even seem hurt. She’s just… disgusted.

“I’m going to provide for them,” she says. “I’m going to leave something to every one of them. It’s what Daddy would have wanted, but the lion’s share is going to a child who didn’t even come from my cooter.”

Cooter… okay.

“They may still come, Aunt Tina,” I console.

“It’s too late,” she replies. “Emotionally and physically, it’s too late. I feel wonderful, Christian,” she says turning to me. “I feel like I could take a walk around the lake in the sunshine or do some of that needlepoint that I started but never finished. I want to pull out my old record player and dance and sing along to my favorite songs. I’m not sure if you know what that means, but I know what that means.”

Her energy burst. The end is near.

“Don’t let them near my Harmony, Christian,” she beseeches me. “You’ve done a lot for me these past weeks, and I appreciate it though I never asked for any of it. I’m asking for this. Protect her from those vultures. Do whatever you have to legally do to keep them away from my baby. I don’t know what I would have done without her, where I would be without her. I may have rescued her, but she rescued me right back, and I thank God for her every day.”

She takes a handkerchief from her cuff and dabs her eyes. I take her hand in mine—soft and frail, skeletal. These were the hands that brought trays of cookies and lemonade to the porch. I can still see it, as if it were yesterday…

“Is someone under there?” I hear an old lady, but I won’t make a sound. If I’m quiet, she won’t hear me. She won’t see me… and then she’ll go away.

I shouldn’t have chased that rabbit under here, but it’s so quiet—even better than the treehouse. Nobody can find me here…

But the old lady did.

She keeps looking under the steps, but then she goes away. Whew! She didn’t see me. I wrap my arms around my legs and lean my chin on my knees. I’ll wait for a while… wait until I don’t see the light, then I’ll come out.

I hear the door close to the house, and then footsteps on the stairs. She’s back. Why is she back? Did I make a noise?

I see her put something at the opening of my dark space. I wait for a minute, but then I crawl over to see what it is.

It’s one of the fancy little plates like the ones Momma has. Saw… saw… sawzers. There’s something on the sawzer. When I get closer…

It’s a cookie!

I snatch the cookie and gobble it down almost in one bite. It’s so sweet and yummy.

“If you come out, there’s more,” the old lady says, “and lemonade, too.”

I don’t want to come out. I’m scared… but she saw me take the cookie. If she tells on me, Momma will send me back to the man with the boots. If I don’t come out, they may call the blue people to come and take me away.

I’m scared now. I don’t know what to do…

“Come on out,” the old lady says. “I won’t hurt you.” She won’t hurt me.

“Promise?” I ask.

“I promise,” she says. I take a breath and come out of the dark space.

“Well, hello,” she says and smiles a big smile. “You’re Grace’s little boy, right?”

Grace. Grace. At the hospital, they call Momma ‘Dr. Grace.’ I nod.

“Come, have some more cookies, and I’ve poured you some lemonade. I know you must be thirsty…”

Aunt Tina was what I pictured my grandmother would be. I was wrong, of course, but I would have wanted my grandmother to be like her. Maybe Ruby was…

But I digress.

We sit there in silence for several minutes, holding hands and gazing at the fire. I’m the first to break the silence.

“Thank you, Aunt Tina,” I tell her. Worn blue eyes turn to my grays, and I know that she knows what I mean.

“You’re welcome, child,” she smiles softly. She pushes a button on the side table next to her and we wait in silence for a minute or two, after which there’s a knock at the door.

“Come in,” she says in the strongest voice she can muster. I look up to see Windsor coming into the room.

“Yes, ma’am?” he says obediently.

“Windsor, would you please bring a plate of my favorite cookies and a pitcher of lemonade… with two glasses?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Windsor says and disappears almost as suddenly as he appeared.

“Take care of my Harmony, Christian,” Tina says sadly. “I know that you have a family of your own, but… just do what you can.” I squeeze her hand.

“She won’t be alone, Aunt Tina. I promise.” She nods and looks back at the fire.

A few minutes later, Aunt Tina and the young boy who hid under her porch share cookies and ice-cold homemade lemonade one last time.

*-*

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any recording to tie Roger or Kenneth to the bugs and surveillance devices,” I inform Harmony after leaving Aunt Tina in her parlor. “My IT team thinks they went to a local location, like an email address or a cell phone. Without that location, we can’t get the recordings, and we know that neither of them would be forthcoming with that information. It might have even been destroyed by now.”

“Well, we still have the proof of his funds misappropriation, don’t we?” Harmony points out.

“Um, there’s a problem with that, too,” I say. “The funds that he misappropriated have been put into an account that has Tina’s name on it, too. So, technically, he took the money from her and gave it back to her. Since she locked him out of all of her accounts, she inadvertently locked him out of this one, too. I gave the information to Carl on Wednesday and since he’s her current power of attorney, he closed the account out and moved the money back to her main account.” I give her a little piece of paper that shows the transfer with several digits.

“Good God, that’s a lot of money,” she says.

“Yep,” I say. “He didn’t want to draw attention to himself drawing all the money out of the account, so he left it there probably hoping that he could get it later or draw it out in small amounts. Of course, he didn’t count on us finding the account.”

“How did you find out about it?” she asks. “Did he tell you?”

“Um, sort of,” I say. “We’ve been having him followed. He met up with Kenneth to try to salvage their scheme and he told Kenneth at the meeting. The recording isn’t admissible in court because neither of them knew they were being recorded. So, Roger’s story pretty much ends here.

“Jason has engineered a rotation that should cover the grounds while we tie up all the loose ends when the time comes. It shouldn’t be too intrusive. I just ask that you lean to the judgment of the security team in the coming days and weeks as I know you’ll be extremely fragile during this time, and your sisters and brothers will want to strike at your weakest moment.” Harmony shakes her head.

“All this to keep my siblings out… geez.” She folds her arms and walks to the French doors, staring out over the back lawn to the lake.

“Have you heard anything from them?” I ask.

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard from them alright,” she hisses, “every last one of them, in fact. They’ve called several times since Mom has been sick.” Hmm, from Tina’s description, I was under the impression that they hadn’t tried to contact her at all.

“Well, at least they’re calling to check on her,” I say.

“No, they’re not!” Harmony laments. “There calling to see if she’s dead yet. They call like crazy trying to get Mom’s stuff before she dies. They don’t ask to speak to her or ask how she’s doing. They don’t even know that she’s lucid. They think she’s drugged.” She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “I can’t believe these people. None of them have been there for her. None of them! They have proof that she’s knocking on death’s door and they’re not even attempting to help or come and see her before she dies. I swear, I won’t speak to any of these people once my mother’s gone.”

“I know this is a terrible time, but these are your siblings,” I point out.

“They’re not my siblings,” she retorts, walking away from the French doors. “Mom is not my mom because she adopted me. A piece of paper did not make her my mother. Her love makes her my mother. The unconditional love and care that she’s given me all these years. That’s why she’s my mother. These people are my great-aunts and great-uncles and only by blood. They’re horrible human beings and I want nothing to do with them. How that wonderful woman upstairs could have birthed four such monstrous people into the world, I’ll never know.”

Harmony falls onto the sofa and buries her face in her hands, weeping.

“I need more time!” she sobs. “I’m not ready! I need more time!”

Out of nowhere, Windsor appears with a wet washcloth and a glass of water. He stands in front of Harmony, waiting for her to acknowledge his presence. After a few moments of letting her have her cry out, he garners her attention.

“Miss Harmony?” he says softly. She weeps softly for a few more moments, then holds out her hand without raising her head. He hands her the washcloth and she buries her face in it just like she had buried it in her hands moments ago and continues to weep. I raise my gaze to Windsor, but he just watches Harmony. When she gets her sobbing under control, she gently cleans her face with the wet washcloth and hands it back to Windsor, who swaps it for the glass of water that he has in his hand.

“Would you like some tea, Miss Harmony?” he asks.

“Yes, please. Thank you, Windsor.” He nods and leaves the room. One week and he’s this in tune to Harmony already?

I, on the other hand, am a little out of my element.

“I’ll be fine, Christian,” she says with shuddering breaths. “It’s going to be like this for a while. I’m losing my mom.” I can only imagine.

“Do you have anyone that can come and stay with you for a while?” I ask. “This is a big house, and you and I both know that it’s just going to get bigger…” once Tina’s gone.

“I didn’t really make any friends while I was with Ken,” she says. “He such a narcissistic fuck that he wouldn’t let me out much without him.” I sigh.

Take care of my Harmony, Christian.

“I’ll talk to Ana… see if we can work something out,” I say. She won’t be able to stay in this house immediately after Tina passes away. I already know that.

She doesn’t respond.

“I have to get going,” I say apologetically. “I have to handle some business at my father’s house.” She begins to rise just as Windsor enters the room with her tea.

“I’ll see Mr. Grey out,” Windsor says, situating her tea on the end table next to her. She nods and sinks back into her seat.

“Harmony,” I say, and she raises her head. “Dig out your mom’s record player and play some of her records. She might enjoy a trip down Memory Lane.” She smiles at me.

“Thanks,” she says, her voice weak. “I will.” I follow Windsor to the door. Jason is a few steps behind him.

“Windsor, see if you can locate an old record player and records that belonged to Tina. She’s feeling nostalgic.”

“Yes, sir,” he says as he opens the door for me.

“One more thing. Were you… looking to stay on here once Tina passes on?” His brow furrows.

“Oh, no, sir,” he says. “I just want to do my best job while I’m here—help out in any way that I can.”

“Good,” I sigh. “You’re doing so well, I was just wondering.” He smiles.

“No, Mr. Grey,” he says. “I look forward to returning to my duties at Grey Crossing. I just want to make sure that I don’t leave a bad impression—of you or of me—while I’m here.”

“I don’t think you could ever do that,” I praise. “Besides, if you left, I may have to move in here with you because my wife would kill me.” I leave, and he closes the door behind me.

I’m lost deep in thought when I get to Dad’s house. I imagine that having no friends while your mom is dying is pretty fucking bad. Having none once she has passed on has to be worse. I need to ask my wife how to handle this one. I’m completely out of my league.

“Your clerk is doing most of the work,” Uncle Herman says when we sit down at the computer in Dad’s study. “I don’t know how she did it in such a short amount of time, but everything is categorized perfectly—furniture, collectibles, jewelry… even all the keepsakes. I had no idea how to find the paintings or the model cars Dad was giving to Stan and Rick, but she’s already located them and got the model cars on their way out here and Stan has already picked up the paintings.”

“Grandma had some really nice stuff,” I say, scrolling through the descriptions of the items. Some of them even have pictures. “Do you think anybody’s gonna fight over anything?”

“I won’t allow that,” he replies. “I’ve already told everybody how disputes will be handled. If they can’t deal with that, then tough.”

“We’ve got some requests already for some of the furniture,” I tell him. “Lanie’s looking at a walnut armoire and a marble vanity with stools.” Uncle Herman laughs.

“I’m not going to deny her that, no matter who else wants it,” he says. “She sat at that thing for hours when she came to the big house. Mom bought her her own set of makeup and she just played in it all day. The marble never stained, and she was careful not to get anything on the white seat cushions. It’s hers as soon as I get a shipping address.”

I remember a conversation about Lanie never being allowed to be girly around her father.

“And the armoire?” I ask.

“You’ve probably never seen Beauty and The Beast, have you?” he asks. I nod.

“As a matter of fact, I have,” I say.

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“Remember the talking armoire with all the beautiful dresses inside? Mom had every princess dress to date in that armoire, from Cinderella to Snow White to Belle. Even Pocahontas and Sleeping Beauty, and a few that she made up on her own. The Unicorn Princess was my favorite. Hell if I know where they found a rainbow gown—a costume of some kind, I think Mom made it. She made a headband with a pink horn and ears and there was a hot-pink wig made into a pony… Wait a minute…” Uncle Herman takes the keyboard from me and starts typing on it.

“I’ll be damned,” he says.

“What?” He highlights the item we’re discussing.

Eighteenth century walnut chateau armoire with girls costumes inside.

“The costumes are still in there. She’s going to freak out!” Uncle Herman exclaims.

“What if someone else wants the armoire?” I ask.

“Executive decision. They can be mad at me,” he says as he marks the armoire, vanity, and stools as not available and indicates that Lanie will be getting them.

We sit there for several more minutes virtually going through Grandma Ruby and Pops’ things. I hear all kinds of stories about the origins of the items and who will most likely want what. It appears that Pops never got rid of anything, so there’s going to be a lot to dispose of.

“No way!” I exclaim when we’re more than halfway through the list.

“What?” he asks. I look up at him.

“Pops’ had an Apollo?” I ask.

“What the hell is that?” he asks. I point the old player piano in very substandard condition.

“Oh, that,” he says and shrugs.

“Oh that,” I mock him. “That is 100 years old, man—at least.”

“It looks like it,” he says. “You want it?”

“Hell, yes!” I say before I think about it. “Wait a minute… someone else might want it.”

“Trust me, Christian, nobody wants that piano. It used to just start playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in the middle of the night and we thought the thing was haunted. I don’t even know why Dad kept it.” My phone vibrates, and I pull it out of my pocket.

“The timer on the electric motor was off,” I say looking at my phone. “The cars should be here in about fifteen minutes. The T-Bird is on its way to Burtie in California.” Almost on cue, Herman’s phone rings and it’s Uncle Stanley.

“You get the cars yet, man?” Uncle Stan asks.

“They’re on the way. Christian says they should be here in about fifteen minutes.”

“I drove my Mustang down to Belle Isle for old time’s sake before I brought it home. Man, that’s a beautiful car.”

“I know. I saw the pictures,” Uncle Herman teases.

“Man, Christian, having the kind of power you do must be a pretty big burden to bear, huh?” Uncle Stan asks.

“In what way?” I counter.

“Well, I’ve only known of you for a few months, since my dad passed away. In that time, I watched the self-proclaimed bully of the family proceed into a harried frenzy at the mere mention of your name and then calm less than 60 seconds later after finding out that merely talking in your presence could cost him jail time. At a moment’s notice, you can go from the states to China and probably be back before dinner. Hell, you had travel arrangements for me to come see Dad before I even knew that I was taking a trip! That cocky ass private-eye who kept calling Rick esquire and stood firm that he wasn’t giving us any information, handed over a file as thick as the White Pages in less than five minutes after you made a call. Now, you’ve made arrangements to ship and deliver valuable antique cars—three of them, to be exact—to destinations in two states, with about as much effort as it takes to order a pizza. Is there anything you can’t do?

“I’m sure that there is, but to be honest… not much, Uncle Stanley.” He whistles.

“Having that kind of power must be staggering. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

“With great power comes great responsibility,” I caution. “I’m not always in the cat-bird seat, but most often, I am. To make a bad matter worse, in the eyes of some, I’m hated just because I have money, not because I’ve actually done something wrong. So, at times. It’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.”

“I can imagine. Grass is always greener and all that. All I can say is I’m glad you’re on my side.”

“Mine, too, although I have no idea what we’re talking about,” Dad says walking into the room and dropping his briefcase on the floor next to the desk. “What did I miss? Are the cars here yet?”

“Any minute now,” I say.

“Christian just claimed Ichabod,” Uncle Herman declares.

“No shit?” Dad says with a laugh. “I guess that really doesn’t surprise me.”

“Why the hell do you want Ichabod?” Uncle Stan asks.

“I’m assuming you’re talking about the hundred-year-old, priceless, classic piano, and why are you calling it ‘Ichabod?’” I inquire.

“After Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the headless horseman who rode in the middle of the night. Your treasured hundred-year-old classic is a playerless piano that randomly started playing in the middle of the night. It wouldn’t have been so creepy, but it started playing at the same time every night.”

“And when did you geniuses finally figure out that it was a faulty timer on the electric motor that went off at the same time every night?” I ask.

“We didn’t,” Uncle Stan say. “It just stopped playing.” There’s a knock at Dad’s study door and he goes to answer it. “It’s your problem now, genius,” Uncle Stan adds.

“A problem that I gladly accept,” I taunt. I’m going to get that beauty restored and get the timer fixed. When I show them how good it looks when it’s done, we’ll see who has the last laugh.

“Alright, boys, showtime,” Dad says. “Trucks pulling up the drive now.”

“Gotta go, Stan. You got your toys, now we’re getting ours,” Uncle Herman says. He and Dad say their goodbyes and end the call. The trucks are just pulling around the circular drive when we come outside.

“Dear God, they towed them across the country like that?” Uncle Herman asks horrified. The cars are both uncovered and traveling on flatbed tow trucks. I have to keep from chuckling a bit.

“No, they were transported to Grey Shipping in a boxcar by semi—much like the packing Pods that you’ve seen—then towed here on the flatbeds.” He nods.

“Why not just have the ‘Pod’ drop them off?” he asks.

“We tried. This area isn’t zoned for semis.”

“Okay, now you’ve lost me,” Uncle Herman says.

“Semi-trucks have to follow a certain route,” Dad tells Uncle Herman. “The drivers know which routes they can take, and which streets are zoned for heavy hauling like that. An 18-wheeler or tractor-trailer can’t travel on roads that aren’t zoned for that type of driving, like many residential areas.”

“I never knew that,” Uncle Herman says, watching the tow truck operator gingerly lean and lower the flatbed that carries his Fairlane.

“That car is even more beautiful in person,” he says.

“I’ll say,” Dad says, admiring the Coupe.

“I’ll race ya!” Uncle Herman jests and Dad laughs.

“No can do, big brother,” he confirms. “This beauty is going straight to the garage and won’t see daylight again until spring, where my lady and I will be enjoying picnics and rides on sunny Sunday afternoons.”

“Any room for this land yacht in there?” Uncle Herman asks.

“Of course, there is,” Dad says, “and if there’s not, we’ll make room.”

By the time I leave Dad’s house, Uncle Stan and I have gone through the manifests and have a pretty good idea what’s in the storage units. Nothing is committed to memory, of course, but he—and later, Dad—had quite the trip down Memory Lane going through Pops’ things.

An email actually went out Wednesday listing all of the items on the manifest even though Uncle Herman only looked at the finished list today. The email was sent with return receipt requested. So, we know that all the family members—grand-children included—received a copy of the list and Ms. Tanner has already started making a list of who wants what. As a result, by Monday, anyone who has requested something from the list can either prepare to pick it up or have it shipped depending on their locations, and notwithstanding the possibility that two or more people may want the same items.

I’ve gotten word from Chuck that Butterfly has left her session and is now in the limousine on her way to Miana’s. Chuck couldn’t gauge how she felt when she left Ace’s office, but she’s about to be pampered a bit before I take her out and help her forget her troubles.

This night one year ago was one of the most horrendously traumatic and miserable nights of my entire life. I can’t remember ever feeling the sense of loss and hopelessness I felt when they hinted that my Butterfly may not make it. I don’t even remember feeling that hopeless when the crack whore died. It was a long time ago and I remember feeling hopeless, but I don’t remember just how hopeless. Maybe I did feel that hopeless, I don’t know.

How the hell did my mind drift there?

Uncle Herman allows me to choose some pieces from Grandma and Pops’ private collection of vintage jewelry, real fucking quality shit. I stop at Cartier on my way home and have Marvin clean the pieces for me. He was hesitant at first because one of the pieces is pretty damn priceless. However, I assure him that I would trust no one else to the task and would not hold him responsible for any damage that occurs from reasonable handling. As a result, twenty minutes later, the pieces come back glistening and beautiful as if they’re brand new. He even provides me with unmarked boxes for the pieces since I brought them in simply wrapped in velvet as Uncle Herman had presented them to me.

As my barber gives me a haircut and trims my beard, I go over the events and discoveries of the day. Aunt Tina is having her final energy burst—something I learned about while being an asshole during Pops’ energy burst. Now would be the time for all of her loved ones to be around her reliving old times and telling her how much they love her, but there’s only Harmony, and she’s not holding up too well.

And then there’s my dad and uncles and the disposition of Pops’ estate. They did pretty well with the cars and Uncle Herman seemed to enjoy going through his parents’ things and remembering their significance—nothing like the crying fit he had earlier in the week. I was glad of that.

I was totally floored when he showed me Grandma’s jewelry collection from the safe deposit box, though. Good Lord! Extravagant doesn’t even begin to describe these pieces. I had picked one piece from the collection and Uncle Herman kept saying, “Pick another one.” I finally had six pieces of exquisite antique jewelry and I know my girl appreciates vintage pieces. Some of the pieces aren’t necessarily vintage—they’re just really pretty expensive. I don’t know how Pops had the money to afford these things. I can only guess that he must have been making an excellent living at Ford and purchased items when they weren’t so expensive. He apparently had a keen eye for value because I’ve yet to see anything that he purchased that depreciated in value except for that dilapidated house, and even the house was worth a pretty penny back in the day if I understand correctly. Even though it’s run down now, it’s in the historical district where the land itself is probably still worth something.

When I get home, Jason informs me that our reservations at Altura are all set. I haven’t taken her there yet. The last time I planned to take her was when I saw the ultrasound of the twins—and then all reason escaped from my brain and I simply had to get her home to take care of her. So, tonight, we finally get to go.

As I’m taking my shower, it occurs to me that she may feel a bit subconscious about the bruising on her wrists and ankles while the staff at Miana’s are doing her treatments. The pieces that I chose will hide those nicely, but hopefully her relaxing spa and make-up session won’t be too uncomfortable for her.

I choose a crisp linen shirt and a pair of jet-black jeans with a black blazer and a plain pair of black Bally leather ankle boots.

You’ll do.

With the jewelry in an unmarked bag, I descend the stairs and go to the garage.

Jason and Chuck are being dismissed for the night after I retrieve my wife from Miana’s. I requested that our chauffeur be security trained as well so that we don’t have an entourage of people with us. There will be no fucking in the limo tonight as I have other plans for us when we get home.

Of course, I’m fucking speechless when I arrive at Miana’s to pick her up for our date. She’s in a simple blue mock wrap dress with suede blue Louboutin Harler pumps with wide ankle straps and huge sexy Veronica Lake barrel curls in her mahogany hair… and she is stunning! I suddenly feel like a troll.

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Veronica Lake

“You look delectable,” I growl as I kiss her on the cheek.

“You’re looking quite yummy yourself, Chris,” she says, and my lady is feeling playful.

Oh, joy!

“Um…” I take her hands and notice that the skin on her wrist is flawless. I raise questioning eyes to hers.

“Airbrushing,” she says. “Seems I’m not the first wife with a kinky lover that this establishment has seen.” She winks at me. Jesus! I hope none of my prior subs came here it get cover-ups! It seems like an eternity ago and I can’t remember. I recover quickly and return my wife’s smile.

“Go on and get your coat, love,” I tell her. “I want to watch your ass as you walk away.” She smiles coyly and turns to the door.

And dear God, does she give me quite a show.


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

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 ~~love and handcuffs