Raising Grey: Chapter 94—The Christmas Song

Final chapter of Season Four…

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 94—The Christmas Song

CHRISTIAN

She hasn’t stopped moving for twenty minutes all day, even after we sat down for dinner—which was glorious, by the way, and lasted for hours!

Even the hors d’oeuvres were magnificent. We had some kind of gourmet mushroom pastry things that melted in your mouth; smoked salmon tartines with capers; lobster toast with avocado; Asian meatballs with a variety of dipping sauces; some kind of delicious fried potato bites; mini crab cakes and something with zucchini and goat cheese. There was an army of people here, so even though there were lots of finger foods, there wasn’t enough to get full.

Thank God!

I know she had a hand in the meal. There’s no way she just made the cheesy garlic smashed potatoes. And who came up with bacon brown sugar brussel sprouts? The combination doesn’t even sound appealing, but they were delicious! And Keri—I know it was Keri—made this dish called Caribbean rice and peas. That wasn’t just rice and peas! It was outstanding!

There was some divine side dish that involved bacon, pineapples, and water chestnuts. Butternut squash and roasted asparagus… there was so much food, I can’t even remember everything. And fresh smoked ham and turkeys for Christmas! Why the fuck didn’t I think of that?

Besides the deadly cookies, the desserts included an ambrosia salad the likes of which I’ve never tasted before, a delicious chocolate cake that Maddie called Mexican chocolate pound cake, and a delicious apple pie so large that it looked like it needed to be cut with one of Mia’s wedding swords!

Elliot teased me mercilessly about the dinner I missed last night—stuffed beef tenderloin, herb potato stacks, cider-glazed carrots with walnuts, balsamic green beans with pearl onions, and some kind of buttermilk crescent bread that he couldn’t name. I was almost jealous until I partook of the Christmas feast.

She has finally sat down in the family room playing with the children—on the floor! In that dress and those shoes! She really looks adorable playing Mrs. Claus, handing out presents that she purchased for everyone, and every third or fourth gift, opening one with one of the twins. We normally have a special gift swap on Christmas Eve, but it didn’t happen last night since I came to bed so late… like I’ve done every night this week. Last week, she wandered in the middle of the night and I was able to see her. This week, I guess she was working so hard on the house and on Christmas that she was too beat to wander.

She’s spoken to me a few times today—cordial, not cold, but not necessarily warm. I keep trying to convince myself that it’s because she just has so much to do being the hostess of this huge party. I had no idea it was going to be this big, but with the exception of a handful of extras that showed up this year, this is what my Mom does every year.

Wait, let me take that back…

It was just me, Elliot, and Mia at first. Ethan would come sometimes and then there was Kate. The Pedophile never missed a Christmas, but for the most part, that was it. We occasionally had someone come over, but even then, it was only one or two people.

As time passed, the crowd grew a bit—Kate kicked off and then there was Valerie. There was no more Pedophile because… well, because Butterfly. With Butterfly came Ray, Mandy, and later, Harry. She also brought Al with her. Then there’s Luma and the girls… and the list goes on.

At Mom’s house, we may have had 10 or 20 people, but here, we’ve got about 40—Courtney and Vickie; James is here; we’ve got Marcia, Maggie, and Marlow; he brought a date as did Marcia; Jason’s family, Chuck’s family…

Yeah, at least 40.

I think I’ve tasted every kind of alcohol we were serving today. I’ve had beer; I’ve had wine; I’ve had spiked eggnog; I snuck off for a double shot of Scotch. Now I’m standing in the doorway, leaning on the wall watching her in the family room still being the little entertainer, while I’m sipping on rum-spiked hot cider with a cinnamon stick. It’s delicious.

“I know that look,” I hear Jason say as he stands beside me. I frown.

“What look?” I ask. He points to my face.

“That look,” he says. “You’ve got that look in your eye again like she’s going to run away.” I turn back to Butterfly, watching her laugh and playing with our children.

“She already has,” I reply, sipping my drink without taking my eyes off of her.

It’s very late as our guests finally make it to the door. No one drank too much and if they did, they were here long enough to let the buzz wear off. Even my buzz has worn off a bit.

We still have a few meanderers and Butterfly is in the kitchen preparing leftovers to stay in the fridge and others to go to Helping Hands and a few other shelters in the area. Lots of cookie tins and boxes left the house today and there are still lots more, so I don’t have to fight with Elliot over… hell, over anything. There are so many damn cookies in this house, we could open a store.

The only people left are close friends and family—people who are staying the night or may be staying the night and are helping with the cleanup and packing of the leftovers. I feel like I’m in the way, so I get another spiked cider and steal away while no one’s watching.

I go to the yoga room where Butterfly has placed several memories on the shelves. I see she has placed a few more up here. There’s a picture of her and Valerie. It looks like they were in college. There’s a Mickey Mouse and a Minnie Mouse “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament…

What’s this? Is that what I think it is?

I pick up a clear box that appears to be sealed shut. I think it’s plexiglass. There’s a ring in it…

Her promise ring.

If it’s sealed in the box, it means that she doesn’t plan to wear it anymore. I don’t know how I feel about that. I mean, it’s up here with a bunch of other things that clearly mean something to her, not to mention that she’s wearing a handful of platinum and diamonds that says she’s my wife… so, why do I feel a sudden cringe in the fact that it’s sealed in this box?

I go to our bedroom and don’t even turn on the light. I sit in the sitting room and look out the French balcony doors at the night sky. I can see the lights and bulbs and the seventh tree in the backyard from here. Dear God, there’s a lot of fucking lights back there. The dock looks like a runway and the big boathouse appears to be a lighted square floating on black water.

I sip my cider and sit down. Why do I feel like she’s pulling away from me? Yeah, I’ve been working a lot, but she knows that I have to. Is she still feeling slighted from my slip-up this weekend? I thought I made it glaringly clear that I’m not interested in any other women. I want her.

I run my hand through my hair and sit on the loveseat. I lament my current situation while I finish my cider sitting in complete darkness. I’m thinking about going to get a refill when I see the door open from my perch in the sitting room. She sticks her head in and I watch her shadow look conspiratorially from left to right before she steps into the room and closes the door.

She turns on the bedside light, just enough to cast a slight glow by her side of the bed. I watch her remove her earrings, her necklace, and her bracelet. She sits on the side of the bed and stretches her neck as if in pain. Then she falls heavily back on the bed with a thud and a sigh, her arms stretched straight out to either side of her.

I walk to the doorway between the rooms, lean on the door jam, and just watch her for a moment. She’s about to crash. Whatever had that adrenaline going is seeping out of her and she may just fall asleep in that dress—that gorgeous, sexy, stunning dress…

“Tired?” I say, coming out of the shadows. She pops up like a Jack-in-the box and stares at me.

“Busy day,” she says, and it almost sounds like her voice is cracking.

“I can tell,” I say coming into the room. “Busy week.”

“It was… a special day,” she adds, “Our friends and family… Maddie and Nelson… and the twins first Christmas.” She almost sounds like she’s making excuses.

“Everything was beautiful…” including you. Did I tell you that? She smiles weakly.

“I had a lot of help,” she says dismissively, badly imitating mirth as she rises from the bed. “I’m going to go take a shower, okay?”

Her voice is nervous. It’s like she doesn’t know how to be in the same room with me anymore. She proceeds to walk past me and head to her en suite with both hands in her hair trying to remove the bobby pins. I reach out and place my hand on her stomach just as she’s passing me.

“Stop.”


ANASTASIA

“Stop.”

His voice is low and breathy when he stops me. I literally freeze at the sound of it. His hand touching my stomach is like a wall, preventing me from moving any further. My hand is still holding the first bobby pin I tried to remove; my arms still suspended in the air. Even my breathing seems to have stopped.

He moves behind me like a stalking lion, his hand still on my stomach, his fingers now splayed like the bars of a cage. I can feel him looking at me, examining me, and I don’t know what to do.

Instinctively, I slowly let my arms fall. I’m way too tired to hold them in that position anyway. As if I just sent him a signal, he pulls me closer to him with the splayed hand and I feel his breath on my shoulder. It’s hot when it seems like it should be cool. He hasn’t been drinking much, just a couple of beers and maybe a double-shot or two all day… has he?

I feel his lips brush across the bare skin of my neck and the exposed part of my shoulder, and a bolt of shock begins at my stomach where his hand is pressing me and shoots up to my neck where his lips are brushing me. Good God, what the hell?

He continues to brush his lips across my exposed skin. His free hand starts at my wrist and his fingertips move slowly up my forearm and bicep. When he reaches my shoulder, he clasps it with just a little firmness and his brushing lips turn into kisses.

I swallow hard and close my eyes. When the kisses turn to gentle nips and open-mouthed kisses, I tilt my head to give him better access. He responds without hesitation and the inner flame is almost immediate.

And there’s that breath I lost a moment ago, coming back all at once. Control yourself, Steele… er, Grey! The panting is almost embarrassing!

His hand moves up to my face and he cups my chin from behind, gently pulling my head further to the side to gain more access. His tongue licks my skin and he nips my earlobe, causing an involuntary shiver. He slowly turns me around to face him, his hand from my stomach now on my waist and his hand from my chin now gently cupping my cheek, his fingertips in my hair.

I don’t raise my gaze to him. I’m focused straight ahead at his black shirt open at the neck, his chest rising and falling with rhythmic breaths. He slides his hand to my chin again and gently lifts my face to bring my mouth to his. My eyes flutter closed involuntarily as he presses his lips to mine. His hand moves back to my face and his fingertips caress my neck just underneath my ear.

His kiss is soft and teasing at first. His every move is an act of deliberate seduction as he bites my lip and caresses the bite mark with his tongue before placing his lips over mine once more. I move my hands up his arms to his shoulders then his hair. I tilt my head and lean into the kiss, opening my mouth to invite him in. It seems like so long since I’ve tasted him. He’s delicious, and I’m starving…

… And so is he.

Without breaking our kiss, he wraps his arms around me and lifts me effortlessly off the floor. With me now face-to-face with him, his tongue probes my mouth hungrily and I have absolutely no escape from his ravenous kisses… not that I would want to.

I don’t know that he’s carrying me back to the bed until I feel the mattress on the backs of my calves. With one arm still around me, he uses his free hand to unzip my dress and unhook my bra while still devouring my lips. I taste the cider and rum on his tongue as it explores my mouth and I wonder if it’s him or the alcohol that’s ravishing me right now.

Truth is, my body’s so on fire that I don’t care.

He lays me down and guides us so that we’re lying properly on the bed, finally breaking the kiss. Still hovering over me, his mouth moves to my neck again and his hands push my dress and bra slowly off my shoulders. As his mouth plants open kisses on my shoulder, my dress and bra travel further down my arms. I’m doing the best that I can not to breathe like a bear, but his lips against my skin is sending shivers all over me.

The further down my body the dress moves, the further down his lips travel—my neck, my chest… Once my dress is far enough down my arms, my eager nipples pop free from my bra, taut from arousal and incredibly swollen with milk since I haven’t pumped since before I got dressed. He zeroes in on them immediately, laving them gently with his tongue, then taking them into his mouth and sucking hard, first one and then the other, before releasing them with a sensual pop.

I’m squirming underneath him, so hot that I could just combust right here and now. He moves further down my body—my clothes and his mouth. When my hands are free, he tosses my bra onto the floor and continues the journey down my body. I don’t know what to do with my hands now that they’re free, but I want to touch him. So, I thrust my hands into his hair as he continues to shower my breast, chest, and torso with kisses.

When he gets to my hips, he slides his hands into my panties so that he’s able to remove my underwear, pantyhose, and dress from my hips all at the same time. Before he frees me from my pantyhose and underwear, he opens his mouth over my covered crotch and breathes three long, hot breaths over my panty-clad core. I’m nearly crawling out of my skin with need now, and he slowly and tortuously slides my clothes down to my calves.

He removes my dress first and tosses it on the floor. Then he takes off my stilettos, one by one before sliding my panties and my stocking first off one foot and then the other. He stands at the foot of the bed just looking at me, his hungry gray eyes roaming from my feet all the way up to my starving blues. His lips are parted and his breathing his heavy but controlled. Stop tormenting me, man!

He’s looking me in my eyes, staring at me as he sensually unbuttons his shirt. There’s no playfulness in his eyes as he strips for me. He’s serious, and he wants me.

He’s stepping from foot to foot as he undoes his cufflinks and at first, I think he’s growing anxious. I realize that he’s toeing out of his shoes and using his feet to remove alternative socks. His eyes still haven’t left mine when his cufflinks fall carelessly from his hands onto the floor and he peels out of his shirt. His chest is broad… so broad! I know that it always has been, but it’s broader than I remember. Has it been that long… or am I just that hot?

After dropping his shirt to the floor with his cufflinks, he undoes his belt, then the button and fly of his pants. Grasping the waistband of his slacks and boxer briefs, he slides them both off his hips then stands before me. His beautiful abs, muscular thighs, and semi-hard erection all look fucking glorious.

Shit! My mouth is watering.

He climbs onto the bed and crawls to me. He lifts my foot to his mouth and sucks my toe hard. My first thought is, “Wait… I haven’t showered and I’ve been on my feet all day!” but he has no regard for that. He sensually feasts on each toe, finishing by running his thumbnail firmly down my instep. I gasp and attempt to crawl away, but he has a firm grasp on my foot and ankle. I drop my head back and take in a deep breath.

When I bring my gaze back to his, he’s crawling further up the bed. My leg is over his shoulder now and he’s parting my thighs, but my other leg is underneath him. He settles between my legs and begins to kiss my thighs, softly, alternating between lips, pecks, and open-mouthed kisses like he did with my body. I groan inside because he has me in a somewhat immobile position and I want him. God, I want him now!

His mouth moves quickly to my outer lips, then my inner lips. Just as his tongue teases right around my clit, I reach down and caress his hair once more. As if he was waiting for me to do that, he grasps each of my wrists and pins them to the bed on either side of me, becoming human shackles.

I’m completely immobile… and this is fucking hot.

Using his mouth to open my lips, his tongue laves deliciously over my clit. I feel the texture and massage of his tongue coupled with the hot air of his breath and I sink into the pleasure. He suckles my clit then laves it again and I feel my chest flutter. I gasp twice, trying to adjust to the manipulation. God, it seems like it was so long ago when he last touched me. It wasn’t that long was it?

His lips close over my clit, and when I look down at him, I see his head moving, sensually rotating between my legs and he concentrates on feasting on my clit. Happily resolved to my fate, I drop my head onto the pillow and close my eyes, concentrating on the rhythm and heat of his mouth.

I can move nothing but my head with my wrists locked down on the bed by his strong hands and half my lower body pinned down by his chest. He knows this. He wanted me immobile. I can do nothing but absorb the pleasure that his tongue and mouth is bringing to my aching, hungry core and he knows that. I’m rising fast and with his rhythm, I’m sure that’s his intention.

As my breath intensifies and I’m getting closer and closer to climax, he releases my wrists and moves his hands up my body, clasping them both over my swollen breast, pinching one nipple firmly while flicking and massaging the other. I gasp quietly at the pleasure and revel in the joy of being able to thrust my fingers into his hair again.

He consumes my pussy with just enough firmness—not too gentle and not too intense—to cause a steady rise from the first lick to now. His massage of my breast is just enough additional stimulation to cause that delicious rumble and tightening in my pelvis. My clit is hardening, and I can feel it against the rough texture and sensual, exquisite rolling of his tongue. I try very hard not to grind into his mouth because I don’t want him to change this perfect rhythm, but I can barely move anyway.

Trying to hold my body still only intensifies the sensation, and I jerk once involuntarily against his mouth. He doesn’t change his rhythm, but he grips my breasts a little tighter, squeezing the nipple with his thumb and forefinger, and with the flick of his thumb across the moisture of the other nipple, I come magnificently in his mouth. I grab his hair with one hand, the sheets with the other and pushing my breasts into his hand and my pelvis into his mouth, I release an animal groan that has been trapped in my soul for a week.

God, it feels so good, and yet he’s so controlled in pulling it out of me, doing only what’s necessary to prolong the orgasm to the very last burn until I have to beg him to stop. Even then, he licks the outside of my lips, the area in the crease of my pelvis, the tender skin of my inner thigh—still tormenting me as I struggle not to squirm too much underneath him.

I’m spent, but he’s just getting started, slowly moving up my body once more, taking big mouthfuls of my skin as he rises—my mons, my navel, my stomach, my breasts… again. God, this man is too much for me. I can’t resist him.

He positions himself between my thighs with one of my legs on his hip, and he grinds into me, against me, the length of his penis rubbing against my tender clit. Jesus, it hurts, and it feels good. It’s now that I wish I had pulled these damn pins out of my hair because a few of them are now stabbing me in my scalp. I turn my head to give myself some relief from the constant jabbing and concentrate more on the jabbing in my nether regions.

He’s propped up in his elbows and I can feel his breath on my jaws, his cock stroking against me, up and down, up and down, up and down. On his downstroke, he nips my jaw and adjusts his hips so that with his next upstroke, his head breaches my opening. I take a deep breath as I feel him concentrating on his cock, pushing it deeper into my resisting cunt. When he forces it into me in the final thrust, I gasp, and he groans deep in his chest. He doesn’t move for a moment, running his hands down either side of my body until they reach my hips.

Dear God, I’m doomed.

He pulls out once, then thrusts again, slowly, and I instinctively turn to face him, but turn away again when the pins stab me in the back of the head. A few seconds later, he rolls us both onto our side, my leg still wrapped around his hip and his dick still hard and deep inside of me. One of his legs is bent and between mine, holding my leg open and over his hip. The arm that’s under my body is holding me firmly against him, his hand flat in the small of my back, his fingertips splayed across the top of my ass.

And he’s stroking into me, slow and deep. I’m at an angle where I can feel him against every wall of me, and it feels wonderful! I try to look at him, but I can’t help but close my eyes and get lost in the sensation of him inside of me, all over me, loving me.

With his free hand, he caresses my scalp, and with every stroke, his fingers search… stroke and search, stroke and search, stroke and search. I’m well on my way to my climb to Nirvana when I realize that with the mesmerizing rhythm of his fingers and his hips, he’s pulling the pins from my hair, one by one. I pay attention to one particularly worrisome pen leaving my hair and I feel him gently flick it to parts unknown behind me—probably on the floor—and even though I wasn’t laying on it, I feel the relief once it’s been removed. Now, he’s massaging my scalp where the pins were, and the relief feels orgasmic all by itself. Coupled with the burning and increasing pleasure in my pelvis, I feel like I’m going to lose my damn mind.

Once the last pin is out, he runs his fingers through my hair to make sure that he hasn’t missed any. When he’s certain that he’s removed every single pin, he rolls me over onto my back again and swivels his hips to gain maximum penetration and leverage. I gasp at the deepness, and I know that I’ll be coming very soon. He buries his face in my neck and grasps both my hands, pinning them to the bed with his fingers entwined in mine.

And then he begins to move… really move.

He’s squeezing my hands tight as he grinds deep into me, the thrust of his hips causing my body to push up on the bed slightly with every stroke. My core is on fire and he just keeps pushing and pushing, his mouth licking, sucking, and kissing wherever it’ll reach. His hunger and need are consuming me, and his masterful ministrations are more than my starving pussy can withstand.

“Christian!” I gasp as I feel my thighs tighten and my stomach begin to tense.

“Come for me!” he breathes sensually.

His voice triggers my passion and before I know it, I’m spiraling and floating in another hot and heady orgasm. My breath is taken away and although every muscle clenches with untold pleasure, I can only get gasps and whimpers out of my throat and chest.

“Ah! God! Yes!” I hear his muffled voice exclaim painfully as his hips press forcefully into mine and his body stiffens. I feel his cock pulsing inside of me as he comes, and his grip on my hands tightens immensely. The squeezing hurts a little, but I’m fighting more with catching my breath than freeing my hands.

I feel him jerk a time or two, his breath ragged, and he loosens his grip on my hands. Thank God. I’m still having problems catching my breath when he lifts his head and looks at me. He brushes the hair away from my eyes, the holds my face in both his hands, planting tender kisses on my lips, over and over again.

*-*

We’ve finally calmed after several minutes, and I’m lying on his chest in post-coital bliss, sleepy and content but no longer exhausted. He’s gently caressing my hair and my arm, and I’m enjoying a closeness that we haven’t shared for at least a week.

“This might not be the right moment to ask this,” he says softly, “but I have to know. Whatever made you think that I would want another sub—anybody else but you?”

I sigh heavily. I knew this was coming. I might as well tell him the truth.

“I dreamed about Elena,” I reply, my voice small. “The conversation that she had with me at your parents’ house. She told me that you would bore of me, that you would want what you had before. She told me that I was no more than #16, and that when you were done playing with me that you would go back to the way that you were. And that same day, you told me that you were thinking about the way things used to be. The timing was too much.” He sighs, and I can tell he’s frustrated.

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” he accuses. “I’ve been thinking that you thought I would randomly run into another woman’s arms and all this time, you’ve been haunted by a dream?” I raise my gaze to him.

“Do you see how ridiculous it sounds coming out of your mouth?” I ask. “How do you think I felt with it running around in my head? With me letting it come out of my mouth the way that it did? You’ve awakened me screaming from bad dreams more than once, but the monsters of my past have been the unwelcome companions of my nights more times than you know. Who do you tell about nightmares? ‘Hey, yo, Doc, I’ve been having bad dreams. Can you give me something for that?’” He shakes his head and presses me down onto his chest again.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” he says. “Your sensitivity is one of the reasons I love you so much, but one day, I swear it’s going to drive you to an early grave.”

I know he’s right. I try to channel the negative energy so that it doesn’t turn into the Boogeyman again, but I couldn’t help it. Having him be the asshole and barely spending time with me or his kids just exacerbated my concerns.

“I’m not being sensitive about this week, though, Christian,” I point out. “The only reason I knew you were alive is because I didn’t get the next of kin notification.”

“I know, I know, but it was a really shitty week,” he excuses.

“Yeah, tell me about it!” I quip sarcastically. He looks at me.

“From the looks of things, you were having a great time,” he says without malice. I raise up onto my arms and glare at him.

“There’s a life-sized infant Messiah at my gate,” I begin. “The Jolly Green Giant dropped his tree trimmings at my portico and Frosty the Snowman shit glow balls in my backyard. My boathouse is so bright that it could literally lead the three wise men to the promised land. There’s a generator keeping the dock illuminated to alert passing ships that there’s ‘Land ho!’ I’ve single-handedly eliminated the rainforest for the Christmas trees, and I’ve baked enough cookies to feed the island of Cuba.

“Decembertime ejaculated all over my entire one-trillion-square-foot house! Google satellite picked up my house and had to turn away to refocus. The only thing I left out was ice-skaters in the infinity pool. This all occurred in less than three days—do you consider this normal?”

“Um, no,” he says, “when you put it that way… But really, the house is beautiful. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that you went overboard. Well, not the first… Elliot wouldn’t let me live it down, but I think it was overboard in a good way. The Mice are walking or trying to walk, and they had a great Christmas—you may have to give up your yoga room sooner than you thought because they got a whole lotta shit from every direction. The cookies were phenomenal. What are you going to do with all those damn cookies?”

“I’m giving a lot of them away,” I admit. “Don’t worry, I’ve hidden about five dozen of your beloved chocolate chip pecan.”

“On top of what was displayed?” he asks. I nod. “Well, then, I think I have about seven dozen, then.” I raise my gaze to him again.

“You hid more,” I accuse. He nods.

“Yep,” he confesses. I just laugh.

“Figures,” I reply. We’re silent for a moment.

“We didn’t get to exchange gifts for Christmas Eve,” he says. I sink into his chest a bit.

“No, we didn’t,” I say, lamenting that we missed our tradition.

“I can tell you what I got you… if you want.” I look up at him again.

“If you want,” I reply.

“It’s hard to get someone a gift who already has everything, so I got you the same thing I did last year,” he says. “Come hell or high water, we’re going to Italy next year. I’m having the house prepared for our vacation, and you can change anything you like when you get there. We couldn’t go this year because of my grandfather’s death, and I’m certain that you weren’t ready to leave the twins so soon.”

“I’m still feeling nervous about leaving them,” I say. “Maybe it’s because we just got back from Australia.”

“Well, not to worry,” he replies. “We’ll be spending a little time in Italy alone, and then the twins and some of the family will join us.” I smile widely.

“I think that’s a wonderful and thoughtful idea,” I say throwing both my legs over his body. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he says, kissing me gently. He gazes into my eyes and his kisses become purposeful—tender, but a bit more intense.

“This is what I miss the most when we’re apart,” he breathes between kisses. “Kissing you… tasting your mouth and your skin…”

This is what you miss the most?” I ask, surprised. He pulls his face back so that his eyes meet mine.

“Yes,” he says, his eyes a piercing gray, “and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I’m doing it wrong.”

He sits up with me in his arms and dips me so that I’m cradled in one arm. He cups my cheek with his free hand and covers my mouth with his. His kiss is gentle, but probing… coaxing, so that my mouth automatically does what he beckons. His tongue does a gentle exploration of every crevice of my mouth, stopping to engage mine every so often. His lips knead mine at just the right firmness to make me want more… and more.

His hand pushes back into my hair, and now he’s peppering my lips with wet, licking kisses that feed my arousal. I try to reach for his hair only to find that it’s awkward and slightly out of my reach, so I grasp onto his bulging bicep, which only fuels my arousal even more. His breathing is controlled—like he’s running a marathon and he’s trying to conserve his breath.

I, on the other hand, am puffing like a fucking freight train.

His wet, licking kisses turn into soft, probing tastes of my lips and tongue again and his hand moves from my cheek to around my back, trapping me against his body. His lips meld to mine in that manner that takes my breath and now, I can grasp his hair. I have to… I feel like I’m going to faint.

My body is ablaze, and I feel like my skin is crawling… no, tingling… tingling all over. He’s still only kissing me—only kissing me, that’s an understatement—but my pussy is burning like a fucking forest fire. I’m trying to control my thoughts, trying not to be such a hopeless, horny little nymph, but when he releases a soft, short moan into my mouth, I can’t even think anymore.

I whimper as my body explodes with need and he responds by pressing me harder against him. His lips continue their sensual massage and now, his tongue starts a rhythm against mine that’s a lot like what he does on my clit.

He’s tasting me. He’s really tasting me.

I’m a ball of hot, horny mush now as he literally goes down on my mouth, making my clit jealous… and sensitive… more sensitive by the second, in fact. I try not to squirm in his arms, but my attempt at control is only making it much worse. Each lick, each rhythmic and skillful pass of his tongue against mine is causing a fire down below that I can’t explain or quench. I feel his erection growing against my hip and the combination of thoughts of all these things collides with the licking and licking and licking inside of my mouth…

… And the burn starts.

I don’t know how it started on its own and I don’t care, I squeeze my thighs together and almost instantly, my clit bursts into a fantastic clitoral orgasm. I moan into his mouth and he continues his rhythmic licking kiss, this time, his erection grinding into my hip, getting harder and harder and demanding to be acknowledged. I fucking can’t breathe as this orgasm burns through my core and makes me light-headed. As I begin to come down from it, his licking kisses become soft, peppered pecks against my mouth.

“You naughty, dirty girl,” he says, impishly against my lips. “You came.” And he descends upon me again.


CHRISTIAN

I’m awake before I really want to be. Getting out of bed early to turn on the asshole means that I’m on an early-to-rise schedule that I can’t really turn off even when I don’t plan on going in to work. We had one more orgasm after I showed her the meaning of “what I miss most when we’re apart…” Well, she had two if you consider the one that she had in my lap. I assume that she won’t be fit for anymore sex for a couple of days, but if she is, I’ll certainly be ready.

She lays on my arm with her hair sprawled across the bed behind her and I just stare at her. I adore her. I hate it when she hurts. She and the twins are my whole life, but lately, I haven’t really had the chance to show them what they mean to me with the fucking incompetence running through my company. These people have never been as lackadaisical as they are right now, and I know it’s my fault because I really have gone soft on them.

My arm is asleep, but I’m not moving. I could sit here and gaze at her in wonder all fucking day. She turned our house into a winter wonderland for our twins and most likely, for herself, too. She baked all those damn cookies and even came up with new ones that were absolutely fantastic! God, I wish she had any idea how much she means to me.

And her dreams. Fuck, I can’t even argue. I know only too well how it feels to be haunted by night phantoms. Years and years of therapy didn’t make them go away. The only thing that chased them away was…

Her.

I really should have made more effort to see her this week, to talk to her, I was just so distracted…

I lay in the bed for I don’t know how long just pondering all the clusterfucks going on at GEH and gazing at her at the same time, thanking God that she belongs to me and that she hasn’t opted to just get off this crazy Grey ride and run for the hills. I’m so lost in her beauty and her splendor that I don’t even recall when she opened her eyes and began returning my gaze, but she’s staring at me now. I brush stray hair from her face and push it behind her ears.

“Did I wake you?” I ask. She shakes her head.

“What time is it?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I reply honestly, still tracing her face with my fingers. She stretches her neck.

“Is your arm asleep?” she asks. I nod.

“Um-hmm,” I confess. She lifts herself slightly and I stretch my arm, getting the blood to circulate again. She moves around a bit and she looks a little stiff.

“Would you like a massage?” I ask. She nods.

“My neck,” she says, worrying one side just above her shoulder.

“Turn over,” I say. She raises a brow at me.

“You’re not going to launch a sneak-attack on me, are you?” she asks. I chuckle.

“Not unless you want me to,” I say with mirth. She turns over and I move behind her, careful not to put my weight on her. She’s right—when I touch her neck in that spot, the muscle feels like a knot.

“Arms down, relax,” I instruct her. When she obeys, I begin to work the knot out of her neck and shoulder. You would think I did launch a sneak attack on her the way that she’s moaning right now. If I didn’t have a larger task at hand, that’s probably what I would be doing right now with all the orgasmic sounds she’s making.

“Is that better?” I say, kissing her shoulder once I feel that the knot is gone.

“Much,” she says, stretching and rolling her head around. When I get off her back, she turns over to look at me. “So… GEH…” She trails off and I sigh.

“Yeah,” I lament. “It’s in bad shape—not comparatively when you look at other companies, but comparative when you look at where we were five years ago. It’s in such a state of disarray.”

“Things change, Christian,” she says, sitting up and taking the sheets with her. “You changed. Of course, the company would change, too.”

“I know,” I say, recalling everyone’s accusation that I’ve gone soft. “I don’t even recognize the place anymore,” I say, leaning on my elbow, “and it doesn’t help that Ros chose now to take a vacation.”

“Yeah, how convenient of her to choose to take an impromptu vacation right at that crucial moment when shit hits the fan,” she quips. I sigh.

“I can’t discipline her for taking a vacation,” I inform my wife. “She never takes a vacation…”

“But we both know there was a message here,” she interrupts me, “and the moment that she feels that her message is louder than yours, you’ve officially lost control.”

I hate to admit it, but she’s right… and dammit, why does she have that sheet over her beautiful breasts?

“I’m going to give you a little lesson in basic business management, husband. You know a whole lot about business obviously, but there’s something that you’re missing.” She adjusts herself on the bed, and she’s still covering those gorgeous mounds.

“You didn’t finish college—obviously because you didn’t need to, but there’s one class you should have taken before you dropped out and that’s Management 101. You missed some crucial points that you need right now. There is a problem, and it is your fault, but not for the reasons that you’re thinking.” I raise a brow. Now she has my attention

“Elaborate.”

“You see apathy and a lack of control. You see sloppiness and a clear disregard for authority. But Christian, this didn’t just start yesterday. This didn’t just start last month. How long has this been going on, do you even know? Can you even determine that, or would it take a whole other audit to tell you when that happened? These people stopped caring and became sloppy a long time ago. You just didn’t see it until now and even then, somebody outside of your company had to bring it to your attention.

“What happens when the iron fist stops banging, because believe me, you cannot maintain the iron fist and live the life that you have become accustomed to with your wife and family. So, what happens when the pendulum stops swinging—everybody goes back to the same old schedule of fucking up?

“You no longer have the control of the fear that you wielded once before. You still have the respect, but not the fear, because they’ve seen that there can be a kinder, gentler you. You went from being Gordon Gekko to the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man, and now you’re going back to being Gekko and a lot of them are not buying it. How else would you explain employees in a zero-tolerance environment in an at-will state partaking in recreational drugs?”

Shit, now even my wife is saying that I’m soft.

“You can’t be everywhere all the time, but your presence needs to be. It was before, but I don’t think you’re going to get that kind of control back unless you want to lose the person that you are now in other areas of your life.”

I know what she’s getting at. I know she would never make me choose between my family and my business, but there’s a huge rift in progress here, and I don’t know how to deal with it besides taking a bite out of people’s asses.

“It’s the only thing they understand, Ana,” I tell her. “They don’t see the dangers of the situation unless you put it right in their faces and threaten their livelihood. The only fire they feel under them is the complete loss of their livelihood.”

“And to some degree, they need to feel that, but by the time they feel that, it’s not a burn. It’s consuming! You’re firing people, shit’s not getting done, you’re back at square one in a lot of areas and what does that do? This is something that needs to be caught in the bud, not when the bud becomes a branch and is sprouting leaves. This review that you’re doing shouldn’t be done when you see a problem. Your current method of annual reviews is not working.”

“Okay, I’m listening… and why are you covering your breasts?” I ask.

“Because they’ll distract you,” she replies matter-of-factly.

“No, they won’t,” I protest.

Yes, they will,” she points out. “It’s distracting to you now that I’m covering up.”

I twist my lips. Busted.

“Duly noted. Continue.” She crosses her legs lotus-style under the sheets before continuing.

“This problem shouldn’t be presenting itself to you for solving only when the problem pops up. The annual evaluations that you’re using right now aren’t working. The company should be going through company-wide evaluations every six months, and you shouldn’t be the one doing them. They should be evaluating themselves and telling you why they should keep their jobs. They should not only be showing you in productivity, but they should also be showing you in performance and they should be telling you why they should be allowed to stay in the positions they currently hold.

“There should be at least a mid-year evaluation and a year-end evaluation and if they fail these evaluations, then their jobs are in jeopardy, like a probationary employee to see if they can improve their performance. There needs to be a guideline or bar set so that they can meet that bar, or they’re probationary and if they can’t improve significantly to keep their job, then they get let go. This way, you see the problems as they begin, not when they’re nearly out of control.

“Right now, you’re saying that the problem lies primarily with the department heads, and actually, it does. But know this, Christian—shit may roll downhill, but the smell rises. If department heads were motivating the people in the trenches to do what they needed to do, you wouldn’t have half the problems that you have right now. You don’t just have shitty department heads. You have shitty people in the trenches, too, because trust me—they’ll do whatever you allow them to get away with. And if I’m wrong about that and you have untapped talent in the trenches, then apparently, somebody’s not paying attention.

“You must have a system of making everyone accountable that doesn’t involve you having to come in a roll heads every year. That’s not your job. You put other people in place to do that, and they need to be doing it. There needs to be feedback on every level, and the people in the trenches need to have a voice because they can most likely pinpoint most of your problems faster than your spreadsheets.

“If you want to have your hands on the pulse of what’s going on at the heart of the company, you should be seeing weekly or monthly production reports and comparing those trends with the ones from before. The evaluations that you see from the bottom-up should match the production that you see in those reports and if you don’t, that’s when the hammer falls. By the time you see a problem, it has gone from a spark in the basement to damn near a nuclear explosion. You need to be finding these things when they spark… or at least before the plutonium is added.”

“Okay, wait, things are bad, but don’t you think you might be just a tad dramatic?” A look of sheer horror comes across my wife’s face.

“Hmmm, let’s consider the evidence!” she says a bit angrily, and the sheet falls as she begins counting on her fingers.

Titties!!
Shit! Pay attention, Grey.

“A hacker got in and moved millions of dollars from your account. You almost didn’t find out until the money started moving. Over a year later, the program that basically saved your company is still on a shelf.

“My background check on a bitch trying to fuck you was the catalyst for the drug tests that sniffed out… how many people actively using drugs in your company?” Damn… the count is now up to…

“Twelve,” I mutter.

“An ‘outsider’ came in three times and pointed out something that was going on in your company that initiated full-blown ass-raking sessions…”

“Wait a minute, three times? Three times where?”

“The XRC90 transmitter…” she’s counting on her fingers again, “the fact that SEEKNID was still sitting on the shelf, and the Mole—which damn near indirectly cost my life, by the way!”

Fuck! This shit is starting to sting.

“Okay, okay… I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Calm down, please.” I put my hands on her arms and try to calm her. She’s getting so upset that her lovely, plump breasts aren’t even the slightest distraction right now. She takes a deep breath and releases it.

“I don’t want to spend the entire day talking about GEH,” she says. “We have guests in the house, I never did get that shower that I wanted last night, and my breasts feel like they’re about to explode!” She grabs her oh, so swollen breasts and milk sprays out of one of them.

“See?” she says, petulantly.

“Okay, I’ll make you a deal,” I say, moving closer to her. “You pump, because I know you need some instant relief and as much as I would like to, I don’t think I can supply that much relief this morning. While you do that, I’ll run us a bath. We can relax, I can clean you up and help ease some of the stress off of you and then we can enjoy our day with our guest and our family. Deal?”

She sticks her lips out in the most adorable little pout. I can tell that she still has fight in her, but no reason to fight.

“Deal,” she acquiesces. I kiss her pouty lip and get out of bed to start our bath.

I’m going to pick her brain a bit more about her Management 101 ideas. Sometimes, the best advice comes from someone who’s not in the fire with you… an outsider, she called herself. I hate that she feels that way. Maybe she’s referring to her position when she discovered the things that she found, but she wasn’t an outsider when she found the flaw in the XRC90 transmitter. She was half owner of the company then.

And Ros. Fucking Ros. What possible message could she be trying to send to me at this point? She’s been my second in command for years. She knows how important she is to the business. We’ve bumped heads more than once, but now she decides to just take off, not only at Christmas, but right when the fire begins to blaze the highest. What the fuck is she playing at and why the fuck is she choosing to play now?

And will my wife be okay?

We kind of discussed why she felt the need to go Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Edition all over the mansion—which took a lot of fucking work, by the way—but did we dig the core out of the problem or just kind of brush over it a bit? I discover that I’m probably the last to learn that she’s not seeing Ace anymore, at least not weekly, so who does she talk to about this shit?

And Green Valley. Fuck, Green Valley. The trials are coming. It’s really beginning. How many fucking times are we going to have to fly to Vegas for her to go through this every time one of those fuckers goes on trial? She’s going to have to relive this shit over and over again and I don’t think either of us considered that when we started this crusade. It’s almost a blessing for two of those fuckers to have taken a plea and at this point, I’m beginning to wish that the rest of them would, too…

But Butterfly wants her day in court. She wants her voice to finally be heard and no one can deny her that. I can only hope to God that I don’t fucking murder these assholes with my bare hands when I see them. And I swear to God, none of them better get off easy, or I’m going to track them down myself and do the world a fucking favor.


EPILOGUE

What in the hell is happening?

Absolutely nothing is going how I planned. There’s so much that needs to be done before the book is ready to print and I can’t get in touch with anybody or get anything done!

I haven’t gotten any of my phone calls.

I can’t write any letters.

I haven’t seen Greta in over a week.

My cell was raided and all the creature comforts that I did have were taken away.

One of those fucking reporters leaked too much of the damn story too damn soon. There’s so much damn speculation that by the time the book comes out, I don’t even know how effective it’ll be.

And Tier Time has become hazardous to my health once again! I was somewhat protected. Now, it seems like it’s open season!

Last week during breakfast, I got caught up in a fight that had absolutely nothing to do with me. Two women got into a brawl, I got physically pulled into the fight, and it seems like they were swinging at me more than they were swinging at each other! I’m still sporting a shiner from that one.

And before I even healed from that altercation, I had an unfortunate encounter with a flight of stairs.

“Hey, Baby Fucker, remember me?”

No, I don’t remember you! I didn’t even fucking see who you were! That’s all I heard before I went tumbling down the stairs—metal stairs, in fact! It’s a wonder I didn’t break my fucking neck!

Now, I’m in the infirmary in excruciating fucking pain from a sprained ankle. I’m lucky that’s all I got, but they won’t even give me pain killers. I’m not a fucking drug addict! Why can’t I have something to dull this pain?

Every time I ask for Ron, they laugh at me and ignore my request.

I’ve been cut off from everything I had access to before and nobody’s listening to me. What the fu…

No Greta…
No Ron…
No letters…
No calls…
No protection…
Details have been leaked…
And they’re calling me “Baby Fucker” again…

Baby Fucker…

Oh, fuck!


A/N: Gordon Gekko is a fictional character from the Wall Street franchise—Wall Street in 1987 and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in 2010. Gekko is famous for the phrase, “Greed is good.” This fictional character was a corporate raider and the perfect “corporate psychopath.” Michael Douglas won an Oscar for the role that he played so well that many people, agencies, and governments blamed Gekko for several financial crises for 20 years after the film first aired. At the 2008 UN General Assembly, Douglas had to “check” a reporter for calling him “Gordon.”

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Raising Grey: Chapter 93—Holy Yuletide, Batman!

One more chapter after this one…

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 93—Holy Yuletide, Batman!

CHRISTIAN

The last few days have been a damn nightmare.

Try though I might, I couldn’t get out of the office before 7pm because there was always a fire to put out.

Four of my department heads will bring in the New Year unemployed because, as I have discovered, two of them failed the drug tests and the other two are completely incompetent. The latter were part of the dismal audits that I conducted this week and I hadn’t even gotten to the former two departments yet. After having to move assistant department heads up to department heads, I now have to give them some time to figure out what’s happening in the department before I can rake anyone across the coals. The problem is, do I focus on them now while I have the chance to influence the progress and performance of the new department heads or do I give them an opportunity to acclimate?

Lorenz and I are up to our fucking nostrils in year-end bullshit and these inadequate, incapable ass leaders I’m supposed to have, and Rosalind has decided to teach me a fucking lesson by leaving me hanging right at the fucking holidays! Wait until her haughty ass comes back and finds out that 12 of our employees—two of them, department heads—had to be dismissed for testing positive for controlled substances. I don’t know how yet, but I’m going to find some way to make her pay for her actions.

My entire body felt like a taut rubber band at the end of the day. I had only planned to work until about noon since it was Christmas Eve, but catastrophe after catastrophe kept landing in my lap. The only good news I got involved another Elena Lincoln mishap, and the story about Holstein being rushed to the hospital with bubble gut after consuming our delivery of champagne. I’m so ready for the serenity of my sanctuary, but the moment we approach the driveway, the only thing I can think is…

What the fuck is this?

I was certain that we had the wrong address. I know that no other houses on the street look like mine, but this is crazy. This can’t be my house! I know that I’ve been preoccupied with what’s been happening at GEH, but I couldn’t have been this obtuse to what was going on in my own home.

When I finally get a good look at everything that has happened in this place, I don’t recognize my own home. It’s like Santa’s elves came in and vomited all over the joint. Sparkles and lights and bulbs and garlands and candy canes and pinecones everywhere! When the fuck did she ever find time to do all this??

When she said she was preparing the house for Christmas, I had no idea it was going to come out looking like this! And she had to do it all before Maddie and Nelson got here! When exactly did Maddie and Nelson get here?

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! And I had better be careful with that exclamation, because they all appear to be on my front lawn!

It’s late once I finished a grueling workout to both work off the day and try to whip my ass into shape before seeing Claude this weekend. I go to my office and finish up the last of some work before the holiday, then I head towards the elevator.

“I thought you would already be in bed,” Chuck says as I run into him and his father in the community area on the sofa.

“I’m on my way up now,” I say walking over to them. “Nelson, it’s good to see you again,” I say extending my hand.

“Likewise, young man,” he says, giving my hand a firm shake. “Long day?”

“Extremely long,” I lament, and he chuckles a bit.

“Don’t work too hard, son,” he cautions. “It’s worth nothing if you forget what you’re working for.” I hear ya, but this company ain’t gonna run itself.

“You two smell like… food,” I say, Chuck laughs.

“Your wife had us smoking meat in the barbeque kitchen,” he says, and I frown.

“You’re a guest!” I say to Nelson. He laughs heartily.

“When Momma says we’re helping with the meal, we’re helping with the meal. The only other option was bakin’. I aint no baker, Christian,” Nelson says with mirth.

“But smoked meat can be eaten any day of the week,” Chuck adds. “And with three turkeys and two hams, something had to be smoked.”

“Three turkeys?” I exclaim. “Who all is coming to my house?”

“From what I understand, the guest list is somewhere between 30 and 50,” he says calmly.

“You gotta be kiddin’,” I say. He shakes his head. “Is the party going to be down here?” I ask, observing all the decorations.

“I would venture to say that the party is going to be all over the house,” Chuck informs me. I frown.

“The rest of the house looks like this?” I say, pointing to the elaborately decorated Christmas tree. Chuck does this strange, knowing laugh.

“I’ll just say this,” he begins, “when she first said, ‘seven Christmas trees,’ I thought was a joke.”

“Seven!?” I exclaim, my eyes wide. “Seven fucking trees??” Nelson snickers again.

“Oh, boy, are you in for a surprise,” he says. “Go over to the French doors and just take a look into the backyard.”

I go over to the French doors and motherfucking hell… my backyard looks like daylight. They can probably see this shit from outer space.

“Oh, God,” I lament. Nelson sighs.

“You have been working too hard if you haven’t seen this, son,” he says. “Go take a walk around your house.”

“The walk is going to have to wait until tomorrow. I’m exhausted,” I confess. “Goodnight, gentlemen.”

They say goodnight and they fall back into their conversation. Afraid of what I may see on the first floor, I take the elevator straight upstairs like I do most nights and go straight to our bedroom.

Butterfly has fallen into what I can clearly see is one of the deepest sleeps ever. I’m sure to be right behind her, but…

This room is cold!

I get a fire going in the fireplace and quickly change into my pajamas. Did she know it was this cold when she came to bed? Is that why she’s wearing flannel?

I climb into bed next to her and I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow.

It’s daylight when I open my eyes again. This is the first time I remember it being daylight when I awoke in several days. I’m in the same position that I was when I fell asleep. I look over at Butterfly, and she looks like she hasn’t moved either—maybe adjusted her head, because her hair has fallen over her face now. I brush the strands behind her ears and just gaze at her for a moment.

She looks unbelievably peaceful—absolutely no clue of the hell breaking loose at our empire, and apparently going absolutely crazy with decorations around the Crossing. I’ll take a look at them, but for right now, I need to stretch my legs and get my blood pumping.

“Nice of you to join us, Bro,” Elliot says as I program the treadmill next to him. “Didn’t you work out last night?”

“Yeah, but I always do a short one in the morning, too,” I say as I find my pace. “My trainer beat my ass last week and now he’s giving me shit.”

“Does that mean that I don’t have to arm-wrestle you for those pecan goodies this year?” he asks, bringing the treadmill into a cooldown pace.

“Dream on,” I chuckle. “I’m hoping my wife put some away for me.” Elliot laughs.

“You’ve got jokes,” he says. I pound on the treadmill for 15 minutes, just enough to get the blood pumping, then I go into my own cooldown.

“What did you mean by that?” I ask as I walk at a brisk pace.

“By what?” he says, drying his face and stepping off the machine.

“By that crack, you’ve got jokes. Did you eat all the damn cookies?” He laughs again.

“Cut it out, man,” he says as he cracks open a cold water and takes several large swallows. “Honestly, bro, there was just too much joy to the world going on in this house yesterday. I’ve never seen a giddier group of women in my entire life! I had to come out to the smoke session just to get a healthy dose of testosterone and cynicism!”

“Including Montana?” I ask, trying to gauge my wife’s mood.

Especially Montana!” he exclaims. “She was running around wearing a shirt with Santa Clauses all over it, literally barefoot in the kitchen. They nabbed my wife the minute she bent the corner and almost tried to recruit me until I escaped. I went to sleep and had nightmares about gingerbread men with all the cookies she baked.”

“She always bakes a lot of cookies at Christmas,” I point out. It means that I get those chocolate-pecan delights that I had to choke him for last year.

“No!” Elliot says, shaking his head. “No. No! You have no fucking idea, man!” I frown as I step off the treadmill.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask. He just glares at me as I dry the sweat from my brow. He grabs a cold water and tosses it to me.

“Hydrate, and come with me,” he says.

We walk to the elevator and I now notice cookies on surfaces that I don’t remember seeing them the night before. Those are my pecan goodies! How did I miss them? Is that what Chuck and Nelson were sitting there eating last night? Greedy bastards. I hope Butterfly put some away for me.

When the elevator gets to the first floor, I see that nearly every surface in the family room has a plate of cookies, and of course, there’s another Christmas tree, and more pine garland and bulbs and lights and bows and…

“Behold,” Elliot says, gesturing to the kitchen. The bar to the patio is covered with pastry boxes stacked high like bricks. There are cookie tins on a nearby table also stacked in a staggering pattern…

“Wha…” I can’t even get the words out of my mouth.

“Those are all full of cookies,” he says. “There are cookies in the pantry, and there are cookies all over the house. There are even cookies in the guestrooms—at least there were in mine and Val’s bedroom, so I’m only assuming they’re everywhere else.”

“Jesus!” I exclaim, looking around my kitchen.

“Oh, He’s here, too. He’s on the front lawn,” Elliot announces.

“I know,” I quip sarcastically. What the hell, she did all this in three fucking days! I walk through my Christmas Village kitchen into my even more Christmas Village dining room that now looks strikingly like a holiday banquet hall. Tables are already set for a Christmas feast so I’m not really sure what the plan for breakfast is supposed to be.

An individual Christmas stocking containing flatware graces each plate on the dining table and the accompanying tables that have been commandeered for our apparent Christmas feast. A huge platter big enough to hold a turkey sits in the center adorned with gingerbread people creatively holding candy canes.

How the hell do you bake a gingerbread man holding a damn candy cane? And do I see actual Christmas sweater cookies??

“There’s no way she did all this on her own,” I say.

“Oh, she had lots of help, but she was the ringleader,” Elliot assures me. “Dude, I checked on Angel several times throughout the afternoon and evening yesterday just to make sure that she and the baby were doing okay. I can personally guarantee you that nothing you consume today will be store-bought. Be not surprised if everything you sink your teeth into, Montana had a hand in it.”

“Even these?” I ask, picking up one of the gingerbread men.

“Even those,” he says. “I got to devour some of the pieces that didn’t make it… they’re fantastic, even better than Mom’s. They got chocolate in ‘em!”

Better than Mom’s? I love my Butterfly, but nobody makes gingerbread cookies better than Mom’s.

“Taste it,” he says, noting my skepticism. I bite the little guy’s leg and the flavor is delectable. It’s crunchy and airy and delicious!

“Those are the ones that have been sitting out to get what Montana calls the ginger ‘snap.’ Wait until you try one of the ones that have been sealed and are still moist. They’re fucking insane!”

Good Lord. I don’t know whether to be impressed or worried. I’m looking at this gingerbread man like he’s going to give me the answers and all I can hear him saying is, “Ouch!”

“I… take it from your silence that you weren’t in on all of this,” Elliot observes. I shake my head.

“No,” I say, flatly, still savoring the flavor of yet another confection my wife will have now introduced me to. Elliot is too silent for too long and I raise my gaze to him

“What?” I ask.

“Christian… I’m going to say something, and if it’s none of my business, you tell me to shut up and I’ll back off.” I nod and wait for him to finish.

“Is everything okay between you and Montana?” I sigh.

“I… I think so…” I don’t know that anything is particularly wrong.

“You think so?” he asks.

“Well, we had a disagreement this weekend, but…” I trail off.

“You squashed it?” Elliot asks. “Everything’s square now?”

Shit. I don’t think so.

“Well,” I say, “we didn’t see eye to eye on something, but we didn’t fight. It was just a difference of opinion. We said how we felt about it and then we dropped it, but… well, I’ve been working. There’s all kinds of crazy shit going on at GEH and… I haven’t really talked to her all week.” Elliot frowns.

“How can that be?” Elliot asks. “You still sleep together, don’t you?”

“Of course, we do!” I snap. “Every fucking night!”

“Then how is it that you…” He trails off. A look of realization dawns on his face.

“Out with it, Elliot,” I spit.

“I saw Jason last night, but I didn’t see you,” he observes. “I didn’t even see you at dinner and it was Christmas Eve. I didn’t see you until you came to the gym this morning, and I’m guessing that Montana doesn’t spend a lot of mornings in the gym.”

The accusing tone of his words make me feel defensive at first. I told him that my company is having problems. Butterfly knows that. What does he expect me to do right now?

His next words, however, are very sobering.

“Do you remember Mom’s episode?” he asks. “When Montana had to rush her to the hospital? Do you remember how she was acting before that happened—how irrational she was? Do you remember how insane Mia’s wedding was, and how more insane it would have been had she not cancelled half the shit Mom was doing?”

“Elliot, are you trying to tell me that my very youthful wife is perimenopausal?” I inquire.

“No,” he says, his tone serious. “But I am saying that if you can look at all of this and say that everything is okay, you got blinders on. This house looks fucking fantastic—for a woman who’s been planning for Christmas since Labor Day. Has she been?”

I bite the inside of my jaw but don’t answer.

“I don’t know how long it took her to do this, but we came to see you guys last week, this house didn’t look this way—not a bulb, not a light, not a piece of garland, not even a bare Christmas tree. What do you have, like five of them fully trimmed now?”

“Chuck says there’s seven,” I correct him. He twists his lips.

“Let me let you in on a little secret,” he says putting his arm around my shoulder. “If you knew exactly how many cookies she has in this house, you’d own stock in sugar right now…”

I probably do, but I’ll let him make his point.

“She made so many damn cookies that she could probably pass them out all over the greater Seattle area and you would still have enough of those pecan cluster things to last you until spring.”

Well, that’s comforting… and frightening.

“She pulled off something better than Martha Stewart and worthy of Architectural Digest and the Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Issue in less than a week and you didn’t even know it, so I’m venturing to say that she did it in just a few days. Can you really look at this—all of this—and say that this is normal? Because if you can, I’ll throw my tongue over my shoulder and shut the fuck up right now.”

I sigh heavily still looking at the gingerbread man with no foot.

“Have you seen these?” he asks, presenting another plate of cookies. My brow furrows.

“Mickey Mouse?” I say, looking at the spread of elaborate decorated mouse cookies. “I kind of get the Christmas sweaters, but why Mickey Mouse?”

“Um, maybe because you have two little Mouseketeers, and this is their first Christmas?” Elliot points out. “You do know that you have a candy-themed Christmas tree with a red polka-dot tree skirt that screams Minnie Mouse, right?”

Shit! Can I be that much of an asshole? It’s now that I realize that I did all of my Christmas shopping really early, but none of my gifts have been wrapped.

“Look, Bro, I’m not going to lecture you about how to be a husband. I’m still learning myself, and you’ve had more time at this than I have. But I am going to caution you to pull your head a little out of GEH and stick it a bit more into your family. There’s a whole lot going on here and you completely missed it. You love that company, but it’s not going to love you back, and it sure as hell ain’t gonna keep you warm at night or raise your children.” He pats me on my shoulder.

“Think about it,” he says. “I’m going to go shower and wake my Angel.” He brushes past me and heads towards the large staircase. Shit, I’ve got to go and wrap my gifts for my family and take a damn shower myself, and Elliot has given me quite a bit to think about, and I just realized…

There are cookies all over this damn house and none in my office or den.

I head to the elevator to my den to wrap my presents before everyone wakes, snagging a plate of those pecan clusters along the way.

*-*

I soon discover why the tables were set for dinner instead of breakfast. No one immerged until noon! What kind of festivities were going on in this house while my back was turned?

I’m able to get my presents wrapped before anyone sees me, but I don’t know which tree to put them under, so I just put them under the one in the family room. I hear activity in the kitchen and Christmas carols piping softly through the sound system, so I think it’s safe to say that the house is coming alive. I take the elevator up to the second floor and there’s still no activity. As I duck into my room, I hear laughing women in the nursery. I want to stick my head in, but I’m almost certain that the laughter will stop if I do, so I just go into my room.

Butterfly’s not here and she’s not in her shower, so I assume that she’s in the nursery with the twins. I fell in the bed too tired—and cold—to shower last night, so I start my shower and strip out of my workout clothes. When I step in, the water feels good beating on my head and back. I just stand there for a while and let it massage my scalp.

Jason was trying to tell me that something wasn’t right a few days ago. Now Elliot is telling me that Christmas Village is a blaring sign that something is wrong. I can’t confirm or deny either one because I haven’t really seen or spoken to my wife all week—not because I didn’t want to, but because there was so much on my mind that I didn’t want to dump it all on her. But now that I think about it, the last words that we really had was about her thinking I wanted another woman. We… haven’t talked since then.

I towel-dry my hair thoroughly when I get out of the shower. Something tells me that casual isn’t going to cut it today, but hell if I’m wearing a suit. So, I find a crisp pair of burgundy slacks and a two-textured black shirt with a pair of bespoke shoes. This will have to do. I’ll admit that the vigorous workouts must be doing me some good. My biceps and pecks look amazing! Then again, it could just be the shirt.

My family and various guests are mulling around eating hors d’oeuvres and sipping various beverages. Everybody’s not here yet, but those who have arrived have the same idea I do—no red-carpet garb, but don’t be a damn slouch. I walk over to Elliot and fill my glass with whatever red drink is in the punch bowl next to him. It’s really delicious. Cider? Cranberry? Both? I don’t know, but it’s good.

“The dead has arisen,” Valerie jests. “I thought you were going to miss Christmas completely, which would have been a real tragedy, because look!” She gestures around the house. “Isn’t this just the most? The very most?” She sounds downright giddy talking about the décor. Elliot raises his brow and takes a sip of his Christmas punch to avoid having to say anything.

“Yeah, it’s something,” I respond. “What do you say, there, Elliot?” I say, putting him in the spot. The corner of his lip rises along with one of his brows.

“Yes! It is quite the display!” he says enthusiastically. “Angel and I were just talking yesterday about how we couldn’t figure out for the life of us how Montano found the time, energy, or motivation to pull this off. What do you think, bro?” he says conspicuously, and volleys that ball right back into my court.

Asshole.

“The stars of the hour have arrived!”

My wife’s sing-songy voice rescues me from having to banter with my brother and when I turn around, a sight greets me that nearly knocks the damn wind out of me. Butterfly is walking into the room in this layered mock-wrap burgundy rock-a-billy cocktail dress—it’s gorgeous! I can tell that it’s one of my grandmother’s dresses and if she dressed like this all the time, it’s a wonder she and my grandfather didn’t have 15 kids!

She’s wearing a pair of burgundy Louboutin sky-high peeptoe platform stilettos that fade to black at the toes and her hair is in this swoopy kind of multidirectional chignon. She looks fucking scrumptious! She’s got my children with her and I swear to God, she looks like a sexy ass Mrs. Claus with two gorgeous little Christmas elves!

“Where’s your Santa outfit, Bro?” Elliot says quietly in my ear.

“I didn’t get the memo,” I say, a little more wistful than I intended. Minnie’s wearing a little red dress with Minnie Mouse on it and a Santa hat with little mouse ears. Mikey’s wearing a red jogging suit with one Mickey Mouse on the shirt and the pants.

“Where’s Mikey’s hat?” Val asks. Butterfly looks down at Mikey.

“He kept taking it off, so…” she shrugs. She’s got something attached to her arm and to Mikey’s arm, it almost looks like a leash!

And Mikey’s walking! When the fuck did Mikey start walking?

“When did that happen?” I ask aloud, pointing to my son. My wife looks down at Mikey again and then looks back up at me.

“Yesterday,” she says calmly. “He just got up and started walking.”

“Actually,” Gail interrupts, “he just got up and started walking to Momma. We were playing just fine on the floor in the nursery until Ana walked in. Then he just got to his feet and ran to his mother.” Ana looks down and smiles sweetly at our son.

That kind of stings. A somewhat knew that I may not be here to see my children’s first steps just because of the nature of my life, but when it really happened… That hurts a little bit.

“Steele!” Valerie says, closing in on my wife. “Are you wearing Mickey Mouse earrings?”

“Mickey and Minnie,” she says, turning her head so that Valerie can see.

“Where on earth did you find those?” she asks. “They look custom made.”

“At the Marketplace aren’t they adorable?” she beams all in one breath.

My wife looks like a million bucks and I look like a troll—I should probably change clothes, but into what? Nothing in my closet can make me look that good.

She hands Minnie off to Valerie and lifts Mikey in her arms. They head off to the kitchen towards Maddie talking about… whatever, and I kind of feel like the odd man out in my own house.


ANASTASIA

Everything turned out wonderfully!

Everyone loves the decorations. Since dinner is going to be quite early, we decided to forego breakfast and lunch for hors d’oeuvres, finger foods, cookies and drinks. Our family and friends are slowly beginning to file in and I’m surprised that Al isn’t one of the first people in attendance. That’s not like him.

“Oh my gosh, Ana, you look adorable!” Grace says as she and Carrick arrive with Luma, Herman, and the girls. “And the Nutcracker soldier at the guard’s booth is priceless. How on earth did you manage to pull this off?”

“Sheer will and determination,” I reply with a laugh, “and a whole lot of Christmas spirit. It was really a lot of fun. I had Sophie to help and the staff was magnificent… and look what I got for Christmas!” I say. I put Mikey down on the floor and he walks right over to his grandma. She gasps and scoops him up in her arms.

“Oh, wow, he’s walking!” Grace beams. “Who’s a big boy!” she exclaims happily, and he rewards her with infectious baby giggle.

“Well, would you look at that!” Carrick says, his smile wide and sincere.

“Who wouldn’t be just full of excitement and joy with something like that?” I say.

“Christian looks a bit subdued,” she points out and looks at me. I twist my lips and shrug.

“It’s GEH,” I say, furrowing my brow a bit. “It’s got him really distracted. I’m hoping he loosens up and gets into the holiday spirit as the day goes on.”

“I can’t see how he wouldn’t!” Grace says, looking around the room. “I saw the formal living room and that gorgeous display in the grand entry and now this. Does the entire house look like this or just the main floor?”

“Well, I didn’t disturb the work areas downstairs—the offices and such—but besides those rooms, the sub levels and the main floor look like this,” I tell her. “Except for the outside balconies, I didn’t bother the second floor either. You see that Gulliver dropped some of his decorations on our lawn, and the backyard turns into Santa’s landing strip at nightfall,” I say a little sarcastically.

“I tried to control myself,” I excuse, “but every time I did one thing, my brain said, ‘do that, too!’ and then I… this is what happened.” I gesture flippantly around the room. “I’ll be the first to tell you that I got carried away, but I don’t regret a moment of it.”

“Well, it looks fabulous, let me tell you. I’m going to be taking a tour of the grounds to get some pointers,” Grace compliments.

“Well, let me know when you want to wander. I’ll be glad to wander with you,” I say.

“Oh. My God. This is too much! Too much!” Mia says, bursting into our conversation with two different Mickey Mouse Christmas cookies in her hands. “How did you come up with these?”

“Those were a collaboration,” I admit. “Sophie came up with a really great idea and the theme fit in perfectly with my little mice and their first Christmas.”

“Genius. Sheer genius,” she says as she bites into one and hands one to Ethan. “And they’re delithous!” she says with a mouthful of cookie. Ethan bites into his cookie and nods.

“Yeah, these are really good, Ana,” he says.

“Thank you,” I reply. “Try the gingerbread men on the dining table. They have chocolate in them.”

“Oh, dear God, I’m going to be in the gym for a week straight,” Mia says.

“Yes,” I say unapologetically. “Yes, you are.” She and Ethan head off to maim a gingerbread man or three and Grace garners my attention again.

“You were right, by the way,” she says. “My doctor said that sometimes we do need to change up the HRT, and she prescribed me a different med and dosage. It’ll take a while to see if it works, but at least there’s hope, right?” I smile.

“Excellent. You just never know; you know what I mean? I’m just glad my hunch was right. Just, don’t wait so long next time if you feel like something is kind of off, okay? If you’re wrong about it, at least you can eliminate that issue, right?”

“Vah vah vah voom!” I hear Al’s announcement as he walks into the kitchen. “Mrs. Claus never looked like that in any of the pictures I’ve seen.” I laugh.

“I’m not Mrs. Claus,” I chide.

“You coulda fooled me!” he says, putting his hands up and gesturing around the room. “The only thing missing is Rudolph and Dasher on the roof and Santa’s legs hanging out of the chimney.” My eyes widen.

“Aw, that would’ve been cool!” I whisper loudly, Al shakes his head.

“I’m done,” he says. “You’re hopeless. Give me kisses.”

I hug my best friend and kiss him on the cheek. As I greet James, Grace and Carrick excuse themselves and take my little prince off to parts unknown.

“The place looks incredible, Ana,” James says. “You did this in a week?”

“Try three days,” I say with a tight smile. Al raises a knowing look at me.

“You’re shitting me,” he says.

“I had a lot of help,” I excuse. “Gail even called in a team of extras.” James laughs but Al is less amused.

“Well, no offense, but I’m ravenous, so I’m going to attack some treats. Allie?” James says.

“I’ll be right along,” Al says. “I need to chat with Jewel a bit.” James nods and kisses his husband on the cheek before leaving us to our conversation. Al’s gaze turns accusing.

“Three days?” he says. “Even if you didn’t physically do all this work on your own, it doesn’t take a shrink to know that something’s not quite right about this setup.” I roll my eyes trying not to be transparent.

“It’s Christmas, Al,” I whine heavily.

“Aaaand what’s wrong?” he says, folding his arms and calling me on my bullshit.

“What’s right?” I hiss. “My PA is totally MIA, which is driving me fucking crazy, one of my best friends won’t even speak to me…”

“Chris is chained to a computer at GEH,” he interjects. I huff and roll my eyes again.

“Don’t even get me started on that place,” I seethe.

“Or that man,” Al points out, once again not allowing me to evade.

“Allen, it’s Christmas,” I say deliberately. “Enjoy my over-the-top decorations and my fabulous food and shut the hell up about real life, okay?” I warn. He raises an eyebrow at me.

“This conversation’s not over, Jewel,” he says.

“It is for now,” I caution. “Go find your godson, and good luck keeping up. He’s walking now.” His eyes widen.

“For real?” he says, abandoning the previous conversation.

“For real,” I say, trying to walk away.

“Don’t you want to know why I was late?” he asks.

“Not really, no,” I say, refusing to take the bait.

“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. I went to see Gary.”

That gets my attention.

“And?” I ask, my eyes trained on his face, which is a bit more solemn now.

“He’s okay,” he says, soberly. “He looks well… not happy, but well. He’s staying in a studio closer to his job, nothing special, not homey at all. He’s actually living out of his luggage.”

“Did you tell him anything about Marilyn?” I ask.

“I didn’t tell him anything about Marilyn because I don’t know anything about Marilyn,” Al says.

“So, what did he say?” I press. “What is he doing?”

“Nothing much, and nothing much—sitting at his little studio apartment watching television.” My eyes widen.

“On Christmas?” I ask appalled.

“Yep,” Al nods. “He said that he would rather eat pizza and binge-watch Game of Thrones than to be around people right now.”

“Well, that’s just ridiculous,” I say, folding my arms.

“Maybe so, but honestly, Jewel, he wouldn’t be happy here right now. It’s cute and all, don’t get me wrong, but yuletide threw up in this place! The depressed and broken hearted are not looking to have a ‘holly jolly Christmas.’” I sigh heavily. I wouldn’t be so sure, best friend.

“At least he’s speaking to you,” I say, and I turn and march away from him with my arms still folded, trying not to admit how slighted I feel. I do my best to shake off the feeling that one of my best friends would rather watch reruns of pale medieval women training dragons than spend the day with me. It’s incredibly selfish, I know, but I still feel that way.

“Isn’t this great?” Sophie says bounding over to me in a Christmas T-shirt and jeans. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more Christmasy house, ever!” She’s smiling widely and eating cookies, her purple hair pulled back into a ponytail.

“Mia really loved the Mickey Mouse cookies,” I inform her.

“She did?” she beams, and I nod. “Well, I think Uncle Elliot and Uncle Christian like them all,” she adds. “Uncle Christian had a handful of the pecan cookies and he was elbowing Uncle Elliot away from the gingerbread men. Ms. Grace had to make them stop.”

I laugh heartily at Grace scolding her sons about cookies.

“Hey.”

I turn around and look into the face of my husband. I haven’t seen him all week and quite frankly, he looks different. His chest looks wider… broader. Is that a new shirt?

He looks damn good, probably from all that working out.

“Hey,” I respond.

“You’ve been pretty busy, huh?” he says. I shrug.

“A bit,” I admit. “I had to do a lot in a little bit of time.” He nods.

“You certainly did a lot,” he says matter-of-factly. “I see that you pretty much created a cookie factory. You tried some new flavors?”

“Not really.” Does he really want to talk about cookies? “New shapes, yes. Icing on the sweaters and the mice. Chocolate in the big gingerbread men…”

Those are really good,” he admits.

“That’s Maddie’s recipe,” I tell him. “Are those going to replace the chocolate pecan as your favorites?”

“Not in a million years,” he says, and kisses me gently on the cheek. I smile a small smile at him before he goes to converse with Carrick and Herman.

God, those pants really look good on him…

“Ana…”

I break my gaze from my husband’s ass and turn around to greet Marcia… and a very tall and very handsome black man.

“Hey,” I say, pulling her into a hug. “I’m glad you could make it.”

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss it,” she replies. “You really outdid yourself!”

“I may have gotten a little carried away, but it’s the babies’ first Christmas, so…” I shrug and trail off.

“Ana, this is Zachary,” she says, introducing me to her companion.

“It’s nice to meet you, Zachary” I say extending my hand. He takes my proffered hand.

“Zach, please,” he says, looking at me strangely. “Wait a minute… Ana… Anastasia Grey?” I raise my brows.

“Yes?” I reply cautiously.

“All this time, you’ve been telling me about Ana… it was Anastasia Grey?” he says to Marcia. Marcia nods.

“Yeah,” she says in an expecting tone.

“And when Marlow talks about Christian… Christian Grey?” he says. Marcia nods again.

“That would be correct,” she says. He scoffs a laugh.

“Is something wrong?” I ask.

“No, I’m sorry,” Zach says. “She talks about you all the time and I just never put the two together. I feel kinda like a dope.” I sigh inwardly. No trouble allowed on Christmas.

“Don’t,” I say. “I kinda prefer that people don’t know who we are. They don’t know how to act around us. By the way, I saw Maggie, but where’s Marlow?”

“Oh, he’ll be along any minute,” Marcia says. “He stopped to pick up his date first.”

“Who is it this time?” I ask. “Is it the young lady from Thanksgiving?”

“I don’t know, I can’t keep up,” Marcia admits. “When it comes to girls, my son has the attention span of a goldfish!”

“Jesus, I hope that’s just a phase,” I lament.

“Trust me, it usually is,” Zach chimes in. “He’s a good-looking young man with a bright future. He can have his pick of young ladies right now and that’s what he’s doing. He’ll grow out of it or settle down when he finds the right one. He doesn’t strike me as the mindless, ‘play-the-field’ type of kid.”

“Well, I hope he’s at least practicing safe sex,” I add, thinking of the crack his date made at Mia’s wedding about taking off something Marlow didn’t like… or something to that effect.

“He is,” Marcia chimes in. “I keep him supplied with condoms even though he begged me to stop buying them. No way. Nope! I’m going to buy them until he’s grown and out of my house and even then, I can’t guarantee that I’ll stop.” I laugh heartily.

“That’s good to know,” I say. “He’s got a really bright future ahead of him. I’d really hate to see that ruined by unplanned events.

“Or some opportunistic little trick out there trying to make a fast buck,” Marcia emphasizes.

“Hear, hear,” Zach cosigns.

“Well, come on in,” I say, gesturing them further into the house. “There’s quite a bit to see and do.”

“I see,” Marcia says. “My goodness, you’ve really outdone yourself.”

“I blame the babies,” I laugh, leading Marcia and Zach over to some of the cookies.

“I hope I’m not too late,” I hear Marlow saying, walking into the room with an extremely attractive—and voluptuous—brunette. Jesus, what are they putting in the water? These teenagers now and their curves… they’re giving us adults a real run for our money.

“Nope, you’re right on time,” I say, gathering him into a hug. “Dinner should be starting pretty soon, but there are plenty of hors d’oeuvres to tame your tummy. And who do we have here?”

“This is Emily. Emily, this is Anastasia Grey,” Marlow says presenting his date to me.

“Emily! That’s it!” Marcia says almost inaudibly. I stifle a laugh.

“It’s nice to meet you, Emily,” I say with a smile and extend my hand.

“Likewise, Mrs. Grey. Thank you,” she says, taking my hand and giving it a shake. “Your house is fantastic!”

“Thank you, and call me Ana,” I reply. She smiles.

“Ana,” she repeats. “My mom would love this place. I grew up in a house where the Christmas tree was already trimmed for Thanksgiving and my mom makes her own fruitcakes. She has Santas from all over the world that she’s been collecting before I was born. She would never leave this place.”

“Well, by all means, make sure you take her some of my homemade Christmas cookies,” I say. “I’ve got a million of them.”

“Oh, you and my mom are gonna be best friends,” she laughs. “I’m so glad you’re normal.”

“Excuse me?” I say in confused laughter.

“When Marlow told me that we were going to Christmas dinner at the Greys, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I knew you were beautiful, but in person, you’re gorgeous!” I try not to blush. “And then, we’re driving up to this big mansion and I’m totally expecting to see everyone sitting around with their legs crossed, drinking tea with their pinkies up, talking about the stock market or the weather or something appropriate. I’m so glad to see everybody walking around just being friends and being… normal. I didn’t even know what to wear.” I smile widely and put my arm around her shoulder.

“I think that’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me,” I tell her, and she smiles widely. “And you look just fine.”

“I’m not kidding, Ana, you’re gorgeous. What’s your secret? I’ve been trying to drop this pesky fifteen pounds since freshmen year.”

“Why?” I ask. “You have impressive curves… I’m hope I’m not being to forward.”

“I’ve told her the same thing,” Marlow says. His mother gazes at him and he just shrugs.

“My hips and my butt are kinda big,” she says, her voice low and conspiratorial. I laugh.

“I don’t know if I can help you much there,” I say, with mirth. “This ain’t a petticoat that’s making this dress flair out.”

We laugh heartily and I can hardly believe that I’m having this refreshing conversation with a girl who can’t be older than seventeen.

“But I’ll tell you this,” I add. “I don’t count calories and I eat what I want, but I happen to like fresh and wholesome foods—kabobs, fajitas, anything Mediterranean, that’s my thing. I do yoga regularly. I know Krav Maga, although I haven’t done that in a while…” Mental note—find another trainer, “… and I have a gym in my basement—sparring and weights are my favorite.”

“No wonder you look so great,” she says a little wistfully. “You have natural discipline. I’m so excited that Ana Grey gave me her regimen!!” I curtsy.

“Glad to be of service!” I say. “Start the regimen tomorrow! Diets are a no-no today. There are treats and cookies abound, and the menu is fabulous, so make sure you save room.” I gesture towards the kitchen and the family. Emily smiles and walks in the direction I’m gesturing.

“Thank you,” Marlow mouths as he passes me, and I wink at him.

“She seems nice,” I say as Marcia closes in the space between us.

“She is,” Marcia says. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say she went to finishing school. She’s extremely well-groomed.”

“I think she’s too hard on herself about her weight,” I say as she walks away. She’s not a particularly small-framed girl, but she’s not overweight by any means. She has what I would call an impressive resume in the rear.

“I have to agree with you, but you know how high school is. She’s probably been teased for being two pounds too round.” I twist my lips. Yeah, I know only too well how high school is.

Marcia and Zach work their way into the crowd as Marcia introduces him to Christian. I can see “background check” in my husband’s eyes all the way from here. Sometime while I was being preoccupied, Harmony has joined the party and is talking to Mia and Ethan, and my dad, Mandy, and Harry have all slipped in, too. Harry is entertaining his nephew Mikey who is now running around like a madman. I have to hurry and get him some more sneakers now—with the hard soles.

Minnie has her own audience of women who are adoring her dress and trying to get her to stand so that her brother doesn’t leave her behind. Val helps her to walk a few steps, then releases her, and she walks a few steps on her own before falling on her little butt. The ladies all clap for her achievement, causing her to clap as well and burst into fits of giggles.

Christmas is looking mighty fine at the Greys.

“Hey,” I hear from behind me. I turn around to see Courtney and Vickie.

“Hey!” I say my face lighting up and reaching for a hug. “I’m glad to see you. Come in.” I kiss Courtney on the cheek, then Vickie.

“I hope you don’t mind us showing up like this,” Vickie says.

“Are you kidding?” I reply. “This is why I plan for ‘do-drops,’ because people do tend to drop in. Come on, the more the merrier. Look at this place, what do you think?” I say, proudly gesturing around the house.

“It’s definitely merry,” Vickie says with a laugh.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I cede with a smile. “Looks like Leavenworth, doesn’t it?”

“More like Whoville!” Vickie says. “The only thing you don’t have is the Grinch.”

“Yeah, he’s over there,” I say pointing in Christian’s direction. When I look at him, he’s laughing and apparently having a great time with Jason, Chuck, and Nelson.

“He doesn’t look too Grinchy to me,” Vickie points out.

“Maybe he’s had some of the spiked eggnog,” I say with a laugh.

“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go over and have some of what he’s having,” Vickie says before kissing Courtney on the cheek and heading off towards Christian.

“She’s good for you,” I say to Courtney as we watch Vickie walk away. She puts her hand on Christian’s arm to get his attention and he greets her warmly with a hug. He hasn’t even hugged me today.

“She’s very good for me,” Courtney replies, gazing at her girlfriend. “The fucking best.” I turn my gaze to her.

“I would have thought you would be spending the holiday with family,” I say, trying to gently approach the topic.

“No,” Courtney says, looking down at her hands. “I gave Grandmother the things that I bought for her and Grandfather yesterday. I don’t think Grandfather will ever trust me again—that bridge is burned. I don’t like it but I’m okay with it. Vick’s family… well, they’re not very keen on this set up.”

“That you’re a girl, you mean?” I ask. She shakes her head.

“No, that I’m white.” My head does the bobble-thing.

“What?” I ask incredulously. Courtney nods matter-of-factly.

“Oh, yeah,” she says, looking back at Vickie once more. “Apparently they can deal with her eating pussy. They just can’t deal with her eating pink pussy.” I blink several times.

“You can’t be serious!” I say. “That’s one of the most medieval things I’ve ever heard!” And there’s that word again.

“Tell me about it,” she says. “I’ve already had to fight the whole bi battle—and quite frankly, after finding Vick, I’m pretty sure that I’m not bi, I’m gay—but now I have to fight the race battle, too? I mean this is ridiculous. Why can’t I just freaking love who I want to love, and they love me back without having to pass some damn test?”

“You can.”

We turn around to the deep voice that interrupted us right into gorgeous brown eyes and caramel skin.

“Forgive me for intruding, but I couldn’t help overhearing,” he says. “You can love whoever the hell you want. It’s nobody’s business but yours. You don’t have anything to prove to anybody, as long as the two of you are happy. Whoever else doesn’t like it can go to hell. It’s that simple.” Courtney’s eyebrows rise.

“Who… are you?” she asks.

“Oh,” I say, “I forgot you guys probably haven’t met. This gorgeous and insightful black man is James… Al’s husband.”

“Get the fu—…” She stops and covers her mouth. “Get outta here! Are you serious?”

“I’m serious,” I say. She extends her hand.

“It’s very nice to meet you! I had no idea,” she says.

“That I was black?” he says, taking her hand with a smile.

“No, that you were hot,” she admits without apology.

“I should warn you, she’s very frank,” I say to James.

“That’s not a problem,” James says with mirth. “I have the same problem with my family. I don’t know if it’s as bad for you as it is for me, but let’s just say that I and my husband won’t be going back to my hometown in the foreseeable future.”

“Boy, I need you to talk to my girlfriend. She’s feeling pretty bad about it…” and off they go toward Vickie.

I’m making my way around the house, preparing everyone to head into the dining room as dinner is going to be served soon when I see—and hear—Sophie in yet another sparring match with Marlow and his date.

“What? I didn’t say anything,” I hear Sophie say, and I can tell that this not-so-cordial conversation has been going on for at least a few volleys.

“Marlow, I heard Ana say that dinner is about to be served. Can we just go sit down?” Emily says, obviously trying to extinguish whatever’s going on.

“Yes, dinner,” Sophie says, “we have a lovely menu. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.” I hiss quietly to myself. Maggie’s mouth falls open with a gasp and her eyes widen like saucers. Sophie’s meaning didn’t get past anybody.

“Sophie!” Marlow exclaims in horror. Emily is clearly affronted and folds her arms.

“Little girl, what is your problem?” she asks pointedly. Little girl… oh, no. Sophie just shrugs her off.

“I don’t have a problem. Sorry if you think so,” she says. “Nice skirt, by the way. They’re making everything in plus sizes these days, huh?”

Oh. God. Shots. Fired.

Emily puts her hands on her hips and her expression says that if she were anywhere else, she and Sophie would be fighting right now.

“Those are pretty tall words coming from someone who looks like one of Rainbow Brite’s little friends,” Emily seethes, looking Sophie up and down before flipping her hair dramatically and walking away from the conversation. I want to rush in and save Sophie and scold Marlow for one of his girlfriends being rude to her once again… but Sophie started this one, so I can’t.

“Geez, Sophie,” Marlow says, clearly exacerbated. “What is wrong with you?” It’s a rhetorical question and he doesn’t wait around for an answer, walking quickly behind his date and catching her arm to smooth things over. After a short exchange of words, she flips her hair again and smiles coyly, hooking arms with Marlow and heading towards the dining room with him.

Crisis averted—for Marlow anyway. Sophie, on the other hand, looks like she’s going to hurl. I can’t even intervene this time because she brought it on herself.

Just when one catastrophe plays out in front of me, another is possibly calling me on my phone. There’s no quiet space in the immediate vicinity and I have to find one quickly before my phone stops ringing. I run to the mudroom, grab a coat—I think it’s Christian’s—and dash out into the garage. I swipe the screen and catch the call just before it goes to voicemail.

“Gary?” I say into the phone.

“Hey,” he says. He sounds so depressed.

“Hey!” I respond. It’s so good to hear his voice.

“Merry Christmas,” he says.

“Merry Christmas,” I reply. “How are you?”

“Shitty, but alive,” he says. I pause.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re alive,” I reply. It’s quiet for a while.

“I don’t want to talk to her,” he says. “I don’t want to talk about her or see her… but I miss her.” I sigh.

“Yeah, that’s usually the way it is,” I say, “especially today.”

“Today sucks,” he says. “I gotta go,” he adds after a pause.

“Gary!” I say, desperately trying to catch him before he hangs up. “If you need me, Gary…” I trail off. He’s silent again, and for a moment, I think he hung up.

“I know,” he says. “Merry Christmas.” And he ends the call.

I feel worse now than before he called. I’m glad he thought of me and I’m happy to hear his voice, but he sounds positively miserable. I hate to hear the hurt in his voice and hate even more that I can’t take it away.

I don’t want to see her, but I miss her. What a conundrum to be in.

I look down at my phone to swipe it closed and see that I have another notification. It’s email. I almost ignore it, but it’s Christmas, so I decide to at least see who it is.

Shit! It’s Marilyn. What are the fucking odds?

She sent the email just after midnight. How did I miss it? I open my email app and go to her email.

To: Anastasia Steele-Grey
Re: I’m Alive
Date: Thursday, December 25, 2014, 00:15
From: Marilyn Caldwell

Merry Christmas Bosslady,

I hope today finds you well. I can’t say the same for myself—a little better, maybe, but not well.

I was glad to get the email from you. It’s good to know that there’s someone who hasn’t forgotten about me.

I’m depressed, Bosslady. Really depressed. There’s no use in beating around the bush when your boss is a shrink. I’m not in a good place at all and being here with my parents has been nothing but emotional and spiritual torture. My mother is a goddamn gospel bully. If there is a place in heaven for her, I’d be surprised. Jesus is probably embarrassed at the way she wields His name like a weapon throwing everyone into hell like she’s the final judge and jury!

I did manage to get out a bit. It was my only saving grace—the library, mostly. The movies, wherever I could go to get away from my mother’s swinging sword. Dad’s waving the blood-stained banner, too, but not nearly as badly as my mother. The way she talks about me, you would think my bed was just going to ignite any second with fire and brimstone with me in it.

The truth is, Ana, I couldn’t be alone. I didn’t trust myself. I wasn’t actively thinking suicide or self-harm or anything like that, but I couldn’t think from one moment to the next when Gary walked out. I certainly couldn’t sleep in our bed or live in our house, smell his smell… I probably would have done something drastic had I stayed. I’m only telling you this because I didn’t want you to think I was crazy coming to my parents knowing what was waiting for me when I got here. I needed some place to go. I couldn’t stay in Seattle and I knew that they would watch over me even if it meant that they were throwing me in hell every 15 minutes.

I’ve accepted that it’s over between me and Gary. I’m still not happy with it and I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get over it. I know the shrink in you would tell me that time heals all wounds, but this one is gaping and oozing, and rips open every night when I’m in bed alone. If it does heal, I’m afraid that it’s going to take a lifetime.

Having said that, I want to say that you’ve been the best damn boss a girl could have—paying me all this time even though you hadn’t heard from me and didn’t even know if I would be coming back. I thought about leaving and starting all over somewhere else—somewhere that there was no chance of running into the man that I love with all my heart, but who can’t stand the sight of me. You’ll forgive me if I’m not around for any of the Grey family functions if he’s expected to be in attendance, but it’s time for me to get on with my life and stop hiding out. It’s not healthy for me and whatever I’m going to do, I can’t do it hiding in my old childhood bedroom and enduring 16 – 18 hours of constant persecution.

So, Bosslady, I’ll be back in Seattle and back to work the first Monday of next month. I’m a little stronger now, but not strong enough to come back just yet. By giving myself a deadline, I have something to work towards, and by promising you that I’ll be there, I know I can’t back out.

I won’t ask if Gary has asked about me. He hasn’t tried to call, and he hasn’t reached out to me by text or any social media, so I’m sure he just wishes that I were dead. I will most likely forever be known as the woman who killed his baby. We weren’t ready for a baby. No matter how much he wanted it, we weren’t ready. I thought we were being so careful, but apparently not careful enough. Now, I’ve lost everything. I couldn’t win with this one, Ana. I just couldn’t win.

So, I’m going to have a little “me” time and be a tourist in my own city for the next 10 days to break the funk of what life is before I come back and put my big girl panties on. I’ll admit that I wanted to be hurtful, so I waited until my parents went to sleep, then I packed my things and moved out of the Hellbound Hotel and now I’m at the Doubletree. They won’t care anyway. Their only concern will be that I’m not there for them to torture me anymore.

Thanks for caring about me, Ana. Really. I’ll see you on the fourth.

Marilyn Caldwell
Personal Assistant to Dr. Anastasia Steele-Grey

I’ll be the first to admit that her changed signature gives me hope. I almost want to jump through hoops that she’s coming back on the fourth, but I’m happier that she got out of the toxicity of her parents’ house. I wish she and Gary could see past this hurt and realize that they love each other very much. Honestly, she can see past it. He can’t.

I take a deep breath and let it out, then I check my face for tears or smudged mascara and go back into the house.


A/N: Ana mentions “Gulliver’s” decorations on the front lawn. She’s referencing Gulliver’s Travels and his visit to Lilliput.

Leavenworth is “Christmastown” Washington.

NEW CHRISTMAS PINTEREST PAGE 
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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 92—Getting Ready for Christmas

Two more chapters after this one…

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 92—Getting Ready for Christmas

ANASTASIA

I’m awakened by small slaps on my face… very small. What the hell?

I open my eyes to my daughter’s chubby little face. It takes me a moment to get my bearings. I’m not quite sure what has happened.

I stretch to find that I’m in my bed, still fully dressed, and Minnie is in her PJ’s. How did we get in this predicament?

Once I’m able to focus a bit more, I realize that my daughter is sealed inside of a three-walled pillow fort, of which my body is the fourth wall. And it suddenly makes sense. Christian put us here. I fell asleep in the window seat with Minnie in my arms. I just didn’t want to sleep alone again, even if it meant being crunched in the dreaded window seat. But I slept like the dead, and awoke to my daughter, not Christian. So, I still don’t know if I slept alone.

“Come on, Minnie Mouse,” I say, getting out of bed and retrieving my babbling baby. “It’s bathtime…”

After a short stint at Helping Hands to make sure the place wasn’t going to crumble to the ground, I let the troops know that I’ll be working from home for the rest of the week and head out. I’ve got to get the house and the meal ready for Christmas in three damn days and I still have a little Christmas shopping left to do. I’m back at home by two and decide that I need a partner in crime. It would usually be Marilyn, but…

“Hey, what are you doing this afternoon?”

“Nothing. I don’t have any appointments until tomorrow. What’s up?”

“I need to do some shopping. Are you up to come with?”

“Sure. Sounds like fun. Where do you want to meet?”

“I’m looking for some particular decorations for the house and the table. Meet me at the Marketplace…”

So, I find myself running around the Marketplace with Maxie in the afternoon, picking out some of the corniest decorations and tchotchkes to turn my house and kitchen and tables into a winter wonderland. It’s Minnie and Mikey’s first Christmas, and I want it to be special.

“Good Lord, Steele, I know you have a mansion, but do you really have room for all this crap you’re buying?” Maxie scolds.

“Actually, I don’t think I have enough,” I reply. “I won’t know until I start putting things together and there’s a hole somewhere.” She stares at me for a moment. “What?”

“Are you okay?” she asks. Oh, no, we’re not having this conversation.

“No, I’m not okay,” I reply. “I found out this weekend that Christmas is going to be at my house. I put off doing decorations because there always seemed to be something more important going on. Now, I’m going to have a house full of guests—some of them from out of town, by the way—and I don’t have a single bulb, light, or piece of garland anywhere. I have no idea how many guests are actually going to be there, and I don’t have the help of my P.A. Quite frankly, I’m a bit panic stricken, but I’m just going to grab some shit, order some groceries, and make it do what it do. You’re invited, by the way.” She raises her brow.

“Ew, when you put it that way, I can see why you’re losing your mind. Thanks for the invite, but Phil and I will be with family. Speaking of P.A., have you heard from Gary yet? I twist my lips.

“Kinda,” I say, handing poinsettias to Chuck and Ben. “I sent the ‘hey bitch’ email to him and I get ‘hey bitch’ back.”

“Ow,” she says.

“Tell me about it,” I say, handing my Amex Black to the vendor. “I’m really starting to resent it. I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t understand why I’m being ignored and treated this way. The psychiatrist in me can’t be logical right now. We’ve been friends for way too long for this shit.” I sign the receipt and retrieve my copy along with my card. The guys take turns running to the car while I continue shopping.

“You know these things take time,” Maxie says. “I don’t have all the details, but I’m assuming there’s a real hurtin’ put on him since we haven’t heard anything from him in weeks…”

“Max!” I hear a woman’s voice call out to my friend and I turn my head to see who it is.

“Jade, hey,” Maxie says in a friendly voice. Very friendly… familiar. “I thought you had class today.”

“Cancelled, last minute,” Jade says as she closes in on Maxie and they give each other those cheek hugs—the sincere ones, not the air kisses. What’s this? “Now, I’m scrambling to get a meal together for RJ and the boys. You know they’re hopeless without me.” She laughs and Maxie nods before turning to me.

“Ana, this is my friend, Jade. Jade, this is…”

“Ana Grey, of course. Everyone knows Ana Grey.” She smiles widely and extends her hand to me. “Max told me she knows you and I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been just dying to meet you.”

Strange. Max hasn’t told me a thing about you.

“Jade,” I say, returning her smile and accepting her proffered hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“At the risk of sounding forward,” she begins, leaning in to me conspiratorially. And here we go. Am I going to get some inappropriate question about my husband’s dick size? “Can we all hang out sometimes? Your fashion sense is insane, and I’d love some tips. I need to come out of the Mom-jean-mu-mu look!”

And I feel like shit.

“Sure,” I say, faking the biggest smile I can.

“Yeah, I’ll set up a lunch or a girl’s day or something,” Maxie intervenes, noting my discomfort.

“You know the rules,” Jade says cheerfully, “plenty of notice please!” She and Maxie laugh sincerely, and I so feel like the outsider. “Wow, Ana Grey shops at the Marketplace like the rest of us mere mortals! I feel so privileged!”

I know it was meant to be a compliment… or I think it was meant to be a compliment, but I still feel a little slighted.

“Well, I’d love to stay and chat,” she says, “but like I said, hungry men at my house. See ya Saturday, Max?” she adds, waving as she’s walking off, thank God.

“I’ll be there,” Maxie says, waving back. When she’s out of sight, Max turns to me.

“I’m sorry, Ana,” Maxie apologizes. For what, not telling me about your new friend sooner? “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that. I can fend her off if you don’t want to ‘hang out.’” She makes the finger quotes and I know she’s trying to let me off the hook.

“No, it’s okay,” I tell her. “Whatever is convenient for you guys. At least she didn’t ask me one of those terribly indiscreet sexual questions,” I say rolling my eyes. Maxie’s expression is horrified.

“What?” she inquires.

“Oh, yes,” I say, picking at something in a booth that I’m not even slightly interested in. “Any woman who suddenly feels ‘friendly’ with me will immediately ask me about my husband’s bedroom skills… or his dick size.” Maxie swallows hard.

“Oh, my God, you’re kidding!” she gasps. “I mean, I’m a woman. I can understand the curiosity… but that’s so crass and rude!” I nod.

“Oh, my friend,” I sigh, “you don’t know the half of it. It’s a tragic cross to bear.”

“Well, Jade’s not like that. I promise you,” she says, examining a nearby jewelry box. We’re silent for a moment, then I approach the elephant in the Marketplace.

“So, how did you guys meet?” I ask her, trying not to put too much emphasis on the topic although I’m chomping at the bit to know.

“She’s in my ‘Mommy and Me’ group,” Maxie says, examining the jewelry box more closely, considering the purchase. “She has four boys and her youngest, Blaine, is the same age as Mindy.” She hands the jewelry box to the vendor to be wrapped, finally deciding to purchase it.

“I didn’t know you were in a ‘Mommy and Me’ group,” I say, still trying not to pry, but really wanting to. Who is this Jade person? Why haven’t we met? Why hasn’t Maxie said anything to me about her? And what’s this Max shit? Her name’s not Max—it’s Maxie!

Suddenly, I realize the animated conversation in my head is one-sided and Maxie is looking at me questioning.

“What?” I ask, defensively.

“You got a new beau?” she asks. I frown. Did she hear about the Liam Alienation? I didn’t think that shit was public! Has he been talking to people??

“Why would you ask me that?” I ask, horrified. God, please, don’t let Liam be spreading untruths.

“You have a handful of tightie-whities. Christian doesn’t strike me as the type.” She points to my hands and I look down and realize that in an attempt to appear nonchalant, I’ve fisted two handfuls of briefs. Shit!

“No,” I say, trying to stack the underwear neatly the way I found them. I don’t have an answer for why I’m groping men’s underwear, so I don’t bother to offer one. It’s not like I have to, though. Maxie used to be my therapist. There’s no hiding shit from her.

“Out with it, Steele,” she says, reverting to my maiden name again.

“Out with what?” I say, still organizing the underwear. When I look over at her, she simply raises a brow at me. “I just… didn’t know you made a new friend, that’s all. No big deal.” I shrug, trying to downplay the situation. Maxie smiles at me as she hands the vendor her credit card.

“Ana,” she says, shifting her weight on her feet, “you’re right. It’s not a big deal. We get it, and we don’t hold any ill will, but the Scooby Gang isn’t really the Scooby Gang anymore. Phil and I have had a child. Gary is branching out on love with Marilyn—even though it’s not looking so great these days…” I roll my eyes and nod. “And no offense, but you, Val and Al have pretty much trio’ed off, for good reason. You and Al have always been the closest and now, he’s your corporate attorney—and Val married your brother-in-law, not to mention that whole cancer thing.

“Nobody’s pointing any fingers or complaining about being left out, but… we kinda were. You still include us in celebrations and things, and we know that you still love us, but we just don’t… hang out like we used to, and that’s okay. We’re growing up, but it leaves time and space to make new friends. Those things just happen. As long as you don’t just completely ditch us and leave us in the dust, we’re grown-ups and we know how real life goes. And face it, Steele… you have a new friend or three that hasn’t been introduced to me, and if you don’t, you should get out more.”

She winks at me, causing me to smile and push her with my shoulder. It’s strange seeing my friend make friends that I’m not privy to, or that we didn’t meet together, but she’s right. Things change, people change, and that’s okay, but during the course of those changes, it’s important not to let your valuable friendships fall by the wayside.

I really need to get in touch with Gary…

*-*

Sophie has quite the bit of decorating sense along with her extensive knowledge of food to be so young. She admits that it comes from things like watching Martha Stewart and such, so I’ve enlisted her help in decorating the house for as long as she feels like doing it, along with the unlucky members of the staff. I appear to be spending more time with Sophie than I am with my husband, but it’s also part of making sure that she’s not too bored for her Christmas vacation. It’s going to take all the way until Christmas to get the house finished, and this is a chore that I can’t delegate. We’re down in my parlor with the door closed, all of my wares from the Marketplace along with last year’s Christmas decorations strewn all over the room, trying to decide which decorations should go where.

There’s an insane wreath for the front door, and the “formal” Christmas tree will be in the grand entry with empty wrapped boxes underneath, but how many of the windows should have wreaths… and which ones?

How many lights is too many lights?

Is a life-sized nutcracker soldier at the guard booth a bit too much?

To tinsel or not to tinsel? That is the question…

Wait a minute… crawling babies that like to put everything in their mouths… not to tinsel! Definitely not to tinsel!

Where’s that blueprint of the house Jason showed me once?

Yep, this is going to be an epic undertaking, and I’ve got two days to make it happen… while Scrooge is at work, because I don’t want him kiboshing any of my ideas. I’ll do all the behind-the-scenes things tonight and tomorrow, like decorating the trees that are not in the “in-your-face” places, putting the lights and garland out and creating centerpieces and décor for flat surfaces. Then on Wednesday, we’ll tackle the big stuff, like the Nutcracker soldier, the lighted snowballs for the lawn, and the ice globe lanterns and snowball tree for the backyard. I would literally fight him on any of this if he tried to fight me, but hell, he may not even notice.

At the last minute, I find a nativity scene large enough to go on the lawn next to the drive outside of the gate that wasn’t one of those horrible cut-out scenes. I paid the fortune it costs for overnight shipping so that it’ll be here by Christmas Eve. Then I plot out how many people will be here for Christmas dinner. I lost count at the possibility of 20 – 30, so I just did a menu and grocery list for 40. I thought about having it catered, but that would mean people in my house that I really don’t know at Christmas. So, it looks like I’ll be breaking out the chef’s apron with Ms. Solomon and the staff.

It won’t matter. I’ve decided that since my marriage seems like it’s going through a bit of the for worse parts of our vows, I’m going to start taking joy in some of the things that I did when I was just Ana Steele—like cooking. For the first time, I’m regretting having someone staying in my condo. I wish I could go there and escape like I normally do, but it’s just location. Christian doesn’t spend a lot of time in the common places of the house, so if I plan a kitchen takeover a couple of times a week, he wouldn’t notice either way. Luckily, with the Christmas meal, I can definitely stretch my chef legs as long as I want.

We were able to get so much more done than I thought we would…

Beautiful, lush, green evergreen garland accented with plush red bows and delicate lighting line several doorways and nearly every balustrade except for the main staircase—that has to be done on Christmas Eve.

We managed to get the three trees on the sublevel decorated.

I’ve got a jillion centerpieces and table decorations, from silk flowers with candles and evergreen garland to wine glasses and hurricanes filled with lights, various color bulbs, acorns, and fake snow. They’ll be going on just about every surface that can accommodate them.

There are various wreaths—bulb wreaths, garland wreaths, flower wreaths, etc., on the windows and doors at the back of the house.

By early evening, I’m all tuckered out. My parlor—or workspace—looks like Tropical Storm Shaniqua hit it, but I’ll have to tidy up tomorrow when I get back to decorating.

It’s past dinner time and I’m just not in the mood for a large meal, so I ask Ms. Solomon if she wouldn’t mind making me one of her Hawaiian ham sandwiches. Curious, Sophie asks if she can have one, too. So, Ms. Solomon whips up two of the delicious creations along with a winter drink that makes my head spin.

“What is this?” I ask when I sip the sweet beverage.

“Cranberry-apple cider. I thought you might like a tiny bit of variety from your usual spritzer.”

“It’s delicious!” I exclaim. I look over at Sophie for confirmation, and half her drink is already gone.

“I think it’s a hit. We have to add this to the holiday menu. I’ll get a large drink dispenser tomorrow for easy service,” I say.

“No need, we already have one,” Ms. Solomon says.

“Will it be too much trouble?” I ask. She scoffs and waves me off.

“Not at all. Besides, I’m accustomed to the work that goes into making the holidays special,” she replies.

“It’s going to be a lot of work,” I warn. “I don’t even know how many people are going to be here.”

“More than fifty?” she asks. I shake my head.

“I lost my count somewhere between 20 and 30, and there’s usually a do-drop or three, so I’m preparing for 40.” Ms. Solomon’s brow furrows.

“Do-drop?” she asks. I nod.

“Random people who do tend to drop in… ‘do-drops.’” Realization dawns on her face.

“Okay, that makes sense,” she replies.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “I’ll be right here getting my hands dirty with you.”

“That’s not necessary,” Ms. Solomon scolds. “The staff and I will be able to handle it.”

“Oh, I welcome the task, believe me,” I say, taking another bite of the delectable sandwich.

“May I have another?” Sophie asks. I look over at her plate and there’s nothing left but crumbs. I can’t help but laugh.

“Of course, you can, sweet girl,” Ms. Solomon says as she begins to make another sandwich.

“Good, huh?” I say with a smile. Sophie nods.

“Really good!” she says. “Can you teach me how to make them?” Ms. Solomon raises her eyes to Sophie and it almost looks like she’s about to cry. I await her response, knowing the history of the sandwich.

“Of course,” she says, smiling sadly and hiding the crack in her voice. Her sadness doesn’t get past the very perceptive Sophie.

“I’m sorry,” Sophie says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” Ms. Solomon shakes her head.

“It’s nothing, child,” she replies. “It’s just that… all these years, people have only asked me to make the sandwiches. They’re so quick and easy to do, but no one has ever asked me to show them how. It’s a good thing, don’t worry. I’m glad to give the recipe to someone new. Come. Get your apron. I’ll show you now.”

I watch with a strange sense of pride while Ms. Solomon shows Sophie how to make the delicious sandwich. Sophie catches on right away and makes a second sandwich for which I must be the guinea pig. She plates it perfectly and sets it in front of me.

“It’s delicious,” I say when I take a bite.

“Tell me the truth,” Sophie says. “Is it different than Ms. Solomon’s? Does it taste like I missed anything or heated the pineapple for too long?” She surprises me with her knowledge of food. She knows that if she heats the pineapple for too  long, it changes the texture and usually the flavor.

“Sophie, it’s perfect,” I say, taking another bite. “May I have some more cider?” I ask with a full mouth of delicious ham, cheese, and pineapple. Ms. Solomon and Sophie laugh at me, and Sophie sits to eat her own sandwich while Ms. Solomon gets me another cider. The sandwich really is very good, and I happily sit there and eat the rest of it while Sophie and I discuss the plans for tomorrow.

We’re both pretty tuckered out after “dinner” and Sophie thanks me for including her in the decorating.

“I remember decorating stuff when Dad was home,” she says. “Me and Mom just… didn’t. I got some gifts and stuff, but the first real anything I remember since Mom and Dad split up was last Thanksgiving with you guys.” I feel sad for her knowing that.

“How do you feel this Christmas?” I ask. “I mean, you know…”

“With Mom being in jail?” she asks. “I don’t know. I don’t even think about it. If she wasn’t in jail, she’d be somewhere getting high, so what’s the difference? When I think about her and everything that happened, it really makes me mad, so I don’t think about it. I try to focus on things that make me happy. Does that make me selfish?”

It’s so sad that this 13-year-old girl has to ask herself questions like this—if it’s selfish for her not to think about her drug-addict mother who tried to sell her for a fix so that she can be happy.

“You’ll have to deal with it one day, but for right now, I think you’re doing just fine,” I reply. She hugs me around my waist and squeezes tight. The gesture catches me off guard and nearly takes my breath away.

“Thank you, Aunt Ana,” she says, her voice angelic. I embrace her warmly and kiss her hair.

“You’re welcome, Sophie,” I say, softly. “Now, get some sleep. We’ve got a lot to do, and I really can’t do it without my helper.” She pushes away from me and looks up at me with a smile.

“Yes, you can,” she says, sweetly, “but you won’t have to.” She smiles, then turns and walks through the family room towards her apartment.

“No… I can’t,” I whisper to her retreating form.

The children have been put to bed and I find myself tired, but still quite awake. I wander down to the movie room and sit in one of the luxurious chairs. They’re large and comfortable and they recline almost to a horizontal position. I scroll through the available movies with the remote and settle on The Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

Yeah, this is perfect—two lovers separated by time that will never be together, it seems.

I get all the way to the part when Keanu’s character, Alex shows up at Kate’s birthday party—played by Sandra, of course—which she clearly didn’t want to have. As many times as I have watched this movie, I’ve always wondered how appropriate it is to invite people that neither of you knew to a birthday party for your girlfriend. She was doing her internship and she looked exhausted, but then she comes home to a house full of people, some of them strangers.

That kind of happened to me when Daddy adopted me, but I didn’t mind the party and the only stranger present was Brian’s doppelganger girlfriend, Ana, Jr. I wonder what ever happened to her and if she and Brian are still together.

I lean back in the chair and get comfortable watching one of my favorite scenes in the movie, when Alex and Kate are dancing outside while her birthday party is going on inside—two unlikely lovers falling in love at a very inopportune time. I remember that they kiss at the end of this scene.

How can someone who has committed themselves to someone even wrap their heads around the concept of kissing someone else? It’s something that I never could understand. Even when Liam was leaning in to kiss me, I knew it was wrong and all I could think was, “No, this ain’t Christian.”

I watch as they embrace each other passionately as Paul McCartney sings that song, This Is the Way It Should Be. I don’t remember the last time I heard that song, but I remember clearly the last time I thought of it. It was when Christian and I made love on the hood of his RS7 after our very first visit to a BDSM club. I remember thinking that nothing could go wrong as long as we were together—nothing…

The song ends as Alex and Kate get lost in their kiss.

*-*

I awake right where I fell asleep. There are no windows in the movie room, so I can’t tell if it’s morning. When I reach for the remote, I discover that I’m wrapped in a velour throw and I’m lying on a pillow.

Shit, these chairs are almost as comfortable as my bed!

I push the status button on the remote, waking the movie screen, and the time pops up in life-sized numbers… 8:53am. Whatever I’m going to do, it’s time to get up from here. I stand and stretch before grabbing my wayward hair and tying it in a knot behind me. The hair of the “short part” falls out and brushes my shoulder. Of course, I’m not bald over there anymore, but it’s still nowhere near as long as the rest of my hair. I’m used to that side doing its own thing, though.

I fold the throw and place it and the pillow neatly in the seat, then stumble my way to the kitchen. No one is in the kitchen when I arrive which is odd, but there’s still coffee in the coffee pot. I pour myself a large mug of black coffee and make my way back downstairs. I look at my parlor as I pass and it’s a tsunami of Christmas rubble. I groan when I see it and proceed to my office.

I check my calendar to see if anything important is happening today. If it is, it’s not in my calendar. Chuck informed me yesterday that Maddie and Nelson have opted to stay here over the Christmas holiday. That makes me happy. I know they would have slightly more privacy at the Bainbridge house, but Chuck does need to be on call, and having them that far away means that he has to schedule visits to see them. That kind of defeats the purpose of them coming to Seattle, doesn’t it? I type out a text to Gail that they’ll be staying with us until just after the new year and to prepare one of the guest rooms for their stay.

I open my email to touch bases with the world again. Carl has emailed me again about the auction for Tina’s jewelry. It’s going to be the day after Christmas. I can’t help but think how bad that marketing strategy is—well, maybe not. People are always looking for good deals at after Christmas sales, but that’s not the type of money that you would hope to pull in from a charity auction, is it?

Carl’s probably not even concerned about that. After having to deal with Tina’s brood of misfit children, he’s probably only concerned about getting everything taken care of and closing up shop. No doubt, at this time of year, that’s the soonest that he could get into the auction house and he simply didn’t want to wait.

To be honest, I can’t even imagine going to a jewelry auction right now. There’s just too much going on in the immediate to make plans for it even in the future. I send him an email and politely decline.

I spent part of yesterday sending out emails and texts to everyone that Christmas would be at the Crossing this year and asking that they RSVP that they’re aware that Christmas festivities will start somewhere around 2pm. And as I’m counting, I was right to prepare for 40 people. As I’m going through my emails, my phone rings with a text. It’s Grace.

**Are you coming in today? **

Uh, oh… is something wrong?

Ana: I hadn’t planned to. I’m getting the house and meal situated for Christmas. Do you need me? Is everything okay? **

Grace: Dammit, I forgot I dumped that on you at the last minute! I’m sorry. No, I was just waiting to see if there were any special plans for Christmas besides the holiday meal. **

Ana: Do you think it’s too late to arrange for Santa Claus to come by? I think it would be nice and I know we have the money in the budget. **

Grace: That’s a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll arrange it. The kids will love it and so will the parents. I’ll put Helen and Ebony in charge of it on Christmas. Helen asked to work and Ebony loves kids. **

Ana: That sounds great, and don’t worry about me and Christmas. The task turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I’m stretching my long-dormant domestic legs. It’s great! You’re really going to love it. **

Grace: I’m so glad to hear that. When my mind is clear, I feel like I’m taking advantage of your talents and kindness. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel that way. **

You have, but that statement is the best Christmas present you’ve ever given me.

Ana: Thank you, Grace. That means a lot to me. ❤ **

Grace: You mean a lot to me, Ana dear. Please don’t forget that even though I may behave like a horse’s ass sometimes. **

I literally laugh out loud.

Her final text is to tell me that she’s seeing her doctor this afternoon like I suggested and that she’s emailing me the confirmed final choices for tutors and teachers for my approval. That bump we faced was a pretty big one, but she is my mother-in-law after all, and hopefully, we’ve gotten past it and the future will look a little smoother.

I go through my emails and my heart leaps a bit when I see one from Christian. It falls like a block of lead when I realize that it’s work-related. I click on the email, knowing that he really wouldn’t send it to me unless it was important, knowing how I feel about GEH right now.

And it is.

It’s actually good news for me. The mandatory drug tests are nearly complete and out of all the people tested, so far only eight have returned with positive drug tests for various controlled substances. In a zero-tolerance company, this is grounds for immediate dismissal. The violators have indicated that they’ll sue, and even I with my limited knowledge of law and business know that they don’t stand even the slightest chance. The drugs are varied, even in a small group—marijuana, cocaine, meth, heroine—and the name at the top of the list? Deanna Carson!

Merry fucking Christmas, bitch!

I close the email and smile. This won’t be the last she hears from me, even though she doesn’t know that she’s hearing from me now, but it’s a really good start.

I look at my phone and decide that I need to bust a bit of a mission myself. I do a bit of Googling, dial some numbers, get stuck in a phone tree and after a bit of finagling, I get Gary’s number at his desk at City of Lights. He’s so busy at that place and I know that he won’t answer, but I have to try.

“Hello, you’ve reached the voice mail of Garrett Pope. I’m not available to take your call right now but leave me a message and I’ll call you back. Bye.”

“No, you won’t,” I say sadly before the phone beeps. “Hi, Gary. I know you told me to leave you alone… and that you couldn’t talk right now. I… I’ve just never known a time when we couldn’t talk, not since the first day we met.”

I clear my throat and realize that I’m getting choked up.

“Christmas is just a few days away… and no one should be alone on Christmas…”

I swallow my tears and keep talking.

“If you’re worried about running into her, she won’t be here,” I add with a sniff. “Just… call me… please…”

I end the call before bursting into tears. I’m emotional anyway trying to deal with Christian’s ire and the fucking holidays and the fact that I agreed to have Christmas at my house with only three days’ notice. I quickly dry my tears and turn my focus to something more constructive than the fact that two of the men in my life are rejecting me right now.

I need to take a shower and get my day started since there’s still so much to do. I take the elevator straight upstairs and make a B-line to my room. I really don’t want to explain tears to anyone this early in the morning. I strip out of my clothes and turn the shower on as hot as I can stand it. Then I get in, let the water run over my head, and cry.

It’s a cleansing cry, just to get out all the pent-up frustration—over nothing and everything, so that I’m not talking to Sophie about some random thing and it suddenly turns into a nostalgic tear-fest over some specific color of red.

Motown music will be piping through the communication system today.

I don a pair of yoga pants and an oversize cable-knit sweater—which suddenly gives me a great idea for the cookie bake. It’s actually going to spread over two days now since I have more ideas for cookies, and I’ll most likely be in the kitchen for three days. The grocery delivery will be coming today, and things have to start being prepared, like cooking three turkeys. There’s a science to cooking three turkeys for Christmas so that all the meat is hot for Christmas day. Two will be cooked and carved on Christmas Eve and the third will be cooked on Christmas day.

Then there are the many side dishes that will be prepared, the cookie tins I’m going to make, the desserts, the beverages, etc…

I walk across the hall to my babies room and open the door. There’s Keri fixing Minnie’s outfit, and Gail is on the floor playing with Mikey. When he sees me at the door, he pushes himself to his feet and just toddles right across the room to me.

Three women are staring gape-mouthed at my son. I look up at Gail and point to my son who is now holding onto my legs and looking up at me with a four-toothed drooling grin.

“Wha… ho… di… e… when di…?” I can’t even get a full sentence out. What I’m trying to ask is had he shown any progress towards walking besides the one or two steps we had seen him take. Gail just shakes her head and looks at me, wide-eyed.

“He just got up and started walking!” she says in amazement and turns to Keri. “Did you see that? He just got up and started walking!”

“Ah see! Ah see!” Keri says. “Whut a wanhduhful Chtissmas ptesant!”

“It is indeed!” I say, bending down to retrieve my son. “Mikey’s walking!” I beam. “Such a good boy. Are you going to teach your sister now?”

“Bah bah bah bah!” he says, patting both my cheeks with his hands. I’m all warm and happy inside to see my baby boy get up and walk on his own. I only wish I could have caught the moment on video, but I’m not too soon to forget it.

With the help of the staff and lots of additional labor that Gail had the foresight to hire, we’ve gotten all the decorating done before 3pm—all the trees, including the giant bulb tree in the backyard and the ice globe lanterns that can be seen from the lake. The big boat house and the boat house at the end of the dock are covered in lights along with some of the surrounding trees. The back balconies have been decorated with lights and giant illuminated candy canes. Giant bulbs grace the front lawn before you get to the portico and a large wreath greets you at the front door.

Sophie and I have started my extra Christmas cookie bake, which are additional batches of gingerbread and sugar cookies to be decorated in various ways. I’ve also got a million empty cookie tins to fill and give away. Even with four professional ovens, there’s going to be way too much going on to be hogging any stoves with cookies besides the traditional Christmas Eve cookie bake.

We’re just finishing the tree and stairs in the grand entry when Chuck arrives with Maddie and Nelson. I’m so glad they decided to stay with us this year. I give them warm hugs and introduce them to my gorgeous babies.

“Oh, that’s right!” Maddie says. “You were pregnant when we last saw you! My gosh, babies grow so fast!”

Knowing that he’s the topic of conversation, Mikey stands again and walks over to Maddie. Chuck’s eyes widen.

“When did that happen?” he asks, pointing at Mikey. I shrug.

“He just got up this morning and started walking,” I inform him. “He’s been running around ever since.”

“Well, what do ya know about that?” Chuck says in amazement. He doesn’t have any of his own children, so he’s experiencing everything first-hand through mine.

“Maddie, Nelson, I know you must be tired from your trip. Are you hungry? Would you like to eat something, or would you rather settle in first?”

Phase one of the Pre-Christmas Eve Cookie Cookoff continue with Maddie helping to shape the sweater cookies that came to mind this morning as well as the cutouts for gingerbread men, Christmas trees, and various other merry shapes to be decorated with icing and candy, including Mickey and Minnie Mice to celebrate my babies’ first Christmas.

Maddie and Nelson tell us their side of the legal battle with Joe over dinner, for which Christian still hasn’t joined us. I haven’t seen him since Sunday afternoon. Were it not for the little hints of his presence, I wouldn’t even know he still lived here. However, with the smell of fresh Christmas cookies filling the air, the sound of my favorite music piping through the sound system, and the fact that my baby boy is up and running around like he’s in a marathon, I find it difficult to be down in the mouth about anything right now.

I take a hot bubble bath to soothe my muscles as I know I have a very busy day ahead of me tomorrow—the rest of the Christmas cookies; the cooking for Christmas combined with entertaining Chuck’s parents when they get back from the festivities he has planned for them; making sure that Mikey who is now walking doesn’t get into any mischief… Jesus, I’m going to have to childproof the house now!

I nearly fall asleep in the bathtub, but I don’t. I climb out and slip into a warm nightshirt, crawl into bed, and say hello to the sandman.

Morning comes so much faster than I expect, but I’m greeted with something that I’ve come not to expect. Christian’s gone, but his side of the bed has been slept in. Maybe that’s why I slept so hard.

If he’s up this early, he’s obviously gone to work. I’m not surprised that he’s working on Christmas Eve. We both worked last year. I just took the day off to host Christmas.

Since I took a bath right before bed, I forego the shower and don yet another pair of yoga pants and a sweater—a Christmas sweater, to be exact. It’s a cute red and white off-the-shoulder oversized sweater with Santa heads lining the top and a winter wonderland lining the bottom. I peek in to check my babies and they’re both asleep, so I head downstairs.

To my delight, Sophie, Gail, and Maddie are all donning aprons and getting the kitchen ready for the mayhem that will be Christmas Eve. Ms. Solomon has agreed to allow us to invade “her” kitchen for the traditional Christmas Eve Cookie Bake as well as whatever dishes I choose to “help” with today with the condition that whatever remains to be done on Christmas that I allow her and the staff to complete it.

“The lady of the house shouldn’t be cooking on Christmas,” she scolds. “That’s why you hired me!” I smile and agree to her conditions. The only things that will be cooked today are two of the three turkeys and things that won’t degrade when you reheat them.

Our Christmas is going to be far from traditional. We’re going to have eight vegetable dishes, four pasta dishes, traditional dressing and my cheesy potatoes, turkey and ham, three different salads and an assortment of crudité, antipasto, hors d’oeuvres  breads, pastries and desserts as well as a variety of beverages.

One of our pasta dishes will be a divine macaroni and cheese that Maddie makes. Everyone who has had it swears to it, including Keri.

Also, to my delight, Nelson and Chuck bond over long conversations out at the smoker. So, one of our turkeys and one of our hams will be slow smoked over Applewood.

Not to be excluded, Sophie has asked permission to prepare an ambrosia salad, while Keri has requested to be able to contribute Jamaican rice and peas. It will be quite the eclectic Christmas indeed.

By mid-afternoon, the house is alive with delicious aromas, laughter and Christmas carols when Windsor announces that Val and Elliot have arrived. I come into the grand entrance to greet my sister and brother just as they’re entering the portico.

“Hey!” I say cheerfully, opening my arms to Valerie. “I’m glad you’re here! The cookie bake is still going on.”

“Oh, dear God, I forgot all about the cookie bake!” she says as she removes her coat. “I heard it was quite the family affair last year. I missed it because of Meg.”

“Well, there’ll be none of that this year,” I say, handing her coat to Windsor while Elliot does the same with his coat. “I’ve probably tripled all my recipes, so there’s plenty more to cook.”

“Tripled?” she asks. “Why?”

“I’m filling cookie tins,” I say. “I’m going to give more away. Plus, you know Christmas was kind of sprung on me this year, so I’m cooking enough food to feed all of Seattle!” I add with a laugh.

“I’m kidding,” I say as my sister and brother laugh with me, “but I anticipate that there will be way too many leftovers for my family, even with guests staying over. So, we’ll be packing up some food for the homeless. I thought cookies would be nice, too, you know?”

“Jesus, Montana, this place looks like Santa’s workshop!” Elliot says, looking around at the explosion of decorations. I look around, too, and roll my eyes.

“Yeah,” I sigh. “I think I may have gotten a little carried away…”

“A little?” Val says. “There are ginormous Christmas bulbs on your lawn and a life-sized Mary and Joseph cradling a six-pound-seven-ounce baby Jesus before we even get in the gate!”

“Oh, wonderful!” I exclaim. “The nativity scene arrived! They didn’t even tell me. How does it look?”

“Like Bethlehem!” Val informs me. I’m giddy with excitement.

“Oh, I have to go see it!” I say, turning to retrieve my coat.

“No need,” Val says. “I took pictures.” She pulls out her phone and opens her gallery. I scroll through picture after picture of various angles of the nativity in the snow outside of my gates complete with an illuminated star above it.

The three wise men, various barn and field animals, angels, the star of Bethlehem, and of course, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. She even has pictures of the house with the lights and the giant bulbs as you approach.

“Oh, Gosh, it’s beautiful,” I say wistfully.

“Steele, it’s insane. What brought this on?” I sigh and twist my lips at her.

 “Oh, come on,” I say, “I know it’s over-the-top, but isn’t it great? I feel like Buddy in that movie Elf. It makes you feel like a kid again, and my babies love it! Come on in. Wait until you see how happy everybody is.”

“Where’s Christian?” Elliot asks as they fall in step behind me.

“At work,” I reply. He and Val look at each other.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” Val says.

“Yep,” I say dismissively. He’ll probably be working tomorrow, too. “Come on, I don’t think you’ve met Chuck’s parents.” I lead the way into the family room where Maddie and Nelson have settled in. Once Elliot and Val catch up to me, I introduce them to Maddie.

“Oh, geez, you guys are cooking and baking cookies. What’s a guy to do?” I hand Val an apron.

“Well, you can help out, or you can go get your coat and go to the barbeque kitchen. Chuck and Nelson are back there smoking meat.”

“I’ll take the barbeque kitchen, thank you,” he says, going to retrieve his coat.

“Okay, Steele, seriously, what are these?” I turn around and see Val looking at the assortment of new cookies on the counters.

“The sugar-cookie-and-icing Christmas tree stacks are Sophie’s creation.” I gesture to Sophie and she curtsies. Val smiles and nods at her.

“Those big, bulky looking sweaters with the white icing—I kind of shaped those by hand. I got the idea from a cable-knit sweater that I was wearing yesterday.”

“You shaped those by hand, Steele?” she asks, and I nod. “That’s pretty good.”

“Thanks,” I reply. “The shapes got a little better when Ms. Solomon informs me that we have cookie cutters, and that’s where these Christmas sweaters came from.” I gesture to the sweaters with different color icing and designs on them.

“Then, of course, she introduced me to the rest of the cookie cutters, and that’s where all the shaped gingerbread cookies came from.”

“What about those?” she asks, pointing to larger gingerbread men and women holding candy canes. “They’re darker. They’re not burnt, are they?”

“No,” I say with a giggle. “That creation is credited to Maddie. That’s a chocolate gingerbread cookie. It’s moist and very tasty, and you get a second treat with it.”

“Oh! Okay, but how are they holding onto the candy canes? Wouldn’t they have melted in the oven?” Val presses.

“Probably,” I tell her, “but Maddie wrapped the dough around chopsticks, then stuck the hands together and baked them that way. Once they were done, we had to carefully remove the chopstick and insert the candy canes. There were more than a few casualties.”

“We ate the evidence,” Maddie interjects, and we laugh. Our laughter is interrupted by Jason walking into the room.

“Hello, ladies,” he says announcing his presence, and various women reply as he walks over to Gail. “Hello, love,” he says quietly while kissing her on the cheek. She blushes a bit and I feel a twinge of envy… just a twinge.

“Maddie, it’s good to see you,” he says to Maddie. “Was your flight okay?”

“As well as can be expected for flying,” she says warmly, giving him a hug.

“You’re here, so that must mean that Christian is present,” Val says. “Where is he, parking the car?” she jests.

“You’ve got jokes,” Jason says with a chuckle, then turns to me.

“He’s in the gym,” he says. “GEH was a bit of a shi… boo-boo storm today, especially with Ros gone.” I furrow my brow.

“I’m an old lady, Jason, but you certainly don’t have to censor yourself for me,” Maddie says. “I’ve heard worse, I assure you.” He smiles at her.

“No offense, lovely lady, but it’s for the babies,” Jason says. “Her Highness insists that we use no profanity around the prince and princess.”

“Her Highness?” Maddie repeats and looks at me. I scoff and Val laughs.

“Did you have to say that?” I lament.

“Never knew what you were getting yourself into when you started that, did you?” he chuckles.

“You started that?” Maddie says with a laugh.

“It was a joooooooooke!” I whine. “When he first met me, he kept calling me ma’am and it was driving me nuts. I told him to call me ‘Ana’ and he just wouldn’t. I made several suggestions—Doctor Lady, Pookie… I would have preferred he called me Pookie than this!”

I wouldn’t,” Gail says matter-of-factly while removing a tray of freshly baked sugar cookies from the oven.

“I wouldn’t mind it so much, but he calls me Her Highness all the time. He only calls me Ana when it slips or when he’s really serious about something. Even the security staff at GEH knows me as Her Highness!” I complain.

“Well, you get what you ask for,” he retorts.

“I asked for Ana!” I counter.

“Too late. It’s Your Highness now,” he says with a smile as he steals a warm sugar cookie. Gail slaps his hand, but she’s too slow.

“Ros is gone?” I ask, bringing the conversation back around. “Gone where?”

“Not gone gone,” Jason clarifies, swallowing the cookie. “She’s on vacation.” My frown deepens.

“Wait a minute… Ros is on vacation while all this shi—… crap is going on?” I ask incredulously.

“I don’t know all the details. You’ll have to ask him, but yeah, she’s gone until after the new year.” Hmmm, so on top of all the GEH bullshit, he’s now dealing with this crap one man… woman short, and every cell in my being is telling me that she did this shit on purpose.

“I know that look, and I’m shamelessly making my getaway,” Jason says. “Where are the men hiding?”

“In the outdoor barbeque kitchen,” Gail says, opening the refrigerator and retrieving a bottle of beer. “Nelson and Chuck are smoking meat and Elliot is out there with them.”

“Hey! Christmas festivities without me?” Harmony says making an entrance from the front of the house.

“Another woman. I’m out,” Jason says, escaping towards the back of the house and the barbeque kitchen.

“Hey, Harmony,” Gail says. “Grab an apron and a potholder. We could certainly use an extra set of hands…” I’m rolling out crust for one of the apple pies and Val walks over to me.

“You didn’t know about that?” she asks. “Ros is like his second in command, right?” I nod, trying to concentrate on rolling the crust out evenly.

“I don’t know much about what’s going on at GEH lately,” I say, perfectly rolling the dough to place into the pie pan.

“You’re half-owner of the company. How do you not know?” she asks, moving the pie pan closer to me. I carefully place the crust into the pan and begin to form it into the crevices.

“That’s not how they treat me,” I say, lowering my voice and brushing the crust with butter. “They tolerate me when I’m there. If I speak, someone could lose their job, and that’s all they really care about. The last time I was there, Christian said that he was doing an audit of the departments to find out why things aren’t being done. Ros asked him right in front of me if legal was going to be audited, too.” Val’s brow furrows.

“Al’s department?” she asks. “Is he fucking up, too?” I glare at her and realize that her voice is too low for the twins to hear her in the next room.

“No,” I reply matter-of-factly. “She illuminated the nepotism and made a point that the other departments would clearly see the favoritism if legal wasn’t audited, too. The bitch didn’t even have the guts to look me in the eye when she was saying that shit!” I hiss quietly as I add the homemade apple mixture into the pie crust.

“Hm,” Val says, “and now she conveniently takes a vacation right in the middle of a shitstorm.”

Right in the middle!” I snap quietly. “He comes in every day and goes straight to the workout room, and she figures that now is a good time to go see Bermuda!” I nearly growl as quietly as I can so as not to draw attention to myself. I’m fighting not to get angry, but I really want to throw something right now. Val looks knowingly at me.

“What?” I ask, besides the fucking obvious.

“Is that why this place looks like the North Pole?” she asks, pointing around herself at the overload of decorations. Looking at them, I’m quickly feeling a bit Christmasy again.

“I just want to be happy, Val,” I tell her. “It’s Christmas. It’s time for eggnog… and cookies… and outrageous decorations… and family… and I just want to be happy.” I shrug and she smiles softly.

“Then let’s be happy,” she says. “You want to do the lattice on that pie, or should I?”

My sister… my friend…

*-*

I still haven’t seen Christian once I’ve put my children down to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

I’m almost certain that in addition to what may be going on at GEH, he’s avoiding me. It might be a good idea that he’s avoiding me, because I don’t know what to say to him and he clearly doesn’t know what to say to me.

But tomorrow’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake.

We normally exchange a gift on Christmas Eve, but I haven’t seen him in four days. He probably didn’t even buy a gift for me! We didn’t even adopt a family this year because we had the Family Reunion instead of the Family Affair, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise since I’m fighting to make sure that this particular Christmas season doesn’t turn out to be a dud.

I spend another evening in my marble tub to make sure that I don’t awake stiff as a board. Tomorrow’s Christmas. I’ll have a house full of people and no matter how I feel, I’ve got to entertain. Ms. Solomon has banned me from the kitchen and although I won’t be cooking, I hate to tell her that there are going to be some moments when I’m going to be in there.

Harmony, Val and Elliot, and Maddie and Nelson are all tucked away in the guest rooms as well

I’ve laid out Minnie and Mikey’s Christmas attire, complete with two additional Christmas wardrobe changes should they ruin their first outfits. I’ve even carefully chosen my own clothing and this house is going to be drowning in Yuletide joy if I have to shit it out of my own ass!

I climb into bed in a flannel nightshirt, all warm and snuggly, and it doesn’t take long for me to fall off to sleep.

I awake to an empty bed… again. He was here; I can tell. There’s a fire going in the fireplace and his side of the bed has been slept in, but had it not been for those signs, I never would have known he was here.

There’s no warmth around me like he held me at all. I don’t feel any love or hate or anything from him. Four days and not a fucking word. It’s almost like he doesn’t exist… like I don’t exist.

He leaves before I wake.

He works until the very late hours of the evening or if he does come home, he makes sure he doesn’t encounter me until I’m asleep.

The only thing that lets me know that the man isn’t dead is that there’s no APB out on him.

The only communication that he’s had with me over the last several days is an email that he sent to the entire executive staff about the drug tests.

Maddie and Nelson arrived two days ago, and I don’t even know if he has spoken to them.

Any other time he hasn’t seen me, he would call me or text me or something. Although I know this goes both ways, I haven’t heard a thing out of him—not a peep.

He clearly wants to be left alone. He’s either still licking his wounds, his work has him all tied up and I’m very much the second thought, or he’s trying to teach me a lesson. Is he still in an internal uproar about what I said this weekend? Is this his way of lashing out at me… or punishing me?

Well, at least he didn’t fly to fucking Madrid!

I throw the covers off and get out of bed.


A/N: NEW CHRISTMAS PINTEREST PAGE 
https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey-a-grey-christmas/

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 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

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

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~~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 67—Saying Goodbye To Yesterday

Happy New Year, everyone. I’m still dealing with a bit of the winter blues, but I’m so happy to have made it whole and healthy to 2019 that I totally forgot to be depressed. 🙂

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 67—Saying Goodbye To Yesterday

ANASTASIA

We have a few more Bailey’s cocktails than I intended, but still manage not to overdo it. I have a recipe for Bailey’s smores, which is like a root beer float, only it’s made with all the ingredients for a smores with a healthy amount of Bailey’s added—something strong enough to relax her but not enough to leave her drunk or with a hangover. Courtney only had one very early in the afternoon. Harmony and I had one before dinner and after dinner. We all chewed the fat through dinner, but Courtney excused herself before the second round of smores.

“Christian’s really a great guy,” Harmony says, very relaxed and finally not crying. “Momma liked him a lot. She said that he used to crawl under her porch and drink lemonade or something. Do you know anything about that?” I nod.

“He told me about it a while ago,” I say. “He doesn’t talk about it much, but he remembers his visits fondly.”

“She said he was a bit of a troubled kid,” she adds, “but she didn’t give me details. I can’t imagine Christian being that kid.”

There’s a lot about Christian I bet you can’t imagine.

We’re silent for several moments before she finally says something.

“I can’t believe that he was a horrible guy the whole time,” she says. Huh? “Ken, I mean,” she adds. Oh! I thought she was talking about my husband. “I knew I wasn’t the only person he was seeing because we weren’t exclusive. He was older and worldlier—and he had the prettiest eyes…”

I didn’t notice that about him.

“I mean, on first glance, they just look like regular eyes,” she corrects herself, “but when the light hits them just this certain way…” She trails off. “I know he doesn’t look like much, but he was the world to me… at first. He told me I was special, and he treated me like a princess. He was the only guy to ever make me come from just having sex.”

Hmm, she’s been having sex since she was twelve and this guy is the first to make her come from sex? That’s sad.

“Yes, that can be quite powerful,” I say. She nods.

“Especially for a promiscuous, love-starved young girl with daddy issues,” she admits. “I was ripe for the picking and he took full advantage. I married him a few months after I met him, and I was totally stricken. I don’t remember when I told him about my trust, but somewhere down the line, he asked about it—and I asked Momma. That’s when she told me that she wasn’t going to give it to me. She wanted to see what Ken was going to do to take care of us. I was so mad,” she says shaking her head. “I just kept thinking, ‘What right do you have to make my husband prove his love for me to you?’ I was pissed and glad at the same time. I thought, ‘We’ll show her! We’ll make it without her damn money.’

“When I told Ken what happened, do you know what that asshole said to me? He said, ‘Go back over there and apologize. Kiss her ass and tell her whatever she needs to hear to get that trust.’ I thought I had crossed over into another dimension. Could this be my prince saying this to me? I told him, ‘no.’ I told him what her requirements were and that we could make it together and we would be fine without her money. He laughed at me… he ridiculed me, called me naïve, stopped talking to me altogether. When I tried to talk to him, he’d ask, ‘Have you talked to your mother?’ I still refused to believe that he was the monster that he was proving to be.

“Then, the women started. He wasn’t even discreet about it. I would find cancelled checks that he made out to these women, but I dare not ask him for a dime. I even found love letters written to them, and we won’t even talk about the nights he disappeared. It took four women—four—for me to realize I was a fucking joke… nothing but a big payoff and when I couldn’t deliver, he didn’t want me. So, here I am… no prince, a broken heart, and my Mom is gone. I got my trust, though,” she finishes, in a tragic tone.

I don’t know what to say to that. I knew she had to be heart-broken when she first found out what a loser her ex-husband was. I didn’t know that she still felt that way. Maybe she’s talking about her heart being broken because she’s lost Tina, I don’t know.

Is it crazy that I miss him sometimes?” she asks. I raise my brow. No, she’s not talking about Tina. I shake my head.

“Not at all,” I tell her. “You don’t know my entire story, but I used to be in love with this real psychopath. He was smooooooooth as silk, and I worshiped the ground he walked on. The problem was that he knew he could get any girl he wanted—and did. The cheating was ridiculous, let me tell you. My best friend finally forced me to see what he was doing to me and I finally broke up with him—put him out of my apartment. Do you know that for years after that, I still yearned for him? Still wanted him to come back? There were points where if he had come back, I would have welcomed him with open arms. Luckily—and unluckily—he didn’t come back until I was over him.”

“Why unluckily?” she asks. “I mean if you were over him…” she trails off.

“Because he couldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and that’s when I met the psychopath. I found out that he lied about his background and who he was. I discovered that he brutally beat this girl in his hometown for breaking up with him, and she looked just like me. I found out how schizophrenic he was because in one breath, he needed me and couldn’t live without me and in the next breath, I was a whore and a bitch because I was with Christian. Bear in mind, this was four years after our final breakup. Then, I learned just how crazy and psychopathic he was when he kidnapped me and had me chained to a bed for four days.”

“Oh, dear God!” she exclaims. “How did you possibly get out of that?”

“It was a combination of things. He was running out of time and he got desperate and gave me my phone, trying to convince me to call Christian. Instead, I made an emergency call without him knowing and kept him talking until my phone died. Jason, Christian, and the Seattle police tracked us down and rescued me.”

“Who’s Jason?” she asks.

“Christian’s head of security,” I say, and she nods.

“Oh, yeah, I know him,” she replies. “I didn’t know the police were really able to track your phone.”

“Well, I think they are, but they didn’t. Jason and Christian tracked my phone, then they picked me up in Christian’s helicopter and they had to get me to the hospital because I needed medical attention.”

“Helicopter?” she asks bemused. “What happened to just a regular old ambulance?”

“I… was on an island. Vashon Island to be exact. There’s only one way in and one way out besides air, and that was the ferry, so…” I shrug.

“Why did you need medical attention? There aren’t any hospitals on Vashon Island?” I shrug.

“I don’t know,” I admit honestly. “Christian had to get to me, so he flew his helicopter to get me and brought me inland to Seattle General…”

I tell her the whole ugly story of my desperate ex-boyfriend and his asshat ex-Keystone Cop sidekick with an axe to grind because he fucked up and lost his job. Harmony sits there in awe as I recount my horrible tale about being willing to die before I succumbed to Stockholm’s Syndrome, about Christian swooping in like Superman to save me, and about the eventual deaths of both my captors.

“Jesus, Ana,” she says when my story, “I just had a sucky husband, you had a full-on psycho… Do you think Ken could be that psychotic?”

“He doesn’t strike me as the type,” I assure her.

“Did Edward strike you as the type before he did it?” she asks.

Good point.

“Edward was obsessed,” I tell her. “Ken is looking for a quick dime. He’s not going to do anything even slightly dangerous to get it, I can guarantee you that.”

“How can you be so sure?” she asks. I wasn’t going to tell her this, but now I’ve planted a seed in her head about a crazy ex-boyfriend and now, I have to dig it out.

“The Friday before our interview aired, I went to see your ex-husband,” I tell her, “me and two of my bodyguards. We might have let him see our firearms in their holsters as we gently encouraged him to sign the damn divorce papers and to leave you the fuck alone.” And her eyeballs bulge again.

“You did what?” she asks in shock. “And when?” I recount the details of my visit to her ex-husband the week before he signed the papers. Her mouth falls open.

“He said something to Carrick about not wanting any trouble or something like that… That was you?” Before I get the chance to answer, she throws her arms around me and loses herself in a fit of sobs.

*-*

I hear a gentle knock that causes me to open my eyes and take in my unfamiliar surroundings. Harmony and I are sprawled out on her mother’s larger-than-life king-sized bed, fully dressed. I raise my head and I’m sporting a bit of a headache, but nothing too severe. Shit! I fell asleep! Did I call Christian? Did Chuck call him?

Ignoring my alarm, I slowly raise my head a bit to see a gorgeous mop of coppery-brown hair with soft gray eyes underneath peeking into the door.

“Are you ladies decent?” he says softly.

“Mmmmm,” I groan. He walks into the room looking every bit the Greek god in his jet-black suit.

Shit! The funeral! Now I pop up from the bed and get a slightly uncomfortable head rush.

“Are you ladies hung over?” he adds with a chuckle, walking over to the bed and sitting on the edge, gently massaging my scalp. I hold my thumb and index finger together to denote, “A little.” He nods and gestures to the door. Windsor comes in with a rolling tray, no doubt covered in food.

“He tells me you had Baileys last night,” my husband says softly. I nod. “So, we’ve brought you some ibuprofen, a nice and greasy breakfast, and some Baileys-laced coffee.” I nod again. “How much did you drink?”

“Maybe three or four smores,” I say. “Not enough to cause any real damage.” He frowns.

“You drank smores?” he asks bemused. I wave him off.

“It’s hard to explain,” I tell him. “I’m sorry I didn’t call.” He kisses my forehead.

“You were on a mission of mercy,” he says, “and partial self-destruction, it appears.” He looks over at Harmony. “How did she handle the drinks?” I look over at her.

“Better than me, I think,” I say. “She needed some rest. Today is going to be a rough day… and her father came yesterday.”

“Christ, they’re coming out of the woodwork,” he hisses. “So, the gambling king showed up yesterday?” I raise my brow.

“Ooh… that’s what he was talking about,” I acknowledge.

“What do you mean?”

“He asked for money,” I tell him, “says that he owes some bad men and that they’ll probably kill him if they don’t get paid.”

“Did Harmony give it to him?” he asks. I shake my head.

“She told him that he made that bed, now he has to lie in it.” Christian nods.

“Good for her.” I twist my lips.

“Maybe she should give him the money,” I say. He raises a brow.

“Why? He’s not going to pay his debt with it. He’s just going to gamble it away again,” he declares.

“Well, arrange for the guy to get the money and settle her father’s debt. The guy could come after her.

“Her father would just ring up another debt. Harmony’s right—she can’t be responsible for his actions or his consequences. Besides, his loan shark won’t come after Harmony.”

“How do you know that?” I ask. “These type of people will get their money any way they can, I’m sure of it.”

These people don’t have Alex,” he says, impassively. “She has to contend with her father, which it appears she’s doing a good job of that, but those people won’t fuck with her.” I sigh heavily.

“Thank God!” I breathe.

“My angel is gone,” Harmony says softly. We look over at her, and her eyes are still closed. Is she talking in her sleep? “But she left me two wonderful guardians to look out for me… Will you please ride in the family car with me?” She slowly opens her eyes and makes contact with mine. I fight not to cry as I gently stroke her hair.

“Of course, we will,” I say, failing to hide my emotion.

*-*

The ride to the church is silent. Harmony stares ahead of her as she clasps my hands. I can tell that she’s dreading this entire thing. She, Christian, and I are in the limo and there are three Audi SUV’s following us. One may think it’s overkill, but we don’t know what to expect. When our little caravan pulls up, we see the siblings standing outside of the church. Some of them are alone while others have an entourage of their own—significant others, children maybe, I don’t know. Christian steps out of the car first, then he helps me out while the driver opens the door for Harmony. I take one elbow and he extends his other arm to Harmony. She sighs heavily and obediently clasps his elbow as we proceed to the door of the church.

“Ms. Franklin,” the funeral director greets her. “Are you ready?” Harmony shakes her head.

“I’ll never be ready,” she admits, “but let’s get this done.” He nods.

“Um, I need your help. Those people over there indicate that they’re family. We’ve reserved two rows. Did you want them to be part of the family procession?” She closes her eyes and sighs, steeling herself.

“Four of those people are my mother’s children,” she says. He frowns.

“Your sisters and brothers?” he asks bemused.

“No!” she says, sharply. “My mother’s biological children. They’re listed in the obituary. I don’t know who those other people are. This is my family.” She gestures to Christian and me. The funeral director gives her a knowing look.

“I see,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.” He nods to Christian, who leads us into the church and down the aisle. Tina is laid out in a beautiful mahogany casket. Most often when I attend a funeral, the deceased looks like their head is sinking into the pillow, their chest is distinctly protruding forward and they look a bit unnatural. Tina looks like her neck and head have been elevated a bit, so that she really does look like she’s just sleeping. Harmony stands there gazing at her mother for several moments. Christian tries to guide her away from the casket, but she won’t move. Other mourners begin to clear their throats, an indication that she’s holding up the viewing line, but she doesn’t move. Christian throws a glare at the line and the throat clearing stops.

“Give me your coat,” he says. I remove my coat and hand it to him. He moves me over to Harmony and I take her arm. He looks at the funeral director.

“Let her stand here as long as she wants,” he says quietly. “She’ll never see her mother again.” The funeral director nods and Christian walks away. I put my arm around Harmony’s shoulder and the funeral director gestures for the other mourners to go around us.

Get in where you fit in, folks.

Ilsa and Paige make their way to the front of the line and begrudgingly stand next to Harmony. They throw a glance in our direction and I glare right back at them.

Try something you blue-haired old bitches and we’ll end up on YouTube!

As if they read my thoughts, they turn around and look at Tina.

“Mother…” Paige breathes dramatically, touching the side of the casket and tilting her head back and forth in a strange manner as she gazes at Tina. It’s everything I can do not to exclaim, “Oh, give me a fucking break.” In my head, I can see Tina’s lips twist in the same sentiment of disbelief.

Paige ends her performance and steps back to the spot she occupied next to Harmony. No one else bothered with any of the theatrics.

“The funeral home did a wonderful job,” someone behind us says. “She’s beautiful.”

“They didn’t. I did,” Harmony says gazing at her mother. Ilsa and Paige glare at her, wondering what she’s talking about. “I did my mother’s hair… and her make-up. She was white and powdery, not because she’s dead, but because they used the wrong foundation.” She touches Tina’s gloved hand.

“They had her hair in a small bouffant. My mother has never worn a bouffant—at least not while I was alive. It was always a delicate French roll or that Grace Kelly bun.”

“You’re right,” the woman behind us says. “You prepared your mom?”

“I did,” Harmony confirms. “Shisiedo very light ivory hydro-liquid compact, a hint of minimalist soft pink whipped powder blush, translucent loose powder to hold her glow, and her favorite nude lip balm. Just enough color so that she looks as peaceful and beautiful as when I found her that morning.” She looks lovingly at Tina, a sad smile gracing her face and a lone tear on her cheek.

“Oh, God, can you be any more dramatic?” Ilsa whispers, but not low enough. Harmony doesn’t hear her, but I do, and so does the woman standing behind us.

“Have a little respect for the family!” she quips at Ilsa, who gasps at her.

“I am the family!” she retorts haughtily. “That’s my mother lying in that casket!”

“Oh, I didn’t know,” the lady says unapologetically. “Have you been out of the country?”

“No, just out of touch,” Harmony answers for her before finally turning away from the casket heading towards her seat. I note that Christian asked for my coat so that he could save the first two seats in front for Harmony and me while he took the third. He received more than one dirty look from the siblings for his gesture while his glare dared any one of them to say something.

I move my coat from the first seat and allow Harmony to sit before Christian removes his coat from the second seat for me.

“You did a wonderful job, dear,” the same lady says, squeezing Harmony’s hand before proceeding to her seat. Harmony silently nods her thanks and looks ahead at her mother, mournful tears streaming down her face.

Once the procession ends and everyone takes their seats, the simple service begins. It’s only short enough for people to see her one last time, pay their respects, a short eulogy, and that’s it. Paige, who kept her theatrics going at the casket a few moments too many, missed her opportunity to get a seat on the first row and she’s sitting behind us. Every thirty seconds, she’s saying something derogatory about the service or the church or anything she can bark about.

“Dear God, this is so tacky,” Paige complains. “There’s nowhere for her children to say anything; the obituary is bare; and the casket is horrendous. Who planned this?”

My husband has had enough. He whirls around to face her.

“Tina made all her own arrangements before she passed, so if you have a problem with anything you see, you can go on up there to the casket and take it up with her. Now, please keep your discontent to a gentle roar, because people are staring at you!” He hisses the last part through his teeth.

Sure enough, she looks around and a hush has fallen over the small church, all eyes on Paige expecting. She turns indignantly in her seat away from Christian and faces the front of the church, only to find the minister glaring at her.

“I’m sorry, Momma,” Harmony whispers. I put my arm around her shoulders and turn my attention back to the service.

As intended, the service is very short and respectful, and the procession goes to the cemetery and the family tomb to have Tina interred next to her beloved husband. There are no dramatics at the cemetery. No, Tina’s family reserve that display for the repast. It’s being held at a small colonial-style hall in Bellevue—one with an open bar, which probably isn’t the best idea, but…

The attacks begin almost immediately.

“Who are all these people?” Ilsa complains. “Where are Mom’s friends?”

“You mean the ones who know who you are?” Harmony asks. “Most of them have passed on. The ones who remain are either in hospice or were too weak to come. The rest are here, but you’d know that if you kept in touch.”

“This hall is too small,” Ilsa continues. “You should have picked a better locale.”

“Where would you have had it?” Harmony asks impassively.

“Someplace grander than this,” she says distastefully, “like the Fairlane Olympic or something.”

“Oh, okay,” Harmony replies. “Maybe the machine ate your message when you called to make those arrangements.” Ilsa blindly continues voicing her discontent.

“Why didn’t you list Mom’s grandchildren in the obituary?” Ilsa accuses.

“Because I don’t know who any of them are,” Harmony responds matter-of-factly. “During the numerous times that you all called, none of you offered to help me and the last time that I’ve seen you or any of your children, I was a tween. So, how do you suppose I do that, sis?” Her final tone is a bit murderous, and Ilsa decides to drop that subject, except for one last dig.

“You’re a great-grandchild and I see you made front and center…”

“She’s. My. Mother!” Harmony says in a voice so demonic that it halts all of Ilsa’s questions. She storms away from her sister/great-aunt in a fury. I look over at Christian and shake my head. This is, no doubt, the way that Harmony has been treated her whole life.


CHRISTIAN

This circus is really getting on my damn nerves. Three of my guards have to stay in close proximity of us at all times to prevent a goddamn fight from breaking out. These people are the worst brood of assholes I’ve ever seen in my life. I may not have been paying close attention, but I don’t think I’ve seen ten tears drop between the lot of them.

“Excuse me…” I hear someone’s voice over my shoulder as I and Butterfly are literally creating a human shield around Harmony to protect her from her mother’s horrible children. “Aren’t you Christian Grey?” I frown.

“Who’s asking?” I reply, my tone none too friendly.

“I’m Tina’s oldest son,” he says with gleeful haughtiness. “I had no idea that you were acquainted with our family. It’s such an honor that you’re here. The family truly thanks you for coming.”

And suddenly, he’s the Franklin family spokesperson? I walked into the church with Harmony, sat through the entire funeral, went to the cemetery, and now—here at the repast after he’s gotten a few drinks in him, he’s brave enough to approach me? Fucking shit, fucking hell, son of a…

I stand from the barstool and face him, pulling myself up to my full height and trying not to squash him under my shoe.

“You’ll have to forgive me…” I pause and wait for his name.

“Jonah,” he says, extending his hand. “Jonah Franklin.” I look at his hand but don’t accept the shake.

“Well, Jonah, I’m very sorry for your loss, and you’ll have to forgive my candor and chilliness at this moment, but I don’t know who you are. You know me as Christian Grey, billionaire and entrepreneur. What you don’t know is that I was a scared and lonely little boy that hid under your porch when I was a kid, and Aunt Tina gave me lemonade and cookies…”

“Really?” he interrupts.

“I’m not finished, Jonah.” He’s taken aback by my sharpness, and I now have his attention and the attention of a few others around us, but I don’t care.

“What you also don’t know is that about a month or so ago, I had your mother’s house swept and a key member of her staff fired because her house was bugged; that I also had some of my own staff stay at her house to make her last days more comfortable and to make sure that no one took advantage of her; that I and my wife spent numerous hours with your mother during that time making sure that her needs were met and that her daughter wasn’t overwhelmed with her mother’s care; that through the diligence of three separate attorneys and a court order, she could relax during her final hours because she didn’t have to worry about her home and assets being stripped by long-lost family members coming to get a piece of the rock and that nothing can be touched or claimed—not even an earring—until the reading of the will.”

My eyes flash over to the daughter that began harassing Harmony for her mother’s 4-carat diamond earrings the moment she hit the door.

“What you also don’t know is that I and my wife saw Harmony cry day after day while she watched her mother slip away—all while she was continuing her education and dealing with her own dramas; that Harmony chose your mother’s clothes and styled your mother’s hair herself so that she could be presentable when you saw her today; that it was Harmony that called my wife screaming when your mother took her last breath. So, you’ll forgive me if the only family of Aunt Tina’s that I know of is Harmony, because she’s the only one who’s been here.

“I’ve basically been the right-hand man, making sure that all your mother’s loose ends were tied and all of her wishes have been carried out. As I have no stake in any of her property or belongings, I was to be the objective ears and help her make the decisions that she needed to make in her last days. These are decisions that her family should have helped her make, but an objective outsider—a close friend, but an outsider nonetheless—had to make sure that her affairs were in order, that a house manager that had been skimming from her accounts for years was finally gone before he could do any real damage. Her very adult children should have been there to handle that for her, to make sure that crooked little weasel was dealt with, but only one—only one—took on that responsibility, and that one was not you.

“So, Jonah, I say all that to say that the only family that I know of is Harmony. So, if you’re speaking to me now on behalf of the family, then I have a question for the family. Where. Were you? Where were you when your adopted sister was crying her eyes out and holding herself together by a thread while she watched her mother die? Your mother? Who are you now coming to me speaking on behalf of the family when you haven’t been here on behalf of the family? I have! Harmony has! My wife has! For the past several weeks, we’ve been here on behalf of the family! Where were you during that time?”

“Christian, please…” Harmony beseeches, but I’m sorry. I have to know.

“Where were you?” I ask the room full of shocked faces. “Where were you when your mother was dying? Where were you when she took her final trip down Memory Lane? While you’re looking at Harmony like she’s nothing, like she’s no one, angry because Aunt Tina put the house in her name, where were you when Tina took her last breath? November 11, 2014 at approximately 2am Pacific time, where were you? What was so important that not one of you could come and visit her and say goodbye? She’s not going to ask you,” I say pointing to Harmony, “so I will. Where were you? A weekend out of your oh-so-busy lives to come and see your mother and tell her that you love her and none of you did!

“Her body wasn’t even cold yet and you come banging on the door demanding entry like you own the place! The dirt isn’t even on her casket yet, and you’re trying to lay claim to her valuables! Did she mean nothing to you?”

I feel rage rising in my chest and I clench my teeth to bite the words I want to say to this useless lot of people. My chest is rising and falling like an angry bear and they all stare at me in stunned silence.

“Christian…” My wife’s voice is normally my calming agent, but not now, not today. I whirl around to face her.

“I was here,” I say, my voice low and menacing. “I was here the whole time—the whole time! I waited, we waited, and none of them showed up. She cried,” I bite out, remembering Tina’s tearstained cheeks in my mind, “she cried, and she waited for them to come and not one of them came! Not one! Not even to say goodbye! To their own mother!”

“I know, baby,” she says, her soft voice gently chiseling down the edges of my rage. I turn back to the family.

“Which one of you worms threatened to blow the house up with Harmony in it?” I demand. No one says anything, but everybody looks at the person whom I assume is Theo. “Don’t make threats you can’t cash in,” I say, glaring at him. “You’ll have to get through a whole lotta motherfuckers to get to her, and I’m one of them. So, if you’re looking to bring Armageddon down on yourself, go ahead and try something.”

“Is he fucking her?” one of the sisters says to the other, feigning an attempt to be discreet. Butterfly was right. This is a wretched bunch of human beings.

“No,” I say, turning my attention to her. “I’m fucking her!” I say pointing at my wife. “But I’ll tell you this, you uncouth old shrew! Tina’s final request of me was to take care of Harmony—to protect her from you all, and you can bet your shriveled little asses that’s exactly what I plan to do.” I turn away from her before she has the chance to react or respond and turn to my wife.

“I’m going to do everything—everything in my power to make sure that they don’t pick her estate dry.” I turn around to look at the faces still observing my rage. “Everything!” I bark at them.

“I know you will, baby. I know you will. Come on, let’s go get a drink.” She takes my hand and I blindly follow my wife to the bar.

*-*

It takes quite some time, but my rage finally settles—and none of the Franklins dared to approach me during that time. They do, however, approach Harmony several times, who has perched herself at a table with a glass of clear liquid that she never drinks. She just stares at it. One Franklin comes over to her; then another one; then two or three at a time. It’s like they powwow, and they get up from the table then they come back and come at her again. Each time they leave, she looks more and more spent.

“Go over there and sit with Harmony,” I tell Chuck. “See what the conversation is and don’t let anybody harass her.” Chuck nods and goes over to the table, heading off another Franklin just as they were walking in her direction. Chuck says a few words to her and she nods without raising her gaze. He says something else, and she nods again.

It only takes a minute or two for one of the Franklins to come back to the table. It’s a female, and she actually tries to dismiss Chuck. When he refuses to leave, she gets into a bit of a heated conversation with him and Harmony, although her conversation is one-sided as Harmony nor Chuck is responding. When he’s heard enough, he tells her to kindly leave the table because Harmony isn’t talking about this right now. I assume that it’s about property once again and just as I’m about to walk over to the table, Harmony stands swiftly, knocking her chair to the floor in the gesture.

“For God’s sake, just leave me alone!” she screams and runs to the door, bursting through it and down the stairs onto the icy ground outside. Everyone runs to the windows where we can see Harmony standing in the middle of the pathway, sobbing and screaming the same word over and over…

“Momma! Momma! Maaahahahah-maaaaaaaaahahaha!”

Before I can say anything, Butterfly is running outside in her coat with Harmony’s in her hand. She negotiates those stairs like she’s not wearing six-inch platform stilettos in the ice and snow and quickly wraps Harmony’s coat around her. Harmony stands there calling for her mother… to come back? To rescue her? Just because she can’t take it anymore? I turn to Jason standing behind me and he nods and starts talking into his wrist.

“Bring the car around,” he says, and all the guests turn to him. “Get Harmony home. The Franklin house is on lockdown effective immediately. Nobody gets in without her permission. Call in backup if you need it.”

The room is eerily silent, but I don’t look at the faces of Aunt Tina’s children. I’m disgusted and if Tina really could roll over in her grave, she’s doing it now.

An Audi drives up to the walkway and one of my many security staff get out and walk over to Ana and the weeping Harmony. He tries to help her walk, but her feet don’t move. She starts to fight, protesting that she wants her mama, but like a wrecking ball just hit her, she collapses into mournful sobs, and my guard has to catch her. He scoops her into his arms and carries her weeping body to the car with Butterfly walking behind him. She turns and looks over her shoulder. I don’t know if she sees me, but my eyes lock on hers before she turns back to follow Harmony and the guard to the Audi. I turn around and face the four remaining children that Tina has left behind.

“Well,” I begin, “she’s gone now. Plot away, and good luck to you all.” I turn to Jason. “I’m ready to get the hell out of here.”

“Right this way, sir,” he says, gesturing to Chuck who appears with my coat. “Bring the other cars around. The boss is ready to go,” he says into his wrist. It all looks so Mission Impossible, but I’m glad that it does. I want all of these leeches and moochers to know exactly what they’re dealing with. The hell if I’m going to allow them to dismantle Tina’s estate like a bunch of fucking vultures. I walk out of the hall without another word, Chuck and Jason both flanking me just behind me, knowing that everything they’re looking at screams “power.”

Fuck with me. I dare you…

*-*

“How is she?” I ask when I get to the Franklin house.

“She’s upstairs with your wife,” the guard at the door says. I make my way up the stairs, but I don’t knock on Harmony’s door. I just wait for a few minutes. My wife emerges after a while looking a bit spent.

“How is she?” I ask softly. She shakes her head.

“I wish I had some tranquilizers,” she says. “She’s inconsolable.”

“There’s nothing in the medicine cabinets?” I ask. She shrugs.

“I have no idea.” That’s when I remember that Windsor is on staff here temporarily. I call Jason’s phone.

“Yes, sir?” he answers.

“Jason, can you locate Windsor and ask him if he can scare up some tranquilizers somewhere for Harmony.”

“Yes, sir.” When I turn back to Butterfly, she’s worrying her scar.

“What is it?” I ask.

“She’s never going to get any peace,” she says, gazing at me with large sad eyes. “They’re going to keep coming, banging at the door, waiting for the will, trying to pressure her… She’s going to lose her mind… and I can’t sit here every day.” I sigh. I know I don’t need to say it, but I do.

“She can come and stay with us for a while,” I suggest.

“She may not want to,” Butterfly protests. “I think she’s spent every night this week in her mother’s bed. Hell, she can’t even mourn properly. This is cruel.”

“We’ll gently convince her that it’s the best thing to do, but not right now,” I say, putting my arm around her and pulling her close to me. She shudders, signaling me that she has been crying or that she’s about to cry. I embrace her and try to figure out how I can convince Harmony to leave her cocoon-turned-hell for a few days and come to Grey Crossing.

“Sir…” We’ve stood in the hallway for quite some time. Our embrace is interrupted by Windsor with a bottle of pills and a glass of water.

“One of the staff had some sleeping pills,” he says. I nod and gesture to Tina’s door where Harmony has been all this time.

“I’ll take them,” Butterfly says. Just as she’s about to reach for the door, it opens suddenly, and Harmony’s disheveled form is standing there with a small overnight case.

“Harmony!” Butterfly exclaims, and we’re all startled standing in the hallway. Harmony looks absolutely waterlogged, her tearstained face still drenched with fresh tears, her eyes bloodshot red and nearly swollen shut.

“I can’t… I can’t… stay… here!” she chokes through her sobs. She holds up the overnight case. “I have… some of… my mother’s… things… They can… have it… all… I can’t… stay here… I’ll go… to… a hotel…”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Butterfly says, taking the overnight case and handing it off to me. “You’ll come to Grey Crossing, and you’ll stay as long as you like. My husband insists.” Harmony looks over Butterfly’s shoulder at me, then collapses into my wife’s arms in yet more inconsolable tears.

After we’ve packed a few of Harmony’s things, we’re back in the Audi’s heading down the road to Grey Crossing. I’m driving, and Chuck is in the passenger seat, my wife and a still-weeping Harmony in the back seat. I’ve left Jason at the mansion with specific instructions.

“Give the staff some time off. Lock down the house. Arrange for whatever temporary winterizing is necessary. Absolutely nobody gets in this house. The lady of the house is away, and the instruction is to have any trespassers arrested, no matter who they are.”

Butterfly is very happy to have Windsor returning to us. As much as we care for Harmony, we want our butler back.

We get Harmony settled in one of the guest rooms and she doesn’t emerge for the rest of the night. We want to ask her if she means that she couldn’t stay in the Franklin Mansion tonight or if she means that she could never stay in the Franklin Mansion again. I know it’s no use asking her at the moment, and my wife proves to also be a closed book as she spends most of her evening in the gym after which she takes the longest bath known to man before heading straight to bed. I spend the evening with a bottle of brandy and my piano. It was a hell of a day for all of us.

The days that follow aren’t much different. Harmony doesn’t leave her room, speak to anyone, or eat all of Sunday. Butterfly spends most of her day hunched over her laptop. I’m certain that she’s journaling.

I was hoping that Monday would bring the return of a welcome routine—getting ready for work, having breakfast, talking about what our day would look like, but Butterfly seems to be grieving along with Harmony, who still hasn’t left her room. I’ve instructed Ms. Solomon to take some food to her room and not to leave until she eats it. Now, I need to try to break the Butterfly funk.

I find her in the nursery sitting in the window seat looking out of that horrid window.

Good God, not there!

She turns to me when I open the door. Our children are both asleep and she’s dressed for work. Is this where she comes now when she’s sad?

“What are you doing in here?” I say softly so as not to wake our sleeping babies.

“Being around them gives me peace,” she says quietly.

“But I know that window doesn’t,” I say, moving next to her. She sighs and turns her gaze back out the window… probably to the bridge.

“It’s a familiar place in time of turmoil,” she replies. A familiar place… like hell.

“Can’t we find you another familiar place?” I ask. “One with not so many… negative connotations?”

“It’s just geography,” she says, turning to me. “Ace cancelled our appointment.” I frown.

“What appointment?” I ask. “Last Friday’s appointment?” She nods.

“That’s partially why I drank so much,” she admits. “Baileys was my therapist.”

“Doctors cancel appointments all the time, baby,” I comfort.

“Not twice in a row,” she says. “The anniversary of my accident, he basically threw me out of his office.”

“Why?” I ask, a bit bemused and a bit angry.

“Oh, I pissed him off,” she says. “I said something to him that I definitely shouldn’t have, and he put me out to keep from exploding at me. Seems I can’t keep a shrink.” I know she’s referring to Maxine quitting on her and even though I’ve never admitted it, I know that I was largely the cause of that… not totally, but largely.

“That’s not true, baby,” I say, sitting in the window seat next to her. Since she’s turned sideways, she’s actually looking at me. “What did you say that was so bad?”

“I basically told him that he wasn’t doing his job,” she says. “I asked him why my head of security had to point out that I was suffering from PTSD and he didn’t.” I twist my lips.

“Baby, you know why,” I tell her.

“Yes, I know why,” she admits, “but I still held him responsible. So, he threw me out of his office. He told me that he could effectively service me that day and that I should find someone that I could trust to talk to.”

“And then we had our date,” I remind her. She nods.

“It helped a lot,” she says. “It was just what I needed in so many ways, and not just because of the mind-blowing sex.” She tries to chuckle.

“And then we fought—or silently fought at Valerie’s and Elliot’s house,” I recall. She shrugs.

“Shit happens,” she says, trying to look past me back at the bridge. I think this is going to be her new “shrinking.”

“And then I caught the mutant bug from hell and you took care of me,” I add, tilting my head so that I’m in her line of sight and not the bridge. Sad blue eyes meet mine and I know that her heart is heavy.

“And then Tina dies, and her overbearing inconsiderate family tries to cause Harmony to have a fucking nervous breakdown,” she hisses.

“And when you need to vent, Ace calls and cancels your appointment…”

“Actually, Amber called and cancelled it, but yes, that’s the thrust.” I twist my lips.

“You decided not to take the babies to work today? I see that you’re dressed. No one would blame you for taking the day off.”

“No,” she says shaking her head. “I’m not taking the babies in because I have way too much to do, so there’s no need in waking them when I can’t give them the attention they deserve. And I can’t take the day off for the same reason. I have to meet with the new maintenance guy to review his observations and set up interviews for maintenance and cleaning staff.”

“Can’t my mother do that?” I ask. She nods.

“She could, but she’s been very patient and understanding with me while I’ve been playing hooky to take care of Harmony. It was a necessary evil, but I have responsibilities. I can’t keep pawning all the work off onto her.” I sigh. I think about all the time I was taking off and Ros gave me what for, prompting me to hire Lorenz.

“Maybe we’ll have a special, quiet dinner when you get home,” I tell her. “I’ll give you a nice massage and we can watch some of your favorite old movies.” She smiles.

“That would be divine,” she says. I take her hand and stand, prompting her to stand with me and come away from that blasted window.

After I force her to have a real breakfast—no bagel, jelly, and cream cheese today—I send her on her way with a kiss and instructions to Chuck not to allow her to stay late today no matter what.

“Call me if you need backup,” I tell him. “I’ll take the heat.” He nods his acknowledgement and leaves. I text Ros and Lorenz and ask what’s on the burner today and if they can survive without me. I also text Andrea to find out if there are any pertinent meetings on my agenda. After about twenty minutes, everyone responds that there are no fires, floods, or hurricanes on the horizon. So, I go to my dressing room and change into something casual.

Jason is shocked when I come back to the kitchen.

“Is everything alright?” he asks, he and his wife eyeing me speculatively.

“Everything’s fine,” I say. “Did Sophie get off to school okay?” He nods.

“Yes, sir,” he says.

“What news, if any, from the Franklin Mansion?” I ask.

“None yet, sir,” he says. “No one tried to visit this weekend, but the day is young.”

“Well, we’re taking the day off, but I’m going to monopolize your wife, and you’re not allowed to watch.” He raises a brow at me.

“Wha…?” Gail says from the other side of the counter. I turn to her.

“Remember when I said I wanted you to teach me to cook?” I ask her.

“Um, yes?” She says uncertainly.

“Well, today’s the day,” I tell her. “I need a romantic dinner for my wife and I need you help me cook something. No more cracking eggs.” Jason stands from his stool.

“You’re right,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to watch this anyway.” He walks around the counter to his wife.

“Go easy on him,” he says, “and wail if you need me.” He leans over and kisses her and exits through the family room. She sighs heavily and turns her attention back to me.

“I am yours to mold today, Mrs. Taylor,” I say, putting my hands up in surrender. “Whatever your instruction, I will follow. I won’t give you any problem. Just please, understand if I get a little frustrated because I’m fucking up.” She pauses for a moment, then hands me a chef’s apron.

“Let’s get started then.”

The kitchen looks like a warzone after about four hours. I had no idea I could fuck up so much, but Gail is very patient with me—in between uncontrollable fits of laughter. After one exploding pot of sauce, one burned pot of sauce, and one completely unusable pot of sauce, we give up on the red sauce and move to something more idiot-friendly.

We’re going to have a mish-mosh type of meal, but I wanted to be able to provide courses that I prepared myself. Our appetizer will be raspberry-grilled brie with toasted baguette slices and crostini. Our main course is a simple Thai shrimp recipe with red peppers and snap peas served with Jasmine rice—easily cooked in the rice cooker. The hardest part of this course was deveining the shrimp! For dessert, I choose various chocolate fondues with fresh fruit. All very easy dishes even if a bit time consuming for a beginner. As I’m trying to complete my task, I feel my phone buzzing in my pocket and my hands are an utter mess.

“Gail, would you retrieve my phone from my pocket?” I say, thrusting my hip towards her. She looks at me like I’ve asked her to murder someone.

“Please!” I beg. “Before it stops. My company is running without me.”

“Which pocket?” she says skeptically.

“Front,” I say, thrusting my hip at her again. She hesitates, but gingerly reaches into my pocket to retrieve my phone.

And it stops.

“Shit!” I hiss as she produces my now silent phone.

“Well, don’t be mad at me!” she defends. “You’re thrusting your hips at me telling me to stick my hands in your pants—did you expect me to jump at that opportunity?” I roll my eyes at her while I examine my phone, trying to see who called before the screen goes black.

“What?” Jason’s voice growls from the family room.

“Your timing fucking sucks,” I announce, “and I thought you said you were staying out of the kitchen.”

“I stayed out for hours! I’m hungry!” he demands. “Why is my wife talking about you gyrating and telling her to stick her hands in your pants?” Just as he’s demanding answers, my phone starts buzzing again.

“That’s why!” I bark, pointing with gooey hands. “Answer my phone, please!”

Jason glares at me but walks over to the counter and looks at my phone. Picking it up, he swipes the screen and puts it to its ear.

“Grey House of Perversion,” he answers. What the fuck?

“I’m fucking going to kill you,” I say quietly, “after I fucking fire you.”

“Oh, no reason, besides the fact that your boss is telling my wife to grope him,” he says. And his ass is talking to someone who works for me. I’m really going to kill him. I go to the sink to wash my hands.

“Al says the pussy DJ wants to talk?” Jason says, his face as questioning as his statement. I frown.

“He said what?” I ask, drying my hands and looking over into the fondue pot.

“That’s what he said,” Jason confirms. What the fuck is the…? Oh! The pussy DJ! Rossiter. I hold my hand out for the phone and Jason hands it to me.

“What does he want to talk about?” I ask Al. “He can talk when we get to court. Did he forget there’s a restraining order on his ass?”

“Do I even want to know what’s going on in that house right now?” Al asks.

“Besides the fact that I’m about to fire my head of security for the 918th time, no. Now answer my question,” I demand.

“Well, you can’t get much publicity with a gag order and you can’t easily go anywhere and start over with a lawsuit hanging over your head. You can’t even really defend your position—to anybody—if you can’t talk about it. So, our obscene little attention-grabbing hothead pussy DJ had his attorney call me and ask for a meeting with hopes for a settlement.”

“He’s got to be kidding,” I say, while stirring my white chocolate fondue. “What could he possibly have that I would want that would prompt me to drop this case?”

“That’s what he’s trying to find out,” Al says. “What are we aiming for with this lawsuit, Chris?”

“How about his total ruin?” I say, turning the fire down to its lowest setting. “For him to shut the fuck up and fade into obscurity. That would be a good outcome. Is he willing to settle on that?”

“Chris…” Al says, his voice slightly scolding. I don’t have time for this right now.

“Make an appointment for him and his attorney to meet us on Wednesday,” I say flippantly.

“Why not tomorrow?” he asks.

“Wednesday, Al,” I say, my voice demanding.

“I was just curious,” he says, sounding like a petulant child.

“Because I didn’t come in to work today and I don’t want to start my week with a meeting with that asshole!” I say.

“Fine, sir,” he says, still petulant. I end the call.

“Call Chuck and have him drop Butterfly off at the front door,” I tell Jason. Under no circumstances is she to come into this kitchen!” Not only do I not want my surprise to be spoiled, but I also don’t want her to see what a mess I’ve made. “Screw this up, and I really will fire you, Jason.”

“Promises, promises,” he says as he takes out his phone and starts dialing. I turn to Gail.

“I need to go clean up and get changed. Can you make sure nothing explodes or sticks or burns or…”

“You’re fine,” she interrupts. “You did a great job. Rough start, but it all came out in the wash.” I nod and toss her the hand towel I’m holding.

Mrs. Solomon has set the table in the formal living room—the one in front of the floor to ceiling windows with a view of the lake. Ambient lighting is accented with candles and a beautiful glow from the moonbeams bouncing off the lake. That view couldn’t have been better if I planned it.

“Activate two-way communications,” I say as I walk to the bottom of the stairwell. “Locate Windsor.”

He’s the only person in the entire system known by only one name.

“Yes?” he answers.

“Can I see you in the grand entry please?” I summons. He acknowledges and is there almost before I get the chance to disengage the intercom system.

“Mrs. Grey should be home very soon,” I tell him. “If she gets here before I return, would you show her to the table in the living room?”

“Yes sir.” Whether or not I admit it aloud, it’s good to have him back.


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