Grey Continued: Season 5 Episode 29

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…

Season 5 Episode 29

CHRISTIAN

“Nope, they got nothing,” Alex told me when I called him from security central on my burner on Tuesday night. “The missing person’s report came from a friend of hers who normally sees her a couple of times a week and hasn’t heard from her. They can’t prove anything with Lincoln’s strokes. They just happen. Sometimes, very young people have strokes—they don’t know why. They linked the ghost writer through the warden because he thought the information would help his case—it didn’t. So, now they’re going to start sniffing up the asses of Seattle’s movers and shakers, ruffling all kinds of feathers on a hunch hoping something falls out. I can guarantee you have nothing to worry about.”

“What about Ellison?” I ask.

“Have you seen Dodd?” he asks.

“No,” I reply.

“Then I can guarantee that you won’t see Ellison either.” That’s enough for me. “And call the governor. You need to show some outrage.”

“Will do.”

That was Tuesday after Cagney and Baretta left my home. I figure I’d wait a couple of days before I called Charlotte to see if anybody else called her.

“Always a pleasure when you call me, Christian,” she says when she answers the phone. “Let me guess, Detective Burns and Detective Groomer.”

“Tell me they’re not going through with this,” I say, mocking disbelief. “What is this all about? Was this girl somebody’s long lost niece or something?” I immediately think of the Pedophile’s great-aunt showing up to tell me to call off the dogs.

“No, just another missing persons’ report. Unfortunately, this one smells of the whole Hollywood Madam thing. So, somebody’s trying to make a name for themselves. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of who, yet, but I need to know. What is your connection to this girl?”

“I’m going to tell you the same thing that I told them. I planned on fucking her before I married my wife, so I ran a background check on her,” I say.

“Christian, must you be so crude?” she asks.

“It’s the truth, Charlotte,” I reply. “I don’t have casual affairs and I don’t sleep with just anybody. You know the sordid details of my relationship with Elena Lincoln, but at the time, she was someone that I trusted. Knowing my need for discretion—and my type—I relied on her judgement when she introduced me to someone. That was around the same time that I met my wife. One came with a relationship which you know I didn’t want. One was no strings attached, only I realized later that there were strings attached.”

“Elaborate,” she says. I sigh.

“Let me start by saying that I fell head over heels in love with my wife before I even knew I was in love with her. As such, Gretchen didn’t even have a chance…”

“I think her name is Greta,” Charlotte corrects me. I laugh inwardly.

“And that’s the whole thing!” I say, mocking frustration. “The same thing happened when the cops were here. I kept messing up her name. That’s just how little an impact she left on me. I loved Ana. I wanted Ana. Even if she didn’t want me, I wanted her. So, when Gret-ta showed up, as perfect as she was, I couldn’t slide her into the slot because it wasn’t her slot. I wanted this other woman. I would have done anything I had to do to get this other woman. She was like no other woman that I ever met, and the same shit that I was doing before was not going to work on her. She wasn’t impressed with my money, my power, my looks, nothing. She fucking hated me, and I was already worshipping the ground she walked on.

“Gret-ta would have been perfect for a no-strings-attached steady fuck, which was exactly what I was looking for before I met my wife. The closer I got to winning my wife, the further I got from Gret-ta. Then, I found out that there was a large transfer of funds from Lincoln’s account to her account, and I felt like a damn John. I called the whole thing off and pursued my wife with gusto until I got her. That woman’s not even an ex, Charlotte. She was a hopeful, a wannabe that never made the mark. She doesn’t pose a threat to me because she doesn’t know anything about me. Anything that she could know about me—even from Lincoln—she can’t print or say, because before she would have even been able to be considered to be in my company, she would have had to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

“There’s nothing that she can gain from saying anything about me even if she knows anything about me. She was just somebody I thought about fucking and if she tells somebody that, that wouldn’t hurt. I thought about fucking Haley Berry, too, but that never happened and this just as relevant, if not less. She can’t hurt me. She poses no threat to me. So, why are they bothering me?”

“I believe you, Christian,” Charlotte says. “I’m glad you told me the whole story so that I have something to go on. Other reputable people haven’t been as forthcoming as you. Granted, I have several other people who say that they have no idea who she is, and others who I’m certain know who she is but they won’t tell me. I know they have something to hide. I’m beginning to wonder if this girl really is a high-class hooker.”

“She might be,” I say. “I was soliciting sex, I admit that, but I was doing it in a ‘meet you, see if we click, let’s do this’ type of way. Once I saw that money had exchanged hands and I had no explanation why, I was out, and if she says anything different, she’s a liar.”

“Well, unfortunately, right now, she’s not saying anything,” Charlotte replies. I sigh.

“How many people have they questioned so far?” I ask.

“I don’t know, but you’re the 16th person who called me.”

Sixteen! They’re chasing dust particles. They’re never going to get an answer.

“Charlotte, you and I both know that if this girl hit the right person at the wrong time, they’re never going to find her. All they’re doing is ruffling the feathers of a lot of high-powered people. They came to my home and interrogated me like a criminal with no grounds whatsoever. They disrupted my day; they upset my wife; they frightened my children… all on a hunch! They have no evidence, no probable cause—they wouldn’t even tell me why they were here until Jason threatened to call the chief of police!

“What do they think happened to this girl? Who do they think is responsible for her disappearance? Do they have any real leads besides hearsay and bits from the gossip columns, because that’s all they gave me?”

“From what I understand, yes, that’s all they have.” I sigh, actually from relief, but I don’t want her to know that.

“Charlotte, if they come at me again, I’m going to the press,” I say.

“Christian, please, don’t do that,” she pleads. “That could destroy their whole investigation.”

“Then, they need to have something more concrete,” I say. “A man who has something to hide is not going to stick his face in front of a camera. I will. I’m tired of cops treating me like shit just because they feel like they can. They treated me this way when Anastasia was kidnapped. They treated me this way when she was involved in that accident. Hell, they treated me this way when that crazy blonde bitch tried to kill me. I’m tired of this! And I’m as tired of calling you to fix it as you are of me calling you.”

They’ve got nothing on me. I know they don’t even though I know what happened to that bitch. This is a fishing exhibition with no bait, and I was their first target. I’m always their first target, so my frustration is real.

“I hear you, Christian, loud and clear… and I’m on it,” she replies.

“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” I say, for you getting involved in this and having to cover for me, even though I’m guilty.

“Don’t be,” she says. “We’ve had this conversation more than once, and you’re right. Each time you’ve called me, someone has stepped out of line in just this way, so I can’t be upset.”

Yes, you can, Charlotte. They’re sniffing up the right tree with me. They just don’t have any proof, and until they do…

“They just need to leave me the hell alone,” I say.

“Just don’t call the press, please,” she says. “Let me handle this.”

“Okay,” I reply. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, for now.” For always.

I wish her family well and end the call.

I feel badly for lying to Charlotte, but I did what needed to be done to that predatorial bitch and I don’t regret it… and I need for them to stop sniffing in this direction—not now, but right now!

I take several deep breaths then count for a while to get this crazy bitch off my mind. As much as I hate to admit it, I wish I had told Alex to get rid of her, burn the body, and dump it in the ocean somewhere.

It’s time to redirect my thoughts.

“Hello, handsome.”

“Hey, are you busy?” I ask.

“I’ll be meeting with a new intake in a moment, but nothing unusual,” she says.

“Can I invade on your day and bring you some lunch? I need a little sunshine in my life.”

“Mmm, that would be divine,” Butterfly replies.

“Any requests?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says. “I’d love a gyro and some fries.”

“I’ll be there shortly,” I promise.

“See you then.”

I stop by a Mediterranean restaurant and pick up a gyro and fries for my wife along with some chicken Shawarma, falafel, and baklava. I just want to be with my girl and forget about all this other shit.

Jason hangs out at the guard’s desk while I head back to my wife’s office. She said she had to meet with a recent intake, and I’m hoping she has finished the meeting by now. Her office door is open, so I walk in, but I discover that she’s talking to an older woman when I enter.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “The door was open…”

“It’s okay,” Butterfly says, “I’ll only be another minute or two.” I nod and turn to leave just as the woman turns her head and looks at me. I… think I know her. I don’t forget a face; I just can’t call a name. My mental Rolodex spins out of control as I feel as though it’s imperative that I know this woman’s name. Just as my wife calls my name to get my attention…

“Sarah!” I exclaim. Realization slapping me hard in the face. The woman nearly leaps out of her skin at the sound of my voice, almost appearing to cower in her chair.

“Christian!” Butterfly chastens. “You can’t do that!” I know what she’s talking about. I probably scared the poor woman to death and she’s here for some kind of safe haven.

“I’m sorry,” I say, softening my voice and turning my gaze to Sarah. “Sarah… Burnett, right? Do you remember me?” Sarah is still scared shitless and won’t say anything. “You helped me,” I add, softly. “You helped me at one of the worst moments of my life.”

Sarah’s gaze softens, and I can see that she’s trying to place my face. I rarely meet anybody who doesn’t know who I am. Then again, she didn’t know who I was then, either. Why is she here at Helping Hands?

“Sarah,” I say, softly, crouching next to her so that we’re at eye-level, “Please… look carefully. Tell me you remember who I am.”

“I’m… I’m sorry… I don’t,” she says, still frightened.

“That’s okay,” I tell her. “It’s actually refreshing that someone doesn’t know who I am. Tell me, do you still work at the parking structure on Alaskan Way?” Her brow rises.

“No…” she says tentatively, “not for a while.”

“Christian…” Butterfly protests, “you’re scaring her.”

“Baby,” I interrupt her, “I don’t mean to scare her and I’m not trying to prevent you from doing your job, but this is personal. This is Marlow-Marcia-Maggie personal.” She quickly throws her hands up in surrender and rolls her eyes.

“Sarah,” she says softly, “this is my husband.” Sarah’s shoulders fall immediately, and relief is evident in her eyes and her sigh. “Whatever insanity he may be suffering right now, I promise he won’t hurt you.” Sarah raises questioning eyes to me.

“How… did I help you?” she asks timidly.

“Three years ago, you let me sit in your booth and watch security tapes of the aquarium across the street,” I say. She pauses for a moment, then she gasps loudly and points to me, then to Butterfly, and I nod. Butterfly is bemused when I turn to her.

“If it hadn’t been for her,” I say pointing to Sarah, “when David kidnapped you, I’m certain I never would have found you.”    

Now, it’s Butterfly’s turn to gasp. Her fingers gently touch her lips as realization dawns and the pieces start falling into place.

“Oh, my God,” Butterfly breathes. “She… saved me, too.” I nod and turn back to Sarah, whose eyes are filling with tears.

“It’s a happy ending, Sarah,” I say, smiling and taking her hands in mine. “I found my princess—my Butterfly—I got her back, and it’s all because of you.”

“Oh! Oh!” Sarah reaches out to Ana. “I’m so happy!” she says, cherubically. “I never would have known that was you.” Ana takes her hand and crouches down to her.

“It looks like I owe you a huge debt of gratitude as well,” Butterfly says, fighting tears of her own.

“You don’t,” Sarah says. “Any good person would have done the same.”

“There were places on that dock that wouldn’t help me, Sarah,” I inform her. “So, no, they wouldn’t have.” She smiles softly.

“Then, they weren’t good people,” she says, and that’s the person I met in that parking garage, not the frightened woman cowering on the sofa in my wife’s office when I arrived.

“You have no idea, Sarah,” my wife says, unable to fight her tears anymore. “I was in a horrible situation and there was no hope… I can’t begin to thank you enough…”

“Well, I can,” I say, squeezing her hands. “Tell me why you’re here. Tell me what you need… anything you need!” I implore her. Her eyes grow large and Butterfly touches my hand.

“Christian…” Okay, Christian’s being intense. Bring it back a notch. I drop my head and take a deep breath, bringing beseeching eyes back to hers.

“Please…” I say softly. “You helped build my faith in people, in the kindness that people can show to strangers with absolutely nothing to gain for it.” I drop my head and keep talking. “You’re one of the very few people I’ve ever met who put herself on the line and did a hugely kind thing for someone with nothing to gain.” I raise my eyes back to hers.

“You’re in trouble now,” I say, “or something bad is happening and I won’t sit still. You were an angel from God for me that day, and you rescued me. Please, let me help you now. Anything,” I reinforce. “Tell me what’s going on. Tell me why you’re here. What can I do?”

She looks at me then at my wife. Then she closes her eyes and nods.

“I’m not accustomed to taking handouts,” she says softly.

“Believe me when I tell you, this is not a handout. You paid this forward… way forward. My wife could have died, Sarah. She was in a horrible way when we found her, and it took a long time for her to heal from those physical and emotional scars. She wouldn’t be here, be with me, if it weren’t for you. We owe you big time. Please, let us help you… please.” She sighs and shakes her head.

“It’s a big mess,” she says, breaking down into sobs.

I remove my coat, give Butterfly her lunch and give my lunch to Sarah as she explains to me how she ended up where she is now. She lost her job after she helped me because she broke the rules in letting me see the videos and sending them to my team before the subpoena had been secured. Ever since then, she had been working whatever odd jobs she could find to try to make ends meet. All she knows is security because it’s all she’s ever done, so she didn’t keep the odd jobs for long. She faced age discrimination, even though she’s not old—she’s just older, and she’s very healthy and smart.

Her husband became abusive because she couldn’t pull her weight. She’s horribly in debt and she has no children or family to turn to. She’s been evicted from her home just today and when her husband finds out, he’s going to beat her. What’s left of her stuff that hasn’t been taken is still sitting on the curb in front of her house and she’s afraid to go back and even look through it because her husband will probably be waiting for her there.

I drop my head. It physically hurts that someone who showed such kindness to me at her own detriment is now facing this kind of problem. If that asshole that she married would kick her when she’s down, maybe this had to happen so that she can get away from him.

“May I ask you some personal questions?” I say.

“You can ask me anything,” she says. “I’m so glad everything worked out for you two. It made all this worth it.”

“And I’m about to make it even more worth it if you let me. You sacrificed so much for us. It would be my honor if you let me help you… and the very least I can do,” I say.

“Mine, too, Sarah,” Butterfly says. “I really owe you my life. I was in a really bad way, and if it weren’t for you…” Butterfly holds her head down to fight her tears. Sarah takes her hand.

“Don’t cry, child,” she says, “it all worked out in the end.”

“Except for you,” Butterfly chokes. “Please… you have to accept what we give you as gifts… in gratitude… endless gratitude… for my life!” she sobs. Sarah squeezes her hand and looks at me, smiling, with tears filling her eyes.

“Who am I to turn down such a wonderful gesture… when I’m in need?” she says sweetly. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

“That He does, Sarah,” I concur. “That He does.”

The afternoon is now full of my mission of mercy. I put in a call to Alex to begin a standard employment background check on Sarah Burnett. I can tell that she may take initial gifts from me, but she won’t take endless handouts. She has to feel useful. Butterfly sets her up on her computer to complete a job application for GEH and I call ahead to Human Resources.

“Yes. Mr. Grey, what can I do for you?”

“I have a candidate here who is completing the online application as we speak, and her background check is in progress. She has…” I look at Sarah. “How many years of security experience do you have?”

“Twenty-five years,” she says. I raise my brow and nod in approval.

“She has 25 years of security experience. Are there any positions in our security sector that can use her?”

“Corporate or commercial?”

“Commercial,” I reply. Corporate is too dangerous. I hear typing on the other end.

“Yes,” she says. “Ever since we absorbed Vansteen into the corporate offices, there’s been a lot of attrition. With stricter guidelines, the slackers have mostly fallen off and we need some more people. With her experience, I suggest she replace the supervisor we just lost.”

“That’s perfect,” I say. “As soon as she’s finished with her application, I want you to pull it. Then wait for her background check to come from security…”

“Um, Christian?” Sarah calls me. I turn to her. “I don’t have a phone.”

Wow, really?

“Her application doesn’t have a phone number on it,” I say. “I’ll be updating that later.”

“What’s her name?”

“Sarah Burnett,” I say.

“Got it. I’ll keep an eye out for the application, sir.”

“Thank you.” I end the call and turn to Sarah.

“Tell me honestly,” I say to her. “Do you want to go back to your husband? Nobody’s going to blame you if you do…”

“No,” she says without hesitation. “I spent too many years being his punching bag. I’m better off alone.”

“Well, you certainly won’t be alone, Sarah, because you’ve got us now.”

And, of course, the Greys have a new family member.

*-*

We leave Helping Hands and go back to Sarah’s house. All of her things have been taken and what’s left isn’t worth scavenging through. Luckily, her husband never showed up while we were there, and she’s content to start over—a new life without him.

I put her up at the Fairlane Olympic for the next few days as I’m certain she needed some privacy—more than she would have gotten at Helping Hands. It’s a nice place for what it is, but she needs to lament her circumstances for the last time before she lets it go. I also set her up with a new cell phone so that she can get the call when HR gets her background check and security clearances.

I asked her to make a list of her debts so that we could get them squared away. She drew the line at me paying her debts, stating that once she was gainfully employed, she could pay them on her own. So, I made her a deal. I would pay her accumulating debt in one lump sum, and once she was stable and getting regular checks, she could pay me back in a no-interest loan. She agreed to those conditions. What she doesn’t know is that the money that she’s paying me back is going to go into her GEH retirement fund.

I give her a prepaid debit card with $1000 on it so that she can get toiletries, clothes, and have some meals over the next couple of days. I’ll be getting her a GEH expense card in the next couple of days to float her until she starts working and she gets her first check. She vows to pay that back as well, and I just nod.

Her last order of business is to find a place—a nice place—in the city close to the job, preferably in the Pike Place area. Her eyes widen when I mention the area.

“With what I pay my staff, you’ll be making enough to live wherever you want,” I say. “Pike Place is safe, it’s closer to the job, and your husband is not likely to find you there… but we’ll handle it if he does. I’ll pay your first and last month’s rent and security deposit so that you don’t have to worry about saving to move.” She drops her head.

“I want to get divorce proceedings started as soon as possible,” she says, sadly. Butterfly takes her hand.

“You don’t have to do that now if you don’t want to,” she tells Sarah. Sarah sniffs and wipes her eyes.

“Fifteen years, child,” she says, raising tear-filled eyes to Butterfly. “It’s time to break the shackles.”

“I’ll have our lawyer call you tomorrow,” I say. She nods.

“He’s also my best friend,” Butterfly says.

“You might even recognize him,” I add. “He was with us when we came to the parking garage that day.” She nods again and I realize the day has probably been too much for her.

“We’re going to let you get some rest now,” I say, rising to leave. “It’s been a very eventful day.” Without warning, Sarah jumps up and throws her arms around me. Butterfly’s eyes widen and she knows I’m prone to panic in this situation, but not this time. I gently wrap my arms around her as she cries softly on my shoulder.

“Just when you think things won’t get any better… God sends angels into your life,” she says.

Don’t I know it! I pull her back and look at her face.

“And you. Were ours,” I say definitely. “Thank you… from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

“You’re most welcome,” she says. “And thank you.”

“Likewise,” I reply. She kisses me softly on the cheek.

Butterfly embraces her and tells her that we’ll check on her tomorrow, and we leave to allow her to get some sleep.

“Did you ever tell me about her?” Butterfly asks as Jason drives us home.

“I don’t know,” I admit. “I thought I did, but I don’t know.”

“What is the likelihood that she would show up at Helping Hands… in her time of need… right when you were coming to bring me lunch?” I sigh.

“Like she says, the Lord works in mysterious ways.” It occurs to me that her husband may somehow get wind of what’s going on and how well she’s doing and try to muscle in on her gig. I type a text to Alex to find out who he is and as much as he can about him.                                   

When we arrive at the Crossing, all I want to do is get out of these clothes. After stopping to coo at her children who made it home before we did since we took a detour to get Sarah squared away, Butterfly joins me in the bedroom. I’m pulling my T-shirt from my pants when she comes into the room, removes her suit jacket, and tosses it across a chair. I watch her as she’s unbuttoning her shirt.

“I have a question,” I ask.

“What is it?” she says, tossing her shirt onto the chair with her jacket.

“When is the last time we fucked?” She freezes, staring at me with both hands behind her back, no doubt about to unclasp her bra.

“Too damn long if you have to ask,” she says, squirming out of her bra and tossing it to parts unknown.

*-*

I think we both needed that. We fucked straight through dinner and just had something brought up to the suite. It was a very emotional day, seeing Sarah and the situation that she was in after what she did to help us. There’s nothing she can’t ask me for. I’ll never see her hungry, or homeless, or hurt, or in any financial trouble ever again. Had I known they fired her for helping me find my Butterfly, I would have jumped into action long before now.

Butterfly was a bit overwhelmed when she discovered Sarah’s role in her rescue as well. I was sure that I told her about Sarah. Maybe I did, but it was a while ago and she had no way of putting two and two together without me.

Sarah is matronly—not quite old enough to be my grandmother, but older than my mom. She didn’t need to be working at that place anymore anyway. With her experience, she could probably offer some great training and organization to the private commercial security sector of my company. She doesn’t need to be walking a beat or patrolling. She needs to be in charge, offering her expertise to a failing division.

My wife is fast asleep when I finally take the elevator downstairs to the ground floor to try to get some of the work done that I missed today while tending to Sarah. Once again, as I’m going through the entertainment room, I see Garrett out on the patio. Even from behind, he looks a bit forlorn. Part of me wants to just leave him to his thoughts. Then another part of me doesn’t want to just leave him out there. I twist my lips and roll my eyes, retrieve a couple of beers from the wet bar and go out the French doors.

“You spend a lot of time out here,” I say, but as I approach, I see that he’s wiping tears from his eyes. Um… okay.

“Would you rather I leave you alone?” I ask. He takes a shuddering breath as another tear falls from his eyes.

“I fucked up, man,” he says, dropping his head and leaning his elbows on his knees clasping his hands between them. “I fucked up really bad.”

“Okay,” I say, moving to the side of the sofa. “Elaborate.” He throws a tearstained glare at me and twists his lips as if to say, “seriously?” I shrug.

“I’m just wondering what brought you to this conclusion now,” I clarify, still standing there with the beers.

“She’s destroyed, man,” he says, dropping his gaze again. “I broke her. I really broke her. Serves me right that she doesn’t want me back.” Now, that’s a shocker.

“Did she say that?” I ask surprised.

“She doesn’t have to. I can’t get close to her. I mean, she’ll let me near her, but she won’t let me in.”

“Aaahh, that,” I say, remembering as I sit down next to him and put the beers on the ground. He turns a nearly hateful glare at me.

“What do you mean, ‘ah, that?’” he barks. “She’s not playing a game!”

“No, she’s not playing a game. And yes, you did fuck up. What, do you think you’re the only person who’s ever been through this?” I glare right back at him and wait for his response. He deflates and drops his head. He doesn’t want to fight with me. He doesn’t even want to fight.

“When you do something that knocks the wind out of someone, it takes a while for them to recoil. But when you suck all the air out of the room after you’ve knocked all the wind out of them, they may never recover. Which one do you think you did?”

“I know which one I did. That’s why I don’t think she wants me back,” he replies.

“So… now what?” I ask. “You sit here and wallow in self-pity? Because that’s what I think this is.”

He rolls his eyes.

“So, I was wrong for mourning the loss of my baby and now I’m not allowed to mourn the loss of my girl?” he challenges. I scoff.

“You didn’t lose her. You threw her away!” I retort. “She didn’t do anything wrong, Garrett. She made a choice—a choice about her body, but it turned out not to be the right choice for you. No one is discounting the pain, hurt, and disappointment that you felt, but you two should have worked this out together.”

“I thought we did,” he interjects.

“No, you didn’t,” I accuse. “You took her choice away. You made it such that either she have that baby or you leave. I don’t know if you considered the consequences of your decision—how it would affect her, how it would affect you, but it nearly killed her. It did kill her emotionally, and you can see for yourself what it did physically. Did you tell her that you would leave if she terminated the pregnancy?”

“No, but I didn’t tell her that I was going to stay.” That is a juvenile response.

Mmmm… kay,” I say, skeptically. “And you’re surprised that she’s feeling the way she’s feeling right now.”

“I’m not surprised,” he retorts.

“But you expected her to welcome you back into her life just because you showed up again?”

“I don’t know what I expected!” he shoots. “I didn’t even expect to see her, let alone wonder if she even wants me back, but is it too much for me to expect her to at least let me in? She won’t even come to my place. If I want to spend time with her, I gotta come here. And when I do, she’s… formal at best.” Is he serious?

“It’s been less than a week! What do you expect?” I declare. “You’re lucky she even agreed to see you.”

“Look, I really don’t need you to rub my face in this. I know I’m screwed.” My turn to roll my eyes.

“Garrett, I left my wife for three weeks and she nearly leapt off a cliff.” He turns a surprised tear-stained gaze to me.

“What?” he asks, in shock.

“Do you remember that random sprained ankle around her birthday?” He pauses, then nods uncertainly. “Yeah, I had a big kneejerk reaction to a big thing that happened between us and all I knew was that I couldn’t be around her. I took the clothes on my back, my telephone, my laptop, and my security, and I got outta Dodge without a word. She didn’t know where I was; she didn’t know if I was coming back; and I never spoke to her once. After trying a hundred times to get in touch with me to no avail, she had a drunken moment at a lookout point and if Chuck hadn’t been there to catch her, she wouldn’t be here right now.”

Garrett sits there looking wide-eyed and gaped mouth at me.

“No, I didn’t lose a baby. I don’t know how that feels, but I do know how it feels to feel like you’ve been so betrayed that you run away… and fuck up. So, no, you’re not the only person who has been through this. She had moved out of our bedroom and when I came back home, she didn’t move back in for a week.”

“Shit,” he says slowly in disbelief. “I can’t see that happening to you two.”

“None of us could see it happening to you and Marilyn either, but it did,” I reply.

“But you’re back, now. You’re fine,” he protests.

“It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t immediate. She had to understand what role she played in the situation and I had to understand what role I played. Figuring that out nearly ripped us apart. As much as we wanted it, we literally had to discuss if we felt like we could be together anymore or if we should just walk away—be co-parents and nothing else. That was one of the hardest things I think I’ve ever done in my life.” He raises a brow.

“You’ve had something harder than that?” he asks. I cock my head at him.

“Having to sit still and wonder where she was for four days while she was kidnapped,” I say. “Coming to grips with the fact that I may have to let her go after that accident that left her in a coma because she had a 60-day advanced directive. Fighting almost all of you when Maxine wanted to commit her when she was catatonic…”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” he says. “I never really thought about all the things you guys have been through. So… how did you get back to here?” he asks. I shrug.

“Butterfly had to get over her fear,” I tell him. “I could only help her so much, then she had to do the rest herself. We had severe trust issues that we had to overcome. Neither of us are perfect and we had to understand and accept that. We had to accept that there would be more problems, more issues, more mistakes, but we also knew that being without each other was impossible. Our relationship is not conditional—I’ll love you as long as you don’t hurt me anymore—but in the beginning, right after a really big hurt, it is. It’s like… loving to swim and sail and jet ski and surf but being afraid of the water after you nearly drown.

“The water can’t guarantee that you’re not going to drown if you’re not careful, but the only way to stay completely safe is to stay away from it and all the things that you love about it. Marilyn’s afraid of the water right now. You’re going to have to help her to love watersports again.”

“How do I do that?” he asks. “I fucked up so bad, I don’t know how to fix this.”

“It won’t be easy,” I confess. “You abandoned her when she needed you, and even though you needed the time to yourself as well, this just wasn’t the way to do it. Do you think that she, too, wasn’t ripped apart emotionally before she terminated that pregnancy?”

“The therapist said the same thing,” he admits, now looking at the ground.

“Mm-hmm, and you left her to carry all of this alone,” I say without apology. “She felt the confusion that came along with the termination, the pain of suddenly losing you without warning, the fear of uncertainty of what would happen next, the weight of all of her own insecurities…”

I’m drawing on everything I knew that my wife felt because even though there was no terminated pregnancy involved, I know from our talks that she was feeling the exact same things when I left.

“You wanted her to hurt, and she did… tremendously. Now, you want to come back and fix it—make it all better, and it’s not as easy as you thought it would be.”

“Okay, Christian, I accept that it’s not going to be easy. Just please, tell me what to do. Point me in the right direction.”

I sigh in frustration. I know what he’s feeling, but he’s got a long road ahead of him.

“You’ve got a painful conversation to have,” I tell him. “We all know that she wants the pain to stop, but does she really want you back? Does she really want a relationship with you? Does she trust you enough—or is she willing to trust you enough—to move forward from here? You’re not going to get back what you had, but is it possible for you to come together and build something else… hopefully something stronger and better than what you had before? Only time will tell if that’s going to happen, but is she… and are you really willing to try knowing that what you had before is gone?

“Experience makes it such that you can’t unwalk the road that you’ve already traveled. This is now part of your story. Will it be a milestone, or will it be the end? That’s the painful and brutally honest conversation that you must have. Depending on the outcome of that conversation, you’re going to have several moments where you will have to continuously show her how much you love her and that you understand what you lost. That sounds easy and fun, and sometimes it will be. Other times, not so much.”

“Okay,” he says with a heavy sigh. “So, where do I start? What do I do?”

I reach into my pocket and hand him a handkerchief. This wet face is killing me. Then, I retrieve the beers from the floor and give him one.

“Well, everything won’t work for everybody, but here’s what I did…”


ANASTASIA

“You are never going to believe this.”

It’s just before lunchtime on Friday morning and I’m in my study. Christian and I are planning to pay a visit to his travel agent this afternoon to get the ball rolling on our trip to Italy, so I worked from home today instead of the short day that I normally work on Fridays at Helping Hands. I’m signing off on some expense forms and calculating the latest distribution from the profit sharing from Miana’s that comes to Helping Hands when Marilyn comes strolling into the room with a goofy smile on her face. It’s a very welcome sight and I’m quite curious to see what’s brought this on.

“What?” I ask, my interest piqued.

“Are you ready for this?” she baits. “Gary made me a mixtape—well, a mix mp3,” she says, smiling giddily.

“Really?” I say, surprised. “How many songs?”

“Five,” she says, her voice full of mirth. “My Love is Your Love by Whitney Houston, Lost Without You by Robin Thicke, Can’t Let go by Anthony Hamilton, I Can’t Stop Loving You by Kem, and Have You Ever Loved Somebody by Brandy.” She’s giggling so hard. I can’t believe that these five songs have her so tickled.

“Five songs, huh?” I reply. He couldn’t find any more? She nods, laughter still lacing her voice.

“No, you don’t get it. He made me a mix tape. He sang all the songs himself,” she confesses. My eyes widen. He must’ve talked to Christian.

“He did?” I inquire, shocked. “I didn’t know Gary could sing.”

“He can’t!” she declares, laughter taking her over, tears now falling from her eyes. “He knows his music! He has all those synthesizers at work. He even played his acoustic guitar. The music is beautiful, but he can’t hold a tune to save his life! It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard!”

I raise a brow in slight confusion as she’s reduced to uncontrollable laughter, unable to contain a chuckle or two of my own. When she composes herself, she finally tells me the meaning of her last statement.

“Do you have any idea the guts it takes for somebody who can’t sing if the world depended on it to make a mixtape of five live songs against professional music—runs and all? He’s under absolutely no misconception about his lack of vocal ability! He has the ear—he just don’t have the pipes!”

She lets that statement hang in the air for a while before she breaks out in uncontrollable laughter again. This time I join her. Her laughter is infectious, and I haven’t heard it like this in months. It’s a wonderful sound.

We had talked earlier about her meeting with her shrink. It’s like she sees her doctors, then she comes to me for a second opinion, which I don’t mind. I’m a professional, and we are friends. She had shared with her shrink—I think her name is Dora—about her fear of getting close and letting her guard down, and how ridiculous it seemed to her since all she really wanted was for him to come back. Now he’s back, and she doesn’t know how to get comfortable.

Her doctor expounded on the dangers of jumping back into a relationship with Gary before she could clearly see where her own life was going—what direction she wants to take as an individual before she starts to plot her path as part of a couple.

“She told me that it was dangerous to see myself as Gary’s girlfriend before I had put myself back together and figured out who I really was,” she had said. I couldn’t agree more, but being on the inside of all of this, I have to admit that all I wanted was for her and Gary to get back together and for her to stop killing herself. As hurt as she was, she always seemed to have a brutally realistic grasp of the truth of her situation with her…

… Boyfriend? Ex-boyfriend? Whatever. She was under no misconception of the damage her decision had done to their relationship, and even if she had hope in the beginning, she was never delusional about the possibility—or lack of possibility—of him coming back. She was lost and forsaken without him. Granted, it was like horrible withdrawal symptoms from a drug, but Gary was the dose she needed to come back from the brink of hell.

But alas, ultimately drugs are no good for you, and even though the analogy is kind of harsh, Gary’s return is just a fix. Dora’s right. She’s got to repair the damage she did to herself on her own before she can let him in that way.

So, seeing her giddy as a schoolgirl over a mixtape is both refreshing and disturbing—disturbing because she’s getting that “quick fix” again, but refreshing because I haven’t seen her this vibrant in months… at least!

“Those are some very powerful songs,” I tell her.

“I know,” she says, taking a seat in front of my desk with her iPod Touch. “I know he wants me to hear the words, and I’m trying, but…” She’s still smiling but she trails off.

“What?” I ask.

“I’m just thinking a lot,” she says. “I was so independent before Gary. I had my own place. I had friends. I went out whenever I wanted to. Now, his friends are my friends and some of my friends that aren’t couple friends fell off. Without him, it was like I had no direction, no purpose, no life… and I can’t let that happen again. I’ll never go back to the person that I was before, but I need to find some small piece of me still here so that I can build on that.”

“How’s that going?” I ask. She does that kind of so-so ­gesture with her head.

“It’s a slow process,” she says, “and I have to thank you tremendously for meditation and yoga. They were helping me find my center even before he came back. Even with the shock of his return, I think I still took it better than I would have had I not had some kind of coping techniques.” I frown.

“I don’t know, Mare. You took it pretty hard. You ran out on the golf green in the middle of the night with no coat on in high heel shoes and fell to your knees in the wet grass.”

“Well, yeah, at first,” she concurs. “I agree that the initial shock and the immediate fear of getting hurt again was more than I could take. I had to—have to heal twice… once from him leaving and once from him coming back.”

“Okay, I’m the shrink and you lost me,” I say. She sighs.

“I know. I was lost when Dora explained it, but she hit the nail right on the head.” She adjusts in her seat. “Imagine some kind of trauma that causes you to stop breathing. Whatever the trauma, it has damaged your body immensely quite possibly beyond recovery. Now, someone around you performs CPR—chest compressions. If you do chest compressions correctly, you’re going to break some ribs, but the heart and the breath will probably start again.

“Whatever the trauma that caused you to stop breathing has to heal or you may stop breathing again, but that CPR caused damage, too… and that has to heal. Gary leaving was the trauma that caused me to stop breathing. Gary returning was the CPR. I can see now that the world isn’t ending, but both of those things have shaken me to my core. Both of those occurrences happened completely without warning, and I wasn’t prepared. And now I have to regroup before I can give myself to anybody.”

“Did you tell Gary this?” I ask. She shrugs.

“In so many words,” she says. “I didn’t tell him that I don’t want him, but I did tell him that after meeting with Dora, I realize that I have to get myself together. I made a life decision for my life. Whatever else it was, whoever else it affected, it affected me the most, and I feel like he made me pay for my decision. What if it happens again? Let’s not even talk about if I get pregnant again. What if I make a decision that could affect my life just as significantly and he doesn’t agree with it? Just for one moment, I need him to stop seeing ‘she killed my baby’ and start seeing that I had a reason for making the decision about my body that I did. And I don’t think he can. Can I live with him constantly feeling like I betrayed him, like I’m a murderer, instead of understanding even for a moment why I made the decision that I did?”

I don’t know who this Dora shrink is, but she’s damn good.

“I totally get it, Mare… and I get that Gary sees you slipping away.” She nods.

“I know he does, but I’m not slipping away from him. I just gotta find me, first.”

“That’s a massive undertaking you’re embarking upon right now. Would you be able to cope with it if you came out of it… single?” Her shoulders fall.

“I really hope that doesn’t happen,” she says sadly, “but the truth is… I feel like I went to the brink of hell and looked Satan right in his mouth, and I didn’t die. It may seem dramatic to someone else, but that’s how I felt. Even though my decision affected him, it affected me more… because it’s my body. So, now, I have to make another life decision—to concentrate on trying to heal myself before I can even think about healing us. I love Gary, but if he can’t understand that, then I don’t know where that leaves us.”

“Did he give you the impression that he wouldn’t understand?” I ask. She twists her lips and holds up her iPod Touch.

“Okay, let me rephrase,” I say with a chuckle. “When you two had this conversation, did you leave him feeling like you would completely step aside from you two as a couple to find you as a person?” She ponders the thought for a while.

“I don’t think I did,” she replies, “but I don’t know how he may have interpreted our conversation. I didn’t break up with him because that’s not what I want to do, but are we technically together? We never really did break-up, he just left…”

“Sweetheart, you broke up,” I say. “He didn’t say the words, but you broke up.”

“Okay, yeah, you’re right,” she says, “but that further proves my point. Where does that leave us now? We’re around each other, which is a hell of a lot more than what we were a month ago, but are we together?” She shakes her head. “If I don’t know where this puts us, I’m sure he doesn’t.”

“You two are floating around in limbo and you definitely need to put a label on what you’re doing,” I tell her. “If you’re going to work on your relationship while you work on yourself, tell him that. If you’re going to set him aside while you work on yourself, tell him that. But right now, Mare, you don’t even know.” She shrugs and shakes her head.

“No, I don’t,” she admits.

“Well, you’ve got a homework assignment, because this isn’t fair to either of you. Make a clear and concise decision about what you want to do, and then make sure that he knows what your decision is. It’s only right.”

“I know,” she says. “I know you’re right, but right now… I’m going to listen to my mixtape.” She smiles at me and waves her iPod at me. I return her smile as she leaves my office. Might as well let her have some enjoyment. She’s been miserable long enough.

*-*

It appears that my husband only deals with the very beautiful. After stopping by the Fairlane Olympic to check on Sarah, I meet my husband at an agency downtown called Glittering Adventures. When I arrive, he’s already inside, and his agent is hanging on his every word.

This woman is stunning.

She has a gorgeous mane of cherry blonde hair cascading over her shoulders in full, billowing curls. I can tell by her blended dark roots and dark brown eyebrows that this is not her natural color, but it’s the best bottle job I’ve ever seen! Beautiful, large brown eyes and perfect olive skin makes me think that either she’s Mediterranean, or she spent just the right amount of time in the tanning salon.

She’s sitting across from my husband wearing a pink blouse that’s unbuttoned just low enough not to be indecent. She coyly toys with a pendant hanging from a silver or platinum necklace, gazing at my husband as he speaks. I almost want to leave… I feel like I’m intruding.

“Here she is,” he says sweetly when he sees that I’ve entered the building. He stands from his seat as I walk over to the desk to join him.

“I stopped to check on Sarah,” I say after he kisses my cheek.

“How is she?” he asks.

“A little lonely, I think,” I reply.

“Maybe we should invite her to dinner at the Crossing?” It’s a question, not a statement. I shrug.

“It’s worth a shot,” I say, unbuttoning my coat. He removes it for me and hangs it on a coat tree with his as I take a quick moment to make eye-contact with Cherry Blonde over here. She doesn’t linger on my gaze for a second. She turns right to her computer.

Oh, okay. Can’t even introduce yourself, huh? I see.

“Butterfly,” Christian says, coming back to the desk. “This is Audrey Law. She handles all of my travel arrangements. Ms. Law, this is my wife, Anastasia Grey.” She smiles widely at me… now.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Grey,” she says.

“Audrey,” I say with a knowing smirk. For a nanosecond, I can see the defense in her eyes, but it’s gone as quickly as it presents.

“So… Italy,” she says, now turning back to Christian.

“Yes,” he says. “We’re going this summer.”

“How long do you plan to stay?” she asks, still fluttering her eyelashes at my husband. I sigh inwardly. Must you be so fucking obvious?

“I’m thinking six weeks,” Christian replies. “The last two weeks will be spent in Sala Comacina on Lake Como.”

“Excellent choice,” she says, her voice suggestive. “Were you looking to rent a villa there?”

“No,” I interject, my voice a little too syrupy sweet. “I own one there already. Christian gave it to me as a push gift when I gave birth to our twins.” I smile a full 32-teeth fake smile at her, which she returns before turning her gaze back to Christian. I hear him scoff slightly in his chest as I move closer to him.

Yes, I’m pissing on my territory, dear.

“That was very sweet,” she says to Christian, still ignoring me. “Do you have any other specific plans for your trip? Any other destinations you particularly want to see?”

“Yes,” Christian replies. “We’d like to begin our trip in Rome. Then, at some point, we’ll get to Milan. I’ll be flying my wife’s stylist out with us during that week to take advantage of authentic Italian fashion for her fall and winter wardrobe.”

Audrey’s brow rises when he says that, and my smile becomes more genuine as I realize what he’s doing.

“Very well, I’ll be sure to arrange that,” she says, the warmth in her voice slipping slightly.

“Florence is a given,” he continues. “I’d definitely like to introduce my Butterfly to the birthplace of the Renaissance. Although I’ve seen it in person, she has yet to experience the magnificence of the David up close.” It’s Audrey’s turn to scoff.

“You haven’t seen the David?” she says, mimicking shock but relaying a bit of disgust. Oh, I know what you’re doing, bitch.

“No, I haven’t,” I say, regretfully. “I’ve always wanted to see many places and things, but unfortunately, my early life didn’t afford me that luxury. As fate would have it, though, I fell in love with a man who is determined to show me the world and loves to take me away to places on a moment’s notice. In just the last three years, I’ve been to Greece, Paris, Anguilla, Australia—even some of the best places right here in the United States. I barely get a chance to store away my memories of the last exotic destination before he’s whisking me off again.”

“Oh,” she replies, a bit deflated. “That must be quite the ordeal trying to be a good mother to infant twins,” she digs.

“Oh, not at all,” I retort. “My husband and I make every accommodation for our babies, including assuring that they have plenty of time with Mommy and Daddy. We just spent several weeks in Las Vegas taking care of some very trying events and even then, my husband had our twins sent to us for the last two weeks of the trip. The situation was very hard for me but having my babies with me made it so much easier to bear. I don’t know if you have children, but if you do, you know how hard it is for a mother to be without her children even for a day without suffering from separation anxiety.” She tries not to twist her lips.

“No,” she says, flatly, “I don’t.”

“Oh, well let me tell you,” I continue. “They’re not infants anymore. They’re actually toddlers now, but I still can’t stand being away from them. Even with two full-time, live-in nannies, it’s imperative that I be a part of their everyday life. That does mean that traveling can be a bit of a task. If I don’t Facetime with them every day, I can’t sleep…”

“Ditto,” Christian interjects, and I look lovingly over at him.

“That’s why the last leg of our trip has to be at my villa,” I add, “so that our children can come and join us.”

“Oh,” she says, deflating again. “Well, okay. Um, I’m not sure what activities to plan in Lake Como that can include two toddlers…”

“Don’t worry about that,” Christian says. “My wife and I will handle our children’s entertainment. I’m more concerned about having a clean itinerary for the rest of our trip that involves as little hassle and is virtually seamless so that my wife can see as much of Italy as possible. I’m sure you understand.”

The tone of the last sentence has a bit of a warning in it that I hope she heard, especially since her fees and commissions are going to be included in the excursions and trips that she plans for us. If she fucks this up, one-upping me is going to be the least of her problems. She’s going to have one angry bull on her hands.

I raise my brow at my husband acknowledging that I heard that tone, before turning a knowing look back to Audrey. He never takes his eyes off her, and she straightens in her seat and swallows.

Yeah, she heard it.

“Of course, Mr. Grey,” she says, her voice crisper and more professional, but still warm—to my husband at least. “Have I ever let you down?”

“No, you haven’t, Ms. Law. That’s why I keep coming back.” And if you want him to continue coming back, you’ll turn that simpering shit off and do your damn job. One word from me and we’ve got a new travel agent.

“Of course, of course, Mr. Grey. Any other specifics you have in mind?”

“Yes,” he says. “we must be in Venice no later than June 29 and we don’t want to leave before July 2.”

“Any particular activity or event for Venice?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says, looking over at me. “It’s our wedding anniversary. We must be in Venice.”

A shy blush reddens my cheeks and a girlish giggle that I can’t fake escapes in my chest as I consider what decadent and sexy plans my husband has for us in the most romantic city in the world.

Audrey can’t fake it either. The same thought is making her ill.

“Ah, yes,” she says, now turning to her computer and typing feverishly. “Gondola rides, I presume?” Her tone is condescending, but Christian either ignores it or misses it entirely.

Endless gondola rides,” he says, still looking into my eyes and now taking my hand. “A kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset, hot chocolate at Café Florian, strolling the beautiful stone streets of the quaint back alleys, eating gelato in the shadow of the Palazzo Papadopoli…”

I’m now gazing into my husband’s eyes and imagining this wonderful scene that he’s painting for me… the cliché kiss under the famed Bridge of Sighs that’s making my heart race as we speak. I’m actually seeing scenes of Lady and the Tramp sharing the same piece of spaghetti and accidently kissing in the middle, if you can believe it. Once again, I look into this man’s eyes and see my future, full of love and passion, memories to be made, challenges to overcome…

“Yes, fine, okay, I can have an itinerary ready for your review by tomorrow morning.”

Unable to stand the electricity coursing between my husband and me, Audrey rudely and abruptly interrupts my lustful and longing thought processes. I fucking forgot she was even here.

“No waiting for tickets to attractions. All intercountry travel arranged in advance. I trust you can handle this in a satisfactory manner?” he says, turning his attention back to Audrey.

“Yes, of course, Mr. Grey. You won’t be disappointed.” She stands and extends her hand to my husband. He shakes it courteously and releases it. Then, he looks at me and back at Audrey. She plasters a phony smile on her face.

“Mrs. Grey,” she says, proffering her hand to me. Um, no.

“Audrey,” I say, turning to the exit and leaving without shaking her hand.

“That wasn’t very nice,” my husband says once we’re out of the office, failing to hide the mirth in his voice.

“No more than she deserved,” I reply. “Much less, in fact. I should have scratched her smartastic, condescending, whorish little eyes out… but I didn’t.”


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

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 on the menu or 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, or 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

Grey Continued: Season 5 Episode 27

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…

Season 5 Episode 27

ANASTASIA

I’m sitting on the loveseat in the sitting room in our bedroom, patiently waiting for my husband to finish his lunch and join me. I should have had a drink or something while I wait. I’m not nervous or anything. I’m just trying to find the best way to say what I have to say without disregarding his feelings or completely capitulating to his behavior. I want to explain his error while recognizing his counterpoint about his concerns as valid.

We’re at a precipice with this conversation though. Christian Grey can be, and usually is, very passionate about his convictions. I could actually see that passion beginning to surface earlier today while we were talking, but almost as soon as it had risen, it was gone. It was like he was resolved to be the bad guy as evidenced by his comment about me taking Gary’s side and the subsequent question about why we were still having the conversation if that was the case.

He admitted that he felt he was in a lose-lose situation. Anyone constantly in that position wouldn’t bother fighting anymore. It’s not that I think he’s immature or anything, but I totally feel that if I don’t say the right thing, he’s going to shut down and that’s the last thing I want.

While I’m still pondering the best approach to the conversation, he casually strolls into the room with a spritzer in his hand and takes a seat in the chair opposite me on the other side of the fireplace.

Geez, this is going to be fun.

“I’m going to ask that you listen to what I say with an objective ear and not a defensive ear,” I begin. “I was forced to look at both sides of the coin and I ask that you please do the same thing.” He ponders the thought for a moment then nods.

I sigh and think about the best way to say what I want to say without setting off a disagreement. I guess I ponder a little too long.

“Is what you have to say that harsh?” he asks. “Do I need a real drink?” I roll my eyes, more at myself than anything.

“I’m trying to find a way to tell you that your feelings do matter; that I’m sorry that I discounted them, but that you still have to measure your reactions and your temper and that you can’t pop off and expect for it to be okay. You can’t just have an emotional response and not expect to get any fallout from it. None of us are afforded that luxury.” He pauses and furrows his brow.

“You just did,” he says.

“I just did what?” I ask, bemused.

“You just said what you needed to say,” he says calmly. “I know that my actions and my words have consequences. I wasn’t born yesterday. I don’t expect for people to be pleased when I have something harsh or unpleasant to say. They don’t even have to accept it. My problem is when my feelings are pushed aside or stomped on and not even considered. More times than I can count, people are more concerned about my actions towards other people and nobody’s concerned about how I’m affected. Yeah, I can do and say some pretty shitty things sometimes, but I need the people in my life to start putting themselves in my shoes and start saying to themselves, ‘Hmm, what might he have been thinking’ instead of ‘What the hell was he thinking?’”

He says both questions with the emphasis and the lack thereof needed to make his point.

“Garrett was hurting. He didn’t know what the hell he was going to do. He had an opportunity ripped from him that he wanted just like Elliot and Val. The only difference is that Elliot and Val didn’t have a choice in the matter.

“Marilyn had a choice and she made it. She made the choice that she felt was best for her and the people closest to her made her pay for it… repeatedly! She was beat down and ripped up by her parents and left for dead by Garrett. She finished the job by punishing her body—hopefully not beyond repair—and I have no doubt that she’s punished herself mentally more than once as well.”

He hit that nail on the head.

“Enter you and me. We do everything short of giving that girl one of our vital organs in an attempt to bring her back from the brink of destruction. Now, I don’t know if you’ve heard from Gary throughout the course of this exercise, but I sure as hell didn’t. All I saw was this poor girl suffering, and don’t think for one minute that I wasn’t concerned about suicide.”

I hadn’t even thought of that. Speaking to Marilyn, I know that she doesn’t have any suicidal tendencies, but it’s not impossible.

“So, now we have four people, just these four people—me, you, Marilyn, and Garrett. Marilyn’s feelings were all out on display for everyone to see. The remaining three of us made our feelings known last night. Being stuck between the two of them, you had to split your feelings because you were concerned about both of them. I was only concerned about one—the one I saw.

“Both Garrett and I said some things to each other that probably shouldn’t have been announced in a public forum, but they were. Marilyn had taken her feelings and was off somewhere waiting to leave the premises. Garrett took his feelings with him to go to Marilyn. You made your feelings very clear and all parties present were concerned about yours. Where did that leave me? Everybody avoided me like the plague, including you, and I’m sitting there wishing I had kept my mouth shut and knowing the entire time that I was entitled to what I felt.”

“I understand that, and you’re absolutely right,” I say sincerely. “I promise to be more mindful of your feelings in the future and not to shut you down that way. But you have to promise to try to be more mindful of what you’re saying and not to pop off so quickly even when your emotions are running wild. I guess we both seriously have some habits we have to work on.” He’s quiet for a moment.

“I can go with that, but I need you to take something away from this conversation. I’m not trying to get my way with this situation. I say what I mean, and I won’t apologize for it. I didn’t apologize to Garrett and I’m not going to apologize to you, because I meant what I said. The takeaway that I want from this conversation is that—depending on the situation—I’m going to do my best to dial it back a bit and think before I speak. However, right or wrong, whether the hearer likes what I’m saying or not, I’m entitled to how I feel, and people are going to have to respect if they except the same from me.” I nod.

“I get it,” I say. “I really do.” He nods, then runs his hands through his hair.

“So, how are they?” he asks. “I know that you saw them this morning.”

“Solemnly in love,” I respond. “That’s the best description for it. Gary went back to his place to get some clothes. They’ve been locked in her room all day after that, so I think they may be making up for lost time.” He purses his lips.

“Somehow, I doubt that,” he says. My brow furrows.

“Why do you say that?” I ask.

“I ignored women’s feelings for a long time, Anastasia, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t recognize what they were feeling. She’s too fragile for sex right now. She may get past that in a day or a week or so, once her heart can accept that he’s back, but right now—after one night, nothing sexual is happening in that room.”

“How can you be so sure?” I ask incredulously.

“I’ve broken the heart of more than one submissive,” he says, “and more than once, they didn’t show up on the ‘scene’ for a week or more. And have you forgotten that I broke your heart, too? I couldn’t touch you for days, let alone have sex. The first time I touched you, you nearly begged me not to. The next few times, you allowed me to touch or help you, but you went limp like a dead fish. Sex was utterly out of the question.”

I clear my throat. I had nearly forgotten that he couldn’t touch me. I didn’t forget the helplessness that I felt, but the sting of his touch… yes, I recognized that only too well in Marilyn’s reactions.

“Well,” I say, “I can’t imagine what they’ve been doing in that room all day since she won’t allow him to touch her.” I try to hide my discomfort.

“Maybe they’re talking,” he says. “They’ve got quite the road ahead of them if they expect to get back together. They may want to be together, but they still have the same problems they had when they broke up.” I look at him skeptically.

“Since when did you become so insightful?” I ask.

“Years and years of therapy,” he replies. “Just because I thought it wouldn’t do me any good doesn’t me that I didn’t listen.”

Well, sometimes, you coulda fooled me.
Shut the hell up.

“So,” I say, nervous and a but rudderless.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I was serious about vegging out for the day.” He stands, retrieves his spritzers and heads back towards the bedroom. “You’re free to join me if you want.”

I get up and follow him to the bedroom wondering what’s good on television.


CHRISTIAN

“I take it by your expression that the visit did not go well,” I say. It’s early evening and Jason has joined me in my study, having returned from taking Sophie to visit her mother in prison.

“It did not,” he says emphatically. “I couldn’t hear the entire conversation since it’s the whole receiver-screen thing, but I heard Sophie’s side, begging her mother to sign the papers and telling her how crazy her arguments sound, and I don’t even know what her arguments were. She talked to her for a few more minutes and I could tell the exact moment she gave up. Her entire posture changed, and she just said, ‘Fine.’ She didn’t say anything else for a long time. After several minutes of silence and waiting for her to say something, I heard her say, ‘This is what you want.’

“She told Shalane that even being in jail hasn’t meant anything to her; that she’s still the most selfish person that Sophie has ever met, and it’ll never change, and that Sophie has given up on hope that it ever will. Sophie didn’t say anything else for the entire visit and it lasted like 45 more minutes.

“When we left, I asked her if she was okay. She said that she didn’t want to talk about it, and she cried the whole way home, and that’s a pretty long ass drive.”

I can tell he’s very pissed about this. Shalane is being a spiteful bitch just because she can, but she doesn’t seem to realize that she’s only destroying any hope that she has of repairing her relationship with her daughter.

“So, what now?” I ask. He sighs.

“I’ll try to get a court order,” he says. “Sophie would be an adult before the custody permission part of it would ever be sorted out. I guess until then, vacations are just going to have to be the US and its territories,” he laments.

“We can still do things that can be fun for her in the US,” I say, trying to ease the blow.

“It’s not just her, Boss,” he says. “Sophie not being able to go overseas means that Gail can’t go either. She’s taken on quite the responsibility raising a child that’s not hers. I know she helps to raise the twins, but their mother is here. If the sky falls, Sophie is all her. She’s a wonderful woman, and I would have loved to show her Lake Como, and I would have loved for Sophie to have authentic Italian food, but it looks like that’s not going to happen for another four years.”

Try though I might, I know that there’s nothing I can do to get that passport for Sophie. This has to be completely on the up and up—no strings—or he could lose custody of his daughter.

“I’m sorry about this, Jason,” I tell him. “I wish there was something I could do.”

“This is one time that I wish there was, too.” He scrubs his hands over his face. “Do I want to know how things are going in this house?” I know he’s desperate to change the subject.

“I know that Garrett and Marilyn are still here, but no one has seen them since breakfast.”

“Making up for lost time?” he asks, his brow raised. I shake my head.

“We don’t think so,” I say, dispelling his thoughts. “Marilyn’s pretty fragile. I would venture to say that he’s having a hard time just holding her right now let alone trying to get some ass… not that I even think he’s trying.” Jason twists his lips.

“What about you and Her Highness?” he asks. “Still radio silence or should I even ask?”

“No, we talked,” I say. He examines me. “We talked. It was a good talk. Then we watched TV. Then I came down here. I slept most of the day.” His neck jerks.

You slept most of the day?” he asks.

“I did,” I reply, typing into my laptop. “I wanted to go to sleep last night, but I couldn’t. I finally went for a run this morning, came back, took a shower, had part of a conversation with Anastasia, then I fell asleep. By the time I woke up, it was well after lunch. I was tired, man, just… tired.”

“I see,” he says. “So, you said you had part of a conversation…”

“Yeah,” I say. “I said my piece this morning and then when I awoke, she said hers. Then, we said ours and that was it.”

“And you guys are speaking now?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “I was quite aware of her feelings, but I needed her to understand mine. I’m tired of taking the rap all the time and she needed to know that.”

“You were pretty passionate last night, Boss… and verbose,” he points out.

“But I wasn’t alone,” I say. “Emotions were high for more than one of us, and yet, I was the one singled out.” He twists his lips and nods.

“Yeah,” he replies, “I see where you’re coming from.”

“I didn’t want to be ostracized anymore and that’s why I left. I didn’t want to fight anymore, and I believe that’s why my body wouldn’t let me go to sleep. The only reason we talked is because she caught me coming out the shower and she had to initiate the conversation. I just didn’t want to fight… I’m tired.”

“And that, no doubt, came out in the conversation,” he says. I shrug.

“Most likely,” I reply. “I didn’t have to be right, but I needed her to hear me. If she didn’t, I wasn’t going to talk anymore and I made that clear. I wasn’t angry or… anything. I was just tired.”

“I can honestly say I’ve never seen that in you,” he says. “You were resolved. Either she heard you or she didn’t. Every other time, either they heard you or they were fired… or blackballed… or their contracts were terminated, and I was carrying them kicking and screaming out of the penthouse. Never this resolved, ‘that’s it, that’s all,’ and move on.”

“Well, I guess I’m a different guy,” I say, tapping away at my laptop. Even I know that. “I’m looking at puppy farms, for Christ’s sake.”

“You guys are really going to do that?” he asks.

“Yes, we are,” I reply.

“You’re going to get some flak for not getting a rescue,” he says.

“Well, it’s just like I told my brother. My wife wants a pit. Somebody else can rescue a pit. I’m not having a rescue pit around my children and I don’t care who doesn’t like it,” I inform him.

“You’ll get no argument from me,” he says. “My kid lives here, too.”

“We’ve got appointments to visit a couple of places tomorrow,” I tell him.

“Whereabout?” he asks. I type into my laptop.

“Rochester and Rainier,” I say.

“Geez, you couldn’t get any further?” he complains.

“Actually, I could,” I say. “Butterfly wanted to have puppies shipped in!”

“Shipped?” he asks. I nod.

“There are places around the country that breed the puppies, get their shots and papers and ship them to you when they’re old enough.”

“That doesn’t sound to… legit,” Jason says.

“Some are, some aren’t. I did my homework on the ones that she was eyeing and one of them is definitely out. Total scam, pulling pictures from reputable sites to build their own. That made me dig a little deeper to find local breeders that we could actually visit and see the facilities before we make a purchase. However, Rainier is the closest we’re going to get.”

“Road trip… who’s driving?” I look over my glasses at him.

“You are,” I say, “or you can arrange for someone else to do it since you drove all the way to Prisonville today.” He shakes his head.

“No, I’ll do it, but you get to tell Chuck that we have a Sunday road trip,” he adds.

“Jesus, you act like we’re leaving town. The furthest distance is 80 miles away. We’ll be back before dinner.”

“I’m just saying, you get to tell Chuck,” he says, rising to his feet. “I’m going to go check on Baby Boo.” He leaves my study and I text the information about the breeders and our appointment times to Butterfly. What’s the big fucking deal?

*-*

I soon find out that the big deal was that Chuck had plans on spending his Sunday with Keri, knowing that Butterfly had no plans, and my last-minute appointments quickly put the kibosh on that. We’re traveling down the I-5 south towards Rochester and he’s as sour-faced as I have ever seen him and silent as a rock. Butterfly spent the first half-hour journaling and has now fallen asleep with her legs curled underneath her. I, of course, am on my laptop examining possible mergers on the fire and reading emails. Jason begs to put some music on to cut through the silence and opts for Rachmaninoff’s angry concerto, perfect for Chuck’s mood.

Ironically, I found the two local breeders on Facebook. I had to do some digging after seeing how many backyard breeders and puppy mills there are out there, and I didn’t want anything to do with those places. With Alex’s help, I even discovered that one of the places that looked quite reputable was actually a huge scam—dogs kept in bad conditions and not correctly pedigreed, and a basic Google reverse search showed that they pictures they used were actually copied from other sites.

That’s how I found the Facebook sites.

I had to create a dummy email and a fake Facebook ID to get to the Facebook pages. These two local Facebook pages led to websites that checked out okay and offered appointments to tour the facilities, see the conditions, and meet the puppies and parent dogs. The pups you meet may already be promised to someone else as puppies aren’t given sent to their permanent homes until they are 9 to 11 weeks old. So, they try to get the puppies adopted out as soon as possible. The litter is often already promised when the mother is still pregnant.

I didn’t want them to know who I was before I got there, so I gave them a fake name and had Jason secure nondisclosure agreements before we made the trip. They will have to sign them before we do any type of business.

Fifteen minutes outside of Rainier, I wake my wife so that she can “put her face on” if need be. She really doesn’t need makeup. She’s absolutely gorgeous without it. Nonetheless, she smooths her hair a bit, checks her face, and adds some lip gloss. We’re both casual in jeans and sneakers, and she has opted for the Raybans instead of the Jackie-O’s today, her hair pulled back in a large clip.

We arrive at our first appointment and we’re not that impressed. It’s a pretty large operation, but it looks more like a puppy mill. There are rows of cages stacked three and four high with several dogs inside them. The dogs don’t look abused or mistreated. In fact, they look pretty healthy and well kept. I just don’t have the best feeling about this place. I tell them that we have another appointment, but we’ll keep them in mind. After all, the dogs do look healthy, but the place looks like an assembly line.

We drive on to Rochester, and Butterfly’s a bit disheartened as she leaves Rainier. She comments about wanting to take one of the puppies just to get them out of there. I tell her that’s the very reason we don’t want the puppy, because if it hasn’t been bred well, there’s no telling what we’re going to get.

We arrive at the breeder in Rochester about half an hour later. We pull up to what looks like a farm with several animals. There are some chickens and pigs and a goat or two from what we can see. When we get to the house, there’s an older couple standing on the porch. They look fit and well-preserved, but quite rustic. They meet us in the walk after we exit the car. The woman greets us first.

“I’m Agatha,” she says with a big smile, proffering her hand to me. “You must be Trevor.” I shake her hand.

“Yes, ma’am, nice to meet you, Agatha,” I respond. “This is my wife, Roseanne.”

Butterfly looks at me like I just hit her. I failed to tell her about the whole assumed names thing.

“Call me Aggie,” she says, then extends her hand to Butterfly. “Roseanne.”

“Call me Ana,” she says, shooting a look over at me as she shakes Aggie’s hand. “It’s very nice to meet you, Aggie.”

“This old coot is my husband, Lee.” Aggie gestures to her husband who shakes Butterfly’s hand first since she’s closest, and then mine.

“Welcome to our little neck o’ the woods, ma’am, sir…” As he takes my hand, he pauses and examines me. “Do I know you?” he asks.

“I’m not sure,” I say. I know their full names even though they only gave me first names. “Do you ever get to Seattle?” He shakes his head.

“No, can’t say I do. Most of the dogs we deliver are out this way or headed towards Spokane you know, farmland where they can run. Some in Idaho, a few in Montana, Oregon… We don’t get many orders from the city. Most of those folks want toy breeds or something else. They’re scared o’ pits, but that’s all we do—bullies and nothing else. They’re wonderful dogs…”

Lee goes off on what great dogs pit bulls and bulldogs are for a moment, and I can see that he’s passionate about his pups.

“You with the government or something?” he prods. “I swear I know you from somewhere.” I laugh.

“No, just a businessman from Seattle,” I say, glad that he can’t quite place me behind my Raybans.

“Let’s go on out to the kennels,” Aggie says.

We follow Aggie and Lee to the back of the house and the first thing we see is what looks like a pasture. There are about five adult dogs running around with horses.

“I take it you don’t just breed dogs,” I ask.

“Oh, no,” Aggie says. “We’re a fully operational farm. We’re just one of the smaller ones. We supplement our income with the breeding.” She lets us into the pasture and the dogs are all jumping on her looking for affection.

“At any given time, I have 10 bitches and four studs on the farm, sometimes five. All of my breeding dogs have come from the same line.” She pets the dogs as we cross the pasture and head to one of four large outbuildings. Inside looks like a dog hotel. There’s a section where the dogs sleep, where they play, where they’re fed, and what looks like a clinic.

There are cages in the boarding area, but they’re extremely large—like 5×5—and they look more like fancy dog houses with picket-fence-type walls. The floor of each cage is insulated with what looks like turf and there are dog beds and toys inside. The play area is full of pups, about 10, and they’re running around playing with each other and nipping at one another’s ears. My wife turns into a cooing fool when she sees them.

“These are all that remains from two litters about six weeks ago,” Lee says. “We lost two, they don’t always make it, but these are all promised to a new home. We keep ‘em until they’re at least nine weeks old, usually 11. Get the ones spayed or neutered that ain’t gonna breed, get all their shots and health certificates. We keep the vet here pretty busy,” he laughs.

“I bet,” I comment.

“These are all blue nose and moo moos. We’re expectin’ a couple of litters in a month or so—red nose, gottis, and brindles.”

“Are they already adopted, too?” Butterfly asks.

“We’ve got a couple of folks interested, but we have to see how many pups we get.” Lee leads us into the boarding area and down towards the end where the pregnant bitches are. He shows us the moms of the red nose, gottis, and brindles. There’s a fourth dog who appears to be quite miserable, though she’s in a very comfortable kennel. She’s panting and she looks up at us with sad eyes.

“What’s happening with this one?” I ask, pointing to the anguished dog.

“That’s Charmaine,” Aggie says, squatting down to the dog and gently stroking her head. “She’s a blue fawn and this is her first litter. She’ll only have about five pups max, maybe two or three.”

“Are her dogs for sale?” Butterfly asks. Aggie shakes her head.

“We always keep the first litter,” she says. “They become breeders in a couple of years. Charlie here is ready to pop. Hey girl,” she says stroking her head once. Charlie’s tail wags once and she licks Aggie’s hand. “Ronnie!”

“Yes, ma’am!” What looks like a skinny young boy comes running from around the wall from the play area.

“How’s Charlie lookin’?” she asks.

“I’d say tonight. Tomorrow morning at the latest,” he says. “Indigo and Jessup won’t be too far behind.”

“Keep an eye on Charlie,” she says. “She looks like she’s having a harder time than usual.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ronnie says, and he’s back off to whatever he was doing.

“There are a lot of dogs pregnant at the same time,” Butterfly says. “How does this work?”

“Females can do three litters a year,” she says, “but we don’t breed them that often. I prefer to do one, maybe two depending on the dog’s health. I really like to let them rest for about a year before they breed again, but sometimes the dogs have other plans,” she laughs. “That’s why I keep so many bitches around, because the males can breed repeatedly for their entire life span.”

“Really?” Butterfly says. “How many litters do you hope to get out of each dog in a lifetime?”

“Three or four, but no more,” Lee says. “We spay ‘em shortly after that. We feel like they’ve done their duty.” He laughs. “The studs can go indefinitely, so they may get studded to private owners who want puppies.”

“Do you stud them out to other breeders?” I ask. Lee shrugs.

“Once in a while,” he says, “only if I like how the dogs are being kept.” He moves further into the kennel. “As for the adults, we keep some of ‘em. Some of ‘em, we sell. Not everybody wants a puppy.” He winks at me.

“How many have you kept?” Butterfly prods.

“Hmm,” Aggie ponders the thought. “We’ve been breedin’ about 30 years. I got about four spayed girls runnin’ ‘round right now. I got 11… no, 12 girls laid to rest in the Road to Rainbow Bridge in the back. I’ve given away a couple to good homes. Sold a lot. I’ve got nine breedin’ right now. The boys we keep until the end because they can just keep breeding. I’ve laid maybe… six to rest; I got three as farm dogs, five as breeders, and one old boy that just don’t leave the house.”

“The other sheds there are for farmin’,” Aggie says as we leave the kennel. “Stables in there, food and supplies and such in the other two. Not real interesting, but you can go see ‘em if you want, make sure we’re not harmin’ any animals.” I look over at the outbuilding that she identified as a stable and I see another woman—probably our age—brushing a horse just outside the open door.

“Your operation is very thorough,” I say. “You get a lot of flak for what you do?”

“PETA, ASPCA,” Aggie says, “they tend to lump all breeders into one category, especially the ones that breed in bulk. You see my operation. I have a manageable number of dogs and pups at any given time, and if the dogs don’t find homes, they stay here with us. It’s a lucrative business, yes, but not that lucrative if it gets out that you’re mistreating the animals or that your product is substandard—mutts, diseased dogs, and the like.

“The humane society has come more than once to buy up my pups for fear that they’re being mistreated, and I grill ‘em—what are you going to do with ‘em; do you have homes for ‘em already; what happens if they don’t get adopted? They still come around once in a while, but not as often, because I refuse to sell them my dogs unless they tell me definitively where my dogs are going. I don’t mind ‘em using my services for placement—you know someone that wants a bully pup and you come to me to find one, but you’re not going to come in here and just buy a slew a pups and I don’t know what’s going to happen to ‘em.”

Aggie becomes a bit passionate when she discusses the possibility of her puppies having uncertain futures. I think I’ve heard enough. I look over at Butterfly.

“What do you think?” I ask. She looks up at me and nods.

“Well, Aggie, Lee, let’s talk puppies,” I say.

“I thought that’s what we were doin’,” Lee laughs and leads us to the house.

It’s what you would expect from a large farmhouse—lots of natural wood, décor that’s the right mixture of modern, country, and rustic. We go into the country kitchen—white and wood—with a large island in the middle with a marble countertop and wood and wicker stools around it. This is where they do business—not the dining room, not an office, right here on the kitchen island.

8223165cb6f3856045eca17e94195bbf

There’s a laptop in the middle of the island and Aggie positions herself in front of it, gesturing for me and Butterfly to take the stools across from her. As we take our seats, a pudgy—for lack of a better word—pit bull comes meandering into the kitchen and literally flops down at Lee’s feet.

“And who is this?” Butterfly asks.

“This here ‘s Nails,” Lee says, bending down to give the dog a healthy scratch on the head. “Nails has been with us now goin’ on 18 years. He’s outlived all his brothers and sisters, and the old boy just keeps holdin’ on.”

“What’s the usual lifespan?” I ask, curious.

“Eight to 15 years depending on their health and livin’ conditions,” he replies. “Nails is a real old timer, so we just let him live out his golden years here in the house. He’s studded many a litter, so he’s done his duty. Time for ‘im to relax now.” I nod and take off my glasses.

“Is that the normal size for them as well?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “Grey lines can get to be 60 pounds. They average 35-45 like most bully breeds. Nails here is about 80—big for his frame.”

“Are there any larger breeds?” Butterfly asks.

“Gottis,” Lee says. “They can easily get to a hunnerd.”

I look over at Butterfly and she shakes her head. She has the same thought I do—a hundred-pound dog… I don’t think so.

Aggie looks up from her laptop and immediately does a double take at me once I’ve removed my glasses. Then she looks at Butterfly and back at me. Then, she gasps.

We’ve been made.

“You’re…” she pauses. “You’re Christian Grey!” she says in realization. Lee looks at me, then at Butterfly, just like Aggie did, then back at me.

“I knew that face was familiar!” he says. “I just couldn’t place it!”

“Yes, sir,” I reply. “I apologize for deceiving you, but I hope you understand why. Our privacy is very important to us.”

“Oh, no, I get it,” Lee says. “It’s gettin’ to where folks can’t go to the store without gettin’ mobbed these days. I can’t even imagine what you too have ta go through.” He looks over at my wife. “May I say you’re just as pretty in person as ya are on the pictures.” My wife blushes.

“Thank you, sir,” she says bashfully.

“She kinda looks like Millie, dudn’t she, Aggie?” Aggie examines my wife.

“Yeah,” she says, “a bit around the eyes.” Butterfly looks at her curiously. “Millie’s our niece, my sister’s girl. She’s off in college back east right now. I hope we didn’t make you uncomfortable.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Butterfly says.

“Well, if you’d like, we can talk about gettin’ you folks a dog,” Lee says.

“If you don’t mind…” I gesture to Jason and he reaches into his jacket. “I require a nondisclosure agreement to do business.”

“Oh, yeah, the ‘keep your mouth shut’ paper. No problem,” Lee says, reaching into his own jacket pocket and pulling out a pen. I raise my brow.

“You’re familiar with them,” I say, a statement, not a question.

“We use ‘em,” Aggie says. “There are more puppy mills around than you think—horrible places, just horrible. Unsanitary, the bitches and studs are sickly, no tellin’ what kinds of illnesses those pups are carrying once they’re born. My advertisin’ is mostly word of mouth. Those folks on the Facebook page are all satisfied customers. We don’t want the press pokin’ ‘round here trying ta find a story, and believe me, knowin’ that you got a dog from here would probably bring us more attention than we’d like, so where do we sign?”

“Just so we’re clear, by you signing, this means that none of your staff will disclose you’re doing business with us?” I ask.

“Not if they want to keep their job,” Lee confirms. “Like I said, we use ‘em, too. If you want, you can leave six more of ‘em, and I’ll have ‘em signed and faxed back to you by Monday afternoon.”

This is easier than I thought.

“That sounds good to me, Lee,” I respond. Lee and Aggie each sign and NDA and Jason gives them six more, tucking their signed copies back into his jacket.

“Okay, so let’s get down to business…”

We talk about how soon the newest litters are expected, how long they stay with the mother and littermates before they can be sold, and just how formal the whole process is. There are birth announcements once the puppies are born, and you get pictures of the new litter and more pictures every couple of weeks. You pick the sex of your pup and they try to match it when the pups are born.

Once they reach eight weeks old, you get to see which puppy will be yours. From there, you make arrangements for delivery or to pick the pup up when they’re 10 to 11 weeks old. By the time you pick them up, they’ve been dewormed, microchipped, spayed or neutered if that’s what you want, and they had their first round of vaccinations. They come complete with the generational pedigree, registration with the American Kennel Club, a health guarantee and lots of doggie goodies to get them started.

Aggie and Lee make themselves available after you get your pup in case you have any problems or questions, and even have references for trainers in your area. I’m feeling a lot more solid about this place than I did about the place in Rainier. That other place seemed a whole lot more like, “When do you want your dog? Where do we ship ‘em? Will that be cash, check, or charge?”

Now comes the hard part—picking a breed.

“Well, we know the gotti’s out, so it’s between the red nose and the brindle, and I can’t choose because they’re both so beautiful,” Butterfly points out.

“I have to tell you, Ana, that each dog is different,” Aggie warns. “There’s no guarantee that they’re going to come out looking like their moms.”

“That’s not necessarily true, Peach,” Lee interjects before turning to us. “The brindles can come out to be just about any color, but the red noses near about guaranteed to come out that golden brown,” he corrects her. Aggie nods.

“He’s right… have you ever seen a calico kitty?” Aggie asks.

“Once or twice,” Butterfly replies. I’ve never seen one.

“You ever seen two together?” she asks.

“I don’t think I have,” my wife responds.

“Google ‘em,” she says. “Even online, I can guarantee you won’t find any two exactly alike. It’s the same with the brindles. They kinda like the calico of the pit bull.”

“Can we get one of each?” Butterfly asks. Immediately, everyone in the room glares at her, including Chuck and Jason. She jerks under our stare.

“Sorry,” she says, more chastised than she should be and shrinking a bit. “It was just a suggestion.”

“Don’t misunderstand, Ana,” Aggie says, “you can have as many pups as you want. It’s just that two new pups are a big responsibility.”

“Yeah, sure, okay,” she says, and she’s quickly shutting down. “I only raised two live human beings for more than a year,” she mumbles, and I think I’m the only one who heard her.

“So, um, we’ll need complete contact information—emails included—and a deposit of $250 per dog…” Aggie just gets right down to brass tacks without missing a beat. She doesn’t even reference the conversation that we just had regarding how many pups Butterfly wanted. She just gets right down to business without finding out how many pups we’re going to get. I complete all the paperwork as Butterfly appears to have no interest in the transaction at all.

What the fuck? She’s the one who said she wanted the pit puppies!

“So, which do you want?” I ask when I get to the section about breeds, gauging to see if she’s still interested in two puppies or if she’s just going to pick one.

“You pick,” she says, noncommittal… and now, she’s pouting. Very mature, Anastasia.

I’m certain there’s going to be a volcanic eruption down the line if I don’t reserve two puppies, so I silently do that without letting her know. I mark that I’m looking for one of the brindles and one of the red noses, a boy and a girl—sex of the breed to be determined by the litters—and I hand her my Amex.

I’m not bowing down to Butterfly. I truly believe that if she wants two puppies, she should have two puppies. Besides, she’s right about one thing. We have managed to keep two tiny humans alive for more than a year. I’m sure we can manage two dogs. We will, however, have a discussion about this childish behavior.

Once the transaction is complete and I’ve secured our two dogs, we thank Aggie and Lee, get in the car and head back to Mercer. Anastasia is silently staring out the window, still behaving petulantly, and I’ve had just about enough.

“Okay, Anastasia, what exactly is the problem?” I ask.

“I raised two children. Why the hell would any of you think I can’t raise two dogs?” she blurts out. “And I don’t plan on leaving the dogs with anybody for months at a time, but I’m certain that I won’t be the only one caring for them… or will I? Did I miss something?” Whoa, back up, Grey. Those guns are loaded.

“No, baby, you didn’t miss anything,” I say, trying to soothe her, “It’s just that it’s like Aggie said, two dogs are a big responsibility, and this is the first time we’ve had pets.”

“Just like we had no children… before our twins, that is,” she retorts, “and I don’t have to breastfeed the dogs!”

Oh, dear God, I didn’t need that visual!

“I was shocked,” I defend. “There was no indication before now that you were even interested in getting two dogs. I’m not allowed to have a reaction to that being sprung on me right when we’re about to sign the papers?”

“You all glared at me like I cursed in church, like I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. It was humiliating!” she counters emphatically.

So, she’s not really upset about thinking she’s not going to be able to have two dogs. She’s more upset about being made to look like a fool in front of everyone.

“You’re overreacting, Anastasia,” I begin. “No one glared at you that way. We were just caught off guard by your request.”

“Yeah, okay, sure. I imagined the whole thing,” she says, taking out her phone and swiping the screen.

“I didn’t say that,” I reply. “I wasn’t prepared for you to ask for two dogs.”

“Yeah, um-hmm,” she says, typing into her phone without making eye-contact with me. And there she goes. She’s shutting down again and it’s really starting to piss me off.

“You really need to stop this,” I retort. “You’re behaving like a child.” I hear Chuck in the front react like someone gave him a swift gut punch. Anastasia, on the other hand, narrows her eyes at me.

Uh-oh…

“A word of advice, Mr. Grey,” she seethes. Oh, geez, now I’m Mr. Grey. “When you treat someone like a tweener, don’t be surprised when they behave like one!”

She stares at me for a while, then turns her attention back to her phone… and that’s the last bit of conversation that we have for the entire ride.

*-*

“Anah!”

Keri’s voice catches us just as we’re stepping out of the mudroom. We turn around to look at her and she has what looks like an invitation in her hand.

“Ah hav sumtim foh yoh,” she says with a smile and hands Butterfly the invitation. “Ahn foh yoh,” she adds, turning to me and handing me an invitation as well before skirting off happily in the direction she just came from. I sigh inwardly and unfold the invitation.

Sophia Taylor cordially invites you to her
Freshman Dinner
You are among the distinguished guests
To enjoy culinary delights at
Sophie’s first four-course meal
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Cocktails 6:00pm – 6:30pm
Jason and Gail’s Apartment
Grey Crossing
Mercer Island, WA
Formal Attire

I look over at Butterfly suspiciously and she returns the gaze, twisting her lips and looking back down at the invitation.

“Freshman Dinner,” I say, “that’s cute.”

“It’s her first dinner. Get it… freshman?”

“Yeah, I get it.”

I look at the invitation again. A 13-year-old is going to cooking her first dinner, and we’re going to be her guinea pigs. I’m trying to find some enthusiasm here. I scratch my neck and look over at my wife again. Are we headed to the gallows?

The look on her face says that she’s thinking the same thing that I’m thinking. She listed the things that she could cook in Las Vegas, but if this is a freshman dinner, I doubt that any of those things are going to be on the menu. I scratch the back of my neck in contemplation. Whatever it is, it won’t kill us. My wife looks over at me, and we appear to have come to the same conclusion at the same time.

We’re being ridiculous.

We both chuckle slightly and look at the invitations again, printed on heavy invitation card stock.

“What do you think?” I ask.

“I watched this girl taste a pasta dish at an Italian restaurant, ask if the pasta was imported or domestic, and tell us what kind of cheese they used. I think she’ll do fine… more than fine, in fact.”

“Look,” I say with a sigh, putting my hands gently on her hips, “let’s not do this. I’m sorry that you felt embarrassed or humiliated. That certainly was not my intention, and I’d venture to say that wasn’t the intention of anyone present. We were just surprised, all of us. We both know—all know that you’re completely capable of caring for two dogs, and everything you said was totally correct. You’ve kept two tiny humans alive—you’re not going to have the slightest problem with dogs, and we have quite a bit of help here when we need it. If you want two pups, you should have two pups. That’s why I put a $500 deposit down for a red nose and a brindle.”

Her eyes light up like the light from a full moon, and she throws her arms around me.

“I was being sensitive,” she says, still embracing me. “It was… shocking having everyone glare at me simultaneously that way, but I should have handled it better.”

“I totally understand why you felt that way,” I reinforce. She pulls back from me.

“Wait a minute,” she says, looking at me with her hands still on my shoulders. “You didn’t cave in because I was behaving like a brat, did you?” she asks. To be honest…

“Partially, yes,” I admit, “but mostly, no. It’s like I said, I didn’t appreciate the childish behavior at all. That’s why I didn’t tell you at first that I ordered two pups. I know that would have put the fire out immediately, but I had no intention of cosigning your behavior.”

“I get that,” she says, expectantly.

“However, also like I said, you can have two pups if you want them. I decided that immediately. We have more than enough room for them to run and play, though there’s going to be quite a bit of Scotchgarding in our future…”

She bursts out laughing.

“The partial yes part is because I knew once the puppy got here that you would revisit in your head the fact that you said you wanted two puppies, and a new addition to our family would be overshadowed by a disagreement or whatever you want to call it when we ordered the puppy. I didn’t want that.”

“You’re a wonderful man,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder how you put up with me.” I look at my watch. Plenty of time. I scoop her up in my arms.

“You can make it up to me by showing me just how wonderful I am,” I say as I carry her bridal style to our bedroom.


ANASTASIA

I had no intention of wearing an evening gown to dinner, but the invitation did say formal. I pick a comfortable creation from the Ruby collection—a black cotton Fit and Flare halter dress with a champagne lace illusion bodice that has a sweetheart neckline. It’s a simple dress—no fancy material or anything, but I’m jazzing it up with shoes and jewelry. My necklace is a cute black and pearl costume piece with crystals on a silver-toned chain. My earrings are Cristina Sabatini dripstone pearls with intricately woven black rhodium plating accented with cubic zirconia stones and smaller pearls—also costume.

My three, layered bracelets, however, are Chanel. Although they have some pieces that I think are gaudy and unattractive, Chanel is still my favorite designer for jewelry. Cartier is a close second, however. My three completely non-related bracelets, except by brand, are the black pearl embellished logo cuff, the rhodium tone black and white bracelet with faux pearls, and the Coco Crush white gold diamond bracelet.

And, of course, we can’t forget the black Louboutin stilettos.

As for my husband, he would make a paper bag look good, but he has opted for a black suit and turtleneck.

“So, my dear,” he says as I exit my dressing room, “are you ready for a culinary masterpiece.”

“I am,” I chuckle. “She actually did very well at our class at Sur La Table. Maybe she’s making the brick chicken. I’m actually looking forward to this.”

“Well, let’s go see what’s in store for us.” He puts his hand in the small of my back and leads me out of the bedroom. Before we pass the staircase, we spot Marilyn coming towards us.

Holy cow, Batman.

Marilyn finally decided to take us up on going to Miana’s and having a spa day, which is the equivalent of “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in my book. Anyway, she’s in full make-up and a really cute new dress, and what once was a full head of brown and blonde hair is now an extremely short pixie cut. I didn’t even know who she was for a minute.

“Marilyn!” I say trying to hide my shock.

“Hey, she says shyly.”

“Hi,” I respond, still somewhat in awe. “You cut your hair.” Cut may not be the right word. She went from having a full head of hair—stringy though it may have been—to nearly nothing at all.

8c6d6cab8a5a77675c62efded770ecc2

“Yeah, I know. We tried to save it,” she says shyly. “It was dead and unrevivable—dry, split ends… I’m lucky they didn’t shave me bald and start all over.”

Dear God, no! That was shocking enough with Harmony! What is it with women and cutting their hair after a tragedy? Harmony went GI Jane, Marilyn pulled a 1960’s Mia Farrow, and even I wacked off a foot of my hair after “Escape to Madrid.” Granted, I had a few feet to work with but still. It’s shocking, but…

“It’s cute,” I say.

“You really think so?” she says, gently stroking her nape. I nod.

“Yeah,” I say honestly. “It’s fun and flirty, and it’ll be a whole lot easier to manage than this!” I say dramatically pointing at my hair. She chuckles.

“Gary hasn’t seen it yet,” she says. “I don’t know how he’s going to react when he does.”

“Do you like it?” I ask. She smiles softly.

“I do,” she replies. “I won’t keep it short like this forever, but for right now… it’s perfect.”

“Whoa!”

Moment of truth.

Gary walks down the hall staring at Marilyn’s hair. She’s so nervous that I hear her swallow.

“You look… great!” he says, after a pause. Marilyn almost looks like she’s going to collapse from relief.

“You like it?” she asks, begging for approval.

“It looks really good… like I can play in it,” he says a bit seductively. Marilyn blushes. Gary looks down at her dress and frowns a bit.

“Have you eaten yet?” he asks, no doubt examining her small frame, which is draped in a pretty dress, but still way too small. She raises disappointed eyes to him. Nice going, Gary.

“You wanna go out?” he asks, his voice sounding like he’s asking his teenage crush on their first date. Marilyn’s eyes sparkle and she’s beaming again.

“Yeah,” she says, her smile wide. He holds his arm out and she takes his elbow. They’ve completely forgotten that we were standing there as the descend the stairs to embark upon their “date.” I look over at Christian, and he holds his arm out to me.

“Shall we?” he asks. I smile and take his arm, and we head towards the elevator.

*-*

“Welcome to our humble abode,” Jason says as he opens the door to let us in.

“Cut the crap,” I say. “I haven’t decided if I’ve forgiven you for this afternoon.”

“Forgiven you?” Gail asks, looking from me to Jason. “For what?”

“Butterfly…” Christian cautions. I roll my eyes.

bbf50af5f9e3cad19fa23f64612c56ec

“Forget it,” I say. “It’s not worth repeating.” I stick my tongue out at Jason as I pass him and he does the perfect “Spock” eyebrow at me.

“Whatever,” Gail says leading me to the table. It’s beautifully set for four complete with linens, flatware and stemware… and two bottles of wine, one of them open.

“Started cocktail hour without us?” Christian asks.

“This one was open when I got here,” Jason says. “This one my daughter asked me to pick. She specifically asked for a pinot noir… whose kid is this?”

“I opened that one and poured a portion for her to cook with,” Gail says, gesturing to the open bottle of wine. Jason’s eyes widen.

“You didn’t tell me that,” he says.

“Trust the cook, dear,” she says, rubbing his arms. “She even asked me if anyone had any food allergies.” He raises his brow.

“I guess I should trust the cook, then,” he says, his voice a bit lamenting.

“By the way, Jason. You bought your daughter a serving cart today,” Gail adds. Jason raises his brow.

“Do I want to know what it cost me?” he asks. Gail scoffs.

“What happened to Mr. Spare-No-Expense Taylor?” she teases. “Don’t worry, it was reasonable… and necessary. You told me to get her whatever she wanted.”

“You’re right. I don’t even know why I asked that question,” he says, kissing Gail on the cheek.

We can see into the kitchen and Keri is there with Sophie, but she’s not doing anything. She’s just standing there and every so often, Sophie gives her a direction or instruction and she complies.

“Bonsoir, mesdames et messieurs,” Sophie says coming out of the kitchen. Okay, I’m impressed. “I am your chef, Sophia Taylor, and I thank you for accepting the invitation to my freshman dinner. Sit down, relax, have some hors d’oeuvres, and the first course will be served in about twenty minutes.”

She bows and heads back off to the kitchen. The four of us look at each other like, “Who just left the room?” Little Sophie was wearing the full chef’s outfit—double breasted white jacket, checkered pants and the slotted hat. From the stains on her jacket, I put together that we’re having something with a rich sauce, and I can smell food cooking although I have no idea what it is.

“Well, I guess we should be seated and have some wine,” Christian says.

“Yes and no,” Jason says. “You can have wine if you drink from the open bottle. The unopened bottle is to be served with dinner. Or Chef says we can always get a drink from the bar.”

“Oh, excuse me,” Christian says, mocking a snooty voice. “I’ll just wait for dinner then. What’s this?” Christian retrieves something from one of the place settings and begins to read it.

“Oh, this is clever,” he says. To satisfy my curiosity, I go over to the table. There’s a 5×7 card at each table setting and I retrieve one.

It’s our menu.

“Very good!” I say as I review what’s in store for the evening:

 

Truffes au chocolat maison

Crostini—Brie et Figue, Boursin et Steak, Rillette, Servi avec salami dur et olives tricolores

Gratinee de soupe à l’oignon Français garnie de pain Français grillé et de fromage gruyère.

Coq Au Vin, pommes de terre à l’ail, petite laitue gemme avec vinaigrette à la moutarde

Tarte aux pommes Tatin avec de la crème fraîche et café

 

“Can you tell me what I’m eating here?” Jason says, and I laugh.

“Your daughter wants us to have a French experience tonight,” I say with mirth.

“Oh, I gathered as much,” he says. “I recognize French when I see it. I just can’t read it.”

“Hav a set, evyone,” Keri says. “Yoh stahtahs ah hehr.”

Christian pulls my seat out for me and Jason does for Gail.

“Well, I’m going to have wine with my hors d’oeuvres,” I say as I reach for the wine. Christian beats me to it and pours a glass for me.

“Mrs. Taylor?” he says, gesturing towards her with the bottle.

“Yes, thank you,” she says, and he fills her glass.

“The chef wud lek foh me to tell yoh tat evyting is homemed,” Keri says as she places a large cutting board on the table and leaves.

“Here are your starters, Jason,” I tell him. “The first thing on the menu is homemade chocolate truffles. That’s the confection you see there in the glass bowl covered in Swiss chocolate. The second thing you see is crostini. This one is brie and fig. This one is boursin cheese and steak. This one is rillette. It’s like a confit or a patte, for lack of a better word, but this one is pulled pork. And if she did that on her own, it took forever. You already know that’s hard salami and olives.”

Jason nods and goes for the crostini and olives, now that he knows what he’s eating. I go for the truffles.

I’m nearly shocked out of my senses.

“These are homemade?” I ask no one in particular. “She made these?”

“That’s what Keri said,” Christian says. “Are they good?”

“You have to try these!” I tell him like I just struck gold. Everyone takes a truffle and bites into it as I sip my wine.

“Wow,” Christian says, equally surprised. “These are delicious.”

“Yes, they are!” Gail says, finishing her chocolate while Jason reaches for a second.

“Don’t eat ‘em all up, you Neanderthal!” Christian scolds.

“There’s plenty!” Jason retorts, popping the second one in his mouth and reaching for a third. Gail slaps his hand.

“Ow!” he complains.

“You’ve already had two, Jason!” she scolds. “Let everyone else get a second one before you grab a third. Try the crostini.”

“I have tried the crostini and it’s delicious. You guys should try the crostini and let me have some more chocolate.” I quickly load my hors d’oeuvres plate with one of each crostino, some olives and salami and another truffle, because there’s going to be a riot in a minute. Christian does the same while Gail scolds Jason.

“Don’t fill up on chocolates before you get the main course, you toddler,” Gail teases.

“That’s okay,” he says, defiantly. “I’m going to get Baby Boo to make me my own batch of truffles.” He sticks his tongue out at his wife and Christian and I chuckle. We also here Keri and Sophie giggling in the kitchen as they, no doubt, heard the truffle exchange. Compliments to the chef.

A few minutes later, the chocolates and the crostini are all gone. Keri rolls out the serving tray—lovely gold and glass with wood—and serves the next course. It smells like home, a fire in the fireplace, and a warm sweater all rolled into one.

“So, this is the next item on your menu, Jason. It’s French onion soup gratinee topped with toasted French bread and gruyere cheese.”

“Wow,” he says. “This looks just like it does in a restaurant,” he adds, amazement in his voice.

“And it feels like a hug from the inside,” Christian chimes in.

“Tastes like one, too,” Gail says. I stop observing and letting everyone else have the fun and taste my soup. They’re right. It’s delicious. I know that you really can’t go wrong with a French onion soup, but when it’s right, it’s really right.

We refrain from licking our bowls clean when Keri comes to clear away the soup bowls and Sophie brings out the coq au vin.

“Alright, my French translator. I don’t need you to tell me what this is,” Jason says, opening the pinot noir and pouring us each a glass.

“Bon appetit,” Sophie says once she has placed the plates on the table, then leaves the room with her serving cart.

Okay, now here’s the real test. Coq au vin isn’t that hard for someone who already knows how to cook, but it can be a disaster if it’s not done right, especially if someone has a heavy salt hand.

I take a forkful and put it in my mouth. I look at everyone else, trying to gauge their reactions. We all look around at each other, and I’m the first to speak.

“This is really good!” I whisper.

“You didn’t help her?” Jason says to Gail, his voice low. Gail shakes her head in awe.

“I had given her some basic lessons before, but nothing like this!” she says. “She told me that she was making French onion soup and coq au vin, so I open and measured the red wine for her, but that was all, and that reduces when you cook it, so…” She takes another forkful of the chicken and potatoes.

“This is divine!” she exclaims quietly. I look over at Christian and he’s shoving forkfuls of chicken and potatoes in his mouth, nodding the entire time. When he raises his gaze to us, his expression screams, “Can’t talk… eating.”

I’m trying not to gobble down my dinner, but it’s kind of hard when the food is so damn good!

My dinner has settled well on my stomach and I know that we still have dessert. Keri clears the table and brings the dessert plates out to us along with the coffee service. She pours us each a steaming cup of coffee and goes back to the kitchen. Sophie comes out with a beautiful apple Tarte Tatin where the first slice has already been cut. She gives the first slice to her father and tops it with a dollop of crème fraiche before moving around the table to serve the rest of us.

“Oh,” Jason moans before we even get served. “This is so good.”

Sophie beams with pride as she serves the rest of us.

“Leave the tart, dear,” Gail says. “Your father’s almost finish with his first piece and I don’t want to have to hose him down because he wants another one.” Sophie laughs and Jason gives a good healthy “harrumph” behind his tart-filled mouth.

Dessert has been eaten and bellies are full all around the table. We drink our coffee and quietly converse about the upcoming week. Sophie comes shyly out of the kitchen and stands at the table near her father.

“So…” she says tentatively, “how did you like it?”

Each of us looks at someone else for a moment, then we break out in applause.

“Superbe!”
“Très magnifique!”
“That was outstanding!”
“Magnífica!”
“Delicioso!”

We stand to our feet and compliment Sophie’s meal in three different languages. She beams with pride as she shyly takes a small bow for a job well done.


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

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 on the menu or 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, or 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

 

 

 

 

Grey Continued: Season 5 Episode 26

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…

Season 5 Episode 26

CHRISTIAN

My wife dances herself into an exhausted frenzy. She looks stunning out there in that gorgeous blue dress, gracefully hugging her body and flowing beautifully with every move, and $100,000 worth of custom jewelry. I don’t know where Victoria found that treasure of a garment, but more, please.

She doesn’t speak to me for the rest of the evening. In fact, not many people have too much to say to me after the evening’s dramatic disaster. I sit sipping a single malt, double Scotch when Victoria makes her way over to me.

“Not quite the celebration you had in mind, huh?” she says, sipping her own drink.

“No, I would say not,” I reply.

“I think we’re all a bit protective of Marilyn under the circumstances, but Christian…” She looks at me and just shakes her head. Hindsight being 20/20, part of me knows that I went too far, but the biggest part of me doesn’t give a fuck.

“I know more details about this than I should, Victoria, and I didn’t reveal them all,” I defend. “That woman has been suffering… horribly. We were even more concerned about her physical well-being than I even let be known.”

“I know,” she says. “She had an abortion.” I turn my gaze to her and neither confirm nor deny her suspicions.

“I have my ways,” she says. “Somewhere around Thanksgiving. I know,” she adds. Well, no use in hiding it now.

“Who else knows?” I ask. She shrugs.

“I don’t know who else knows,” she says. Who the fuck else knows that Marilyn had a pregnancy terminated? Or was it mine and Gary’s outburst that let the cat out of the bag. No matter. It’s not the prevalent issue right now.

“I don’t know what she expected with him coming at me like that,” I say, looking out at the dancefloor and at my wife dancing with her gay boyfriend like she doesn’t have a care in the world.

“Like what, Christian?” she says. “I saw the whole exchange. Who really swung first?”

I’m trying to replay the conversation in my head, but all I can see is anger and resentment. All I can see is this poor, tormented girl wasting away for months and him walking in looking fit as a fiddle, even in that department store suit that he was wearing.

“He had to choose this forum to make his appearance. He was going for shock value.”

“He didn’t choose this forum, Christian, it just happened here.” I turn a disbelieving gaze to her.

“The fuck he didn’t!” I retort. “He knew she would be here. Why wouldn’t she be here? She’s one of the closest people to my wife and has been that way for years, even before they got together.”

“Did she come to personal functions before they got together?” Victoria points out, “because it’s my understanding that Gary certainly did.”

Hell, I really don’t know the answer to that question. I know they met at Escala when Butterfly was released from the hospital after the kidnapping. I know Marilyn was her assistant long before that and Garrett—well, hell, he’s part of the Scooby Gang, so that goes without saying. If Marilyn had been a part of the social circle before then, he would have met her before then.

“I know your feelings are personal,” Victoria says. “I know you’re very protective of her because of what you’ve seen and what you know. It’s hard not to be, but Christian? You’ve got to learn when to dial it back.”

I look over at her and back to my wife, taking another sip of my Scotch.

“Where did you find that creation?” I ask. “It’s exquisite.”

“I had nothing to do with that but the jewelry,” she says, taking a swallow of her drink. “My guess is that you’re responsible for the shoes, but that dress? Grandma.” I glare at her.

“That’s one of my grandmother’s dresses?” I ask, my eyes wide. She shrugs.

“What can I say. The women in your family have great taste.” She takes another drink and stands to her feet. “I’m going to go dance with my girl,” she says, patting me on the shoulder before walking away. I look at my wife again.

Grandma Ruby’s dress. Christ, she looks so beautiful.

Allen finally tuckers out after I don’t know how many dances and he and Butterfly return to the table. She’s careful to take any extra seat at the table except the one near me, and she keeps her revelry going. She has eaten several servings of the marble nut halvah either not knowing or not caring that I have one of the most intricate German chocolate cakes known to man waiting for her.

Not to be left alone or to interrupt Butterfly’s therapy dancing, James has a dance or three with Val and Maxie and boogies a bit with Keri.

Shit, this is just like her father’s wedding where I had to sit there and watch her congregate with everyone else and ignore me for the entire night. I sat still for it then, but hell if I’m going to sit still for it now. I shoot a text over to Jason and he raises a questioning gaze at me.

You saw what I sent you. Do what I said.

He purses his lips and dials his phone. A few minutes later, my brother’s voice interrupts my thoughts.

“Montana’s really pissed at you, Bro,” Elliot says, leaving the group and coming over to me.

“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” I say flatly. He chuckles.

“Well, you’d be the only one who didn’t,” he replies.

“How’s Val doing?” I ask, trying to take the conversation to another place.

“As well as can be expected,” he says. “I don’t think she’ll ever be over losing the baby, but she’s not against trying again. I won’t rush her, though. I’ll let her let me know when she’s ready.”

Never be over losing the baby…

“How are you?” I ask. He examines me for a moment.

“It’s hard for me, too, Bro,” he says. “I know it’s not as hard for me as it is for her, but it’s hard for me.” I twist my lips as Garrett’s words come back to me.

“Lose a baby, Christian! Then you can come and talk to me!”

“You’re a good man,” I tell him. “I wish there were more like you.”

“He left her because she lost his baby?” he questions. I look at him. “He said something about losing a baby.” I shake my head.

“It… wasn’t the same,” is all I can say. All the dimes are falling for everybody now and it’s not wholly because of what I said. I’m still wondering how Victoria knew, though.

“Oooh,” Elliot says knowingly. “Well… I can’t speak to that. Val and I both wanted the baby so badly… you know the story.”

“Yeah, I know,” I tell him. “She just looked so bad. Do you see how bad she looked? Even all cleaned up in chiffon and diamonds, she was just a shell of a woman in a pretty dress. There’s just some things I won’t be able to wrap my mind around.”

“I get it, Bro, but… a little less fire next time?” he says, holding his thumb and forefinger together in that way. My phone buzzes and Jason has texted me.

**Your chariot awaits. **

“Yeah,” I say, standing. “I’ve been working on ‘less fire’ for years. I don’t think I’ll get there anytime soon.” Elliot stands with me and frowns.

“Where’re you going?” he asks.

“I think I’ve had enough fun for one night,” I say, putting my phone in my pocket.

“You sure you wanna leave?” he asks. “That might piss her off even more.” I scoff.

“You’re kidding, right?” I ask. “She’s actively engaging the 10-foot-pole rule with me right now, as is just about everybody else in this room, and you’re actually concerned that she’s going to be more pissed that I left?” I put my hand on his shoulder.

“She won’t be concerned that I left,” I say. “She’s having a great time without me, and this is her night. I won’t spoil it any more for her, but I’m not going to sit here and be ostracized because I spoke my true feelings. Give Val my best.” I squeeze his shoulder, then turn and leave the ballroom.

*-*

It’s drizzling a bit when I get back to the Crossing. I’m glad that it hadn’t rained when Marilyn collapsed in the grass at the club. I only hope he got her inside before she caught a cold.

I take the stairs down to the lower level intent to go to my study and settle in for the night, maybe check to see if any of the breeders have contacted me back about puppies. When I look out onto the lower patio, I see the back of Garrett’s head sitting on the sofa out there and looking out at the lake. I’m still really angry about what happened with Marilyn, but Elliot’s words are playing in my head, too.

I go over to the bar and retrieve two beers, popping them both open and taking them out to the patio. He’s so lost in thought that he doesn’t hear me come outside. I walk around to the front of the sofa and hand him a beer. He looks up at me with venom in his eyes, but then he takes the beer and fixes his gaze back onto the lake. I take a seat next to him and take a swig of my beer.

“You’re right. I haven’t lost a baby, but I have watched Marilyn, and these past weeks have been brutal.”

“I don’t need you to tell me that,” he interrupts.

“But I am,” I reply. “I’m sure you two have had the first of what will be several long, deep, meaningful, and probing conversations and she’s told you all about how she felt without you. But no matter what she’s told you, you haven’t seen it all. The staff at Helping Hands thought she had cancer, because she was gone for a month, and she came back looking like that. As if it was possible, she lost even more weight in the months she’s been staying here. I’ve never seen someone suffer from a broken heart like that… ever.”

You did,” he says. I look at him like he’s crazy.

“When?” I ask.

“When Butterfly got pissed at you and didn’t speak to you for a week.”

Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.

“Well, let me rephrase,” I say. “I’ve never seen someone else suffer from a broken heart like that. And my suffering only lasted for a week. She’s been going through this for, what… three months?”

“Three months, two weeks, three days…” he says, his voice trailing off. I look at him again and he turns his gaze to me. “Even though you may not think so, I’ve been going through it, too.”

“Why didn’t you talk to her, then?” I ask. If they were both suffering, why didn’t he try to reach out to her.

“Why didn’t you talk to Ana?” he retorts.

“I tried! She wouldn’t listen to me!” I shoot back.

“I couldn’t. I was in too much pain,” he replies.

“Well, that makes two of you, then, because she was dying,” I interject.

“She still is,” he says. What does he mean? They didn’t patch things up? She’s still hurting? “I don’t know if she’s at the point of no return. She’s not refusing food because she doesn’t want to eat. She’s not eating because she can’t eat. Everything makes her sick, and now she won’t even do the shakes because she can’t stand the taste of them anymore.”

I stare at him in disbelief. I didn’t know that. I’ve been trying to shove food down her throat all this time. All week long, she’s been choking down food to satisfy us and now she’s mentally and physically miserable. Jesus H. Christ, when will the poor girl catch a break? I sigh heavily and run my hand through my hair. I’m at a loss, now, too. I don’t know what to do for her. Even if she and Garrett get back together and her broken heart begins to mend, what about her broken body?

“You really care about her, don’t you?”

His voice startles me. For a brief moment, I forgot he was still here. I look over at him and he’s examining me. It’s no use trying to hide it. Even Ray could see that it’s more than just a professional relationship.

“When my wife told me what was happening, I was angry… and a bit torn,” I admit. “She asked me how I would react under the same circumstances if I were you. I couldn’t answer her. Part of me totally supports her right to choose what she wants to do with her body. The father in me couldn’t imagine life without my children. So, I was torn.

“When she disappeared for a month and my wife was pulling her hair out—over you both, I might add—I began to take the situation more seriously. Not that I didn’t before, it’s just that it didn’t directly affect me, so I didn’t internalize it. I started wondering how if you claim to love someone, you could just leave them cold that way. I realized I was being a hypocrite, so I let it drop.”

“You were being a hypocrite?” he asks. “You left Ana?” I look over at him.

“I’m surprised she didn’t tell you,” I say. “She’ll have to give you the details if she hasn’t already, but yeah, I took a little hiatus. It devastated her. She didn’t stop eating, but I’m certain that it’s only because she had to feed our babies. Nonetheless, I was the pot calling the kettle black, so I just… dropped it.

“When Marilyn came back to Seattle and I saw her, all bets were off. My wife was broken when I returned, but she was nothing like this—and we weren’t incommunicado for as long as you two were. It was serious, don’t get me wrong, but…” I trail off.

“In all the time I’ve known of her, I’d never seen her like this. She was always healthy and vibrant and sassy. Once, I tried to run that ‘I am Christian Grey, Master of the Universe’ bullshit on her and she let me have it with both barrels and subsequently told my wife that if she had to take that shit from me that she was tendering her resignation.”

“I remember that,” he says. I just nod.

“She was a force to be reckoned with and we both know that, but when she came back from her parents’ place, I was certain that she had one foot in the grave. I hadn’t seen her yet when Butterfly told me that she was going to be staying with us. When I saw her, I was livid. I was angry with her; I was angry with you; I couldn’t understand for the life of me how anyone could let another person suffer like this. Even the hearts that I’ve left in my wake before Ana, I’ve never led any of those women to believe that I loved them. I have felt and seen love rip the heart out of someone. Before this, I had never seen it rip the soul out.”

Garrett swallows hard at the analogy and sighs deeply.

“Yes, Garrett, I care for her—as a person and a human being, as someone who’s important to my wife… so, yes, she’s important to me, and probably for more than just that reason at this point. I watched her firsthand slipping deeper and deeper into darkness and there was nothing that I could do about it. It’s not an easy thing for a man with my kind of power to feel helpless.

“All I could think was, ‘What the fuck is on Garrett’s mind? How could he let her suffer like this?’ But you probably didn’t know she was suffering like this. She was in Las Vegas for over a month and never left her room unless we told her to. Correction—she left once and stood at the Bellagio fountains, but that was it. I couldn’t even tempt her with the spa, I tried. So, you’ll just have to excuse me if when I finally saw you, I wanted to rip your throat out, because this is what I’ve been seeing constantly for the last two months.”

“I guess I should thank you for caring about her when I couldn’t,” he says. “I was really angry. I felt hurt and betrayed… but I never stopped loving her, not once. You may not believe that, but it’s true.”

I look over at him and he’s looking back out at the lake. I immediately think about how I felt when I ran off to Madrid—totally betrayed… and fucking pissed!

“I can believe it,” I say, realizing now why my mother tore into my ass when she finally got me to answer the phone. I mean, I knew then, but it’s even more clear now. I didn’t stop loving my wife; I just felt betrayed and pissed.

“I don’t want to intrude on your personal life because it’s kind of none of my business, but I’m gonna, because we’re vested in that girl now and I need to know what we’re going to be facing when she wakes up in the morning.” He sighs.

“I don’t really know, Christian,” he says honestly. “We both really fucked up and there are some serious trust issues going on. Yes, she has the right to choose, but I feel like she took my choice away, and I have the right to feel that way. It doesn’t matter if no one else thinks so. Then, I left her after she made an impossible decision before her body even had a chance to heal.

“She had an abortion that morning; that night, she was on a plane. I didn’t even know until I talked to her tonight. I didn’t know that she had left and gone to Spokane; I thought she was still at the apartment until the day that Ana told me she left. I never went back to see until I knew that she was gone. When I went back to the apartment and all her stuff was gone, I felt like hell. She didn’t even take the furniture we bought together. There were little trinkets that I bought for her that are still sitting on my dresser—she didn’t take those either.

“I never once thought all those hang-ups on my voice mail were her, not once. I kept wondering who in the hell was calling me in the middle of the night and wouldn’t leave a message. I wasn’t concerned about how she was feeling at all; I was only trying not to be angry anymore. Thing is, I was only angry for about a week, then I started mourning my loss—my woman and my baby.

“She stopped eating when she was grieving. I was eating everything in sight and working out like a madman to burn it off. Besides that, all I’ve done for three months is work, sleep, and watch Game of Thrones.”

He falls silent for a moment and I’m watching him examine his nearly empty beer bottle. He’s pondering something. What is he pondering? What’s there to think about? They were miserable without each other and now they’re back.

“I know what you must be thinking,” he says. “They’ll get back together and everything will be fine now.” That’s exactly what I was thinking. “But that’s not true. There’s so much unfinished business—so much that we have to settle and talk about. The fact that she hurt me, the fact that I hurt her, the fact that she nearly killed herself immediately after having an outpatient procedure because we broke up.

“I love her dearly, but her survival can’t be dependent on whether I’m there or not. Having a broken heart and grieving, that’s one thing. She wouldn’t have lasted much longer had she kept this up, and we are going to have to go back to the doctor soon to find out how to undo this. We’re going to have to take some drastic steps beyond Ensure and Pedialyte.

“I’m still mourning the loss of my baby. Will that affect our intimacy? Will she ever be able to truly open up to me again? Do we have a future, and will it ever involve children after this? Is love enough to fix us? Can we forgive each other for the pain we’ve caused? What if too much damage has been done and we can’t recover? We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, a whole lot of it!”

He finishes his beer and puts it on the patio floor. I pause for a few moments before I speak.

“Those are very valid questions that only you two can answer. Having previously been quite the outspoken tyrant against love I can tell you this. Love is able to accomplish anything. I’m not talking about the lustful, hearts and flowers, smoochie-huggy-kissy stuff that you feel when you begin a relationship and it keeps you on cloud nine. I’m talking about that ‘this cow is getting on my fucking nerves,’ panic because you haven’t heard from her and wonder if she’s okay, turn the world upside down to make her happy, can’t see your future without her, love her even when you hate her kind of love. If Marilyn was just infatuated, this whole thing would have passed in a few weeks. She definitely wouldn’t be in the state she is now, so I think it’s safe to say that she feels that kind of love for you. If you love her, and you really want this, you’ll find a way to make it work.” I finish my beer and stand.

“You guys can stay as long as you want. I’m sure my wife would feel better if she could at least see some progress with Marilyn’s health before she moves out, but let us know if you decide to leave.” He looks up at me, then nods and looks back at the lake. I walk back into the entertainment room and find my wife standing by her aquarium, looking out the doors at us. I look at her for a few moments, and when she says nothing, I go to the bar and dispose of my empty beer bottle in the trash. I pull out a snifter and pour myself a brandy. I look over at her once more, and she’s still silent. Deciding that I don’t want to defend my opinions or fight for amends at the moment, I head down the hall to my study.

*-*

I didn’t sleep at all last night. Still wound from the events of the party and the conversation with Garrett last night, I tried to work for a while, worked out a bit, even played my piano. Nothing. Not even a hint of sluggishness. This morning, I decide to go for a run. I don’t wake Jason to go with me. I foolishly run on my own, but I pretty much just lap the street and the area around the house. I discover when I get back to the Crossing that the run and the fresh air has done wonders for me, and after a shower and some breakfast, I may be able to settle into a nap.

The bedroom is unoccupied when I step in and after fetching a fresh pair of sweats from my dressing room, I’m actually relieved to just be able to get in the shower and let the hot water run over me. I do my best to rinse away my frustration from last night. So many people’s thoughts and feelings were on display and under consideration… except one. Granted, this isn’t my dilemma, but I’m very much involved. Emotions were running high all around last night and the only person who got scolded was me.

I’m not going to pout; I won’t sulk. I talked to Garrett because I felt I needed to, but I’m not willing to swallow the idea that my feelings, thoughts, and concerns don’t count. This was a very trying time for Marilyn and as I discovered last night, for Garrett as well, but they weren’t the only people involved. Their issue and breakup reached out like fingers and touched several other people. I’m one of those people, and I won’t be dismissed.

Feeling refreshed and relaxed after my shower, I step out and dry my hair vigorously. I brush my teeth and decide to leave the shave for Monday. I don’t have plans for the weekend as we don’t resume with our mentoring sessions with Artemis and Savvina until next weekend. In fact, for the first time in a long time, I plan to veg out today.

I find my wife standing next to the bed when I exit my en suite. Just like last night, she just stands there looking at me. I don’t know what she expects, but if she has no words, neither do I.

I don’t stand there and wait for a greeting. I go to my chest of drawers in the changing room and grab a fresh T-shirt. I pull it over my head as I leave my changing room.

“Don’t you think this situation requires some discussion?” she asks, her voice frank. I shrug.

“Sure,” I say, non-committal. Her head jerks a bit and she frowns.

“Not as passionate about it as you were last night, Christian?” she asks. I laugh inwardly. She’s picking a fight.

“If you wanted passion, you should have talked to me last night,” I say coldly. “That fuse is burned now.”

“That fuse,” she says, noting my emphasis. “Is that to denote that there’s another fuse alight?”

“It could be,” I say after pondering the question for a moment. “I’m just tired of everyone else’s feelings mattering more than mine,” I add matter-of-factly. She frowns.

“What do you mean?” she asks affronted. Okay, Butterfly, you asked for it…

“I mean that he just showed up out of nowhere after three months of letting this girl suffer and nearly die, and we’re all supposed to bow to his feelings, but he’s not supposed to be considerate of anybody else’s. I watched you worry about her for more than a month when she went to her parents. Then she came back, and I watched her deteriorate, so I worried with you. As much as I deplore anything to do with hunger and starvation, I watched it first hand for more than two months.

“I tried to temp that girl with anything available—‘Hey, we’re in hell for a few weeks, but it’s still the land of a million foods. Eat, drink, be merry! Hey, go take advantage of that free spa package! You can use it three times a day if you want.’ We went to buffets; we had food delivered; five-star, 24-hour room service; you took food tours and cooking classes; we went to world-renowned restaurants… She couldn’t even sit the whole night through Karaoke! She had me on such tender hooks worrying about her that for a fleeting moment, Ray suspected that something was going on between us. Did he ever tell you that?” My voice is rising and sharpening. Her eyes widen at the most recent revelation, but then she recovers.

“No,” she says, her voice low. “No, he didn’t tell me that.”

“Yeah, that happened,” I confirm. “I’ve spent all this time being concerned that she was going to collapse from malnutrition and organ failure and then out of the blue, he shows up like he’s coming to save the day… after three fucking months. If you hadn’t threatened her, she still wouldn’t be eating right now!

“Then you want to punish me for the rest of the night because I announced that you were about to have her committed. News flash, Anastasia—that’s not the big secret! Everybody within the visual radius of her could see that she became dangerously thin over a very short period of time. Some people even thought she had a fatal disease!

“No, the secret? The secret was exposed by your boy when he announced the he had lost a baby. That declaration had inquiring minds wondering if it was miscarriage or a termination. Logic leaned to termination as no one could fathom the thought of Gary leaving Marilyn because of a miscarriage. So, even though I may have let the cat out of the bag about something that really wasn’t so secret, the one who really broke a confidence here was Gary, but has anybody beheaded him and shit down his throat for that?”

My wife is silent, and I’m louder than I intend, but I don’t care. I may never get another chance to make this point, so I’m making it now.

“If you don’t expect me to become passionate about the people that you bring to this house who are in need, don’t bring them around me! We have plenty of resources and I have no problem helping someone in need, but if helping them means that I’m supposed to let them in my house, nurture them and bring them back to mental and physical health, but then turn my back and act like I don’t give a fuck when they’re hurting, then you’ve got the wrong guy.

“I’ve always been able to go from zero to 100 in 2.3 seconds and you knew that when you married me, but this empathetic fucker? This guy with all these feelings and concern for other people? This is the guy you created, and although I may become angry—I may get pissed off and say or do stupid shit, I can’t just turn that guy off at will!

“We had Harmony and Tina to worry about and I went gung-ho on that fucker Kenneth, that crook Roger, and Tina’s ungrateful children—at Tina’s fucking funeral, no less! Val was a total bitch, but when we found out that it was because she was sick, we gave her doctor a bulldozer full of what-for, and how… and brought her here to live with us! Even James was the center of my wrath when you were trying to save Thelma and Little Jimmy from starvation and a long, slow death in that condemned, mold and bacteria-infested house and what happened? After I gave him a huge piece of my mind and he lost his fucking family and his health deteriorated, I ended up helping him in the end. And let’s not forget that I almost fucking got arrested over Marlow’s father!

“If I care about you enough to get involved, then yes, I’m going to be passionate about you. I didn’t hold my tongue when any of those people were being hurt and I didn’t hold my tongue this time. The only difference this time was that both of the parties on both sides of the battlefield were your friends. So, when I did speak my mind against the party that I felt was wrong, I became the bad guy… again! So, in the future, should I distance myself from these situations so that I don’t make this mistake? Because from my standpoint, I wasn’t going to win either way.

“I care for her. She’s a good person; she’s important to you; and she’s grown on me. So, watching her suffer and not being able to do anything about it is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it was downright painful. Having him stroll in and announce that his suffering trumped everybody else’s was almost unbearable and enough to make my blood boil. But having you ostracize me for the rest of the night because I felt like what I felt and what I saw was just as important as what he was feeling, that is completely, utterly, and totally unacceptable. So, like I said, I’m tired of everyone else’s feelings mattering more than mine!”

Is that enough of an explanation for you, Dr. Grey?

“It’s not that your feelings don’t matter, Christian,” she says, her voice softening… and shaking a bit. “It’s just that certain situations have to be handled delicately. You can’t just charge into delicate scenarios like a bull in a China shop.”

“Well, once again, excuse me if I had no patience for the guy who I felt allowed Marilyn to suffer for three months, especially after he comes at me with that sarcastic, smug ass attitude. ‘What do you suggest I do, Christian?’” I say, mocking his tone.

“You snapped at him first,” she points out.

“And again, you’re taking his side. So, we’re having this conversation because…?” I trail off calmly, holding my hand out expectantly and waiting for her to finish the sentence. I’m under no misconception about her feelings—she made them quite clear. However, if she didn’t hear anything that I just said, then I have nothing else to say. She sighs and drops her head.

“This is a very worthy conversation,” she says, “and you are right. I did and I am seeing things from Gary’s point of view. If it’s okay with you, may I have a little time to consider your argument before I address it further?” She stands there silent, waiting for my response.

“I think that’s a very good idea,” I say calmly. She nods and leaves the room.

That’s the first time we’ve been passionate about anything and had a civil conversation. I don’t know if it’s because I stood my ground and refused to be sucked into any other discussion or argument, or if she really sees that I had a point and she wants to consider both sides of the coin. Either way, I’m not angry or aggravated and I’m still as relaxed as I was when I returned from my run… more, even.

I climb on the bed and grab the remote. I turn the television on and begin scrolling through the channels. I should really go and get some breakfast, but I’m truly beat. Maybe I’ll just close my eyes for a quick minute or two, then go down to breakfast…


ANASTASIA

Even when Christian is angry, it’s not like him to miss a meal, at least not deliberately. He didn’t seem angry after our talk this morning, but he didn’t come down to breakfast. His conversation was a bit deliberate, somewhat subdued in the end, but not angry. Why didn’t he come to breakfast?

“Is everyone avoiding us?” Marilyn asks, having come down and eaten a bit of eggs and drank some orange juice. Gary sits silently next to her, wearing his suit pants and a T-shirt. There’s no one else at the table, but us.

“I think they may be trying to avoid Christian,” I say, sipping my coffee.

“And who’s he trying to avoid?” Gary asks.

“Could be me,” I say with a shrug. Marilyn sighs.

“This is the very last thing I wanted,” she says, pushing her hair behind her ear. There’s silence at the table for a while.

“You’re not going to try to eat a little more?” Gary coaxes, noting that she only ate a forkful or two of eggs. Marilyn shakes her head.

“I can’t tolerate any more,” she says without looking at him. “My stomach just can’t take it.” Gary sighs and says nothing else. I look at them both staring at dishes, beverages, walls, anything but each other.

“So, what now?” I ask. I’m feeling a bit like Christian right now. After everything I’ve witnessed and the worry I’ve been through, I deserve some answers… something in the way of closure, or at least headed towards it.

“I don’t know,” they say simultaneously, then look sadly at one another. Well, enough of this shit. I’m not a relationship counselor, but I bet I’ll fucking be one right now.

“What do you want?” I ask the open-ended question to them both. Neither answers.

“Okay, that’s not a rhetorical question,” I say. “What. Do you want?”

Marilyn is still looking down at the uneaten portion of her eggs and Gary looks over at her.

“I want her to eat,” he says, examining the side of her head. Nope, too easy, Pope.

“And then what?” I ask. He turns his gaze to me.

“I don’t know,” he says, his voice a bit frustrated. “I don’t know where we’re going to go from here.”

“That’s not what I asked you,” I retort, “and dancing around the question isn’t going to make the answer any easier, nor is it going to make me stop asking it. I love you both; you’re very important to me, and this is destructive behavior. You stopped eating and you barely sleep; and you cut yourself off from people that you’ve interacted with nearly every damn weekend for years! Half the time, we didn’t know if you were dead or alive. I and everybody who care about you two who had to sit and witness that train wreck that was last night deserve to know. What. Now?”

I leave the floor open. They’re going to fucking answer me, or nobody’s leaving this table.

“I want my life back,” Gary says after several moments of silence, “and I want my girl back, but I don’t know if we can do it.”

“Why don’t you think so?” I ask.

“Look at us,” he replies. “I hurt her; she hurt me; we fucked up big. I know the fact that we hurt each other doesn’t make it even, but how do we recover from this? I still feel the same way that I feel and I’m sure she still feels the same way she does…” Marilyn is shaking her head while he’s talking. I hold up my hand to halt him.

“Why are you shaking your head?” I ask. She raises her gaze and there are those endless, silent tears that she’s been crying for weeks. Gary gazes at her with regret in his eyes.

“Everything I thought I knew has changed,” she says, her voice even. You would think she was sitting here having a normal old conversation, but her tears betray her heart. “I had never loved anybody else like this and I didn’t think anything could ever go wrong with this love, but when it did, I completely fell apart. I totally lost myself and I couldn’t find me for anything. Every day, I felt like I was just walking through a tunnel, and I knew it was a tunnel, but there was no light at the end.

“For three months, I just kind of wandered around. I second-guessed everything. For three months, every decision I made, I second-guessed it. I second-guessed being a mom, being ready, the termination, giving the baby up for adoption, going to my parents, coming back, waking up in the morning, everything! I never thought of suicide, but I can’t tell you how many times I just wanted to curl up and die.

“And now, he’s back,” she says, her voice cracking on the last word, “and I still don’t know how to find me. I still don’t have any faith in anything that I thought I knew. He says he still feels the same. Does that mean that he still hates me? He’s still hurt and angry that I aborted his baby? He wants his girl back, but he still can’t be in the same room with me? What does that mean?

“You want to know why I was shaking my head? Because nothing is like it was before—nothing. I don’t feel anything I felt before. He says he wants his girl back, but the girl I was before he left and I found myself all alone, I don’t even know where that girl is anymore.

“All of my realities have been completely shattered. This is my reality now—clawing and scratching and starving and trying to find out who I really am. If I knew then what I know now, if I had thought for one second that this is where I would end up, I’d be sitting here looking at you swollen right now. We’d be planning a baby shower and looking for a bigger place and sharing ultrasound pictures on Facebook!”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Gary says. “You would have made the same decision because you weren’t ready. Nothing, not even my broken heart, can make you ready if you’re not ready.”

“How can you understand that now if you didn’t understand that before?” Marilyn shoots through her tears. “I was healthy and fit and there would have been plenty of time for us to have children later. I just wasn’t ready now. Neither of us were ready. That’s why we were using protection and birth control. Now, you understand that I wasn’t ready and all it took was for me to go to the brink of hell!”

Gary sits silently, shamefaced, while Marilyn’s tears don’t cease. I hand her a napkin, but she shakes her head again.

“There has to be something wrong with not being able to function without another person,” she says, “with being unable to find a place of peace when I find myself on my own. I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t laugh or relax. All the things that are supposed to rejuvenate the body and mind, I couldn’t do.” I sigh.

“It’s called love, Mare,” I tell her, “and it’s heartbreak. You don’t get to dictate the terms of your sorrow. It is what it is.”

“What if he dies, heaven forbid?” she says. “What if something happens and he’s just not here anymore? Does that mean I’ll never be able to function on my own again?”

“These are all very valid questions, Mare, that only you have the answers to,” I tell her. “Keep in mind that the circumstances of your breakup were… quite rough. You terminated a pregnancy; you came home, and he was packed. Just like that, this relationship that you cultivated for the last couple of years was over—and it wasn’t a sudden, tragic event that ripped him away from you. This was a conscious decision to leave the relationship—a man that was still very much alive, leaving you in a situation of anguish, despair, loneliness, uncertainty… and hope. There was always hope until you finally let it go. That’s one of the worst parts of a separation—hoping for a reconciliation.

“It’s good that you realize that your life, existence, and happiness can’t be totally dependent on another person. Granted, all of the people in our lives contribute to those things in some way, but I wholeheartedly agree that you completely fell apart very much to your detriment without Gary around you. It concerns me because you’ve always been a very independent person. It also concerns me because it says a lot about how you feel about yourself—your worth and who you are on your own.

“I would be completely devastated if something happened to Christian, or if heaven forbid our relationship fell apart and we had nothing left. However, I’d like to think that I have enough of a sense of self-preservation or even the knowledge that other people need me that I would be able to overcome the worst part of my grief to have my survival instincts kick in.”

Marilyn looks at me knowingly. She didn’t have all of the details when Christian ran away to Madrid, but she knew the gist of it. I did, however, get up and take care of my babies and go to work and eat and try to remain as normal as possible, with the exception of a drunken slip off a cliff.

But this isn’t about me.

“You two are going to have to find ways to reconnect again,” I say. “It’s the only way, and it’s going to be hard. We’ve been where you are, and it’s going to be all about rebuilding the trust that you lost, leaning on the love that you have, and forging a new relationship. You can’t go back to where you were. There’s an innocence and blissful ignorance that was attached to that relationship that you no longer have. You need to take the seed that is your love—right now—and plant it in fresh ground. You’re going to need some help and it’s not going to be easy or fast. I can give you advice, but I think you should both see a marriage counselor.” Gary raises his brow at me.

“Why can’t you do it?” Gary asks. I shake my head.

“If it comes to that, I will,” I tell him, “but I think you should first talk to someone with a fresh eye on things… someone that’s not so close. My therapist was of no use to me when Christian left. I don’t know what he was aiming at, but he kept hitting the rim of the target without hitting the bullseye. I’m thinking it’s because he knows me, and he knows that I’m a doctor and he expected me to heal myself. I wasn’t in a position where I could. Our friends tried to help us and they kind of shed some light on some things, but we were in so deep that it took strangers to help us—two different sets in two different specialties. So, you should talk to someone who’s not so close first and see what happens.

“I can point you in the right direction, but you two need a game plan, and you’re going to have to take the steps on your own. The first thing you need to do is figure out what you want to do. You know that you want your girl back.” I turn to Marilyn. “You don’t know which way is up and not quite sure which direction to go. That’s where you have to start. If you’re going to be stuck in ‘I don’t know,’ then you might as well go back to your corners and forget this semi-reconciliation ever happened.”

Gary raises his gaze to me, then looks over at Marilyn who’s still crying a waterfall. He puts his arm around her chair, and she jumps like she’s startled, but he doesn’t pull away. Instead, he leans in to her.

“I know what I want, baby, and that’s not it,” he says to her like she’s the only person in the room. “I want you back. I love you. I want what we had and if we can’t have that, then I want what we can become. Do you want me?”

Marilyn never raises her head. The tears are still flowing when she takes a huge stuttering breath and nods.

“I do want you, Gary,” she says, “but I want me, first.”

Gary pauses, not quite sure—I’m certain—what to make of that answer.

“Is that something that we can work on together, or do you need time to work on that alone?” he asks cautiously. She swallows.

“Both,” she says, her voice cracking again. “I know that I have to find me again and I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to do that or what it’s going to involve and you’re going to have to allow me to do that… but I don’t want to be without you anymore.”

Gary purses his lips, then embraces her gently.

“I’m scared to hug you,” he says honestly. “You’re so thin.” She shrugs.

“Battle scars,” she says sadly. I wish she hadn’t used that terminology. Christian and I use that same phrase for our kink bruises. Scratches and bites and whelps and hickeys and… Is it getting hot in here? What was I talking about?

“I broke the lease on the old place,” Gary confesses, “and all my things are in storage.”

Oh, yeah… Marilyn and Gary.

“Just as well,” Marilyn says, her face still wet with now partially dry tears. “I couldn’t go back there anyway.”

“Well, your current address is here anyway,” I interject. “No offense, Gary, but I have to see a significant improvement in her health before I‘m willing to let her out of my sight. I’ll have to talk to Christian about you coming and going…”

“Christian already offered us to stay for as long as we needed last night,” he says, bemused. “I thought he would have told you.” My brow rises.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” I say with a shrug, “although…”

“Although what?” Gary asks.

“You two are going to need time together to rebuild your relationship… and time apart.” Marilyn raises a questioning gaze to me. “Being apart and not thinking you would ever be together again is one thing. Being apart and building yourself knowing exactly when you’re going to see each other again is another. Once you set your plan in motion, each of you is going to need some ‘me’ time to rebuild and rejuvenate to help make the ‘us’ better.” I point to them both when stressing the word us.

“Gary, why don’t you go home and get some clean clothes. Plan to spend at least the weekend here. You guys have a lot to discuss.” He nods and stands.

“I won’t be long, I promise,” he says, kissing Marilyn’s hand. She nods and watches him as he leaves the dining room.

“How do you feel?” I ask once Gary leaves the room.

“I thought you said you were too close,” she says.

“No,” I say, “I said you should start by talking to someone who’s not so close, and I can still be a sounding board.” Her head drops back, and I see the tears begin again.

“Confused,” she says. “Scared… happy, sick, tired, cautious, anxious, elated, relieved, weak, restless, you name it, I feel it.”

“That’s a good place to start.” I cover her hand with mine. “You’re absolutely right. You need to find ‘you.’ Start working on that right now.” She closes her eyes and nods.

“I think I need to go meditate,” she says. She stands from the table and heads towards the family room.

“Marilyn?” she stops in the kitchen and turns around. “I want to ask you something. Your shirt is drenched. Why don’t you dry your tears when they’re falling?”

“I did at first,” she says, “but now, my skin is too tender from the tissue. So, I just let them fall until they’re done and then wash my face.” When I don’t answer, she turns and heads to the family room.

I don’t even know how to respond to that. I’ve never heard of anybody who cried so much that they wiped their face until their skin hurt. I have to say that I’m very glad that she and Gary have decided to start to put their relationship back together. I don’t know how she would have lasted without him.

*-*

I don’t think he’s sulking, but I haven’t seen Christian all day.

I spent the first part of the morning with Gary and Marilyn. He has retrieved enough clothes for at least a week and now, he and Marilyn have been holed up in her room for the last couple of hours. I have no problem with making up for lost time, but I hope they don’t think that sex is going to solve their problems.

Speaking of problems, I take this moment of solace to consider the conversation that I had with my husband this morning. I need to get him to understand how his actions were inappropriate without discounting his feelings. He’s raw from watching Marilyn suffer and waste away these past months and before this morning, I didn’t know just how raw he was. I’m constantly seeing the CEO Neanderthal who wants the world to bow to his will and yield to his omnipotence when that wasn’t what was happening here at all. If anything, the protector was baring his teeth and that’s who we were dealing with last night.

Daddy suspected an affair—that’s a news flash. I wonder what was said to dispel that suspicion.

Yes, I was feeling extremely protective of them both last night. I still am. That could very well have clouded my judgment when it came to seeing him attacking Gary. As is stands, he wasn’t really attacking Gary so much as he was defending Marilyn.

What’s sticking with me the most, however, is the statement that he made about being the bad guy again. Do I always make him out to be the bad guy? That’s certainly not my intention. And if after all this time, he truly thinks that he’s always under attack for voicing his feelings, something’s definitely wrong with the machinery here.

But I won’t approach him while he’s sulking. So, this worthy conversation will just have to wait.

I spend the early part of the afternoon with my babies on the floor of the family room. Mikey is thoroughly entertained by watching his sister bounce around like a madman, and Minnie has taken to forming full sentences with one or maybe two decipherable words. Mikey is verbose as well, but he sticks to his one word and makes his point.

I’ve finished a late lunch with the children and Gail and I have put them to sleep when we’re greeted with a groggy, bed-haired Christian Grey walking into the kitchen still in the jogging pants and T-shirt I left him in when I left the bedroom this morning.

He’s been asleep all this time?

“No coffee?” he asks, scanning the kitchen and noting the clean and empty coffee pot.

“We… usually don’t have it in the afternoon,” I point out. His expression is a mixture of horror, surprise, and disbelief.

“What time is it?” he asks, looking around the room, no doubt, for a timepiece. I push the display on the remote.

“Almost three,” I say, just as he spots the time on the microwave.

“Jesus!” he says. “That was one hell of a power nap!”

“That was supposed to be a power nap?” I ask. “I left you at nine. I thought you were coming to breakfast.”

“I thought I was, too!” he replies. “I planned on vegging out today. I didn’t know that I was going to sleep the day away.” Vegging out? Christian Grey doesn’t veg out!

“That’s new,” I say, nonplussed. “Since when do you veg out?” His face becomes impassive.

“I guess everybody needs to relax, relate, and release sometimes, huh?” he replies. He turns to the refrigerator and begins to remove the trimmings for a sandwich.

“Here, let me,” I say, coming over to the refrigerator and gesturing for him to move. I continue to remove items from the refrigerator and stack them onto the counter. I know my husband. He doesn’t want a sandwich. He wants a meal, but he wants it fast.

I slice a hero roll in half and cover the bottom half with mozzarella cheese and let it toast in the toaster oven. Once the cheese has melted, I remove the roll and stack it with hard salami, black forest ham, peppered turkey, sopressata, and bresaola. I take some shredded lettuce and whisk it in a bowl with red wine vinegar, avocado oil, oregano, and a touch of salt and pepper.

“Soda? Tea? Water? Beer?” I ask, going back to the refrigerator to retrieve a red onion.

“Spritzer,” he says matter-of-factly. I remove a tall glass from the cabinet and mix crushed ice, sparkling water and cranberry juice with a mint leaf and give it to my husband.

I return to the chopping board and slice tomatoes, red onions, and banana peppers. I place the top half of the hero bun in the toaster oven and finish the sandwich with provolone cheese, tomatoes, banana peppers, and the coated lettuce. I remove the other half of the bun with an oven glove and coat it with a nice helping of mayonnaise. Placing the freshly toasted bun on top, I put the sandwich on a plate, cut it in half and give it to him.

“Thank you,” he says, looking at the large sandwich and trying to figure out how to attack it. He finally gets a bite into his mouth and groans his satisfaction. I nod, put the ingredients away and clean up my mess.

“I’d like to continue our conversation,” I tell him, but I’ll wait until you’ve finished your lunch. When you’re ready, I’ll be in our sitting room… unless you’d rather have the conversation somewhere else.” He pauses.

“No, the sitting room is fine,” he says. I nod and head towards the stairway.


A/N: In case you didn’t see it, there is a short one-shot of Gary and Marilyn’s point of view… mostly Gary’s. You can find it here: https://butterflysaga.wordpress.com/2020/04/19/gary-returns-after-the-breakup/ 

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

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 on the menu or 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, or 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

 

 

Gary Returns After the Breakup

This is a small bit of the story from Gary and Marilyn’s POV. I did this because many people said that they wanted to know what Gary was thinking throughout all this, and I thought it was a good idea to show how I felt Gary was feeling about the termination and the breakup.

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…

Gary Returns

GARY (Still too soon)

It’s been three months, one week, five days, and 13 hours since I last saw her. When I knew what she was going to do, I sat in the apartment and prayed that it wasn’t true—that she would change her mind and she wouldn’t go through with it. It didn’t do any good, though. I felt it the moment my baby died. I felt it as if someone was stabbing me in the chest and ripping my soul from me piece by piece. I reached for her to comfort me, but she wasn’t there. She was at that clinic, killing my child.

When she returned and told me that she had gone through with it and my baby was gone, I knew I couldn’t stay. I was so filled with hatred and rage. My baby was ripped away from me before I had the chance to stop her. It was like I didn’t have a say in the matter at all. She completely ignored my wishes and protests and just terminated my child like you would pop a pimple. I was furious.

That first week after I left, all I did was cry. I cried and cried for the loss of my child, the fact that I would never get to meet him, never get to hold him, never even knew if it was a “him.” I felt like she robbed me—like she made the decision and that was it. I felt betrayed and nauseated and angry and hateful. I wanted her to die, too—to see what it felt like… what she did to my baby…

By day eight, that all changed.

I had been horrible. I was so hurt for so long that I wouldn’t speak to her when she tried to call. I wouldn’t speak to any of my friends, least of all, Ana. I knew she was just going to try to convince me to talk to Mare and that was the last thing I wanted for several reasons. I moved into a studio a few blocks from my job and cut communication with everyone. It was the easiest thing to do at the moment.

I ate a lot… worked out even more; cried; tore shit up; hid from my feelings as much as possible. When I saw her number show up on the phone, it sickened me. It pissed me off that she would even try to get in touch with me.

On day eight, the calls stopped.

I was relieved and dismayed at the same time. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted her to stop calling me so that I could think straight, but if I’m honest, knowing that she was still there was strangely comforting, even though I didn’t want to admit it.

More crying, more eating, more working and working out, more avoiding the calls and attempts of contact from my friends. The calls from Ana start—about two a week for three weeks. At first, she would leave a message. By the second week with no response, she stopped leaving messages. She would just call and hang up if the call went to voice mail. By the third week, her calls stopped, too. I could see them all in my mind’s eye at Food and Libations talking about how tragic the whole thing is.

I’m coming out of my baby funk a bit when I get a text from Ana.

**She’s moved out of your apartment. You can go back now. **

Why would I want to go back? Why would I want to live in the place that I shared with the woman who killed my child? Then the words hit me:

She’s moved out…

Where did she go? Shit, why would I care?

Days turned to weeks, then to months, and I did everything I could not to think about her—who she was with, where she was living, what she was doing to get over me, if she even needed to get over me. Did she ever really love me at all? If she did, how could she just kill my baby? Just like that?

Some days, I was able to push her out of my mind—throw myself into my work or work out until my muscles burned so badly that I couldn’t think of anything else. I’d eat like a bear then I’d exercise like crazy to burn off the carbs. And that was the extent of my life.

When Allen ambushed me, I was kind of pissed. I wanted to know how he found me, then I remembered that he worked for Mr. I-Can-Find-Jimmy-Hoffa-If-I-Want. I felt like it was a horrible invasion of my privacy, but only because I was pissed about the baby. Had this been any other situation and no one could get in touch with me, I wouldn’t expect anything less. I knew they had activated the contingency because everybody tried to get in touch with me, even though nobody let on that they knew exactly what was going on… if they knew exactly what was going on.

There were times when I thought I might have been overreacting. Yes, it hurt that she killed the baby, but we could always have another one in the future when she was ready, right? But what if she was never ready? What if she got pregnant again and killed my baby again? Could I even look her in the face again after this?

More than once, I weakened and tried to call her, but I couldn’t bring myself to dial the numbers. More than once, I wanted to hear her voice, but didn’t know what to say. Many nights, I tried to sleep and couldn’t, because she wasn’t there. I’d be exhausted but sleep just wouldn’t come to me. It took her seven weeks to move out of my apartment—probably seven weeks of wondering if I was going to come back. I didn’t think it was over between us. I didn’t accept that it was over between us even though I was the one who left.

When I got back to that apartment, I knew it was over.

I couldn’t feel her presence at all. It was like she never existed. She scrubbed the place down like Single White Female. If I didn’t know for sure that she had been there, I would have thought I dreamed the whole thing. The refrigerator was completely empty. There were dry goods and food in the cupboards, but nothing that she would normally eat that I wouldn’t. I went to the closet, the bedroom, the en suite, looking for anything that she may have left behind—cosmetics, underwear, an earring back…

She left the trinkets… the special things I had bought for her, except the promise ring. I knew what that meant. It represented my promise to love her. She doesn’t need the money, so I know she’s not going to pawn it. So, if for no other reason, she’s keeping it to remind herself… of what we used to have.

She was gone. Completely gone. I left her… and then she left me.

I cried again.

After a month or so more, I had worked myself into a routine—work, eat, work out, watch Netflix reruns, go to sleep, wake up, repeat. There was nothing for me to look forward to and I didn’t torture myself by expecting anything. This was my life now and I didn’t want to be bothered.

And then, today happened.

I don’t know what made me order lunch from here today, but here I was. It was subconscious, I think. I hadn’t even considered that café across the street where she always got those muffins. I had just picked up my usual monstrous lunch, when something drew me to look at that door. It was nothing new. It wasn’t like I was really looking for her… was I?

There she is, standing in the doorway—at least I think that’s her. I blink a few times. It’s not impossible that I could be seeing things. That woman looks like her… a little bit… but…

Are my eyes playing tricks on me? That can’t be her. She’s… so thin… and her hair. It’s dull and it almost looks gray. She looks awful. What happened to her? She looks like she’s ill… like she’s dying. Is she on drugs?

Isn’t that what you wanted? You wanted her to die for killing your baby. It looks like you’re getting your wish.

She steps away from the coffee shop, takes a bite of the muffin or cupcake, then frowns. She looks like she’s going to hurl. She stops and removes the bite from her mouth with a napkin, tossing it and the entire confection into a nearby garbage can. She doesn’t go back into the coffee shop to complain or replace the sweet. She just turns away and begins to walk down the sidewalk.

Are you kidding? What the hell—is she sick? Did the abortion do something to her health? She should have eaten the damn pastry! She’s wasting away!

I begin walking behind her on the opposite side of the street. Her stride isn’t that of the beautiful, confident young woman that I walked away from three months ago. No, this is someone else. Her head is down, and she looks like death. She doesn’t notice that people veer away from her as she proceeds down the sidewalk, simply to avoid the gray cloud of doom that’s enveloping her, afraid that her dismay might rub off on them. If I were to guess, I would expect that this stranger is barely functioning and having to concentrate on every task just to get through the day.

I’m still not convinced that it’s her until after a few more steps, and she reaches a car that I recognize. I watch her unlock the door, get inside, start the car and drive off down Cherry street.

For the love of Pete! She looks terrible. And it’s not until this moment that my heart sinks and my chest begins to ache.

I still love her… so much. I hate the situation. I hate what she did, but I never stopped loving her. God, it hurt so much seeing her like that. I could pretend that it was all about me when I didn’t see her. That’s why I had to leave that day. Seeing her made everything so fucking real, so fucking in-my-face. Truthfully, it’s still about me. It still hurts. I lost a child and I couldn’t be with the woman who was the direct cause of my loss.

But seeing her today… shit.

I’m standing here in the middle of the sidewalk, looking at the empty spot that her car vacated moments ago. I don’t know what to do. I knew there was a possibility that we would run into each other, but not this soon.

It’s been three months. How do you figure that’s “soon?”

It’s still too soon for me.


MARILYN (Father, can You hear me?)

God, that muffin tasted like lead.

I tried. I really tried, but I just couldn’t eat it. Ana’s not going to get off me if I don’t start eating better. She’s worse than my mom… well, I’ll take that back. Nobody’s worse than my mom.

One minute, it’s, “Lyn, baby, you have to eat or you’re gonna die,” and the next minute, it’s, “I hope you’re praying and asking forgiveness for your eternal soul for what you did.”

I haven’t spoken to my parents since sometime in January and my visits will become even more few and far between if they can’t stop tossing me into hell every time I talk to them. It’s bad enough that I’ve lost the man I love over this. I’m not going to be subjected to the fire and brimstone talk every time I want to see my mom and dad.

And I told them as much the last time I spoke to them.

“Mom, Dad, you have made it perfectly clear how you feel about me terminating my pregnancy. I wish I had never told you what I did. I love you both dearly, but if you continue to psychotically condemn me to eternal damnation every time I talk to you, I’m going to stop calling and I’m going to stop coming home so that you no longer have to deal with the horrible sinner you created!”

I ended the call and haven’t spoken to either of them since.

That was two weeks ago. Mom calls incessantly, leaving messages that she loves me, and she’s only concerned about me. She doesn’t reference the abortion—directly—but I can still hear it in the tone of her conversations. So, I just avoid them altogether.

I haven’t really been able to eat solid food since this whole thing happened. It’s like my mouth and stomach are revolting and refuses to allow anything in since I ceremoniously kicked the baby out. It turned out to be the worst decision I ever made. I stand by my conviction that I wasn’t ready for a baby at all and putting my body through nine months of hell to hand the kid off to someone else was certainly not in the cards for me either. However, the emotional and physical turmoil that I’ve experienced wasn’t worth whatever benefit I’ve gotten from the termination.

I couldn’t wrap my head around carrying a baby, being a mother—I’m young and I’m just not ready for it. Now, I’ve given up my baby and I’ve lost Gary, too. It also appears that I’ve lost the ability to eat. I thought it was just emotional at first and it would pass when the grief passed. The grief hasn’t really passed, but I do have the desire to eat, just not the ability. I’ve been to the doctor a few times and she certain it’s a nervous stomach from all the stress. They’ve run so many tests on me—even tests to be sure everything was okay with the termination.

Nothing. My body just doesn’t want food.

I can only tolerate consommé, fruit juices, meal replacement shakes, and the occasional smoothie. I was already thin, but according to the doctor, I’ve lost over 20 pounds since the procedure. She has prescribed me things like Ensure and Pedialyte to make sure that I’m getting all of my nutrients and has threatened to put me in the hospital more than once. I’ve gone from an athletic 139 pounds to a waif-like 114 in just a few months.

I’m going to have to find a place soon before Christian adopts me! I’ve discovered that he has this thing with food and people going hungry. The first time I turned away a meal, I thought he was going to have a conniption! I opted to take meals—or the lack of them—in my room to keep from having to fall under that scrutiny, but then he sent Ana to be my food guard, so they knew that I still wasn’t eating.

She later told me about his childhood and how he was poor and starving before his mom and dad adopted him. Now, wasted food and people going hungry are two things that he completely abhors. They’ve been so kind to me that I didn’t want to offend them in any way, so I started coming down to dinner, asking for small portions and choking down what I could. Dinner is usually followed by going straight to bed because my stomach would feel like I’ve eaten the head of a sledgehammer and I just couldn’t tolerate it. I eventually had a talk with Christian about my hopefully temporary eating disorder, and he lightened up a bit—especially after he saw me drinking Ensure and Pedialyte or having a healthy spinach or fresh strawberry smoothie. I got points for trying.

But it was he who coerced me—to put it nicely—to go to the doctor and make sure nothing was wrong. Now that I have, he and Ana are keeping an eye on me like Mother Hen and Father Goose. It’s nice, though, that someone cares for me without trying to throw me into Dante’s Hell.

For the first week of our separation, I just wanted him to listen to me, to try to understand why I made the decision that I did, even though he all but begged me not to. After that, and several unanswered calls, I decided to leave him to his thoughts, incorrectly hoping that he would come around after he had some time to himself. After over a month of Mom and Dad’s “dance with the devil” lectures, I decided that it was time to get on with my life… without Gary.

It was the hardest decision I had ever made. Deciding on the termination wasn’t hard. It’s what I wanted. Living with that decision is an entirely different matter.

Letting go of Gary was… is impossible. I love him too much and I don’t think I’ll ever get over him, at least no time soon. The thought of someone else touching me sickens me about as much as eating does. So, as it stands, I’m doomed to be alone, haunted by the memories of the incredible love that I lost.

I spent one night in the apartment; tried to sleep in our bed, but that was impossible. After spending the night wide awake on the sofa, I knew I would have to leave. After asking Boss Lady not to make me work that weekend, I found myself agreeing to move into Grey Crossing immediately. I truly didn’t want to impose, but I was able to get some sleep that night not having to endure another damnation sermon or having to smell the sheets where Gary’s aroma still lingers in our bed—even after all that time.

So, as my body continues to revolt on me, I drink the Pedialyte on my way back to Helping Hands after picking up Ana’s lunch, trying to chase away the metal taste of my beloved blueberry muffin on my tongue. I contemplate what I could have done differently, short of not terminating the pregnancy. I do this often, and I guess it’s my way of punishing myself—repeatedly—for my ghastly mistake. How someone can be of two minds about this is a mystery to me, but I am. I still feel like I wasn’t ready for a baby, and no, I wasn’t willing to carry it to term to give it to someone else. Yet, when I think about the mystery with my health, disappointing my parents…

Losing Gary completely…

… I often wonder if I would have been okay having the baby and being a mom. I would be about six months pregnant right now, and I didn’t bother getting a due date. That’s a reminder I certainly don’t need. What kind of father would Gary have made? Would we have gotten married?

That familiar ache in my chest and the longing in my soul have become constant companions as I once again lament losing the greatest love of my life. As usual, the questions are too painful and after I swipe a tear from my cheek, I push them to the back of my head and continue my ride back to the Center before the proverbial water under the bridge reaches up to drown me.

*-*

“I can tell by your face you didn’t eat anything. Does the smell of food make you sick?” No, just the taste of it… most of it, anyway.

“I tried, Bosslady,” I excuse. “I got one of my favorite blueberry muffins from the coffee shop on Cherry St, and when I bit into it, it tasted like garbage.”

“You’ve been here for hours! What have you eaten?”

“Pedialyte,” I say, my voice low.

“That’s not eating,” she scolds, her voice crisp. “I know the doctor said that was okay as a meal replacement, but you can’t do that forever. You’re wasting away, Marilyn. Where are you now?” I drop my gaze.

“One-fourteen,” I reply. When I raise my eyes to her, her lips are forming a thin line.

“You’ve got five more pounds,” she says. “Five more pounds, Marilyn, and I’m checking you in. You can go willingly, or I’ll call your parents, and I have no problems with an ambush.”

“Okay, okay,” I cede. I guess it’ll be nights of choking down food and going to bed with an upset stomach in hopes of keeping it down.

“You are going to the victory celebration on Friday, right?” It’s a question, but I know it’s more like a demand from a parent. I have to say that I really don’t want to be around people these days, especially since they assume they know what’s going on in my life. That whole bulimia/anorexic conversation in Vegas still smarts.

“Who else is going to be there?” I ask cautiously.

“All my friends and family are invited,” she answers, “but to answer your unasked question, I don’t think Gary will be there. I haven’t heard from him in months.” My lips tighten. I hate that our failed relationship is obviously affecting her friendship with Gary, but if there’s anybody I can’t stand to see right now, it’s the man that makes my heart race so fast that it feels like it’s going to beat right out of my chest.

“Fine, I’ll go.” They’ll have to serve soup of some kind, and I can probably choke down a salad, and when no one is watching, I’ll excuse myself to the restroom and go walk around the putting greens. More time to reflect and torment myself.

For the next three days, I do exactly what I said I would—choke down my small helpings of dinner, then go straight to bed with the hopes of not regurgitating the entire meal. By the third day, Ana is on to me, but I tell her to take it or leave it. After I thoroughly convince her that I don’t barf-chow, I tell her frankly that it’s the only way food will stay down and the only way that I don’t lose those five pounds that she threatened me with.

On Friday morning, Victoria comes to the Crossing and drapes Ana in one of her magnificent Ana-Grey-only originals for the dinner tonight. She says that she happens to have this cute, white number for me as she noticed my frame is a bit petite and thought that maybe the things that I have might not fit for tonight.

Um-hmm, really subtle, ladies.

Nonetheless, the dress is really cute and fits me perfectly. It’s a beautiful white high-low formal and it’s every bit of a size two or zero. I can’t be angry, though. I know that everyone is concerned about me and she’s right. Nothing I have that’s appropriate for tonight fits. I sigh and thank her for the dress.

When Ana suggests going to the spa for treatments, however, that’s where I draw the line. When I say that I can’t stand for anybody to touch me, I mean anybody! I’ll wash my own damn hair, put it up in a messy chignon, and do my own damn make-up.

The wretched evening arrives, and I ride with Ana and Christian to Broadmoor to celebrate. I feel a little guilty being the wet blanket, but I’ll do the best that I can under the circumstances. I really want everyone to just leave me alone, but I know that left to my own devices, I’ll certainly just shrivel up and die. Ana and Christian know that, too, and I can’t be angry with them for being concerned. If anything, I’m angry and irritated with myself for not being able to pull out of this.

Even now, in this beautiful room with all of Ana’s family and friends, all I can do is think of him… wishing he was here so that we could dance together or make jokes about people. Various ones at the table try to engage me in whatever small talk they can think of, but it’s no use. I’m too busy thinking about Gary.

The last social “outing” I went to was karaoke in Vegas and as I gaze into my lemon-lime soda, I can’t help but wonder how many quiet conversations are going on right now about my bulimic appearance.

“Marilyn…”

I’m startled to hear my name and I look up to see Christian standing over me.

“Yeah?” I reply.

“I hate to put you to work, but Butterfly says there’s something going on with the cake. Would you mind popping back to the kitchen and making sure everything’s okay? If it’s not too much trouble…”

“Oh! Sure, no problem,” I say. Before I can move, I see something over his shoulder that snatches the breath out of my body.

Gary.

Am I seeing things? Am I wishing he was here so much that I’m seeing things?

“Marilyn?” My eyes are drawn to Christian’s. I can see the sympathy in his eyes, and I know immediately. There’s nothing wrong with the cake. He was trying to get me out of the room. He was trying to keep me from seeing Gary.

He’s here! Dammit, he’s here! I only came because I thought he wasn’t going to be here. Our eyes meet simultaneously, and I can’t take it. I can’t stand seeing him, not even for a second. My heart bursts into the most terrible inferno of molten hot lava and suddenly, the room is 150 degrees.

This is hell. This is really hell.

No…
No…
I can’t do this…

I spring from the table and dash out of the room as fast as my feet can take me. I need air. I need it now. I can’t breathe.

Jesus! Help me, please…

I’ve officially lost it. After all the hell and brimstone talk, now I’m praying. I’m on fire, I’m in hell, and I’m praying. As if in answer to my prayers, the door appears before me as if it wasn’t there the entire time. I burst through it and run, headed for the greens like I planned to in the first place. The sky is clear, and I can see just fine in the dark, but a clear night in March in Seattle means that it’s cold, and I forgot my coat.

It doesn’t matter—the burning in my chest will keep me warm and wild dogs couldn’t drag me back into that place right now. Maybe I’ll catch pneumonia and die, and this will all finally be over.

I run until the painful heat in my chest is replaced with painful cold, the cool air stabbing at my lungs as I heave and sob. I fall on my knees on the cold grass, welcoming any other feeling but these sharp pains of anguish and longing for the man that I love who can’t stand the sight of me. Somewhere during the run, I’ve lost the combs that held my chignon together, and strings of dull, listless blonde hair fall into my face and stick to my wet cheeks. I throw my head back a release a loud mournful cry, one that I hope would shake the foundations of the earth and crack through the heavens. My mother was right. God is punishing me.

“Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease!” I cry with all the breath I have. “God, Pleeeeease, forgive me! I’m sorry! Please, God, please…”

The only thing I know to do is pray. Nothing I’ve done to this point has helped. I can’t see my way clear to anything or anyone, not even the cold stabbing at my chest and knees…

… And now my soul.

“God, pleeeease,” I cry. “I can’t take it back. I would if I could, but I can’t. Please, make it stop! Please! I’ll do anything! I’ll do anything, God, just please make it stop! I can’t stand it! Please, God…”

I drop my face in my hands and weep, begging God to please take this pain away from me. I hear a song in my head that my mother played almost every day. I resented it then, but now, I’m just praying for Him to hear me. Send a bolt of lightning; put me out of my misery; give me amnesia; anything, just take this away… please, take this away…

Father! Can You hear me now?
Father! Can You hear me now?
Father! Can You hear me now?
Father! Can You hear me now?

I’m numb from the pain. It seems like it just won’t end. I’m stuck in it and I can’t get out. This is my punishment. This is my hell. This is what Mom and Dad were trying to tell me, what I was trying to ignore. Oh, dear God, please forgive me. I’ll do anything, just please forgive me…

The bolt of lightning that I was hoping for strikes through my arm, but it’s not enough. I jerk violently from the shock. It’s just a jolt—it doesn’t end me. Not the arm, aim for my head or my heart. That’s when I realize that it’s not a bolt of lightning. It’s something much worse.

Somebody’s touching me.


GARY

I said I wasn’t going, but I felt convicted in my heart. I haven’t been a very good friend to Ana throughout this trial. She’s always been there for me when I needed her… always. Now, at one of the most pivotal moments of her life, I can’t put my feelings aside and at least make an appearance?

She won’t be there. I know she won’t. She didn’t come to events before we got together, and she never went to anything that wasn’t work-related unless she was with me. She won’t be with me and this isn’t work-related, so she won’t be there. I quickly change into a formal black suit and head off to the Broadmoor Country Club.

There’s no way to see all the cars in the lot, but I can see most of them, and I don’t see her Sonata. I think I’m safe in my assumption that she didn’t come. I drive up to the door and give my keys to the valet. I enter the ballroom, packed full of Ana’s family and friends. I feel better being here, coming to support my friend and just not being in those four walls anymore, even though my heart still aches from the obvious. I scan the room and find Ana on the dancefloor with Christian. I make my way over to them just as the song that’s playing is ending.

“Hey… Ana,” I say softly. She turns around to see who’s talking and her face goes pale.

“Gary!” she says, in shock. “H… hi. I… didn’t know you were coming.” She embraces me hard and whispers in my ear. “It’s good to see you.” I wrap my arms around her.

“It’s good to see you, too,” I say. I’m looking at Christian over her shoulder and he’s glaring at me like I stole money from him. Ana releases me and immediately looks over her shoulder at Christian. I guess he’s possessive of his wife and I should let her go.

“Christian,” I say, by means of a greeting.

“Garrett,” he says, his voice crisp. He glares at me for a moment. “Excuse me,” he says before walking off the dancefloor. I look at Ana, who can barely make eye-contact with me herself.

“We didn’t think you were coming. I hadn’t heard from you…”

“I know,” I interrupt. “I’ve been a terrible friend, and I’m sorry. I’m glad at least some of those bastards are finally getting their just deserts.”

“Um, yeah… me, too.” She’s distracted. She keeps looking around the room. I frown.

“Ana… what’s wrong?” I ask. “Would you rather I not be here?” Have I completely destroyed our friendship along with my relationship? She sighs.

“It’s not that,” she says, finally. “Marilyn is here.”

My eyes sharpen. What the fuck? She never went to anything without me, and now she’s here? I whip around and the moment I turn, I see her eyes—blue and way too large for her face; horrified and staring back at me. Good God, she’s as skinny as a child. She’s even thinner than she looked on Monday!

“What the hell…?” Before I finish my thought, she’s out of her seat and out the door. I move to follow her, but Ana grabs my arm.

“Gary…” she cautions, “she’s not doing well.” I gesture wildly to the area Marilyn just vacated.

“Ya think?” I say louder than I intended. “Look at her! She’s wasting away to nothing! She looks like she’s dying!” I examine the door she just exited, and I see Christian walking purposefully towards us. I don’t have time for this. I head to the door.

“Gary…!” I hear Ana’s voice behind me, but I keep moving. Christian steps in front of me as if to block my path and before I know it, I push him out of my way with all the force in my body and dash out the door behind Marilyn.

When I get to the corridor, I can’t see her. Did she go to the ladies’ room? Just as I’m headed in that direction, completely intent on bursting in if I have to, I see her through the large paneled glass wall. She’s outside, running across the grass in the dark in a strapless dress and no coat!

“Shit!” I say, bursting out the doors behind her. She’s got such a head start and I don’t know if I’ll catch her. If I call her, she might run faster. She is hauling ass across this grass in those heels and it’s everything I can do just to keep pace with her. Suddenly, she stops like she hit the wall.

Thank God, I think to myself. But no, she falls into the cold, wet grass in this flimsy white dress that she’s wearing.

“Shit!” I find the strength to run faster. As soon as I’m within a few feet of her, she releases a blood-curdling noise that causes my stomach to do flip-flops. I look around to see who’s watching. Somebody might think I’m out here trying to murder the girl. I think I see a small crowd in front of the country club, so they know that I’m not killing her. I approach with caution…

And she’s praying.

Loud and hard and mournfully, praying for it to stop. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what it is. She’s lost so much weight that it looks like her health is failing. Her hair is thin and sticking to her tear-streaked face and I would guess that she’s shed a lot of it, too. She’s rocking back and forth like the old ladies in church, crying to the sky almost incoherently until she drops her face in her hands.

Jesus! This is awful.

I get on my knees in front of her, almost afraid to touch her as she continues to pray and cry for relief. I remove my jacket and move to put it around her bare shoulders, and she jerks like I burned her. What the hell?

“Mare?” I say, and she doesn’t stop her crying and praying. I put my arms around her, and she fights me like she’s fighting for her life.

“No! No! No!” she whimpers with every swing. What the hell is this? This is not Marilyn. I struggle through her clawing and swinging at me until I get her wrapped in my arms. Moments later, she hits that wall again and her fighting stops. Her head drops onto my shoulder and she continues to weep and rock, inconsolable. I let her weep for a few more moments, but I know we can’t stay here. We’ll both catch our death. I retrieve my jacket from the ground and wrap it around her shoulders again. Knowing that I have one hell of a walk ahead of me, I lift her into my arms and prepare to carry her across the long putting green.

She. Weighs. Nothing.

I kiss her forehead and start my walk.

I get about 100 feet and see salvation coming from the side of the country club—a golf cart driven by what looks like one of the service staff. I walk towards him, very happy to see him headed in our direction.

“Is she okay?” the guy asks, concerned.

“She’s cold,” I reply. “I need to get her inside. Do you have some private area anywhere that I can take her?” He nods.

“Yeah. Get in, let’s get her out of here.”

I climb into the golf cart and sit Mare on my lap. I’m so glad to be holding her, but not under these circumstances and not this light.

He leads me to a small changing room, and I lay Marilyn on a sofa. She’s laying there like a ragdoll and she hasn’t stopped sobbing. He goes to the linen closet and retrieves what looks like a bed sheet. He hands it to me and I drape it over her, removing her shoes and wrapping it around her feet.

“Can I get her anything?” he asks.

“A glass of water,” I tell him. “A cool compress and some hot tea with lemon.”

“There’s a bathroom through there with clean washcloths and some glasses for water. I’ll go get some tea.”

I nod as he leaves the room and I go to the restroom. When I return with the compress and water, she’s still shaking with sobs. I kneel next to her, set the water on the floor, and dab her face gently with the wet cloth moving her wet hair from her face. Her cheeks are fire-red, her eyes swollen, and she looks like she’s physically in pain.

“Please stop crying,” I say, trying to dry her tears as quickly as they fall. She’s like a faucet. She can’t turn off. I sigh and stand from the floor. I bend down and lift her from the sofa before taking a seat with her on my lap. She’s still sobbing, and I doubt that she’ll stop.

I put my arm around her and push her stringy, wet hair behind her ear. I kiss her head and cup her cheek, trying to soothe her, but she’s truly inconsolable. My heart broke—shattered when I knew what happened to my baby. But seeing her like this, knowing how long she’s been like this, what she had to be going through to be this thin, this frail, this unhealthy, this quickly, and watching her sob in my arms right now to the degree that she can’t hear anything? This is ripping my soul out.

She didn’t grab her coat and go hide in a car. She didn’t lock herself in the ladies’ room and refuse to come out. She ran outside and took off across the putting green in nothing but a strapless dress and high heels on a cold Seattle night where she fell into the grass and started screaming to God to make her pain stop.

This is worse than I ever could have imagined. Mare’s not an atheist, but it takes a lot for her to pray after growing up with fanatically Christian parents. To see her screaming to God for relief in the cold, wet grass… and to see her now, unable to stop crying…

“I love you,” I say softly. “I still love you so much… please stop crying…”

Her crying doesn’t cease, and it doesn’t falter. I realize that I just have to let her cry until she stops. So, I just hold her there close to me, rocking her, cupping her cheek and kissing her forehead, willing her to stop…

*-*

I don’t know how long we sit there. I know that the guy that brought us in here brought tea, and it has long since gone cold. She has finally stopped crying, though she still has that shuddering breath thing going on.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper when it seems that she’s coherent enough to hear me.

“I’m sorry, too,” she squeaks, and I know she’s talking about the baby. I hold her closer to me.

“We’re going to have to talk to someone,” I tell her. “This is big.” She nods but says nothing. I lift her chin so that I can look into her eyes.

“This hurt,” I tell her. “I hurt every day that my baby’s not here, but I love you and I need you, and not having you with me makes this worse.”

“I can’t take it back,” she weeps, her body shaking violently. She’s so fucking frail… “I’m sorry. I would if I could… I’m sorry…”

“Ssshhh,” I say, tucking her head under my chin. “It’s done now, we just have to figure out how to get through it.” She takes a deep breath and shivers.

“Still cold?” I ask. She nods. “What do you want to do?”

“I can’t go back out there,” she says. “Half of them already think I’m bulimic. Now the other half thinks I’m crazy.”

“Stay here. I’ll get your coat…”

Christian’s eyes are full of judgement when I come back to the ballroom. Quite frankly, I don’t care. He and Ana stand when they see me, and I walk over to them.

“How’s Mare?” Ana asks, concerned.

“She’s cold and exhausted and she wants to leave… and we need to talk,” I say to Ana.

“She’s staying with us now,” Christian points out, challenging. Who the fuck do you think you are?

“So, what do you suggest I do, Christian?” I say, squaring my shoulders. “Do I take her back to my place, or do we spend the night at yours?” Your choice, asshole. He narrows his eyes at me and just as he’s about to say something, Ana puts her hand on his chest.

“Whatever makes Marilyn more comfortable,” she says. I look at her, then at Christian who’s still seething, then back at Ana.

“Thank you,” I say before turning to leave.

“You and I will have words later,” Christian shoots.

“No, we won’t!” I retort turning back to him. “The intricacies of this situation are between me and Marilyn, and no one else!”

“That’s just it, Garrett, it’s not between you and Marilyn. We took care of her and watched her fall apart while you took off!” Ana is trying to calm him, but he’s already on a rant—and trust me, my friend, I can go right there with you.

“And while I appreciate that you took care of her, you have no idea what I was going through, and I have no inclination to explain it to you. So, you can’t put me in judgment.”

“The hell I can’t!” he roars. “Look at her! She’s deteriorating before our very eyes while you’re off hiding somewhere! My wife was a few days away from having her committed!”

“And what was I going through, Christian?” I yell. “Do you have any idea?”

“What the fuck does it matter?” he retorts, coldly. “You don’t look like you’ve lost 25 pounds!”

You arrogant son-of-a-bitch. How fucking dare you dismiss my suffering just because you weren’t there to witness it. I am so through with you, you rich, pompous, puffed-up, self-important asshole. I close the space between us and look right up into his cold, gray eyes.

“Lose a baby, Christian!” I retort, furious. “Then you can come and talk to me!” I don’t blink. I stare his ass down. My eyes are piercing, my heart is racing, and I swear to God, if he says another word, I’ll knock his teeth loose again.

An unknown emotion flashes over his face, but he doesn’t say anything. What—no smart-ass response, Uncle Moneybags?

I’m so angry that I’m shaking, so I think the best course of action is for me to get my girl the hell out of here before I end up spending the night in jail. Fuck his security, I’ll beat his pretty ass right now. I do a sharp about-face and walk the hell out the room, leaving all the inquiring minds behind.

“I need my girlfriend’s coat,” I say to the coat check attendant.

“Do you have a ticket?” she asks.

“Shit!” I say. I’m thinking quickly. She ran outside, she didn’t have her purse. The coat check ticket is probably in her purse, which is most likely in the ballroom. If I go back in there, I’m going to get arrested…

“Gary?”

I look up to see Val coming out the ballroom walking towards me. At first, I think she’s going to let me have it, but she opens her arms and closes the space between us. I return her embrace.

“It’s so good to see you,” she says. I close my eyes and sink into the hug.

“I’m sorry it wasn’t better circumstances,” I say. She pulls back and looks at me.

“None of us knew what happened,” she says. “Even now, it’s just speculation. But Gary, we’ve missed you. Don’t do that again.”

“Val…” I begin to protest.

“Elliot and I lost a baby in January,” she blurts out. I can’t stop my gasp. “I don’t know and I don’t care if it was the same for you or if it was different, but if you lost a baby, it was the same.” She pauses. “You need your friends.”

I hold my head down and nod, fighting back the tears. She embraces me again.

“We love you,” she says. “Don’t run from us again.” I clear my throat.

“I won’t,” I say, just above a whisper. She hands me a purse that I assume is Mare’s and kisses me on the cheek. She heads back to the door of the ballroom and I take a deep breath and wipe away a stray tear before I raise my gaze to her. Elliot is standing in the doorway when I raise my head. He puts his hand in the small of his wife’s back then makes eye-contact with me. He nods twice… and I return his nod. He walks back into the ballroom and my shoulders fall. This night has been way too much for me.

I open the small clutch which doesn’t have much in it and easily locate the coat check ticket. Once I retrieve Marilyn’s coat, I go back to the dressing room to retrieve my girl. She slowly rises from the sofa when I enter. She has removed the sheet and put her shoes back on. She hands me my jacket and I help her into her coat.

“Here.” We turn to see the guy who came out to the putting green standing there with something in his hand. “I only saw two. If there were more, I didn’t see them.” Mare smiles faintly and takes what looks like two blinged-out hair-combs from his hand.

“Thank you,” she says softly. “I thought they were gone forever.” He smiles and leaves, and I take her hand.

“Your ring is gone,” I observe, thinking it may have fallen out there in the green as well.

“It didn’t really make a lot of sense to keep wearing it,” she says sadly. “Besides, it doesn’t fit anymore anyway.” I purse my lips—happy that it’s not lost in the putting green, but not so happy that she stopped wearing it. What can I expect, though?

Getting into Ana’s house without Ana being present is a bit of a task. Whenever I showed up, Mare was with me, but security expected me—some gathering of some kind. Now, Mare’s in my car, she looks like hell, and the guy at the gate didn’t recognize her at first. I thought we would have to call Ana for clearance, but somehow, that crisis is avoided, and we’re able to get past the gate. I park on the far end of the circular driveway so as not to block the portico or the garages, and Mare and I go inside.

She’s sitting on the bed in one of the guest rooms, looking out the window and saying nothing. I’ve turned on one of the lamps by the nightstand and I’m waiting for her to speak. When she doesn’t, I walk over to her. She’s just sitting there, looking out of the window like she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Jesus, I barely recognize her. She jumps when I touch her, like it burns.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m not used to anyone touching me anymore.” I frown.

“Nobody touches you?” I ask. “Not even a hug?” She shrugs.

“Bossla… Ana,” she says. “Nobody else really knows what to do with me.”

Hell, I don’t know what to do with you, either. I sit down next to her and stare out of the window.

“I… didn’t want to be without you… I just couldn’t…”

“I know,” she interrupts me. I touch her arm and she jerks again, but I don’t move my hand.

“Let me finish,” I tell her. “I couldn’t handle what I was feeling… am feeling. I loved that kid and never even saw him. And then… he was gone.”

She doesn’t look at me. She only looks out the window.

“Did you know… if it was a boy or a girl?” I ask. She shakes her head, but says nothing. “I think it was a boy.”

Tears begin to fall from her eyes. I mean they’re running like a faucet and her expression doesn’t even change. It’s like she’s hemorrhaging water inside, but on the outside, she’s dead. All we need is the casket.

“I don’t know how to move on,” she says. She’s not even blinking. “I don’t know what to do next. I haven’t known for months. I’ve just been… here.” I can tell.

“I saw you on Monday.”

That gets her attention.

“Where?” she asks, turning flooded eyes to me.

“At Sugar’s on Cherry,” I reply. “I wasn’t following you. We just happened to be on the same street at the same time. Maybe I was following you,” I shrug. “It’s not like I don’t know you like their blueberry muffins.” She turns back to the window, her eyes still gushing water.

“It’s not like I could eat it,” she says, still not blinking.

“I know. I saw you when you threw it away. I wanted to chase you down the street and force feed you, but…” I try to wipe her cheeks, but more water falls as quickly as I try to wipe it away.

“It won’t help,” she says. “They’ll just keep falling.” I gaze at her.

“Why don’t you stop?” I ask.

“I don’t know how,” she replies. “The first month, my parents berated me for killing a child and taking a life and stealing one of God’s souls. They threw me in hell daily, for several hours every day. We don’t even speak anymore. I went to them for comfort and they tormented me the entire time. The crying had already started, but it became wailing by then.

“The second month, when I came back to Seattle, I spent one night in the apartment and realized that I couldn’t live there… so I left, and Ana brought me here. I took this room because it was the farthest from everyone else… and I could cry in peace.

“The third month, I was in Vegas. I expected it to be a geographical cure—get away from Seattle without the hell and damnation from my parents… it was not. The ladies that went with us—Ana’s stepmother and Christian’s PR lady—both thought I was anorexic or bulimic. Bosslady had to stand up for me.” She mentioned that earlier, but I thought she was being dramatic.

“They said that?” I ask frowning.

“I was away from the table. They didn’t think I heard them. I didn’t go out with them anymore after that.”

“You went out?” I ask, feeling an immediate twang of jealousy. I didn’t go out… not once. She nodded.

“We all went to Karaoke in Vegas. I was the only one there without a date… well, unless you count security.” Well, that must’ve sucked.

“Did you sing?” I ask. I’ve heard her singing around the apartment and in the shower when she thinks I’m not paying attention. She has an incredible voice.

She nods.

“What did you sing?”

She begins to sing. I can barely hear her. Even with her voice this low, she sounds amazing.

There’s a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out the dark…

I sit there and let her sing the song. Rolling in the Deep… that’s an angry song.

“The scars of your love remind me of us, they keep me thinkin’ that we almost had it all…”

She still doesn’t look at me as she’s singing. It’s like she’s having a conversation with the tree outside and it’s quite riveting.

“You had my heart inside of your hand, and you played it to the beat…”

She stops singing. I know it’s not the end of the song, but she stops anyway.

“Did you hate me?” I ask. She shakes her head unfazed by my question.

“I hated myself,” she answers, “for what I did, for what I lost, for what I felt, for who I was, for everything. I can’t undo what I did. I can’t bring the baby back, but if I had the chance to do it again…”

“You’d do the same thing,” I say. She looks at me in horror.

“Look at me,” she says, the first time since her breakdown on the green that I’ve heard any emotion in her voice. “I’m dying, here. I know I’m dying, and I can’t do anything about it. Ana said she would take me to the hospital if I got any thinner, and I would have let her. I drank so many of those damn shakes that I can’t stand the taste of them anymore, so I haven’t been drinking them anymore. I knew I would lose more weight, so I forced myself to eat what food I could at dinner to keep Christian from calling a state of emergency. I’ve never been sicker in my whole life… and I can’t do anything about it. Hindsight being 20/20, there’s no way in the world I’d want to go through this again. So, no, I wouldn’t do the same thing.”

“Well, then, you’d be trading this for a whole new set of problems,” I tell her. “You weren’t ready for a baby, clearly… and neither was I. We weren’t prepared. The next thing I knew, the baby was there, and I was all in. And then, the baby wasn’t there anymore… and I was crushed. So, what… you would have had the baby when neither of us were ready. At some point, you would have felt like you were forced into making that decision. You eventually would have resented me, or worse yet, the baby—at the very least, the situation. Yes, there were some wrong decisions made here, but I’m not so sure that was one of them.” She drops her head and sighs.

“I’m so tired,” she laments. “I’ve never been so tired in my life.”

I crawl off the bed to the floor and remove her shoes. I unzip her dress and help her step out of it. I pull the covers back and she climbs into the bed. I tuck her in and sit next to her.

“Go to sleep,” I tell her, pushing her hair out of her face. “I’ll still be here when you wake.”

She’s asleep in no time. I watch her there for a moment, missing being next to her and not knowing who this frail frame of a woman is lying next to me all at the same time. I lay behind her and look out the window, wondering what she was thinking, what she must have been going through all this time.

Was Christian exaggerating? Was it really 25 pounds? She wasn’t that big to begin with. She was 130… maybe. Now, she’s about 105? For Pete’s sake, a healthy teenager weighs more than that. She really is no bigger than a child. What the fuck have I done to this woman?

I don’t know how long she slept—maybe an hour, tops—but she sits up silently like she wasn’t sleeping at all. I know that she was, but she rises to a sitting position effortlessly. She scrubs her face and sighs deeply, mournfully, her bony shoulders falling so far that they nearly disappear.

“Do you need something?” I ask, simultaneously putting my hand on her shoulder. She gasps and moves away from me so far… She’s grasping her chest and staring at me like she’s seeing a ghost. Quite frankly, she scared the shit out of me, so I jumped back a few miles, too.

“What?” I ask, a bit horrified, waiting for her to tell me my latest transgression.

“I… I…” She’s panting like she’s out of breath. “I thought it was a dream.” Okay, now I’m horrified.

“You thought all that was a dream?” I ask incredulously. This was a very detailed, very traumatizing evening in and of itself, and she thought it was a dream? She takes two deep, seemingly painful breaths.

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” she says, her voice low.

Fuuuuuuck me. How many dreams as horrifying as tonight has she had over the last three months? I can tell she was genuinely startled by seeing me here and not in a good way.

“Oh, God,” I say, quickly gathering her in my arms and holding her close to me, leaning hard into her back. What have I done? Dear God, what have I done?

“Please…” she whimpers, “not so hard… you’re hurting me.” For the love of…

“I’m sorry,” I say as I release her a bit and gently kiss her shoulder. “Lay back down. You didn’t sleep long at all.”

“I never do,” she says, allowing me to pull her back to the bed. No food… no sleep… it’s truly a puzzle that she’s not a lot sicker than this. Maybe she is and we just can’t see it. It’s a wonder she’s alive.

“Do you want something to eat?” I ask as I rub her thin arms. She’s shakes her head.

“I’m suddenly really tired,” she confesses.

“You said that before and now you’re awake,” I reply. She nods. Without another word, she’s back off to sleep in moments.

Several minutes later, she appears to be in deep slumber, but my mind is going miles and miles per second, and I know that I’m not going to sleep. I slide out of bed easily, intent on going to get some fresh air, but I realize that she’s probably going to be traumatized if she wakes up again and I’m not here, doubly disappointed that she thought it wasn’t a dream only to think that it was again. I remove my wallet from my pocket and place it on the nightstand next to her bed.

Too subtle.

I remove my driver’s license and prop it up on the wallet and the lamp so that it’s the first thing she sees when she opens her eyes. It’s not a dream, baby. I was here, and I’ll be back.

I quietly slip out of the room and head downstairs. I want to go somewhere and think for a minute, just a moment or two to myself. I wander around this huge, never-ending house until I find my way back to the stairs. Getting to the dining room isn’t hard from here. There’s a patio just beyond the kitchen, but if Ana returns and sees me there, she’s going to want to have that deep, meaningful talk that I’m not ready for. I wander around a little more and find the stairs to the lower level.

A bar! No, no… the last thing I need to be right now is inebriated. There’s another patio, though. Yeah, this’ll do.

I sit on the sofa and look out at the moon and the lake, taking the first deep breath that I’ve taken all night since I walked into that ballroom. For the love of Pete, why didn’t I expect to see her there? What the fuck was I thinking?

I know exactly what I was thinking; that she killed my baby and that she’s out there living up the single life. Even though I saw how skinny she was at that donut shop, it still didn’t occur to me that she was suffering. I mean, it did, but it didn’t sink in. She was the woman who murdered my child, not the woman that I loved pining away for me for three months and hasn’t eaten or slept in just as long.

She looks horrible. She’s frail and sickly; her hair is thin and dull; her skin is ashy and hanging from her bones in certain places; her face is sunken in and she’s got bags under her eyes. She’s walking dead. She’s literally walking dead… and she’s a sight for sore eyes.

I never thought she would be reduced to this. I don’t know what I thought—I didn’t care. For the love of Pete, this is horrible. I drop my face in my hands and sit there forever, lamenting my situation.


A/N: Single White Female is a movie from 1992 where Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character was so obsessed with Bridgette Fonda’s character that she actually went crazy. At the point of the movie where Jennifer’s character knew it was time to make her getaway, she scrubbed the entire apartment so that none of her fingerprints were there.

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

Pictures from the trip to Las Vegas can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/grey-continued-las-vegas/

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 on the menu or 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, or 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

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

Questions about the story?  Click HERE.

“Do You Need To Talk?” Anyone can participate. No subject is taboo and please be respectful. Click HERE

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

 ~~love and handcuffs

 

 

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 
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

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 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

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