Grey Continued: Season 5, Episode 3

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 03—AA

ANASTASIA

Like any relationship, the BDSM journey is just that—a journey. If you ever think that you have arrived at the place you need to be in that relationship, it’s time to re-evaluate. You are constantly changing and growing, constantly becoming more and exploring more. You don’t sprint through the lifestyle; you stroll, tasting the flavors of what you enjoy and enjoying the process of evolution through the experience.

One thing I’ve discovered in our sessions with Artemis and Savvina and from the soumises at the Munch is that there is no one way to practice the lifestyle. Now, even in my inexperience, I already knew that. However, more than once, I’ve seen or heard people—even at the Munch—who seemed to think that there was only one way to practice, and that if you didn’t follow a certain set of rules, then you were doing it all wrong. Your way of practicing the lifestyle was incorrect because they “would never do anything like that” to their sub, or their Dom “would never do anything like that” to them.

I was happy to hear the majority of the soumises form a consensus about the few elitists—their word, not mine—who seemed to think that they knew everything there was to know about BDSM:

“If you ever meet someone who tells you that the way that you choose to practice is wrong, or that there is only one set of rules and that if you don’t follow those rules, then you’re not practicing the right way, get as far away from them as you can. That’s not someone that you want to emulate. No one has the right to tell you what you or your Dominus wants in your relationship. You dictate that. It’s okay for someone to guide you, but feel free to ignore their guidance, especially if they’re trying to tell you that you’re wrong. Run, dear. Run far away.”

That bit of advice came from Emelda. I’m not sure if that’s her real name. Some people used aliases—as did Christian and I—and some people used their real names—as did Artemis and Savvina. Emelda was once in an S&M relationship where a coven of submissives told her that she not only had to accept whatever her sadistic Dom dished out, but also that she was not allowed to have her own desires, she wasn’t allowed to voice her opinion, and that what her Dominant says goes, no matter what. She was in a very unhappy S&M relationship and she felt that she had to stay there because this was the only way to go. It wasn’t until she ended her relationship with her dictatorial Dominant and ventured out on her own that she realized how many different variations of the lifestyle there really are.

Shantille was on the opposite end of the spectrum. She was afraid to explore what she really wanted in a Dominant because too many times, she was told that the intense play that she liked was abuse and the Dominants shouldn’t treat their submissives that way. Shantille likes extreme punishments; she feels that if there’s no bruising, it’s not kinky enough for her. Pain to the point of tears is cleansing and erotic to her and that’s what she wants. Once again, the elitists tried to tell her that she was being abused; that her Dominant wasn’t a real Dominant—he just wanted to beat her; that she should probably seek some therapy if that’s what she really wanted.

All and all, my sessions with my mentors and with like-minded individuals over the past weeks have taught me that BDSM is a buffet. There’s literally something at the table for everyone, from the very tame to what some would consider the grossly extreme. What one couple or group or person may get off on, another might find disgusting or abusive—or boring. To be welcomed into the various circles, as it were, you must be careful not to degrade someone else’s relationship or practice. That’s a quick way to get blackballed from certain clubs and parties.

Another thing I’ve learned is to respect the balance—or imbalance—of power. While the soumise has the power and control to halt play with a safeword, his or her Dominant will always be the Dominant, until—if—they switch. As such, there is going to be an imbalance of power, and for this reason, you must constantly communicate—in and out of Downtime.

This is very new to me because I always felt that as Christian is the Dominant, his word during playtime was law and I had to follow or be punished. We set the guidelines where as soumise, I must follow the rules. However, in a healthy BDSM relationship a soumise has needs, too, and must be able to communicate those needs.

When we’ve completed our mentoring session on Saturday, we’re always in the mood to play a bit. We only venture into kink so far, as we still feel that we have a lot to learn about the D/s relationship as it relates to us and our marriage. However, we don’t want to deprive ourselves of what we enjoy, either. So, I get to enjoy a light flogging—ten firm lashes with a cat—and a thorough fucking from behind while chained to the playroom bed… nothing too intense, but just something to take the edge off.

Bright and early Sunday morning, we arranged for a crew to meet us at the apartment that Gary and Marilyn once shared, and my PA tearfully tackled the task of packing her things and sorting through what she had brought from her apartment and what belonged to Gary in terms of furniture. There were things that I knew were touches of Marilyn in the apartment, but since she and Gary bought several of the things together, she refused to take them.

For good measure, she cleaned out the refrigerator, removed and tossed out expired food from the cabinets, and meticulously cleaned and vacuumed each room after she was certain that she had removed all her things from that room. The apartment was eerie when she was done—not empty, but a bit hollow. She took the door key and the mailbox key off her ring and left them both on the counter before walking out of the apartment without looking back. I couldn’t help taking a last look at the space that had once represented the love den for one of my closest friends and the woman who took his virginity—also my friend. I locked the doorknob and closed the door behind me.

I didn’t drive to the apartment, thinking that Marilyn might be too upset to drive her car back to the Crossing. I was right. She only had one request when we got into her car, that I call Gary as soon as possible to let him know that she had moved out so that he could go back and do whatever he planned to do with the apartment. Then she sat in stoic silence, tears burning a trek down her cheek for the entire ride back to Mercer.

She didn’t eat that night, and I didn’t force her to. I know Christian was just chomping at the bit to get her to eat something, but once I told him what our day entailed, he let it go for one night.

Val and Elliot are doing a little better. They’re still a bit sad about the loss, but not as melancholy as they were in the very beginning. They appear to be clinging to each other and loving each other through it, which is a good thing. I’ve sometimes seen with the loss of a baby that one spouse may tend to blame the other, causing a rift between them that is sometimes never mended. Marilyn and Gary are one such cautionary tale, although their situation was the result of a deliberate action.

This past week, Christian seemed to try to lighten up a bit when he came home from GEH, but now instead of being the big bad bear, he’s just exhausted when he gets home. He whined a bit about Claude beating his ass again on Saturday but took a little victory in the fact that Claude didn’t beat his ass as quickly and easily as he had before.

But he’s still really tired.

My husband doesn’t look like he’s finding any peace, except when we’re talking to our mentors or when we’re fucking. He’s been auditing and restructuring and re-evaluating the company for about a month now. He should definitely be seeing more progress than he has been. What the fuck is actually going on in that company?

There’s no way to begin to describe the amount of crap that he has on his plate. He put faith in me as 50% owner… and I backed away. I haven’t even been in the office again since Ros’ remark about Al and the nonchalant way the department heads behaved towards me. I own half of that company, and I let them chase me away…

… Because Daddy couldn’t get me the respect that I deserved…

… And I subsequently left my husband to handle things all on his own.

He has an executive team. What the fuck are they doing? What the fuck is anybody doing?

I ponder my situation only a few more moments before I make a decision. He’s trying to get to the bottom of things, but only a few heads have rolled… not enough, apparently. Moreover, apparently not the right ones. I screw up my resolve and open the folder that contains the GEH emails forwarded to me.

The first fifty or so are all useless drivel that followed Christian’s command that I be CC’ed on executive emails. Garbage. I get through those rather quickly. Very shortly thereafter, I get to some real meat and potatoes…

Requisition requests, memos, executive orders from the boss, status reports…

Executive orders from the boss…

I decide to filter out the messages that all came from Christian. Hundreds of them… in a very short period of time. How does he keep up with all this?

Just for shits and giggles, I filter out the messages from Ros and Finney. Exponentially less. Does Christian just have more to say? I read a handful of his emails and find that they’re not just the typical Christian Grey “What the fuck, get this shit done” emails that I thought I would see. There’s critical thinking, probing questions, analysis, detailed directives—yeah, there’s some commands and “get this shit done” in the emails, but there’s some serious meat in here, too. I see a bit of meat and vegetables here and there from Ros and Finney, but for the most part, I’m seeing the equivalent of electronic “uh-huh’s” and “okay’s.”

 As I scan through the emails, I see several emails going from Finney to Ros and Christian, from Christian to Ros and Finney, and from Ros to Finney and Christian. I see even more emails from Christian to departments and department heads asking about projects and deadlines and metrics and what have you. I see the emails coming back to me, to Finney, to Ros, and to Christian. But the responses coming from Ros and Finney to the department heads are very few and far between.

Am I missing something?

Do they not take part in the general operation of the corporation? Is there some kind of delegation of duties in the hierarchy that I just don’t see? Why does it appear that Christian’s doing all the damn work?

The more emails that I read, the more I get the feeling that I’m right. Christian’s pretty much holding the reins of this Clydesdale powerhouse all by himself, guiding it down the necessary paths and trying to keep it from swaying left or right or veering off in the wrong direction while Ros and Finney are pretty much riding along in the coach.

Well, they’re not that useless, but from what I’m seeing here, they might as well be.

So, in light of everything that’s been going on in our home, with our relationship and discussions, and the fact that I am, in fact, 50% owner of that company, I’ve decided that I do need to know what he’s dealing with in more detail in order to be a better wife, Domme, soumise, and partner—and to allow these fuckers who are under my employ to run me away from my company is not the way to do it. I can draw the line between Ana, Butterfly, Dr. Steele-Grey, That Bitch You Don’t Want to Fuck With, and anybody else that I need to be… but if you need That Bitch, then here she comes.

I spend the rest of the evening going through the remainder of the emails, categorizing them and making rules for various ones so that they go to specific folders as I need them to and getting a better idea of what I’m dealing with in terms of the framework and infrastructure of the company. Once I’ve gotten a pretty good idea, I bang out an outline of some key points that are causes for concern. That part takes a little longer than I expected since I didn’t want to burden Marilyn with working on the weekend so soon after her return. Things will become perfectly unbearable soon enough. I might as well allow her to get her bearings again.

Once I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of the direction that I would like to take, I scan Christian’s emails to me for a group that I know he had created, then copy it into my contacts:

I’ll find out soon enough what’s the difference between the members of the Management Team and the Department Heads and Executive Team, but no matter. I want them all in this meeting. I discover that the Executive Team is Ros, Finney, and me. I remove myself from the Executive Team group and compose my email.

To:      GEH Department Heads
GEH Management Team
GEH Executive Team
Bcc:   Christian Grey
Re:      Emergency Mandatory Leadership Meeting
Date: January 11, 2015 20:21
From: Anastasia Steele-Grey

High Priority High Priority CommunicationHigh Priority

Good Morning Team,

This is your other boss, Dr. Anastasia Steele-Grey.

Let me begin by saying that I appreciate being included in the emails. It has given me some very valuable insight on the inner workings of the organization—its strengths as well as its flaws.

In an effort to continue the mission and vision of GEH, I will be holding a mandatory meeting tomorrow at 1:00pm in the Executive Conference Room. The location is subject to change based on availability, so please keep an eye on your emails as you will be responsible for any information communicated and attendance is required unless you get specific permission from me not to attend.

Sincerely,
Dr. Anastasia Steele-Grey…

Hmmm… I don’t really have a title with GEH and this is my company email.

Assistant Director was easy with Helping Hands.

We actually have executive and Senior VP’s and quite frankly, I’m not a VP.

Co-CEO? Abso-fucking-lutely not!

What is the hierarchy in this situation? Fuck it, never mind. I know what I’ll call myself.

Sincerely,
Dr. Anastasia Steele-Grey
Executive Director, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.

I’ll hear something about it if it’s the wrong title. I send an email to what I now call my Power Assistants Team, Marilyn and Andrea, to make sure that the room is available and to secure certain items needed for the meeting, including a podium and a preprinted sign-in sheet. I call up to Ms. Solomon to bring me an antipasto tray and a pitcher of cranberry spritzer and settle in to prepare my meeting.

Things are really sloppy and can be corrected with just the slightest push in the right direction, a little change in protocol and requirements, and a sledgehammer upside someone’s head. I understand why my husband had to become the iron fist. People had stopped taking him seriously.

What I don’t understand is why it looks like he’s doing it on his own. Not once do I see Ros or Finney drop the anvil on someone who has clearly dropped the ball or has shown mediocre effort in rectifying any errors or bringing a viable solution to fruition. My husband’s voice is the shot heard ‘round the company. However, even with all his power, he can only handle so many direct situations at once. Bearing this in mind, it’s time to shake things up, but I don’t want to show up and come off as a mom having a temper tantrum.

As such, I will need to call on The Bitch.
You rang?
I sure as hell did. We’ve got a job to do, sistah.
Bring it on.

“Good evening.”

I raise my head to see my husband standing in the doorway of my office wearing his glasses. I rarely see him wear them, but here he is.

“Busy?” he asks. He knows I am. I remove my glasses.

“I’m working on something,” I tell him, putting my glasses down and clasping my hands on the desk in front of me.

“You don’t usually work on Sunday,” he says, slowly breaching the doorway and approaching my desk. Sorry, not today, Sir.

“It’s time-sensitive and pretty detailed,” I tell him, not breaking my gaze with him. “Did you need something?” I ask. I need to get back to work. He raises a brow at me as he halts behind the chair in front of my desk.

“What are you working on?” And there it is. He’s never asked me that before. Very droll, Mr. Grey.

“I think you know,” I respond, still holding his gaze. He’s silent for a moment before he finally takes one of the seats in front of my desk.

“I was perusing my email and I’ve just discovered that there will be a meeting of the department heads tomorrow afternoon with the Executive Director,” he points out. I don’t respond. “Non-profit organizations have Executive Directors. We’re not a non-profit.”

“And Chief Executive Officers normally answer to the Chairman of the Board,” I point out. “We don’t have a board.” He purses his lips in thought.

“Duly noted,” he cedes. “We’ll leave it for now.”

“How kind of you,” I say sarcastically, especially since I didn’t ask your permission.

“There’s a problem though,” he says. “I have another meeting at that time, so you may have to reschedule.”

“No,” I say matter-of-factly, “that works out just fine, because this is not your meeting—it’s mine. And if Ros or Finney were going to be in the meeting with you, I need them, too.” He raises a brow at me.

“I like to know what’s going on in my company, Anastasia…” Anastasia. Perfect.

Our company,” I say, firmly, folding my arms. “And you will know. I wouldn’t dream of keeping anything from you. But this meeting is mine, and your presence is not required. In fact, it’ll be more effective if you weren’t there.” He purses his lips again.

“Very well,” he says, and I’m sure that he’s thinking that he’s going to have to undo whatever mess I may create tomorrow, but I’ve got news for you, Grey. You won’t be able to unfurl this one. And if you try, I’m going to walk away and leave it to you—50% and all… and you’re going to leave that damn asshole bear at the door when you come home or you’re going to have a much bigger problem to deal with.

*-*

I don’t go into Helping Hands in the morning. Instead, I work remotely with Keri, and we confer with the learning coordinator about the last things needed to put the curriculum in place for tutoring. We’ve already gotten our Head Start program going and two of the children in the daycare will be attending. Keri and Ebony are very excited about that. Courtney’s doing well with her teen support group—not counseling, just building on the idea of peer support. Our cleaning crew is moving right along with the transition from Clean It Up For You, and Mrs. Sherwood is unsuccessfully attempting to prove to us just how much we really need her. I’m aware that having an in-house staff is more expensive than having a service do the cleaning for us. However, the accountability of an in-house staff is worth the extra money.

After sitting with curlers in my hair all day, I fashion it in big, billowing curls and don a red sweater dress that falls sleekly over my body and ends mid-calf with an insanely long matching knit wrap that I wear backwards so that it falls nearly to the floor like a cape behind me. I finish the ensemble with a pair of sky-high black patent leather Louboutin classic red-bottom stilettos and an oversized black patent leather clutch bag. Light make-up and moisturizer assure that there’s no overkill, and I’m ready to make some waves.

“You mean business, huh, Bosslady?” Marilyn asks when I enter the kitchen.

“Kickin’ ass and taking names,” I reply. “You ready?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she says.

“Then let’s rock and roll.”

Marilyn carries my coat for me in case I need it, but I won’t. I go straight from the mudroom to the garage to the Audi, and from the Audi to the elevator in the parking structure on GEH’s ground floor straight to the top floor. I expect to see Christian holding a meeting in his office, but he’s not there. He better not be in this department head meeting. I specifically told him not to come and if he’s testing me…

I walk into the meeting with Alex, Chuck, Ben, and Marilyn behind me. I’m overjoyed to see that my husband has honored my request and stayed away from my meeting as I stroll in with purpose and head straight to the sign-in sheet. I see that several people that are probably in this room haven’t signed the sheet like I asked. So, I call them out.

“Pa Nou Yi?” I read out, knowing that I’ve pronounced her name perfectly. A pretty Asian woman raises her head and acknowledges her name.

“Did you forget to sign in?” I ask. She clears her throat.

“We never use sign-in sheets with Mr. Grey,” she announces matter-of-factly, other members of the management team cosigning her statement. I nod.

“I see.” I retrieve the ledger containing the sign-in sheet and deliberately snatch the attached pen with so much force that I break the ball chain holding it to the lectern. I stride purposefully over to Ms. Yi and place the sign-in sheet and pen in front of her.

“Do I look like Mr. Grey to you?” I ask, glaring at her. She purses her lips, then picks up the pen with the piece of ball chain still dangling from it and signs next to her name.

“Thank you,” I say. “Has anyone else forgotten to sign in?”

“I have,” someone says, raising her hand, and a few other people raise their hand as well.

“Pass that around, Ms. Yi,” I say, “so that the rest of your colleagues can sign it.” She doesn’t make eye-contact with me as she slides the sign-in sheet to the next person.

“Now we have to take attendance like toddlers?” someone comments from across the table. I slam my hands on the table with just enough force to get his attention, lean over it and glare into his face.

“If you’re going to behave like toddlers, yes, you do,” I retort sharply. He’s a bit taken aback, evidenced by his expression. “And the next time you have something to share, say it loud enough so that we can all hear you.” I glare at him next and he stares back at me. Like I said, I’m not Christian Grey. I don’t have time for the stare game. I’ve made my point.

I march purposefully to the head of the table and slam my large, patent-leather clutch down on the table, startling several of the meeting’s participants. I remove my backwards wrap and drape it over the back of the seat while I wait patiently for the sign-in sheet to make its way around the table.

“Thank you,” I say to the last person who hands the sign-in sheet back to me. I see that there are people who still haven’t signed in after the sheet has made its round. 

“Alex, let the four people who haven’t signed in on this list know that they have five minutes to get to this meeting that started ten minutes ago, or they can be escorted out of the building immediately.” I hand him the list.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says without pausing and pulls out his cell. I pull a Christian Grey move and pull out my cell phone while standing at the head of the conference table, making a note of the names that were blank on the sign in sheet.

“Mrs. Batma?” Alex says from across the room. “This is Alex Welch from GEH security. You received a memo that there would be a department head meeting at 10am today with Dr. Anastasia Grey. She indicates that you have five minutes to get to the meeting, which started ten minutes ago, or I’ll send my staff down to escort you from the building.”

He doesn’t pause. He ends the call and calls the next person on the list.

“Chuck, Ben, please pull the remaining four chairs over by the window.” You fuckers want attention, you’re going to get it. Once they get the chairs lined up, I tell Chuck to go outside and wait for them. Finney and Ros keep looking at each other, no doubt wondering what the hell I’m doing. Yeah, you guys are generally in the inner sanctum, but not today. Today, you’re in the same category with these fuckers who don’t know who the hell I am.

A few minutes later, Chuck escorts our four stragglers into the conference room.

“So nice of you to join us. The next time one of your employers calls a meeting, try not to be late!” I say sharply. “Alex has the sign-in sheet.” The ladies and one gentleman murmur apologies.

“Now, we can get down to business,” I say once they’ve signed in and taken a sheet.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Mr. Grey?” Ros asks.

“Mr. Grey didn’t call this meeting. I did. Do you have a problem with that?” Her eyes widen as she glares at me, but she quickly remembers where she is.

“None at all, Dr. Grey,” she replies.

“Good. Now, as I was about to say before I was interrupted, I know you haven’t seen me around for a few weeks and why should you? You hadn’t seen me around before then either. Well, that’s about to change. I realized that I’m sitting in my lovely home enjoying a wonderful life made possible by the fruits of the labors of this company. And now, for some reasons, the efforts have appeared to stray from the common goal, and the labors are all beginning to fall by the wayside. Now, I can’t just sit back on my laurels and watch that happen, especially since—like it or not—I own half of this company.”

I pause for a moment to let that sink in.

“I’ve given some serious thought to this situation before I called this meeting… how I was going to deal with the fact that I’m part owner of a multi-billion-dollar company, but I can’t even get the management staff to respect me as such. My first instinct was to just leave this alone and allow Christian to run his business. Then, I remembered a conversation that he had a while back when he told me that I would be half-owner of this company. He said he trusted me. He said that he knew that his company would be in good hands if anything happened to him—that whatever I didn’t know, he had an executive staff and a management staff that would assist me to help keep the company thriving.

“He had that talk with me before he knew that I had any business education whatsoever. I thought he was out of his mind, but the fact remains that he did entrust me with fifty percent of his company while he’s alive, the whole of it upon his demise. So, hate it or love it, boys and girls, I’m here to stay.

“Who are you?” I ask, pointing at the guy who made the toddler comment.

“Theodore Mosele,” he says after a pause, “head of…”

“I don’t need to know what you’re head of; I just need to know your name,” I cut him off, holding my hand up to halt his introduction. “Mr. Mosele brought up a very good point. Why do we have to take attendance like toddlers?” I look at the list. “Mr. Reiter, would you like to tell us why?”

I look around the room and a gentleman raises his gaze to me along with his brow as several other department heads in the room turn to him.

“Um… to make sure that we’re all here?” he says—a question, not a statement.

“Excellent!” I reply. “The four people who decided to join us fifteen minutes after the meeting started are evidence that the sign-in sheet is needed, at least until I get to know who you all are… and I will get to know who you all are.” I turn to the four stragglers.

“The fact that you were up here within five minutes upon the threat of unemployment proves to me that you weren’t doing anything that was so important that you couldn’t have your asses in here at one!” I glare at them all and allow those words to sink in.

“Consider this your only warning,” I caution the attendees of the meeting. “The next time any of you decide that you have something better to do than to attend an owner’s meeting—or you conveniently forget how to sign your name when you enter—you will be subject to immediate disciplinary action.” I hear a few gasps, but no one speaks.

“I now understand why my husband feels the need to go back to running his business with as little leniency and leeway as possible. It appears that if he gives an inch that people will take ten damn miles.” I bark.

“I was going to back away and let him handle GEH like he always has, and then I realized… We’re a team. We’re going to remain a team. And in order for us to be effective, I have to back him up and we must work together.

“I’m no Christian Grey. I’m never going to be Christian Grey, nor do I want to be Christian Grey. However, like it or not, I am still fifty percent owner of this company. Anybody who doesn’t like that or can’t respect that can get the fuck out right now!”

The room is silent for a moment, then various murmurings begin.

“I don’t recall giving anybody else the goddamn floor!” I say, looking directly into the eyes of every person that I see has begun to speak out of turn, glaring at them and waiting for them to see that I’m plotting their demise if they don’t shut the fuck up. The murmurings quickly dissipate.

“I don’t care if you see me as an extension of Christian Grey, because when it comes to me, he’s not your biggest concern—I am. From this point on, any one of you who has a problem treating me with the same respect that you would treat anyone else who signs your paychecks and can bounce you out of here on your high-paid asses will find out just how quickly I can do the latter.

“The sudden random fifty-percent drug testing? That was me, to weed out any initial weak links. The mid-year and year-end self-evaluations followed by subsequent leadership evaluations—that was me, too. This tells the company what you think you’re worth to the company and what you can offer. Then it requires that your leaders cosign those conclusions, and add some thoughts of their own. This way, we can see what talent we have available in our pool, but we can also see who’s not making the mark. This also puts responsibility on your supervisor to dispel or justify your analysis of your performance.

“If you say you’re doing great and your supervisor says that you’re doing great, then you better be doing great. If you say that you’re doing great and your supervisor says, ‘Not so much,’ then it might be time for a counseling. Automatic raises are a thing of the past—that includes cost-of-living raises. All GEH employees must prove through these mandatory evaluations that they are worth their raises. If you are still employed here when the fiscal year begins, you will get a raise. However, your evaluations will determine how much. GEH will no longer be paying for mediocre or substandard work. From now on, you earn your money here, or you can get out.

“I’ve only brought these points to light to show that some of the things that you have seen implemented at GEH have come directly from me. You don’t have to see me to know that I’m affecting your lives already. Having said that, let me make this clear.

“I will not, I repeat, I will not accept disrespect, side-eyed glances, push-back, second-guessing, or any other little passive-aggressive tactics that anyone wants to try to push off on me. You don’t need my husband’s go-ahead or second opinion to carry out a command that I give you and I don’t need my husband’s permission to fire your ass and have you ceremoniously escorted off my goddamn property. If you want to see how far I can go to prove what I can do, please try me—I welcome the challenge. I can be an ally, or I can be an enemy—it’s all up to you. What I won’t be is an afterthought. I’ll be, ‘Oh, shit, Dr. Grey,’ before I’ll ever be, ‘Oh, yeah, Dr. Grey.’ Is that understood?”

The room is silent.

“That is not a rhetorical question!” I shoot. Various yes, ma’am’s fill the room. This is the first time that ma’am doesn’t make my skin crawl. None of these people are my fucking friends with the exception of a handful. I’m not dealing with this bullshit from these people anymore.

“Excellent. Now, let’s go over some particulars that I saw in some of the emails that I read last night.” I gesture to Chuck who brings my briefcase. I open it and remove my iPad and a few documents.

“This is how this is going to go,” I begin. “I’m going to call on many of you as needed by department to expound upon various projects and initiatives that should be in progress or nearing completion. You are going to give me as much useful information as possible without withholding key components and without drowning me in a bunch of useless drivel in an attempt to lose me in lingo. I won’t pretend to know what each of you are talking about. However, I have enough knowledge and a solid level of intelligence to grasp a general synopsis of the information that I’m asking for. Is there anyone unclear about what I’m about to do?”

Various No ma’ams fill the room and I’m certain that if they were unclear, they would fake it until they knew exactly what I wanted. Ros and Finney do this thing that I often see Christian and Jason do—the look that says a thousand words—and they do it often. To me, it honestly feels like a “put a pin in what she just said, and we’ll discuss later.” Why the fuck do you need to discuss later? Why can’t you discuss it now? But I digress. Other things to handle at the moment.

“Good. The first thing I’d like to talk about is…”

I go through the outline that I made from the email last night, making notes on each initiative and alerting various department heads that I would like to revisit the directives they’ve been working on, gesturing to Marilyn to make note of those departments as I plan to visit them later in the week or next week, as I get the time. Helping Hands is truly running itself with Keri, Courtney, Grace, and the learning coordinator—although I can’t completely disappear, I don’t need to be around as much.

During the meeting, I make various demands of Chuck and Marilyn, sometimes Ben and Alex as well, addressing them all just as informal as I always have.

“As you can see,” I say once I’ve gotten all the information that I want from each department head, “I call many of the staff by their first names. That’s because I’ve developed a rapport with them. I can develop a rapport with anyone in this room, but you’re going to determine what that rapport is going to be—friendly, strictly business, you can’t stand my fucking ass, I don’t care. As long as you do your damn job and respect my position.

“And make no mistake, I don’t care what you want to call me behind my back—really, I don’t. Call me a ballbuster, call me a bitch, call me a wannabe, call me whatever the fuck you want. Just don’t let it get back to me and do what the fuck I say when I give you a command or send you an email. I most likely have some personal opinions about and colorful names for many of you, simply due to the fact that I had to rearrange my life to get to the bottom of what was going on here before the life that I’m enjoying falls out from under me.”

I place my iPad on the conference table and stand, spreading my fingers out so that my fingertips are the only part of my hands touching the table.

“This meeting is adjourned,” I say. “Those of you who will have appointments to discuss your directives with me, look for an email from my personal assistant, Marilyn Caldwell.” Everyone stands with as little murmurings or fanfare as possible, including my executive team.

“Ros, Lorenz, wait, please,” I say. Another 10,000-word glance passes between them and they sit.

“Alex, is there a smaller room where I can meet with Ros and Finney?” I ask. He looks at his phone before responding.

“Mr. Grey isn’t done with his meeting yet,” he says. “You can use his office.” Perfect. I nod.

“Chuck, please gather my things together here and you and Ben wait for me outside of Christian’s office. Marilyn, my notes should have synced with yours, so hopefully if gives you an idea of what I need and what to send to each department head about what I need and include meetings that won’t conflict with anything that I have scheduled now. Hopefully, Andrea can find a spot for you…”

“No problem, Bosslady, I’m on it.” I nod and turn to my executive staff.

“Ros, Finney,” I say marching past them with my shawl and clutch in hand.

Christian’s office is perfect for this task. His chairs are far enough away from the front of his desk to make sure you know that he knows he’s the boss. I sit my gorgeous ass in his seat of power as Ros and Finney initially hover over me for a moment or two before they finally take their seats. I pause for a moment before I begin, then I jump right in with no prelim.

“Are you concerned about your jobs at all?” I ask them. Ros’ eyes pierce.

“Excuse me?” she asks.

“I realize that you can leave this place today and have a job tomorrow, but my question is, and I’ll repeat it… Are you concerned about your jobs at all?” Ros stands and puts her hand on her hip.

“Are you threatening us, Ana?” she accuses, affronted. Bitch, what the fuck…?

“Well, I don’t know, Ros. Do you feel threatened?” I reply, taking the exact same tone that she’s taking with me. Ros is a powerful woman and she knows that she is, but I’m not going to back down to her or anybody else if I feel like they’re a hindrance to my husband. So, it behooves them to answer the goddamn question.

“Okay, ladies, please,” Finney says, standing as well and attempting to be the voice of reason. “We’re all on the same team here. Of course, we value our jobs, Ana,” he replies. I glare at Ros again and she glares right back. She’s testing me, I know, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry. turn back to Finney.

“That’s not what I asked,” I tell him. “I asked if you’re concerned about your jobs at all. Is there some hierarchy here that I’m not aware of?” I inquire. “Some distribution of work that I’m just not privy to? I don’t pretend to know everything.” Finney frowns.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Finney says.

“Neither do I,” Ros shoots, folding her arms. I glare at her.

“Watch your tone with me, Ros, I’m not in the mood,” I caution.

“And you think I am?” she retorts. I suck my teeth trying not to lose my temper.

“Rosalind…” I begin.

“Anastasia?” she retorts, interrupting me.

That’s it.

I slam my hands so hard on Christian’s desk that it rattles, pushing myself out of his chair. She and Finney both leap back a step, and her stance has moved from offensive to how-close-is-the-nearest-door. I’m glaring at her, ready to fucking pounce if this is what she wants.

“You’ve got one more time,” I seethe, pointing and glaring at her from behind Christian’s desk, “just one more time to pull that passive-aggressive disrespectful bullshit on me, and you’re going to find out just who the head bitch in charge really is!”

She’s standing there gape-mouthed staring at me like she can’t believe what I just said and did. She’s been the high petticoat all these years and I understand that she feels like her toes are being stepped on right now, because dammit, they are!

Try me, cookie!

“Ros,” Finney says, his voice very low, “she’s right. You’re being insubordinate.” She throws a glare at him, then at my strawberry-red raging face. I can see in her eyes that she has a three-second funnel of her own and either she thinks better of what she says or what Finney said got through to her. Her stance changes again, and she’s immediately more approachable… and receptive.

I take three deep breaths to calm my anger… no, my rage and repeat myself.

“Is there some hierarchy here that I’m not aware of?” I repeat, “or some distribution of work that I’m just not privy to? Like I said, I don’t pretend to know everything. What I mean…” I say immediately, “… is that I took some time this weekend to review the emails that have been floating around the department heads and the executive team for the last several weeks, and it appears that all initiatives, directives, questions, answers, and guidance come from my husband.

“Now, maybe I’m just seeing things, or maybe I’m biased in my view of the emails. Maybe there are some emails that just aren’t getting to me, but from what I can see, there’s an uneven distribution of work among the executive team and it looks like one person is taking all the responsibility on himself. I would just like to know how the work is distributed so that one person doesn’t carry all the burden. It’s my understanding that Finney was hired because he didn’t want you to carry the burden all by yourself, but now, he appears to carry the lion’s share on his back. Am I mistaken? Did I miss something?”

“We all have different roles, Ana,” Finney says, and Ros still hasn’t found the words to address me yet.

“And does his role entail carrying the lion’s share of the work?” I ask again, since they seem not to be able to answer the question. I turn back to Ros.

“I’m not here to fight with you,” I say firmly. “I’m not even here to cunt-strut with you. I don’t have the business savvy that you do, the knowledge that you do or even the tenure that you do, but if my green, inexperienced ass can look at this setup and tell you that something’s wrong then dammit, something’s wrong—and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in business management to see it.

“He’s got shit flying in every direction and it’s all coming from him. Now either you two are not following directions and are not CC’ing me on all executive email or for the umpteenth time, he’s doing the lion’s share of the work! Which one is it?”

Ros purses her lips, folds her arms, and drops her gaze—and I’m about three seconds from sending her ass on an administrative leave, but I won’t because I need answers.

“If GEH has a top-drawer, Grade-A executive team, why is he carrying this all by himself? And don’t tell me that he’s not! I live with that man. I have to watch him every day. He’s wound even tighter than he was when he was dealing with those fucking hackers. He has to gird up the asshole hours before he even leaves the house and he usually doesn’t shed it for hours after he gets home. Does Gwen have to deal with that?” I shoot at Ros. Her face softens infinitesimally.

“Does Mrs. Finney?” I say, turning to Finney. Their silence tells me everything I need to know.

“This is his baby,” I nearly seethe. “He suffers many sleepless nights wondering what’s going to happen with his creation—his life’s fucking work. He needs unwavering support, from you, from me, from everybody that values their job here, but he needs it most of all from the people who are closest to him! He and I are not the only ones who need to put up a unified front! You do, too. He doesn’t just need great minds pushing pencils, making calculations, and giving great ideas. He. Needs. Your. Support!

“You are not figureheads. You are each one-third of an executive team, but it looks like he’s carrying all the weight. You’re worried about drug tests and if my best friend’s department is going to be audited. Does legal fucking need to be audited? Because if it does, fucking audit it! Do it because there’s something going wrong in that department, but don’t do it to make a fucking bunch of sycophants happy who can’t even keep an eye on their own goddamn departments.

“That same silence that you observe when he walks through the hallways, they need to observe that same silence when you walk through the hallways—not because they’re afraid of you or because you’re being an asshole, but because you wield the same power that he does and they know it. And people should know that if they’re not doing what they need to do that the same hammer that he can bring down on them can come from you.

“If there needs to be a change of accountability around here, that’s fine. That’s why I came up with the mid-year and year-end evaluations. You didn’t need them before because everybody was scared shitless. Slowly but surely, that situation has faded, and now my husband has taken it totally upon himself to become the long arm of the law and get this place back in shape. But I refuse to believe that he has to take on the role of Big Angry Growling Daddy Bear 20 out of 24 hours a day while you’re fussing about drug tests and whether legal is going to be audited or not. He’s walking around barking at everybody he talks to and every time I see you two, you’re cool as a cucumber. What’s wrong with this picture?” They throw knowing glances at each other.

“And that,” I say, pointing to them, “if I see that, he does, too. That is a total indicator that you’re a team and he’s the odd man out. I’m a psychiatrist—I dare you to tell me that I’m wrong.”

I fold my arms and wait for a response. I feel like I’m talking to the enemy now. How many times has Christian had to justify something to them? How many battles has he had to fight where they’ve had these secret conversations with their eyes? Whose side are they on anyway? If they’ve built some kind of alliance that has my husband on the outside, what does that mean for GEH?

Ros wants to retort, but her facial expressions indicate that she doesn’t really know what to say. Finney, once again, speaks for them both.

“We’re definitely not against Christian, Ana,” Finney says. “We may not agree with every decision that he makes, but we’re not against him…”

“And it’s okay that you don’t agree with every decision,” I retort. “My husband can be very high-handed, but agree or disagree, he shouldn’t have to carry every burden on his back. And right now, he is.”

They turn to each other for one of those secret-eye conversations again, but quickly divert their gaze. Hmm, something’s getting through.

“The reason I asked if you were concerned about your jobs is not because I was threatening you. It’s because GEH is at a precipice. The mistakes and the dismal performance that we’re seeing in some of our departments is dreadful. No, we’re not losing money, but we’re trying not to get there. And the safety and quality issues; the inventory mishap; the fact that I, a civilian, walked in here and found the flaw with the XRC90 transmitter and the responsibility subsequently still fell on Daddy Bear to get them to run some simple tests; the fact that SEEKNID, a software that basically saved this company from potentially losing millions and millions of dollars, didn’t get launched last year—those are all indications that too many balls are being dropped and we’re headed downhill. That’s a huge concern for my husband, and if it’s not a concern for you, the hell if I’m going to let him take that shit on all by himself. And if we can’t patch the holes in the framework, then I’m going to discuss with him taking this company public.”

“Public?” Ros has suddenly found her words.

“Yes, public,” I say. “Maybe a board of directors can have better luck than we are, and if they can’t, then we’re screwed anyway, aren’t we?”

“Ana…” and I’m Ana again, “… taking this company public could be the worst possible decision…”

“But having your CEO die from a stress-induced heart attack sounds like a better plan to you?” I ask, my arms folded. They involuntarily have one of those silent eye-conversations, then look back at me.

“At the risk of overstepping my boundaries,” Ros begins with no malice, “you said it yourself—this is Christian’s baby. He’s worked hard at it. He’s said many times that he already knows that a board will come in here and tear it apart. They would do everything for the profit and not for the company, the community, or the greater good, and he doesn’t want that. It would break his heart to do something like that. He’ll never take this company public. It’ll be like giving his baby up for adoption, then selling it to the devil. He’ll die at the helm before he does that.”

“That’s a very interesting analogy you just used,” I inform her. “I know very well that this is Christian’s baby, but guess what? Christian now has two very alive, very breathing children—not metaphorical babies… babies who are walking and breathing and growing and learning to call him ‘Daddy.’ GEH was his only baby, but it’s not anymore.

“Christian Grey never thought that he would be a husband and a father, but now he is. He never thought he would give away half his company to a woman, but he has. I birthed Minnie and Mikey and he birthed GEH. He trusts me to help raise his children, and I am. He trusted you to help cultivate GEH. Are you doing that? We have employees at the house just like we have employees here. If I drop the ball and everything has to go through Daddy Bear, why does he need me? I serve as wife, mother, confidant, partner, lover—if I can’t do those things, what good am I? If an outsider can walk in and see that I’m not doing those things, if they can’t see or feel my presence in my home… my children don’t reach for me when I walk in the door, nobody cares whether I’m there or not… what purpose am I serving?”

“I think you’re being a bit harsh, Ana,” she inserts, “no disrespect intended.”

“Am I, Ros?” I say. “How many times have you been to dinner at my home lately?” I ask. “How many times have you seen my husband not make it to the dinner table before his children have to be put to bed because he’s in the workout room working off the day? How many nights have you gone to bed early so that you can be awake in the wee hours of the morning because that’s the only time that you can have a normal conversation with your spouse? How much of GEH goes home on your backs and gets dumped on your families? How much time does it take for you to wind down from the pressures of the day and let go of the business so that you can have some kind of semblance of a normal life?

“I don’t see the same stress on you and Finney that I see on my husband, and when I went into those emails, I see why. My whole intention was to come in here, claim my half of the company, and start really putting my foot down on some shit so that he doesn’t have to take it all on himself, but he has an executive team. Why should I have to do that?

“You walk in first thing in the morning looking like a million bucks and you leave without a smudge on your lipstick, but he’s pulling his hair out.” I turn to Finney “You emit knowledge and power in your stride. You’re confident and it’s evident. He’s wearing a perpetual grimace. He’s constantly pondering something, and I know that he doesn’t smile here because he doesn’t smile at home.” I turn back to Ros.

“You’re always entitled to a vacation—anytime you need it and anytime it’s available—but you don’t think we know that you took a vacation at a very crucial time for this company because you had a bug up your butt?” I accuse. She stares at me, her expression a mixture of surprise and chastised.

“We drop what we’re doing, and we take international vacations at will,” I admit. “So, the very last thing I’m going to do is give you a hard time about taking some time off, but I won’t hesitate to call you out on your bullshit reason and timing. You made a statement and we heard it loud and clear and I don’t like it. He’ll never call you on it, because he can take the reins by himself… but he can’t do both. He can’t be the 24/7, ball-busting leader and still be a family man.

“He has changed,” I point out. “He’s my husband now. He’s the father of my children, and I am not going to lose him to this business… and that’s not a threat. That’s a bona-fide, genuine, signed, sealed, and delivered promise!”

There’s nothing else for me to say. I retrieve my wrap and my clutch and walk out of the office.

Chuck, Ben, and Marilyn silently and quickly fall in step behind me as I stride to the elevator. Chuck inserts a key into the panel and pushes the button for the first floor.

“I need one of those,” I tell him. Without blinking, he gets on his phone.

“Alex… please secure an express key for Her Highness.” He ends the call and looks straight ahead.

When we exit the elevator, I begin my stroll across GEH’s marble floors, commanding the silence that I said should befall the room when Ros and Finney enter as well as a glare here and there. I meet one of them head on since she doesn’t feel the need to break it… today’s sacrificial lamb, so to speak.

“Take a picture it lasts longer!” I shoot in one breath as I approach her. My firm voice cuts through the silence of the lobby, causing everyoneincluding those who weren’t even looking at meto turn their attention to the glaring bitch, who quickly drops her head and her gaze all before I even past her.

The car has been parked in the front of the building for my exit and although I’m dreading the cold without my coat, the statement being made as I march through the lobby with my entourage is much more effective and is bound to cause a buzz once I leave…

One that will ring loudly through the hallowed halls of GEH and, no doubt, directly to the ears of my husband.

CHRISTIAN

That red dress is screaming business and “fuck me” at the same time, demurely covering everything from her neck to her mid-calf with the exception of her dainty little hands. I’m more than a bit taken aback when she snatches that pen from the podium and slams it down in front of the head of procurement along with the sign-in sheet she got from God only knows where.

I see her getting a bit of kickback from some of the boys on the management team, but she’s giving it right back to them. I’m glad I was able to finish my meeting in time and now, I’m tucked in Jason’s office as he and I watch her meeting through the various eyes in the sky. Every time somebody tries to give her some shit, she chews them up, swallows them, and shits them out. Before anyone attempts to be insubordinate, she lets them know that she doesn’t need my permission to kick them out on their asses, and she’s right.

She reminds me of a female version of myself, and I can’t help but wonder what brought this on.

“She can really command a meeting,” Jason says, watching as she fires off detailed questions at members of the Boys’ Club that a few of them have a hard time answering. I would berate them for not having answers that I need, but not Madame Butterfly. Oh, no. She politely lets them know that they will be getting memos for later meetings in a few days or so where she expects to get the answers that she’s seeking without excuses.

Shit, the Butterfly Sword looks to be about as effective as the Iron Fist, if not more so in some cases.

She must have spent hours researching what these departments should be doing! I know that I know some of these projects off the top of my head and others I’m very familiar with…

And somebody tell me why Ros and Lorenz are looking at each other like deer caught in headlights!

I watch the management team and department heads scatter like rats when she dismisses the meeting, several of them crowding the stairwells and not even waiting for the elevator. She has struck the fear of God into these people and they’re off to do whatever is necessary to save their souls! And now, it’s time for the showdown with Ros and Lorenz. I only say showdown because the last time Butterfly was in the office at one of the department head meetings—when she swore that she would never be back—she had a bit of a head-to-head with Ros, who never apologized for her behavior, accusations, or disrespect, by the way. Now, she’s locked in the room with the Butterfly Sword and I’m anxious to see who’ll emerge victorious.

Butterfly doesn’t pull any punches. She goes straight for the jugular. Lorenz is confused, but Ros is ready to fight, and the dukes are raised.

“Oh, shit,” Jason hisses, covering his chin and mouth while shaking his head. He knows what’s coming. No sooner than Ros girds up her armor and prepares to show her weapon, Butterfly slams her hands on my desk shattering the silence and any expectation in the room as well as Ros’ resolve. Her next words and much of the conversation thereafter demonstrates who’s clearly in charge in this meeting.

She’s brought a few things to light that I never considered. I don’t care that I’m doing things on my own as long as they get done, but she’s right. If I have an executive team, why am I doing things on my own? My wife is trying to get a school started. We have to go to Green Valley in a few weeks and I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to go with her with things in the current condition they are, and she’s turning her focus from things that she should be focusing on to the inner workings of GEH and why things aren’t getting done here.

Maybe I should be coming down on Lorenz and Ros a little more. Why the hell did I hire him in the first place? Oh, yeah… I hired him to help take the load off Ros whenever I pulled up and left town and to allow her to take time off without it handicapping the company. Apparently, something got lost in translation with their duties. And I love that she points out that look that they give each other. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear to God that they were planning a mutiny.

And I love my wife dearly, but she knows that I’m never going to take my company public. I don’t even know why she mentioned that. Then again, I guess if there was an ultimatum on the table, we’d need to have a serious discussion about it—about what it would mean to take my company public and why she would think it was a last resort or even a resort at all. Then her final words play in my head as I watch her walk across the lobby…

“He has changed. He’s my husband now. He’s the father of my children, and I am not going to lose him to this business… and that’s not a threat. That’s a bona-fide, genuine, signed, sealed, and delivered promise!”

What makes her think she’s losing me to my business? For fuck’s sake, I’ve got a lot of thinking to do about all this myself. I turn my gaze back to my office and Ros and Lorenz are still standing there.

“Why are they still standing there?” I ask, pointing at the screen.

“They’re talking,” Jason says. I purse my lips.

“Turn it up,” I say, focusing on the screen again.

“Calm down, Ros,” Lorenz says, “Christian knows more than anybody what a disaster it would be to take this company public if for no other reason than that there are assholes out there who would love to take it on just to run it into the ground.”

“But she doesn’t know that,” Ros hisses. “She’s running around here throwing orders like she’s got a new toy, and she’s going to destroy the business in the process.” That’s not what I see at all.

“And may I ask where that theory is coming from?” Lorenz challenges. “What did she do in that meeting that leads you to believe that she didn’t have complete control over everything that she was doing? I would have had to be studying for months to get the kind of detailed intel she had on these departments and what they should be doing. She reviewed emails for a weekend and walked in here and rightfully handed a bunch of executives their asses. Then she turned around and held the departments responsible for not having the information that she needed. I don’t see anybody running around ‘with a new toy’ at all. I see somebody with a vested interest in this company wanting to know what the fuck is going on.”

“Oh, God, don’t tell me you’re under that spell, too,” Ros laments. “Christian I can understand. He’s married to her and he’s in love with her. Now, your vision is all clouded, too?” Careful, Ros.

“My vision is not clouded,” Lorenz says firmly but slowly, “and I don’t like the implication of what you’re trying to say.”

“Oh, keep your shirt on. I’m not trying to say anything. I’m just pointing out the fact that she has absolutely no business experience whatsoever besides her little minor degree…” She waves her hand around dismissively as she describes my wife’s education, “and she’s coming in here throwing orders around to the people who have been doing this for years. They’re not going to like it and we’re probably going to see quite a bit of pushback from it.”

“And whatever they’ve been doing for years, Ros, they haven’t been doing it right. That’s why she’s here. This is her company, too, and she has a right to call ‘bullshit’ when she sees it. Now, I see where you’re coming from, and had this been any other pampered wife running in here waving the ‘I’ve got the power’ flag without the correct information or intention, I would be the first person going to Christian and telling him that shit needs to stop. However, I can clearly see, that’s not what’s going on here and so could those other people in that room. What exactly is your problem?”

“My only problem is with someone who has no idea what the hell is going on marching in here trying to run things!” she snaps, folding her arms. Lorenz falls silent and just looks at her. Noting the silence, she raises her gaze to his.

“What?” she demands.

“You know what? I hope you’ve got your asbestos pantyhose on because whether you like it or not, that little ball of fire is going to fly through here and make some changes and if you don’t watch your attitude and stay on your toes, you’re going to get your ass seared. So, what I suggest you do is pack up that little green-eyed monster and put it back in your pocket, because whether you agree or not, there’s nothing that she said in that room or this one that was. Not. True.

“If she has to deal with half the hellion at home that he is when he’s here, it’s a wonder she hasn’t packed up her babies and run to the hills. You and I both know that we don’t carry the burden that he does, and we definitely don’t take it home to our wives. That woman that walked into that meeting this morning was pissed! She was about the business of getting down to business and whether you want to admit it or not, that’s exactly what she did.

“I’ve watched you make little snide, dismissive comments around and about her like you don’t understand what side your bread is buttered on. Get used to it, Tootsie—she is the head bitch in charge. She could be sitting at home eating bonbons and watching soap operas and she would still be the head bitch in charge. You should be happy that he has a woman that’ll look at all this and see that something’s not right and try to find a solution for it instead of sitting back, spending all his money, and giving him a hard time about having to work so much!”

Damn, I never thought of any of that. Whatever Butterfly wants, I just make sure that she gets it, even if it’s a private meeting with my department heads… well, not so private since I watched from Jason’s office. I just didn’t interfere.

“I’ve worked for this company for years,” Ros says. “I have just as much blood, sweat, and tears in it as Christian. I’ve helped to build it up from a baby just like he did. I just don’t want to see all my hard work—our ­hard work—dismantled by a housewife, no matter how smart she is!”

Damn, Ros, petty much? I agree that she worked hard to get GEH where it is today and her contributions are invaluable, but why must she besmirch my wife so badly?

“Well, forgive me for not noticing,” Lorenz quips, “but what you just saw was goddamn intervention, or did you miss that whole thing? And if what you say is true, then tell me this—are you bleeding, sweating, and crying as much as he is right now? Will we see Gwen marching into the building any second telling us that this shit has got to change?”

Ros falls silent for a moment as if pondering Lorenz’s words, basically the same words that Butterfly said to them not twenty minutes ago.

“Make no mistake, she’s going to have a talk with Christian, and I can guarantee you that there’s going to be some ‘Come to Jesus’ in there. She looked at something somewhere that said that we’re not pulling the weight Christian is when we’re supposed to be a three-man team, and she’s about to make it a four-man team like it or not.”

“Christian likes to do things himself. You know how hands on he is,” she excuses.

“I know that’s bullshit and so do you,” he counters. “We do what we’re told. We do what’s needed. We’ve gotten comfortable in sitting back and not getting our hands too dirty because it’s easy to stay back and let him do that. What building do you need to fall on your head to realize that all of our jobs are in jeopardy right now? A month ago, she couldn’t tell you what the process was for SEEKNID from idea to completion, and now she can tell you that we can probably shave a day off our inefficient shipping processes just by streamlining and combining some of the tasks. Isn’t this the same woman who found a flaw in a product that was supposed to be one of the major selling points of one of our deals last year just by looking at the acquisition reports?

“You’re selling her short, and I have no idea why and I really don’t care, but you better get off that horse, because you’re on it by yourself, and we both better get our asses in gear or we may just find ourselves in the unemployment line!” He glares at her for a moment before he walks out of the office.


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

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~~love and handcuffs

 

 

 

 

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Grey Continued: Season 5, Episode 1

I don’t want to start the season with a huge chapter note, but thank you guys for being there for me when my Mommy died. It really means a lot. It’s strange how life imitates art (and vice versa). I had this entire chapter written weeks ago—parts of it, months ago. Without giving spoilers, yes, some sad things happen, but they weren’t just added in when Mommy died. 

I also want to add my condolences to our beloved Falala. She lost her other fur baby this week. Please send her some love and support in comments here or on her post in “Do You Need To Talk” and let her know that we love her and we’re thinking of her. 

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 1

ANASTASIA

The year 2015 came in like a lion, not a lamb.

“You don’t have to be strong for everybody Val. And you certainly don’t have to be strong for me.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Val says, somberly. “I’m not. I’ve just cried so much that I don’t think I have any water left.”

Val left the Crossing looking a little gray in the face. We awoke this morning to the most dreadful news. She had lost the baby.

“The doctor says that these things happen, especially after the strain my body had been through last year. She told me that there’s nothing wrong with trying again after a little while… but I don’t know.” Her voice cracks on the last word. I stroke her hand.

“When you’re ready,” I say softly.

“I don’t know that I ever will be,” she sobs, finding those tears that she didn’t think she had. “I was so excited! El was excited. Our lives had started anew in every way! Meg is gone; we have a new house; a new baby was on the way… and now this!” She covers her face and sobs into her hands.

“And it’s not over.”

I’m about to hug my sister and best friend when Elliot’s voice stops my progression. He comes over to the other side of the hospital bed and cradles her weeping body in his arms.

“You cry as much as you need to, Angel, but it’s not over. Your body is remarkable. It looked death in the face and flipped it the bird. And when your heart was ready to give more love, it was determined to produce new life. But, Angel…” He sits on the bed and puts his hand under her chin to lift her gaze to his.

“I’ve got you,” he says. “This beautiful body needs some more rest—some more time to heal from that prize fight that it won last year. Our hearts were eager and so was your body, but it just wasn’t time yet. It’s. Not. Over… and when you’re ready, it’ll happen, and not a moment sooner. I’ve got you, and you’ve got me. I’m not going anywhere, and if you decide that this experience was too much and it’s not for you, I’ll still be here—standing by your side and loving you through it. Okay?”

Val falls into his chest and weeps for a moment before composing herself.

“Isn’t he the most wonderful man in the world?” she says, gazing into Elliot’s eyes. I turn my head to the doorway to see my husband standing there with his hands shoved in his pocket. He looks forlorn as he watches his brother and sister-in-law working through the loss of their unborn child. He won’t admit it, but his empathy has come a long way since he’s met and married me and had children of his own. The pain in his face says it all.

“Second most wonderful,” I say softly.

*-*

The drive back to the Crossing is silent. Christian had leaped from the bed and sprang into action when he got the call, leaving Jason behind and almost leaving me as he leapt into the car and sped out the gate and across the bridge to the hospital. Now, he looks blankly in front of him as he concentrates on getting us and the car back to Mercer Island. Everything happened so fast that there was no time for the paparazzi to get wind of anything.

He’s still silent when we get back to the Crossing. He seems to be moving on autopilot. He drives into the garage, turns the car off, then exits. He walks mechanically to my side of the car and opens the door for me.

“Thank you,” I say softly as I exit, and he nods once. He closes the door behind me and places his hand in the small of my back, guiding me to the mudroom door. We both shed our outerwear and boots right there in the mudroom, and my husband releases a heavy sigh as both hands rake through his hair.

“Can I get something for you?” I ask, concerned. “Some coffee or something to eat? Neither of us had any breakfast.” He shakes his head.

“I…” He holds his head down for a moment as if to collect his thoughts. “I’m going to take a shower, first… just to try to…” he trails off. I put my hand on his back and he raises his gaze to mine.

“Okay,” I say, nodding. No need to explain, Mr. Grey. This is pretty big. He nods at me again and heads for the elevator. I sigh heavily and walk to the kitchen.

“Hey,” Gail says, coming from her office space in what used to be the small dining room. “How’s Valerie?” I sigh again.

“I don’t know,” I say, reaching into the refrigerator for sparkling water and cranberry juice. “As well as can be expected, I guess.” I fill a glass with ice from the dispenser and make a cranberry spritzer. I put the bottles away and drink my glass nearly half down.

“She was so excited,” I say, shaking my head. “She didn’t think she’d be able to conceive after Chemo. The good news is that she can conceive… but can she carry?” I cover my eyes and fight my own tears, my sadness for my best friend and sister.

“What did the doctor say?” Gail presses, concerned. “Did they tell her that she wouldn’t be able to?” I shake my head.

“No,” I say after drinking more of my spritzer. “From what they say, it was just too soon. Her body needs to get a little stronger before she tries to have a baby.”

“Well, that’s encouraging news,” Gail says, “although I know from experience that it does nothing for the current loss.” I raise my eyes to hers, vaguely remembering her telling me about miscarrying.

“Christian’s not taking it well,” I tell her. “When tragedy strikes his family…” I search for my words. “He’s a lot more empathetic than he used to be.”

“Did you all eat?” she asks. “Would you like for me to fix you something?” I should be hungry, but to be honest, I’m not… not in the slightest.

“Let me see what Christian wants to do and I’ll let you know,” I say, finishing my spritzer. She takes my glass and puts it in the sink, and I head to the elevator.

I lost a kid once, too, but I didn’t know that the kid was there, so I never had a chance to miss it… or want it… or not want it. I sometimes wonder what that kid would have been like had it lived. Would it have been a monster like my mother or its father, or would I have been able to show it enough love not to be a terrible person? Would I have been able to love it at all? Would I have kept it? Carla and Stephen probably would have made me give it up. I know one thing’s for sure—my life certainly wouldn’t be where it is now.

As the elevator opens, I think about Minnie and Mikey, my two little miracle babies. They were determined that nothing was going to stop them from getting here alive and healthy, not even a missile that put me in a coma for nearly two weeks and almost cost me my memories. I can’t even imagine how I would feel if something had happened to my precious angels before they were born. I’m stepping double-time to get to the nursery as I desperately need to see them.

I open the door quietly to find that I’m not the only one who needs some immediate baby time. Christian is standing over our daughter’s crib, gazing silently down at her sleeping body. He so transfixed on her tiny little form that he doesn’t even move when I open the door. I pull the door closed a little, just enough to watch him with our daughter. He stands there for several more moments before he kisses his fingers and gently taps Minnie’s head.

“I love you,” he whispers, stroking her red tresses gently for a few moments. He walks over to Mikey’s crib and Mikey stirs a bit, but falls back into slumber. Christian silently watches him for several moments.

“And I love you,” he whispers to his son, repeating the gestures that he just did with his daughter. I step away and close the door, leaving him to his moments with his children. Suddenly, a shower sounds like a very good idea.

I try not to cry in the shower. I’m overcome with sadness for Val and Elliot, but also with impending doom for the fate of my own children. They’re growing so quickly. I’ve been practicing helping Minnie stand and take steps on her own every day since Christmas. I don’t want to rush her, but I don’t want her to be developmentally too far behind her brother, either. They both have the chubby baby cheeks and thighs that just make you want to pinch them all day, and they’re eating more solid food than breast milk these days. I’m a little melancholy about having to wean them soon, which doesn’t help with my attempt not to cry.

I let a few tears fall as I wash, condition, and rinse my hair. I’ve composed myself once the shower is over, and I take the time to dry my hair and put it in a ponytail. I pull on a comfortable off-the-shoulder cable-knit sweater dress that I grabbed from the dressing room before my shower and I come out into our suite. Christian is lying on the bed on his back in sweatpants and a T-shirt, his hair still wet.

He’s staring at the ceiling and saying nothing. I climb in bed beside him. During these times, he usually tells me that he needs me. Making love when he’s feeling this forlorn often grounds him, helps him to remember that he’s not alone. This time, he seems different.

“Do you want to talk?” I ask as I lay on the pillow next to him. He shakes his head.

“I’m tired,” he says. “I’m really tired. I don’t remember being this tired in a long time.”

“You didn’t get much sleep,” I say, “and we got the call really early.”

“I’m exhausted,” he says, and sighs heavily. I don’t doubt that he is. He’s been going like a machine since Christmas, and this isn’t the first emotional overload-type thing that we’ve had in the last few days…

New Years’ Eve…

The festivities are no different than any other New Years’ Eve—good food, good friends, family, drinks… and fireworks. We, of course, have an excellent view of the fireworks at the Space Needle right from our backyard, and when midnight strikes, we kiss and toast the New Year in just like every other year. We’re all looking at the fireworks when we hear Chuck’s angered voice.

“Shit!” he hisses. We all turn to face him and he’s bolting into the house.

“Choonks, wah’s wong?” Keri calls after him.

“That’s not ginger ale!” he yells as he disappears into the French doors.

“Shit!” Jason says, abandoning the group and dashing into the house behind Chuck. Keri, Maddie, and Nelson all run in behind him while the rest of our guests just look on in confusion. Christian picks up the glass, sniffs it, and looks at me.

“It’s champagne,” he says gravely.

“Shit!” I hiss like Jason and Chuck before me and run into the house. I hear Christian excusing us as I dash through the entertainment room. It’s empty. There’s no one in the community area either. That’s when I hear agonizing noises like someone is being punched in the stomach.

I know what that is.

I follow the sounds through the community space and into Chuck and Keri’s apartment. Maddie and Nelson are standing horrified in the living room while Chuck and Jason are in the bathroom. Keri’s standing outside the door with tears in her eyes. Chuck is on his knees paying homage to the porcelain gods while Jason stands over him. I can hear his throat and stomach wrenching as he vomits everything he ate at the party… probably everything he’s eaten all day.

When he stops for a moment and breathes heavily, I think it’s over, but he starts again. I don’t hear that horrible sound of his insides splashing against porcelain this time. He’s still breathing like a bear though. There’s another pause and then I hear Jason’s voice.

“Stop, man! There’s nothing left!” he commands. “You’re dry-heaving now, it’s gone!”

They sound like they might be scuffling, and Jason repeats his command.

“Stop!” he says again. “There’s nothing left, Chuck!”

“I gotta make sure!” Chuck protests. Jesus, he’s determined not to let even the slightest bit of alcohol into his system.

“You got it, man, it’s gone,” Jason said. “You barely took a sip and you’re vomiting bile now. You’re dry heaving, there’s nothing left. I wouldn’t lie to you.” There’s silence for a moment. “Goddammit!”

I hear scuffling again and now Keri turns away from the bathroom and is fully weeping. I put my arms around her, and I can see into the bathroom. Chuck is sticking his finger down his throat trying to make himself vomit more, and he has already discharged everything he has in his stomach.

“Help him!” I mouth to Christian as Keri cries on my shoulder. Christian enters the bathroom and tries to help Jason restrain Chuck.

“Come on, Chuck,” Christian says. “It’s over. It’s gone, trust me.”

“You don’t understand!” Chuck wails, sounding almost like a child. “I can’t be that guy again! I can’t! I can’t be that guy…!”

We know what he’s talking about, and Maddie and Nelson know all too well. Maddie moves past all the big men and kneels next to her son, taking his face in her hands.

“You’re not that guy, Chuckie,” she says. “We can all see it, and we know it. We knew that guy. We knew him well, and even though we loved him, we didn’t like him very much. You’re not that guy anymore, Chuckie. We know you’re not that guy.”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he weeps. “I didn’t mean to drink it…”

“I know Chuckie,” she says, softly with a smile. “Give yourself a break. There’s a difference between accidentally sipping what you thought was ginger ale and finishing off an entire bottle of gin. That Chuck is gone, and I’ve got my Chuckie back. You didn’t slip—you picked up the wrong glass. It was a mistake. So, please, stop hurting yourself.”

He looks his mom in the eyes and nods. Jason and Christian help him up and his legs are a little wobbly. He reaches for Maddie and she helps him to the sofa.

“Salt-water, please,” she says as Chuck falls down onto the sofa. Keri breaks our embrace to go to the kitchen. She quickly mixes salt and water and brings it to Chuck along with the kitchen garbage can. As he rinses the flavor of bile from his mouth and spits into the garbage can, Keri retrieves a bottle of water from the fridge.

“Dtink itahl, Choonks,” she says softly, having cleaned the tears from her face. He looks at her and effortlessly bottoms out the bottle. She nods her approval as he tosses the bottle in the trash. She sits on the sofa next to him and turns to face him. She pulls his head into her bosom, wraps her legs around him and cradles him in her arms.

“Easy nuh,” she says as she gently strokes his hair. She doesn’t care who’s in the room; she needs to comfort her Choonks. He lays on her breast and closes his eyes, wrapping his arms around her and settling in obvious contentment.

“We should go,” I say to all the onlookers, as Keri and Chuck are in their own world now. Jason puts the waste basket back in the kitchen and we head for the door.

“From now on, I fix my own drinks,” Chuck says as we’re leaving.

Present Day…

I had a session with him and his sponsor later that day. He said that sipping that champagne felt like the past burning a trek down his throat and all he could think of was to get it out. He knew he was going to vomit before he made it to the apartment, and he was trying not to do it in one of the sinks along the way.

Thoughts of everything that Joe had said about him in court was haunting him, and he could only see the alcohol as a devil inside of him—a parasite—and even the slightest drop of it would grow inside of him and consume him. I could tell by his intensity that if he could, he would have had his stomach surgically removed if it meant that there was no chance that there was any alcohol left in his system.

He never has to worry about relapsing. He’s dipsophobic now. I can’t say that’s any healthier than being an alcoholic as any kind of obsessive behavior is not good, but in the big scheme of things, this ain’t too bad of a phobia to have.

Turning my attention back to my nearly catatonic husband, I can’t help but feel rudderless at the moment, not quite knowing how to help him. It’s late afternoon now, and there’s no likelihood that he’ll be going into the office at all. In fact, he was so distracted by trying to get to Elliot and Val as quickly as he could that he had forgotten to call the office to tell them that he wouldn’t be there.

When Ros called, I answered the phone to inform her that he wouldn’t be in. She actually seemed a bit put off that I was telling her that he wasn’t going to be in. Not that I owed her an explanation, but I felt it was a professional courtesy to tell her why, and I took great pleasure in passively making her feel like shit when I told her the reason. Somebody’s going to have to put that trick in her place really soon because she’s really pushing the envelope.

That’s probably why my husband is exhausted right now. He hasn’t allowed any emotion to creep in, so to speak, since he’s been so busy busting balls at GEH. The fuck-ups are slowly beginning to turn around and the supposed lawsuits are falling as fast as they were filed, once the plaintiffs were told what their real chances of winning were and my husband made it clear that it would be a cold day in hell before—and I quote—“those goddamn drug addicts got another fucking dime from me to support their fucking habits.”

Now, he just needs to rest, for however long he needs it.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” I ask, looking at the side of his head as he gazes at the ceiling. He turns his head to me, his eyes glassy, tired, and sad, and I’m sure that he’s going to tell me that he needs me… and he does, but not in the way that I’m thinking.

“Can we just…” He sighs. He’s having a hard time finding his words. “Can I just hold you for a while?”

I look over into his beseeching gray eyes and my heart melts at his sadness. I move closer to him and situate myself comfortably on his chest with my arm around his waist, one leg bent over his. He embraces me firmly with both arms, then kisses my hair. I think of the lullaby that I sing to the kids when they’re feeling fussy, the French one about the eggs, and I hum it to him while I’m laying on his chest. He holds me close and tight as I hum the tune to him, and a few minutes later, I feel his chest begin to rise and fall as his breathing evens. I know I can’t move or he’ll wake, so I keep humming the tune until I fall asleep.



CHRISTIAN

My wife is amazing.

I know that Valerie is her best friend and like a sister to her, but she was more concerned with how I was feeling than anything else during this time. How am I feeling? I’m feeling very shitty. I feel shitty for lots of reasons and in no particular order.

I feel shitty because my brother was so excited to be starting his family and now, he’s had it ripped from him for no good reason.

I feel shitty because he has to watch his wife and the woman he loves suffer physically and emotionally through this, and there’s nothing worse in the world than not being able to stop the pain of the woman you love…

… except for not being able to stop the pain of your children.

Seeing him lose his child made me feel the most intense and powerful possessiveness that I’ve ever felt in my life! My babies, my heart and soul besides my beautiful wife… Jesus, if anything happened to my kids…

I feel shitty because I just want to make everything right again… everything… and I can’t.

Butterfly and I decide not to see our mentors on Saturday night under the circumstances. There’s no way that we would be able to concentrate on any of the tasks at hand.

We attended the Munch with Artemis and Savvina the weekend after Christmas, just to be introduced to other Domini and their matrimonial submissives, who refer to themselves as soumises, As I speak French, I know this is the French plural for submissive, but this is the adjective. I’m not sure that there is an appropriate noun. Nonetheless, I like it.

This group of people is almost like a club of their own, not that they separate themselves from the others, but that they share a common bond and tend to gravitate more towards those with like interests—as is usually the case in any BDSM circle.

I’m quickly learning that being a married Dominus, or just Dominus as Artemis prefers, is nothing like what I’ve been before. I’m learning to be a Dom all over again. I have to deprogram myself from what I used to be, what I’ve always known, and reprogram myself to a new way of being; a new way of responding; a whole new behavior. I can’t operate the way that I used to because I’m not the same person. BDSM served a specific purpose for me. It was a direct means to a particular end, and there were no emotions involved.

I was a sadist, but I’m not that man anymore.

As a result, everything has to be retaught. There was no way that I could bring Anastasia into my world with the theories, techniques, and mindset that I always utilized. It never would have worked, and that’s why we never found our balance.

Had I married a submissive who had been previously conditioned in the method that I practiced, the old way would have been fine, but that’s not who I married. What’s more is that none of the submissives who had been conditioned in that way ever lasted, because that’s not what I really needed.

If I’m honest, I used those women like old rags. Once they were dirty, I laundered them in showers and baths and sent them to be plucked and primed to my specifications only to use them again. I made it clear that I didn’t want these women, and if the old rags became too comfortable, I threw them out.

How could I possibly expect for this same mentality to work with my wife?

Artemis is bringing so many things to light for me. My entire method of operation was based on punishments and rewards. For a sadist who has plans to beat the hell out of you every Friday night, that’s a perfect formula…

I need to cause you pain to release mine and regain control, and if you’re a good girl, I’ll let you come.

If you misbehave, I’ll beat you some more, and after I’ve tormented you sexually in every way imaginable and had my fill of you—literally, then I’ll make you go to bed without an orgasm.

I want unequivocal, unquestioned loyalty and obedience and if I don’t get it, I’ll make you pay.

If I do get it, I’ll make your body scream in ways that you never thought possible.

I’ll take you from extreme to extreme. I’ll ruin you for all other men. You’ll learn to love it; you’ll yearn for it… ache for it… the pleasure and the pain.

You’ll learn to love it. You’ll discover that you can’t do without it… and the moment that you do, I’ll cut you off and end your contract.

I began our relationship with every move I knew. I pulled every masculine wile on her that I could—and then I released the demon. It was so powerful that neither of us could control it, and yet, we tried. We tried so hard that at some points, it almost destroyed us. And now…

Here we are, where we should have started in the first place. We’re both starting from scratch. Anastasia had no idea what she should and should not be doing, how she should or should not be behaving, what she should or should not expect as a submissive. Her entire concept was take as much as you can and when you’ve reached your limit, take a little more. Why?

Because her husband is a sadist.

I could—and would—give her whatever she could take. There was no measurement of “Maybe this is going too far.” It was just, “More? Okay!”

So, now, I have embarked upon the intricate journey of shedding the title and persona of the typical sadistic Dominant—talented though I may be—and completing the task of becoming the exquisite Dominus. As such, my wife is completing the task of becoming the soumise. At some point, our roles will switch again, but right now, we’re concentrating on this particular dynamic as it fits into our lives.

I don’t know whose journey is harder—hers, having to dispel the misconceptions that she’s had for the last few years during her escapades with me; or mine, having to deprogram most of the things that I learned from Lincoln and in Dom training all those years, or at least re-purpose them—for lack of a better description—to fulfill our current needs.

Anastasia is a strong and independent woman. It’s not in her to be a 24/7 submissive, nor would I want her to be. However, this new dynamic means exploring new territories and desires, both physical and mental, and there will be some sacrifices and compromises on both our parts. I’m going to have to sacrifice my old methods of relating the inflicting of pain, total surrender, and unconditional obedience to my pleasure and maintenance of control. These things must be balanced, and there’s a time and a place for all of them.

TPE requires complete surrender and unconditional obedience. However, while some relationships may be built upon that, ours is not. There’s a time and a place.

While inflicting pain can be quite liberating and erotic, it can’t always be the go-to technique in a relationship like ours. There must be a give-and-take on several levels when implements are used to inflict pain, induce pleasure, or administer punishment.

I was always hyper-aware of a submissive’s feelings and physical reactions, but only to the degree that their responses fulfilled my needs…

If I whipped you until you cried, so what? I fucked you until you came; now, go take a bath and get over it.

If you were twitching and jerking uncontrollably at the end of the scene, it’s probably because your orgasm was so intense that your pussy or your asshole was gripping and squeezing my dick endless until you drained my balls of every single drop of fluid I had to give.

I knew how to time torment and ecstasy perfectly so that I was certain to get everything I needed exactly at the moment that you got what you wanted. And if you didn’t get what you wanted, it was deliberate, and that’s usually what I wanted.

It’s all different now…

The Munch we attended was held at a local venue called “10 Degrees.” It clearly wasn’t what my wife expected and certainly nothing like the impromptu munch we attended at the BDSM club a few years ago. Although my wife chose to don a very sexy black bandage dress of a respectable length, she could have worn one of my grandmother’s vintage Lindy bop dresses and still fit in with this crowd at this location. On more than one occasion, my wife was swept away to a semi-private cluster of conversation with a group of submissive wives while I took the opportunity to converse and pick the brains of Artemis and some other attending Domini. It was during several such powwows that I discovered that my way of thinking was going to have to take a serious detour if this relationship was going to be functional and enjoyable for us.

Today was to be the day that we were going to explore our intimacy a bit more. One of those ways was going to be to choose a nickname for my wife when she was in the role of soumise. Baby came too easily, Butterfly is an everyday name, and Anastasia is clearly what I call her when I’m angry. Ana is what everyone else calls her, and Mrs. Grey is out of the question because I called all of my previous submissives by their last names and we’re trying to separate the old Dom from the Dominus. So, we have to come up with something else. I say “we” because even though I may be using the name, she has to respond to it. I think I’ll talk to her about that later when we’re alone. It shouldn’t be hard for us to come up with something without the assistance of our mentors.

Quite a bit happened in the past two weeks. I awoke the day after Christmas and realized that I had been a Grade-A ass all week to my wife and family, and while it was still imperative that I whip my company back into shape, something had to give… and soon! I took that Friday off and spent it with my wife and children like I should have done on Christmas Eve.

We exchanged our gifts and although we got each other plenty of those gifts that you purchase for the husband or wife who has everything, my biggest gift to Butterfly was the task of decorating our Italian villa as we will be spending six weeks there this summer even if Armageddon befalls us. She was absolutely thrilled. Concerned about leaving our children behind, she was even more delighted to discover that the family will be spending a portion of the summer with us as well, including our children.

Her most precious gift to me was a leather-bound album with various pictures of her and our children throughout the year—in color and black and white, various settings, some candid and some professional. She knows this kind of shit turns me into a big sap, and that’s why she usually waits to give these personal gifts on Christmas Eve. Of course, it took my breath away and I felt like the luckiest bastard on earth.

We also gave gifts to our staff, including the car that we had been promising Keri with the built-in car seats for the kids—a 2015 Chrysler Town and Country. I would have preferred an Audi, of course, but my wife previously informed me that not everyone wanted to drive an Audi, and Chuck informed me that Keri previously admired the Town and Country. As long as it had the safety features that I wanted, it was fine with me. So, Keri is now the proud owner of a metallic silver Chrysler minivan.

December 26 held one more surprise for the Grey family. Pops’ attorney from Detroit, Nathan Wu, called to tell us that Freeman had given up on the protest of the life insurance policy. Freeman was, quite frankly, eager to get his hands on his father’s house. We knew that this had to mean that he had signed the divorce papers as well, because he wasn’t going to allow any proceeds from Pops’ will to get caught up in his divorce. Little did he know that any of his inheritance was most likely protected property from the divorce, but honestly, none of us cared. Our biggest controversy now was trying to get Dad to accept his share of the policy as well as the money that he gave to Uncle Stanley and Uncle Herman.

That beautiful Apollo showed up, refurbished and playing beautifully this past Tuesday, and it has pride of place downstairs in the den with my baby grand. My father and my uncle came over to see it once it had been delivered, after which they called Uncle Stan and the three of them drank a toast to Ichabod while it played one of several preprogrammed songs in its new repertoire, Down by the Old Mill Stream.

Valerie is being released from the hospital today and, once again, we insist that they come and stay with us for a while as Valerie’s body recuperates—just for a few days, or a week, until she’s back on her feet. It’s a good thing we decided against the mentoring sessions tonight. We were needed at the Crossing much more.

My brother is clearly more concerned about Val in the loss of the baby than he is about himself. I can see through the façade, though. He’s been my brother longer that he’s been her husband. He’s crushed, but with everything that she’s been through, he can’t let Valerie know how he feels. He doesn’t want to stress her out and possibly send her into a relapse with her cancer and he’s very concerned about her health and getting her back to 100%. However, once she’s released from the hospital and they get to the Crossing, the truth all comes out.

“How are you holding up?” Butterfly asks Valerie once they release their embrace. Valerie nods.

“I’m doing okay,” she says with a sad, unconvincing smile. “One day at a time.” Butterfly takes her hands.

“I know,” she says. “Come on, let’s talk…” She takes Valerie’s hand and leads her through the dining room. Elliot gazes at her until they disappear into the family room.

“Do you want to talk?” I ask, and I’m certain that my voice startles him. “You look tired.” He twists his lips.

“I’m fine,” he says, his voice clipped as he walks towards the formal living room.

“You don’t look fine,” I say, falling in step behind him. He whirls around on me after he steps down into the living room.

“Oh, so you’re the psychiatrist now.” It’s a statement, not a question. “Montana, how you’ve changed.”

Definitely not fine.

“I’m not trying to piss you off, Elliot,” I say as I close the space between us. “I just want to make sure that you’re really okay. I know if this was Butterfly, I definitely would need some help… or a drink… or I would want someone to pay or tell me why this happened.” Elliot laughs sarcastically.

“Oh, the great Christian Grey and all his millions!” he quips angrily. “If he found out that his little wifey was allergic to water, he’d stop the rain from falling!” I purse my lips.

“I know you’re upset, Elliot,” I say, ignoring his ill-placed ire, “you have every right to be…”

“This isn’t about me!” he hisses. “This is about her! All the shit that’s happened to her! When no one else was there for her, I was there for her! I took care of her; I watched over her; I stood by her when everybody else went MIA—everybody! I did everything in my power to protect her… and I couldn’t!” he bites out. I frown.

“There are some things that you can’t protect her from…” I try to interject.

“Says the man who rescued his woman from kidnappers in a helicopter,” he retorts sarcastically. “Basically brought her back to life after she was nearly killed in a car accident, spent 12 days in a coma, and woke up not even knowing who you were!”

“But I couldn’t prevent those things from happening to her!” I counter. “I may have retrieved her from Vashon Island, but she was still taken and brutally beaten. And yeah, I sat next to her bed and cried and prayed while she was in a coma, but I couldn’t prevent the accident that put her there!”

“Don’t you dare!” he hisses angrily. “Don’t you dare for one moment pretend that you know what I’m feeling right now! You have no fucking idea—no goddamn idea in the world how this feels!”

His eyes are a veiny red and he’s furious, ready to charge. If I don’t pick my words carefully, we’ll be rolling around grappling on the floor—and I will not fight him right now. I take a deep breath through my nose and let it out, never taking my eyes off my brother who is standing in front of me poised like a gladiator, ready for battle.

“You’re right,” I reply. I pause for several moments and watch him deflate infinitesimally. “I have no idea what you’re feeling right now. I couldn’t even begin to imagine, nor would I want to. I know pain, and I know that you’re hurting, but I can’t empathize with the pain you’re feeling right now. I do know this much,” I say, closing the space between us. “You’re taking care of Valerie. Who’s taking care of you?”

His face changes. The fury mask fades in an instant and is replaced with the most mournful, drooping, angst-filled expression I’ve ever seen. My brother chokes out a sob, and then another before crumpling in despair. I catch him in my arms and lower the dead weight to the floor as he sobs uncontrollably.

“I tried… I tried… I did… everything… I could…” he weeps bitterly, unable to catch his breath. “She… needs me… she needs me… to be strong… but this… hurts… God… it hurts… so bad…”

His weeps quickly turn to uncontrollable heaves as he chokes out his grief for his loss. His body is shaking, and his muscles are flexing like he wants to fight, but he’s tight… tight in a ball… still holding it in…

“Let it out, bro,” I encourage. “Let it out. It’s okay to hurt. I’ve got you.”

I can tell he doesn’t want to weep too loudly for fear that Valerie will hear him. Even now, at one of his darkest moments, he’s thinking of Valerie. I let him cry and text my wife.

**Where are you? **

A few moments later, she texts me back.

**In the parlor. **

I reply quickly…

**Can you please keep Valerie down there for a while? My brother needs to vent. **

It takes her a minute to respond.

**I understand. Sure thing. **

Thank God I didn’t have to explain that. Having a psychiatrist for a wife certainly has its benefits. I put my phone back in my pocket and lean in to my brother.

“Let it out, Lelliot,” I tell him. “I swear she won’t hear you.”

He raises tear-filled eyes to me, and I nod at him, giving him permission to grieve properly. He closes his eyes and releases a heart-wrenching wail that tears me down to my very soul. The sound is so painful that it’s everything I can do not to grab him and shake him and tell him to stop screaming like this; that everything is going to be okay and this is not the end of the world, but he’s been holding this in. He’s been the tower—the strong front for his extremely fragile wife. He hid his feelings so well that no one knew what he was going through. It’s a wonder he didn’t have a psychotic breakdown through all of this.

I can’t grab him and shake him, but I can grab him.

He curls into a ball, covers his face with his hands and sobs openly, finally crying without a care about who may be listening. I can hear his pain… and it’s killing me. It’s killing me that I can’t take it away from him. He was right not to let Valerie see this. She wouldn’t be able to take it.

I curl my body over his, quickly wiping away the selfish tears that fall from my own eyes onto the back of his shirt.

“That’s good, Lelliot,” I say, hiding the tears in my voice. “Let it all out…”


ANASTASIA

Elliot tried, but he wasn’t able to hide the fact that he was broken when Val and I finally came from the parlor. They both have the same questions…

Why did this happen?
How did this happen?
Was there something they could have done to prevent it?
How will they keep it from happening again?

The truth is that there’s no right answer to those questions. The immediate answer is that Val’s weakened state could have contributed to this, but truthfully, perfectly healthy women have miscarriages all the time. There’s no explanation for it and at some point, you heal from the pain and try again.

However, there’s no telling that to a woman—or a man—who has just lost a child.

They spend time blaming themselves until they’re just not blaming themselves anymore. Sometimes, it’s quick and sometimes, not so much. The further along the pregnancy is, the harder it is to deal with the loss. Val was heading into her fourth month and she had begun to feel the quickening of the baby, so that made it all very real. Then, to have something happen like this, after you’ve felt the baby move inside you and you’ve started making plans for the new life… we should definitely be having a funeral right now.

After Val said that she couldn’t cry anymore, the floodgates opened like Niagara Falls once we got to my parlor. She polished off a bottle and a half of wine all by herself, and I let her. She cried and cried about how she’s a failure as a woman and a mother and I spent the better part of an hour trying to convince her that this was not true; that there was nothing that she or anybody could have done differently that could have prevented this; that these things just happen and as painful as they may be, sometimes, they just can’t be prevented.

My words did very little to comfort her.

Little did I know that Elliot was on the first floor having a breakdown of his own, and when he and Val were reunited, they could do nothing more than crawl upstairs and go to bed.

Christian and I sit down to dinner alone. He concentrates on finishing his meal, and I know it’s because he’s fighting with his emotions. He’s forcing himself to eat so that he doesn’t starve himself being overcome by his feelings. I don’t attempt to engage. We simply eat in silence and I let him finish his meal. Maddie and Nelson are still here until Monday, but they’ve been having more intimate meals with Keri and Chuck in their apartment since Chuck’s episode.

“The other soumises were telling me that communication is paramount in any healthy relationship,” I break the silence once we’ve finished our dinner and we’re having coffee, “especially a BDSM relationship.” He raises his gaze to me, his expression almost as if he forgot that I was sitting there next to him. He bottoms out his coffee and stands from his seat. Then he moves to the back of mine, signaling for me to stand and he pulls my chair out. He takes my hand and tucks it into his elbow. I feel a little flush come over me.

“Where would you like to chat?” he says. I’m taken aback. Anywhere will do. I would have been just fine sitting here at the table.

“The library,” I reply. We have two libraries and one of them became Marilyn’s office. We never use the other one.

He leads me to the elevator, and we take a silent ride to the lower level. I stop at the aquarium to say “hi” to Marty, who’s swimming obliviously in and out of her castles and reefs. As I take a moment to admire my fish, Christian retrieves a bottle of brandy and two snifters from the bar. We walk quietly to the library and I take a seat on the sofa. Christian turns on the fireplace and takes a seat next to me.

“Do you have anything in particular that you want to talk about?” he asks as he pours us each a brandy.

“Anything but Elliot and Val,” I say softly. He stops pouring for a moment, still looking at the brandy snifter.

“Agreed,” he says, and finishes pouring the drinks. He hands me one of the glasses and takes one for himself. We each take a large sip of the brandy before the conversation begins.

“We were supposed to come up with names tonight,” Christian begins. “I was thinking that I don’t know why we can’t do that activity on our own. It shouldn’t be hard.” I shrug.

“Yes, I can’t see why we couldn’t do that,” I reply.

“Mine should be easy,” he says. “I’ve only ever been referred to as Sir, Mr. Grey, or Master. Mr. Grey and Grey has definite connotations for us. Master feels like footprints from a past life. I don’t want to bring that into our relationship.”

“I agree,” I say, sipping my brandy.

“There are other options—Lord, Captain, Mister, Boss. The Latin Dominus is used as my title, as soumise is used for yours. It’s nice, but it seems a bit pretentious for you to address me that way. The rest of those seem over the top, except for Boss, and Jason sometimes calls me that. So, if you’re comfortable, I say we keep it simple and continue to use Sir.”

“I think that’s best,” I concur. “I did a little research on appropriate names for a submissive. They all sounded ridiculous.” Christian furrows his brow.

“Such as?” he asks, before sipping his brandy.

Baby girl, princess, kitten, honey bear, buttercup…” I rattle them off.

“None of those would fit for you because those are generally all names for littles. You’re not a little and I’m not a Daddy Dom, so those definitely wouldn’t work for us.”

“What’s a little?” I ask.

“That’s a whole other Dominant/submissive dynamic,” he replies. “It often involves age play where the submissive behaves at an age suitable for his or her Dominant, or at whatever age the submissive chooses.”

“Like adult babies?” I say with distaste.

“Yes, adult babies can be a type of a little,” he confesses. I shiver a bit.

“There are other types of littles?” I ask. He nods.

“They can be any age,” he says. “It depends on the preference of the couple.” I shake my head.

“That… sounds like someone who fantasizes about children,” I admit. “It doesn’t seem healthy. What place could that possibly have in a BDSM relationship?”

“Please don’t try to get me to explain that,” he beseeches. “I’m aware that the dynamic exists, but I couldn’t describe the fascination or attraction to it. I don’t have enough information on it, so I can’t defend or criticize it… and we’re getting off topic,” he chides gently. “Your name? Remember?”

“I like pet, but for some reason, I feel as though I should have a deep abhorrence for that word.”

“You should!” he says, nearly cutting me off before the words are out of my mouth. I lean back from him a bit as his tone is clipped and his eyes are sharp. Then, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

“This may be one of those things that slipped your mind,” he begins, “but Lincoln called me ‘pet.’” I nearly choke on my brandy.

“Oh… yeah… no,” I say, finishing off the amber liquid. He pours me another drink.

“I liked love and kitten,” I say,but Jason calls Gail Love…”

“And Ethan calls Mia kitten,” Christian says.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” I say, twisting my lips. “How about kitty? I like that one, too.”

“Too close to kitten,” he says. He moves the glass to his lips and stops.

“What is it?” I ask. He smiles widely before taking a sip of his drink.

“I’ve got it,” he says, placing his glass on the coffee table. “You like kitten and kitty, two variations of a feline, but we can’t use them because I don’t want to feel like I’m Domming my kid sister.”

“Your point?” I say. He leans in close to me, his face mere inches from mine.

Pussycat,” he breathes in his Dom voice… and my panties are instantly wet. I swallow hard.

“I… I like that,” I choke out, abandoning any bit of “cool” I may have previously had.

“I thought you would,” he says, retrieving his glass. “I like it, too.” He leans back on the sofa, swirling the brandy around in his glass and looking salaciously at me with a confident half smirk on his face. I clear my throat.

“We’re supposed to be talking,” I say, trying not to gulp down the rest of my brandy.

“I thought we were,” he says, raising an eyebrow at me.

“I… suddenly don’t know what else to say,” I pant, trying to remain calm, but failing miserably as I mindlessly swallow the rest of my second brandy and flinch as the spirits shock my throat and burn their way down my chest. Christian bottoms out his first brandy and puts the snifter on the table. He takes my glass from my hand and places it on the table next to his. Moving closer to me on the sofa, he leans in to me until I can only focus on his eyes through my hormone-and-brandy-induced haze.

“Weekdays have been a real bitch for me lately, Anastasia,” he says, his voice low and his face mere breaths away from mine. “Seeing that it’s Saturday night and the past two days have been just as shitty, what I’d like to do now is to take you upstairs to our room, tie you to our bed, and fuck you within an inch of your sanity. Or…” He leans in even closer, “I can bind your wrists and fuck you right here. It really doesn’t matter either way to me, as long as I get to fuck you. What do you say to that?” I swallow hard again.

“I’d say that I’d like that very much,” I squeak. His lips brush mine and he speaks the next words against my mouth.

“Upstairs… or here?” he breathes. The word is barely a whisper.

“Here.”

*-*

Christian is asleep and I’m wide awake, lying on the floor in the library. He’s wrapped around me and a blanket is wrapped around us both, the light from the moon and from the fire illuminating the room. This is only the second or third time in weeks that I’ve seen him sleeping so peacefully, which is a shame since two of those times were most likely aided by sheer exhaustion from concern for his brother.

Lying on my back and looking at the ceiling, I can’t help but go over the events of the holiday season…

Chuck tried to rip out his esophagus from swallowing a taste of champagne.

Mikey got up and just started walking out of nowhere, and Minnie’s not far behind him. We’re going to have to start childproofing the house very soon.

I got word that the bitch Deanna Carson who threatened to attempt to seduce my husband and then made good on her threat was one of the employees that was fired for failing the drug test and is now part of a class action suit against GEH. I plan to put a stop to that shit.

My husband is working long ass hours trying to save his company from going down the toilet and I can’t shake the feeling that he’s the only one who seems to care about it.

Carrick’s brother Freeman looks like he’s not going to be a problem for the brothers for a while. I don’t know what’s happening with the harassment charges that Christian brought against him and the assault charges from Burtie, but he dropped that ridiculous case protesting the legitimacy of the life insurance policy, and Lanie told me that he has signed the divorce papers and agreed to Nell’s demands. It would have left him in the hole a bit, but he got their house in Farmington and the proceeds from Burt’s life insurance as well as Burt’s house in Detroit. I don’t know the value of everything, but apparently, he got what he wanted.

I accused my husband of longing for a submissive from his prior life, which sent us into nearly a week of silence and avoidance and caused me to turn my home into the Land That Christmas Fucking Well Wouldn’t Forget in an attempt to escape the situation. I had to have the house professionally un-decorated to remove all that stuff… but I have it all stored away, just in case!

Marilyn flies back in today, and I can barely wait to see her! I asked if she needed a ride home from the airport, but she said that she would just like the evening to herself to regroup and acclimate to being back in Seattle. So, I’ll see her at the office tomorrow.

Harmony will be moving into Escala at the end of the week once the closing is final. I feel a bit melancholy about that, almost like I did when Daddy said that he was leaving the house in Montesano. Yes, that was where Christian gained his Dom legs and beat and fucked 15 brown haired submissives, but that’s also where we built our lives, where we cut our teeth on many firsts. The place holds some fond memories for us, and some not so fond ones as well, but it’s where we officially became The Greys.

And, of course, my sister and best friend lost her baby.

I think that about sums it up.

Feeling a combination of sorrow, nostalgia, and melancholy from reviewing the major events of the past few weeks, I feel a tear slide down my temple and into my ear.

Pussycat. We decided on Pussycat. Never in a million years would I have expected him to come up with that name, but surprisingly, I really like it. My mind immediately wanders to the conversations that I had with clusters of other soumises. Listening to them speak so freely about their relationships and their roles, being able to slip into a submissive state of mind so quickly and easily, being able to be everything my Dominus needs at a moment’s notice… I try very hard not to think about how far I have to go and how much I need to learn. I try to only focus on the journey and making this a rewarding experience for us both.

My mind then floats to my conversation with Savvina and how she basically told me that I had no idea what I was doing or feeling…

“No, you don’t. You don’t find Nirvana, peace, or even subspace until it’s over and he makes you come. This. Is. Not. Just. For. Him. As his wife, this is for you, too. Until you fully understand that, you’re in a dangerous place.”

I’m afraid. I’ll admit it. I’ve sat wondering more than once if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. This isn’t a game anymore. This isn’t “dabbling” as our mentors referred to it. This is the real thing—a real-life, full-on, BDSM relationship. We said that we wouldn’t be 24/7, but I don’t know how we can’t be. I’ve immersed myself in research and websites and blog pages, chats with trusted soumises, and everything that I’m reading and seeing and hearing says that you will submerge yourself in this lifestyle in one way or another.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to walk around in spandex and leather 25/8… or 24/7, but it does mean that you have to always be mindful of your Dominus just as he has to always be mindful of you—and there’s a lot involved in being mindful.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the onslaught of information that just popped into my head as I lie here in the dark in my husband’s arms, I squeeze my eyes shut tight, and another tear slides down my temple. On cue, my husband pulls me closer to him, and kisses the tear from my temple.

“Sleep,” he says, softly, and with surprisingly little effort, I close my eyes, and fall asleep.


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 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

Introduction to Seasons…

Someone made a really good point to me quite a while back in a comment in an attempt to make me stop writing. They told me that the story was really good, but that I should have stopped at Book III because that’s where the story stopped.

They were right.

Don’t panic; I’m not going to stop writing, but I just want to point something out and make an announcement to those of you who have seen a significant change in the writing from Book I to Book IV.

For a story to continue, characters must change, people must die, situations and dramas must develop—things don’t stay the same. As a result, you may lose readers. People may lose interest. They may not be happy with the direction of the tale.

And you know what? That’s okay.

I stopped watching TV because it just wasn’t holding my interest anymore, but I was still diehard on some series just because I was… until they didn’t hold my interest anymore either.

I fussed and I screamed and I jumped up and down and had a temper tantrum when Grey’s Anatomy killed off McDreamy, but people still watch Grey’s Anatomy.

There was an episode of Scandal where some young black kid was killed and Olivia Pope came to the rescue and some black activist looking for his fifteen minutes of fame starts bashing her right there on the scene loosely referring to her as a tool used by the white man to get the black folks to shut up (not his exact words), all I could see was some flighty-ass “brother” looking for attention and bringing separatism to the black community instead of relief to the family. As a result, I watched the first few minutes of that episode and never watched Scandal again, but other people watched Scandal all the way to the end.

And guess what? Shondaland didn’t die because I stopped watching and my story won’t die because certain people stopped reading and lost or lose interest. But Shondaland and my broken love affair with Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal (when it was on) made me realize something…

The “Christian and Ana Show” did end with Book III. That’s where they got married, had their kids, and their “happily ever after” began. Once you get to Book IV, you are now in the series—the soap opera. You are now in the Downton Abbey, the Days of Our Lives, the Game of Thrones (before it ended), General Hospital of the Christian and Ana saga and how they interact with other people and the other dramas that occur from those interactions.

As a result, Book IV will be renamed Season IV, and the chapters renamed Episodes. This way, there will be no confusion for those of the mind that the particular Christian and Ana story stopped at Book III. You’re right. The rest of the series is now called

The Misadventures of Christian and Ana and Their Crazy Friends

It will be named Misadventures for short, and each season will most likely still have a title of its own. Enjoy. Or don’t. But don’t ever suggest that I stop writing. I won’t 😊

Smoochies!

~~love and handcuffs

Raising Grey: Chapter 94—The Christmas Song

Final chapter of Season Four…

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

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 94—The Christmas Song

CHRISTIAN

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

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

Thank God!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, let me take that back…

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

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

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

Yeah, at least 40.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her promise ring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop.”


ANASTASIA

“Stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… And so is he.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit! My mouth is watering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear God, I’m doomed.

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

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

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

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

And then he begins to move… really move.

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

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

“Come for me!” he breathes sensually.

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You hid more,” I accuse. He nods.

“Yep,” he confesses. I just laugh.

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

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

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

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

“If you want,” I reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… And the burn starts.

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

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


CHRISTIAN

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

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

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

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

Her.

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

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

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

“What time is it?” she asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elaborate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, they won’t,” I protest.

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

I twist my lips. Busted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titties!!
Shit! Pay attention, Grey.

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

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

“Twelve,” I mutter.

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

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

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

Fuck! This shit is starting to sting.

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

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

“See?” she says, petulantly.

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

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

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

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

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

And will my wife be okay?

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

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

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


EPILOGUE

What in the hell is happening?

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

I haven’t gotten any of my phone calls.

I can’t write any letters.

I haven’t seen Greta in over a week.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Baby Fucker, remember me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Baby Fucker…

Oh, fuck!


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

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 ~~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

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 ~~love and handcuffs

Raising Grey: Chapter 92—Getting Ready for Christmas

Two more chapters after this one…

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

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 92—Getting Ready for Christmas

ANASTASIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, what are you doing this afternoon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I feel like shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” she inquires.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I ask, defensively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really need to get in touch with Gary…

*-*

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

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

How many lights is too many lights?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do-drop?” she asks. I nod.

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

“Okay, that makes sense,” she replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**Are you coming in today? **

Uh, oh… is something wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I literally laugh out loud.

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

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

And it is.

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

Merry fucking Christmas, bitch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallow my tears and keep talking.

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

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

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

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

Motown music will be piping through the communication system today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tripled?” she asks. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Christmas Eve,” Val says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you have to say that?” I lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I asked for Ana!” I counter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My sister… my friend…

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He leaves before I wake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I throw the covers off and get out of bed.


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

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

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

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

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 ~~love and handcuffs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 91—Thin Line

Three 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 91—Thin Line

ANASTASIA

After a quick shower and a fresh change of clothes, I head across the hall to the nursery. The children haven’t stirred yet, so I don’t disturb them. Instead, I go down to the kitchen to locate Gail.

“Has Christian eaten already?” I ask, watching her as she loads dishes into the dishwasher.

“Yes,” she says. “He and Jason have already left.” My brow furrows. It’s Sunday.

“Left?” I ask. “Where did they go?”

“To the airport,” she says, matter-of-factly.

What?

All kinds of horrible scenarios are going through my head, but I’m determined not to jump to conclusions or allow the Boogieman to take hold of me… without a thorough explanation, that is.

“Why… did they go to the airport?” I say, my voice calmer than my countenance at the moment. Gail turns a questioning gaze to me.

“I thought you knew,” she says, pausing her task. I shake my head as nonchalantly as I can. “He’s going to get some flight time in his helicopter. He said if he didn’t clock some time soon, he might lose his license.”

I don’t let her see me sigh, although my chest feels like it might cave in. I just nod and begin to pour some coffee.

“I smell bacon,” I say, effectively covering my jitters. “Is there any left?”

*-*

“I’m glad you called,” Grace says on the other line. “Would I be terribly selfish if I said that I don’t feel like hosting Christmas this year?”

“Grace,” I scold, “when were you going to tell us?”

“Everybody’s accustomed to coming to my house,” she whines. “I was trying to find the energy and will to go through with it, really I was, but I’m so tired. I just don’t want to do it this year… I really… I just don’t want to.” She sounds like a toddler trying to convince me not to make her go to bed.

“It’s not too late,” I tell her. “We can do Christmas at my house. You are coming, aren’t you?”

“Of course, I am!” she retorts. “It’s just… so much work…” Tell me about it. “I just don’t feel up to hosting it, Ana.”

“Grace, have you spoken to your doctor?” I ask. “Make sure that your medicines are all the right dosages? You should tell him how you feel. You might need some adjustments.” She sighs.

“You might be right,” she cedes. “I haven’t been feeling that great at all lately. It couldn’t hurt to have them check me out, huh?”

“I highly recommend it, doctor,” I press.

“I hear you, I hear you, I’ll call her in the morning,” she corrects me. “Can I bring something? A dessert or something? I did kind of dump this on you…”

“No, just bring yourself,” I say. “It’s an excuse to bake more cookies,” I add. Grace laughs on the other end and I’m happy that we’ve moved beyond truce. I end the call with Grace, suggesting that she take tomorrow off from Helping Hands and let me know when her appointment is going to be, then I call Chuck.

“Hey. We goin’ somewhere?” he asks.

“No, I was just trying to find out if your parents decided if they wanted to stay here or at your house for the holidays,” I say.

“I think Mom’s concerned about being an imposition,” he says. “They might want to stay at the Bainbridge house.”

“Well, that kinda sucks,” I say. “I really would like to see them, and them being all the way in Bainbridge, that’s an hour drive one way including the ferries anytime you want to see them. See if you can convince them to stay at the Crossing. We’ll be having Christmas here.”

“We are?” he asks.

“Yeah, we are,” I say. “Grace isn’t feeling up to hosting Christmas this year and in Val’s delicate condition, I wouldn’t dare spring it on her. And Mia… well, newlyweds and such. Anyway, yes, we’re having Christmas here, with all seven Christmas trees and the ‘come-one-come-all’ spirit that we always have.”

“Any idea how many people?” he asks.

“The door will be open,” I say. “I would hope that I could get everyone to RSVP by Christmas Eve, but the headcount will at least be the usual suspects.” Just as I finish my sentence, I raise my head to see my husband standing in the doorway just gazing at me.

“Well, I guess I’ll see if they want to come and stay, then since there’ll be festivities here anyway,” he says.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I gotta go. Gotta put out the APB’s and get the menu going.”

“Alright. I’ll let you know about Mom and Dad as soon as I do.” He ends the call and I put the phone on my desk still looking at my husband.

“Christmas is going to be here?” he asks casually.

“Yes,” I reply. “Grace isn’t feeling up to hosting this year. She apologized and assured me that she would be here.”

“It’s Thursday,” he says, walking into the office. “Do you think you’ll be able to pull it off by then?”

“You did a birthday party in a matter of a few hours,” I remind him. “I can do Christmas in a few days.” He nods and takes one of the seats in front of my desk.

“You have to know that I would never do that to you,” he says without looking at me. I swallow hard.

“I know,” I reply softly.

“Do you?” he accuses raising his head to me. “I don’t want you to say it because I was angry or because you think it’s what I want to hear. You have to know that I would never do that to you. Do you?” His statement is deliberate, and he won’t take a lie or a half-truth from me.

I didn’t before, truthfully, I didn’t. I wasn’t sure, but I am now.

“I know,” I repeat, firmly. I really do. He turns his gaze from me.

“I’m not angry anymore,” he says without looking at me, “but I’m not happy, either. Part of me wants to shake you and demand that you tell me how you dare think that way in the first place. Even when I ran off to Madrid thinking that you were protecting that asshole over me, the thought of another woman never entered my mind once. Not once! Part of me wants answers. The other part of me doesn’t even want to know. I don’t care how unhealthy it is, how you doctors may think I’m hiding, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t want to know what would make my wife—the woman that I love with every cell of my being—think that I would turn to one of those sub-bots that I used to flog and fuck because she wouldn’t allow me to use her beyond her limits.”

He stands from the chair and begins to pace around my office, his hands on his hips and his expression intense.

“This was my idea,” he says, gesturing wildly into the air. “It was my idea to get some formal guidance to see how we would proceed with our relationship in the lifestyle. Why would I bother doing that if I wanted someone else? And yes, I realize that the dreaded walk down Memory Lane happened after I made the suggestion, but I still went through with the meeting. I was open and honest about the memories and how they made me feel and look what it got me. I mean, really, why even bother bringing it up if my intention was to stray outside our relationship? That wouldn’t only make me an asshole. That would make me a stupid asshole…”

He’s ranting on and on and on, things that he didn’t say in front of Artemis and Savvina. These things were… are meant for my ears only. I think the biggest kick in the stomach for him is that he finds it incredibly unbelievable that my thoughts would even veer in the direction of him being unfaithful. All things considered, it was less about him being unfaithful and more about whether or not I would be able to be what he needed, even though the relationship between the two would eventually be cause and effect.

Was I too concerned about not being able to meet his needs? Was I taking a personal flaw—or what I perceived as a personal flaw—and imprinting it on my husband, i.e. I can’t be what he wants so he’s automatically going to find someone who can?

“I want you. To stop. Shrinking,” he says coolly and firmly. That’s when I realize that I’ve pulled my knees up into the chair and that my body is in such a tiny ball that another body could fit in here with me. I stretch my legs and put them on the floor, clasping my hands in my lap. That’s the best I can do.

“I can’t rescue you right now,” he says honestly. “I’m fighting my own demons at the moment.”

I guess we both are. I can’t blame him.

He gazes at me for a few moments, then he leaves my office.

I won’t cry. I haven’t been wronged.
I won’t blame the Boogeyman. That’s not what this is.
This is my own insecurities biting me in the ass and flowing out of my big mouth, and I just have to deal with the aftermath.

He needs time. I’ll give him time. Once his feelings of confusion simmer down, he’ll find his words. Then, he’ll most likely bite my head off.

And I deserve it.

*-*

“Purple, huh?” I say as I sit on Sophie’s bed, polishing her toenails the same lavender as her hair. She has already done my toes and I was waiting for them to dry as I do hers. I spent the afternoon journaling—mostly berating myself for being an insecure twit and imposing those feelings on my husband—then meditation, then yoga, and now I’m down here in Sophie’s apartment connecting with her on a simple level and trying to find out how she feels about the latest events in her life.

“I’m tired of being invisible,” she says, trying not to wiggle her toes. She painted mine blue and they’ve already dried. “It looks cute, and it’s kind of a statement.” I frown.

“What statement?” I ask.

“We’re… Care Bears.” My eyes widen and I try not to laugh.

“Care Bears?” I ask, fanning the polish on her toes.

“Yes,” she says. I’m Share Bear, because I always share my lunch with my friends when they forget theirs. My friend Cecily is Grumpy Bear… well, just because it fits, and the blue hair looks really good on her. And Lanie is Cheer Bear because, let’s face it, she’s sickeningly cheerful sometimes.”

I’m glad to hear that she has friends who were willing to stick through this crazy idea with her. I was worried about her fitting in after I had to make a couple of appearances at her school.

“And what color is Lanie’s hair?” I inquire.

“Pink,” she says. “It’s very pink.” I nod.

“How did their parents react to the new look?” I say.

“They didn’t flip out like Dad did!” she declares in the insolent teenagery way. “It’s not even permanent!”

“It just surprised him, Sophie. I think it’s really cute,” I say.

“Thanks,” she says. “I’m going to do it again when it wears off.” I don’t respond. I decide to change the subject.

“So, how do you feel about your mom?” I ask. I don’t know if anybody talked to her about it.

“You mean about her going to jail?” she asks. I nod. “I don’t know, Ana. I want to feel sad about it—she is my mom after all—but she tried to sell me to her drug dealer. What did she think was going to happen to me? I’m a kid, but I’m not stupid. I know he was going to try to do all kinds of creepy things to me or make me do creepy things. And whenever I talk to her, she acts like it didn’t happen. So, how am I supposed to feel about her going to jail?”

“I don’t know, Sophie,” I tell her. “My mom did sell me to someone… or at least she sold my silence, and I still haven’t forgiven her. So, this is one time I don’t have the answer for you.”

“At least somebody understands me,” she says. “I feel like a horrible person because I don’t know how I feel about her going to jail. She’s my mom, I really don’t want her to go to jail. But geez, she tried to sell me! Or trade me. That means that she really has a serious problem if she didn’t see anything wrong with that.”

“That’s true,” I say. “How do you feel about her getting help and maybe wanting you to come back and live with her?” Sophie shakes her head.

“I would beg the judge to let me stay with my dad,” she says finitely. “I’ve been doing some studying on my own and I know that the judge listens to kids of a certain age. I’m hoping that I’ll be old enough that by the time my mom is eligible for parole, the judge will listen to me.”

“The judge listened to you before, Sophie,” I tell her. “I’m sure he’ll listen to you again.” She twists her lips.

“I hope so,” she replies. Then she falls silent for a few moments.

“What is it, Sophie?” I ask.

“This is my first Christmas with Dad since… I don’t know how long. I’m just wondering how it’s going to go.”

“Well, it’ll be different for us this year,” I tell her. “We normally all meet at Grace’s, but this year, everybody’s meeting over here.” She raises her brow.

“Everybody?” she says, her voice a mixture of hope and dismay, if you can say that. I give her a sympathetic glance.

“You know the door is always open at Christmas for anyone who wants to stop by.” She sighs.

“That means that Marlow will probably be here, and he’ll bring one of his scatterbrains,” she says with distaste. I shake my head.

“You may want to lighten up a bit on his dates,” I tell her. “It only serves to piss him off when you give them a hard time.”

“They’re such easy targets,” she says. “You know why he’s with them. Do they have to be so obvious?” I raise a brow.

“Why is he with them?” I ask.

“Either they want to meet you or Uncle Christian, or he wants to make out,” she says matter-of-factly, and she’s right—most likely the latter.

“So maybe now might be the time not to pay so much attention to Marlow and his dates and start paying more attention to your own interests,” I say. I want her to focus on something other than the unattainable young man who visits us from time to time. It would be a long time before he would ever even be slightly interested in Sophie, and she’s certainly sabotaging any possibility of that even in the distant future with her behavior. He’s four whole years older than her—well, nearly four. She’d probably be somewhere around twenty-one before he would even consider looking in her direction, and there’s a whole lot of years between 13 and 21. Give it up, Sophie.

“Yeah, well,” she says flippantly. “I suppose there’s no way I can get out of Christmas,” she laments. I raise my brow and purse my lips.

“Not unless you want to tell your father that you don’t want to be around Marlow and why,” I inform her. She scoffs.

“Please,” she says in that surly teenage voice. “He had a cow over purple hair. This would probably give him a coronary!”

I don’t bother asking exactly what this is. We’ve all had girlhood crushes on some unattainable older boy. It’ll pass.

Once our toes have dried and we’ve talked about everything from her beloved High School Musical and Zach Efron to the fear of being a high school student herself next year, I hear the two-way come alive.

“Ana,” I call into the air, and I hear Minnie’s cooing voice.

“Well, that’s my cue,” I say, uncrossing my legs from the lotus position and putting them on the floor.

“How does the system know when to call you?” she asks, removing the tissue from between her toes. “Like, does it buzz every time the babies cry or when does it not buzz or what?”

“Barney set it up,” I tell her, then I realize that she doesn’t know who Barney is. “Christian’s IT guy. It’s some algorithm where it picks up a certain sound or tone of the babies, but only from the nursery.” We’re going to have to revisit, because it’s picking up some other things.

“Can I come with?” she asks, hopeful.

“Sure, you can, come on.”

Keri has already made it to the nursery when we get there, and I’ve already told Gail that I was on my way and that Sophie is with me. Sophie adores baby time. Like everyone else, she doesn’t know which baby to grab first. Luckily, Keri has made the decision and retrieved Minnie, so Mikey finds himself in Sophie’s arms. Already the ladies man, he coos and smiles at her, reaching for her face as she talks to him.

We spend quite a bit of time playing with and feeding the babies—more like monitoring them while they eat. Feeding time is a bit messy these days as the babies eat more with their hands, grabbing their sippy cups on their own and dropping more food on the tarps under their highchairs than they get into their mouths. It’s mostly a success, though that ends in bathtime and a nap for my two food critics.

We find that it’s early evening when we’ve finished with the twins and it’s time to go in search of sustenance. There’s nothing cooking when we get to the kitchen and when I locate Gail, I find out why.

“Christian and Jason are still at the office. He says they’re going to be late,” Gail tells me as she’s going over the house schedule for the coming week. Still at the office? It’s fucking Sunday! Why the fuck is he at the fucking office? And why the fuck didn’t he tell me he was going?

He’s avoiding me.

Try though I might, I can’t hide the mix of anger and disappointment that wells up inside of me. From now on, if I want to know where my husband is—if I want to know—I’ll ask Gail. At least her husband tells her what’s going on.

“Ms. Solomon decided not to start dinner until she talked to you,” Gail adds, reading my expression. “She thought you may want something quick and simple…” since my husband won’t be eating with me. I swallow hard and straighten my back.

“Sophie?” I say, turning to my Sunday companion. “Would you like to come and help me reacquaint myself with my kitchen?” Sophie’s face lights up.

“Yeah!” she says, like I just gave her a Christmas present. I nod and we walk into the gourmet kitchen.

“Sophie and I are going to play ‘chef’ this evening, Ms. Solomon,” I say, trying to hide my ire with my husband behind and painted-on smile. Ms. Solomon picks up immediately.

“Okay,” she says, “just call me if you need me,” and she leaves the kitchen to me and Sophie.

“So, I say, retrieving my chef’s apron from its hiding place where it has set way too long, “do we want something easy or complicated?” I hand Sophie another apron.

“Complicated,” she says, almost reading my mind and taking the apron. She ties it around her little body as I contemplate what we’re going to create. “Aunt Ana?” she says, getting my attention. I quickly turn my head to her. She variates between “Ana” and “Aunt Ana” at will.

“Hmm?” I reply, acknowledging her.

“Boys are stupid,” she says, looking up at me with big, understanding blue eyes that almost make me cry. I sigh heavily.

“Yes, they are,” I say as I retrieve a mixing bowl.

My spirits lift somewhat after Sophie and I giggle like schoolgirls creating a fabulous homemade chicken pot pie with all fresh ingredients including crust from scratch. It’s not really complicated on the cooking scale, but it’s detailed enough to keep us both occupied. As an addition to our comfort food, I make my garlic butter cheesy mashed potatoes and nearly cry when I taste them, longing like crazy for the simpler time when these were always in the fridge, and understanding a little more why Christian would wax nostalgic about memories of his most recent past.

The girls—Gail, Sophie, Keri, and I—all have dinner at the dining table, careful to keep the conversation light, nothing too serious to bring down girl time. When dinner is done, we load the dishwasher, put the food away, and go to our separate corners.

After I spend some time doing yoga, I take to Facebook and decide to create my first post…

“Your past is always your past. Even if you forget it, it remembers you. ― Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye”

I close Facebook so as not to be tempted to overshare. The sun has long since gone down and still no word from my husband. Deciding to turn in early, I stop in my babies’ nursery like I always do to check on them. I find Minnie standing in her crib holding on to the edge, sleepy-eyed, but awake. I close the door and take her from her crib. She’s unsettled for whatever reason, so I take her to the window seat and rub her little back.

I make the mistake of looking over at the bridge. I’m not looking for an Audi, I’m just looking at the bridge, wondering how many husbands are crossing it on the way home to their families; or how many families are returning from Sunday dinner at grandma’s house, going on to prepare for the busy week; or how many wives are driving across the bridge, leaving their families and never to return again.

God, that’s dismal.

I look down at Minnie in my arms and she has fallen asleep. I didn’t really need to remove her from the crib to put her to sleep. I just needed to hold her in my arms. For the moment, I’ve officially had enough of wearing my big girl panties. I’ll be a big girl tomorrow. Right now, I just want to cry.

I cradle my sleeping baby girl in my arms, hold her close to my body, and weep.


CHRISTIAN

I’ve buried myself so deep in work that I didn’t realize how late it was until Jason tells me that his wife wants to know if we’re coming home before midnight.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “Old habits are hard to break. I got some of the results back from the drug tests along with some of the reports from the departments and I just got lost.” He furrows his brow at me.

“Do you need to talk?” he asks.

“About what?” I counter. About the fact that I’m one man, er, woman down because Ros chose now to have a pissing contest? I could just fire her, but she hasn’t taken much if any vacation time all year. So, the work falls on me and Lorenz and, well… I’ve got other things on my mind, too—like the goddamn Pedophile and that cunt ghostwriter of hers, and…

“We have,” I protest. “We were talking about Christmas, which is going to be at the Crossing this year, by the way.” Jason frowns.

“Thanks for telling me!” he scolds.

“I was just told today,” I defend. “And it’s only going to be family and friends anyway.”

“People are going to be coming and going. You never know where the paps are hiding. We have to be informed about these things.”

“It slipped my mind,” I say, removing my glasses and rubbing my eye.

“Now I know something’s wrong,” he says. I frown and glare at him.

“Why are you saying that?” I ask.

“Because anything to do with security, your twins, and your wife never slips your mind,” he says. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, but just know that I know. And it’s more than just this work shit.” He waves around the room at my office. “Let me know when you’re ready to go,” he adds as he walks out of my office. I’m only glad no one else knows me as well as he does.

Except my wife. At least I thought she knew me… well enough to know that I wouldn’t go running into the arms of another woman because she won’t do the hard stuff. For fuck’s sake, Anastasia…

I push those thoughts out of my head and shoot off an email to HR to have the handful of people who tested positive out of my building no later than Tuesday. I’m happy to find that the vast majority follow the rules. Those who can’t will have bad news from Santa.

In accordance with my own rules, I CC the email to my wife. It’s like I told Ros before she flew the coop—if five people come back with a positive test, that’s five people that I can get rid of and get some drug-free talent in here, which is what I want. Nine came back with positive tests ranging from marijuana to meth, and I don’t even have all the results yet. I can get them out of here before they fuck anything up if they haven’t already. I’d say that’s a big win for the company so far.

I fire off a few more emails and let Jason know that it’s time to go. We have to be in court in the morning at 10, so I don’t want to keep him away from his wife and daughter for too long…

What about your wife…?

I head to my piano and a snifter of brandy like I did last night and let my melancholy tickle the ivories. My music is solemn—disappointed, like my mood. I haven’t had dinner and surprisingly, I’m not even hungry. After I don’t know how many hours, I realize that I’m really tired, though, more tired than I expected that I would be.

I want my damn bed. I haven’t slept in it and I’m tired and I want it now.

I close my piano, finish my brandy and head to my bedroom.

She’s not here, and the bed hasn’t been slept in. It’s 3:00 in the morning, and she’s not here. She’s not in the sitting room either, and the throw from the bed hasn’t been disturbed. There’s no evidence whatsoever that she’s even been in this room. I check her yoga room and she’s not there either. I would have seen her when I came from the elevator if she had been in here.

I begin to check every guest room except the room that Harmony is sleeping in. Maybe she’s feeling the same way she felt when I left for Madrid and doesn’t want to sleep in the room by herself.

No luck.

I’m trying to keep myself from panicking. I know that she wasn’t in the gym when I passed by. Her office? Her parlor? The aquarium? The spa?

Nothing.

Where the hell is she? I can’t find her anywhere! Now, I am starting to panic. Was I too hard on her? Has she left me? No, she wouldn’t leave without the children…

The twins! Of course!

I don’t wait for the elevator. I take the stairs two and three at a time to the first floor, bolting through the empty family room, kitchen, dining room and past the main entry, then up the main staircase to my twins room. I’m out of breath and I have to pause for a moment to calm my breathing before I open the door.

When I do, holding my breath, the room is dark… too dark. I scan the room and after adjusting my eyes to the darkness, I see Mikey fast asleep in his crib. I look over at Minnie’s crib and it’s empty.

My daughter is gone. Where is my daughter… and my wife?

A momentary rush of panic flows through me as I note the empty rocking chair and no light from the en suite. Just when I about to go full DEFCON 1, I see a shadow in the window seat.

Oh, shit.

I slowly walk across the room and I’m relieved and dismayed at the same time to find my wife fast asleep in the window seat with my daughter cradled contentedly in her arms. Her head is lying back on the wall and she’s scrunched up in the window seat with the baby in her arms. The moon is shining on her face, and her tears have left many treks behind.

I don’t know how to feel. I feel like I’m the one who has been wronged because I was wrongly accused, but she’s been crying.

I shake my head and reach for my baby to put her in her crib, but my wife stirs—not enough to wake, but enough to tighten her grasp on Minnie. My daughter whimpers a bit, but suckles her binky a couple of times and she’s out again… and so is my wife.

I’ll have to leave them here… or take them both.

I gather my wife in my arms, and she must’ve cried herself into sheer exhaustion, because all she does is breathe those crying shuddering breaths, clings to her baby, and falls immediately back to sleep in my arms. I look back at Mikey once more, who hasn’t stirred, and carry Butterfly and Minnie to our bedroom.

Once I lay her down, she feels the softness and loosens her grip on Minnie. My daughter rolls out of her mother’s arms and begins to stir and fuss a bit.

“Sshhh,” I soothe, rolling her onto her belly and patting her back as she sucks her binky. In no time, she’s fast asleep again. I look over at my wife, fully dressed and curled up so tightly in a ball that she looks like she’s eight years old.

She’s shrinking in her sleep. I can’t stop her from shrinking in her sleep.

I put the blanket over her and Minnie and go to my en suite. I stand in the shower for several minutes, allowing the heat to wash away the stress of the day. Once I begin to feel relaxed again, I pull on a pair of sweats and climb into bed. Neither of them has moved from the positions I left them in. I lie in bed on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think about the thing that kept me away from home all day. I eventually fall asleep in that position.

I only sleep for a few hours and I’m awake again. Jason and I are headed for court this morning, I need to get out of bed. I stretch, and my hand brushes over my baby girl. I look over at her and her mother. It’s hard to believe they haven’t moved for hours—neither of them. Butterfly’s still curled in a ball and Minnie is still resting peacefully on her belly. I carefully slide out of bed so as not to wake them and go into my dressing room. I quietly dress for the day, my tie draped around my neck and my shoes, cufflinks, and suit jacket in my hand and sneak quietly out of the room.

I finish dressing just before I descend the stairs and as I’m coming through the hallway towards the kitchen, I can hear Jason talking to Gail.

“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “Something must’ve happened when he and Her Highness went out on Saturday. He’s been avoiding her ever since.”

“I knew it had to be something,” I hear Gail reply. “I think she asked me three times where he was. She never knew. I made the mistake of telling her that you guys had gone to the airport—she turned white, I mean alabaster white. She tried to downplay it, but she was terrified for a minute until I added that Christian was getting some time in Charlie Tango.”

“Well, hopefully it’ll blow over soon…”

“I don’t think so,” Gail interrupts her husband. “You’ve seen him like this before. He’s cantankerous and unapproachable, and that was before Saturday. Whatever’s going on between them, she can’t talk to him, and he can stay this way forever.”

“I know, but before, he didn’t have her. And as much of an asshole as he is, I know he doesn’t want to lose her.” He pauses for a moment. “Do you think I should let Sophie come to the sentencing? She’s young, but she’s mature for her age.”

There’s another pause before Gail speaks.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she says. “That’s her mother, and seeing Shalane hauled away in cuffs is probably not a good idea for her. You’ll talk to her when you get home.” Jason scoffs.

“When I get home—that’s rich. With him hiding in that office until the late evening hours, I don’t even know when that’s going to be.”

“Well, tonight, you may need to have one of the other gentlemen sit with Mr. Grey while he hides out, because your daughter needs you. He can neglect his family if that’s his choice, but you, sir, need to be here.”

I’m not neglecting my family! We had a disagreement and we haven’t been speaking as much for one day! That’s not neglect!

“I’m sorry we haven’t had that much time together,” Jason says. “First Australia, and now this.”

“You’ll just have to find a way to make it up to me,” Gail replies suggestively, and I hear the unmistakable sound of kissing.

I’m not neglecting my family. If I feel slighted, I have every reason to take some time to myself and get my mind together. What the hell is this neglect shit?

“You’ve seen him like this before. He’s cantankerous and unapproachable, and that was before Saturday…”

I’m not neglecting my family… am I?

I take a few steps back through the hallway, then double back, allowing my soles to announce my presence before turning into the dining room and heading for the kitchen.

“Are you ready?” I ask Jason as I enter the room. “Good morning, Gail.”

“Good morning,” she replies, smoothing her hair. “Coffee?”

“Yes, black please,” I say.

“I guess so,” Jason finally responds with a shrug. “I wouldn’t even go if I didn’t have to, but you know… Sophie…”

“Yeah, I know,” I say, taking a welcome sip of my coffee. I look down at the plate in front of him. “That’s a hearty breakfast you’ve got there,” I say, noting the healthy serving of what looks like chicken pot pie and… are those…?

“No, I’m packing this for lunch,” Gail says, placing a cover over the plate and placing it into a thermal bag. “I made one for you, too, if you want it. Ana made a homemade, deep-dish pot pie last night and there’s enough to feed an army, and of course, those mashed potatoes…”

Ana? Butterfly cooked last night? And the potatoes?

“Yeah,” I say, trying to be nonchalant, “We’ve got a busy day ahead of us today. Brown-bagging is probably a good idea.” Gail throws a knowing look at Jason which I ignore while taking another gulp of my coffee and looking at my phone. “Is her hair still purple?”

It takes a moment for him to catch on.

“I’m used to it now,” he says. “Worse things could happen.”

“I’m glad,” Gail says, “because she’s talking about touching it up.”

“Purple again?” Jason laments a bit. Gail nods. “Well, like I said, worse things could happen.” He takes the thermal bag from his wife and kisses her. “See you later, love,” he says. I finish my coffee and walk out behind him.

*-*

The courtroom is fairly empty. There’s no one here at the moment except the courtroom staff, minus the judge, me and Jason, and the district attorney. I can’t imagine going forth into something that is this life-changing and no one even shows up to support me.

The way that I understand it, Shalane has agreed to come to court and turn herself in, taking a plea on a lesser charge with the hopes of getting a lighter sentence. Jason sits in his seat looking straight ahead of him. I can tell that he’s lost in thought. He’s probably thinking that his entire life and the life of his daughter balances on what’s going to be said in this room today.

The doors open behind us and in walks Shalane and what appears to be her attorney. She’s dressed more modestly than I’ve ever seen her, but she looks very thin and pale. I can’t tell if she’s thinner than she was the last time I saw her or not, but she’s thin. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, making her face look even thinner, skeletal even. Jason raises his gaze when he hears the doors open and looks back. Their eyes meet and Shalane looks horrified. Jason just shakes his head and faces the front again.

“She’s still using,” he says. I look back at her and then at him.

“How do you know?” I ask. I know that meth users look frail anyway, but how would he know that she’s not just frail from using before?

“She looks like death,” he says, turning his gaze to me. “I haven’t seen her since the last time that we were in court because the few times that she requested visitation, I had to work, so Gail took Sophie to see her. She looks worse now than she did then, and I know that she was using then.”

He turns his gaze to the front of the courtroom again and Shalane stops right next to us.

Shalane's meth mouth in chapter 91

“Where’s Sophia?” she whispers harshly. When she bears her teeth at him, they look awful. I don’t remember them looking that awful the last time I saw her. She looks like she’s been chewing tobacco and never brushed her teeth. I turn my gaze away from her. She looks horrible.

“Not here,” Jason says without looking at her.

“You know as well as I do that I may not see her for a while. Why wouldn’t you bring her so I could say ‘goodbye?’”

Because he probably didn’t want her to see you looking like this! Jason doesn’t dignify her with a response. Her attorney urges her to take her seat. She throws a hateful glare at Jason right before the bailiff announces the judges arrival and Shalane scrambles to her place at the defendant’s table. Everyone is seated and Shalane’s case is announced. After the attorneys introduce themselves, the judge speaks.

“It is my understanding that in the case of the State of Washington vs Shalane Deleroy, the defendant wishes to enter a plea, is this correct?”

“It is, Your Honor,” Shalane’s attorney says.

“Is the office of the District Attorney aware of this plea?”

“We are, Your Honor,” the D.A. replies.

“Is the office of the District Attorney in agreement with this plea?

“We are, Your Honor.” The judge examines some papers in front of her.

“It is my understanding that the charges have been amended from conspiracy to distribute to possession of a controlled substance, is that correct?” the judge asks.

“Yes, Your Honor,” the D.A. confirms.

“Very well. Ms. Deleroy, would you please stand?” The judge says and Shalane gets to her feet.

“Do you understand the charges against you, Ms. Deleroy?” the judge asks.

“Yes, Your Honor,” Shalane responds.

“Okay. In the matter of the State of Washington vs Shalane Deleroy, on the count of possession of a controlled substance, Ms. Deleroy, how do you plead?”

“Guilty, Your Honor,” she says after a short pause.

“Counsel, you have reached a settlement?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” the D.A. says. “The people have agreed to a sentence of 18 months in jail followed by five years’ probation.” That’s all? She tried to sell a child, for fuck’s sake! But of course, she took a plea. Gotta love the justice system.

“Ms. Deleroy, do you know that by pleading guilty you lose the right to a jury trial?” the judge asks.

“Yes, your Honor,” she replies.

“Do you give up that right?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” she says flatly.

“Do you understand what giving up that right means?” the judge asks.

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you know that you are waiving the right to cross-examine your accusers?” the judge continues.

“Yes.”

“Do you know that you are waiving your privilege against self-incrimination?”

“Yes.”

“Did anyone force you into accepting this settlement?” the judge inquires.

“No, they didn’t.”

“Are you pleading guilty because you in fact were in possession of a controlled substance on the night of March 19, 2014?

“Yes, I was.”

“Very well, Ms. Deleroy, you are hereby sentenced to 18 months in jail, with review in a year, followed by five years’ probation, on condition that you complete a court-approved drug rehabilitation program.

“You are hereby remanded and without bail to the custody of the sheriffs of Kent county to be delivered for commitment to the Washington State Department of Corrections where you will be confined until final execution of this judgment and sentence prescribed by law. This court is now in recess.”

The gavel falls and we watch as the bailiff cuffs Shalane. She doesn’t resist or perform like she has been known to do. Her attorney says something to her as she’s being cuffed, and she just nods meekly. Moments later, she walks out of the courtroom with the bailiff without a word or looking back.

Jason is still deep in thought as we leave the courtroom and walk down the courthouse steps in the frigid cold. We walk in silence to the car and once inside. He starts the car and just sits there for a moment.

“Jason?” I say.

“Thank you for coming with me today,” he says.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. There’s a long pause.

“I loved that woman once,” he says, almost nostalgically. “At one time, she and Sophie were my whole life. And then, it seems like out of nowhere, we were at the other end of the spectrum. I was devastated when we got divorced. How does something change so drastically between two people who love each other?”

I can see his reflection in the rearview mirror, but he’s still looking straight ahead. I don’t have an answer to his question and I’m not certain if it’s rhetorical or not.

“Work it out, sir,” he says, and his eyes shift to mine in the reflection of the rearview mirror. “Whatever it is, whatever has you and Ana at odds, work it out and work it out fast. Don’t let it simmer. It only takes a minute to lose everything you love.”

We gaze at each other for a moment in the mirror before he puts the car in gear and heads toward GEH.

*-*

“It’s been a bit of a commotion today, sir,” Andrea says. “Mr. Holstein has called several times. I hear a hint of desperation in his voice. Allen has asked to be notified as soon as you arrive as he indicated that GEH is most likely looking at five lawsuits for wrongful termination…”

“From the ex-employees who failed the drug tests?” I ask, bemused.

“Yes, sir, it looks that way,” she replies. I scoff a laugh.

“Bring it on,” I say. “Tell him that I’m here and to bring the files and names of those losers who want to sue me.”

“Yes, sir,” she says and begins to dial the phone.

I walk into the office I left not 12 hours ago, Jason’s words ringing in my head to fix whatever’s wrong between me and “Ana.” He never calls her Ana, so either he was highly distracted or very serious. I remove my coat and rub my hands together. They’ve gotten a chill just from the car to the door. It’s really cold outside.

“Andrea, will you get me a cup of coffee, please?” I say into the intercom.

“Yes, sir,” she replies. I fire up my computer and of course, many emails greet me—responses from the department heads I’ve been harassing about projects that should have long since been started or even finished. I take several minutes to respond to them and give further directives. Then I can’t help but feel a bit of anger towards Ros for skipping out on me at such a crucial time, but I push the thought out of my head. It is what it is, so she gets one gimmie, but that’s it.

“Well, hello, Chris. So nice of you to join us,” Al says, breezing into my office in that way that he does.

“Don’t give me shit, Forsythe, I had things to do this morning,” I warn. “What’s up?”

“Well, first of all, Chocolate is walking on air that we finally got the ball rolling on SEEKNID,” he says. I raise my gaze to him.

“You told him that?” I ask.

“No, he told me,” he says. “He’s been getting calls about algorithms and the way the program is supposed to work in an ideal setting. He’s got an appointment to come down next Tuesday for his input and approval.”

I must’ve missed that email in the thousands that I’ve been reading over the past several days.

“Well, it’s good to know that someone around here is doing their job,” I point out. “So, what’s the angle—I drugged their coffee?”

“No,” he replies. “They’re actually claiming ADA protection.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” I say. “This is a joke, right?”

“Well, no. Under the ADA…”

“I know how the ADA works!” I snap. “Title I to be exact. The moment I decided that this would be a drug-free workplace, I educated myself on that.”

“Good, so I don’t have to explain it to you. The revolutionaries are trying to sue you for not making reasonable accommodations for their ‘illness.’ According to the lawsuits, as an employer, you should have provided counseling and cessation or rehabilitation programs instead of firing them.”

“And this is why I had to go all Rambo on my fucking company,” I lament, “because the inmates are running the fucking asylum.”

“There’s only eight of them, Chris,” he says.

“All eight of them are suing?” I ask.

“All eight of them have mentioned it,” he replies.

“And if only one of them is successful in this suit, employers everywhere will have to keep drug addicts on their payroll,” I respond. “This section of the ADA is supposed to protect people like Chuck, who had a bad spell but has cleaned their life up and is moving on, so that their prior mistakes don’t follow them to the grave—not strung-out or social-using opportunists who got caught. They’re not suing me because they’re sick. No, they’re suing me because they failed random drug testing, which is my right to perform as an employer, and I’m going to be performing it more often.

“No one came to me and said, ‘Sir, I have a problem I need treatment.’ They went out and partied the night before or the weekend before and they dropped dirty. So, if they have money to burn, let them go on and sue me, because I’m taking this all the way to the fucking top. Any lawyer with an ounce of sense knows this isn’t going to go anywhere. There’s no judge in America that’s even going to hear this. So, all I want to hear from this point on about these cases is how soon they’re going to be thrown out of court.” He twists his lips and nods.

“Christmas is at your house,” he says.

“Yes,” I say after a pause.

“When were you going to tell me?” he asks.

“Ana just decided this weekend,” I say. He raises a brow at me. “What?” His face falls to a slight frown.

“Nothing,” he replies.

“Out with it, Forsythe,” I demand. Everybody seems to be able to see that something is wrong, and I haven’t said a word or even behaved differently that I know of.

“Nothing,” he says again, “if you don’t see anything wrong with what you just said, neither do I. Have you started planning for February or are we just flying by the seat of our pants?” I frown.

“What’s happening in February?” I ask and his eyes widen.

“Green Valley? Smote the bastards? Hello?” I shake my head.

“I’ve been a little distracted with company business,” I reply.

“Well, undistract yourself!” he demands. “This is like one of the most important things that has ever happened in Jewel’s life!”

“Jesus Christ, I know,” I say, irritated. “Just give me definite dates and I’ll have travel plans ready.”

“Well, you may want a guest list, too, because it looks like you’re going to have a full-on entourage.” I frown.

“Entourage?” I ask. “That’s a bad idea. That screams of publicity, something we really don’t need.”

“Well, I’m going, and I know that if I’m going, Chocolate is going to be there.”

“We really don’t need legal representation for this, Al…”

“Well, then it’s a good thing I’m not coming as legal representation,” he interrupts. “I was around for this shit, Chris. I may not have been right there in her face, and I may not have been able to be by her side, but I was there. I felt everything that she felt and when she got back to Montesano at the tender age of 16, I cried with her while she told me what happened. I vowed that if it took my last breath, I would see these motherfuckers get what’s coming to them and I’m. Going. To Vegas.”

His brown eyes are piercing through me at the moment and I’m pretty certain he’d deck me if I tried to stop him. I sigh heavily and drop my head.

“I’m sorry,” I say, not able to give him any explanation as to why I was so insensitive of his emotional investment in all this. He’s silent for a moment.

“What’s going on with you, Chris?” he asks, and when I look up, he’s closing the door. I drop my head again.

“There’s so much going on in my life right now,” I admit. “We went to Australia to decompress and I come back to a shitstorm of motherfuckers not knowing what they’re doing. I’m putting all of my time and energy into trying to figure out what’s going on before my company collapses, and now I get the news that bastards are trying to sue me because I’m not letting them do drugs on the job.

“Ros is testing all of my patience. She took nearly three weeks off right at Christmas with no notice and right in the middle of a crisis because she’s pissed! She’s pissed because I decided to do random drug testing which sniffed out eight people so far, and because I’m turning the company upside down, but not to her specifications. It bothers the fuck out of me that Lorenz is floating around just as cool as you please while I’m running around here pulling out every strand of my hair.

“My wife has vowed not to come to GEH anymore because she feels like nobody respects her, and Ros was bordering on insubordination the day that she walked out of here.”

“She said that?” Al interrupts. “She said she wasn’t coming back because they don’t respect her?” I nod quickly and widen my eyes.

“Yeah, she did,” I confirm. Al scoffs, then chuckles. “What’s funny?” I ask with a frown.

“She’ll be back,” he says with a knowing smile, “and when she does, some fire’s gonna fly in this bitch.” I eye him speculatively, then roll my eyes.

“I’ve got another Ana to meet now?” I’ve got a feeling that’s the last fucking thing that I need.

“Oh, this Ana doesn’t have a name, but you’ve probably met her already. Tell me—if I’m not overstepping—has this surly, distracted, inattentive, bear-like, solemn persona made its way to your home yet?” He’s gesturing to me in the most belittling manner as he rattles off this list or unattractive adjectives that describe me perfectly these days.

“No, you’re not and yes, it has,” I confess. He twists his lips.

“Um-hmm, and how is Butterfly taking that?” he says, his brow furrowing. “I notice you haven’t used that particular term of endearment in this entire conversation.” Jesus, I haven’t? Is that what Jason was talking about?

“Things aren’t well,” he says. “There’s other things going on.”

“And none of them stemmed from this, right?” he presses. I don’t know how to answer that. We were planning to see our BDSM mentors anyway. When we got there, I made a confession and she accused me of wanting to be with other women. That had nothing to do with what’s going on here and neither did our going to see our BDSM mentors…

But my confession and the feelings surrounding it did.

“So, while you’re searching for an answer to that question, riddle me this. Have you ever seen Jewel get to the end of a situation that she couldn’t handle or that had just worked her nerves to the very end and flip the fuck out? I mean, completely turn into somebody you didn’t know?”

Flynngate and the Treehouse Trauma both come to mind immediately. Then, of course, there was the Crouching Tiger moment when the Pedophile put her hands all over me in front of a room full of people at my parents’ house. And let’s not forget holding a chopping knife to the Pedophile’s throat at the breakfast bar at Escala, and that cold woman that took over my kitchen the entire afternoon. I get a chill just thinking about it…

“And that…” Al says, pulling me out of my daydream and pointing a finger at me, “tells me that you have seen her in this state. And when she blows, be prepared for somebody to walk out, especially if her flamethrower is aimed at our little ‘hot shot in heels.’”

“Fuck,” I hiss. The last thing I would want to have to do is choose between Ros and my… Butterfly. I would really hate to lose Ros, but that’s a no-brainer. Al stands.

“Whatever fire is in the hole at home, fix it, Chris. You and I both know that although this is your pride and joy and you built it with your bare hands, none of this…” he gestures around the room, “is going to be worth anything to you without Jewel.”

Without Jewel? What does he mean by that? She’s not going anywhere! It’s not that bad…

Is it?

I sit there pondering just how bad the situation must be for Jason and Al to check me about it without even talking to my wife, and I’m surprised to see that Al has left and Jason has taken his place.

“It’s late,” he says. “I figure you might want your lunch.” He’s standing there holding the plate his wife made for me this morning along with some utensils. Food from the hands of Butterfly. I move to take it from him

“Thanks,” I say. He hesitates.

“It’s still cold,” he says. “You want me to have Andrea heat it up?” I shake my head and take the plate.

“No, I’ll do it, but ask her to get me something to drink, please.”

“What do you want?” I think for a moment.

“Cranberry juice and sparkling water on ice.”


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

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~~love and handcuffs