Grey Continued: Season 5 Episode 26

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

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

Season 5 Episode 26

CHRISTIAN

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

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

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

“No, I would say not,” I reply.

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

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

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

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

“Who else knows?” I ask. She shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never be over losing the baby…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**Your chariot awaits. **

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

“Where’re you going?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When?” I ask.

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

Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garrett swallows hard at the analogy and sighs deeply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ANASTASIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you think so?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this isn’t about me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary purses his lips, then embraces her gently.

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

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

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

Oh, yeah… Marilyn and Gary.

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

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

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

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

“Although what?” Gary asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s been asleep all this time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he says, looking at the large sandwich and trying to figure out how to attack it. He finally gets a bite into his mouth and groans his satisfaction. I nod, put the ingredients away and clean up my mess.

“I’d like to continue our conversation,” I tell him, but I’ll wait until you’ve finished your lunch. When you’re ready, I’ll be in our sitting room… unless you’d rather have the conversation somewhere else.” He pauses.

“No, the sitting room is fine,” he says. I nod and head towards the stairway.


A/N: In case you didn’t see it, there is a short one-shot of Gary and Marilyn’s point of view… mostly Gary’s. You can find it here: https://butterflysaga.wordpress.com/2020/04/19/gary-returns-after-the-breakup/ 

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

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

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

You can join my mailing list on the “Contact Me” page. Just click the link and it will lead you to a form to join the list.

~~love and handcuffs

 

 

Grey Continued: Season 5, Episode 6

No email this time. Still training for my promotion. I’ll post as often as I can.

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 6

ANASTASIA

It’s my babies’ first birthday!

I’m walking on sunshine making mental plans for their first birthday party tomorrow. I’ve counted the guests and I’m going through my phases of Better Homes and Gardens again, only this time, it’s the birthday edition—if there is such a thing—and I’m not depressed or running from dread. I’m so filled with glee that I could just burst. There’s no GEH or Helping Hands today as I have to be sure that everything is just right for Minnie and Mikey’s birthday.

My guest list is all set—small but large for a birthday for a couple of one-year-olds, but who cares? Nothing could ruin my mood today, but surprisingly, something pretty damn morbid made it a whole lot better. The television is playing in the family room and I’m listening to the local news channel. I’m sitting at the breakfast bar working on the menu for tomorrow’s party when something on the news catches my attention.

“Within the last hour, we’ve learned that Washington State Penitentiary inmate and former Seattle socialite Elena Lincoln has suffered a massive stroke…”

I rubberneck to the television and feel my body floating into the family room. I don’t even remember getting out of my seat. I watch as a picture of an extremely much older-looking Elena Lincoln flashes across the screen. She didn’t look like that when she went in. I know she didn’t. Her natural hair had grown out, and it was brown. This woman, though she looks much older, has blonde hair… and she’s smiling… and she’s outside! And she looks like she’s wearing makeup! Where did this picture come from?

I’m pondering what the fuck is really going on in that goddamn prison when this bitch is supposed to be in maximum security and she’s able to get her hands on hair dye and makeup… and she’s fucking outside! I can’t see the surroundings behind her or if she’s wearing prison garb, so she could be in the exercise yard for all I know, but hair dye? And makeup? Tupac couldn’t even get a decent haircut when he was in jail!

I’ve missed the entire newscast lost in my wondering, and I scramble for the remote to rewind live TV. I’d die of suspense waiting for the story to come back on.

“Ana, what is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

I hear Gail’s voice, but I’m too focused on getting back to the story that I don’t even respond to her. I get back to the point where I see She-Thing’s picture on the screen and stop the rewind just before the story begins. I listen to the last bits of a story about the homeless people under the viaduct before the story begins to play again.

“Within the last hour, we’ve learned that Washington State Penitentiary inmate and former Seattle socialite Elena Lincoln has suffered a massive stroke. Lincoln was administered a routine flu shot when shortly thereafter, she began to show symptoms of a stroke. Prison officials indicate that Lincoln complained that she was dizzy, so she was instructed to lie down. Her symptoms became increasingly worse until she became unresponsive…”

“Is she dead?” I ask aloud. The words shocked me coming out of my mouth, but I don’t regret it. I want to know if the Pedo-Bitch is dead!

“Lincoln appears to have been in a coma since Wednesday, but has regained consciousness a short while ago…”

The Bitch is stomping her feet like Rumpelstiltskin while I attempt to appear unaffected.

“Although she is awake, Lincoln appears to have suffered extreme paralysis as a symptom of the stroke. At this time, she is unable to walk, move, or speak. There is currently no information on if the condition is permanent.”

Well, that’s something. The Bitch settles a bit.

“Questions arose as to whether Lincoln could have had an adverse reaction to the flu shot. Toxicology reports tested for the flu vaccine and revealed that she was given the same strain of the virus given to all the inmates and staff of the prison. Reports indicate that there was no way the flu shot could’ve caused a stroke.

“Lincoln will be moved to a minimum-security prison where a special team will oversee her care in hopes of a recovery.”

“She had a stroke from a flu shot?” I ask aloud.

“That’s impossible,” Grace says, and I forget that she was in the room. I look over at her.

“Not that I really care what happens to the bitch,” I tell her. “To be honest, it would have been good news had they said she was dead, but a stroke from a flu shot? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Well, they clearly said it couldn’t have been caused by the flu shot,” she replies. “It has to be coincidence. Maybe she got some really bad news, or she had high blood pressure or something. There has to be an explanation.” She shrugs.

There is.

It suddenly dawns on me—my husband’s words a few days ago when I asked how things went with Greta Ellison.

“Nobody’s dead… except the book, and it won’t be back.”

Nobody’s dead except the book, and it won’t be back. That is so ominous, but I guess he’s right. The book, indeed, will not be back.

“Damn,” I say, gazing at the television, the news moving on to another story. “Karma’s a real bitch.”

“You look relieved,” Gail says, her brow raised when I turn to look at her.

“I am,” I reply. “There’s no use in lying. That woman is pure evil, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t consumed her from the inside out well before now.” Gail twists her lips.

“You’ll get no argument from me,” she says matter-of-factly, “the bitch shot my husband.”

Once I get over the initial shock of Elena’s fate, I walk around for the rest of the day on a damn cloud. I consider whatever happened to that bitch a necessary evil. She’s one miserable person who was hell-bent on destroying the lives of potentially dozens of families. I wholeheartedly believe that the world would be a better place without her, and I don’t regret those feelings. I only regret that the stroke didn’t finish her off.

Second only to my two darling bundles of joy, it’s the best present I’ve gotten in a year.

My husband didn’t seem surprised.

“Did you hear about She-Thing?” I ask when he gets home.

“I sure did,” he says, coming into the family room as I’m decorating for the birthday party. “I wish the bitch had died.”

“I said the same thing,” I reply. “Maybe we should ease up on that before we bring some bad Karma onto ourselves. “

“No problem. I don’t want to talk about her anyway. So, a month ago, Santa Claus shit all over the house. Now, we’ve got Minnie and Mickey Mouse droppings.” I glare at him.

“First of all, you better be glad my children aren’t down here to hear you cursing or I’d find some way to make you pay for it, and I don’t mean a swear jar. Second, I’m having a great time, so don’t you come raining on my parade, Christian Grey!” I’m pointing at him with a Minnie Mouse wand made of a black glitter Minnie head with a pink glitter bow on it attached to a wooden dowel.

“Careful where you shake that thing!” he warns. “I don’t want fairy dust all over me!”

“Fuck you, Dr. Killjoy,” I declare.

“Oooh! Who needs the swear jar now?” he teases, capturing me in his arms and tickling me, his fingers madly manipulating my ribs.

“Christian, stop!” I giggle helplessly.

“What? What was that? I don’t think I heard you…”

“Stop or I’ll pee myself!” I warn. He stops tickling me and pulls me into his arms.

“Well, we don’t want that,” he says, kissing me softly.

“You seem in a better mood today,” I observe, closing my eyes as he peppers gentle kisses on my lips, my neck, and my jaw.

“It was a better day,” he says between kisses. “Somebody came in there and put the fear of God into my staff and they’ve been getting their shit together.”

“Mmm… have they now?” I say, still absorbing his tender kisses.

“Mmm-hmm,” he says, gently tasting my skin.

“Sheesh, get a room,” Jason says, coming from the mudroom and through the family room.

“We don’t need a room. We have a house,” Christian retorts, “and you’re in it.”

“Along with a very impressionable teenager,” he remarks. Oops, he’s right. Sophie should be around any minute to help me with the hors d’oeuvres and sandwich fixings for tomorrow.

“Look who’s talking,” I say as Christian releases his embrace. “You come in kissing Gail every day.” He pauses as he reaches his wife to do just that.

“I kiss her,” he concurs, “I don’t maul her in the middle of the family room. We’re not making out amongst the Disney paraphernalia. Hello, Love,” he says, turning to his wife and kissing her sweetly.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Christian says, forcefully pulling me back into his arms. “I’ll maul my wife whenever and wherever I damn well please… but I will be mindful of the teenager.” He looks at me again and pops a fast, hard kiss on my lips eliciting a giggle from me.

“So, what’s going on at the Ivory Palace?” I ask my husband. “Finney and Ros finally get their asses in gear?”

“Among other things,” he says. “Everybody’s waiting for the Queen of Hearts to come breezing into the office… ‘Off with their heads!’” he jests, still holding me close to him while ceasing his kissing. “It’s one thing to have one hardnosed boss, but two… and then whatever gets pass me or—heaven forbid—you, is now being picked up by the executive team who are also afraid of having their craniums severed.” He raises a brow.

“Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere!” I declare. “That’s all we needed in the first place. Why the fuck did I have to come down there and put some fire under these assholes? And what’s with the Queen of Hearts analogy? That woman was insane. I’m not that bad.”

Queen of Hearts

“Well, get used to it because that’s what the ‘peasants’ are calling you,” he says. “And the Queen of Hearts may have been insane, but she was powerful. Insane or not, if she said a head came off, a head came off, and you proved that by sending Mosele home for a short ‘vacation’ to ponder his position. And let’s not forget the fact that you came breezing in there that Monday morning in this fierce red dress daring someone to test you. And those who did were made quick examples—not down the line, but in that same meeting. I think these people know who their dealing with.”

“Must we refer to them as peasants?” I ask. It sounds so unpleasant and elitist.

“If they can call you ‘Queen of Hearts,’ I can call them ‘peasants.’ And trust me, they have a plethora of unsightly names for me, so I’m being kind.”

Jesus, I would prefer not to have the company have the us/them mentality, but unfortunately, it looks like it may be what we need to get things done.

“Speaking of the executive team, how’s Ros doing with her dilemma?” I ask.

“I have no idea,” he tells me. “I don’t want to be in her personal life that way. While I truly do sympathize with her familial woes, I’m sure that I would prefer not to be in her proverbial bedroom that way. I can’t empathize with her at all because she made a vow to one woman when her heart was with someone else. I can’t speak to what she should have done or what she should do now. I can only say that it’s not my arena.”

I try not to frown. Ros is his second in command, so he very well should be concerned about her familial woes. However, I guess as the psychiatrist between us, I’m going to have to keep an eye on the situation myself. However, his reaction—though very calm and PC—is not getting past me.

“What?” he asks, obviously noting my contemplation.

“You have some very distinct opinions about this,” I say. He raises a brow. “I live with you. I’m married to you. I fuck you. I can read between the lines,” I say, answering his unasked question. He adjusts his posture, about to make a point.

“I can clearly say that’s something that I would never do,” he says. “When I asked you to marry me, that’s where I wanted to be. I had the choice to stay in my lifestyle and be with whomever I chose whenever I chose—that’s not what I wanted. I wanted you. I want you. So, the concept of wanting someone else after I said that I wanted you is something I can’t fathom. But you…”

He pauses. What the fuck? What about me?

“I’m with you. I love you. I know you well enough to know that this is where you want to be. That whole Westwood bullshit was a blip in the radar for a few different reasons, but I know this is where you want to be. The thought that you would marry me while you still had unclear feelings for someone else only to have those feelings resurface years after we said our vows—I would be murderous. I wouldn’t even know how to handle that.

“So, right now, while I am concerned about Ros, I have to compartmentalize this whole thing. What she did was selfish and cruel, and now she’s trying to find the easiest way out of the situation she created. She totally created this monsoon, and now she’s trying to get out of it without getting wet. And where the fuck does that leave Gwen?”

He’s beginning to get angry, but I can see him visibly trying to shake off his anger with Ros.

“I see,” I say, calmly. “So, your empathy strikes again, but this time, it’s striking with Gwen. How does that feel?”

He raises his gaze to me and I’m looking at him with soft but inquisitive eyes, nothing confrontational. He couldn’t empathize with Ros because he would never do that. The only thing that he could do is put himself in Gwen’s shoes, and it’s infuriating him.

“Pretty pissed off,” he says, his voice calmer, “which is why I can’t talk to her about it. When her personal shit interfered with her job, I got involved. Where it doesn’t interfere with her job, I’m out of it.” He shakes his head. I nod and put my hand on his cheek.

“I think that’s best,” I tell him. “I’ll handle it. Like you said, as long as she does her job, right?” He closes his eyes and nods, leaning into my hand.

“Thank you for not getting mad,” he says. I scoff a laugh.

“You almost had me for a minute there, Grey, but luckily, I learned to listen,” I say with a wink and a smile. We hear the clearing of someone’s throat, and we turn to see Marilyn standing there.

“Um, I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she says. Christian laughs. I turn to him.

“What?” I ask.

“She just did a ‘Jason,’” he says with mirth. My brow furrows.

“A ‘Jason?’” I ask. Christian cocks his head at me.

“If we’re in the midst of a conversation—or anything else—when Jason walks into the room, what does he do to get my attention?” I roll my eyes.

“You mean besides tell us to get a room?” I say, turning to Marilyn. “You’re not interrupting, Mare, what’s up?”

“I got a call from Alex. He said he tried to call you twice but no luck.” I begin looking around for my phone. Where is my phone?

“Hell, I don’t know where my phone is. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. He said that you were looking for a final background check on Jade Goldwin. He emailed it to you,” she says. Oh, yeah, her.

“Thanks, Mare. Did he say that there was anything to be concerned about?”

“Not to me,” she says with a shrug. “I would think if there was cause for concern, he’d ask me to get you to the phone, so I would say not.” I nod.

“I agree, but I’ll look at it anyway,” I say. She nods and smiles before heading back off towards the elevator.

“Jesus, has she lost more weight?” I was hoping he wouldn’t notice that, but she has. My silence is enough for him. “Butterfly, this is not good. She’s really going to hurt herself if she doesn’t stop this!”

“I know, I know,” I lament. “I’m the doctor, remember?” He gazes at me for a moment.

“Her parents aren’t here,” he says, firmly. “She doesn’t have a significant other anymore. I hate to do this, but it’s you, baby. It’s all you.” I roll my eyes.

“I know, Christian, I’m just trying not to ambush the girl right now…”

“You may not have a choice. She’s slowly killing herself!”

“She just got back…” I excuse.

“Nearly three weeks ago!” he counters. I deflate. He’s right. She needs to eat.

“I’ll talk to her,” I say.

“You may need to do more than that,” he cautions.

“Like what?” I recounter.

“I don’t know, but you may need to do more than that! This is serious! She’s really hurting herself right now.”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I say, hoping to halt the conversation. Jesus, I’m not the one starving myself for crying out loud. I just have to figure out what to do.

“So…” he says, stalling, “what’s with this Jade Goldwin?” Holy cow, that’s the way to change gears.

“She’s coming to the party,” I tell him. “She’s in Maxie and Mindy’s Mommy and Me class, and she has a son the same age as Mindy. I just wanted to vet her before she came to my house and head her off if necessary.”

“Oh? How did you meet her?” he asks. Now he’s interested. Good grief.

“Maxie and I were shopping, and we bumped into her at the Marketplace.” He nods. I know he wants more information. I roll my eyes for the umpteenth time. Where the hell is my phone?

“Keep doing that and they might get stuck that way,” he says, swiping his phone and touching the screen. I’m about to roll my eyes at him again when I hear the muffled sound of our song playing. I look around and back at him, and he’s holding his phone up, showing me that he’s calling me. Where the fuck is my phone?

It goes to voicemail and he calls it again… and again. It took four times for me to find the damn thing between the sofa cushions. How the hell did it get there?

I swipe the screen and the battery is nearly dead. It’s a good thing I found it, or I may have never found it.

“Don’t you have a case or a clip or something for that?” he asks.

“No, Mr. Grey, I keep it in my purse, and I didn’t go anywhere today!” I snap.

“Touchy,” he teases.

“Annoying,” I counter in the same sing-songy voice. I open my email and click on the pdf attached.

“Yeah, she’s Jane Q. Housewife,” I say, scrolling through the document. “Twenty-nine, married, four boys just like Maxie said.”

“And her husband?” Christian asks.

“Sells insurance for a local company,” I tell him. “Small beans.” He nods.

“Who’s coming?” he asks.

“Just Jade and her youngest,” I say, closing my phone. “Maxie vouches for her, so she can’t be all bad.”

“Who all is coming?” he asks.

“All the grandparents, the godparents—Mia bowed out this time, the Scooby Gang… except for Gary, Luma and Herman and the girls, Marlow’s bringing Maggie and probably a date…” Sophie will love that, “… and our newest guest Jade and her little boy, English.”

“English?” Christian says in horror.

“I didn’t name the kid,” I say, with a shrug.

“Dear Lord,” Christian says. “That poor kid is going to be teased incessantly.”

“You don’t know that, Christian,” I scold.

“Baby, I’ve traveled the world and I’ve never met anybody anywhere named English,” he points out.

“Okay, so he has a unique name,” I argue, “It’s not wild or crazy, like Fallopion or something. It’s just different.”

“You’re so sweet,” he says, stroking my cheek. “He’s going to get teased. Whoever came up with that name, that’s grounds for divorce.” I gape at him.

“You’re kidding, right?” I ask in horror. He raises a brow.

“Am I?” he asks, impassively.

“You’re saying that when we have another kid, if for some reason you’re indisposed and I come up with a name that you don’t like, you’ll divorce me?” My voice rises to a squeak on the last two words and I think hearing it come out of my mouth makes him realize just how ridiculous he sounds.

“Well, no, but you wouldn’t name our child something ridiculous like English!” he quips.

“And what if I did?” I say, putting my hands on my hips.

“Then there would definitely be some papers filed somewhere,” he says, “maybe not for divorce, but we would be changing that kid’s name. And anyway, it’s a moot point because we sat down and picked our children’s names together, months before they were born. So, why are we arguing about a kid who isn’t even ours?”

I twist my lips and fold my arms. The argument does seem a tad ridiculous.

“You were the one who started talking about divorce,” I pout.

“Yeah, and you were the one to actually take it literally,” he retorts. “Divorce you? Over a name, even? Seriously?” Asshole.

“Be useful and grab that garland,” I pout.

“Hey, wait, I’m not getting roped into decorating,” he protests.

“Oh, yes, you are!” I whirl around on him. “You came in here pissing on my happy place then we’re talking about everything from Elena to Queen of Hearts to Ros to Westwood to Marilyn to some random kid named English to divorce and dammit I want my happy place back!” I say the entire sentence without breathing and he just gazes at me.

“I got your happy place right here,” he remarks, matter-of-factly and I roll my eyes for the 101st time today.

“Grab the damn garland, Christian.”

*-*

It’s Saturday, the day that we meet with Artemis and Savvina, but that’s not until much later. Right now, Minnie and Mickey Mouse decorations are exploding all over my dining room and family room much like yuletide exploded all over my house for Christmas. I’m definitely in the mood to celebrate.

There are two giant Number One balloons to greet you at the door. One has a Mickey Mouse head and the other, a Minnie Mouse head. There’s also a Minnie and Mickey sign that reads, “Welcome to the birthday clubhouse.” Once they don their Minnie or Mickey Mouse party hats, the kids get to munch on “Daisy’s garden vegetables,” “Goofy grapes,” or various melons cut in the shape of Mickey’s head and garnished with blueberries and pineapple. There’s always a way to get kids to eat healthy if you make it fun.

They also get to build ham and turkey sandwiches out of bread, turkey, ham, and cheese all cut in the shape of Mickey’s head with choices of lettuce, tomato, pickles, and condiments as well—or they can choose to have Mickey shaped chicken nuggets or a hot dog from the “Hot Diggity Dog” bar. There are games and bubbles and prizes to keep them occupied, but let’s face it—who’s not going to have fun in Mickey Mouse land?

I was smart enough to know that “Hot Diggity” dogs and chicken nuggets wouldn’t cut it for the parents. So, we have the option of what I call “Chicken Bacon Crack Pinwheels,” Rueben pinwheels, quinoa salad, and seven-layer dip, along with the aforementioned fruits and vegetables. The drinks were either “Pirate Punch” or “Sea Water” from the Pirate Mickey drink bar, and various Mickey and Minnie Mouse cupcakes are spread around the house, along with the Mickey/Minnie birthday cake on the kitchen counter.

Sophie has help me with most of the same-day preparation, like she always does. She wants to be a chef or a caterer, and she loves preparing the food and decorating the house. She’s so grown up for her age that I’m a little afraid that she might be missing her childhood. With a mother like Shalane, though, she’s probably already missed it. She’s seen too much for her age, and once you see certain things, you just can’t unsee them.

Sophie shed her purple tresses shortly after her last altercation with Marlow’s most recent date on Christmas, and after a visit to Miana’s, Jason is glad to see her enter with shiny, beautiful, billowing blonde waves. She actually looks a little older, but it’s most likely because that purple hair made her look so much younger to me.

She gleefully helps me finish setting up for the twins’ party which, as we all know, is really a celebration for the parents, but I don’t care. My little brother will be here. Max is bringing Mindy and I even told her that she was clear to bring Jade to the party since they’re such good friends. I should definitely get to know her if they’re that close.

Celida and Mariah will be here. At the tender age of 6 and 8, they love parties for whatever reason. Maggie’s coming, too. I don’t know if Marlow will be bringing a date this time, but I almost wish that he wouldn’t. It usually ends miserably for him and for Sophie. Until she gets over this crush that she has on him, she’s not going to behave. She’s a woman scorned at 13, and most women scorned don’t even know how to behave as adults!

Mia has decided to sit this one out, but the grandparents and godparents will be here, and of course, our resident waif, Marilyn. I hope I can get her to eat some cake or something before Christian declares martial fucking law!

The guests are now arriving and surprisingly, Maxie, Phil, and Jade arrive before Al.

“Forgive me,” Jade begins, “if I seem a little out of place today. I can’t believe I’m here—this place is absolutely astonishing. And the decorations—dear God! Did you do this all yourself or did you have help?”

“Well, both, actually. I did it myself, but I had a little help, too. My biggest helper was this young lady right here…” I snag Sophie as she’s walking by. “This is my resident party helper, Sophia. Sophie, this is Jade, and you know Maxie and Phil.”

Sophie smiles and waves shyly.

“Hi,” she says sweetly.

“Hi, Sophia,” Jade says, “or do you prefer Sophie?”

“Sophie’s fine,” she says. Jade smiles.

“This is my son, English,” she says. English is older than the twins, but he manages a smile and a wave from his mother’s arms.

“English,” Sophie says, as if testing the word, “I’ve never heard of that as a name before.”

“He’s named after his paternal grandfather,” she says. “My husband insisted.”

“Oh,” I say, “so it’s a family name.” She nods.

“I would have chosen something normal, like Chad, or Blake, or Worcestershire,” she says, rolling her eyes, and I know the last one was a joke, but with a name like English, you can’t be too sure.

“It’s unusual,” I say, “but it’s nice.”

“Thank you,” she says. “It does sound distinguished at the very least.” I see my husband and decide to poke a little fun at him.

“Christian, come, meet our guest,” I say loudly so that he can’t ignore me or try to get away. He raises his brow at me because he knows what I’m doing, but I don’t care.

“This was my other helper,” I say to Jade when he comes over to us. “He hung a piece of garland or three.”

“A piece of…” My husband trails off in mock horror and I pretend to ignore him.

“Christian, this is Jade and her son, English,” I say, introducing them.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” he says with a nod of his head.

“Likewise. Thank you for having me,” Jade replies cordially.

English is an unusual name, isn’t it, Christian?” My husband throws a side gaze at me. “It’s a family name,” I tell him. “He’s named after his grandfather.” Still grounds for a divorce, Sir?

“Is that so?” Christian says. “Tell me, what is the origin of that name.”

“I have no idea,” Jade says. “As ridiculous as it sounds, I’m assuming it’s English! I can’t even derive a nickname from that, so I just call him Eddie.

My knees buckle and I’m literally choking on nothing. Christian catches me as I’m going down and makes an excuse to get me away from Jade. He takes me over to the pirate bar and I sit down.

“I’m fine. I’m fine. I just wasn’t ready. It caught me off guard,” I excuse.

“Okay, so you can just sit here until you’re back on guard,” he says, kneeling in front of me.

“Really, Christian, I’m fine,” I assure him. “That’s just the last name I expected to hear at my children’s birthday party.”

“Well, maybe Maxine should tell her friends to do some homework before she brings them around,” he states.

“Oh, please,” I lament, “aren’t I considered enough of a prima donna to the public without people having to know my life history before they visit me? Besides, what would we do, tell her to change her son’s nickname because of my ex-boyfriend? Just let it go.”

I raise my head just in time to see Maggie giggling with Sophie, and a few moments later, Marlow enters… with a date, and not the girl from Christmas. Jesus, what was that, a month ago?

“You may need to talk to him,” I say to Christian while gesturing to Marlow. He looks over his shoulder at Marlow, then back at me.

“What?” he asks

“The girls,” I whisper harshly. “He brings a different girl to every event.”

“He’s young, Butterfly,” he excuses. “He’s not attached to anybody and I know he practices safe sex.” I know that too, but…

“He brought one girl to Mia’s wedding in September; another one to Thanksgiving; another one to Christmas; and now another one to the twins’ birthday. That’s four girls in five months! You don’t see anything wrong with that?” Besides the fact that it’s totally tormenting Sophie, it just doesn’t look good… and it’s not smart!

“He’s a young boy sowing his oats like young boys do. He’s no dummy. He won’t get caught up in a bad situation. I don’t see the problem.” I cock my head at him.

“Oh? So, if Michael brings a string of girls home from the ages of 15 to 18, you wouldn’t have a problem with that?” I ask.

“No,” he says matter-of-factly. Is that so, Mr. Grey? I fold my arms and square off.

“And if Mackenzie brings home a string of boyfriends?” I say, and just let the words hang in the air. His face blanches and he begins to look a little ill.

Mm-hmm, that’s what I thought. What’s good for the goose is going to be good for the gander in this house, Grey. So, if you don’t want to see your little princess doing it, don’t think I’m going to allow little Master Grey to get away with it either.

“Talk to him,” I say, firmly before rising from the breakfast bar and going back to the dining room.

I greet my guests and assure everyone that I’m okay, chalking my coughing spell up to an unexpected bout with my own saliva. Marlow introduces me to his date—Tasha, I think her name is. It doesn’t matter. I’m sure that I won’t see her again after today.

Sophie and Maggie have taken to getting the children situated and playing “Pin the bow on Minnie” when Al finally decides to grace us with his presence.

“Sorry we’re late,” he says, and that’s all he gives me by way of an explanation, not that I need one. He and James are both as loose as a noodle and look like fresh, new daisies. I’m sure sex was involved.

“You nearly missed your godchildren’s party, you sex fiend,” I say, my voice low.

“Don’t be so dramatic,” he says waving me off. “You haven’t even opened presents yet.” I roll my eyes. “Who’s the bird with Maxie?”

“That’s Jade,” I tell him. “She’s in a Mommy and Me class with Maxie, which they probably had to miss to come to this party.” He looks at me.

“You sound a little snippy,” he observes. I glare at him.

“Jealous,” I say, honestly. “Maxie got married before me; had her baby before me; and now she’s moving on to new friends without me. Yeah, I’d say I’m just a little snippy.” I look over at Jade and Maxie having a conversation with Val.

“Jade calls her Max,” I say with disdain. “Her son’s name is English.” Al frowns.

“English? That’s his name?” he asks. I nod. “That’s odd. Where did that come from?”

“Apparently, it’s a family name. And get this, his nickname is Eddie.” Al literally winces at the mention of the name. “Yeah, my sentiments exactly, only a little more graphic.”

“Well, she seems like a nice enough person,” he says.

“She is,” I admit. “I just resent the fact that she’s apparently taking my place.” Al scoffs.

“Darling Jewel, she may be friends with our Maxine, but trust me—nobody can replace you.” He puts his hand on my shoulder.

“You’re sweet,” I tell him as we go to join the party.

Everything is going well, and the children are having a really good time playing games, opening prizes, and blowing bubbles. I’m with Minnie most of the day, standing her on her feet and coaxing her to walk with me, which she does. She’s doing very well keeping her balance and standing for several moments until she realizes that she’s standing, or she moves too fast to get to some new toy or adventure. Then she’s back on her hands and knees again. I think it’s adorable and, sure enough, after a few hours of guidance, she’s toddling around more than she’s crawling. Christian gets a few videos on his phone since I’m detained with entertaining. We’re just finishing singing “Happy Birthday” to the twins and I’m cutting and serving cake when I hear it.

“Is constantly twirling your hair an art form or can anybody do it?”

Oh, dear God. I raise my gaze to see Sophie, once again, facing off with Marlow and his date. Tasha looks at Sophie, appalled.

“Is this little brat talking to me?” she asks Marlow while pointing at Sophie. Marlow appears to be trying to smooth things over while Sophie stands there looking like she had nothing to do with Tasha’s current mood.

“No, Marlow! Does she speak to any other adult in this room that way?” Tasha shoots. I know what that means. Marlow is 17, so this girl is probably 18, and by pointing out that she’s an adult, she most likely just turned 18 and she’s smelling her adultness. I sigh.

“Nice one, Sophie,” I lament quietly.

“I don’t care,” I hear Tasha say. “In our house, children know to stay in a child’s place. Someone apparently forgot to teach her that!” She is furious. She throws a murderous look at Sophie and walks away.

“Seriously, Sophie?” Marlow hisses. “Jesus Christ, what’s going on with you?” and now, he’s livid, too as he goes after Tasha. I take this opportunity to make my way over to Sophie.

“Sophia!” I say quietly, “seriously, you’re going to have to stop this. Marlow is going to despise you if you keep this up.”

“I wasn’t trying to tease her,” she excuses, “it just slipped out. She stood there the entire time twirling her hair around her finger. Jesus, is she that flighty or is it a nervous tick?”

“And if it wasn’t her hair, it would be her shoes, or her dress, or her voice. This is getting out of hand!”

“What does it matter what I say?” she says. “He still going to do her.”

“Sophie!” I exclaim appalled.

“They’re so obvious! How can he not see it?” My question is how can you see it so clearly? “How can he even like these girls? They’re scatterbrains. They have the attention span of a goldfish. None of them even show up again after the first time!”

That’s what I said, but that could have a lot to do with you.

“Well, for whatever reason he likes them, he likes them, and you’re going to have to stop being rude to them. For one thing, it’s not very ladylike at all. And for another thing, I defended you when that girl passively aggressively insulted you at Mia’s wedding. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see how she made you feel although Marlow was clueless. What ground do I have to stand on right now when you’re behaving the same way she did? And third, and most important…” I put my hand on her shoulder and hold her gaze.

“I’m very fond of you, Sophie,” I say. “I consider us good friends, but I don’t like for anyone to insult the guests that come to my home and you do that repeatedly with Marlow’s dates. If they lash out at you first, I completely understand your need to defend yourself. But when you say disparaging things against them for no reason, that’s unacceptable behavior, Sophie.”

This is the first time that I’ve had to scold Sophie and I really don’t like it, but it’s necessary. She shrinks a bit as my words sink in.

“I really didn’t think about it that way,” she says. “I still think they’re flighty little thots, but I don’t want to make you guys look bad. I’m sorry, Ana.” I nod.

“You might want to apologize to Marlow and his date,” I tell her. She grimaces.

“I can’t do that,” she squeals quietly. “He already hates me, and I couldn’t face him right now… or her. Please don’t make me do that I’ll die!” She says the last part all in one breath, and I really believe she would just keel over and die if she had to face Marlow right now.

“Well, I can’t and won’t force you to do anything, Sophie, but you might want to think about your behavior and what damage has already been done.” She sighs heavily as if I’ve just pardoned her from the death penalty.

“Sophia!”

I discover that I may have spoken too soon. Gail’s voice interrupts our conversation and she is none too happy as she comes marching over to us.

“Sophia, is it true that you said something unkind to Marlow’s date?” Gail accuses. Sophie’s mouth falls open and she looks in horror over at Marlow. When I glance at him, he and his date are looking in our direction like they’re waiting for the ax to fall. Oh, this is just great.

“I can’t believe it,” Sophie says incredulously, her voice three octaves higher than normal. “He snitched on me?”

“So, that means that it’s true,” Gail accuses, a statement not a question.

“I was just kidding around, Momma Gail,” Sophie excuses. “It’s not my fault she can’t take a joke.”

“That’s because she didn’t find it funny,” Gail says. “You can’t say mean things about people and think it’s okay. It’s very unbecoming, and you owe them an apology. You march over there right now and apologize.”

As if Sophie’s face could show any more horror, she glares over at Marlow and his date then turns her gaze back to Gail.

“No,” she says, calmly, her voice resolute. You could knock Gail over with a feather right now.

“Excuse me, young lady?” Gail says in disbelief.

“I’m sorry, Momma Gail, but I’m not going to apologize. He already won. He snitched on me for hurting his girlfriend’s feelings, and now they’re staring at me waiting to see what kind of trouble I’m going to get in. So, he won. I’m in trouble, I already know it, but I’m not going to apologize.”

Sophie stands firm on that sinking boat that she’s not going to apologize. To already be convicted of the crime, she pled her case very well for a 13-year-old kid. Right now, Sophie would rather run naked down the I-5 than to go over there and apologize to Marlow and that girl. Gail looks at her stepdaughter and knows that it’s a lost cause to try to make her apologize.

“The party is over for you, young lady,” Gail says firmly. “Go to your apartment. You’re grounded for the rest of the weekend.” Shit, there goes my helper.

“Yes, ma’am,” Sophie says dutifully, and marches past Gail without looking back at me or at Marlow and his date. I roll my eyes before Gail turns around to look at me.

“What?” she says. “She was wrong. She’s going to turn out to be a bully if we don’t nip this in the bud.”

“I highly doubt that,” I say, “but don’t be too hard on her. You know, teenage angst, sibling rivalry… She was probably just giving her ‘brother’s’ date a hard time, nothing more.” I do the finger quotes around the word brother knowing damn well that it’s more than that, but she’s not a bully. She’s lashing out because she’s jealous.

“I don’t know,” Gail sighs. “I hope you’re right.” She walks over to Marlow and his date and says something to them. I turn away and head over to the food table. I can’t help but empathize with Sophie again. Even though she was clearly wrong, he told Mommy on her. There’s no better or more thorough way to drive home the fact that he looks at her as nothing more than a child than to tell Mommy that she said something wrong. There’s no way in hell Sophie was going to apologize after that. She’ll most likely gladly take the grounding and hide under her bed for the next two days.

“Trouble in the happiest place on earth?” My husband’s voice breaks me out of my thought process as I fill my plate with a few pinwheels.

“I just lost my party helper,” I say, taking another pinwheel. “Sophie was poking fun at Marlow’s date, something about twirling her hair on her fingers, and Marlow didn’t like it. Apparently, he told Gail and now Sophie’s grounded.” Christian frowns.

“He snitched on her?” he says. I raise a shocked gaze at him.

“That’s exactly what she said!” I say, surprised.

“Well, yeah, me and Mia used to do shit like that to each other all the time—me and Elliot, too—but we didn’t snitch on each other.” I smile and shake my head.

“I think it might be a different dynamic here, Christian,” I say before I realize that I’m saying too much.

“How so?” he asks, and before I get the chance to trip over my tongue, he continues. “He considers her a little sister and that’s just how she’s acting, like a bratty little sister trying to embarrass him in front of a girl. But hell, he snitched. He broke the sibling code.” I frown.

“There’s a sibling code?” I ask incredulously.

“Well, apparently not with him,” Christian says. “I know there are some siblings who’ll squeal if you left the top off the mustard, but in our family, Vegas rules applied—what happened outside of Mom and Dad’s knowledge stayed outside of Mom and Dad’s knowledge.”

Well, that’s scary. Stuff was going on right under their nose and they didn’t know it. That’s probably why Pedo-Bitch could so easily get to Christian and almost to Elliot. Everything was so hush-hush.

At this point, I don’t know who’s side I’m on.

“Yeah, well, I’d say the lines are drawn in the sand now,” I say, eating a pinwheel.

“I’d say you’re right,” my husband concurs.


CHRISTIAN

“When you are in a submissive role, your duty is to serve. However, it cannot only be your duty. It must be your desire. You cannot force this relationship–it has to be something that you want… crave or desire, even. Some soumises are born, some are cultivated. Either is fine, but this must be something that you want to do for yourself, or you’re wasting your time.”

Pussycat and I are sitting in our mentors’ den. The sessions with them and our attendance at the Munches have been highly rewarding and very informative. Pussycat has done lots of research on her own along with several assignments given to her from Savvina. She has brought several questions to our sessions, and today’s question has to do with tasks.

Tasks are generally set in a 24/7 D/s relationship, which ours is not. However, Pussycat points out that she can see how having a task or even several tasks would help her to maintain a submissive mindset. It doesn’t mean that she is releasing any of her independence. It just means that she’s acknowledging that I’m her Dominus and she, my soumise—and that in that role, she has the attitude of service, which is why Savvina is speaking on the duty of a soumise to serve.

“Service is a relative term,” Savvina continues. “It may mean that you perform direct duties required by your Dominus or it may not. It may also mean that you make yourself available for what he needs, or that you assist him with a skill or ability that he may not have. The possibilities are endless, and the two of you will set the guidelines for how you will serve him or what your specific tasks will be, if any.” Pussycat looks at me.

“Are there any specific tasks that come to mind that you think you may require of me?” she inquires. I ponder for a moment.

“None come to mind immediately,” I admit, “but I’m certain that we’ll come up with something.”

As we’re speaking, the coffee service arrives and is placed on the table in front of us. Savvina dutifully prepares two cups of coffee—one for Artemis, and then one for herself. She prepares Artemis’s cup with cream and sugar, and then her own before she sits back to enjoy the coffee. Pussycat’s and my cup remain empty.

I immediately see this as a test from our mentor if Pussycat is willing to serve—literally, although I’m not sure this is what she meant when she asked about tasks and service.

Noting that Savvina didn’t pour any coffee for us, Pussycat pauses only for a moment before retrieving the silver coffee pot and pouring a small amount into her cup. She replaces the coffee pot and takes a sip of the coffee. Then she retrieves the coffee pot again and fills my cup nearly to the brim. She adds a bit of cream and sugar before stirring it and handing me the cup and saucer, which I graciously accept. She then prepares her own cup and relaxes in her seat to enjoy her coffee.

“Why did you pour your cup first?” Savvina asks.

“I didn’t pour my ‘cup’ first. I poured a tasting in my cup,” Pussycat responds.

“And why would you do that?” Savvina asks. “Why would you pour coffee for yourself before pouring coffee for your Dominus?”

“Because I didn’t make the coffee, and it wasn’t made in my home,” she says. “How he takes his coffee is dependent on the brew, so I had to taste it to know what to put in it.” Savvina raises a brow and looks at me.

“Does she normally serve your coffee at home?” Savvina asks.

“Never,” I reply. “As of late, I’ve been leaving the house very early–before she wakes. It’s not something that I require her to do. Our staff makes sure that the coffee is prepared before either of us wakes. I sometimes leave so early that I just get coffee at the office.”

“How do you know how he takes his coffee if he’s never home or you’re not awake when he drinks it?” Savvina asks Pussycat, and she’s at a loss for words. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that she was affronted.

“If you are serving your Dominus, you should never drink or eat before he does,” Savvina says, and crosses her legs definitively. Pussycat is silent for a moment, her brow furrowed, and just as Savvina begins to speak again, she interjects.

“I disagree,” she says, crossing her legs as well. Savvina’s brow rises again.

“And why is that?” she prompts Pussycat.

“If I make my own coffee, then I want it strong and black. If he drinks my coffee, he wants it black, too. It’s been that way since the first cup of coffee he drank at my apartment more than two years ago. Coffee in restaurants or at the office are a good, robust blend, but not as strong as mine—as is the coffee made by my staff at home. In that case, he’ll take a little creamer, but not sugar. Designer coffees usually have a flavor of their own, so he won’t take anything in those either, unless he opts for a shot of espresso. If coffee is particularly weak, it’s nothing but English tea to his palette. So, he takes it with cream and sugar. So, I beg to differ with you, because if it’s coming from a strange pot, unless he’s pouring his own coffee, I don’t know what’s in the pot. So, I have to taste it before I serve him.”

Touché.

“Well,” Savvina says, “The teacher has been duly chastised.” She takes a sip of her coffee. “This is a perfect example of service being a relative term and the two of you setting your own guidelines for your definition of service. You came to me with a question about tasks and service, and you ended up educating me on one of the most important aspect of the D/s relationship—that it’s totally a la carte, and that each couple writes their own rules and guidelines for their relationship.” She turns to me. “You should be proud.”

I look at Pussycat, who’s unsuccessfully resisting the urge to smile. I reach over, take her free hand, and kiss it gently.

I am, very proud.

*-*

“I’m going to stop breastfeeding.”

I’m shocked to hear this announcement come from my wife as we’re riding into GEH on Monday morning. She lives to breastfeed our children and now she wants to stop?

“May I ask why?” I probe. She drops her gaze.

“There are so many reasons to stop,” she admits. “I’m more active outside of the home, with GEH and all, and even without GEH, I’m going to be more active with Helping Hands. We’re going to Vegas in a week and we don’t know how long we’re going to be there. I can’t go to the bathroom and pump every few hours and I don’t want to risk leaking all over my clothes. Most importantly, our children are drinking out of sippy cups and eating solid food. They just turned a year old. It’s time.” I twist my lips.

“You don’t seem too happy about it,” I tell her. She sighs. Breast-feeding was how and when she bonded most with the children. Now, she’s not going to be doing it anymore.

“We all have to be weened in one way or another,” she says with a shrug. “We might as well start doing it now before I start suffering from separation anxiety.” I take her hand and kiss it gently.

“I’ll be here for you,” I say. “And if I’m honest, I’m being a little selfish, too. Watching that nectar drip from your breast when you’re full and you come is very sexy.” That elicits a giggle from her.

“I know. I guess we’ll just have to ween you, too.”

I try not to stare at Marilyn throughout the morning, but she’s getting thinner and thinner and it’s not looking good on her. When she catches me staring at her, I ask her for a moment of her time.

“You’re going to Las Vegas with us, right?” I ask.

“That’s my understanding,” she replies.

“You know Las Vegas has some of the best cuisine in the country,” I inform her. “World-renowned chefs have restaurants there in some of the casinos and hotels. Have you possibly thought about which ones you may want to visit?” She sighs and rolls her eyes.

“I hadn’t given it any thought,” she says, her voice a bit perturbed, but I don’t allow it to sway me.

“Butterfly and I are hoping to go to Americana one night while we’re there. You’re welcome to come. I hear the food is exquisite…”

“I know what you’re doing, Christian,” she says. “You haven’t talked about any of the shows, none of the sights, not the nightlife or even the spas. You’re only talking about the food.” I purse my lips.

“I’ve known you as long as I’ve known my wife,” I say. “I’ve never seen you this thin… and you’ve gotten thinner just over the last couple of weeks. You barely touch your food at dinner if you eat anything at all and I have no idea what you’re eating throughout the day. You’re fading away in front of us…”

Marilyn hugs her iPad to her body like a shy schoolgirl as I drone on about eating and meals, and I get the feeling that I’ve lost her, so I stop talking.

“I’m not trying to preach to you,” I say, softening my voice. “That’s the very last thing I’m trying to do. I just don’t want to see you cause undue harm to yourself.”

She nods, and a single tear falls down her cheek. Shit.

“I’m sorry if I spoke out of place or if anything I said offended you,” I add.

She nods again, but doesn’t raise her head.

“Can I get you anything?” I ask.

“I just need to go to the restroom,” she says, her voice small.

“Yes, of course, by all means…”

She’s out of the office before the words are out of my mouth. My en suite would’ve given her more privacy, but I get the feeling that she wants to be as far away from me as possible. She brushes past the reception desk and nearly runs into Butterfly on her way to… the restroom.

“Mare?” Butterfly calls after her, but she continues her bolt down the hallway. Butterfly turns to me and storms into my office.

“What did you say to her?” she demands, Momma-Bear loins girded for battle. I roll my eyes and thrust my hands into my hair.

“I didn’t say anything wrong,” I say, my voice squeaky as I explain myself to Mistress. “I just informed her that Vegas has a lot of good cuisine and world-renowned chefs and that she was free to try any of them. I just thought that something may awaken her palette again and encourage her to eat.” Mistress deflates immediately.

“Oh… that,” she says, her voice somewhat small as she falls onto my sofa. “I don’t know what to do, Christian. I know this isn’t good for her. I can’t force feed her, but she’s got to stop this.”

“At the risk of sounding insensitive,” I say, sitting down next to my wife, “she’s going to have to address this before she gets on that plane. She’s going on this trip in an official capacity. She’s flying on a GEH jet, and she’s staying on a GEH dime. There’s all kinds of liability involved if something happens to her while she’s on this trip. Though it was small, she had a medical procedure two months ago and she’s not looking well at all. She needs to be medically cleared to travel, not to mention her doctor needs to see what’s become of her.”

“Don’t you think that may be a bit drastic?” she replies. I can’t even find the words to respond to that. My face must display utter horror as I scoff and gesture wordlessly to the door that Marilyn just hastily exited.

“Alright, alright,” she says, raising her hands in surrender. “You’re right. I’ll talk to her. I’ll get it done.” I lean over and kiss her.

“It’s for her own good, Butterfly,” I say. She drops her head and worries her scar.

“I know,” she says, her voice full of defeat.

Son of a bitch, where the hell is Garrett? The girl could die, and he wouldn’t even know. Would he even care? He’s a real fucking prince among men, I swear!


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

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

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

You can join my mailing list on the “Contact Me” page. Just click the link and it will lead you to a form to join the list.

~~love and handcuffs

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 93—Holy Yuletide, Batman!

One more chapter after this one…

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

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

Chapter 93—Holy Yuletide, Batman!

CHRISTIAN

The last few days have been a damn nightmare.

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

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

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

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

What the fuck is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, God,” I lament. Nelson sighs.

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

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

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

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

This room is cold!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hydrate, and come with me,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I ask.

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

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

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

“You think so?” he asks.

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

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

Shit. I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

“Out with it, Elliot,” I spit.

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

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

His next words, however, are very sobering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s comforting… and frightening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asshole.

“The stars of the hour have arrived!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ANASTASIA

Everything turned out wonderfully!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not Mrs. Claus,” I chide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re shitting me,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That gets my attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On Christmas?” I ask appalled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laugh heartily at Grace scolding her sons about cookies.

“Hey.”

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

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

“Hey,” I respond.

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

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

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

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

Those are really good,” he admits.

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

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

God, those pants really look good on him…

“Ana…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” I reply cautiously.

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

“Yeah,” she says in an expecting tone.

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

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

“Is something wrong?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hear, hear,” Zach cosigns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” I say in confused laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas is looking mighty fine at the Greys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can.”

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

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

“Who… are you?” she asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. God. Shots. Fired.

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

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

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

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

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

“Gary?” I say into the phone.

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

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

“Merry Christmas,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas Bosslady,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn Caldwell
Personal Assistant to Dr. Anastasia Steele-Grey

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

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


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

Leavenworth is “Christmastown” Washington.

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

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

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

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

You can join my mailing list on the “Contact Me” page. Just click the link and it will lead you to a form to join the list.

 ~~love and handcuffs

Raising Grey: Chapter 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