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

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Raising Grey: Chapter 93—Holy Yuletide, Batman!

One more chapter after this one…

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

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

Chapter 93—Holy Yuletide, Batman!

CHRISTIAN

The last few days have been a damn nightmare.

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

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

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

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

What the fuck is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, God,” I lament. Nelson sighs.

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

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

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

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

This room is cold!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hydrate, and come with me,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I ask.

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

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

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

“You think so?” he asks.

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

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

Shit. I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

“Out with it, Elliot,” I spit.

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

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

His next words, however, are very sobering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s comforting… and frightening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asshole.

“The stars of the hour have arrived!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


ANASTASIA

Everything turned out wonderfully!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not Mrs. Claus,” I chide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re shitting me,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That gets my attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On Christmas?” I ask appalled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laugh heartily at Grace scolding her sons about cookies.

“Hey.”

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

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

“Hey,” I respond.

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

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

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

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

Those are really good,” he admits.

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

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

God, those pants really look good on him…

“Ana…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” I reply cautiously.

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

“Yeah,” she says in an expecting tone.

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

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

“Is something wrong?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hear, hear,” Zach cosigns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” I say in confused laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas is looking mighty fine at the Greys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can.”

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

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

“Who… are you?” she asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. God. Shots. Fired.

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

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

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

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

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

“Gary?” I say into the phone.

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

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

“Merry Christmas,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas Bosslady,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn Caldwell
Personal Assistant to Dr. Anastasia Steele-Grey

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

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


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

Leavenworth is “Christmastown” Washington.

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

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

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 ~~love and handcuffs

Raising Grey: Chapter 92—Getting Ready for Christmas

Two more chapters after this one…

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

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

Chapter 92—Getting Ready for Christmas

ANASTASIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, what are you doing this afternoon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I feel like shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” she inquires.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I ask, defensively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really need to get in touch with Gary…

*-*

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

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

How many lights is too many lights?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do-drop?” she asks. I nod.

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

“Okay, that makes sense,” she replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**Are you coming in today? **

Uh, oh… is something wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I literally laugh out loud.

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

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

And it is.

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

Merry fucking Christmas, bitch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallow my tears and keep talking.

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

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

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

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

Motown music will be piping through the communication system today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tripled?” she asks. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Christmas Eve,” Val says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you have to say that?” I lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I asked for Ana!” I counter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My sister… my friend…

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He leaves before I wake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I throw the covers off and get out of bed.


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

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

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

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 ~~love and handcuffs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 91—Thin Line

Three more chapters after this one…

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

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

Chapter 91—Thin Line

ANASTASIA

After a quick shower and a fresh change of clothes, I head across the hall to the nursery. The children haven’t stirred yet, so I don’t disturb them. Instead, I go down to the kitchen to locate Gail.

“Has Christian eaten already?” I ask, watching her as she loads dishes into the dishwasher.

“Yes,” she says. “He and Jason have already left.” My brow furrows. It’s Sunday.

“Left?” I ask. “Where did they go?”

“To the airport,” she says, matter-of-factly.

What?

All kinds of horrible scenarios are going through my head, but I’m determined not to jump to conclusions or allow the Boogieman to take hold of me… without a thorough explanation, that is.

“Why… did they go to the airport?” I say, my voice calmer than my countenance at the moment. Gail turns a questioning gaze to me.

“I thought you knew,” she says, pausing her task. I shake my head as nonchalantly as I can. “He’s going to get some flight time in his helicopter. He said if he didn’t clock some time soon, he might lose his license.”

I don’t let her see me sigh, although my chest feels like it might cave in. I just nod and begin to pour some coffee.

“I smell bacon,” I say, effectively covering my jitters. “Is there any left?”

*-*

“I’m glad you called,” Grace says on the other line. “Would I be terribly selfish if I said that I don’t feel like hosting Christmas this year?”

“Grace,” I scold, “when were you going to tell us?”

“Everybody’s accustomed to coming to my house,” she whines. “I was trying to find the energy and will to go through with it, really I was, but I’m so tired. I just don’t want to do it this year… I really… I just don’t want to.” She sounds like a toddler trying to convince me not to make her go to bed.

“It’s not too late,” I tell her. “We can do Christmas at my house. You are coming, aren’t you?”

“Of course, I am!” she retorts. “It’s just… so much work…” Tell me about it. “I just don’t feel up to hosting it, Ana.”

“Grace, have you spoken to your doctor?” I ask. “Make sure that your medicines are all the right dosages? You should tell him how you feel. You might need some adjustments.” She sighs.

“You might be right,” she cedes. “I haven’t been feeling that great at all lately. It couldn’t hurt to have them check me out, huh?”

“I highly recommend it, doctor,” I press.

“I hear you, I hear you, I’ll call her in the morning,” she corrects me. “Can I bring something? A dessert or something? I did kind of dump this on you…”

“No, just bring yourself,” I say. “It’s an excuse to bake more cookies,” I add. Grace laughs on the other end and I’m happy that we’ve moved beyond truce. I end the call with Grace, suggesting that she take tomorrow off from Helping Hands and let me know when her appointment is going to be, then I call Chuck.

“Hey. We goin’ somewhere?” he asks.

“No, I was just trying to find out if your parents decided if they wanted to stay here or at your house for the holidays,” I say.

“I think Mom’s concerned about being an imposition,” he says. “They might want to stay at the Bainbridge house.”

“Well, that kinda sucks,” I say. “I really would like to see them, and them being all the way in Bainbridge, that’s an hour drive one way including the ferries anytime you want to see them. See if you can convince them to stay at the Crossing. We’ll be having Christmas here.”

“We are?” he asks.

“Yeah, we are,” I say. “Grace isn’t feeling up to hosting Christmas this year and in Val’s delicate condition, I wouldn’t dare spring it on her. And Mia… well, newlyweds and such. Anyway, yes, we’re having Christmas here, with all seven Christmas trees and the ‘come-one-come-all’ spirit that we always have.”

“Any idea how many people?” he asks.

“The door will be open,” I say. “I would hope that I could get everyone to RSVP by Christmas Eve, but the headcount will at least be the usual suspects.” Just as I finish my sentence, I raise my head to see my husband standing in the doorway just gazing at me.

“Well, I guess I’ll see if they want to come and stay, then since there’ll be festivities here anyway,” he says.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I gotta go. Gotta put out the APB’s and get the menu going.”

“Alright. I’ll let you know about Mom and Dad as soon as I do.” He ends the call and I put the phone on my desk still looking at my husband.

“Christmas is going to be here?” he asks casually.

“Yes,” I reply. “Grace isn’t feeling up to hosting this year. She apologized and assured me that she would be here.”

“It’s Thursday,” he says, walking into the office. “Do you think you’ll be able to pull it off by then?”

“You did a birthday party in a matter of a few hours,” I remind him. “I can do Christmas in a few days.” He nods and takes one of the seats in front of my desk.

“You have to know that I would never do that to you,” he says without looking at me. I swallow hard.

“I know,” I reply softly.

“Do you?” he accuses raising his head to me. “I don’t want you to say it because I was angry or because you think it’s what I want to hear. You have to know that I would never do that to you. Do you?” His statement is deliberate, and he won’t take a lie or a half-truth from me.

I didn’t before, truthfully, I didn’t. I wasn’t sure, but I am now.

“I know,” I repeat, firmly. I really do. He turns his gaze from me.

“I’m not angry anymore,” he says without looking at me, “but I’m not happy, either. Part of me wants to shake you and demand that you tell me how you dare think that way in the first place. Even when I ran off to Madrid thinking that you were protecting that asshole over me, the thought of another woman never entered my mind once. Not once! Part of me wants answers. The other part of me doesn’t even want to know. I don’t care how unhealthy it is, how you doctors may think I’m hiding, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t want to know what would make my wife—the woman that I love with every cell of my being—think that I would turn to one of those sub-bots that I used to flog and fuck because she wouldn’t allow me to use her beyond her limits.”

He stands from the chair and begins to pace around my office, his hands on his hips and his expression intense.

“This was my idea,” he says, gesturing wildly into the air. “It was my idea to get some formal guidance to see how we would proceed with our relationship in the lifestyle. Why would I bother doing that if I wanted someone else? And yes, I realize that the dreaded walk down Memory Lane happened after I made the suggestion, but I still went through with the meeting. I was open and honest about the memories and how they made me feel and look what it got me. I mean, really, why even bother bringing it up if my intention was to stray outside our relationship? That wouldn’t only make me an asshole. That would make me a stupid asshole…”

He’s ranting on and on and on, things that he didn’t say in front of Artemis and Savvina. These things were… are meant for my ears only. I think the biggest kick in the stomach for him is that he finds it incredibly unbelievable that my thoughts would even veer in the direction of him being unfaithful. All things considered, it was less about him being unfaithful and more about whether or not I would be able to be what he needed, even though the relationship between the two would eventually be cause and effect.

Was I too concerned about not being able to meet his needs? Was I taking a personal flaw—or what I perceived as a personal flaw—and imprinting it on my husband, i.e. I can’t be what he wants so he’s automatically going to find someone who can?

“I want you. To stop. Shrinking,” he says coolly and firmly. That’s when I realize that I’ve pulled my knees up into the chair and that my body is in such a tiny ball that another body could fit in here with me. I stretch my legs and put them on the floor, clasping my hands in my lap. That’s the best I can do.

“I can’t rescue you right now,” he says honestly. “I’m fighting my own demons at the moment.”

I guess we both are. I can’t blame him.

He gazes at me for a few moments, then he leaves my office.

I won’t cry. I haven’t been wronged.
I won’t blame the Boogeyman. That’s not what this is.
This is my own insecurities biting me in the ass and flowing out of my big mouth, and I just have to deal with the aftermath.

He needs time. I’ll give him time. Once his feelings of confusion simmer down, he’ll find his words. Then, he’ll most likely bite my head off.

And I deserve it.

*-*

“Purple, huh?” I say as I sit on Sophie’s bed, polishing her toenails the same lavender as her hair. She has already done my toes and I was waiting for them to dry as I do hers. I spent the afternoon journaling—mostly berating myself for being an insecure twit and imposing those feelings on my husband—then meditation, then yoga, and now I’m down here in Sophie’s apartment connecting with her on a simple level and trying to find out how she feels about the latest events in her life.

“I’m tired of being invisible,” she says, trying not to wiggle her toes. She painted mine blue and they’ve already dried. “It looks cute, and it’s kind of a statement.” I frown.

“What statement?” I ask.

“We’re… Care Bears.” My eyes widen and I try not to laugh.

“Care Bears?” I ask, fanning the polish on her toes.

“Yes,” she says. I’m Share Bear, because I always share my lunch with my friends when they forget theirs. My friend Cecily is Grumpy Bear… well, just because it fits, and the blue hair looks really good on her. And Lanie is Cheer Bear because, let’s face it, she’s sickeningly cheerful sometimes.”

I’m glad to hear that she has friends who were willing to stick through this crazy idea with her. I was worried about her fitting in after I had to make a couple of appearances at her school.

“And what color is Lanie’s hair?” I inquire.

“Pink,” she says. “It’s very pink.” I nod.

“How did their parents react to the new look?” I say.

“They didn’t flip out like Dad did!” she declares in the insolent teenagery way. “It’s not even permanent!”

“It just surprised him, Sophie. I think it’s really cute,” I say.

“Thanks,” she says. “I’m going to do it again when it wears off.” I don’t respond. I decide to change the subject.

“So, how do you feel about your mom?” I ask. I don’t know if anybody talked to her about it.

“You mean about her going to jail?” she asks. I nod. “I don’t know, Ana. I want to feel sad about it—she is my mom after all—but she tried to sell me to her drug dealer. What did she think was going to happen to me? I’m a kid, but I’m not stupid. I know he was going to try to do all kinds of creepy things to me or make me do creepy things. And whenever I talk to her, she acts like it didn’t happen. So, how am I supposed to feel about her going to jail?”

“I don’t know, Sophie,” I tell her. “My mom did sell me to someone… or at least she sold my silence, and I still haven’t forgiven her. So, this is one time I don’t have the answer for you.”

“At least somebody understands me,” she says. “I feel like a horrible person because I don’t know how I feel about her going to jail. She’s my mom, I really don’t want her to go to jail. But geez, she tried to sell me! Or trade me. That means that she really has a serious problem if she didn’t see anything wrong with that.”

“That’s true,” I say. “How do you feel about her getting help and maybe wanting you to come back and live with her?” Sophie shakes her head.

“I would beg the judge to let me stay with my dad,” she says finitely. “I’ve been doing some studying on my own and I know that the judge listens to kids of a certain age. I’m hoping that I’ll be old enough that by the time my mom is eligible for parole, the judge will listen to me.”

“The judge listened to you before, Sophie,” I tell her. “I’m sure he’ll listen to you again.” She twists her lips.

“I hope so,” she replies. Then she falls silent for a few moments.

“What is it, Sophie?” I ask.

“This is my first Christmas with Dad since… I don’t know how long. I’m just wondering how it’s going to go.”

“Well, it’ll be different for us this year,” I tell her. “We normally all meet at Grace’s, but this year, everybody’s meeting over here.” She raises her brow.

“Everybody?” she says, her voice a mixture of hope and dismay, if you can say that. I give her a sympathetic glance.

“You know the door is always open at Christmas for anyone who wants to stop by.” She sighs.

“That means that Marlow will probably be here, and he’ll bring one of his scatterbrains,” she says with distaste. I shake my head.

“You may want to lighten up a bit on his dates,” I tell her. “It only serves to piss him off when you give them a hard time.”

“They’re such easy targets,” she says. “You know why he’s with them. Do they have to be so obvious?” I raise a brow.

“Why is he with them?” I ask.

“Either they want to meet you or Uncle Christian, or he wants to make out,” she says matter-of-factly, and she’s right—most likely the latter.

“So maybe now might be the time not to pay so much attention to Marlow and his dates and start paying more attention to your own interests,” I say. I want her to focus on something other than the unattainable young man who visits us from time to time. It would be a long time before he would ever even be slightly interested in Sophie, and she’s certainly sabotaging any possibility of that even in the distant future with her behavior. He’s four whole years older than her—well, nearly four. She’d probably be somewhere around twenty-one before he would even consider looking in her direction, and there’s a whole lot of years between 13 and 21. Give it up, Sophie.

“Yeah, well,” she says flippantly. “I suppose there’s no way I can get out of Christmas,” she laments. I raise my brow and purse my lips.

“Not unless you want to tell your father that you don’t want to be around Marlow and why,” I inform her. She scoffs.

“Please,” she says in that surly teenage voice. “He had a cow over purple hair. This would probably give him a coronary!”

I don’t bother asking exactly what this is. We’ve all had girlhood crushes on some unattainable older boy. It’ll pass.

Once our toes have dried and we’ve talked about everything from her beloved High School Musical and Zach Efron to the fear of being a high school student herself next year, I hear the two-way come alive.

“Ana,” I call into the air, and I hear Minnie’s cooing voice.

“Well, that’s my cue,” I say, uncrossing my legs from the lotus position and putting them on the floor.

“How does the system know when to call you?” she asks, removing the tissue from between her toes. “Like, does it buzz every time the babies cry or when does it not buzz or what?”

“Barney set it up,” I tell her, then I realize that she doesn’t know who Barney is. “Christian’s IT guy. It’s some algorithm where it picks up a certain sound or tone of the babies, but only from the nursery.” We’re going to have to revisit, because it’s picking up some other things.

“Can I come with?” she asks, hopeful.

“Sure, you can, come on.”

Keri has already made it to the nursery when we get there, and I’ve already told Gail that I was on my way and that Sophie is with me. Sophie adores baby time. Like everyone else, she doesn’t know which baby to grab first. Luckily, Keri has made the decision and retrieved Minnie, so Mikey finds himself in Sophie’s arms. Already the ladies man, he coos and smiles at her, reaching for her face as she talks to him.

We spend quite a bit of time playing with and feeding the babies—more like monitoring them while they eat. Feeding time is a bit messy these days as the babies eat more with their hands, grabbing their sippy cups on their own and dropping more food on the tarps under their highchairs than they get into their mouths. It’s mostly a success, though that ends in bathtime and a nap for my two food critics.

We find that it’s early evening when we’ve finished with the twins and it’s time to go in search of sustenance. There’s nothing cooking when we get to the kitchen and when I locate Gail, I find out why.

“Christian and Jason are still at the office. He says they’re going to be late,” Gail tells me as she’s going over the house schedule for the coming week. Still at the office? It’s fucking Sunday! Why the fuck is he at the fucking office? And why the fuck didn’t he tell me he was going?

He’s avoiding me.

Try though I might, I can’t hide the mix of anger and disappointment that wells up inside of me. From now on, if I want to know where my husband is—if I want to know—I’ll ask Gail. At least her husband tells her what’s going on.

“Ms. Solomon decided not to start dinner until she talked to you,” Gail adds, reading my expression. “She thought you may want something quick and simple…” since my husband won’t be eating with me. I swallow hard and straighten my back.

“Sophie?” I say, turning to my Sunday companion. “Would you like to come and help me reacquaint myself with my kitchen?” Sophie’s face lights up.

“Yeah!” she says, like I just gave her a Christmas present. I nod and we walk into the gourmet kitchen.

“Sophie and I are going to play ‘chef’ this evening, Ms. Solomon,” I say, trying to hide my ire with my husband behind and painted-on smile. Ms. Solomon picks up immediately.

“Okay,” she says, “just call me if you need me,” and she leaves the kitchen to me and Sophie.

“So, I say, retrieving my chef’s apron from its hiding place where it has set way too long, “do we want something easy or complicated?” I hand Sophie another apron.

“Complicated,” she says, almost reading my mind and taking the apron. She ties it around her little body as I contemplate what we’re going to create. “Aunt Ana?” she says, getting my attention. I quickly turn my head to her. She variates between “Ana” and “Aunt Ana” at will.

“Hmm?” I reply, acknowledging her.

“Boys are stupid,” she says, looking up at me with big, understanding blue eyes that almost make me cry. I sigh heavily.

“Yes, they are,” I say as I retrieve a mixing bowl.

My spirits lift somewhat after Sophie and I giggle like schoolgirls creating a fabulous homemade chicken pot pie with all fresh ingredients including crust from scratch. It’s not really complicated on the cooking scale, but it’s detailed enough to keep us both occupied. As an addition to our comfort food, I make my garlic butter cheesy mashed potatoes and nearly cry when I taste them, longing like crazy for the simpler time when these were always in the fridge, and understanding a little more why Christian would wax nostalgic about memories of his most recent past.

The girls—Gail, Sophie, Keri, and I—all have dinner at the dining table, careful to keep the conversation light, nothing too serious to bring down girl time. When dinner is done, we load the dishwasher, put the food away, and go to our separate corners.

After I spend some time doing yoga, I take to Facebook and decide to create my first post…

“Your past is always your past. Even if you forget it, it remembers you. ― Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye”

I close Facebook so as not to be tempted to overshare. The sun has long since gone down and still no word from my husband. Deciding to turn in early, I stop in my babies’ nursery like I always do to check on them. I find Minnie standing in her crib holding on to the edge, sleepy-eyed, but awake. I close the door and take her from her crib. She’s unsettled for whatever reason, so I take her to the window seat and rub her little back.

I make the mistake of looking over at the bridge. I’m not looking for an Audi, I’m just looking at the bridge, wondering how many husbands are crossing it on the way home to their families; or how many families are returning from Sunday dinner at grandma’s house, going on to prepare for the busy week; or how many wives are driving across the bridge, leaving their families and never to return again.

God, that’s dismal.

I look down at Minnie in my arms and she has fallen asleep. I didn’t really need to remove her from the crib to put her to sleep. I just needed to hold her in my arms. For the moment, I’ve officially had enough of wearing my big girl panties. I’ll be a big girl tomorrow. Right now, I just want to cry.

I cradle my sleeping baby girl in my arms, hold her close to my body, and weep.


CHRISTIAN

I’ve buried myself so deep in work that I didn’t realize how late it was until Jason tells me that his wife wants to know if we’re coming home before midnight.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “Old habits are hard to break. I got some of the results back from the drug tests along with some of the reports from the departments and I just got lost.” He furrows his brow at me.

“Do you need to talk?” he asks.

“About what?” I counter. About the fact that I’m one man, er, woman down because Ros chose now to have a pissing contest? I could just fire her, but she hasn’t taken much if any vacation time all year. So, the work falls on me and Lorenz and, well… I’ve got other things on my mind, too—like the goddamn Pedophile and that cunt ghostwriter of hers, and…

“We have,” I protest. “We were talking about Christmas, which is going to be at the Crossing this year, by the way.” Jason frowns.

“Thanks for telling me!” he scolds.

“I was just told today,” I defend. “And it’s only going to be family and friends anyway.”

“People are going to be coming and going. You never know where the paps are hiding. We have to be informed about these things.”

“It slipped my mind,” I say, removing my glasses and rubbing my eye.

“Now I know something’s wrong,” he says. I frown and glare at him.

“Why are you saying that?” I ask.

“Because anything to do with security, your twins, and your wife never slips your mind,” he says. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, but just know that I know. And it’s more than just this work shit.” He waves around the room at my office. “Let me know when you’re ready to go,” he adds as he walks out of my office. I’m only glad no one else knows me as well as he does.

Except my wife. At least I thought she knew me… well enough to know that I wouldn’t go running into the arms of another woman because she won’t do the hard stuff. For fuck’s sake, Anastasia…

I push those thoughts out of my head and shoot off an email to HR to have the handful of people who tested positive out of my building no later than Tuesday. I’m happy to find that the vast majority follow the rules. Those who can’t will have bad news from Santa.

In accordance with my own rules, I CC the email to my wife. It’s like I told Ros before she flew the coop—if five people come back with a positive test, that’s five people that I can get rid of and get some drug-free talent in here, which is what I want. Nine came back with positive tests ranging from marijuana to meth, and I don’t even have all the results yet. I can get them out of here before they fuck anything up if they haven’t already. I’d say that’s a big win for the company so far.

I fire off a few more emails and let Jason know that it’s time to go. We have to be in court in the morning at 10, so I don’t want to keep him away from his wife and daughter for too long…

What about your wife…?

I head to my piano and a snifter of brandy like I did last night and let my melancholy tickle the ivories. My music is solemn—disappointed, like my mood. I haven’t had dinner and surprisingly, I’m not even hungry. After I don’t know how many hours, I realize that I’m really tired, though, more tired than I expected that I would be.

I want my damn bed. I haven’t slept in it and I’m tired and I want it now.

I close my piano, finish my brandy and head to my bedroom.

She’s not here, and the bed hasn’t been slept in. It’s 3:00 in the morning, and she’s not here. She’s not in the sitting room either, and the throw from the bed hasn’t been disturbed. There’s no evidence whatsoever that she’s even been in this room. I check her yoga room and she’s not there either. I would have seen her when I came from the elevator if she had been in here.

I begin to check every guest room except the room that Harmony is sleeping in. Maybe she’s feeling the same way she felt when I left for Madrid and doesn’t want to sleep in the room by herself.

No luck.

I’m trying to keep myself from panicking. I know that she wasn’t in the gym when I passed by. Her office? Her parlor? The aquarium? The spa?

Nothing.

Where the hell is she? I can’t find her anywhere! Now, I am starting to panic. Was I too hard on her? Has she left me? No, she wouldn’t leave without the children…

The twins! Of course!

I don’t wait for the elevator. I take the stairs two and three at a time to the first floor, bolting through the empty family room, kitchen, dining room and past the main entry, then up the main staircase to my twins room. I’m out of breath and I have to pause for a moment to calm my breathing before I open the door.

When I do, holding my breath, the room is dark… too dark. I scan the room and after adjusting my eyes to the darkness, I see Mikey fast asleep in his crib. I look over at Minnie’s crib and it’s empty.

My daughter is gone. Where is my daughter… and my wife?

A momentary rush of panic flows through me as I note the empty rocking chair and no light from the en suite. Just when I about to go full DEFCON 1, I see a shadow in the window seat.

Oh, shit.

I slowly walk across the room and I’m relieved and dismayed at the same time to find my wife fast asleep in the window seat with my daughter cradled contentedly in her arms. Her head is lying back on the wall and she’s scrunched up in the window seat with the baby in her arms. The moon is shining on her face, and her tears have left many treks behind.

I don’t know how to feel. I feel like I’m the one who has been wronged because I was wrongly accused, but she’s been crying.

I shake my head and reach for my baby to put her in her crib, but my wife stirs—not enough to wake, but enough to tighten her grasp on Minnie. My daughter whimpers a bit, but suckles her binky a couple of times and she’s out again… and so is my wife.

I’ll have to leave them here… or take them both.

I gather my wife in my arms, and she must’ve cried herself into sheer exhaustion, because all she does is breathe those crying shuddering breaths, clings to her baby, and falls immediately back to sleep in my arms. I look back at Mikey once more, who hasn’t stirred, and carry Butterfly and Minnie to our bedroom.

Once I lay her down, she feels the softness and loosens her grip on Minnie. My daughter rolls out of her mother’s arms and begins to stir and fuss a bit.

“Sshhh,” I soothe, rolling her onto her belly and patting her back as she sucks her binky. In no time, she’s fast asleep again. I look over at my wife, fully dressed and curled up so tightly in a ball that she looks like she’s eight years old.

She’s shrinking in her sleep. I can’t stop her from shrinking in her sleep.

I put the blanket over her and Minnie and go to my en suite. I stand in the shower for several minutes, allowing the heat to wash away the stress of the day. Once I begin to feel relaxed again, I pull on a pair of sweats and climb into bed. Neither of them has moved from the positions I left them in. I lie in bed on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think about the thing that kept me away from home all day. I eventually fall asleep in that position.

I only sleep for a few hours and I’m awake again. Jason and I are headed for court this morning, I need to get out of bed. I stretch, and my hand brushes over my baby girl. I look over at her and her mother. It’s hard to believe they haven’t moved for hours—neither of them. Butterfly’s still curled in a ball and Minnie is still resting peacefully on her belly. I carefully slide out of bed so as not to wake them and go into my dressing room. I quietly dress for the day, my tie draped around my neck and my shoes, cufflinks, and suit jacket in my hand and sneak quietly out of the room.

I finish dressing just before I descend the stairs and as I’m coming through the hallway towards the kitchen, I can hear Jason talking to Gail.

“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “Something must’ve happened when he and Her Highness went out on Saturday. He’s been avoiding her ever since.”

“I knew it had to be something,” I hear Gail reply. “I think she asked me three times where he was. She never knew. I made the mistake of telling her that you guys had gone to the airport—she turned white, I mean alabaster white. She tried to downplay it, but she was terrified for a minute until I added that Christian was getting some time in Charlie Tango.”

“Well, hopefully it’ll blow over soon…”

“I don’t think so,” Gail interrupts her husband. “You’ve seen him like this before. He’s cantankerous and unapproachable, and that was before Saturday. Whatever’s going on between them, she can’t talk to him, and he can stay this way forever.”

“I know, but before, he didn’t have her. And as much of an asshole as he is, I know he doesn’t want to lose her.” He pauses for a moment. “Do you think I should let Sophie come to the sentencing? She’s young, but she’s mature for her age.”

There’s another pause before Gail speaks.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she says. “That’s her mother, and seeing Shalane hauled away in cuffs is probably not a good idea for her. You’ll talk to her when you get home.” Jason scoffs.

“When I get home—that’s rich. With him hiding in that office until the late evening hours, I don’t even know when that’s going to be.”

“Well, tonight, you may need to have one of the other gentlemen sit with Mr. Grey while he hides out, because your daughter needs you. He can neglect his family if that’s his choice, but you, sir, need to be here.”

I’m not neglecting my family! We had a disagreement and we haven’t been speaking as much for one day! That’s not neglect!

“I’m sorry we haven’t had that much time together,” Jason says. “First Australia, and now this.”

“You’ll just have to find a way to make it up to me,” Gail replies suggestively, and I hear the unmistakable sound of kissing.

I’m not neglecting my family. If I feel slighted, I have every reason to take some time to myself and get my mind together. What the hell is this neglect shit?

“You’ve seen him like this before. He’s cantankerous and unapproachable, and that was before Saturday…”

I’m not neglecting my family… am I?

I take a few steps back through the hallway, then double back, allowing my soles to announce my presence before turning into the dining room and heading for the kitchen.

“Are you ready?” I ask Jason as I enter the room. “Good morning, Gail.”

“Good morning,” she replies, smoothing her hair. “Coffee?”

“Yes, black please,” I say.

“I guess so,” Jason finally responds with a shrug. “I wouldn’t even go if I didn’t have to, but you know… Sophie…”

“Yeah, I know,” I say, taking a welcome sip of my coffee. I look down at the plate in front of him. “That’s a hearty breakfast you’ve got there,” I say, noting the healthy serving of what looks like chicken pot pie and… are those…?

“No, I’m packing this for lunch,” Gail says, placing a cover over the plate and placing it into a thermal bag. “I made one for you, too, if you want it. Ana made a homemade, deep-dish pot pie last night and there’s enough to feed an army, and of course, those mashed potatoes…”

Ana? Butterfly cooked last night? And the potatoes?

“Yeah,” I say, trying to be nonchalant, “We’ve got a busy day ahead of us today. Brown-bagging is probably a good idea.” Gail throws a knowing look at Jason which I ignore while taking another gulp of my coffee and looking at my phone. “Is her hair still purple?”

It takes a moment for him to catch on.

“I’m used to it now,” he says. “Worse things could happen.”

“I’m glad,” Gail says, “because she’s talking about touching it up.”

“Purple again?” Jason laments a bit. Gail nods. “Well, like I said, worse things could happen.” He takes the thermal bag from his wife and kisses her. “See you later, love,” he says. I finish my coffee and walk out behind him.

*-*

The courtroom is fairly empty. There’s no one here at the moment except the courtroom staff, minus the judge, me and Jason, and the district attorney. I can’t imagine going forth into something that is this life-changing and no one even shows up to support me.

The way that I understand it, Shalane has agreed to come to court and turn herself in, taking a plea on a lesser charge with the hopes of getting a lighter sentence. Jason sits in his seat looking straight ahead of him. I can tell that he’s lost in thought. He’s probably thinking that his entire life and the life of his daughter balances on what’s going to be said in this room today.

The doors open behind us and in walks Shalane and what appears to be her attorney. She’s dressed more modestly than I’ve ever seen her, but she looks very thin and pale. I can’t tell if she’s thinner than she was the last time I saw her or not, but she’s thin. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, making her face look even thinner, skeletal even. Jason raises his gaze when he hears the doors open and looks back. Their eyes meet and Shalane looks horrified. Jason just shakes his head and faces the front again.

“She’s still using,” he says. I look back at her and then at him.

“How do you know?” I ask. I know that meth users look frail anyway, but how would he know that she’s not just frail from using before?

“She looks like death,” he says, turning his gaze to me. “I haven’t seen her since the last time that we were in court because the few times that she requested visitation, I had to work, so Gail took Sophie to see her. She looks worse now than she did then, and I know that she was using then.”

He turns his gaze to the front of the courtroom again and Shalane stops right next to us.

Shalane's meth mouth in chapter 91

“Where’s Sophia?” she whispers harshly. When she bears her teeth at him, they look awful. I don’t remember them looking that awful the last time I saw her. She looks like she’s been chewing tobacco and never brushed her teeth. I turn my gaze away from her. She looks horrible.

“Not here,” Jason says without looking at her.

“You know as well as I do that I may not see her for a while. Why wouldn’t you bring her so I could say ‘goodbye?’”

Because he probably didn’t want her to see you looking like this! Jason doesn’t dignify her with a response. Her attorney urges her to take her seat. She throws a hateful glare at Jason right before the bailiff announces the judges arrival and Shalane scrambles to her place at the defendant’s table. Everyone is seated and Shalane’s case is announced. After the attorneys introduce themselves, the judge speaks.

“It is my understanding that in the case of the State of Washington vs Shalane Deleroy, the defendant wishes to enter a plea, is this correct?”

“It is, Your Honor,” Shalane’s attorney says.

“Is the office of the District Attorney aware of this plea?”

“We are, Your Honor,” the D.A. replies.

“Is the office of the District Attorney in agreement with this plea?

“We are, Your Honor.” The judge examines some papers in front of her.

“It is my understanding that the charges have been amended from conspiracy to distribute to possession of a controlled substance, is that correct?” the judge asks.

“Yes, Your Honor,” the D.A. confirms.

“Very well. Ms. Deleroy, would you please stand?” The judge says and Shalane gets to her feet.

“Do you understand the charges against you, Ms. Deleroy?” the judge asks.

“Yes, Your Honor,” Shalane responds.

“Okay. In the matter of the State of Washington vs Shalane Deleroy, on the count of possession of a controlled substance, Ms. Deleroy, how do you plead?”

“Guilty, Your Honor,” she says after a short pause.

“Counsel, you have reached a settlement?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” the D.A. says. “The people have agreed to a sentence of 18 months in jail followed by five years’ probation.” That’s all? She tried to sell a child, for fuck’s sake! But of course, she took a plea. Gotta love the justice system.

“Ms. Deleroy, do you know that by pleading guilty you lose the right to a jury trial?” the judge asks.

“Yes, your Honor,” she replies.

“Do you give up that right?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” she says flatly.

“Do you understand what giving up that right means?” the judge asks.

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you know that you are waiving the right to cross-examine your accusers?” the judge continues.

“Yes.”

“Do you know that you are waiving your privilege against self-incrimination?”

“Yes.”

“Did anyone force you into accepting this settlement?” the judge inquires.

“No, they didn’t.”

“Are you pleading guilty because you in fact were in possession of a controlled substance on the night of March 19, 2014?

“Yes, I was.”

“Very well, Ms. Deleroy, you are hereby sentenced to 18 months in jail, with review in a year, followed by five years’ probation, on condition that you complete a court-approved drug rehabilitation program.

“You are hereby remanded and without bail to the custody of the sheriffs of Kent county to be delivered for commitment to the Washington State Department of Corrections where you will be confined until final execution of this judgment and sentence prescribed by law. This court is now in recess.”

The gavel falls and we watch as the bailiff cuffs Shalane. She doesn’t resist or perform like she has been known to do. Her attorney says something to her as she’s being cuffed, and she just nods meekly. Moments later, she walks out of the courtroom with the bailiff without a word or looking back.

Jason is still deep in thought as we leave the courtroom and walk down the courthouse steps in the frigid cold. We walk in silence to the car and once inside. He starts the car and just sits there for a moment.

“Jason?” I say.

“Thank you for coming with me today,” he says.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. There’s a long pause.

“I loved that woman once,” he says, almost nostalgically. “At one time, she and Sophie were my whole life. And then, it seems like out of nowhere, we were at the other end of the spectrum. I was devastated when we got divorced. How does something change so drastically between two people who love each other?”

I can see his reflection in the rearview mirror, but he’s still looking straight ahead. I don’t have an answer to his question and I’m not certain if it’s rhetorical or not.

“Work it out, sir,” he says, and his eyes shift to mine in the reflection of the rearview mirror. “Whatever it is, whatever has you and Ana at odds, work it out and work it out fast. Don’t let it simmer. It only takes a minute to lose everything you love.”

We gaze at each other for a moment in the mirror before he puts the car in gear and heads toward GEH.

*-*

“It’s been a bit of a commotion today, sir,” Andrea says. “Mr. Holstein has called several times. I hear a hint of desperation in his voice. Allen has asked to be notified as soon as you arrive as he indicated that GEH is most likely looking at five lawsuits for wrongful termination…”

“From the ex-employees who failed the drug tests?” I ask, bemused.

“Yes, sir, it looks that way,” she replies. I scoff a laugh.

“Bring it on,” I say. “Tell him that I’m here and to bring the files and names of those losers who want to sue me.”

“Yes, sir,” she says and begins to dial the phone.

I walk into the office I left not 12 hours ago, Jason’s words ringing in my head to fix whatever’s wrong between me and “Ana.” He never calls her Ana, so either he was highly distracted or very serious. I remove my coat and rub my hands together. They’ve gotten a chill just from the car to the door. It’s really cold outside.

“Andrea, will you get me a cup of coffee, please?” I say into the intercom.

“Yes, sir,” she replies. I fire up my computer and of course, many emails greet me—responses from the department heads I’ve been harassing about projects that should have long since been started or even finished. I take several minutes to respond to them and give further directives. Then I can’t help but feel a bit of anger towards Ros for skipping out on me at such a crucial time, but I push the thought out of my head. It is what it is, so she gets one gimmie, but that’s it.

“Well, hello, Chris. So nice of you to join us,” Al says, breezing into my office in that way that he does.

“Don’t give me shit, Forsythe, I had things to do this morning,” I warn. “What’s up?”

“Well, first of all, Chocolate is walking on air that we finally got the ball rolling on SEEKNID,” he says. I raise my gaze to him.

“You told him that?” I ask.

“No, he told me,” he says. “He’s been getting calls about algorithms and the way the program is supposed to work in an ideal setting. He’s got an appointment to come down next Tuesday for his input and approval.”

I must’ve missed that email in the thousands that I’ve been reading over the past several days.

“Well, it’s good to know that someone around here is doing their job,” I point out. “So, what’s the angle—I drugged their coffee?”

“No,” he replies. “They’re actually claiming ADA protection.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” I say. “This is a joke, right?”

“Well, no. Under the ADA…”

“I know how the ADA works!” I snap. “Title I to be exact. The moment I decided that this would be a drug-free workplace, I educated myself on that.”

“Good, so I don’t have to explain it to you. The revolutionaries are trying to sue you for not making reasonable accommodations for their ‘illness.’ According to the lawsuits, as an employer, you should have provided counseling and cessation or rehabilitation programs instead of firing them.”

“And this is why I had to go all Rambo on my fucking company,” I lament, “because the inmates are running the fucking asylum.”

“There’s only eight of them, Chris,” he says.

“All eight of them are suing?” I ask.

“All eight of them have mentioned it,” he replies.

“And if only one of them is successful in this suit, employers everywhere will have to keep drug addicts on their payroll,” I respond. “This section of the ADA is supposed to protect people like Chuck, who had a bad spell but has cleaned their life up and is moving on, so that their prior mistakes don’t follow them to the grave—not strung-out or social-using opportunists who got caught. They’re not suing me because they’re sick. No, they’re suing me because they failed random drug testing, which is my right to perform as an employer, and I’m going to be performing it more often.

“No one came to me and said, ‘Sir, I have a problem I need treatment.’ They went out and partied the night before or the weekend before and they dropped dirty. So, if they have money to burn, let them go on and sue me, because I’m taking this all the way to the fucking top. Any lawyer with an ounce of sense knows this isn’t going to go anywhere. There’s no judge in America that’s even going to hear this. So, all I want to hear from this point on about these cases is how soon they’re going to be thrown out of court.” He twists his lips and nods.

“Christmas is at your house,” he says.

“Yes,” I say after a pause.

“When were you going to tell me?” he asks.

“Ana just decided this weekend,” I say. He raises a brow at me. “What?” His face falls to a slight frown.

“Nothing,” he replies.

“Out with it, Forsythe,” I demand. Everybody seems to be able to see that something is wrong, and I haven’t said a word or even behaved differently that I know of.

“Nothing,” he says again, “if you don’t see anything wrong with what you just said, neither do I. Have you started planning for February or are we just flying by the seat of our pants?” I frown.

“What’s happening in February?” I ask and his eyes widen.

“Green Valley? Smote the bastards? Hello?” I shake my head.

“I’ve been a little distracted with company business,” I reply.

“Well, undistract yourself!” he demands. “This is like one of the most important things that has ever happened in Jewel’s life!”

“Jesus Christ, I know,” I say, irritated. “Just give me definite dates and I’ll have travel plans ready.”

“Well, you may want a guest list, too, because it looks like you’re going to have a full-on entourage.” I frown.

“Entourage?” I ask. “That’s a bad idea. That screams of publicity, something we really don’t need.”

“Well, I’m going, and I know that if I’m going, Chocolate is going to be there.”

“We really don’t need legal representation for this, Al…”

“Well, then it’s a good thing I’m not coming as legal representation,” he interrupts. “I was around for this shit, Chris. I may not have been right there in her face, and I may not have been able to be by her side, but I was there. I felt everything that she felt and when she got back to Montesano at the tender age of 16, I cried with her while she told me what happened. I vowed that if it took my last breath, I would see these motherfuckers get what’s coming to them and I’m. Going. To Vegas.”

His brown eyes are piercing through me at the moment and I’m pretty certain he’d deck me if I tried to stop him. I sigh heavily and drop my head.

“I’m sorry,” I say, not able to give him any explanation as to why I was so insensitive of his emotional investment in all this. He’s silent for a moment.

“What’s going on with you, Chris?” he asks, and when I look up, he’s closing the door. I drop my head again.

“There’s so much going on in my life right now,” I admit. “We went to Australia to decompress and I come back to a shitstorm of motherfuckers not knowing what they’re doing. I’m putting all of my time and energy into trying to figure out what’s going on before my company collapses, and now I get the news that bastards are trying to sue me because I’m not letting them do drugs on the job.

“Ros is testing all of my patience. She took nearly three weeks off right at Christmas with no notice and right in the middle of a crisis because she’s pissed! She’s pissed because I decided to do random drug testing which sniffed out eight people so far, and because I’m turning the company upside down, but not to her specifications. It bothers the fuck out of me that Lorenz is floating around just as cool as you please while I’m running around here pulling out every strand of my hair.

“My wife has vowed not to come to GEH anymore because she feels like nobody respects her, and Ros was bordering on insubordination the day that she walked out of here.”

“She said that?” Al interrupts. “She said she wasn’t coming back because they don’t respect her?” I nod quickly and widen my eyes.

“Yeah, she did,” I confirm. Al scoffs, then chuckles. “What’s funny?” I ask with a frown.

“She’ll be back,” he says with a knowing smile, “and when she does, some fire’s gonna fly in this bitch.” I eye him speculatively, then roll my eyes.

“I’ve got another Ana to meet now?” I’ve got a feeling that’s the last fucking thing that I need.

“Oh, this Ana doesn’t have a name, but you’ve probably met her already. Tell me—if I’m not overstepping—has this surly, distracted, inattentive, bear-like, solemn persona made its way to your home yet?” He’s gesturing to me in the most belittling manner as he rattles off this list or unattractive adjectives that describe me perfectly these days.

“No, you’re not and yes, it has,” I confess. He twists his lips.

“Um-hmm, and how is Butterfly taking that?” he says, his brow furrowing. “I notice you haven’t used that particular term of endearment in this entire conversation.” Jesus, I haven’t? Is that what Jason was talking about?

“Things aren’t well,” he says. “There’s other things going on.”

“And none of them stemmed from this, right?” he presses. I don’t know how to answer that. We were planning to see our BDSM mentors anyway. When we got there, I made a confession and she accused me of wanting to be with other women. That had nothing to do with what’s going on here and neither did our going to see our BDSM mentors…

But my confession and the feelings surrounding it did.

“So, while you’re searching for an answer to that question, riddle me this. Have you ever seen Jewel get to the end of a situation that she couldn’t handle or that had just worked her nerves to the very end and flip the fuck out? I mean, completely turn into somebody you didn’t know?”

Flynngate and the Treehouse Trauma both come to mind immediately. Then, of course, there was the Crouching Tiger moment when the Pedophile put her hands all over me in front of a room full of people at my parents’ house. And let’s not forget holding a chopping knife to the Pedophile’s throat at the breakfast bar at Escala, and that cold woman that took over my kitchen the entire afternoon. I get a chill just thinking about it…

“And that…” Al says, pulling me out of my daydream and pointing a finger at me, “tells me that you have seen her in this state. And when she blows, be prepared for somebody to walk out, especially if her flamethrower is aimed at our little ‘hot shot in heels.’”

“Fuck,” I hiss. The last thing I would want to have to do is choose between Ros and my… Butterfly. I would really hate to lose Ros, but that’s a no-brainer. Al stands.

“Whatever fire is in the hole at home, fix it, Chris. You and I both know that although this is your pride and joy and you built it with your bare hands, none of this…” he gestures around the room, “is going to be worth anything to you without Jewel.”

Without Jewel? What does he mean by that? She’s not going anywhere! It’s not that bad…

Is it?

I sit there pondering just how bad the situation must be for Jason and Al to check me about it without even talking to my wife, and I’m surprised to see that Al has left and Jason has taken his place.

“It’s late,” he says. “I figure you might want your lunch.” He’s standing there holding the plate his wife made for me this morning along with some utensils. Food from the hands of Butterfly. I move to take it from him

“Thanks,” I say. He hesitates.

“It’s still cold,” he says. “You want me to have Andrea heat it up?” I shake my head and take the plate.

“No, I’ll do it, but ask her to get me something to drink, please.”

“What do you want?” I think for a moment.

“Cranberry juice and sparkling water on ice.”


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

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.

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~~love and handcuffs

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 84—Adelaide Antics

More Aussie—get over it.

All other previous disclaimers still apply.

Dedicating this one to Alexis, who sends me a “thank you” email every time she gets a chapter. I may not always respond, but I see every one of them, my friend. You’re welcome, and thank you for sticking it out with me.

Chapter 84—Adelaide Antics

CHRISTIAN

I’m lying on the bed trying to catch my breath and she’s still playing with my cock. She has made it clear that she’s not done with me yet, so I better get my ass and gear and get ready for round two.

I take a few deep breaths to regain control of my body and try to draw my focus away from my aching dick. My wife playing with it before it’s ready is not necessarily a good thing, but I’m not going to tell her that.

It’s time for mind over matter, Grey. You’ve been here before—being tormented after an orgasm. You can overcome this.

My wife is in tune with me, though, even in this pickled state, and she adjusts her stimulation… gently stroking my balls and playing with my perineum like only she’s allowed to do. It gives my tender head and cock a moment of sweet reprieve, but still adds the sweet stimulation of her gentle hands. I close my eyes and absorb the feeling of my wife touching me as my cock recuperates. A few moments later, I sink into the feeling of her hands on me, stimulating my prostate from the outside.

She looks up at me, demanding, opens her mouth wide and descends upon my balls. I take a deep breath and she sucks them into her mouth. My dick twitches a little, but hasn’t yet revived. She rolls her tongue around the skin, tasting it and never taking her lust-filled blue eyes off of me.

Lick, lick, lick, suck… she’s tasting them, savoring them like candy, and after a minute or two, we have liftoff. When she sees my cock respond to the stimulation, she sucks my balls into her mouth, manipulating them like she’s giving them a blowjob.

“Sssss,” I hiss as she sucks them into her mouth, fellating my testicles like two delicious gumballs right before you devour them. It looks insane and feels even better, and it’s not long before Greystone it staring up at me at attention. He seeps a very tiny bit of grateful moisture from the head and settles back into pleasure, occasionally bobbing his applause at her masterful skills.

I gaze into her commanding blue eyes as I push my pelvis down against the hand still massaging my perineum while she gobbles my balls. Without warning, she takes my cock in her mouth again and I hiss in surprise. She bobs down on it and I can’t help but thrust. Then, she’s up on her knees, nothing touching me but her lips and tongue.

“Good God,” I hiss as I thrust slowly and evenly into her mouth, rolling my hips to keep up with her rhythm. She angles her head at just the right moment in just the right way with each thrust to accommodate the mouth fuck. Her mouth is wet and hot and as I stroke into it, saliva falls amply and provocatively from her lips. I swear if she keeps this up, this show will be over a whole lot sooner than we want.

Fucking hell! What was in that wine?

She grants me reprieve and releases my dick momentarily only to zero in on the head once more. Fucking hell.

She licks the head gently, then purses her lips in the most delicious way and sucks it into her mouth. The skin is still a little pliable and oh, so sensitive and it feels so good. Her puckered lips suck the head, the tightness and pressure never relenting, and now I want to crawl up the bed away from her. Her lips never breach the rim and she’s driving me crazy. When she loosens her lips a bit to allow saliva to run over the head of my dick only to suck it into her mouth and clean the skin again, I nearly break into convulsions.

“I want to make you come like this again,” she says, “but I can’t wait anymore…”

She scurries on top of me and drops down on my rock-hard dick, thrusting it so deep inside of her that I think I feel the opening of her uterus. I’m in elated shock as she just sits atop me, her head back and her eyes closed, her hands flat on my chest.

“Yes!” she breathes, as she flexes and contracts her pussy. “Oh, yes…”

Oh, yes is right! I can’t say it because I’m frozen in pleasure, my hands once again gripping the sheet and my mouth open, looking up at this enchantress and panting like a dog. Do what you wish to me… I’m yours… I don’t care…

She rocks her hips infinitesimally, but she may as well be wobbling like she’s working a hula-hoop! Greystone reaches out in every direction to feel her walls and I can barely function. I watch her lick and bite her lip as she widens the stance of her knees for traction and I’m mesmerized. Her mouth is moving but no words are coming out and she looks ethereal, almost like she’s praying—and this feeling in my cock is heavenly. Her walls are squeezing and grinding against my shaft ever so slightly causing this deliciously infernal burn. The light from behind her is causing a “halo” effect around her and it’s either the remnants of the wine or an extreme pleasure-induced haze, but I swear that God has sent an angel to ride me tonight…

Yeah, it’s the wine, but who the fuck cares?

Her grind intensifies just a bit, a tiny bit of roll and a tiny bit of thrust, and I know that she’s finding the angle that’s hitting that spot. I’m not even here anymore. I’m just that body that’s attached to that dick that’s bringing her to her plateau.

Use me, baby. Fucking use me til you scream…

Her hip roll becomes a steady thrust, short and intense, and her nails dig into my chest. The pain ignites my pleasure center, my balls tighten, and I almost lose it. I grunt loudly, grabbing her knees as she continues to ride me.

Yes… touch me…

I don’t know if she said it out loud, but I heard it. My hands travel up the front of her thighs to her hips, pistoning against mine and working Greystone into a fired frenzy.

“Yes!” she breathes, and I squeeze her hips. Fuck that dick, baby. Ride that cock until you’re dripping all over it.

My hands move up her alabaster skin to her breast. I squeeze her mounds and thumb her taut nipples until they pebble.

“Oh, God,” she keens, her thrusts quickening. She moves her hands from my chest and positions them on the bed on either side of my head.

I can’t play with her breasts anymore. I can’t concentrate… too good… too good…

My hands move to her thighs and clench. I have no choice but to hold on for this masterful ride. She drops her head so that her hair falls forward over my face, reminding me of the very first time she caressed me with her hair. It’s longer now, thicker, and it smells divine, and I swear that I’m slipping into a level of subspace where I’m transcending a bit, my shaft and balls being beaten within an inch of their lives as she’s now thrusting with speed and purpose, fucking me…

Fucking me like a man… like a man would fuck his woman, driving into her balls deep with sweet abandon, feeling her wrap around him over and over again as he pursues sweet release. I’m that man, only I have nothing to do with the fucking. I’m being fucked—ridden like a wild animal.

Her breaths are ragged, driven. Her rhythm is fast and smooth. She doesn’t pump and rock me with each thrust, although the bed rocks violently with our movement. No, her motion is smooth, a groove on and off my dick, the only parts of her moving are her hips as she fucks me and her knees as they open and close on either side of me with each thrust, her feet secure under my thighs anchoring her to my body.

Fuck… oh fuck…

She’s primal as she rides me—fucking feral. I can’t see her face through the mask of her hair over mine, but I know that her eyes are closed, her mind and body concentrating on nothing but riding that dick, nothing but feeling it fill her pussy over and over and over…

I grind my teeth and take in a breath as I feel the orgasm quickly rising in my balls again. She’s not ready, and I can’t go until she does.

With her hands flat on the bed, she moves her hips up and down on my cock with a very controlled and rhythmic bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce. With each silent drop, my cock threatens to blow, but I hold that painful nut, waiting… waiting…

She whimpers. Fuck, she whimpers. The sound of her voice turns me on so much. Don’t come, Grey. Fucking hold it…

I squeeze her thighs harder, trying to hold back my climax banging at my balls and demanding to be released.

She whimpers again.
Fuck, she’s killing me here!

She’s bouncing harder, faster, with purpose, her breathing intentional and ragged… Fuck, I’m not going to make it…

“Come! Come!” she hisses heavily. Shit, I hope she was talking to me, because I squeeze her thighs tight and begin to blow fantastically inside of her. Seconds later, she shrieks and begins to tremble on top of me. I grab her breasts as I’m blasting out my insides, pumping all my hopes and dreams inside of my happy place. Her legs tighten on either side of me, her hands clasp over mine on her breasts, and her head falls back, releasing cries of passion as we both ride out our orgasms.

*-*

Sunday has no particular schedule except to be at the airport at 4:30pm to fly back to Seattle. Even though the session last night was hot as fuck, we managed to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Butterfly awakes with only a slight hangover—fortunate, but surprising, considering that she probably consumed her body weight in wine yesterday and enamored several people in the process. However, after a steaming hot shower, another round with the breast pump, and lots of water and some ibuprofen for my libation princess, she’s ready to face the day.

We start with some Facetime with our babies with a promise that they will see us tomorrow night. Minnie’s separation anxiety seems to have gotten a little worse and I must say that I’m glad we’ll be home soon. I shudder to think how badly my babies suffered while I was away from them in Madrid. True, they had their mother, but I wasn’t there… and she was suffering, too. God, I can’t believe I was such an insensitive asshole.

Intent on forgetting about the huge fuck-up I made a few months ago after leaving my wife and children with no word if or when I was coming back home, I aim to have fun with my wife for our last day in Australia. So, we have a hearty breakfast and plan to spend our last day at the Adelaide Zoo. However, after talking to the front desk staff, we decide to go to the Cleland Wildlife Park instead. According to the locals, the Adelaide Zoo is nice, but you’re going to spend most of your day seeing more of the common animals that you would see in any zoo. Cleland is a bit more interactive and entertaining on short notice. We’ll get a chance to connect with and observe the indigenous species of the land in their natural habitat.

Once again, Lawrence shadows us while Jason gets us checked out of the hotel and our bags checked at the airport. He’ll meet us at Cleland with a picnic lunch we secured from a local café and then it’s to the airport with us all to return home.

My wife is looking adorably casual in another pair of skinny blue jeans and a cute T-shirt that’s tied in a knot behind her with a caption that says, “Baked in Seattle.” She’s wearing another pair of sneakers today and says that she just wants to be comfortable walking around the zoo and traveling home. I pretty much mimic her outfit in a T-shirt and jeans, although my shirt doesn’t have a caption.

We enter the park through the gift shop and past the café before we exit out the back of the building and we’re on our way to see the animals.

There are a lot of exhibits, but for the most part, many of the animals roam pretty freely so as to maintain the aspects of their natural habitat. So, it’s very easy to just walk up to them and start feeding them. However, there are some enclosures, and what’s the first one that we see?

You guessed it—the reptile enclosure.

“I don’t want to go in there,” Butterfly protests.

“Don’t be a chicken,” I say. “We don’t even know if we’ll see the same things we saw at the zoo. We’ll probably see something more interesting and exotic.”

“I see snakes on the display, Christian. We will see the same things.”

“Well, then, you know that they’re in cages, and I want to see the snakes.” I enter the reptile enclosure to see what types of exotic animals are on display. Lawrence stays with my wife outside as I take a look around.

It’s probably a good idea that Butterfly stayed outside, because some of the snakes are contained in the displays and some of them are not. Granted, they’re not crawling all over the floor, but they are on displays outside of the glass. I don’t know why I’ve always been a bit fascinated by snakes. Maybe it’s because I’ve always considered myself a bit of an unsavory character—unkind, undeserving of love, maybe even a little wicked—and snakes have historically been associated with evil, like the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden.

There are a few keepers in the reptile enclosure, all near one of the reptiles who aren’t contained. I’m fascinated by the one with this huge greenish snake wrapped around his body. I see that a small child is actually stroking the body of the snake and I walk over to get a closer look.

When I say this damn thing is huge, I mean it’s huge! I have no idea how long it is, but I’m fairly certain that it’s non-venomous if they’re allowing a child to pet it while it’s wrapped around another human being. I’ve only seen two other snakes this big. One is an anaconda and I’m pretty certain this ain’t one of those.

“Is that a Burmese python?” I ask the trainer. That’s the snake that accompanies Selma Hayak’s dance at the strip club in From Dusk Till Dawn.

“Thaht’s a good guess, mayte, but no. This is an olive poython. She can get ta be fordeen feet long and up to 20 kilos in body weight…”

Here’s another example of the varying accents in Australia. He hardly has an accent at all, and not only that, but I also note that he used a metric weight and a standard measure of length.

“Theyse ahr warm weathah poythons that eat really big pry—kangaroos, wallabays, things of thaht soht. This guhl here was actually a breedah for a while, but now she’s here with us.”

She looks strangely majestic wrapped around this guy and I reach out to caress her smooth skin…

“Would ya loike to hold hah?” he asks. I’m taken aback by the question and frown, but I find myself agreeing to hold the ginormous olive python. The keeper shows me how to cradle the snake as he helps her wrap her coils around my body. If you don’t cradle or hold them correctly, they can get hurt, which strangely means that in captivity, we’re more dangerous to them than they are to us.

I’m a tiny bit nervous holding the snake, admiring her texture and how gentle she is, and hearing more facts and statistics about how she came to be in the Adelaide preserve when olive pythons mostly inhabit northern Australia. I’m sort of wishing Butterfly was here with me to take a picture of this, but I’m certain that she’d probably have a coronary if she saw me like this. I don’t know why because it kind of feels like a big hug…

“Christian Trevelyan Grey, what the hell are you doing!?”

Is my mother here?

I raise my gaze to see a tiny and enraged Butterfly glaring at me with her hands on her hips, and the entire reptile enclosure falls silent.

“You have infant twins at home, and you come to Australia and suddenly become Steve Irwin! Have you lost your mind?” she scolds.

“It’s not dangerous, baby,” I say, and I feel like I’m twelve.

“Not dangerous??” she shrieks. “It’s a snake! A very big snake! And I can guarantee that it didn’t get that big by eating mice!”

“Thehr hahmless, ma’am,” the keeper says. “She’s not venomous and she’s gentle as a lamb.” Butterfly throws a glare at the keeper that chills my soul, and I simultaneously throw a glare at Lawrence, who simply shrugs. The shrug says a lot—he couldn’t stop her from coming in, but I’m still miffed at him.

“I thought you were staying outside,” I retort, trying to regain control of the situation.

“You’ve been in here forever,” she counters. “I would like to see the park!”

I haven’t been in here that long… have I?

“Sir,” she says, turning to the keeper, “would you please remove the huge, man-eating reptile from my husband?”

“Yes, ma’am. C’mon, guhl,” the keeper says as he gently begins to uncoil the python from my body and wrap her around his. I can see that he’s unsuccessfully trying to hide his mirth as he retrieves the snake. There’s no use in trying to reason with her right now. She might as well have walked in on me with another woman.

Actually, she did.

She does a military turn to leave and marches towards the door. Just before she gets there, we see a group of children gathered around another keeper. I’m sure we have the exact same thought. What in this room could have children gathered around like that?

She approaches cautiously and stands there, easily able to see over the children and somewhat mesmerized, I must say, by whatever has their attention. I look over her shoulder and the keeper is handling a bearded dragon. I don’t know what has Butterfly so mesmerized, but she is completely entranced. When the keeper asks if she wants to hold it, she extends her hand without even speaking. The keeper places the dragon in her flat palm, and she examines it carefully while the keeper gives us little factoids about it, like the fact that its beard does indeed look like unshaved whiskers and extends fully when he feels threatened.

I snicker at my wife’s obvious double standard and lean in to get a laugh at her expense.

“Mommy, can we keep it?” I whine like one of the children watching my wife, causing them to snicker. It breaks her trance and she looks over her shoulder at me. “You can hold a dragon, but I can’t hold a python.” She sticks her tongue out at me and hands the dragon back to the keeper with a “Thank you.”

“I told you at the zoo that I don’t have problems with lizards. It’s snakes that are my issue,” she says once we clear the door. “And how can you even compare the two? That dragon was twelve inches tops from nose to tail. That snake was ten feet long easily.”

“Fourteen, but who’s counting?” I say, walking past her and looking at the full-sized map since she has the small one.

“You are such an a—ah! Oh, God!” I turn around to see my wife leaping backwards and looking at something on the ground. A large ball of fur is running towards her, and she yelps. And then another. I look at the map and discover that these furry little not-so-adorable creatures are potoroos. Butterfly doesn’t like them too much. As a matter of fact, she could very much do without them.

Potoroos have really long tails and are about the size of a young housecat. When they stand, they resemble very small kangaroos. However, when they run on all fours—which they do more often—they look like very large, really fat rats. They scamper right across the trail as you’re walking by, causing my wife to nearly jump out of her skin when she sees the first one. I’m certain she would have scurried up the nearest tree if she could. Once she sees the first one, she has the displeasure of seeing them scamper all over the park in herds looking for food like giant rats in the sewers of New York. She opts not to feed them, although Lawrence gets a kick out of letting one of them eat from his hand.

A tiny bit of fun never hurt anybody.

A wallaby walks up to us on the trail and Butterfly leans down to feed it. However, a potoroo runs over to partake in the feast and Butterfly is having none of that. So, the poor wallaby has to wait until the next person comes with a treat. No worries, Butterfly. We’ll get a chance to see more wallabies deeper in the park.

Our next stop is the rainbow Lorikeet display. Two of the birds are huddled on the fence together and I swear, they look like their snuggling and making out. The minute one walks down the fence for some room, the other walks right back up to it and continues to rub against the first bird’s feathers.

“Is that how they mate?” I ask Butterfly, who has downloaded the Cleland app to help us identify the animals and get more information on them.

“Maybe,” she says, scrolling through her phone. “They’re mostly monogamous and most of them mate for life. So… these two could be a couple.”

Could be? It looks like one is going to mount the other right here on the fence!

After a quick left turn past the Lorikeets, we arrive at one of three kangaroo habitats—the Kangaroo Island kangaroos. You can walk right up to them and feed them right from your hand. From there we see the swamp wallabies, confirming what I said earlier—that we would get another chance to feed the wallabies without being swamped by what Butterfly so lovingly refers to as “wildlife rats.”

She’ll hold a fancy lizard, but she won’t go near the potoroos… My wife is strange.

Next, we walk through one of the aviaries in the park where we see various species of native birds, water birds, and forest birds and on the other end outside of the aviary, we see the cape barren geese and the emu. I think I remember seeing the emu and some kind of kangaroo at the Seattle Zoo, but I’m not sure. I have to say that I’m getting a kick out of not just seeing the usual suspects as I’m certain we would have had we gone to the Adelaide Zoo instead.

We spend a little time looking at the wombats, but unfortunately, they like to hide in their little dens or holes or whatever you call them. So, they’re not really interested in putting on a show for us. However, it’s a warm day, so the echidnas are out and about on display. They’re these tiny little things that favor miniature porcupines, but when I see them, I swear they remind me of powder puffs—maybe not so puffy, but they still look like powder puffs.

Further into the park are the western grey kangaroos and the yellow-footed flock wallabies. We see the wallabies first, and I mistake them for just more kangaroos, but the locals inform us that wallabies have shorter legs than kangaroos. I only see the difference after they point it out.

A western grey kangaroo with a baby in her pouch comes to eat from my wife’s hand, which is somewhat unusual, we’re told, since kangaroos are extremely protective of their babies. She actually holds onto Butterfly’s hands with one of hers while she eats the feed from her palm. Of course, I must capture that for posterity.

Jason calls us to inform us that he has arrived with our lunch, so we head to the picnic area, intent on saving the Tasmanian Devils and the Koala display for last. More time has passed than we thought as it’s easy to lose yourself in the various species of animals in the park, especially watching them thrive in their own habitat.

“Is it me or does is seem like we haven’t really had any alone time on this trip?” I begin as we tuck into a delicious picnic lunch of Thai salad with beef strips; chicken, avocado, and pesto rolls; a stocked deli and Mediterranean antipasto tray; fruit salad, croissants, sparkling mineral water, bottled water and of course, a bottle of white wine. My wife raises her head slowly and cocks it to the side, gazing at me like a strange animal.

“Well, yes, of course there’s been a lot of fucking,” I acknowledge, “but I just mean out and about.” She begins to load her fork with Thai salad.

“Well, we are in a foreign country,” she replies. “We have to have our security. It’s the nature of the beast—you pointed that out to me. And we’re in a very touristy part of the world. It’s not like we went to a retreat.” She takes the forkful of her salad.

“I know. I guess I kind of expected more ‘gazing at sunsets’ and that sort of thing. Speaking of sunsets…” I pull out the camera and scroll back to the pictures of the sunset that I took at Barossa Valley.

“Christian, these are beautiful,” she says as she scrolls through the pictures, temporarily abandoning her lunch. “Where did you take these?”

“Wine country,” I tell her. “Near the end as we were leaving.” She looks at me and frowns.

“Where was I?” she asks. “How could I have possibly missed this?”

“You were asleep, darling,” I inform her with a smile. The fruits of the land had you knocked out completely. She twists her lips.

“You’re going to rub that in,” she complains, handing me back the camera.

“Not as much as you did last night,” I say before taking a bite of my chicken wrap. The words are out of my mouth before I know it, and I don’t regret it. It’s true. She raises a brow to me and helps herself to some antipasto.

“I made a call a few days ago,” I say. “Remember when I said that I wanted us to have some kind of training when we got back to Seattle?” She nods. “Well, a couple of old, trusted acquaintances got back in touch with me and are willing to set something up for next weekend.” She swallows her food.

“That soon,” she says, picking at her salad. I place my fork on the plate and take her hand.

“Is there any reason why we should wait?” I ask. “We need some formal training.”

“What… exactly is involved in ‘formal training?’” she asks.

“We learn from people with experience how the lifestyle fits into our relationship,” I say, trying not to be too obvious to possible prying ears.

“Hmmm,” she says before turning back to her lunch.

“What?” I ask.

“I’m not sure how I feel about ‘formal training,’” she says. “It brings the Pedo-bitch She-thing to mind.” I twist my lips. I hadn’t thought about that.

“It’s going to be necessary, baby,” I tell her. “We’re going about this the wrong way. We jumped into it with both feet, but we never really knew what the other needed from the relationship. I’m feeling around in the dark for your needs and you’re pushing yourself beyond your limits for mine. That’s totally unacceptable.”

“But… strangers,” she says, trepid, “I realize the importance of assistance, believe me, but the thought of training for something so intimate with outsiders…” She’s shaking her head.

“When you needed guidance, you went to your friend, Michelangelo,” I point out. “This is going to be no different.”

“This is going to be world’s different,” she says, firmly but softly. “Someone’s going to be teaching me how to be a submissive. I remember the BDSM club, Christian, I don’t know if I want anybody to see me like that!”

See her like wha…?

“Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute. I remember the BDSM club, too. I don’t want anybody to see you like that, either! Is that the kind of training you think I mean?”

Her expression softens, a mixture of relief and confusion.

“I tho… well… well, what other kind of training is there?”

I slump back in the chair a bit, my own emotions a bit of relief and amusement.

“Baby, you’re a psychiatrist,” I say softly, leaning in her direction. “You took human sexuality as part of your required studies. You must know that the biggest percentage of the lifestyle is psychological—what you mentally gain from the experience. The physical is an aid; it’s a means to an end. It’s not the meat of the relationship or the lifestyle. You must know that.”

“Well, yes, but…” Just as she begins her protest, I can see one of those three-second-funnels run through her head with a myriad of scenarios and questions and situations and realizations and in just as much time, she says, “You’re right. My mind is totally blowing past that part because it’s wrapped around the physical portion of it. I don’t know how I could have missed it.”

“Because you’re in it,” I point out, stroking the skin on the back of her hand. “It’s the same thing as being able to help someone else face and conquer their fears, but not being as successful about facing your own. It’s a normal human flaw. But now that I understand more clearly, I can tell you. Our training will be all instructional, informational, and verbal. We may take part in an activity or two if it’s required or we desire it, but I don’t want anybody else seeing or touching that beautiful body any more than you do.”

I stroke her cheek with the back of my hand and she physically relaxes. Geez, if she thought for one second that I would want anyone but me exercising any dominance of any kind on her, I’m extremely glad to dispel that theory. Touch my Butterfly? In a pig’s eye! And some other horny Dom watching me spank or flog her so that he can go impose his will on some pain whore somewhere with images of my Butterfly in his head? I think not!

“Yes,” she says, “yes, I think I would like to pursue this… to see… what we need to do to enhance our relationship and… to meet each other’s needs.” She’s choosing her words carefully. I can tell.

“I want to be a good husband, and a good Dom to you,” I say without hesitation or careful choosing of my words. “I want us to come to an agreement of what works for us instead of you feeling like my will must be imposed upon you. When I’ve lost control, I do want you to help me back to where I need to be, but only to the extent of what you can take, not what you think I need. You’re the perfect Domme for me when the time comes—and with very little training—but I’m definitely not the perfect Dom for you… yet.”

“That’s what we’re aiming for?” she asks uncertain. “Perfection?”

“As fucking close as we can get,” I say, bringing her hand to my lips and pressing a gentle kiss on her fingers. She gives me a faint, coy smile.

“I can deal with close,” she says softly.

We finish our lunch talking lightly about the things we plan to do when we get back home, but I can tell that she’s still distracted by the previous content of our conversation. I’ll just have to show her that everything will be better throughout the course of our training. She’s not some mindless, meaningless submissive. She’s my wife, and it’s important that she knows what she means to me—even in that submissive role… especially in that submissive role.

We’re back on the trail to commune with the rest of the animals in the park before we must head to the airport. Our first stop is the red kangaroo area. The kangaroos stick around in groups of two or three—one, occasionally—especially babies with parents. All of the animals are pretty docile and accustomed to human interaction, and the red kangaroo is no exception. I lean down to feed one of them while Butterfly is feeding another. He lies down on the grass in the shade and gets comfortable, forcing me to walk over to him and squat. While he’s chilling under the tree, I extend my open hand with the feed and he just chomps away. I reach up and rub his head, giving him a scratch behind his ear. The freaking diva raises his chin like a dog as if to say, “You missed a spot.” I hear a little giggle and look over at my wife, who’s videotaping my interaction with my latest friend on the digital camera. I give her a good show and scratch him under his neck, since he so obligingly raised his head to give me a better angle.

We continue through the preserve and arrive at the dingoes den. They have a beautiful coat, and amongst themselves, they’re very playful. However, they’re considered “pests” and as an old tale goes, they like to eat babies in Australia. I don’t know how true that is, but according to one of the locals also attending the park, there is a story from the 80’s that a woman named Lindy Chamberlain’s baby mysteriously disappeared while on a camping trip.

Dingoes, like any other animal in the wild, are opportunistic and mostly eat small animals like rabbits and rodents. At the time, the ranger was touting that dingoes in the area were becoming quite aggressive and due to the eating habits and reputation of the dingo, Chamberlain declared that a dingo had eaten her baby. The story is apparently pretty controversial because some people say that dingoes don’t really eat babies. Yet, she lost her baby and blamed a dingo.

Though the infant’s clothing was discovered mangled and bloody about two and a half miles away from the campsite, the child was never found.

The dingo is a carnivorous canine, likened to a reddish-brown wild dog, with a longer snout and sharper teeth. Whether they attack babies or just eat rabbits remains to be seen. However, the pure dingo is an endangered species because of crossbreeding with domestic dogs, so pest or not, the pure dingoes in this habitat are protected.

We finally get to see some real, live Tasmanian devils. The little buggers are tiny little black things that scurry around looking for food or whatever it is they’re looking for. This being my first time ever seeing a live Tasmanian devil, I try to compare it to the cartoon.

“No resemblance,” I say. Butterfly frowns.

“To what?” she asks.

“To the cartoon,” I reply. She pauses for a moment, then laughs loudly.

“Besides the ears, have you ever seen a rabbit that looks like Bugs Bunny?” she asks mirthfully.

She’s got a point.

Many of these devils are very small, but they’ll only get to be just over two feet long at their longest only about 18 pounds. I would say that all of these are less than ten pounds. They can run pretty fast—about 8 miles/hour—and although he’s not leaving utter destruction in his path, this little guy in the enclosure looks like he’s trying to reach that speed as he runs around and around and around in circles while his friends just sit on a rock watching him. I guess the cartoon Tassy is more of a caricature of what the Tasmanian devil should look like, because I see little to no resemblance whatsoever.

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Now, of course, Butterfly has to have the experience of holding a koala. They’re cute and lovable and right up her alley, and they’re actually very strong. My wife adores them. Had I jokingly asked if we could take one home like I did the bearded dragon, I’m certain she would have agreed and demanded that I find a way for us to have a Koala transported to the Crossing. I could see myself trying to convince her that we are not the Neverland Ranch and a koala is not Bubbles. Oh, the arguing with PETA and animal control and the zoning board for keeping an exotic animal in the area…

And I quickly bring my mind back from the tangent.

We pet them for a while and learn about their upbringing and temperament from the keeper while they feed on sprigs with eucalyptus leaves. Finally, Butterfly gets her much-anticipated opportunity to hold the koala. The keeper instructs us to don a smock that’s very soft like velvet or something, almost like the koala’s fir and the same color. We each get the opportunity to hold the koala in our arms and Butterfly is completely stricken. She gets her picture taken with the little guy and I think he’s as stricken with her as she is with him—he won’t release her when it’s my turn to hold him.

We finally come to a compromise and Butterfly pets him while I hold him. That’s the only way that he would settle in my arms! When he finally does, though, he cuddles into me and continues to eat his eucalyptus leaves. Butterfly stays by my side while I take a picture with it to keep the little guy from squirming. It’s like holding a small child—well, not my kids. My kids are cuter, but this little guy is pretty cute, too. We have to be careful while we’re handling them as they have powerful claws and can scratch you pretty badly. That’s why we wore the smocks.

Butterfly is sad to leave the wildlife park, particularly the koala area, but we stop at the gift shop where we buy lots of trinkets and souvenirs as well as copies of our pictures from the Koala experience. Oh, and she purchased several stuffed koalas, too.


ANASTASIA

Traveling to and from Australia means that you can literally be traveling for about 48 hours to three days, if you count swapping planes and layovers. What I can’t understand is if we could fly from Sydney straight to Seattle after a 1 ½-hour layover—which is what we did—why couldn’t we fly from Seattle straight to Sydney? Since I’m not the pilot, it’s a rhetorical question. And since the flight is already done, it’s also a moot point.

There’s a bit of fanfare at the airport when we arrive—not much, but more than I expected since no one knew that we had left the country. I assume that someone else must have been flying out or arriving at SeaTac, and they just got a bonus capturing the Greys.

Boy, was I wrong!

I’m sad to leave Australia and my fuzzy koala friends, but I’m very happy to be home with my bed and my babies, though I can honestly admit that I didn’t miss the snow. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on those two little pink bundles when we arrive on Sunday evening, and Gail is right on top of it, handing me Minnie the moment I remove my coat and settle in the family room. Once that order of business is complete, she dives right into the next one.

“Did I correctly see you with a giant snake wrapped around your body?”

Christian and I look at each other and back at her.

“What?” he asks incredulously.

“Either someone has some very good photoshopping skills or there’s a picture circulating around the internet of you with a Burmese python wrapped around your body… in those clothes!” she confirms pointing at him.

“Are you serious?” he asks. “That couldn’t have been a day ago! Did you see any paps around?” he inquires of Jason.

“Um, I was retrieving lunch at the time,” Jason replies, “but Ben didn’t notify me of any press when I got back.”

“Then who took the picture?” I ask.

“It says Renee Schuller took the picture,” Gail says, scrolling through her phone. “She was another visitor at the zoo when she heard someone yell your name. Knowing who you were, she snapped the picture and posted it on her Facebook. It went viral in a matter of an hour.” My husband slowly turns his head to me, and I shrink a bit.

“Well, what did you expect?” I defend. “I walk into a reptile enclosure that I didn’t want to go inside in the first place to find my wayward husband who had spent so much time in there, I thought one of the reptiles had eaten him, and when I get in there, he’s got a god… gosh darn snake wrapped around his body that I discover is over twice as long as he is tall! Yes, I flipped the f… freak out.”

“You called out his name?” Jason asks.

“Yes, I was horrified! He had a frag-nabbit python wrapped around his body!”

“And someone recognized him just because you called out his name?” Gail protests.

“She called out my full name—all three of them—loudly, and somebody knew who I was. I was expecting to turn around and see Grace standing there! Instead, I’m standing there being scolded by my wife trying to convince her that the snake is harmless. Even the keeper was laughing at me. Oh! But not five minutes later, she’s holding a dragon!” All eyes snap to me.

“God, you are so dramatic,” I chastise.

“You were holding a Komodo dragon?” Gail asks surprised.

“No!” I reply, a bit perturbed with my husband. “I was holding a bearded dragon, not a Komodo dragon. Komodo dragons are much bigger than bearded dragons…”

“Yeah, like a hundred and eighty pounds,” Jason points out.

“Exactly!” I say. “I was holding a lizard that was about 10 inches long. He was holding a 14-foot python!”

“And it was an olive python, not a Burmese python,” Christian defends.

“What’s the difference?” I retort.

“About ten feet,” Jason interjects. Christian makes that one-up kind of face, and I just want to punch him.

“Fourteen feet, Christian!” I announce. “Fourteen feet of man-eating reptile wrapped around your body! Exactly how did you expect me to react?”

“I didn’t expect you to be there!” he counters.

“Then you should’ve brought your as… butt out of the reptile cage!” I retort sharply.

“What is this thing you’re doing?” Jason points at me with an open hand. “Gosh darn butt freaking frag-nabbit—what is this?”

“My children are almost a year old which means they’re going to be forming more words which means I don’t want any cursing around my babies.” I announce.

“Yet, you’re cursing me out about a flipping snake,” Christian mumbles, deliberately loud enough for me to hear him. Did I curse once? Did I say even one curse word? One?

“I’m going to hit him,” I say calmly to Jason while pointing to my husband. I’m going to hit him really hard and he may need medical attention.

“Remember, boss,” Jason says, “you have to sleep with her.”

Christian twists his lips but quickly gets the point and goes to the refrigerator.

“Hey! You guys are back!” Chuck comes from the area of the elevator, acknowledging our presence. “It’s been dead here without you,” he says, coming over to the sofa and giving me a kiss on the cheek. “How was Australia?”

“It was an adventure,” I say, somewhat dryly. Chuck sits on the arm of the sofa next to Keri.

“You didn’t have a good time?” he asks, curious. I sigh and kiss my yawning baby girl.

“No, we really had a great time—a couple of adventures here and there, but nothing to write home about… except when someone gets a picture of you and posts it on Facebook.” I twist my lips as Christian comes back into the family room with a Budvar, drinking it straight from the bottle.

“Oh, you saw the picture,” Chuck says. “What did you think?”

“I didn’t see it,” I reply. “I was there!” He turns to Christian.

“What did you think?” Chuck asks.

“I didn’t see it either, but I will,” he says dryly, before taking a drink of his beer.

“Ooookay, so, that’s my cue to shut the hell up,” Chuck says.

“Good idea,” Jason advises, “and watch your language.”

“What did I say?” Chuck says, shrugging.

“Hades,” Jason replies. “Her Highness doesn’t want any cursing around the children since they’ll be picking up words soon.” Chuck nods.

“Will you ever stop calling me Her Highness?” I ask.

“Old habits die hard and you started it, so live with it,” he replies matter-of-factly. I twist my lips and turn to Chuck.

“So, Chuck, tell us about your trip, first. How did things go?” I ask. Chuck sighs.

“Well, I got to see Mom and Dad’s house… not new, but new to me. It’s in Rapid City and it’s really beautiful—four bedrooms and three baths. Mom and Dad don’t need that much room, but they wanted to have room when Sunny and the kids came to visit. It’s a beautiful place and I would have loved to share some of those missed years with them, but…” He trails off and clears his throat.

“You know that we spent the days in court,” he continues, entwining his fingers with Keri’s. “Most of the nights we spent in front of the fireplace with good old-fashioned hot cocoa and marshmallows, going through albums and pictures of old times… and things that I missed—birthday parties, Christmases, Thanksgivings. We had good, home-cooked meals. I mean our meals here are pretty great, but there’s nothing like Mom’s cooking. She made this cabbage soup that she used to make when I was at home. I haven’t had it in forever! And the pan cornbread! Keri had three helpings!” he laughs.

“Eet wahs deleshush!” Keri exclaims, her eyes large. “It wahm an wholesome. ‘S like a huhg from de inside!”

We all laugh, and Chuck continues to tell us how his parents connected with him in their home and in their town, how they saw the sights of the city and even visited Mt. Rushmore. We don’t rush him to talk about the trial. We just let him ramble on for a while about reconnecting with his parents and wanting to go back home to visit more often, now that he actually has a home.

“Joe is a miserable bastard,” he says finally, as if he were saving the worst for last. “He sees what he’s done, and he knows what he’s done. He just doesn’t care. He found a way to make himself the victim the entire time. He told the court about my drinking, my terrible behavior—you know, destroying his wedding and stuff—and how he was desperately trying to protect his parents from my toxicity. It was like he had a catalog of every terrible thing I had ever done when I was drunk. If I were on the outside looking in, I would have taken his side, too.”

“So… what happened? Did he win?” Jason asks. Chuck purses his lips.

“We had an uphill battle, me and mom,” Chuck says. “We had to prove that we had lost something besides time in order for it to be an actionable case. Joe spent months preparing for this case. Every bit of my dirty laundry has been aired in South Dakota… the cars I wrecked, the wedding I destroyed, the break-ups I’ve had—if I stole a pack of gum, it’s now on the court record. At first, everybody was looking at me like I was a criminal, but when we got a chance to speak…”

He clears his throat again and has to regain his countenance a bit. It’s obviously hard for him to talk about it, and now I can see why he waited to discuss it.

“Joe talked for the whole first day, which I thought was strange since he was the defendant. He had all kinds of convincing evidence as to why he felt like I shouldn’t be allowed contact with my parents. He looked like the perfect, simple little country boy just trying to protect his ‘maw and paw’ while I went off to the city to live a fast life and get drunk. He even used our accident against me,” Chuck says, looking at me, “claiming that he came to Seattle to see me last year only to find me laid up, busted, and broken after having an accident from driving while drunk. I looked like Satan when he was done. I didn’t even want to take the stand. We went to a restaurant that night for dinner, and they wouldn’t even serve us!”

He shakes his head while Christian and I exchange a glance. He tried to use my accident to gain ground for his selfish actions—that unfeeling asshole!

“I came back to the house that night, and I told Mom that I didn’t think it was worth it. I would be coming back to Seattle at the end of the week and I would never have to see that town or him again if I didn’t want to, but they have to live there. Mom wouldn’t let me quit. She told me that he stole something very valuable from us and that if we didn’t see this through, win or lose, that he would automatically win. Then Keri gave me a pep talk and pretty much said the same thing Mom said. All I had was the truth—I didn’t have a mountain of memories and journal entries to spill in front of the court. I didn’t know how effective I would be.

“We went to court the next day and got the surprise of our lives. With a town full of angry ass people staring at me, I took the stand. Mom’s lawyer asked me questions, and I told my side. I didn’t deny anything he said. I owned up to everything that I did, except I wouldn’t let him use that accident against me. I told the court about the car that T-boned us and that anyone who wanted to know what happened in that accident could Google my name, the date, and that accident in Seattle and get the truth.”

“Did they do that?” I ask.

“Most of the court was on the phone while I was still testifying,” he responds. “That’s when the tide changed.”

Jesus, I’m glad to hear that! I’m sitting on the edge of my seat—literally—waiting to hear the rest of what happened.

“With one statement and in a matter of about a minute, I had established Joe as a liar and even worse, an opportunist. He not only lied about me and the accident, but he tried to use it against me to his advantage in a court of law, which is perjury. To keep him out of jail, his lawyer recalled him to the stand where he testified that he didn’t intentionally lie on me; he just didn’t have all the facts. With my history and seeing me laid up from a car accident, of course he assumed I was driving drunk. The judge opted not to charge him with perjury, but the damage was already done.

“I told the court about my time in rehab and AA; the years of trying to get in touch with my parents and how he destroyed all my letters; thinking that they hated me and never wanted to see me again; doing my tours of duty and coming back and joining a private security force; getting into that terrible accident that almost killed me; only being able to reach my parents because I had a wealthy boss who tracked them down after Joe came to see me asking for money for them and told me that they still wanted nothing to do with me; having an entire family all across the country that didn’t even know I was alive… I’d say the tide shifted pretty strongly.

“Mom had a plan… a big one. Never try to pull one over on your mother. She’ll get you every time.” He chuckles and shakes his head.

“My family came from everywhere!” he says, “not all of them, but a lot of them. They all talked about watching my mother suffer, about the years she spent researching and following dry trails and trying to track me down, waiting for a phone call or something in the mail to tell her something, anything, any tiny bit of hope. Mom had been searching for years trying to find me—trying to get me some help if that’s what I needed—and all the time, I was okay. I was in full recovery and living a healthy life. What Joe did wasn’t just selfish. It was cruel.

“Three days of nothing but solid testimony against my brother—hours and hours of recounting all the stories he told and the lengths he went to in order to ensure that I wouldn’t be able to get in touch with anybody and that nobody would be able to get in touch with me. Christian, as horrible as it was, had that car not nearly killed me, I never would have found my family, and they never would have found me.

“The parade of people that came through that courtroom talking about how my mother suffered, what she went through and what she did—they laid a foundation for her, and she got on that stand and cinched the deal.

“Mom had records—money that she paid for internet searches and background checks—nothing that panned out because she was using amateur resources and by the time she was searching for me, I was already in the service. After I didn’t hear anything from them, I moved on with my life. Jay called me about this great opportunity, I came to Seattle, and that was that… but Mom, she now had to deal with what she accepted as the death of her son and was going through therapy… money trail.”

I see where he’s going with this. They’re suing for slander and defamation of character, but he didn’t want money—he never did. He just wanted somebody to tell Joe that he was wrong, but you don’t get that kind of satisfaction in civil court. There has to be something lost—like I lost wages when David kidnapped me, and I lost money when that Keystone Cop took my credit cards—that can result in a need for restitution and possibly be a catalyst for punitive damages. Maddie produced that loss. Now, they had a real case.

“Joe had tried to make the therapy seem like it was my fault for disappearing. It didn’t float. Even his ex-wife showed up in court talking about how obsessed he was with keeping me and my parents apart even before she left him. In the end, he lost.”

Those were the words I was waiting for.

“He lost the case?” I confirm. “You won?” Chuck nods.

“Mom showed a monetary loss and had records and witnesses to prove it. I didn’t really show a monetary loss except for the stamps on the letters he destroyed. But when I mentioned the wealthy boss who tracked my parents down, there’s an expense that can be tracked… and it was enough.”

“So, what happened?” I ask, anxious to hear Joe’s fate.

“The jury found in our favor,” he says. “They awarded us one of the weirdest settlements I’ve ever seen in my life. Joe has to pay me and my mom a dollar a week… every week… for life!”

“What?” I ask, a bit surprised as well as a bit appalled.

“Yep, and if he misses a payment, he’ll be held in contempt of court and arrested.”

“You’re kidding,” Christian says.

“I’m not,” Chuck replies. “He can’t file bankruptcy to discharge it, because it’s something that he can pay. There’s no hardship. Even if he had other debts that he couldn’t pay, this one still couldn’t be discharged. He is locked in. If he doesn’t make the payments, he’ll be held in contempt of court and then have to do jail time. Then he’ll have to pay fines when he gets out and he’ll still have to pay our restitution. The only way that he can get out of this is to leave the state, but even that has its repercussions. He would still have to make the payments wherever he goes and if he doesn’t and the court finds out, there’ll be a warrant issued for his arrest and he’ll be a fugitive. He’s locked in.”

“How did things end?” Jason asks. “I mean, I know you had to have something to say.”

“I told him to never darken my door again and forget that I’m alive except when he has to write my check. Then I let him know that every penny that he gives me is going to a local alcohol rehab program so that more people can be success stories like me.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Fifty-two dollars a year—that hardly seems like compensation for what you lost.”

“Can you really put a price on what he did to me?” Chuck says. “To my family? They thought I was dead… my mom thought I was dead. He knew I was alive… and well. He knew I had gone through rehab. He knew I was in the military. He knew, but he was holding this anger for what I did at his wedding, and subsequently somehow blamed me for ruining his life. My mother can’t stand not to speak to him because that’s her son, and I wouldn’t expect it to be any other way, but what he did to us is immeasurable.

“I think the judge did the right thing, because assigning a specific dollar amount would have been an insult. Yet, by saying, ‘Send them a dollar a week every week for life…’ you don’t know when that’s going to end, so there’s no set dollar amount on that. Plus, he’ll never forget. He’ll never forget what he did to us and why he has to pay for it, even if it’s just a dollar. He was wrong. He was very wrong, and somebody in authority confirmed that. Somebody told him he was wrong, and he can’t take out a loan or hock his drawers and pay off the debt and call it even. It’ll never be even. What he did to us will never be even! Yeah, I think the judge did the right thing.”

He takes a deep breath and lets it out while Keri rubs his back.

“Mom surprised me, though,” he says once he’s calm again. “She kissed him in the middle of the courtroom right after the verdict in front of everybody. She told him that she loved him, but that she must have failed somewhere as a mother. She told him that if he doesn’t pay that dollar every week to me and to her like the judge ordered that contempt of court wouldn’t be his only problem. She said that $2 a week was the very least that he could do after what he put his family through, and that if he couldn’t do that, she would never speak to him again. She said that she has unconditionally given the last fifteen years to him and that she was giving the rest to me, and he could be a part of it, or he doesn’t have to. It’s his choice. And then we left.”

“Wow… talk about courtroom drama,” I say.

“I feel so bad for Joe,” Chuck says. I almost hurt myself rubbernecking over to him.

“Why in the he… heck do you feel bad for Joe?” Christian asks

“Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying he didn’t deserve what he got, but I do feel sorry for him. I don’t know if he has any friends, but he’s alienated his family to the degree that I don’t think it can ever be fixed. I’m his brother. No matter what happened in our lives, I’m still his brother, and look what he did to me. Look what he did to my mom and dad. Nobody’s ever going to trust him again.

“I was under the influence of a controlling drug that I let go of and never touched again. He did this with sound mind and body. He has no excuse. I can forgive him for what he did to me. I really can. I can’t forgive what he did to my mom and dad.”

He shakes his head again and the room falls silent.

“So, on another note, my parents are going to spend an early Christmas with Sunny and the kids, and then, they’re coming here and staying through the New Year. I had a feeling you wouldn’t mind if they stayed here, but they can stay at my place in Bainbridge if it’s an imposition.” His face is alight again with joy, talking about his parents coming for Christmas.

“Now you know better than that,” Christian scolds. “Find out what would make them more comfortable. I’m fine with whatever they want to do.”

“When will they arrive?” I ask.

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll have to get the Bainbridge house cleaned for their arrival just in case,” he says. “Now, enough about me. I want to hear about the trip. I’ve never been to Australia. Jason, what do you think of Sophie’s new look?”

Jason frowns and Gail drops her head.

“Dammit, Chuck, thanks a lot!” she exclaims. I look down at Minnie and she’s asleep in my arms. Mikey is out cold in the Pack-n-Play. Crisis averted. Gail didn’t even notice.

“What new look?” Jason asks. Gail shakes her head and takes out her phone. She swipes the screen and enters something into it. Jason reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone.

“What the fuck!?” he yells.

And two babies are startled and crying.

“God! Thanks, Jason!” I declare and try to get Minnie to settle while Christian retrieves Mikey and gently begins to sooth him. Jason is unfazed, at least by my scolding.

“Gail, what the hell?” he hisses quietly through his teeth.

“She wanted to try something different,” Gail defends. Did she shave her head? Oh, dear God…

“What’s wrong? What is it?” I ask, praying that she didn’t follow Harmony’s lead and scalp herself.

“Purple!” he barks at me. “Her hair is purple! She looks like one of those rainbow horses you used to see in those cartoons! Who’s idea was this?”

0c92ef8bcafa0f5da9440b78ed459cb6And now I’m trying to suppress a laugh. The hormonal, emotional teenage girl dyed her hair purple. Worse things have happened.

“Calm down, Jason. It’s a rinse,” Gail chastises. “It’ll be gone in about three shampoos and then she’ll probably be green.”

“Oh, God,” Jason laments. “Please don’t let child services see her. They’ll probably take her away from me.”

“Um, Jason,” I say, “child services removes a child from abusive and dangerous situations, not because she dyed her hair purple.” He sighs heavily and rolls his eyes.

“This is just a phase, right? Tell me this is a phase. I hope this is a phase…”

“Oh, for God’s sake, man, stop being so dramatic. What are you going to do when she brings home a boyfriend?” Gail chides. I raise a brow and turn to Jason.

“Ugh,” he groans, puts his hand on his forehead, and turns away. Gail and I chuckle quietly, and I just shake my head. She’s already in that stage, Jay. You better prepare yourself.


A/N: The way that this picture was previously labeled in Pinterest made me think I might have made young Sophie’s hair purple before. I don’t think I did, but just in case, someone let me know if I did.

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.

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The Australia Picture Board can be found here: https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey-the-trip-to-australia/ and the pictures from today’s chapter are in the Cleland Wildlife Park” sections.

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~~love and handcuffs

 

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 70—The Women

Hello my friends,

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

Help A Family Bury A Beloved Son

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

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

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

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

Chapter 70—The Women

ANASTASIA

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

“I didn’t!” Val protests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmmm,” she says, unmoved.

“Why do you think that was?”

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

“So, what was her problem?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

“That’s what I thought,” I say.

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

“Well, what did you say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the moment is lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*-*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are things going?” I ask.

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

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

“I can imagine,” I say.

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

“Ana!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is she studying?” Addie asks in disbelief.

“Social work.” She frowns.

“You’re kidding.” I shake my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ana, what is it?” she asks.

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

“Yes,” she says, “I picked them all.”

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

“Yes,” she says unapologetically.

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

“Yes,” she replies finitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You yelled at Mom?”

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

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

Welp, that’s enough for me.

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

Jesus, that’ll add fuel to the fire.

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

He does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk to anyone who will listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too graphic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinderella’s room.

I don’t want to go in there.

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

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

*-*

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

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

I freeze. Shit, he heard my conversation with my daughter? I fucking hate that shit. I’ve done my fair share of eavesdropping, but I hate that he heard that—for many reasons. I was emotional when I said it; it was a private moment with my little girl; and it sounds really bad.

“You don’t like your life as it is?” he asks when I say nothing. I think about my response.

“I don’t like what’s expected of me simply because of who I am,” I reply honestly. “I have to behave a certain way, do all the right things, say all the right things, make all the right decisions and if I don’t, there’s hell to pay.”

“But, baby, that’s part of being an adult.” I wrench out of his grasp and sit up.

“No, Christian, that’s part of being Anastasia Grey,” I say, turning to face him. “I was an adult before I was Anastasia Grey, and I wasn’t under scrutiny for everything I said and did. Anastasia Steele came and went as she pleased. There was no one looking over her shoulder, no security details, nobody watching her every move. She was an adult, too, and she was not under the microscope. No one accused her of being a gold-digger. Nobody turned their noses up to her because of who she was or what she had. She only had to prove who she was, prove she was worthy, when she met you. Anastasia Steele became Cinderella and suddenly, her entire life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are on display for everybody to see, and no matter what happens, Cinderella has to keep smiling. Cinderella has to keep representing the castle. Cinderella’s not allowed to hurt in public or fall apart in public and heaven forbid if Cinderella has a human moment at all. Le gasp, call the congeniality police! We have a major violation here! So, yes, there are many times when I don’t like being Cinderella!”

I rise from the bed and leave the guest room. I need to get to my breast pump or the shower before Niagara Falls releases from my boobs.

CHRISTIAN


“She’s not in the ladies’ room, Christian,” Val informs me after I’ve combed nearly every inch of this place looking for my wife. At first, I thought she was just being childish. Now, I’m scared shitless because I don’t know where she is. Bad things happen when my wife disappears.

“Sir,” Jason darts over to me and puts his hand on my arm. “I’ve tracked her phone. She’s at the Crossing.” I frown.

“How did she get all the way to Mercer and we didn’t know she was gone?” I bark.

“Because Chuck’s not here and she’s not wearing a tether, sir, except for her phone,” he retorts. “Remember tonight’s protocol? Chuck’s leaving town, we’re around family and friends, no need for extra security…”

He’s right. I agreed to lighter security tonight. Chuck has to be in South Dakota for his and his mother’s case against their brother. I can’t blame anyone for this one except myself…

And my careless wife.

She probably didn’t want to face me because of how she treated Mom.

“Let’s go,” I growl, heading for the door.

Everyone thought it best to head to their own abodes instead of coming to Grey Crossing, anticipating a showdown between me and my wife. The house is a tomb when I enter, only Windsor stirring to greet me.

“Mrs. Grey?” I hiss.

“She’s upstairs, sir,” he responds. “Will anyone else be coming tonight?”

“No,” I say, loosening my tie and taking the stairs two at a time. I head straight for the closed doors of our suite, but then I hear her voice to the right of me…

“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella…”

It’s coming from the cracked door of our babies’ nursery. Well, isn’t that adorable, I think angrily to myself. I’m tearing up a banquet hall looking for her and she’s here reading bedtime stories. I’m particularly livid after discovering that she took a goddamn taxi home!

“One day, she met this really beautiful prince with a really bad attitude. She just wanted to get away from him, but no matter what she did, she couldn’t escape. She fell in love with him and her whole life changed. People thought she didn’t have a right to be the princess. They called her names and talked about her being a bad person and only wanting the prince’s money and castle, but she loved him anyway. So, she ignored what the people said and stuck by her prince.”

Wait a minute. I’m new to this Disney thing, but even I know that’s not how that story goes. I lean against the wall next to the door and listen to her describe Cinderella’s life after she married the prince—the scrutiny, her fears, the dangers that followed her. I sigh heavily listening to her talk about how she misses how simple her life was before she met the “prince.”

“I don’t like being Cinderella…”

And it didn’t take a rocket scientist or even that statement to know that she was talking about us.

This conversation—this altercation or whatever it was that happened with her and Mom and more importantly, her leaving in a damn taxi without security—it needs to be addressed, but not tonight. She sounds raw and a bit vulnerable and this is not the time.

I go to our room and remove my jacket, tossing it and my tie onto the bed. I want a drink but think better of it. Instead, I’ll just sit here and wait.

And wait…

And wait…

And wait.

My mind replays the conversation she had with my mom. From what I understand, Mom was trying to orchestrate a possible meeting between Adelaide and her granddaughter and apparently, Butterfly and Courtney knew nothing about it. I don’t have all of the details, but she was pretty hard on my mom and I really thought that was very unnecessary. Mom left shortly after Adelaide did and… to be honest, I’m pretty gray—pun intended—on what happened after that.

My wife and I had some words, they weren’t kind, and I refused to argue with her in public. According to Mom, she would have to represent Helping Hands for the rest of the evening, and I was doing my best not to hinder that, but when Elliot asked me where Mom was, I told him the truth. The last time I saw her, she was glaring at me and Elliot was glaring at her, so I assumed he had asked about the altercation. I turned my head for a second, and when I looked back, she was gone.

I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she had taken Elliot aside to tell him her side of the story, but when a while later I saw Elliot and no Butterfly, I thought she had explained things, and everything was okay…

Until…

“Man, if looks could maim, I’d be castrated by now,” Elliot says. “All I could think was ‘back away slowly’ which is what I was trying to do, but then she just whirled around and took off out the door.” I frown deeply.

“Out the door?” I ask. “Where did she go?” Elliot shrinks a bit.

“I assumed she went to the ladies’ room,” he says. I look at my watch.

“Elliot, that was over half an hour ago. Nobody has seen her since!” I announce.

“Hey,” Val says, interrupting our conversation, on purpose no doubt. “Why so serious?”

“Val, would you mind terribly checking out the ladies’ rooms and seeing if my wife is hiding out in one of them?” I ask. She raises her brow knowingly to me then looks at Elliot.

“Mom and Montana had words,” he tells his wife. “It hasn’t been a good night.”

Grace and Ana,” she says, a statement, not a question.

“And me,” I admit, “but we didn’t fight. I was just not happy about her yelling at my mom.” Val twists her lips and rolls her eyes.

“I’ll be back,” she says as she heads off to the restrooms.

And now, I’m here, waiting and waiting for her to finish her remix of Cinderella with whatever child has her attention now. After waiting for I don’t even know how long, I toe out of my shoes and go back to the hallway. The nursery door is closed now, so I peek inside.

She’s not there.

I go down to the kitchen to see if she’s gone in search of a snack or a drink. She’s not there either. She’s not in the family room, the entertainment room, the movie room, her parlor, the office, or the gym.

Where the fuck is she now?

I’m almost tempted to activate the two-way but decide against it this late at night. I go back up to the second floor and begin to check the guest rooms. I would have thought not, but with the whole hating Cinderella thing…

Sure enough, I find her in the last guest room, curled up on the bed in her evening gown fast asleep.

And we’re sleeping in our clothes again.

I crawl in bed behind her and spoon her, falling asleep almost instantly.

*-*

“I had no idea that being married to me was such a goddamn trial,” I say to Jason while running on the treadmill the next day.

“You’re kidding, right?” Jason says. I look at him bemused. “No offense, sir, but working for you is a trial. I can only imagine what being married to you is like.” I frown.

“Don’t try to be cute,” I hiss. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“I’m not!” he snaps back. “That woman has been in your life for two and a half years. I know it’s not all bad, but I haven’t seen anybody go through the trials and tribulations that woman has been through just being married to you. Everybody’s watching her, people are gunning for her, she’s got to prove herself all the damn time… She can’t step wrong, she can’t be unhappy, she can’t be human. It’s a miracle she hasn’t had a nervous breakdown by now.”

“But she couldn’t have expected it to be easy when she agreed to marry me,” I protest. “Look at my life! She knew what she was signing up for.”

“Yeah,” he says, and nothing else. There’s something else behind that.

“Yeah, what?” I ask. He looks over at me without losing his stride.

“She’s still human, boss,” he says with a running shrug. “Whether you know what you’re signing up for or not doesn’t necessarily mean that you take it all in stride when it comes at you. And last night’s episode had nothing to do with being married to Christian Grey…”

“I didn’t say that! She did!” I protest.

“You didn’t let me finish,” he says. “It had nothing to do with being married to you, but it had everything to do with her version of Cinderella. She’s got responsibilities to people. One of those responsibilities was exploited last night and she was supposed to be okay with it—plaster a smile on her face and keep the night going. Nobody acknowledged her point of view last night. Whether it was right or wrong, nobody bothered to say, ‘I get it.’ Mrs. Wilson wanted to know why no one told her the truth about her granddaughter and she left upset. Dr. Grey was dug in that Mrs. Wilson had a right to know that her granddaughter was still here no matter what the consequences and she left upset.

“You heard your wife yelling at your mother and your mother left upset and that made you upset and you cut her off. Granted, you did it to prevent a public spectacle—which was smart—but she still got cut off. Then, whatever you told Elliot, he confronted her, and she was already burning the wick at both ends.” He does that imitation of an explosion with his hands and mouth. “We’re lucky she didn’t check into a hotel somewhere and turn her phone off. We were downtown after all.”

“God,” I sigh. “Our marriage isn’t going to survive this constant up and down.” Jason slows his treadmill down.

“Yes, it will,” he says, catching his breath. “This is marriage. It’s a constant up and down until you die, and you haven’t even hit your highest ups or your lowest downs. Why do you think they say love is a roller coaster? You didn’t expect it to be easy, did you?”

Yeah, I kinda did. My mistake.


A/N: Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

The new question and answer thread is always open for questions about the story. be sure to read it and please adhere to the rules when asking questions. You can find it on the left, second from last in the menu our you can click HERE.

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~~love and handcuffs

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 69—Big, Huge “Guess What Happened’s”

Thanks, you guys for your encouraging words to me… and thank you more for your encouraging words to each other. It makes me happy to see us lifting each other up when we’re down. I’m so proud of you guys!

Send healing vibes, prayers, and positive thoughts out to my reader and Facebook friend Alyson. She just had a stint in the hospital and by the Grace of God, she’s home and hopefully doing better. Smoochies, Alyson!!!

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 69—Big, Huge “Guess What Happened’s”

CHRISTIAN

“She did what?” I ask my wife when she calls home to see who’s here for Girl’s Night.

“She shaved her head,” she confirms. “It really looks good on her, but Christian, she shaved her goddamn head!”

“Where is she now?” I ask. “Can she hear you?”

“No, she’s in the back getting the rest of her stuff. Oh, God, I’m so sorry, Tina,” she mumbles.

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Butterfly,” I comfort.

“I want to fucking fire somebody, but she’s a grown woman! I can’t tell her not to shave her head!” she rants.

“Don’t fire anybody,” I coax. “Women do this all the time nowadays. It’s not a strange thing.”

“So, if Minnie came home with her head shaved, you wouldn’t have a problem with it,” she states matter-of-factly. My blood actually curdles when she says that.

“We’re not talking about Minnie,” I divert. “We’re talking about a grown woman who has just lost her mother, went through a nasty divorce, and has had to contend with horrible siblings who have now broken into her house.”

“Well, it feels the same to me,” Butterfly says. “I feel like Tina trusted me with her daughter and I took her out and got her scalped.”

“Believe me, my mom is laughing right now,” I hear Harmony say, and I know that she’s caught us in the middle of our conversation.

“You scared the shit out of me!” Butterfly scolds.

“You shouldn’t be talking about me,” Harmony teases, and it’s good to hear the humor in her voice. “Hi, Christian!” she yells.

“Hi, Harmony,” I reply, and Butterfly relays my sentiment. “Just so that I can prepare the staff, are we talking Bruce Willis bald or Demi-Moore-G-I-Jane cut?”

“Demi,” she says, a bit reserved. “I just… wish she had warned me.”

“You were the one talking about detoxing and cleansing. This is very cleansing. I love it. It feels clean and free and I look great. I think I’m going to leave it this way for a while.”

“It’s not like you have a choice!” Butterfly points out.

“I do have a choice,” Harmony says. “I could let it grow back. I’m thinking not.”

“Well, it’s your head,” Butterfly says.

“Yes, and let’s stop talking about it. I’m starving.”

“Good, ‘cause we’ve got Girls Night. On our way babe,” she says into the phone. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you what happened at your house…” and the line goes dead.

Harmony shaved her head. Good grief.

I don’t know what my wife meant by Girls Night, but as it turns out, only Victoria and Courtney show up. Gail and Ms. Solomon keep them well stocked with food and snacks while one of us guys plays bartender from the bar in the entertaining room. We offer to spare Chuck the trouble of transporting drinks, considering that he’s a recovering alcoholic, but he assures us that he’s not even tempted. I have no doubt, considering that we couldn’t even get him to take ibuprofen when he was suffering from broken bones.

The women retreat to the movie room and burrow in for the night, watching a plethora of movies from different genres. We’ve each been unlucky enough to walk in during some scene or conversation that has the entire group weeping like fools and are quick to make a hasty getaway. Somewhere around three or so, all four women are kicked back in the luxury chairs, calling the sandman.

In the morning, they all pile into the big SUV and head to breakfast—somewhere—with two of the guards and I’m ceremoniously summoned to my father’s house.

“Elliot finished the room on Thursday right in time for delivery,” he says as he leads me to a newly renovated room in the house. I’m by no means prepared for what I see when I open the door.

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” I breathe when I step inside, “Freeman was teasing you for getting this?”

“Remember, son, we’re clearly talking about an asshole here,” he reminds me. Oh, yeah, how could I forget.

I walk around the room completely stunned. Every wall is covered with display cases, and there are more of them lined up in the middle like library shelves. Case after case after case of model, wood, and Diecast cars—antiques, roadsters, sedans, trucks, you name it. The higher portions of the walls have been decorated with old pictures of Dad and his brothers, Pops and Granma Ruby, Mom and Dad when they were younger, and even old pictures of me, Elliot, and Mia. Atop the display cases are my old rowing trophies from the boathouse, Elliot’s judo trophies, and awards and accolades that Mia has received throughout the years. There are also some older trophies that I don’t recognize, and I assume that they’re from years gone by of Dad and his brothers.

“With real cars, Dad may have been a Ford man, but when it came to his models, he didn’t discriminate.” He leads me to one display case that’s full of Chevys and I’m amazed at how realistic they look.

“I tried to get the room as close as I could remember to how Dad kept it,” my father says, touching the display lovingly. “Look at this…” He gently opens one of the cases and pulls out one of the model cars. The doors actually open and you can see the detail inside the car.

“Dad painted those seats himself,” he says as he holds the car up to eye level. “The paint’s faded a bit over time…”

“… But I can tell,” I say, examining the car closely in my father’s hand. “Wow…” The amazement in my voice brings a warm smile to my father’s face.

“We spent hours in here,” he reminisces as he closes the doors to the model in his hand and replaces it on the shelf, “or I should say in a room that looked just like this one. The other brothers never really got into it but me…” He put his hand on my shoulder and leads me to a table in the corner, clearly built as its own showcase, and there it is. I gasp a bit when I see it.

“The Coupe!” I exclaim quietly in wonder. On the small table is a perfect replica—almost—of the classic ’32 Ford Coupe that we had shipped here for Dad. The purple isn’t as deep as the real car, and the model has racing flames on it. But other than that, this car is Dad’s Coupe.

“Uncle Herman was right,” I say, looking at the model then at Dad. “Pops meant for you to have that car. He built it damn near just like the model.” Dad nods.

“That was my dad,” he says. “He always paid attention to the small stuff, and it made all the difference in the world.” He chokes up for a moment but quickly recovers. “I hope that one day your son will be able to enjoy this room with me… or with you…”

I don’t like the ominous undertone of his suggestion.

“He’ll get to enjoy it with you first, Dad,” I say, putting my hand on his shoulder. “You’ll tell him the history of the cars and how they made it to the collection. I’m sure that you remember each one.” Dad smiles.

“That I do, son,” he says.

As predicted, Dad and I spend hours in his model car room, talking about each car and how it became part of the collection. We don’t have time to review each and every car, but each car that we talked about had its own story attached to it. Freeman is a real asshole if he can’t see how priceless a gift this really is.

“This is really incredible, Dad,” I say, trying to absorb everything he’s told me about each car. “This is a car enthusiast’s dream.”

“Or the fairytale-land of a little boy who really looked up to his dad,” he says, gazing over the room fondly.

“Where’s Uncle Herman?” I ask when I realize that I haven’t seen him since I got here.

“He and Luma have gone out of town, I think,” Dad says. I frown.

“You think?” I ask. He shrugs.

“I think seeing Mom’s things made him a bit melancholy. So, he asked me and Grace to keep an eye on the girls and he whisked his woman away for the weekend. You can’t deny they need some time to themselves. Herman’s been dealing nonstop with the disposition of Dad’s estate. Luma has the girls and although I’m sure that you’re a very nice boss, she works 40 hours a week. She and Herman don’t really get much alone time together.” I nod.

“Maybe she should consider going part-time,” I suggest.

“I didn’t tell you that so that you could cut her hours, Christian,” Dad informs me. “I get the feeling that Luma really likes her job, and she hasn’t complained about it once. Had I not told you that she was away with Herm, you wouldn’t have known. Did she ask for any time off?”

“Well, no…”

“Then leave it be,” Dad instructs. “She likes going to work and she’s not the least bit unhappy. And even though Andrea is her superior, Luma’s very fond of her. She talks about Andrea like she’s her daughter and she respects her—and you—immensely. So, if you suggest that she shorten her workweek, she’s going to do it even if she doesn’t want to. Catch my drift?” I sigh.

“Yeah, Dad, I hear you,” I say, sounding like a scolded child.

“Good. Now come and have a scotch with me and let’s celebrate my fabulous Dad and this incredible car collection.” I smile.

“You got it, Dad.”

*-*

“You’re not going to believe whose about to lose their shirt,” Lorenz says coming into my office Monday morning. He’s piqued my attention.

“Who?” I ask.

“William Kavanaugh,” I raise my brow.

“Kavanaugh?” I say in surprise. “What the hell is going on with Kavanaugh?”

“It appears that Willie Boy has another heir to the Kavanaugh fortune on the way, and Mrs. K has had enough. She’s got herself a cutthroat attorney and Kavanaugh will be lucky if he escapes with his shirt!” I whistle.

“So, the chickens have come home to roost on Kavanaugh, huh?” I say.

“Looks that way,” Lorenz confirms taking his seat.

“How much time before he’s ripe for the picking?” I ask.

“Now,” Ros says, striding into my office and joining into the conversation like she had been there the whole time. She’s got the latest Financial News in her hand and she drops it on my desk, open to the page announcing that Kavanaugh Media is officially on the block. “You heard, too?” she says to Lorenz, who nods.

“This must have been going on for quite some time,” I observe while reading the announcement.

“Their marriage has been falling at least since Kavanaugh became a grandpa.” That long! Geez, that’s back when Kate tried to pin her kid on Elliot. I wasn’t even married yet.

“And the newest heir to Kavanaugh Media?” I press.

“Due any day now,” Lorenz says. “The misses filed for divorce nearly a year ago. He’s selling Kavanaugh Media because the selling price is worth more than the company would yield in its current state and he knows he can get it.”

“That’s because he doesn’t have time to hold out,” I say, finishing skimming the article. “I’m not interested in the media but selling that bitch off piece by piece could turn quite the hefty profit no matter what we pay for it.”

“You were reading my mind,” Lorenz say. I raise my eyes to Ros.

“You think we could put a decent bid up for it?” I ask. “We all know I’m the last person that fucker wants to sell to.”

“I’ll see what we can do,” Ros says, standing. “You never know, Christian. People do strange things when they’re desperate.”

“That they do,” I concur as she leaves my office.

“Lorenz, how did you guys land on this before I did?” I ask after Ros leaves.

“It’s my job to keep my ear to the ground,” he tells me. “I know a lot of people; I go to social events. One person’s rumor is another person’s truth… That’s pretty much how. Kavanaugh’s next love child was no more than water-cooler talk at the champagne fountain of some fundraiser somewhere. It snowballed into divorce and the sale of Kavanaugh Media because the guy is about as discreet as a Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping down 4th Street. He was able to keep it out of the press for most of the year because—face it, he is the press. But once that media giant went on the block, all the rumors and speculations became leads and…” He makes an exploding sound and motion with his hands.

“So, basically, getting him to sell could be as simple as the right approach,” I reply, because Kavanaugh truly is going to be desperate after child support and alimony hits his ass, but still maybe not desperate enough to sell to GEH.

“That’s possible,” Lorenz replies. I twist my lips.

“Any word on his daughter, Kate, these days?” I ask. The last I had heard of Kate was when she crashed Mia’s bridal shower.

“She’s been under the radar,” he replies. “You smellin’ something?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe not. Just see if you can scare her up. Use Alex if you have to.”

“Will do.”

So, Kavanaugh’s in the proverbial hot seat. Jesus, he’s older than I am—old enough to be my father—and still making babies… outside of his marriage, no less. Not that I condone infidelity of any kind, but if you’re going to stray outside of your marriage, why the hell wouldn’t you at least use a condom?

And Kate—is that why she showed up at Mia’s shower? Was she hoping to get back into the family’s good graces because she knew that Dad was headed down the tubes? And where is she now? She was aching for publicity a while back—why the silence? And where, pray tell, is the not-the-father baby? That kid just disappeared into thin air!

Now I really want to know what’s going on with the Kavanaughs. As I’m pondering what might be going on with Daddy Kavanaugh and his ice-queen daughter, I get a distressing text from my wife.

**Dealing with a crisis. I may be late. **

Harmony’s at our house, so what crisis is this?

**Something at the Center? **

I wait for a moment for a response to put my fears at ease.

**More personal. It’s not me, but still important. I can’t talk about it right now. **

You can’t drop an ominous fucking text on me and then tell me that you can’t talk about it.

**You know me better than that. **

I love you, Butterfly, but you know I can track your phone. As if she’s reading my mind, she replies:

**Keep your damn shirt on! I’m fine, but I can’t talk to you right now. I was just letting you know I’ll be late. Would you rather I not in the future? **

And that’s a threat.

**Sorry. See you when you get home. **

Now, I’m fucking dying to know what’s going on.

I stay a little later at the office finishing some things up since I know that Butterfly’s going to be late. While I’m trying to wrap up the days reports and some year-end tasks, my phone buzzes. I look at the display and it’s Dad.

“Ethan called today,” he says once I answer. “Says he wants to reimburse me for some of the expenses of the wedding.”

“He did?” I ask.

“You put him up to that, didn’t you?”

“Why would I put that man up to anything?” I ask. “The only thing I put him up to was giving me the guest list to his bachelor party so that I could vet those fuckers.”

“He just knew all the right things to say,” Dad accuses. “He sounded a lot like the conversations that you and I have.”

“He talked to me, yeah, but I didn’t put him up to shit. He’s a grown man. He came to me for advice and I gave it to him. There’s a difference, Dad…”

“Okay, okay, settle down,” Dad scolds, and it’s not until now that I realize my voice is rising and I sound defensive.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but when you said that, it made it sound like I was being manipulative, and I wasn’t. He wants to contribute to the expenses of the wedding, and he didn’t know how to tell you. In fact, I want to contribute, too.”

“The wedding’s all paid for, son,” he says.

“I figured as much, Dad, but did you have to cash in yours and Mom’s retirement for that shindig?” I ask. He sighs.

“Christian, a month ago, I gave each of my brothers $750,000. Do you think I would have been able to do that if I had been strapped for cash?”

“I’m quite aware that you have a dime or three to rub together, Dad, but so does Ethan and he wants to contribute to this wedding.”

“He doesn’t need to contribute,” Dad says. “There’s nothing left to pay for.”

“That may be the case, but that tens of thousands of dollar bakery bill came to his house.”

“What?” Dad exclaims into the phone.

“Yeah,” I tell him. “And you should know that right before they got in their helicopter and left for the night, Ethan cornered me and Butterfly and lamented about the largess of those cakes—just the cakes! He had a few other things to say about the over-the-topness of the entire production, but the cakes had him in dismay, much like they did for me at first, and you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know what you mean,” he cedes.

“Well, my fears were put to rest when I discovered that the food was going to the homeless and to shelters. His concerns were multiplied exponentially when he saw that bill—paid or not. It’s going to emasculate him if you don’t allow him to give you something on that wedding.”

“What about me?” Dad asks. “What about emasculating me? That’s my only daughter and I gave her the wedding she wanted. Isn’t that a father’s responsibility?”

“Yeah, Dad. And you did it. Everything was beautiful—though a bit crazy—and Mia loved it. You did good. Now, let Ethan give you something towards your expense. I’m aware that you don’t need it, but he needs to give it to you. That may be your only daughter, and having a daughter now I get it, but that’s his wife.” Dad sighs again.

Fine,” he relents, “but I’m not taking a damn dime from you. Got it?”

“Okay,” I give in. I can deal with that if it means that he’ll allow Ethan’s pride to remain intact by contributing to what I now know had to be more than a million-dollar wedding. I got married in a damn castle. Wayne Brady sang to my wife walking down the aisle. We rode away in a classic Bentley, had a shopping spree in Paris, and were supposed to stay abroad for a month and I can still guarantee that my sister’s nuptials cost more than mine.

“How did you end things with Ethan?” I ask.

“I told him that I would give some thought to his request and get back to him,” Dad says.

“God, Dad, that sounds so formal. He’s family now, you know…”

“Yes, I know, but I had to see what his intentions were when he was suggesting helping out with the financial portion of the wedding,” he says. I frown.

“Now, I’m not catching your drift… what do you mean by that?” I ask.

“I’m old-fashioned, son,” he says. “I think a father should pay for his daughter’s wedding unless she specifically asks him not to—like with you and Ana. You wanted something specific and you got what you wanted. I’m sure there was no hard feelings with Ray on that…”

“Right,” I concur, coaxing.

“Well, with two money families, I’m ashamed to say it, but I didn’t know if Ethan was trying to make the statement that he could pay for this wedding and was just throwing money at me like, ‘I got it, old man…’”

“Dad,” I interject scolding, “did he give you that impression?”

“That’s why I asked if you had spoken to him,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being handled.”

“Jesus, Dad, you have to stop being so suspicious.”

“Says the man who will vet the pizza delivery guy if he can,” Dad retorts. Touché.

“Okay, okay, I get it. But still, the man married your daughter. If we really thought he was up to anything, it’s a bit late, now, isn’t it?”

“It’s never too late,” Dad says, “but you’re right. I should have given him the benefit of the doubt.”

We talk a little longer and I feel that I’ve killed enough time in the office trying not to worry about what’s happened in Butterfly’s day that’s going to cause her to be late. Should I go to the Center and check on her? Hell, no! We know how badly that turned out the last time. It’s not that I don’t trust her, but… no. Just, no.

My eye catches one more email as I’m about to shut down for the evening. It’s from Ted Friedson informing me that he received the Apollo and that it arrived in better condition than expected. Although he admits that it’s still pretty worn, it’s in pretty awesome shape for a 100-year-old piano. He promises to have it in tip-top condition in a few weeks. I take a little comfort in that and think about where in the house I’m going to put it as I pack away my laptop and head to the elevator.


ANASTASIA

If she’s afraid of this guy, he must have been talking a really good game,” Alex informs me when I speak to him on Monday. “He’s a small-time hood—drug dealer, never more than a street runner. He’s got no connections—none. The only people he has fled a drug bust, left him to take the rap, and haven’t been in contact with him since. I still can’t tell you why she’s moving from place to place, but I’ve got a good theory.

“She’s obviously a battered ex—there’s a little proof of that… questionable injuries and hospital visits with no police report filed, leaving against medical advice and things of that sort. For whatever reason her family is non-existent, she’s on her own and he knows it. He must’ve preyed on it while they were together, I’ve seen it before, but to have her so petrified that she’s moving from place to place…? He had his own delusions of grandeur, no doubt, but he must’ve fed them to her, leading her to believe that he has power that he doesn’t have. So, in her mind, a few months, a half year or so is a safe amount of time to stay put, then it’s time to move on.

“I can’t swear to it, but in my eyes, this is one of those ‘if it looks like a duck’ situations. If she’s as spooked as you say she is, she had a co-dependent relationship with him where he filled her head with stories, threats, and the usual ‘you’re nothing without me,’ and he’s just got her scared shitless and she’s not sure what to do. Unless he’s got some power that I haven’t seen, he’s nobody—just some punk who preyed on a weak young woman.”

“Well, this is really good news,” I tell him, “not that he preyed on her and has her so afraid, but that he’s not this big bad person that she thought he was. She’s got skills and education that I really want to put to some use, and now I can… if I can just convince her that this Ge guy isn’t a threat to her.”

“I don’t know how to tell you to do that,” he says. “You can tell her that our investigation shows that he still incarcerated and that there’s actually no way that he could find out where she is unless he has the type of resources that we have—which he doesn’t. Besides, we’re swimming in security. How the hell is he going to get to her?”

“She’s not with us 24/7, Alex,” I remind him. “I think the best thing right now is for me to keep it simple—just tell her that as far as we’re concerned, everything looks good and she’s got a job, and then extend the services of the Center to her if she feels that she needs sanctuary. Fear is a powerful thing and unfortunately, other people can’t make you not be afraid.”

Ebony is thrilled to learn that we’re willing to give her a shot to see how things work out. She insists on working in the daycare to get the feel of things and maybe venture out into some of the areas that I think she’ll be a better fit for.

“Right now, I’m just really desperate for a paycheck,” she admits. “My emergency fund is nearly gone, and I need to have income soon. I’d love to see where else I can go and what else I can do, but… let’s start off small, if you don’t mind.” I nod.

“Not a problem,” I tell her, “whatever makes you comfortable. Welcome aboard.” I proffer my hand to her and she shakes it, sighing heavily.

“Thank you,” she breathes, as if the weight of the world has been lifted off her shoulder. I summon Courtney to show her around and get her started as Marilyn took the day off today.

I’m very soon to find out why.

“Hello?” I answer my phone shortly after having a late lunch.

“Yes, is this… Anastasia Grey?” the female voice asks.

“It is. To whom am I speaking?”

“This is Sylvie Cooper. I’m calling from Seattle Women’s Services and Family Planning.” Okay, maybe this is something to do with the Center.

“Yes, Ms. Cooper, what can I do for you?”

“I’m calling because one of our patients has you listed as the emergency contact. She’s had an outpatient procedure performed and… she came alone. She shouldn’t be driving, so she asked us to call you.”

This is strange. Outpatient procedure, Seattle Women’s Serv… oh, shit.

“Who is the patient?” I ask, as if I didn’t already know.

“Marilyn Caldwell.”

*-*

Marilyn looks like hell when I get to the clinic. I’m sure she’s had an abortion. I’m only hoping that she and Gary talked about this before she did it. I have a sinking suspicion that either they didn’t or that he’s vehemently against it, because he’s not here with her.

“Hey,” I say to her downcast face. “You ready to go?” She nods without saying anything and allows me to lead her out of the clinic. The ride back to the apartment that she shares with Gary is mostly silent. I simply concentrate on getting her to where she needs to be. I won’t give her the third degree and I won’t badger…

“Don’t you want to ask what happened?” she says, breaking my inner coaching.

“Only if you want to tell me,” I reply after a pause, even though I can pretty much tell.

“I was eight and a half weeks pregnant,” she says. “I terminated the pregnancy.” I nod.

“Considering the facility, I figured as much,” I reply. It’s quiet for a few more moments.

“Gary wanted to keep it,” she says. “I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t ready to have a baby right now and I wasn’t going to be forced into the decision to have one. He totally stopped speaking to me.”

“Does he know that you were terminating the pregnancy?” I ask. She doesn’t respond. Did she tell him or not? What does she plan to do—just present herself to him and say, “Hey, baby’s gone?” I pull into the parking lot of their apartment complex and put the car in park.

“Will you come up with me?” she asks. Is she serious? What does she want me to do, stand between her and Gary while she tells him that she terminated the pregnancy? Gary wouldn’t hurt her… at least I think he wouldn’t hurt her. He loves her… but she’s about to tell him that he’s not going to be a father if he doesn’t already know. I sigh heavily and turn the car off.

“Let’s go,” I say.

The apartment is bone quiet when we get there. I figured it’s because Gary’s not here, but she goes to the back where the bedroom is, and I can hear her talking.

“What are you doing?” I hear her ask. There’s a long pause.

“I…” It’s Gary’s voice. “I need some time,” he says, and I hear shuffling. Oh, shit. Should I leave?

“What do you mean?” Marilyn squeaks.

“I can’t be here,” Gary says. “I need… I just can’t.”

“So, you’re just going to leave?” she accuses.

“You had to know this would happen!” Gary shoots. “You killed my baby! You had to know I wouldn’t stay! I couldn’t! I can’t even look at you right now!”

He is pissed! I don’t know how to react to this because it’s Marilyn’s body. She would have had to carry that child for nine months. If she and Gary broke up, most often, the man has the option to walk away faster than a woman—although in this case, I have a feeling Gary would have stuck around—but he’s right. It was his baby, too, and she aborted it. I hate seeing them in this position because there’s nothing I can do. There’s no right or wrong, but it’s all bad.

They scream at each other for another minute or two, and just as I’m deciding I should leave, I hear Marilyn begging him not to go and Gary telling her that she can have the apartment since she left hers to move in with him. The bedroom door opens to an angry Gary storming out with a duffle bag and the sound of Marilyn’s weeping, still begging him not to leave. When he raises his head and sees me, he stops in his tracks and glares at me.

“Did you take her there?” he seethes. I’ve never seen him this angry in my life. I’m frozen for a moment, but then I shake my head.

“No,” I say, finally finding my words. “She… drove herself. The clinic called and asked me to pick her up. I couldn’t just leave her.” I don’t tell him that had she asked me to go with her, I would have gone. Although the thought of terminating my own pregnancy never crossed my mind, I agree with a woman’s right to choose.

His eyes soften, and I can see that he’s been crying, most likely for more than one reason. His lips form a thin line.

“Take care of her,” he chokes angrily. “She’s gonna need you.”

“Gary…”

He storms past me without another word and out the door, slamming it behind him. Marilyn hasn’t emerged from the room yet, so I approach with caution. When I breach the doorway, I see her crumpled on the ground weeping.

He left her like this?

I go over to her and kneel on the floor next to her. Her cries are so mournful, like someone cut off one of her limbs. She sounds like Luma when she was mourning the death of her son-in-law. I put my hand on her arms, and she starts to wail. She knows that my being there means that Gary is gone, and you can hear her anguish sinking all the way down to her feet. I just sit there with her, and let her wail…

I’m wrung down to my soul when I get home that night. It’s well after midnight and I’m so emotionally drained that I just go to the kitchen and sit at the breakfast bar. The house is dark, and I lay my head on my arms on the countertop. I have such an unreal headache that it feels like my brain is going to explode out of my head.

I’m not startled, nor do I raise my head when the lights in the kitchen come on. It’s tomorrow—of course, he’ll be waiting up and expecting to know where I’ve been. I don’t say anything as I feel rather than hear him cross the span of the kitchen in his bare feet.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks, his voice controlled as he opens the refrigerator.

“Vodka,” I say from under my arms. I hear movement stop, then the cupboard open. I know he’s mad—or at least not pleased with me for coming home this late, and I don’t have the strength to justify my tardiness, for lack of a better word.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” he says, and I can feel him stroking my hair. I raise weary eyes to him wondering what I should and shouldn’t tell him. His eyes change, and he rubs my forearm.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Butterfly,” he says, his voice heavy with concern. Fuck it, I can’t carry this shit.

“I just put Marilyn on a plane to Spokane,” I tell him while worrying my horribly throbbing scar. “She’s going to spend some time with her parents, I don’t know for how long.” He raises his brow.

“You can’t be this upset about Marilyn taking a vacation,” he says.

“You’re right, I’m not… and it’s not a vacation.” He places a tumbler in front of me with a shot of vodka in it. I throw it back immediately and gesture for another. He fills it to a double-shot this time and I throw that back just as quickly.

“She’s escaping,” I say, after the double-shot burns its way down my chest. “She was pregnant.” His eyes sharpen.

“Okay, wait. I’m confused. She’s escaping because she’s pregnant?” he asks. “Is Garrett pissed? Did he threaten her?” I gesture to my glass again and he fills it with another double-shot. I just take a sip this time.

“No, yes, and no,” I reply, answering his questions as I replace the glass on the counter. “I’m telling you more than I should, but I wasn’t acting in a medical capacity today, so…” I take a deep breath. “No, she’s not escaping because she’s pregnant as she is no longer pregnant. She had a termination today. Yes, Gary is extremely pissed. He wanted this and one of the first things I heard him say when we got back to the apartment is, ‘You killed my baby.’ And no, he didn’t threaten her, but he did leave her and from the looks of it, he ain’t comin’ back.” I take another swallow of my drink.

“Oh, God,” he says, his brow furrowed, “that’s fucked up all around.”

“Tell me about it,” I lament, rubbing my forehead for the first time in forever. I have no idea what to do. Gary and Marilyn are both my friends and Marilyn’s my employee. They’ve both talked to me about how they felt about this situation and I’ve done the best that I can to give them both objective opinions without betraying the trust of the other. I can’t take sides, but I may be forced to, depending on how this plays out.

“I can only imagine what it must feel like being caught in the middle of this,” he says sympathetically.

“It was awful, Christian,” I bemoan. “Gary was so hurt, and Marilyn was devastated. I don’t know what to do. Her parents are in Spokane and with Thanksgiving coming up, she couldn’t stand to stay in that apartment alone. So, I helped her pack some things and she was on the redeye across the state.”

“So, no one’s in the apartment now?” he asks. I shake my head.

“I tried to call Gary, but he’s not answering. He probably thinks I’m going to ream him a new one for leaving Mare, but he has a right to his feelings, too.”

“So… any idea what now?” he asks. “I mean, whose apartment is it?”

“It’s Gary’s. He paid the lease for a year and near as I can tell, the only way out of it is to sublet or have someone buy out the lease. She gave up her apartment to move in with him, so he left and said she could stay. That makes me think that he might come back, because he only took a duffel bag, but…” I shrug and rub my head again, then my scar.

“Jesus Christ, what a mess,” he says as he retrieves another tumbler and fills it with ice and water from the refrigerator door.

“I can’t even fathom what to say to either of them right now. I can’t villainize either of them because they both have a right to feel what they’re feeling. What do you think?” My husband raises a brow and twist his lips before he places the tumbler of water in front of me. Yeah, I know—two double-shots and a single. Chug, chug.

“I can’t answer that question, Butterfly,” he says. “For obvious reasons, I avoid this particular topic of conversation at all costs.” I raise my eyes to his.

“What if it had been us?” I ask.

“But it wasn’t,” he says.

“But what if it had?” I press. He leans forward and takes my hands in his, then kisses both sets of knuckles before looking me in the eye.

“At all. Costs,” he repeats, letting me know that no matter how I press, we won’t be having this discussion. I sigh and drop my head.

“Dear, God, help me,” I groan. This can only get worse before it gets any better.

*-*

I receive a text from Marilyn when she lands in Spokane, then she—like Gary—falls into radio silence. Only two days without her this week and I feel as if I’m falling into oblivion. My calendar looks like hieroglyphics and when I suggested nabbing Luma again, Christian informed me that she had just returned to town herself and was needed at Grey House. No matter—Thanksgiving is here, and I plan to relax with my family for the next few days.

Harmony was not keen on coming to Thanksgiving dinner with our family, but Courtney and Vickie invited her to the condo and she gladly accepted—nothing as formal as a family gathering, but still with people she likes to be around… and she’s not alone on the first Thanksgiving without her mom.

I try to reach Marilyn and Gary on Thanksgiving, but neither of them answers or responds to my texts. I decide to leave them alone until and if they reach out to me.

Chuck reminds me that he and Keri will be going back to South Dakota for his and his mother’s case against his brother. I can’t believe he’s actually going to sue his brother. I mean, I can believe it… the bastard deserves it, but I guess I just can’t believe that it’s really happening.

Thanksgiving—a time of giving thanks, being around family, watching football and eating way too much food. Yet, all around me, I see sorrow and heartbreak and disappointment… people just trying to cope…

Harmony just buried her mother and her siblings are conspiring against her and treating her like the enemy.

Marilyn terminated her pregnancy and is now mourning the loss of the man that she loves.

Gary is mourning the loss of a baby and the dashed hopes of having a family.

No doubt, Carrick and his brothers are feeling the loss of their father right now. Even though Burt passed away months ago, going through the family heirlooms must have opened some of those old wounds, and like Harmony, they’re spending their first Thanksgiving without him.

And Freeman’s family—Lanie may feel no love lost, but Burtie and Nell loved that man and are no doubt having their own regrets today about the total breakdown of the family.

And of course, Chuck and his mom—having to sue his hateful brother for keeping the family apart with his lies.

And here I sit, journaling before I go to Val and Elliot’s for Thanksgiving, once again nothing on the pages about myself—just everyone else and their problems.

Thanksgiving… yeah.

*-*

“We’re not going to have a repeat of you two acting like children and Christian catching the plague, are we?” Val says when she opens the door.

“No,” I promise her, “we’re fine and we’re not bickering about the… sunshine yellow stucco!” I say with too much enthusiasm.

“Butterfly…” my husband scolds, coming in behind me and carrying our overnight bags.

“Yes, dear,” I say sweetly and obediently. He leans over and kisses me while Val and Elliot’s usual staff takes the bags from Christian.

“Are they permanent?” I ask, noting the same woman in the kitchen that was here for the housewarming.

“No, we just asked for them back,” she says, hooking her arm into mine. “Come sit with me in the living room.”

Val is positively giddy having the family over for Thanksgiving, much giddier than she was at her housewarming. Elliot sees to everyone getting their things settled in their various rooms before we all sit down for our various fall-spiced beverages.

Christian is dead set and determined to make sure that I don’t feel the ostracization that I experienced at the housewarming. He’s all snuggly with me and we’re playing with the babies in front of the fireplace. Val and Elliot already have their Christmas tree trimmed, so all of the babies—including my little brother Harry—are spellbound by the sparkling lights.

Sophia is playing with Mariah and Celida—more like keeping them occupied while her father and stepmother watches over them all. Herman, Grace, Carrick, and Luma all seem to be having a very interesting conversation of some sort. Val is bending Mandy’s ear about something while Mia and Ethan listen attentively, and Elliot and Daddy are probably talking shop. Just as I’m taking in my surroundings, I see Harry with Mikey, and they appear to be having a conversation. I watch them more closely and see Harry pulling Mikey’s arms. Is he…?

“Phone… phone…” I say, trying to be as calm as I can. Nobody’s listening to me, so I reach for Christian, who is cooing at his daughter, and tug on his pants. He raises his eyes to me and follows my gaze to my brother and my son.

“Son of a gun!” he says, fumbling in his pocket and finding his phone. People start looking to see what the commotion is, and before we know it, at least four phones are recording now.

Harry appears to be giving Mikey instructions in whatever gobbledygook he’s speaking, and Mikey follows instruction by grabbing both of his uncle’s arms with his grubby little hands. Harry’s unsteady little gait pulls Mikey forward until he’s standing, but Harry can’t comprehend why Mikey doesn’t start walking immediately after he stands. As a result, Harry pulls him forward again and Mikey stands only for a moment before tumbling over onto his little hands.

Harry’s getting a little frustrated with Mikey’s lack of pedestrian progress, but this entire thing is just a game to Mikey who, after each tumble, breaks into fits of baby giggles. Being on the same mental wavelength, his sister breaks into giggles as well and, let’s face it—who can’t laugh after hearing an infectious baby giggle? Soon, there’s an entire room of giggling adults and children, and the whole thing has been caught on video.

“Wow, what did we miss?”

I turn around to see Marcia and Maggie walking into the dining room from the vestibule. Maggie is getting so big. I remember when she just disappeared behind her mom.

“Hi, Marcia,” I say, rising from my seat on the floor. “It’s good to see you.” I hug her and compliment her on how good she’s looking these days while Maggie joins the other girls in the dining room. “Where’s Marlow?” I ask. I catch Sophie perk up in my peripheral vision.

“Oh, he’s here. They should be in shortly.” They? Who’s they? Did Marcia finally decide to bring her “plus-one” along? I find out shortly that there’s definitely a “plus-one,” but it’s not Marcia’s “plus-one.”

“Hi everybody,” Marlow greets as he enters the foyer. Behind him—and attached to his hand—is a tiny girl who looks a bit like a pre-teen. I try not to stare, but what’s more, I can feel Sophie glaring at them from behind me. I plaster a smile on my face and walk over to them.

“Hi, Marlow,” I say, kissing him on the cheek. “Who’s this?”

“This is Britney,” he says, pulling the girl closer so that she’s not lagging behind him. “She’s a sophomore at my school.”

Well, thanks for telling me that! The child doesn’t look more than twelve! Seriously, I’m petite, but she’s… thin, like really thin… like “Calista-Flockhart-when-everybody-thought-she-was-anorexic” thin, only thinner.

“Britney, this is Anastasia Grey. I told you about my mentor, Christian. This is his wife.” Britney smiles a smile that looks bigger than her face.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Grey,” she says politely.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Britney,” I reply with a smile. “Come on in and meet everyone…”

Britney is quite affable as Marlow introduces her around, and everyone returns her warm greeting—everyone, that is, except Sophie. Sophie’s polite, but cool, and either Britney doesn’t notice it, or she ignores it. Two points for Britney…

As the day moves along, things seem to be going okay. Sophie doesn’t appear to be sneering at Marlow’s date, but she also seems careful to keep her distance. Being shunned by one of Marlow’s dates was probably enough for her.

I’ll have to remember in the future that my children have graduated to cereals, baby food, and some solid foods along with my breastmilk, which means that we may need some form of portable high chairs for them. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with them in our laps while we try to eat… like now. Gail helps out, of course, and Val is eager to get her hands on her niece and nephew, so they allow me and Christian some time to eat.

Once we move on to dessert, the twins have eaten and have had their bottles and are on their way to sleep in their playpens when Herman stands to his feet.

“I’d like to have everyone’s attention please,” he says, and the room falls silent. Herman takes a deep breath.

“This has been a pretty eventful year for the Grey family,” he begins. “We lost our dad… effectively lost a brother…” He and Carrick exchange looks before he continues. “But we’ve grown. We’ve been blessed with a son and a daughter—in my case, a niece and a nephew—Ethan and Valerie. And even though we were already graced with Ana, we were able to add Mackenzie and Michael to village.”

We laugh at his expression, but truthfully, that’s exactly what we are.

“But in my loss, and in our flourishing, God has blessed me with those two sweet little girls right there…” He gestures to Mariah and Celida, who both smile fondly at him, “… and this loving and beautiful woman right here.” He turns to his side and takes Luma’s hand. Pulling her to her feet, he kisses her fingers softly and gives her a loving smile, which she returns.

“I don’t know where I would have been without her,” he says, still gazing into her eyes, “if I would have made it without her. Taking care of Dad’s things and going through his and Mom’s memories, it was like he was talking to me, telling me to live, telling me to grab life by the horns and live! And I realized then that I couldn’t be without this woman—that my mom and dad had a wonderful, beautiful life while they had each other and now, they have it again. I realized that I screwed up big the first time, but God is giving me a second chance… and dammit, I’m taking it.” He’s gazing into Luma’s eyes and I’m only too certain—as I’m sure the rest of us are—that he’s about to propose.

“So,” he turns back to the inquiring eyes, “I’m proud to announce that on November 22, 2014 at 3:17pm, this beautiful goddess officially became Mrs. Herman Grey.”

“Get outta here!” Carrick rises to his feet. “You sly dog! I shoulda known!” He gives his brother’s hand a vigorous shake as he claps him on the back. “Congratulations! Congratulations, man! I shoulda known you were up to something!”

Grace hugs Luma warmly and Mia follows. Warm smiles and congratulations fill the table.

“Not to fret, ladies,” Herman says once the revelry is calming a bit, “you can do your planning and parties and whatever it is that ladies do for weddings and such if my Luma says that’s what she wants. I just couldn’t wait to make her mine.”

There’s a collective swooning coo from the ladies at the table. Luma shows us pictures on their phones of Herman in a suit her in a beautiful vintage wedding dress. She looks twenty years younger.

“Is that…” Carrick looks at the picture again. “Is that… Mom’s dress?” he asks. Herman nods.

“Yeah,” he says, after a pause, “and… one of Mom’s rings,” he says. Carrick looks over at Luma who looks like she wants to hide her hand, but it’s too late.

Carrick looks at the picture again and his eyes clearly moisten. He takes Luma’s hand with the ring on it and kisses it gently before kissing Luma just as gently on the cheek.

“You made a beautiful bride,” he says, his voice cracking slightly. “I wish I could have been there.”

Luma smiles widely and Grace puts her hands on Luma’s shoulders. The cooing begins anew as Luma recounts the story of their nuptials—sweet and romantic. Elliot cuddles Valerie in his arms and she beams as the family enjoy themselves around the table. Once the conversation—and cooing—falls to a gently roar, Elliot stands to his feet.

“I’d like to say something, too,” he says. Val raises a brow and a small smile at him.

“I want to thank you all for agreeing to have Thanksgiving at my house, even though my house is the smallest of them all at the moment.” There’s a laugh following his statement. “But I’m really, really grateful for you all being here because… well, as you all know, my wife is a brain cancer survivor. For those of you who didn’t know already, she named her tumor Meg. It’s a long story but just know that she named it Meg. Well, she’s been suffering from these random dizzy spells, and even though my wife is strong, I could see it in her eyes that she was concerned that Meg was making another appearance.”

The room falls completely silent, even more quiet than when Herman asked for our attention.

“I did my best not to panic… I wasn’t very good,” he says, his voice cracking. Val takes his hand and gives it a squeeze. “But we didn’t dawdle. We went to the doctor and they proceeded to run the regular tests. I’m happy to say that Meg is definitely not making another appearance.”

The room is filled with sighs of relief and thanks to God and such, but Elliot’s not finished.

“We did learn however,” he looks down at Val, “that my angel is having a baby.”

“Get the fuck outta here!” My husband springs to his feet and reaches right across the table to his brother. “You’re going to be the goofiest dad ever!” he says, shaking Elliot’s hand.

“That’s the plan,” he says before turning to Herman. “Sorry, Uncle Herman.”

“Don’t worry about it, son,” he says, shaking Elliot’s hand as well. “There’s plenty of joy and happiness to go around.”

Most of us have forgotten our food and are clustered around either the newly-married couple or the newly-expecting couple cooing over the antique ring that Herman gave Luma or the fact that Val will be having a baby soon. Herman presented his bride with a 13.93ctw smoky-quartz ring set in 14kt yellow gold with leaf accents—another piece from his mother’s priceless collection. Elliot hasn’t presented Val with anything—besides a house, but he indicates that he plans to repurpose one of the rooms into a nursery that would rival ours.

With the attention centered on Val, Elliot, Herman, and Luma, no one sees the small commotion taking place in the corner of the living room. I inconspicuously examine Britney having a harsh word or two in hushed tones with Marlow before she ceremoniously turns away from him and proceeds towards the front door. Marlow rolls his eyes, then throws a glance at Sophie before following his date outside. They still haven’t garnered the attention of anyone else in the house, but I watch as Sophie twists her lips, rolls her eyes, then falls petulantly on the sofa, folding her arms and staring at the fire.

And here we go again.

I wait for a moment before I sneak away from the crowd and go to the foyer. I locate my coat and gloves and step outside in search of Marlow. He’s pacing on the pavement in front of the house like he’s trying to control his temper.

“Marlow?” I call out to him. He whirls around in my direction and upon spotting me, visibly tries to control his ire. “What’s wrong?” I ask as I approach.

“Forgive me for my lack of consideration,” he says in a voice that I’ve never heard before, “but is Sophia Taylor on the rag again?”

Oookay. There will be no scolding of Marlow Johnson today. He. Is. Livid.

“Um… okay, what happened?” I ask cautiously.

“She was awful to my date!” Marlow says, perturbed. “For no good damn reason, she was awful!” He sits down on the retainer wall. Oh, dear.

“In what way?” I ask, sitting down next to him.

“She said some flighty crap about her being skinny… something about needing a gravy sandwich or something like that.” I raise my eyebrows to him.

“Um… well… um… that’s not… horrible,” I try to excuse.

“My date heard her!” he snaps. I cringe.

“Ooo, that’s bad,” I retract. “Any idea why she said that?”

“Because she’s a brat!” he retorts, very angry about his seemingly ruined Thanksgiving. I try to come up with an explanation. I know she has a crush on him even though she hasn’t told me. This lashing out at his dates isn’t going to stop if he keeps bringing them around. Which reminds me…

“It could be attack as a form of defense,” I tell him. He raises a brow at me. “Have you forgotten the little twat who chased her away from Mia’s wedding? What was her name—Maya?”

“Maya didn’t chase her away!” He frowns.

“She most certainly did!” I retort. “That crack about her kid sister having Sophie’s dress; and then that whole ‘I’ll just have to take it off’ thing, as if everybody at the table didn’t know what the hell that meant. Sophie had just spent the entire dinner impressing a table full of adults with her cuisine expertise and here comes this insecure little twit acting like a jealous toddler and cutting her down in front of everybody. If Sophie acts like a brat in front of your dates, blame your first date—or at least the one that you brought to the wedding. That’s why I told you to talk to your women about how they act around us. And what happened to Maya anyway? It wasn’t two months ago, she was hanging all over you!”

“Um…” He rubs the back of his neck. “Yeah, well, she wasn’t really comfortable after the incident either.”

“Um-hmm,” I say, folding my arms. “I bet she wasn’t. I’m not trying to sabotage your dates, but I won’t stand by while they treat someone I love like crap. I’m really sorry about Britney. I’m sure she didn’t deserve what happened, but when it comes to your girls, Sophie may be lashing out before they get the chance to lash out at her. And don’t be surprised if she’s got an entire armory ready. You might want to try and talk to her, get her to understand how her actions are affecting you—and I’m not saying this happened with Britney, but make sure your dates aren’t doing anything to antagonize her. She’s only 13, for Christ’s sake. You, her, and Maggie are the only teenagers we have at family gatherings, so…” I trail off and shrug.

“I may just have to stop bringing dates around altogether,” he laments. “Jeez, at this rate, I may never get laid again,” he adds, his voice low.

I don’t think I was supposed to hear that last part, so I just ignore it.

“Well, I don’t want you to feel like your dates aren’t welcome. You’re always welcome to bring them to family gatherings… as long as they know how to behave themselves, but Maya laid the groundwork for how Sophie’s going to act around your women, so you really need to talk to her.”

She’s got a crush on you, you idiot. Are you truly that dense? Smooth things over and let her know that you at least care about her feelings, even though it can never go any further.

Of course, telling her that he knows would just humiliate her to no end. So, of course, I can’t share my theory with him, but geez… it’s as plain as the nose on my face.

“I think I’m just going to take off,” he says, “try to smooth things over with Britney…”

“But not with Sophie?” I chastise.

“She’s the one who insulted Britney!” Marlow retorts.

“And I just told you why!” I counter. “You don’t think that needs addressing?”

“If I address that with her right now, Ana, I’m going to be pissed. I don’t even know where Britney is. I need to go find her. I’ll talk to Sophia some other time.” He stands. “Tell my mom to text me when she’s ready to go if I’m not back by then.” He marches down the driveway towards his car.

That’s right, Marlow. Run away.

It’s hard to remember that he’s still a child… but not. He’s 17, so his life should be shaping into manhood now, but he disappoints me when it comes down to how he’s handling the complexities of relationships right now. I guess this is when he’s learning.

And poor Sophie. She’s acting like the stereotypical catty jealous spurned female, but at 13, she’s coming off as the bratty ass little sister. Their age difference is wide enough that they most likely will never have any romantic relationship—not to mention the fact that Marlow simply does not see her that way—but at this rate, she’ll not only destroy any hint of a chance of a romance. She’ll also destroy their friendship.


A/N: Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

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