After the final heaving shudders die down, Christian slips out quietly, closing the door behind him and leaving me with my grated nerves raw and exposed. Sitting on the cool tiles, I rest my heavy head in my hands, wondering what to say to him. Is it worth apologizing for something so big? So unforgivable? Saying I’m sorry seems almost pathetic measured against the weight of the transgression — wholly insubstantial.
I remember how cold he was with Leila when she came to see me at the office. Will he be like that, treat me with contempt? I’ll do almost anything to avoid going out there to face him, but I already bailed on him once before and got it so very, very wrong that I broke us. No way can I hide from this. Not anymore. With dismay oozing like molasses through my veins, I’m forced to acknowledge that when I screw up, I do it spectacularly. I’m reeling from my sickening senselessness.
I procrastinate for what seems like forever before I pull myself up using the bathtub for support and stagger to the basin. The taste in my mouth is as vile as I feel, but at least I can do something about the sour tang that’s coating my tongue. I reach for Christian’s toothpaste and squeeze a pea-size blob onto my finger before I rub it along my teeth. With a gulp of water I swirl it around my mouth as a makeshift mouthwash, all the while eyeing his toothbrush with longing, but the cheek I once had is gone. This time I don’t have the spunk to use it.
After I splash cool water onto my face, I dry myself with a nearby towel, too distracted to enjoy the plush softness as I take a long, hard look at myself in the well-lit mirror. The flood of light emphasizes the flaws of my face, much like this afternoon’s events highlighted my emotional ineptitude. It serves only to deepen my sudden state of self-awareness. I feel branded with it.
It must be such a shock for him to see me like this, I muse miserably. I’ve spent less than zero time on myself or my appearance over the last five years. I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough, and I don’t need Christian to tell me that I’m too thin. Though my hair is still long, the well-cut days are long gone. I’m not wearing a smidgen of make-up on my tear-rimmed eyes, and my nails are short, cut bluntly. Now practicality far outweighs beauty in my short, obligatory grooming regime.
I draw a deep, steadying breath, but it judders out, broken. I look to my subconscious for support, but she’s hiding. Chicken! I sneer, annoyed at her for leaving when things get tough. Not so snarky now, are you?
On shaky legs I make my way back to the sumptuous living area, giving myself a quick pep talk. It’s time to face the demon of my past, along with the others I created so unwittingly, so thoughtlessly.
I find Christian sitting in the living room looking tense, but with his emotions carefully leashed. When he lifts his head he takes me in. His slate-gray eyes narrow in a thorough assessment, only fueling my nervousness. Fidgeting and vulnerable, I stand completely at his mercy, owning my guilt with a submissive, contrite posture.
“I’m sorry about… uhm, that,” I mumble, jabbing my thumb over my shoulder, indicating the bathroom.
When he tells me to sit I do as I’m told, tautly perching on the very edge of the couch. I certainly don’t want to piss him off right now. I try to keep my hands still, curling them into each other on my lap.
“What are we going to do with you, Anastasia?” His question almost makes me smile, but I suspect that this time it doesn’t carry the playful mock-irritation it used to. An urgent need grips me; I have to make him understand that my stupid, thoughtless actions had nothing to do with him and the way he treated me.
I’m keenly aware that I am going to have to try and explain myself again, this time leaving no room for him to blame himself. “Christian, I don’t know what to say.” I splay my hands out, palms up and open, my gaze pleading as the gravity of my decision looms so large. It threatens to swallow me whole. How can I make him understand?
“Please,” I beg quietly, “try to understand.” I marshal my thoughts; it’s so important for me to make him see. “I don’t think that I ever truly believed that you loved me and wanted me. I knew that I couldn’t ever hold on to you and then, when I found out I was pregnant, it gave me a reason to stop deluding myself. Coupled with my love for you, it galvanized me into doing what I believed — truly believed —” I flick him a pointed look, “was the right thing to do for you and our son.” The end of the sentence barely scrapes by the cloying lump in my throat.
He eyes me warily, the gray depths of the orbs pulling me in as I stumble on. “You’ve always had women fall at your feet, some of them almost worshipping you. All of them much more suitable for you and your… uhm, needs…” I swallow against the memory. “So many beautiful women that you could choose from. My self-esteem, or lack thereof,” my mouth curves into a rueful line as the slant of my eyes turns down, “rendered me incapable of understanding that you could want me — love me. Just like you weren’t capable of letting me touch you when we first met.” I try reason; maybe using something that he knows and understands will help him gain the insight I will him to have. “Please, Christian, it wasn’t a matter of choice for me. I didn’t choose not to believe. I couldn’t believe.”
I cringe, thinking about what I have to say next. I don’t want to tell him, to leave myself this exposed, but this is my screw-up and I think it’s the only way he’ll understand that even though I left, I never stopped loving him and only him. I want him to know that leaving him left me as broken as he still seems to be.
“You know that…” I stammer, my conscience rebelling against uttering such a shaming secret, “…that I was only ever yours from the moment I saw you, yours in everything.” I look down, finding a spot on the carpet and losing myself in it. My hair tumbles over my shoulders, hiding the red mask of my shy blush. A compounding ache claws at my fragile heart and more tears drop onto my shirt. “I’m still only yours.” Even though it’s a low, guarded whisper, it sounds loud in my ears.
He sucks in a hard breath, eyes pained and jaw clenching tightly — the muscles there forming little mounds on his chiseled features. I peek up, darting my eyes over his face, and a new wave of anxiety flushes through me. Can he get any madder? How will we ever get past this?
Complicated as he is, he takes something unexpected from my words and pounces. “What do you mean, Anastasia? You were married again, for fuck’s sake!” he glares at me, brow knitted in a tight vee. “And since then, it’s been over four years.” He holds up four fingers for me to see. “How can you still only be mine?”
Out of everything I just said, is that the only thing he heard?
He swallows hard. “You had a string of admirers, each one more eager than the last to bed you!” He spits out the word admirers with contempt, tasting it and finding it vile. The right angles of his shoulders go rigid with his anger.
Please don’t make me say it! I lift my head, grabbing a quick glimpse to gauge his ire. My teeth imprint a dent in my lip and I shake my curls: my silent way of begging him not to make me explain this embarrassing bite of info.
“You. Were. Married. To. José. Ana.” He enunciates the words ever so slowly, like I’m a child too young to understand the implication of what I said. When realization dawns in his eyes I have to look away, awash with humiliation.
Something else I couldn’t get right. I think of José with guilt burning into my unsettled belly.
Not that you wanted it to work out, my subconscious reminds me.
“Is that why the fucker left you?” Smoldering eyes swirl with a mix of incredulity and something else I can’t place. I can only nod and stare down at my fingers. “You never slept with him, Ana? A man who I know was desperate to get into your pants. Why? I need to know!” The tone of his barking, gruff voice doesn’t brook any argument.
I sit there, thoughts at sea in my past as I try to formulate a reply.
“Ana, answer me. Please.” The unexpected gentleness in his cadence draws me back to him. My eyes snap up as my teeth graze my lip, almost drawing blood. But then I see the brief warmth slip away, replaced by the angry scowl I get for disobeying even after being asked nicely.
He draws a breath, opening his mouth to issue a sterner command, but I interrupt with my answer in an effort to stem the tide of his anger. “I told you,” I sigh, “I’ve only ever been yours. My body wouldn’t… I couldn’t… uhm….respond.” I drag my shoulders to my ears. I know I can’t lie to him so I try again. “I was unable….” I trail off, looking for my spot on the carpet again — anything to avoid those drilling eyes.
In a flash he’s up, tracking an irritated path between the door and the chair — again and again. Instead of running his fingers through his hair, he’s fisted patches, knuckles white with strain. Under his breath I hear a repeated mutter, “No, no, no…”
It’s always been a challenge to keep up with his moods, but I’ve no idea what’s going through his head. I’m lost. I can’t even tell if it’s good or bad.
He paces past me, then abruptly swivels to a grinding stop in front of me. I lift a cautious gaze, peeking up through my lashes. “I’m sorry,” I breathe, contrition twisting my heart.
“Oh, Ana!” the anguish in his voice palpable, almost solid. “If only you’d talked to me, trusted me and stayed. I would’ve come around. We could’ve avoided all of this.” He motions with his hand, his agony in plain view.
“I tried to stay away from you when we first met. I tried to warn you.” His focus is slightly off as he recalls the memories, almost looking through me. “But I was too weak, Ana. I was too drawn to you. I let myself slip deeper and deeper. I fell in love.” His large hands are curled around the curve of my shoulders and he gives me a gentle shake, his cracking voice hard evidence of the depth of his feelings.
“I tried so hard…” There’s an imploring gleam of desperation in his eyes, mirroring mine. We’re both so darkly, deeply frantic to make the other understand. “… so hard to make you see that I loved you, that I was willing, but I failed. I failed to make you see.” His shoulders hunch with dejection as he bows his head between us, touching his forehead to mine. There’s a hopelessness in his tone that hangs heavy in the room, ripe with his internal flagellation.
He takes a breath and lifts his head. I watch his gaze morph from sad to angry again as he gets his second wind. It’s Fifty at his mercurial best. “I can see that you think you left of your own accord, but surely, even you have to admit that if my own wife — MY WIFE, Ana!…” With his fervent words I get another shake, firmer this time, making my teeth rattle and my eyes bug out with shock. “… is too terrified to talk to me, to tell me that she’s expecting our child, and then RUNS from me, that I failed miserably to give her the reassurance that she needed!” He lets go of my shoulders, arms falling disconsolately by his sides with a slap.
I shake my head, my mouth an open O, stunned. I grapple for a reply, but I walk straight into the impenetrable wall of his self-loathing. It’s warped his mind, amplifying our issues — the things we were working to overcome as a couple when we got married — and laid the blame squarely on his unfortunately accepting shoulders.
When I find my voice again, I ask the question that I’ve chewed over for the last five years. “How do you think you would have reacted to the news of a baby?” The note of unguarded aggression is unintended, but I’m desperate to put this into perspective for him. We glare at each other, both breathing harder, our bodies locked with tension.
After a beat he answers, “I would have been mad.” His shame leads his look away from mine while a disturbed hand dashes through his hair.
I need to backtrack; shame is not what I want him to feel. How can I make him see? “Will you stop with the self-loathing crap already?!” I push myself up, drawing to my full height, which is still dwarfed by his, but it lends credibility to the seriousness of my message.
“This is on me! Me! Not you!” My voice climbs an octave with every word as my tension spikes into anger. “Looking back, seeing you like this, it makes what I did even worse! I broke us and I am sorry!” An awful, guttural sob escapes my lips and I sink to the floor, shaking with tears of hurt and frustration. My hands fly to cover my face as I give in — gut-wrenching crying, five years of suppressed longing, and regret all rushing out at once.
I feel his arms wrap around me, encouraging my release. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He’s whispering in my ear and stroking my hair, kneeling in front of me. He rocks us back and forth, my head in the crook of his neck and his safe arms a steely reminder to me of what I’ve lost.
I’m shell-shocked at the utter mess I’ve made of things but, in spite of it all, he’s here, holding me, offering himself as comfort. How can he be here like this with me, after what I did?
When I’m calmer, he allows himself to sit back on his heels, but he presses his forehead against mine, holding me in place with a firm hand on the back of my neck. Our knees are touching. My moist eyes flutter open and in the beautiful dusk light I see a wet trail along his jaw. My heart expands for him as our warm, ragged breaths mingle between us. I want nothing more than to kiss those tear tracks away.
Suddenly — out of nowhere — like a match to fuel, a fierce desire tears through me and my body stiffens in alarm. With eyes wide and surprised, our lips meet of their own accord, smashing together. Our tongues thrash in a wild dance, devouring, seeking, and taking every bit of comfort they can.
My mind wipes itself to a blank slate and our surroundings vanish. I’m only mouth and tongue and taste, our hands eagerly grabbing hair and basking in the once-lost contact. We’re on our knees as in prayer — worshipping or pleading — I’m not sure which. Our bodies are drawn up against each other, urgent with the need to become one. I hear him groan, low in his throat.
Oh, I remember that sexy sound! I get a hit of Christian smell, making my insides clench expectantly. Hhhhmmmm.
My subconscious suddenly shows up, applying the defibrillator paddles to the chest of my mummified inner goddess as she shouts, clear! She’s trying to rouse her back from the dead. I ignore them and apply myself to the moment, soaking up the mind-blowing sensations. My body is tingling, responsive and alive again after five long years of winter. His rock-hard need for me makes my heart stutter as his hand cups my backside, pressing me into his groin. He grinds his hips, igniting my blood with the electrifying friction against my sex. I moan against his mouth, shivering while he easily slides me onto the floor as I cling to the strong posts of his arms.
Our limbs are tangled and our hands are roaming in frenzy. I’m hyperaware of him, every point of contact sizzling with memories of his touch. I love the way he pins me down, his weight keeping me in place, reminding me of who’s in charge. His flat hand moves from my hip, past my waist and roughly onto my breast, crushing it against me. I buck into his hard caress and reach down to undo his belt, impatient to feel the velvet of his skin. I tug ineffectively and then, as suddenly as it started, he stops, sitting up as if his hot blood just turned to ice.
He looks down at me, panting hard. His face is flushed, wearing heavy lids and shadowed eyes. I lie staring up at him, pulse stammering and body raging in frustrated protest. What’s he doing? He looks utterly forlorn, his expression hitting me with a surge of panic. “Christian, what’s wrong?”
He gives his head a little shake to clear it. “I don’t have any condoms,” he says softly, closing his eyes and scrubbing his hands over his face.
“Whoa…what?” I push myself up, resting on my elbows. I feel the swelling of my bruised lips and my body’s revolt against our broken connection, but as his words penetrate my haze of lust I go rigid with disbelief. The realization is like a fist punching my gut. This mess we find ourselves in is due to an unplanned pregnancy and again, my body’s response and need for him is so great that contraception is the furthest thing from my mind! I must be the world’s stupidest person.
A disbelieving giggle escapes me, which gives way to a fountain of them. I sit up, cackling like a crazed lunatic. At first he glares at me, shaken by my inappropriateness, but I can’t stop. I’m howling with hysterical laughter, slapping my hand on my thigh.
Ah, it feels good to laugh, to release all this banked anxiety. My inner goddess is awake and pouting, staring at me with wild, confused eyes. I see Christian’s body slump as he lets go of his pent-up stress and his eyes soften, an uncertain smile pulling at the brackets of his mouth. Finally he gives in and smiles his gorgeous smile, chuckling with me, amusement sprinkled in his beautiful gray eyes.
Slowly we calm down and catch our collective breaths as the unwelcome reality comes creeping back. We settle into a contemplative silence, sitting on the floor in his swanky hotel room, when a knock on the door startles us both. With his usual easy grace he rises and offers me a hand up.
“It’s Taylor,” he answers the question in my eyes as he motions with his head to the door. “We have a… uhm…social engagement.” He moves to open it, leaving me feeling completely off-balance.
Is he seeing someone, is he meeting her? Shit, shit, shit! What am I doing? I have to go. I look around for my bag and grab it, following him to the door. Moments later I join them and come face to face with Taylor. It’s obvious that Christian didn’t mention my presence, because his normally taciturn demeanor falters. Understandable surprise colors his face, but the thin, disapproving line of his mouth screams at me in judgment.
He corrects himself quickly, but it’s too late. It’s clear that he’s angry and disappointed in me. “Mrs. Rodriguez,” he nods a cool greeting.
Briefly my nervous eyes dart to Christian, registering his flash of distaste at the mere mention of José’s name. My feelings are hurt by Taylor’s reaction, though I’m not sure what I expected. I always liked him. I’m anxious about Christian’s romantic status and I’m ashamed about our crazed outburst of lust. Great! A whole new bunch of shit to deal with in my churning head.
“It’s Steele again, Taylor,” I correct him, my own head nodding curtly back. I need to get away. I touch Christian’s arm to get his attention and he turns to me. “I have to go. My mom will be worried.”
It takes a moment for him to respond as he assesses me closely. “Anastasia, give me a second, please.” He doesn’t wait for my reply, guiding Taylor up the corridor with a hand gesture, out of my earshot. Christian has his back to me as I stand awkwardly in the doorway waiting for his return and feeling superfluous. I catch myself fidgeting again, wondering where we’ll go from here. Will he want to meet Chris? Will I see him again? Dare I hope for anything?
He strides back, halting in front of me and looking a little out of his depth as he runs a hand through his unruly hair. Taylor’s waiting patiently in the corridor, but watching us closely. “Anastasia, there’s still a lot we need to discuss, but for tonight I’m out of time. I still need to get dressed.” He looks down at himself but he doesn’t offer any further explanation, and my heart sinks a little more. “How long are you staying in Florida? Can I contact you?” He’s all business again, cool and in control as his practiced mask slips into place.
“We’re leaving on Monday, late afternoon. I’ll give you my cellphone number.” I rifle through my bag trying to find a scrap of paper. Ever so gently, he lays his hand on my arm so I have to look up into his slightly amused face. His head is cocked to one side.
I stop. “What?” My tone is almost irritated, the tumult of today getting to me.
“Ana, I have your number.” He scans my face carefully to see how I process this information.
Of course, über-stalker has my number! I want to smack the heel of my hand against my head. How little things have changed. “Uhm… Okay,” is all I can manage as I look up to him. He nods his head and looks relieved. Is he relieved that I’m going?
“Taylor will take you wherever you need to go.” I know that tone; it’s the you-don’t-get-a-say tone.
Oh, no! How to handle this? I don’t want to be alone with Taylor, especially not in the confines of a car! He’s mad at me — doesn’t Christian understand? I try my calm, breathy voice. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll grab a cab.”
“Ana, you …” he starts, but stops himself and takes a step away from me, resigned. “As you wish,” comes the very formal reply, congruent with the weary look in his eyes.
Phew! My subconscious mouths at me, brushing the back of her hand across her forehead.
Our eyes lock and I’m swamped with the uneasiness of the moment. Do we hug, or kiss, shake hands? I decide to make the first move — better to get it over with. I go for a timid peck on the cheek just as he moves in to hug me, and we end up doing neither as we bungle it up, bumping clumsily. We pull away from our ungainly embrace and he puts his hands on my shoulders to steady me. “Until tomorrow, then.” I give him a weak smile and turn on my heel, walking down the corridor and past Taylor to the blessed sanctuary of the elevator.
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