The invisible hands around my neck tighten their grip, I’m lightheaded and my breathing, strained. I wonder if Christian can hear my heartbeat when I lift my uncertain eyes to his. With his guarded look firmly in place he observes me, seemingly waiting for something.
“Do you want to cancel the wedding?” I’m pondering his frame of mind if we stayed home where he could control all the eventualities.
His gaze flames into passion and for a beat he says nothing before swallowing hard, “uhm…, No.” Concise and clear. His brow furrows, “do you?”
“No?” I don’t intend to make it sound like a question but I get the strangest impression that he’s waiting for something – maybe there’s a right and a wrong answer here.
Like a cold slap in the face the penny drops and the question lodges like a giant thorn in my throat. I try to shove it down, If I’m honest, I’m not sure I want to know.
Could this have been taken recently, did he lie about not seeing someone?
What I thought were butterflies in my belly has now turned to clawing, angry birds and I brace myself to launch my query, “when was this picture taken?” I swing my eyes back to the offensive article hearing my blood rush through my ears. I feel the full weight of his stare on me, burning my skin into the hot red flush it now displays.
He can’t be angry; I know that this is the question he was anticipating. I can’t believe how trusting I am, that I didn’t think of it sooner. Our entire relationship hangs on his next words.
His quick fingers release my seatbelt and before I know what’s happened I’m on his lap. Both, rough hands are fisted in my hair, anchoring my head in place just inches from his. “How can you even ask me that? That photo – and I’m telling you this just so we’re clear, I don’t want you to EVER doubt me – was part of the stash that you found in my closet and maybe I should have mentioned it at the time but I destroyed each and every one of them – that day.”
The relief is sharp and I sag against him, pushing out a shaky breath but it’s short-lived, a bunch of equally horrific uncertainties stay behind. My arms curl around his neck and I rest my head in the crook of his neck, nuzzling. “I believe you,” I breathe onto his warm skin. Being this close, smelling his unique Christian smell calms me back to rationality. Strong arms band around me, pressing me closer until I’m aware of his beating heart kicking into my chest. He’s just as unsettled as I am.
Still holding him tight I try to make sense of it all, “who is she?”
When he doesn’t reply I push back to find his eyes, I’m taken aback by what I find before he gets a chance to lower them. It’s embarrassment coloured with a touch of desolation – leaving me dumbstruck.
“I don’t know,” he says eventually, still avoiding looking at me.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” I squeak at him, suddenly annoyed.
Now he’s willing to meet my gaze but only because he wants to warn me, a silent brow snaps up in a sharp arch, telling me to reign myself in.
Suitably castigated, I blush again. I want to snuggle back into him but now I feel uncertain of my welcome. Thankfully he takes the lead and tucks my head back in its nest, stroking my hair absentmindedly.
His tone is measured, his voice low, “I had many of those exact photos, I almost always ended a scene like that and because all the girls were uhm…, a certain type – I can’t tell.”
Oh yes, petite girls with pale skins and long brown hair – just like me.
The stress of the situation mingles with relief, melding into a weird, unnamed emotion that sends my belly into a free fall before it strikes me as funny. Without warning, a hysterical giggle-snort escapes me. I clamp my hand over my mouth, in shock or fear – I don’t know, but I can’t do anything to stop it. My round eyes gape at him as a bubbling fit of giggles shake my shoulders, my eyes watering.
Christian doesn’t see the funny side, the slate of his eyes turn cool, “maybe if I saw the original,” he huffs indignantly.
I try to focus on curbing my hysteria, rearranging my face into a suitable mask but it’s hard, my mouth keeps tugging into a smile. I release a long breath and swipe at my wet eyes, still feeling the laughter ramming to pop up to the surface.
“I’m sorry,” I say still wrestling the giggles down. “So,” I clear my throat, “who is “First News Underground?” I’m desperate to claw back my decorum; this is a serious matter after all.
He narrows his eyes, peering through the slits at me then lets it go, “we were very lucky to pick it up. It’s really only a one man show who runs an unofficial news blog from his basement, mostly UFO sightings and conspiracy theories. If it wasn’t for the large reach of Grey Publishing we would never have come across it until it was too late.” His sober expression gives an inkling of what a close call it was.
“Okay, that’s good right? You managed to contain it?” My voice is hopeful before another question adds confusion. “And why would a UFO blog run a report on you?”
“Yes we’ve contained it. He’s taken it off but it doesn’t change the fact whoever’s behind this threat is hell bent on making life very difficult for me. That they have access to this photograph speaks volumes of how far he or she has come uncovering things that I’ve spent my life hiding – carefully.” He gives me a meaningful look. “I suspect the purp chose this blog because the writer likes his material scandalous and controversial, he doesn’t seem to care too much about fact checking. Often his sources are dubious – at best. I think their hope was that one of the major newsagencies would pick it up and run with the story simply because it’s about me.”
“Did the blogger divulge any information about his source?” my senses are heightened by the anxiety, my belly uncomfortable with worry.
“No, and we pushed – hard.” I swallow, deliberating about the meaning of that before I blot it from my mind, I’m better off not knowing every detail.
Christian continues, “eventually he caved and showed Barney the anonymous e-mail, he’s looking into the IP address but we’re not holding our breaths, it was probably sent from a false account to begin with.”
“And you obviously think all these incidents are related.”
A full minute passes before he answers, all the while regarding me and I wonder if he’s sifting through it all in his mind, choosing the things that he’s willing to share. “Yes, more and more.”
On the one hand I’m relieved that he trusts me enough to confide in me but on the other I hate feeling this off kilter. I’m troubled, especially as this threat still seems largely unidentified. We don’t even know what we’re up against. The strain around Christian’s mouth and eyes are clear signs that he’s way more concerned than he’s letting on.
Because there’s nothing I can do and to lift his spirits, I kiss his face – on his eyes, his temples, his nose and finally his mouth. He responds with a groan and deepens what was supposed to be a chaste kiss.
When we break away, our hearts are both pounding in a synchronised rhythm, cheeks flushed with the heat of our closeness.
“You sure know how to take a guy’s mind of his problems.” A touch of admiration and a large dollop of lust stare back at me, his voice raspy and low.
I smile sweetly, “we aim to please.”
His hands glide down my back and grip my hips. He pushes me down whilst he thrusts up, grinding the evidence of his lust into my behind.
Oh my! In the car, with the security team inches away?
“So brazen,” he says when he reads the thought on my face. He brushes the pad of his thumb over my bottom lip. “You’re a bad influence,” he whispers and grins, “later, we’re nearly there.”
For a moment I allow myself to indulge in some mile high fantasies but if I know him, Chris and his family will be on board. Maybe even mine. The salacious smile slips from my mouth along with my heart, into my shoes.
“Buckle up baby.” He lifts me off his lap and I flop back into my seat. His tone is gentle and as always he knows the reason behind my sudden deflation. “You don’t have to do it; I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. Not even them and this is our wedding day. I don’t want you to be upset.” His whole body is turned to me, both hands clasping mine while his thumbs stroke over my skin.
“I do Christian; I can’t build this relationship on a lie. It’s too big.”
He nods but his lips turn down, not pleased with my decision.
“Who will be on the plane?” Maybe I’m lucky and I’ll have another two hours respite.
He smiles, “Chris, mom, dad and Mia. It was too short notice for your mom and Bob; I arranged for them to fly directly from Savannah. Oh and Ray, he drove up early this morning. Kate and Elliot send their best wishes, they’re a little mad at me for the sudden plans.” He flashes a wry smile.
I know full well what he’s like when he’s made up his mind about something; an absent brother wasn’t going to be enough to postpone this wedding.
I gulp, bad enough I have to face the Grey’s with my horrible truth but my heart hurts most from Ray’s disappointment in me. I don’t even know what I’m going to say.
All too soon we drive onto the tarmac and the familiar Grey Enterprises jet comes into view. Stately in the afternoon sun, the steel bird that will fly us to our dreams – I hope.
Carl and Collins flank the jet doorway and nod their greetings as Christian and I duck through the arch, Christian’s hand is curled into mine like a vine. Brandon and Taylor bring up the rear. We’re greeted by a squeal and a torpedo of energy that barrels into us. I catch Chris and lift him into a tight hug.
“Hey buddy, I’ve missed you so much!” I plant endless kisses all over his face and hair.
His little arms slip around my neck and he hugs me back, “mommy we’re going on the plane again!”
I snort, even after a night without me I don’t register nearly as exciting as a plane ride. I hold him a bit longer even though I can feel him wriggling free. “I know, isn’t it great?” I set him down and he turns to Christian, holding up his arms.
I smirk, he already knows how to manipulate Christian, he hasn’t done that in the last year.
The beam on Christian’s face is achingly beautiful, delighted. He bundles him up and presses Chris’ cheek to his own. The image of the pair of them brings the threat against us home – if anything were to happen to them…
I’m broken out of my meandering thoughts by the Greys; eager to congratulate us. I accept their well wishes with a heavy heart knowing that they might not be so happy about this after I confess my stupidity. When I catch Grace’s eye I thank her for the extra-long babysitting duty and in return she clutches me to her chest, grateful. I’m the one that should be grateful and I feel my spirits slipping further.
Finally it’s Ray’s turn. He shakes Christian’s hand, pumping his arm and boring into his skull, some quiet message passes between them and I suddenly feel surplus, standing awkwardly to one side. He slaps Christian on the back and lets him go.
When Ray turns to me I’m relieved to see a small smile in his face. He hugs me and I melt, so comforted that I fling my arms around his neck in what can only be described as a wrestling hold.
He laughs, ‘whoa Annie, happy to see your old man eh?”
I clamp harder, straining back the ecstatic tears. “Yes, something like that.”
“You made it right baby girl. Now, don’t mess it up again,” he whispers next to my ear.
“I won’t dad, I promise.” Never have I uttered more heartfelt words.
Christian has graciously moved away, chatting to his family to give us some space. When Ray and I join them he quickly threads his fingers through mine again, as if he can’t bear not to. I love it and give him a shy smile, squeezing his hand in acknowledgement.
The stewardess announces our take-off and Christian stands back guiding me to our seat and letting me slip into the one next to the window. Before I have time to reach for my seatbelt he’s already clipped it in place, eyes lingering on the strap he licks his lips then pulls it tight with an expert yank, flooding my memory with X-rated images, mostly involving a certain silver grey tie. The scorching, knowing smile I get in return would have buckled my knees if I wasn’t already seated.
Mercurial to a fault he drops that look, swapping it for paternal affection as he secures Chris into the seat opposite us, leaving me a little more than breathless. Mia drops into the seat next to Chris. She winks at me, excitement rolling off her like waves, making me feel it too.
“I take it your evening went well.” She says to us, lifting her brows suggestively.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” Christian turns to me and lifts my hand to his lips, “but yes, it went according to plan.” As an only child I always enjoy their good natured bantering and I smile in reply, doe-eyed for my man.
Shortly after take-off Christian leans to me, “baby I’ve got some work to do. I’ll be in the office if you need anything.”
Oh, no mile high, finish-what-you-started sex then?
He grins when he sees the disappointment on my face, “you’re insatiable Anastasia.”
I tilt closer, brushing my lips to the shell of his ear, “so are you Mr Grey.” I can’t resist a little nibble and I shiver when he sucks in a needy breath.
“I might have to punish you for that.” His hooded eyes have gone dark, his promise darting straight to my groin.
He plants a quick kiss on my hungry lips, “laters baby,” he winks and his index finger taps me gently on the tip of my nose.
He pivots to face Chris, “hey champ, daddy’s got some work to do, we’ll catch up when we land okay?”
“Okay daddy, look I’m winning!” Mia is teaching him how to play tic-tac-toe on a smartphone app.
“That’s great buddy, you should watch her though, she cheats!” He ruffles Chris’s hair and Mia objects, giggling along with Chris.
Oh well, it will give me an opportunity to talk to Grace and Carrick. With Chris entertained I seize the opportunity to plan what I want to say but before long Ray slides into the seat next to me.
“Ana,” he whispers with wide eyes, “Grace and Carrick seems to think that Christian walked out on you. What’s going on?”
“Oh dad,” I sigh, knowing that I can’t put it off any longer. “I know. What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything, what do you mean you know?” his earlier warmth is beginning to wane, irritable at being kept in the dark.
“I’m sorry dad, I only recently found out myself but Christian told them that to protect me. I was just sitting here thinking about what to say to them, I have to tell them the truth.” My eyes cast down, watching my fingers fiddle with the seat controls.
Instantly his kindness is back, pleased that I’m making the honourable decision and I’m bolstered by the approval that his gaze holds. “It’s the right thing to do,” he agrees and takes my hand. “Go now, I’ll keep these two out of the way.” He inclines his head in Chris’ and Mia’s direction.
“Okay,” I unclip the seatbelt and take a deep breath; crossing my fingers in hope that it won’t ruin the day.
Better get it over with; I might lose my nerve if I wait any longer.
“Mind if I join you?” I ask Grace and Carrick as their smiling faces turn to me, their seats face the back of the plane and when they nod I take Ray’s seat directly opposite them.
The mother in Grace is instantly attuned to my mood and her smile fades, “what’s the matter Ana?” she reaches over, shifting forward in her seat and lays a hand on my shoulder.
When I look up it’s straight into twin expressions of concern. “I have something to tell you.” I reach for Ray’s bottled water in the arm rest and take a sip, my powder dry mouth needs a bit of help.
“What is it darling girl?” I wince at the endearment, Grace has found Carrick’s hand and judging by the way she’s gripping it; her current anxiety level is up there with mine.
Another breath to slow my galloping heart is necessary to begin, I wish I could take it but the lump in my throat doesn’t budge.
“Christian wasn’t the one that walked out on me because I was pregnant; I was the one that left.” My voice is flat and low, a robotic monotone.
Disbelief renders them quiet, leaving me free to continue. Now that the truth is out I’m eager to explain even though I know nothing can temper their hurt. Their shocked stares take me in and my eyes slip away, ashamed.
“I knew Christian didn’t want the baby and it was probably my fault – getting pregnant in the first place. I was terrified, so scared that I had no faith in our relationship – in his love for me so, I ran. I convinced myself that I was doing him a favour, that he didn’t need me and that I was a passing interest that was going to bring something into his life that he didn’t want. I was certain that he would end up resenting me.”
Hot embarrassment burns high on my cheeks as I feel the familiar stab of pain in my heart, the type of pain that causes your whole being to ache with regret. “I was so stupid, I’m so sorry.” I speak to the floor and watch the pattern on the carpet blur as the tears begin to drip off my face.
Their silence is stinging my ears, with every moment that lapses I feel worse knowing that I’ve caused this grief, this loss that’s shaken their belief in me. I cringe as I remember the many times they thanked me for bringing their son out of his shell.
“Ana!” there’s no mistaking the anger in which my name is spoken; Grace draws herself up in the seat, her shoulders squared to me. “He loved you… What on earth were you thinking?” she shakes her head, exasperated. All I can do is agree.
“I thought I was doing the right thing, in fact I never doubted it until I saw him again. I didn’t realise…” What’s the point of explaining? It’s impossible to put what I went through into words, how insecure I was, – am in some cases. I wilt a little more and try to find comfort in the fact that I did the right thing telling them even though the price seems much too high.
Carrick looks to me and then to her, his face as serious mask. “I think what Grace is trying to say is that we understand how difficult Christian can be, Grace and I often spoke about it over the years. There were times when we also didn’t feel his love, doubted that he was even capable of giving or receiving it.”
I’m taken aback by his astute observation, infinitely surprised that he seems to be fighting in my corner for a change but he directs his words at her, gently rubbing her back.
Grace glares at him, I can see the truth register with her but the loss of four years of her grandson’s life and her son’s hurt overrules everything else and I can hardly blame her. I would be just as mad – maybe even worse.
“I never intended to hurt him. I was trying to save him.”
“Him or yourself Ana?” Her blazing look and accurate analysis lashes like a whip across my heart, there’s no way I can deny that I was desperate to protect myself from the potential heart shattering moment of Christian’s indifference to me.
I hang my head, chagrined, “him and me,” I mutter desolately.
“How do you feel about your relationship now?” Carrick’s gentle question takes me by surprise and I dare meet his eyes.
A quick dart to Grace reveals that she’s listening too, albeit with a stony expression fixed into place. “I know where I went wrong and I’ve made a commitment to see someone about my self-esteem issues.” My fingers twist nervously in my lap, “I don’t want to lose him again and I definitely don’t want to be responsible for another split. Christian needs Chris as much as Chris needs him.”
Grace falls back in her seat; a contemplative fist rests at her mouth, “that’s something at least.” Her tone is grudging.
By Carrick’s glace to his wife’s unhappy face it’s clear that he’s not used to seeing her this agitated. “Thank you for telling us the truth Ana, I can imagine the courage it must’ve taken.”
Grace’s sarcastic snort is so uncharacteristic to her usual, well put-together self that it turns the knife in my heart. Carrick’s kind eyes are the only reason I’m not a crumbling heap on the floor, begging her forgiveness.
With lips pressed together and a weary look he signals for me to give them some privacy. I nod, understanding. “I know it’s not nearly enough but I am sorry and I do love him. I never stopped.” My faltering voice breaks and I stop the sob with my hand over my mouth. I use the last of my dignity to push myself up and find refuge in the bedroom in the back of the plane.
Fuck, fuck, fuck!
I wait for the tears but they don’t come, I’m too overwhelmed, too shocked. That was brutal! Even my inner girls know to keep their chirpy mouths tightly shut. I draw my knees up and hug them to my trembling body. Despondency eclipsing any reprieve I might have found in confession.
Moments later the door opens, “hey baby….” a halting breath stops Christian’s purr mid-sentence, “what’s wrong Ana?” By my side, on the bed, he does want he does best and pulls me to him, soothingly cradling me to his chest.
“I spoke to your parents.” My low voice sounds emotionless; my eyes only see Grace’s face contort in hurt.
Christian pushes me away, “what the fuck Ana? Without me? You told them without me telling my side of the story?” His unexpected harshness makes me jump, I stare at him blankly.
What? I was supposed to wait?
I blink, “I didn’t…, you didn’t say…, I…”
Christian cuts me off, “what? You didn’t think I wanted to be present when you crucified your relationship with my parents? That I wanted to help you put things into perspective for them?” he jumps up, pacing the room, dragging an angry hand through his hair while the other fist grinds into his side.
He stops in front of me, glaring down, his brow scowling. “Why do you insist on always doing everything on your damn own? Why can’t you accept help?”
His outburst ratchets me from dejected to cross, “I wasn’t aware that I needed any!”
He throws his arms and eyes heavenward, at a loss he turns to leave, ‘I’ll talk to them,” he says through his clenched teeth over his retreating shoulder.
When will he learn that I don’t need him to fight my battles?
I give myself a couple of minutes to calm down before I head out myself. I’m sure my little boy must be wondering where I am.
Walking back I feel like I’m conspicuous in my shame, like there’s a sign on my head blaring it out to the world. I’m careful to avoid Mia and Ray’s gazes, grateful that the parent Greys are ensconced with Christian in the on-board office. I lavish my attention on Chris, trying to keep my thoughts off all the people I manage so effortlessly to piss off.
Every ounce of strength I have I use not to slip into that black hole of doubt that tells me that I’m not good enough, that I don’t belong or deserve to be here. It’s done me no good in the past and now it’s damn near wrecked my relationship with my in-laws.
As we start our descent Christian joins me, slumping into his seat he slides his thumb and index finger across his forehead – like he’s warding off a headache. His parents take up theirs behind us, I’m more than happy to postpone facing them again.
He doesn’t look at me but he takes my hand, “it’ll be fine, just give them some time.”
I drag my eyes to the window to hide the tell-tale shimmer on their surface; I hope he’s right. It’s supposed to be a happy day, what are the chances that they’ll come around before tonight?
The confined space of the plane seems stifling now with Grace’s anger in such close proximity and I’m happy when we land and disembark though it’s awkward. I’m not sure if I should avoid her or reach out.
The decision is taken away from me when we split up to fill the two waiting SUV’s parked a small distance from the plane, the uniformed chauffeurs waiting at attention for us. Grace, Carrick and Ray along with Collins and Carl duck into the first and Christian, Mia, Chris and I go to the second, our own security team tagging along.
Even though I know it’s my fault I’m glad to have a break from them. I watch Chris, his eyes are fluttering, lulled by the moving vehicle after another exciting day. He’ll be asleep in a minute.
“Where are we going?” I look up to Christian who is still a little lost in his own thoughts.
“Hhmm?” he says dragging himself away from his pondering mind, grey eyes finding mine and softening.
I smile and repeat my question, “where are we going?”
“For you my bride, only the best.” He grins before he leans in and kisses my mouth.
I sigh in pleasure, shivering helplessly at his seductive tone. He watches me, amused. “We’ll be staying at the Bellagio; they’ve offered us a villa.”
“Ooohhhh!” Mia gushes! “Ana, that’s so romantic! You’re so lucky; the Villas at the Bellagio are invitation only.
My awed expression gains an affirmative nod from Christian and he smiles indulgently at me.
Mia continues, hitting an exited stride, “I’ve never been but one of my friends dated a whale and he was invited to stay, she said that it was exquisite!”
I giggle, “a whale?”
She bats playfully in my direction, smirking, “you know, a high roller!”
“Ah,” I nod, mirroring her smile. I slip my arm behind Christian’s back and give him a squeeze around his lean waist, “thank you, I know anything you organise will be special.”
He curls his arm around my shoulders and holds me in place, pressing a kiss on my head, “anything for you.” Even the husky note in his voice sends delicious tingles down my spine.
We’re already driving down the strip and even though it’s daytime, the lights are all flashing and blinking their invitation to hedonistic fun.
“Are we getting married at the hotel?” I drag my eyes away from the rioting colours and look to him.
He smiles an enigmatic smile, giving nothing away. “No, I find full-on Vegas a bit crass, for us, I have something a little more…, sedate in mind.” A wink is the only other clue he’s prepared to offer me.
Mmmhhh, let’s hope what happens in Vegas doesn’t only stay in Vegas…
Be kind and review, please.