The very fact that Taylor came knocking instead of waiting has Christian on high alert just as much as the tactile tension surrounding his right-hand-man. After a brief, silent exchange the two of them disappear into the study, the sound of the slamming door only adding to my erratic pulse.
At least it’s not about Chris, I think to myself, certain that Taylor would have involved me right off the bat if it did. This is the silver lining of consolation I cling to by the barest of fingernails while they deliberate in the study, keeping me in the dark and on edge.
In moments like these it always strikes me how quickly, irrevocably things can change, how a single moment can alter the course of your life, happy to heartbroken, content to terrified – all in the blink of a blissfully unaware eye.
After pacing, glaring daggers at the closed door and unable to keep my overactive imagination in check, I slosh some scotch into two crystal tumblers in an effort to slow the little hamster wheel whirring in my head at a hundred miles per hour. My unsteady grip raining a few amber droplets all around the pair of glasses.
When I hear the study door open, their voices muted and grim it takes everything I have to stay seated, waiting without concealing my impatience as I drum my nails on the lacquered wood of the side table for my turn to be informed. Fervently I hope that Christian will be straight with me, this can’t be a sticking point for us anymore.
Taylor strides past me, his military bearing particularly obvious today, marked by the square, tense lines of his shoulders and grave expression. His acknowledging nod to me so tight and precise I’m unsure if it was meant as a greeting at all.
Once we’re alone I make no move, curious and anxious to see what Christian will do. His steel coloured eyes are weary, his lips pressed together, as if to seal the words inside, “I don’t suppose you’ll let me handle this on my own?” A terse hand rakes through his hair, the other fisted in his waist as he raises a speculative brow.
I fix my gaze to his, with as much courage and certainty as I can muster I stand my ground, “no. I’m married to all of you, not just the safe parts.” I pat the seat next to me, hoping he’ll settle in and afford me the full facts.
His eyes widens a fraction as he considers my claim, opens his mouth to speak but shuts it again shaking his head, a small tug at the corner of his mouth the only clue to his acquiescence. He walks around the couch and sits next to me, exhaling a long, slow breath.
After taking a thoughtful sip of the fiery scotch I offer him, he stares into the glass looking for direction, resolution? I’m not sure which. “Taylor just got word from the blogger who posted the photo of me in the playroom that he was contacted again. This time the perp sent him a full copy of my standard sub contract.”
My lungs swell to bursting point with the shocked air I suck in, my gut shrinking into a tight knot, “with your signature?” my voice surprisingly measured if you compare it to the rampant turmoil shaking my core.
His watch lingers on mine, searching for a way out but finding none – my own; unwavering and uncompromising in their quest for complete disclosure. I feel the surge of a small victory when he comes clean, “my signature but the name of the sub and the contract dates are inked out.”
“With your contacts, surely there are ways…”
He interrupts me, already a few steps ahead he shakes his head at my half-finished question, “we could definitely see what’s under the ink if we had the original but this is a copy, by the looks of it a copy of a copy so all we have are solid black lines instead of the crucial bits we need.” He gulps the rest of his drink in a single swallow, his jaw clenching, baring his teeth in a grimace.
I look away, finding a place in the middle distance where I get lost in my thoughts as I walk through the possibilities in my head. “It has to be a former sub, to have access to your lifestyle preferences, the photos, the contract…” I’m thinking out loud, just getting a feel for the facts.
“That’s the obvious answer but it doesn’t feel right. Why after all this time? Even the subs that wanted more ultimately left happy. There’s never been any real hard feelings. Leila was the only one who I’ve ever had an issue with and we both know at the time she was very broken. I just don’t see it.” Again he shakes his head, brow marred with sceptical lines.
“Could she have gone off the rails again?” my question is tentative, I’m intrigued and apprehensive over his answer, do I really want to know if Christian kept in contact with her?
“Taylor keeps tabs on her, she’s doing well, seems happy.” The unexpected hit of bile in the back of my throat has nothing to do with nausea and everything to do with jealousy, the green venom twisting my insides mercilessly as Christian gets dragged into some unseen memory. His silence becomes weighty, making me aware of the all too pertinent reality that he might clam up.
He flops back onto the couch, scrubbing both hands over his face like he’s rubbing off his mask of careful control, revealing the bleak look behind. He explains, his voice stark, “this feels like a deeply personal vendetta, someone who feels that I’ve taken something from them and that someone had somehow managed to find access to a sub at some point in time. The question is if she exposed me carelessly with idle pillow talk or did this person seek her out because of her connection to me.”
The premeditation involved in the scenario he suggests is not only horrendous but forces me to look at the situation with much more care for concern than I imagined, the seriousness suddenly not some vague threat but that of a person who would go as far as using someone to get to Christian. Naturally my first concern is for Chris, the thought of some deranged lunatic thinking of him as a means to hurt Christian has me baulking, my stomach roiling in protest.
When he sees the realisation sparking in my eyes he sits up and pulls me onto his lap, “Anastasia,” his warm hands slip into my hair, cupping my head. “I will never let anything happen to Chris. Or to you. I’d die first.” His tone is utterly convincing, his eyes bright with the fire of his promise and the zealous sincerity that he allows me to see only for a moment before the shutters of restraint slam back into place.
He obviously regrets the vulnerability he revealed, feeling responsible for my fear where I want nothing more than to be his partner in this and everything else in spite of the dread. If apologising constantly and not letting go of my guilt is my issue, this is his, “I’m not going to lie and tell you that I’m not worried,” I confess looking into those ash pools that have now turned cold with restraint.
“There are just too many variables and uncertainties but it’s not your fault and this isn’t the first time some madman has harassed us. I came into this knowing full well the risks involved. You don’t have to shield me from the facts to keep us safe you have to share them. I trust you implicitly but you also have to trust me. Trust me not to freak out; I can only make informed choices if I have the details.”
I watch the ghost of his past steal the light in his eyes; suddenly I face dull, lifeless orbs staring soberly at me, “Anastasia how would you feel about me if something happened to Chris because of me? It would shatter us; I’d lose both of you.” His voice is so low, so raw with terror, like even uttering the words it too much for him to bear.
I swallow hard, fighting to maintain the weak hold I have on my daemons of fear, “firstly, nothing is going to happen to Chris because you and I will do everything in our power to keep him safe and secondly it’s not because of you! You don’t have control over some derailed person’s actions! I love that you want to be strong for me but we need to be strong together.”
It takes him a while to process this information and in all that time I can’t fathom what he’s thinking. When he finally speaks I’m not convinced that I managed to sway him, “you’ve always been so brave baby. I’m a lucky man.” He kisses my forehead and hugs me to him, burying his nose in my hair.
I nuzzle into his neck, taking my own share of comfort from our nearness and the smell of him that always captures my senses so completely. I can’t shake the nagging unease that when he sees fit he’ll keep me in the dark regardless.
The one thing I’ve learnt is never to push him too hard, too soon; with this threat that’s casting a menacing shadow over our lives I know that for now, I’ve said enough. If I turn it into an argument he’ll refuse to listen when I bring it up again.
When I come away from him he seems a bit more relaxed, exchanging the worried anguish for an expression that glows gently with love. “Do you want to eat something? You only pecked at your lunch and I have plans for us for this evening.” A small smirk plays on his lush lips, a lazy finger twirling with a lock of my hair.
Plans? My inner goddess perks up.
His look reflects his easy sexual confidence making me feel innocent and virginal all over again. I try but fail to supress the rosy blush stealing across my face, with a statement like that how am I supposed to think about food?
He senses my hesitation and the smirk falls away, true to his mercurial form I now face his scowl. I have no choice but to retaliate the only way I know how – by distraction. First I lean in, brushing my lips to his with gently teasing flutters that soon make way for firmer, deeper ones that has both of us forgetting our discussion.
Flushed I smile into his face, pleased that, from the rain storm colour of his irises, my plan succeeded. “You are too good looking for your own good Mr Grey!” I say playfully, castigating him for his looks; that grin that can still make me weak in the knees.
His laugh rumbles low in his chest, “do you like what you see Mrs Grey?” his tone is laced with provocative challenge, the change coming over him dramatic as he goes from playful to smouldering in a beat of my suddenly hammering heart.
Boy, it’s really not fair – he has it all and he knows how to use it.
Slightly annoyed at my body’s certain, slavish response and his overconfidence I draw my hand back, aiming for a friendly swat on his upper arm but his lightning reflexes prevent me, gripping my wrist like a vice.
A millisecond later his tongue is plundering my mouth with barely leashed violence, groaning as he takes what he needs with long, sure strokes. Breaking away he finds my gaze with unfocussed eyes, “I love to lose myself in you.” He runs his nose along mine, my lips swollen and tingling from his luscious assault, my hand still held by his behind my back as our short breaths mingle between us.
“Now Mrs Grey, though exceedingly pleasant your distraction technique failed to get you off the hook. Please eat something. I have to finalise the draft of the press release for our wedding and mail it to Ros, I’d like it to run tomorrow morning.”
He kisses the tip of my nose to soften his command. I can only grin and bat my lashes in defence of being caught out as I slip off his lap. The hard, unexpected thwack on my behind making me jump as I head to the kitchen.
I yelp in surprise glancing at him over my shoulder then laugh at the wicked curve of his sinful mouth. “If you stow that twitchy palm Mr Grey, I’ll make you something too.”
In the kitchen I help myself to a bottle of water while I lean against the counter contemplating which delicious choice to indulge in when James materialises in that unobtrusive way of his.
“Mrs Grey,” he nods; a hint of amusement evident in the sparkle of his eyes, “may I be of some assistance?”
Ah, he’s not used to guests helping themselves, on top of that I can see that he thinks of the kitchen as his domain, I’d hate to trample on his quietly reserved toes.
“I was thinking of making us some sandwiches for dinner, you know just something light and simple.”
“Well then, sandwiches are my speciality, you’ll have to allow me.” With a flouncy flourish he shakes out his apron before deftly fastening it behind his back. I giggle as his brow wrinkles in concentration, mentally going through the recipes filed in his head.
“I have just the thing!” he snaps his fingers and pivots to the fridge where I watch him disappear behind the double silver doors. I decide to stay and watch, fascinated by the contrasting sides of his personality – aloof yet surprisingly fun and good-humoured.
Once he’s amassed an alarming number of items on the counter he slices the bread – soft, fresh sourdough, the yeasty smell rich and enticing. It’s clear that he knows his way around the kitchen, his knife actions are deliberate and practiced, I feel like I’m watching a cooking show on TV.
He starts by peeling and slicing a pear then slips the disks into a gently sizzling pan, the butter and olive oil hissing softly. While the pear is caramelising the bread gets a thin layer of organic butter then a generous helping of grainy Dijon mustard. With a carving knife he trims off thin slithers of rare roast beef followed by shavings of crumbly Parmesan.
The smell of the grilling pears alone is making my mouth water, my appetite returning with a vengeance at the sight of his gourmet creation. He tops the cheese with the warm pears, the juices dripping down the sides of the bread. Fat slices of perfectly ripe avocado and a generous handful of micro rocket leaves finishes it off. Lifting the topping slices of bread with a palette knife he covers the sandwich and secures the 8 inch tower with a toothpick.
After arranging them onto plates he slices them in half then gently moves the halves apart to display the filling, a feast for the eye as much as the belly. Glancing my way he sees my look of wonder, spurring on his dramatization. Like a painter adding brushstrokes to a canvas he adds a dollop of beetroot relish, his movements exaggerated, rivalling even the most over-the-top flamboyant chef.
Delighted by his performance I clap my hands, “bravo!”
James tucks his forearm against his waist and gives me a low bow, “thank you madam.” Again I get the sense that behind his haughty reticence is a much gentler, playful soul.
“Thank you James, that looks fantastic!” I push myself away from the counter with my hip, reaching for the plates.
Slightly discomfited by my praise, he looks away, “you’re most welcome Mrs Grey.” If it was in his nature to blush I’m sure he would have.
With a plate in each hand I saunter into the study finding Christian at the end of his call to Ros. He catches my eye, holding up a single finger to show how long he’ll still be. I nod and jab my head in the direction of the lounge, indicating where we’ll eat.
Just as I set the plates down I look up, catching him stalking toward me in that sinuous, predatory way, “tomorrow the whole world will know that you’re mine.” He slips both arms around my waist then kisses me, a smacking joyous kiss on the mouth.
I’m relieved to see that he’s more buoyant I just hope that it’s not solely for my benefit. I beam at him, gladly embracing his possession, eager to keep the worry away. With only one more night of our honeymoon left I plan to take full advantage of our marital secrecy before we have to face the real world again. I push our mystery threat to the back of my mind, saying a hopeful prayer that all will be resolved quickly.
I run my hands through his hair, the husky lilt of my voice betraying how deeply, completely I value being Mrs Grey again, “and you – mine.”
He gives me his heart-stopping, full HD smile, the fire of passion igniting in his eyes, “I am,” he breathes, crushing me to him.
Disentangled he catches sight of the plates, “that looks great baby, I’m hungry. Thank you.”
I giggle watching him dive for his sandwich, “don’t thank me, James insisted, I just watched the master in action.”
“Mmhh, that’s good,” he says after he swallows the first mouthful. “Maybe I should’ve married James.” He winks and I gasp, shocked at his sudden playfulness.
He ducks just in time, the cushion I threw missing his head by the breadth of a hair. “Maybe you should have, though I’m not sure what he’d look like in champagne lace!” I counter, injecting as much indignation into my voice as I can.
He laughs, a real deep throaty laugh that I can’t help joining, “I’m not sure champagne is his colour.”
We finish our meal, giving each other sidelong glances, smiling with contentment. Christian is the first to slide his empty plate back onto the table. He watches me for a moment, his features deceptively composed, “can I ask you something?”
Something in his tone tells me that I might not like the question but I squash the rising discomfort, no secrets is what I’ve agreed to, “sure. Anything.”
He takes longer than he normally does to frame his thoughts, seeming to be just as uncomfortable with his query as I imagine I’m going to be. When he finally starts it’s with words that plummets my heart into my gut, “you and Jose,” his granite eyes meet mine, “if your marriage was never consummated, why did you get a divorce instead of an annulment?” *
The flush is so hard, so fierce it stings my cheeks as I drop my gaze, almost flinching, “uhm.” There’s a lot I have to say about this, in fact it’s the only thing I ever fought about with Jose but the words are jammed in my throat – shame, disgust, remorse and a myriad of other emotions clogging them in an unutterable mess.
After a minute of doing the gaping fish thing, unable to string a few simple words together I sense Christian’s mood turn, “Anastasia?” If it was just my name, it would be one thing but instead it drips with an accusation that’s completely unfounded.
The ice blue of my eyes slice to his as I take in a sharp breath, slowly shaking my head in warning. His watch grows large but remains puzzled, at least he doesn’t say anything more, only now employing his considerable self-control to hold onto his patience.
My irritation flares realising that I’m battling his jealous insecurities. That and his tendency to jump to baseless conclusions force my stammering mind into action. “It surprised me as well but considering what I put him through it was something I felt I owed him.”
As it’s clearly not what he expected to hear he simply looks at me, schooled passivity in place, waiting to hear me out.
I sigh, extremely reluctant to talk about one of the many idiotic mistakes I made in my past. Resigned to explaining I cast my thoughts back, “when he finally demanded a separation I assumed that we would get an annulment. My inability to give him what he wanted was after all the reason why he wanted to leave.” I toy with the seam of my t-shirt unseeing, my gaze lost in the memory.
“When he dragged us to the lawyers and we started going through listing assets I pulled him aside asking about it. I couldn’t understand why he’d want to go through the lengthy, expensive process of divorce if we could get away with a quickie annulment.”
I catch Christian wince at my choice of words and immediately I regret it. I clear my throat, “I mean a quick annulment.” My teeth sink into my lip, chewing anxiously. Vaguely I register that Christian doesn’t stop me mauling myself. “For a while he refused to clarify, simply insisting on the divorce procedure.”
I take a deep breath, finding my centre. “Shortly after that day he came home one night, blind drunk. He was so angry, so resentful, I tried to stay out of his way but he was spoiling for a fight. Kept asking me if I’d sleep with him if he looked like you, if he had more money.”
Christian goes pale; his knuckles strain white as he balls his hands into tight fists. In a strange, detached daze I watch him clench and unclench his jaw in an effort to stay calm, his irises almost black, eclipsed by his angry pupils.
I coax myself over the final hurdle of confession, one more breath and it will be done. “I asked him then why he wanted to prolong proceedings with a divorce, arguing that he’d be rid of me sooner if we got an annulment. He lost his temper completely, eventually yelling the truth at me. He said that all he had left was his pride, that he didn’t want the fact that he couldn’t bed his “woman” to be a matter of public record.” I gesture the inverted commas with twin sets of tweaking fingers in the air when I say woman, my mouth turning down.
A traitorous tear slips down my face, dripping unhindered onto my chest it flowers into a wet dot on my shirt. With a feverish zeal I hope that Christian doesn’t take it the wrong way – I regret what I did but I’m not sorry that Jose and I are divorced. “Maybe it was for the best,” my raspy voice falters as I fight the lump in my chest, “if we had it annulled you would have gotten suspicious about Chris’ paternity.”
Christian makes a swift move toward me, pulling me to him, pushing my head into the crook of his neck, his hand fisting in my hair, “hush now. I’ve got you baby.”
At first I’m desperate for the comfort I know he can offer me. In relief I fling my arms round him, eager to exorcize the lingering images of the painful memory.
Shifting even closer he rubs my back, “I could kill him. If he laid a finger on you…” he leaves the statement open ended, his voice hoarse with poorly veiled fury.
“Don’t,” I say, mumbling against his skin. “He had every right to be mad at me. I did an awful thing to him, he was my friend and I used him – mercilessly. I know from what Ray heard from Jose Senior how broken up he was about it. It took him almost four years to start dating again.”
I lift my head, searching his face, nervous about what I’m about to say. “I feel I have to reach out and apologise to him.” I don’t want to hide contacting Jose from Christian; in fact I’d like his support, his blessing even.
Christian’s whole body goes rigid; I feel the taut strain of every muscle and sinew vibrating with his reluctance. His slate stare bores into mine, “from what you just told me, how can you expect me to agree to that?”
I try reasoning, resting my palms on his broad chest, “I put him in that situation, I manipulated his affection for me with a ruthlessness that I’m ashamed of and left him damaged.” Hearing the words out loud they sound all too familiar, I left Christian damaged as well.
That hurt I’ve gotten so accustomed to swells and wells up in my chest, constricting my breathing, squeezing my heart, tying my belly in knots. “I don’t have to see him, maybe a letter or something but I have to, please understand.”
The fury bleeds from his body as he eases his stiffened muscles, still watching me he nods curtly, “one e-mail. That’s it.” From his tone I gather that this is his one and only offer.
“Okay. One e-mail.” I blink, letting go of a stored breath, still feeling my innards twisted with guilt. Closure is the thing that I’ll be seeking most of from which ever therapist I’ll chose to see.
Christian interrupts my reverie by tipping my head up with a crooked finger, “I’m sorry for the inference I made earlier.”
I admire and respect him for being able to apologise and do it so sincerely but now that he’s reminded me of the harsh accusatory note when he said my name I’m freshly riled again. “You should be. You can’t harp on about trust and letting go of the past if you can’t do the same,” my ire lending a sharp edge to my words.
He surprises me with an admiring look, taking the angry wind right out of my sails, “fair point, well made Mrs Grey.” I catch the glimmer in his eye, all too aware that I’ve already forgiven him, “now will you let me apologise properly?”
I’m such a push over! How can I resist him when he’s like this?
My coquettish smile and batting lashes indicate my willingness to accept the type of apology I’m assuming he has in mind. “Of course Mr Grey, here or in the bedroom?”
His smirk has a touch of wickedness to it, making me doubt my initial assumption, “neither Mrs Grey. Will you accompany me on a little stroll?”
Oh! No wild make-up sex then? My inner goddess pouts.
“Sure,” I say suddenly uncertain, “where are we going, it’s almost midnight?”
The wickedness gives way to a mysterious secrecy as he arches a suggestive brow. To put me at ease he drops a kiss on my neck, lingering to take a quick nibble on my earlobe then holds out his arm for me to take. “That would be telling Mrs Grey and you know that I never reveal my plans.
* Thank you to one of my dear readers, Debs2000 for bringing the divorce/annulment thing to my attention. Fair point, well made! ;0)
Also thank you to Emi.x and Mercia for pointing out a couple of things.
Be kind and review, please.