There! I’ve said it! I pat myself on the back for my bravery, for putting myself out there again. I try to measure the emotion on his face but sometimes he’s so hard to read.
I hear his sharp intake of breath, the thunder clouds rolling into his eyes.
“Anastasia, I don’t want to play games and I don’t want to lead you on. I don’t know if we can ever trust each other again.” His words are concise and certain while his gaze is urging me to understand. A frown folds between his brows as his features distort with the weight of his words.
Blood and breath leave my body at the same time, simply evaporating. As a coping mechanism designed for unbearable heartbreak my psyche takes over and distances us, mercifully making me a detached observer to this unfolding tragedy.
But he said that he was broken too!
I guess the shock and pain is clear on my sheet-white face as he tries to explain: “it hurt so much Anastasia, if my heart was dark before…..” He trails off, all trace of playful Fifty vanishes like a magician’s trick, eyes cast with a fearful glint. His grip on my hands is forceful.
“I don’t think I can….” he continues, “if I let you in….. how could it ever work?” He looks utterly dejected, eyes burning as the question rips the gaping hole deeper into my consciousness.
“Besides,” he draws a steadying breath and I watch him find his centre again, his look focussed once more as he sheaths his vulnerability, “it’s not just us anymore.”
How does he do that, find his equilibrium in spite of his emotional turmoil? It’s plain as day that he wants to be with me but his immense self-control and halting terror is forcibly restraining him. That’s one very high wall for me to breach.
“No,” I stammer, “yes…, of course, you’re right.” I whisper shamefaced, swallowing hard against the dry lump expanding in my throat. I sink my teeth into my bottom lip to stem the lurking tears. I can’t look at him and I can’t take my hands out of his grasp. What the hell was I thinking, what on earth did I expect?
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he acknowledges my anguish, his eyes pained and trained intently on me, “if I invest in this, in you and a child and you run… Ana….” His voice is soft and strained and I pick-up on the sorrow behind his reasoning. “It will kill me.”
He reaches for my mouth and frees my lip from my teeth’s assault. My waning control collapses under his endearing concern and I know I must leave this instant if I want to avoid having a full breakdown in front of him. I dash the back of my hands over my leaking eyes and force my unsteady legs to push the chair back and take my weight. “I have to go,” I can’t bear to look at him; my voice is a hoarse murmur and the world a watery, unsteady blur.
“Anastasia, you can’t leave like this!” He stands and makes a grab for my arm but I’m already out of his reach.
My fight or flight response is spiking adrenaline, forcing me into action when I realise that I’m not going to make it outside if I don’t hustle. I’m aware that he’s following me so I stretch my strides, hurrying through the lobby and in a moment of inspiration, dash into the ladies. A brief moment of relief washes over me when I find it empty.
It’s small but plush with a cushy chaise lounge that I gratefully sink into as I let go. Huge sobs racking my body as I hold my hands over my face. It’s clear to me now that even though we weren’t together, there was always hope. Hope that perhaps one day we could be together. A secret, coveted and deeply buried fantasy that I’ve nursed for the past five years now crushed to dust by reality’s blow.
Time and space becomes abstract. I’m so deeply retracted into my thoughts, nursing my ache that I feel like the world has stopped around me. It’s just me and this unrelenting battering of my heart. It brings with it a deep weariness, my will bruised and broken. When awareness slowly sinks back into my mind, it’s just enough for years of ingrained behaviour to take over. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I wonder why Christian didn’t follow me inside; it’s no small mercy that no one intruded on my misery.
I move the short distance to the marble basin. When I catch sight of myself in the mirror I can see the weight of the pain I bare. My vacant eyes are rimmed with red and smudged with clumps of mascara. Ugly blotches are mottled over my cheeks where the tear tracks ran.
So much for looking my best I think ruefully. I splash my face with cold water and pat myself dry. What an epic error in my judgement. Again! I release a long juddering breath and comb the recesses of my mind for the courage to face the outside world.
At least there’s tomorrow, I cling desperately to the promise of my meeting with Julie Logan – a small consolatory silver lining.
When I open the door I have to side-step a lone orange traffic cone standing in the short passageway that leads to the ladies room. How strange. I glace back, over my shoulder and I see a sign stuck to the door. It’s a makeshift sign – plain white paper with black words typed across: “out of service.” My every movement and thought comes to an abrupt halt, my skin prickles with comprehension. When I gasp my hand flies to my mouth, cutting it short: Christian!
How is it that even in the most screwed-up of situations he still manages to pull the rug from under me, making these wholly romantic gestures? In moments like these he’s so in tune with what I need that I imagine our bodies must be metaphysically connected. It takes my breath away.
This simple thing, creating a private space for me to cry in is so deeply touching. So kind and caring, so typical of Christian, ordering my heart to swell with love for him. It’s also in stark contrast with his refusal to try again and it brings home just how scared he is.
Our connection is still there, undeniable and as strong as ever as is his palpable feelings for me but he’s retreated behind a wall, brandishing it like a shield against all invading emotions. An iron will reinforces it with his fear and it stands solid and adamant in the way of our collective happy ever afters.
He’s never going to break it down and cave. If I want him back it’s going to have to come from me. I’ll have to chisel out every single brick to get to him. I know how much I’m to blame for the construct of this wall so it’s only fitting that I should be the one to tear it down. The time for wallowing in self-pity is over; if I can’t reach him I’ll never be able to make up for what I did and it’s vital that I do, for him, for Chris and for me.
Resolve, much like concrete hardens and sharpens my mind and for the first time I’m able to put his needs above my own. In spite of the pain and the damage I will do everything in my power to make us a family again.
Yes! My subconscious and inner goddess high-five’s each other.
My stride is braced with a new purpose but it’s quickly broken when I come face to face with an agitated Christian. He’s been waiting for me, probably pacing the carpet into a trench. His sexy hair is a tangled mess; his grim face matches his worried eyes. At the sight of me he flashes relief while a hand pushes through his hair underlying his uncertainty. His fingers bracket my elbow while he steers me to a quiet corner.
“I’m sorry Anastasia,” he’s watching me carefully like I’m a skittish animal about to bolt. “Are you okay? Please, come up to my suite, just come and take a moment, I don’t want you to go, not like this.” His tone is insistent and pleading, eyes darting nervously for an indication of my next move.
I’m torn. I can absolutely not cry anymore but leaving now, I know that he’ll just worry about me. I’m startled and pleased at how well I understand the way his mind works. My subconscious gives me two thumbs up – yes, we know him well. Here’s my first chance to chip away at that wall.
I look up at him and through my lashes, giving him a shy smile, “okay,” I concede.
For a moment he looks taken aback but recovers quickly and presses his hand into the small of my back to guide me to the elevators. I get the impression that he’s nervous, that I might change my mind.
I take a steadying breath as we step into the elevator. Mmhhh, confined spaces with Fifty. Even with every effort I can’t supress my body’s slavish response, it’s no use. Within seconds the sparks are inciting, kindling and my breath hitches, leaving me dizzy with want.
Thankfully Mr Beautiful is also affected. He’s stance is casual but he’s tapping his key card onto the hand rail that lines the sides of the elevator and staring straight ahead at the digital display above the door. I’ve never seen him fidget before; he’s vibrating with an edgy energy. At least I’m not alone in my slow burn of desire.
Like a shot he’s out the door the moment they part to reveal his floor. When he remembers himself he stops to give me time to catch up. I spot his Adams apple travel down as he swallows tautly. Boy, he really must be rattled if he’s delving so deep to mine his seemingly endless supply of steely resolve. Mr Mega-control fraying at the edges does nothing to dampen the rise of my libido, quite the opposite.
He unlocks the door and moves aside for me to enter. As gracefully as I can manage I walk past him, head held high and turn to watch him while I wait for an invitation to sit.
His old-fashioned, chivalrous manners take over, “please,” his elegant hand waves toward the over-stuffed couches but his movements seem a little off, forced. “Sit down Anastasia; may I get you something to drink?”
I mirror his formality, “thank you.” Thankfully I stop before I add “kind sir.” It would be silly to tease him right now, not to mention dangerous. “I would appreciate a glass of water.” I take a seat on the edge of the couch and steal a second to study his poise while he fixes the drinks. I sigh in pleasure to myself, he really is spectacular.
He hands me a tumbler and takes a deep pull from his own drink before he sits down across from me. He stares into the amber for a beat, maybe for inspiration. “Ana, I meant what I said, I don’t want to hurt you and even though I don’t know Chris, I couldn’t be part of something that damages a child.”
Despite the fact that it shouldn’t, it shocks me that he knows Chris’s name. He must’ve done the research yesterday some time. Or got Welch to do it. My heart contracts painfully.
No crying! My subconscious is wagging a warning finger at me.
My heart melts for toddler Christian as I always see him in my mind’s eye, malnourished, dirty, unloved and unprotected, abused beyond endurance. No, he would never hurt a child but in my heart of hearts I know that Chris will be the key to bringing us back together. I Know I can’t push too hard, letting people in has always been hard for him.
“I know you would never hurt him,” I say softly, “or me,” I reluctantly add. I pitch it just right, the last bit meant to remind him of his feelings for me. “I would really like it if you would meet him. We can take it real slow, no big admissions or anything… you know… traumatic.” I keep my tone even and my voice low as I peek up at him.
If my plan has any hope in succeeding then this is the most crucial part. I want him to want to meet Chris. It’s not something I can force him into, it must come from him. I know that once he gets used to the idea of Chris and experiences the joy of parenting that his natural instinct would want to create a stable, family unit.
I’m gambling on the fact that he’ll choose me to be the matriarch. I still have no idea if there are or were others that got “more” from him after I left so I’m bravely banking only on the emotion I’ve seen from him so far. It strikes me that now that he’s turned me down, I’m more confident than ever before in his love for me. How strange.
“Do you want to meet him?” Mindful, I search his face; keen to pick up every micro emotion that flits by to get a handle on how to proceed. He’s so schooled in keeping his emotions at bay making him very hard to read.
He shoots up from his chair and paces past me, both hands grabbing at his hair. Oh crap! On his third passing he stops in front of me and his granite gaze bores into mine. “Oh fuck Ana! I don’t know…. do I want to?” He looks bewildered but I also detect a fraction of hope.
I reach up and cup the side of his face, his stubble grazing my hand as he leans into my caress. I keep my eyes trained on him: “I understand that you’re anxious, I am too but you’re his father.” I place my other hand over his heart and keep my voice steady. “I’m sorry that I kept the two of you apart, father and son, you belong together.” My hands drop away and onto my lap, my look follows suite. “More than you’ll ever know.”
Keep it together! With all my being I will him to long for his son.
For a moment he seems indecisive, a saddening mix of uncertainty and reluctance marring his striking face. Again a hand travels through his hair when he takes a seat. I watch as hesitation gives way to resolution and his tension recedes like wave being drawn back into the ocean. “Okay.” He nods his acquiescence and I let go of a breath I wasn’t aware I was holding. “Yes, I’ll do that. I’ll spend some time with him.”
I give him a cautious, encouraging smile, “thank you Christian, that means so much to me.” For now I drop the subject and allow him a minute to acclimatise to his decision but I know him so well. Any moment the barrage of questions will begin and then, as if on cue I hear his intake of breath to start, “how do you want to do this? How will you introduce me?” His face is moulded with anxiety again as he contemplates the options.
I can’t help but smile a secret smile. Even Christian seems to know that no matter how rich and successful you are, small children take little notice of such things as their innocent minds cut through the superficial nonsense and look straight into your soul. Will Chris see a father there? Will Christian see a son? I’m willing to hedge all my bets that they will.
“Well, as he’s already seen you at the zoo, I can easily introduce you as a friend and if it would suit you, I think meeting at a child friendly place would be ideal. Somewhere we could all do something together. Maybe a lak….”
His barking orders into the phone interrupts me, probably Taylor: “I need a child friendly place, something with some activities where we could go tomorrow.” He quirks an eyebrow at me and I nod my confirmation, mouthing afternoon in reply.
When he ends his call he’s bristling with efficiency. Now that he’s made up his mind he gets the ball rolling on his mental check list. I don’t bat an eye when the first thing on his agenda is our safety and travel arrangements.
“Taylor will get back to me. What time shall I send the car? And just so you know,” both hands fist into his sides, his demeanour brooking no argument, “this is not a request. Taylor can organise some extra security detail and I insist that you travel with me so I can keep you safe.”
“That’s fine,” I’m eager to show off my new found cooperative attitude, “I should be done with my meeting just before lunch and it’ll take me about half an hour to get back to our hotel.”
Too late I realise that I’ve let the cat out of the bag. Oh crap, double crap! I didn’t want to say anything about the meeting. Mr Undue Influence might make an unwelcome appearance and I don’t want to owe him anything. It’s important to me that I do this by myself, stand on my own merit. If I need the force of Grey Publishing behind me to succeed it’s not worth doing.
“Taylor can take you to your meeting and bring you back.” He dismisses my problem with a flick of his unperturbed wrist.
“Um, I… that won’t be necessary; but thank you,” I amend quickly. My thoughts scramble for a plausible explanation. Oh boy! This would be so much easier if I could prepare for these conversations in advance. “A car has already been arranged.” I improvise and feign interest in the carpet to hide the lie in my eyes. My nervous fingers worry the piping around the armrest of the couch.
I could never lie to him and now I’ve piqued his interest. Why do things never go as planned when he’s around? He directs his full attention to me. “With whom are you meeting Anastasia?” His expression is somewhere between annoyed and curious while his voice acquires that soft lilt that always marks his wrath. He’s shifted, sitting on the very edge of his seat, watching.
Because I don’t want him to know and I don’t know how to skirt telling him, I aim for non-committal even though I probably won’t get away with it – it’s worth a try. “Nothing serious, just some business.” I shrug it off.
“What business Anastasia, you’re a waitress and a part-time, small town librarian?” His irritation is obvious and his tone, icy and dismissive. He put his hands together, lacing his fingers and waits with barely restrained impatience.
My hackles rise, Bastard! “What business is it of yours?” I spit back at him.
Watch yourself… It’s my subconscious reeling me back in.
My words hit their mark and he backs down. Straight away he rearranges his features, contrition written large. “I’m sorry.” With his hand on his hip and the other dashing through his hair, the effort to reign in his temper is evident. I can’t miss the fact that he also looks a little hurt.
Time slips by as we glare at each other trying once more to find our footing. We both let out a long breath and he sits back again, relaxing into the seat with a fresh, guarded look to remind me how emotionally skittish he can be.
Phew! Crisis averted. I give my own ire a few more moments to melt away. Wow, we sure know how to push each other’s buttons!
Mentally I review how the conversation has gone so far and, apart from the interrogation about the meeting, I think I’ve predicted and handled it well. I also think it’s time to wrap things up, before I do something stupid. Anger, contrition and confined spaces with Fifty is bound to ignite into a passionate something-or-other and I don’t want to lose the ground I gained today. I can’t afford to lose my head like I did yesterday…..
My inner goddess vehemently disagrees. She sits up, bright eyed and ready for action but I ignore her.
I straighten and shift in my seat to provide him with a clue that I’m about to take my leave. There’s one small lose end I still need to tie up today. He needs to know that I see what he does for me. “Thank you for the suite upgrade and for the… um… the privacy… in the ladies room.” I stumble over my words as the flush races across my face; I dip my eyes to hide my embarrassment. My fingers are knotted in my lap.
His answer throws me, “I’ve missed that delicious blush,” he breathes and then, just like that, he switches back to reserved: “you’re welcome Anastasia.” Gaze clear and unruffled – in command again. Mr Mercurial at his best.
Arg! He’s so confusing. Now his eyes are smiling at me. He places both hands on his thighs as he rises, his easy grace always making his movements seem so fluid. He holds out a hand for me. After a slight pause I take it and he pulls me up. I’m mesmerised by him – trapped while reason and judgement float lazily away. Perhaps a kiss? My body beseeches as I drink him in. I can feel the heat of his body warming mine, his special brand of Christian smell sweeping my sanity away.
He reaches for my face and tucks a stray tendril behind my ear. His hand lingers in my hair and then he glides his index finger down my cheek and gently tugs my bottom lip free from my grazing teeth. He’s watching me watching him and my whole being contracts with longing for him. He leans down and places the softest kiss on my hairline. His muscular chest expands as he inhales deeply, pressing my breasts into him. When I peek up his eyes are closed, his ecstasy naked and exposed. Oh my!
He places both hands on my shoulders and pushes away, the newly installed impassive look hides his vulnerability and breaks the spell – I feel cheated.
Damn your control! I yell at him in my head.
My sense of déjà vu is suddenly overwhelming, my memory playing a mini movie in my mind’s eye: I’m in his arms on a curb in Portland, his hold around my waist is firm and every nerve in my body is willing him to be the first to kiss me deeply, properly. “Anastasia, I’m not the man for you. You should steer clear of me.”
I’m as wounded now as I was then. He confided later that he wanted to kiss me but he felt he owed me a warning so he kept himself in check. This time too, it’s achingly obvious what he wants to do, but he can’t (or won’t) move past the hurdle of his pain and fear.
My mood isn’t helped by the fact that he, of course, is right. We aren’t ready to go down that path right now but it does nothing to still my quivering thighs. Frustration is heavy in my groin; I might have to invest in a toy if I’m to win this battle.
“I’ll e-mail you once Taylor finds us a place, please let me know what time we can collect you at your hotel.” His business-like efficiency brings me back to the present and I summon every ounce of inner strength to match his sudden brusqueness.
“Sure,” see, I can also play unaffected. “We just need to be back at the hotel at five to collect our bags and head to the airport. Our flight leaves at eight.”
“I see,” he looks pensive for a moment, “I’m flying back to Seattle tomorrow, you’re welcome to join me. I can have our flight plan altered to include a stop-over in Savannah. I can drop you off.” He’s uneasy about my response but his need for control overrides my possible reaction. His eyes are dark and probing, maybe even saying that any extra moment is something that he’ll gladly take.
I’m just about to turn him down when my subconscious interjects, just think about it. I close my mouth again and give the idea time to take root in my head. This could work in our favour, it’s a very short flight but we will be with him. On the other hand I will lose the money that I paid for the commercial tickets in the first place and I’m not sure how this new travel arrangement will go down with my mom.
He grasps my indecision and zeros straight into the heart of the matter. “Taylor can deal with the airline on your behalf. He should, at the very least, be able to change your ticket details so that you can use them for another trip, that way you won’t lose them altogether. I’ll pay any fees necessary for the amendments.” He shrugs his shoulders as he tries but fails to look unconcerned.
“Thank you Christian. That’s very kind of you. I’m sure Chris will be thrilled.” I smile a genuine smile and quash all thoughts of my mom; she said to do everything I can to fix things.
Relief mingled with a flash of triumph tells me that I made the right decision. He places his hand just above my behind and steers me to the door. I know the best thing I can do right now is to leave but my heart wants to stay, tugging at me in my chest. I can’t even engage myself with an internal struggle about it because Christian is making the decision for me. I realize that he also bears the certainty that if I linger, we won’t be able to keep a clear head.
“I’ll walk you down,” he opens the door and gestures gallantly for me to go first.
I beam up at him to give myself time to formulate a scheme to avoid another ride in the elevator with him. My jumbled, confused and dangerously surging hormones can only take so much.
I place my hand on his arm and aim for sincere and decisive, “you’ve done so much already, thank you. I’m fine, I’ll see you tomorrow.” I stretch onto my tippy toes and kiss him gently on the cheek.
He appears startled, like I’ve done something really strange. His eyes widen and he absentmindedly touches his fingertips to the spot I just kissed. He barely manages to nod his head, careful control slips only for a second to reveal grey turning molten.
I hug myself on the inside. Ooh, good job! I turn and walk down the passageway but take a peek back over my shoulder. He is still standing in the doorway looking lost in thought. I wiggle my fingers over my back in a little wave and give him a full, megawatt smile.
I ride the elevator down all 36 floors of the Conrad Hilton and a bubble of hope fills my psyche. I’m feeling positive again. He’ll come around. The passage of time will teach him to trust again.
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