I don’t bother knocking, but take a steeling breath as I open the door, and it serves me well because I stop breathing altogether when I clock my husband’s agitation. His hands are in his hair, both angry fists gripping at tufts. “That can only mean one thing,” he says bleakly, looking at Taylor, who is quick to nod his grim assent.
So caught up are they that they only notice me when I speak. “What’s going on?” I ask, my voice sounding steadier than I believed possible.
The two men give each other a look that I can’t interpret, but it doesn’t matter because a moment later, Christian scrubs his hands over his face, taking an audible breath before starting. “It’s José,” he explains, rearranging his features to hide the worry I saw there a moment ago, and instantly passing it on to me. “You know that we’ve been keeping track of him. Taylor’s had a man on him 24/7 since he became our number one suspect, but with him being outside the U.S. borders it makes surveillance…. complicated.” He gives me a pointed look, and not for the first time I read between the lines, realizing that there are times when Taylor’s work involves skirting very close to what’s regarded as unlawful.
Mute and with a feeling of dread making a heavy turn in my belly I nod, suddenly resenting the fact that I’m in a situation where crap like this is my reality. I watch my husband watching me, carefully taking stock of how I’m reacting, always so wary of upsetting me. Hard as it is, I give him my best stoic expression. Despite knowing that what I’m about to hear will undoubtedly be upsetting, I’m relieved that I’m getting the details without a fight.
When he’s satisfied that I’m taking the news well enough he continues, his face showing the strain of burdening me with his words. “And we’ve lost him.”
I feel my lungs crumpling in my chest, suddenly void of the air that usually fills them, and the lack of oxygen leaves me dizzy. In the space of a heartbeat Christian is at my side, lowering me into the nearest chair. “Lost him?” I croak on a breath I force myself to take, blinking disbelievingly at the concerned face of my man hovering above me.
“Baby,” he breathes, cupping my face with both of his hands, “tell me you’re okay.” The pleading note in his voice underscores his anxiety-drawn face perfectly. “We can talk later. You already know the worst of it now. Please don’t put yourself through this.”
I want to heed his plea; I want nothing more than to bury my head in the sand and undo the last ten minutes. I’m not even sure what the implications of losing José are, but judging by Taylor and Christian’s current mood, I have little doubt that they’re not good.
That fear, plus knowing the huge part I played in José’s derailing sends a bolt of adrenaline through my system, the shot jolting me like a hit of caffeine. “I’m fine,” I snap, the mixture of guilt and panic making me catty.
Christian raises a brow at me, unaccustomed to meanie me but relents, holding up his palms. “Okay,” he gives in, “but I’m not happy about this, Ana. You are not the only one who is affected by this stress,” he grits tightly, dropping his stern gaze to my midriff.
Thoroughly shamed, I feel the heat rising from my cheeks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I really am okay. Please, just tell me what’s going on.”
Again my husband eyes me – a little dubiously – before straightening. Still facing me he leans his behind against the edge of the desk and folds his arms over his chest. “We lost him because he deliberately gave our guys the slip.” He juts his chin in Taylor’s direction, “This is the part of the conversation you walked in on, and the thing that concerns us the most because it means he knew he had a tail.”
He knew he was being followed? So what? I wonder, but before I have time to figure out the significance, Taylor picks up the thread from Christian. “Why give your tail the slip if you have nothing to hide? If you weren’t up to something? And if he manages to make his way back into the States undetected, then we have a dangerously unpredictable situation on our hands.”
My disbelieving mind goes into reasoning mode, clutching wildly at all and any straws, coming up with a bunch of reasons that, deep down, I know are unlikely for a team that Jason hand picked. “But how can we be sure? He might have accidently lost your guy or…”
“We know for sure, Mrs. Grey,” he interrupts me with that measured baritone that cuts through all the qualms in my head. “It was well-planned, calculated, a textbook disappearing act down to discarding all possible devices we could use to track him, arranging a stealth getaway, possibly even changing his appearance.”
With every word the picture becomes clearer and my heart beats harder. Dangerously unpredictable, calculated, disappearing, stealth, are all terms that stick like a lump in my throat, making it hard for me to swallow and breathe. Is José really capable of something like this? And if so, are we his target? I look up at Taylor, more than a little dumbstruck, still uselessly grappling for an explanation that will make the whole thing go away.
In an effort to fill in the blanks that must be written on my face Taylor continues. “We’ve had no support from the authorities because they’re still investigating the case, and without enough evidence they’re not prepared to sanction our surveillance, never mind participate in it. Also, the Bahamas falls outside of their jurisdiction, all of which leaves us with limited means as a civilian team, and if we break the law in building a case or obtaining evidence, it may become inadmissible in court.”
More clarity only brings more unease, but I nod anyway, marking my understanding.
Taylor darts his eyes to Christian, seeking a quick confirmation to continue before he does. “As far as we know, he still has another three months of his contract to go with the Bahamas Tourist Board, so barring a crisis with his family, he has no reason to leave. Also, since he’s been there his routine has been almost a hundred percent predictable, but yesterday, around midday Bahamas time, I started getting reports from my guys that something was up. José called off the shoot that was planned for the day, sent his assistant home and, according to our source, raced to the hotel the Tourist Board put him up in.” In an uncustomarily edgy move Taylor cracks his knuckles, his frustration with the situation palpable.
“Did we have eyes on him inside the hotel?” I wonder out loud, horrifically riveted to the unfolding details.
“Yes, we rented the suites on either side of José’s, and we had some… equipment in place to monitor his movements,” he replies, clearing his throat, obviously uncomfortable with sharing the grayer areas of their shadowing techniques, “but it would still be pretty easy for him to slip away. The biggest thing we had going for us, within the limitations of what we could do, was his ignorance. If we had the support of the authorities behind us we could have kept closer tabs on him. People are much more inclined to divulge otherwise confidential information if you can flash a badge, and bribery is simply too risky.”
We would consider bribery? Holy hell! This just got a whole lot more real and a whole heap more complicated. “How easily could he slip back into the States?” I ask, still reeling from this latest development.
Taylor shrugs, his mouth turning down as he chews on the unsavory thought, looking every bit as concerned as I feel. “It’s not like he’s a career criminal with contacts to help him out, that’s part of what’s made him so hard to predict. If it were me I’d pose as a crewman for a freight vessel. That way he wouldn’t even need a passport to dock, and if he managed to avoid the Port Authority, he’d be home free. It would be virtually impossible to track, we would have no way of knowing from which port he leaves or where he docks, and once he makes land, buying a car with false identification and simply driving to where he wants to be is easy enough.”
Can it be that simple? And what then? If he did in fact take a shot at Christian, how far would he go this time? The sudden silence that falls around us is proof to me that we’re all sharing the same thought, trying to weigh the danger, and wondering just what course of action is the right way to go. Just like all the drama with David and everything that went down after Christian got shot, my thoughts are too muddled with trepidation to think clearly. I just want to keep my little family safe and I dread, more than anything, what Christian would do if he got his hands on José.
For the duration of the weekend the mood at Escala is subdued. Christian and I both put up happy faces for Chris’s sake, but there’s no mistaking the current of worry that tinges everything we do. And news about José’s whereabouts is thin. According to Taylor, none of José’s family has heard from him, neither are any of them expecting a visit. My mind boggles at how he manages to secure information like that without setting off alarm bells, but I trust his discretion implicitly, and I know Christian feels the same way. The only light point of hope is that José apparently asked for a two week leave period from the Bahamas Tourist Board which hopefully indicates that he means to return, but Christian dismisses my optimism, saying that it’s probably a decoy.
On Saturday afternoon all the Greys join us at Escala, and together with my mom and Bob, plus my dad, all on Skype, we have a family meeting, updating everyone on the situation and making sure they understand the possible implications. Predictably, Ray is most upset of all, at José because of our family’s close ties and, of course, with me and my thoughtless past mistake. Later on, it takes both Christian and Taylor’s intervention to talk my dad down when he threatens to confront José Senior, thereby taking away what little element of surprise we may still have.
Though Taylor feels strongly that if our suspicions turn out to be correct, José will target us directly, Christian nevertheless doubles up on security for everyone, as well as for Grey House. Naturally Chris and I are already under strict instructions not to leave the apartment without the team assigned to us, following a rigorous security protocol set in place by our expert crew, and I for one am not going to take any chances with our lives. I’m just hoping that Christian will do the same.
Sunday brings with it the same nervous energy. Christian and I are achingly tender with each other in one moment, but in the next, as the strain of our reality settles in the back of our minds, we snip at each other, something we’ve never done before. By mid-morning my emotions are all over the place, giving me a small insight into what Kate must be feeling with her wildly fluctuating hormones.
When Christian growls at me for forgetting to take my prenatal vitamin I growl right back, grabbing the tablet from his palm and chugging it down my throat before opening my mouth and wagging my tongue, childishly proving that I did indeed swallow the damn thing. Later, when he suggests I take a nap so the baby and I can rest, making me feel old, I lash out by telling him in a syrupy voice that he too could use a nap to improve his grumpy mood. Not surprisingly that one earns me a pair of gray, slitted eyes and a mumbled, “Mrs. Grey, don’t think my palm stopped twitching just because you’re pregnant.”
But when he has grumbles about the amount of butter I spread on my toast, I lose it, promptly bursting into big, wailing tears. “You don’t make love to me because you think I’m getting fat,” I cry, my voice juddering through the blubber of my streaming tears, rendering my husband speechless.
Gapingly he stares, stunned and horrified as he tries to come up with a justifiable explanation for my outburst. Finally, when he does speak, his words are tentative. “Ana, I’m sorry. You must know I don’t think that you’re fat. I… I simply… what I meant to say was that too much fat isn’t good for the baby.”
Though his explanation makes perfect sense, hormonally charged me is unable to let it go. “Then why didn’t you make love to me on Thursday night, and not since then?” The whiny tone in my voice is clear, even to me, but right now, I cannot stop my emotions from splintering into a thousand-and-one wrong directions.
Shocked again, he gasps then plows an agitated hand through his hair. “Jeez, Ana! Don’t you think we have enough shit going on right now? Half the country’s men chasing after you, another one probably intent on hurting us?”
It’s my turn to be stunned. Though I’m mad, I want him to understand – instinctively – that when I have a hormonal meltdown, I need him more than ever. That the thing that helps me most is his supportive arms around me, telling me that it will be all right, but instead, he barks at me. Wounded, I cry harder, frustrated with myself for not being able to control my riotous sentiments, and feeling deeply responsible for both of our latest problems. “I’m sorry,” I howl, burying my wet face in my hands as I shake with my sobs.
“Crap,” I hear him grit. “Shit! Baby, you’re taking this the wrong way. Fuck knows I carry just as much responsibility for what’s going on right now, I just…” He trails off and a second later I feel him against me as he takes me into his arms, giving me a full body hug while he strokes my hair.
I’m too worked up to reciprocate, but I already feel calmer, and I desperately want to hear what he was about to say. “You just what?” I pry with my face squished against his chest.
I don’t have to look at him to know that he’s clammed up. His arms band tighter but he says nothing. I get the sense that the added stress of José’s disappearance has only highlighted his darkening frame of mind, but that he’s still finding it very hard to deal with the whole GQ thing. Disheartened and miserable, my shoulders slump as I stand in the circle of his arms.
“No,” he breathes, “don’t be like that,” he coaxes, his tone turning gentle. I almost melt, letting the whole thing go, but my obstinate streak makes a last-second appearance. Slowly I lift my head to find his eyes. “No,” I counter, shaking my head, “don’t you be like that.”
I see him grit his jaw, our stare becoming a standoff of sorts as he rages inside, battling with his decision and letting his arms fall away from me. I actually see the moment he makes his choice, his face turning hard and his eyes going cold as steel. “You want to know the shit that’s going through my mind? The whole damn ugly truth?” he glowers, looking mostly angry.
Drawing up to my full height, I pull away from him, resolving not to be intimidated by his tone. With all my heart I wish that he didn’t feel the need to hide his vulnerabilities from me. “Yes,” I state decisively, “I married the whole you, it’s my right to know all of it!”
I see him do a mental double take as my words hit home but uncertainty steals the clarity a moment later. A look of utter disgust crosses his features, affording me a glimpse into his self-loathing. “I’m fucking terrified,” he spits through a grimace. “There are a million men out there, wanting you, and I hate it! Hate it!” he reiterates with a pained look marring his beautiful face. “The thought of them wanting what’s mine, looking at you, desiring you… It eats at me. I’ve had every fucking flavor you can imagine — tall women, short women, thin, curvy, busty, and all of them willing to give me anything I wanted, but no one’s ever gotten to me the way you have, tasted like you, felt like you, been right like you,” he confesses, his baritone hoarse with emotion as he curls his hands around my upper arms, his eyes imploring me to understand.
I must look shocked. I sure feel like I’ve been winded as his fevered words spill from his mouth, seemingly unstoppable now that he’s started, and scaring me a little. He shakes his head, telling me with his eyes not to jump to conclusions as he continues his rant. “Think about what it’s like for me. I’ve had all of that and I only want you, but you, you’ve only had me, and there’s a world out there, eager to show you what you’ve been missing. And now you carry my child, and the thought of losing you… I can’t even…” Loudly he swallows, looking at my flat belly, collecting his thoughts. “I can’t be without you ever again, Ana. I would happily die keeping you and Chris and this little one safe.”
Finally his message slots into place, the torrent of his garble making sense, and I get what he’s saying, understand it perfectly, but I can’t help the flood of anger I feel. “Christian!” I exclaim, fighting to keep the irritation from seeping into my voice. “Every argument you’ve just used, I could turn around and use against you. Everywhere we go there is always some simpering female in the background batting her lashes at you. And the women you’ve had, can you, just for a moment, imagine what it’s like for me to have to compete with a myriad of stunning, experienced women? Handpicked by you for your pleasure? Don’t you think I sometimes wonder if you miss it? If you yearn for a woman who’d beg you to cane her?”
Bewildered, he looks at me, dropping his hands away from my arms only to shove them through his hair. “But you are all I want,” he says simply, as if that should automatically be all the reassurance I could possibly need.
The only way I can make him see is by offering him the same. “And I only want you,” I state, stubbornly folding my arms across my chest. I know I’m being hard on him but these are the things that we have to live with and I won’t let them cripple us again.
“I…” he starts, but thinks better of it, taking a breath to rethink his argument. When he meets my gaze he offers me a nod. “Fair point, well made, Mrs. Grey,” he concedes quietly, “but the jealousy will always be there.”
My heart constricts at his despondent expression. Now that we’ve gotten to the crux of the matter, I need to give him the reassurance he so obviously craves. Reaching up I cup his cheek, and right away he covers my hand with his own, leaning into my touch. “I know, and believe me when I say I understand. I also have my moments when I see red, seeing some random woman making eyes at you, and a little interest in me isn’t going to change what I feel for you. I would do almost anything to prove that to you.”
Suddenly those sad eyes light up with hope. “Anything?” he quips, lacing our fingers, and kissing the back of my hand.
I giggle. “Almost,” I confirm with a wink, curious to see what he has in mind. With a large beam he pivots on his heel and heads to our bedroom, pulling me along by my hand. I frown when he walks into our closet. “Turn around,” he purrs, his voice soft but his eyes alight with something I can’t quite place.
For a second I hesitate but something in his bearing tells me to do as he says. Dutifully I turn my back, only to hear him rummage around. A beat of silence follows before I feel him at my back, his heat warming me, making me feel strangely safe. “Hold up your hair, baby,” he commands with a rough voice.
At first it’s just cold against my neck but I soon recognize the choker Christian bought me in Vegas as he secures the clasp at the back. I let go of my hair and he brushes it off to one side, letting it hang over my shoulder. I feel his mouth next to my ear, the heat of his breath sending tingles shivering down my back. “Like your wedding ring, I want you to wear this – always. Now that the BDSM cat is out of the bag, there’s never been a better time to collar you, to show the world that you belong to me, not only your hand in marriage, but also your submission in the bedroom.”
I turn around to face him. “I didn’t think this was your thing,” I whisper carefully, taken aback by the possessive intensity darkening his eyes.
“It never was. I never felt the need to bind someone to me the way I need you bound to me. What happened in Vegas took me by surprise,” he confesses, gently bracketing my throat with his hand, the proprietary move making me feel sexy and vulnerable at once. “I want you to wear it now, for me, as proof, but also to remind you what I am to you, that if you continue giving me a chance, I will be more than you will ever need.”
“Yesss,” I agree, hissing on a strained breath, caught up in the thick current of emotion racing between us, and maybe even a little high on the progress we’ve made. The kiss Christian seals our deal with is gentle, yet conveys his zeal perfectly as he licks into my mouth with languid, loving strokes of his tongue. Closing my eyes I easily get lost in his heated mouth, my body relaxing into his tight hold.
I feel dazed by the time we end it, chock full of happy hormones that I hope will last a while. I give my sexy husband a shy smile, not sure how to approach the unanswered question from earlier now that we’ve made friends so thoroughly, but he’s quick to spot it on my face. “What’s up, Mrs. Grey?” he coos, still bearing a pleased grin as he eyes the choker around my neck.
“I’m glad we’ve had this chat, and I think we both know that we still have some way to go but please, don’t let the pregnancy get in the way of our…you know,” I stumble, suddenly too shy to spell it out in the face of Christian’s broadening grin.
He kisses the tip of my nose. “No, I don’t know,” he teases, knowing full well what I’m getting at.
I giggle, realizing that he won’t let me off the hook until I spell it out. With pinking cheeks I mouth the words, “Our sex life.”
“Our what?” he chirps, cupping his hand around his ear. “I didn’t quite get that, Mrs. Grey. What did you say?”
I can feel the pink shade deepening into what must be a bright red on my cheeks, but I laugh at my man’s first smile of the weekend. “Our S-E-X life,” I spell slowly, teasing him right back.
“Ohhh, our sex life!” he drawls, his grays sparkling with mischief. “Am I to surmise from your request that you’ll miss it?” With a practiced ease he rolls his hips, giving me a good feel of his growing interest in the subject.
“Have missed it,” I correct him, wriggling my brows suggestively.
Suddenly serious, his smile fades away. He slides both hands around my neck and rests his forehead against mine. “With everything that’s happened I just wanted to show you that I could give you pleasure without expecting anything in return, that I could be whatever you needed whenever you needed it.”
“Oh, Christian,” I sigh, my relief colored with a touch of exasperation. Sometimes we get our wires so very crossed. “You are already more than I’ll ever need.”
In spite of the threat overshadowing our lives, I’m determined to stay busy at the start the work week. Putting our lives on hold seems too much like accepting the danger that may or may not come. Over and over I tell myself that we’ll stay safe as long as we stick to the security procedures. I’ll do almost anything to hold on to my battered sanity. If I let myself dwell on the threat, I just know I would get lost in the paralyzing maze of what ifs.
After spending the morning with Chris I settle down for a good two hours of editing, but my numb butt and the tinkling sound of the piano lure me to go check out Chris’s lesson.
I smile to myself as I walk along the hallway, already recognizing the tune Chris is playing. Christian must be pleased with our son’s progress, not to mention Matt’s great teaching skills I muse, just as I notice that the person sitting next to Chris on the piano bench is not Matt. With a frown I lengthen my stride, making my way to Gail in the kitchen.
“Gail,” I whisper, careful not to make a noise, “who’s with Chris?”
“That’s the new piano teacher, Bianca,” she tells me before continuing on with her chores.
Who the hell is Bianca? I wonder, worrying now as I take in the plain teen that seems to be directing Chris pretty well.
A few steps further brings me to Christian’s office door. After I knock I let myself in before taking a seat while I wait for my husband to finish his call.
Not a minute later he cuts the conversation and gives me a brilliant smile. “What a lovely distraction for my early afternoon.”
I grin at his compliment but point my thumb over my shoulder, in the direction of the great room. “Who’s the new piano teacher?” I blurt, the beginnings of wariness teasing my mind.
“That’s Bianca,” he announces matter of factly, not giving anything away.
“Has she replaced Matt?” I query, unwilling to let him get away with evading the question.
“Yes, Matt can’t make it anymore.” There is no mistaking the guilty note that rings in his words, leading me to believe that there’s more to the story.
“Really?” I drawl, not bothering to keep the sarcasm at bay. “Can’t make it or told to leave?”
With his game up, Christian’s mouth sets into an obstinate line. “He had to go.”
“Why?” I counter, beginning to feel defensive of a boy who got fired for simply being a male. “He’s only a child, and a talented one at that. Chris was coming along so well.”
Folding his arms over his chest in a self-justifying gesture, he only confirms my suspicions. “There’s no way I’m letting him be here. With you. On your own.” he adds, marking each sentence with a mulish jut of his chin. “Besides,” he grits grudgingly, “I’ve made it up to him.”
I give my husband a stern look, thinning my lips into a disapproving line. Such a man of contradictions, I marvel. On the one hand he cans the kid for being a male, but with the other he tries to make it right by giving generously.
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