“Kate,” I breathe gently, dispensing with all the usual pleasantries. They feel too insignificant for the weight of the news she brings.
“Ana,” comes her reply, and I hear a myriad of things in it but nothing conclusive until I hear her quiet sob.
Oh, no. My stomach knots and my heart breaks. I imagine her shoulders shaking as she cries, feeling alone regardless of the support and love that surround her. Fleetingly I wonder where Elliot is. Did he give her space or did she demand it, wanting to grieve on her own?
I take a breath. No way am I going to make it worse by joining in her tears, though it’s only now that I realize how apprehensive I was for her sake, how carefully I’ve been curbing my hope for a miraculous turn of their luck. My friend needs strength, the will to stand up from this setback, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t get it from me.
“I’m so sorry, Kate. Please tell me what you need. I’m here for you, whatever you want, just say the word. Let me in, let me help you through this,” I plead.
“Oh, Ana,” she sniffs, barely able to speak through the blubber and shuddering breaths. “It’s all…” she makes another snort-cry sound that has me clutching my chest to keep my heart from cracking any further.
“…g…good,” she finally manages to croak as she draws broken breaths.
“Good?” I demand, too scared to believe.
“Uh-huh,” she bleats through her blocked nose. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, still hoarse, before I hear her swallow. “I’m… I’m just so overwhelmed.”
“Kate!” This time it’s a squeal. I can’t be mad; I completely understand. Instantly my despair fades, making way for elation. “That’s… That’s…” It’s my turn to struggle to find words. “Wonderful! Fantastic! I’m so happy! Oh, Kate!” I gush excitedly. “We’re pregnant together!”
I hear her giggle nervously. “Uh-huh,” she confirms again before blowing her nose. She sniffs a few more times then speaks again, her voice steadier, calmer. “There’s more,” she blurts, stealing the air from my lungs a second time.
“More what?” I ask, almost impatiently.
“The doc says there are two sacs.”
I gasp. “Two — as in twins?”
Her laugh is an incredulous little squeak. “Yep. Definitely a possibility if both develop.”
Her hushed, hesitant tone says so much to me. I get her utter joy, how overcome she is. But I also sense her fear, her reservations, the elation of two babies where there were none, and with it the risk of losing one, or worse still – both. Right now Kate feels she only has a tentative hold on the tiny lives growing inside of her. She wants it so badly that she’s afraid to revel in it, to believe that this is really happening, and I can hardly blame her.
“Kate,” I press, smiling through my noiseless tears – part happy, part sad for her anguish. “This is your miracle. Take it, hold on to it, trust it!” I urge. “You deserve this! So, so much. You and Elliot are going to be parents, and not just any parents — wonderful, loving ones. These babies are lucky to have you.”
“Thank you, Ana,” she murmurs through a fresh wobble in her voice, the years of desperate wanting, of nail-biting waiting, of hormonal highs and lows, all surging to a head in this single moment.
At the sound of the crack in her voice I’m quick to reiterate, borrowing heavily from my sessions with Flynn. “Don’t let fear leach the pleasure from this precious time for you. Let yourself feel the wonder, the marvel of it.”
She blows out a long, unsteady breath before she replies with a thoughtful whisper, “You’re right.” There’s a pause as she mulls over my words then breaks the tension with a cheeky quip. “And when did you get so wise, Steele?”
I laugh despite myself, both of us fully aware that my wisdom came the hard way.
Before I say a reluctant goodbye, I make Kate promise to let me know when she needs something: a shoulder, listening ears, an illicit coffee, a ton of chocolate, anything to help her process and enjoy this special time.
The first opportunity I get to fill Christian in on the happy news is when he slides into bed behind me, pressing my changing curves into the unyielding planes of his tall body.
“Hey, baby,” he greets softly on a tired sigh.
“Hey, husband of mine. You okay?” I feel him bury his nose in my hair, his hands skating along the contours of my form as if the feel of my skin under his fingers calms him.
“Better now,” comes his sparse reply and I can only guess at the stresses that’ve kept him in his office all day, but I’m happy to let it go. I’d much rather our bed be a haven for him.
“I have some happy news to share.” With a wiggle I shift to mold closer to him, letting his bicep support my neck while his other hand settles on my belly, warm and protective.
“Mh-hmm,” he hums in a lazy tone as he begins to relax.
I can’t help my spreading smile as I think of the near future for Kate and myself. The specialness of sharing this singular joy with my best friend just leaves me delighted. This time I can really enjoy my pregnancy, with her as much as with Christian. “Kate and Elliot are pregnant.”
I feel him jolt behind me, his muscles responding to the rush of happiness I know he’s feeling for his brother and sister-in-law. “Really? That’s the best news I’ve had all day. Did Kate call you?”
“Yes!” I hear him chuckle at the glee in my tone. “We’ll be going through the whole process together!”
He nuzzles into my neck. “As long as you don’t shut me out, baby. I want the FULL experience: the happy, the sad, the hormones. I want it all. With you.”
My heart squeezes at his request, the almost desolate note in his somber timbre, and the fact that he even feels the need to say it.
I turn in his arms to face him, locking on to his gaze, which is subtly awash with anxiety. “Christian, where is this coming from? I’m not going anywhere, and this baby, your baby, I’m in it — with you – one hundred percent. Don’t EVER doubt that, please,” I implore, resting my hand on his cheek, skimming the growth of his stubble with the pad of my thumb.
He leans into my touch and closes his eyes. For a beat, he just savors the simple connection, saying nothing. When he opens those expressive grays, I can see my words have quieted the doubting storm that raged inside him before. “Thank you, Anastasia, for being you, for the baby, for Chris, for taking me on. I love you. More than I can ever manage to say. Tell me you know how much you mean to me.”
I don’t hesitate, don’t fumble for eloquent words. I simply give him the reassurance he’s clearly craving. “As much as you mean to me, Christian. As much as you… are… mine.” Gently I brush my lips against his, a reverential kiss that speaks volumes of my love, my mouth stealing his sharp gasp when he hears the echo of his own heart-melting words.
It only takes him a second longer before he’s gathered enough of what he needs from me to assuage whatever was attacking his conviction. His hand slips into the hair at my nape and his lips seal over mine, sure and firm. His velvet tongue licks into my mouth with slow, languid strokes, heated, edged with all the passion of his feelings, and dropping me into a fast free fall of desire. I lie back, effortlessly giving myself up to the exquisite plunge – for both our sakes. I love being the comfort that he needs.
Apart from work, tending to our home, and my boys, my days flow into a dull blur that’s only tolerable because the alternative is unthinkable. My brain knows and understands the importance of our safety and, for the most part, my heart is on board with the arrangement. But even as I accept the need for all the precautions, I’m bored out of my skull. I need to get past the shit in the now so I can start our new life, the one I see winking at me on the horizon, just out of reach.
Damn José, I think for the gazillionth time, each time getting a rude reminder of how responsible I am for the current state of affairs. If I could just talk to him, just reason with him. If only there was a way I could find out what the hell he was up to, but according to Taylor, no one has heard from him, not even his dad.
The true mind-fuck of the situation is that we don’t even know if he is planning some move against us. Of course, Christian is certain, but my overbearing man will never take any chance of letting up on security when it comes to us, and besides — he’s never trusted José. I think Taylor is pretty much on Christian’s side of the matter. That leaves me to trust their cynical judgment.
My desktop notification pings with an e-mail alert, pulling me from my distracted thoughts. Maybe it’s something that will hold my attention for longer than five seconds, I muse drolly, not holding out much hope.
From: Kate Grey
Date: 13 December 2016 11:56
To: Anastasia Grey
I’m so not having a good day. Meet me for coffee? I’m desperate for a chat. Bring Chris if you want. I’ll be at Tully’s on Union within the hour.
Oh, no! Immediately I think of the babies. Kate would be devastated if something went wrong. Deep in thought, I stare at my screen, working on a plan in my head – a Christian-approved plan, taking every careful measure I can, considering every option, but I HAVE to meet her, be there for her.
My husband is unavailable for a consult, out on a rare day at the office for a meeting with prospective overseas buyers that he couldn’t postpone, but I have my security team here at home, and I have every intention of using them to their full and capable capacity. With all my ducks in a safe row, I fire off a quick mail back to Kate.
From: Anastasia Grey
Date: 13 December 2016 12:15
To: Kate Grey
Hang on, girlfriend. I’m on my way.
Somewhere in the back of my mind it registers as odd that she didn’t simply stop by here, at the apartment, if she’s going to be so close by, but then again, she might need a change of scenery. I sure as hell do. I push out of my chair and gather my things before I go to find Cindy, ready to get her and the rest of the team clued in.
I knock on the door frame to get her attention while she taps away on the mainframe screen in Taylor’s office. “Cindy, where is Collins? I need to run something by you both.” I might be in a hurry, but I know by now it won’t pay me to compromise on the protective protocols in place. That’s a sure-fire way to get on their wrong side.
She gives me a quick appraisal, reacting promptly after accurately assessing my no-nonsense tone and my impatient, tapping foot. Nodding, she dials Collins’s extension and gets him on the first ring. Brisk and efficient is just what I need right now, and a fast minute later Collins join us in Taylor’s space.
Without preamble I start our impromptu conference. “Kate has just asked me to have coffee at Tully’s on Union. She’s going through a tough time and I want to be there for her.” I give both of them a pointed look, daring them to argue with my treasured friendship and the inherent code of support that comes with it.
Collins opens his mouth to speak, but I shush him with my hand. “Just hear me out, okay? I’m willing to do whatever is necessary to follow your rules, and I know it’s short notice, but we’ve done this before without mishaps,” I remind him, holding his stern stare. I can see his decision poised on the edge of a knife, so I push on. “Christian has okayed outings provided that we follow the security stipulations to the letter.” I tap the side of my hand on my palm, underscoring my point, “And, as you can see, that’s what I’m doing.”
Collins looks to Cindy, silently communicating something that I’m not privy to, but after a small nod he agrees. “If we can okay it with Taylor we can be out the door in fifteen, Mrs. Grey, but you have half an hour. That’s it.”
“That’s fine. It’s all I need.” I know Kate will understand. She knows the deal, she can follow us back here if she wants to extend our time together, and there’s Chris. Undoubtedly he’ll quickly get restless in the grown-up café.
True to his word and ever competent, Collins has us in the SUV, cleared and ready in twelve minutes flat. Now all I have to do is pray during the short drive to Union Street that Kate’s crisis isn’t the devastating kind.
Chris’s chirpy voice breaks into my thoughts. “Mommy, I need to go potty.”
Of course, in our rush to leave home I neglected to go through our pre-excursion routine that always includes a quick trip to the bathroom. I shake off my distractions and turn to him. “Okay, buddy, we’ll go as soon we get there, okay? We’ll be there in another two minutes. Can you hold it till then?”
“Uh-huh. I fink so. How long is two minutes? One, two,” he quips, holding up two short fingers.
I smile at him. He’s such a cutie. “Count the seconds with me,” I say playfully, keen to distract him.
We’re still counting when we stop in front of Tully’s, super lucky to get a spot so close to the door. Collins jumps out to sweep the small restaurant before he gives Cindy the okay to bring us in. I watch him through the glass, taking up a table in the corner, the securest one as far as I can tell, with walls on either side. Obviously Kate isn’t here yet, but it doesn’t matter because my little boy is now desperate to go to the bathroom.
Cindy gives Collins a sign before she heads down the passage that leads to the toilets with us following behind. Again we wait as she takes a brief moment to sweep the ladies’ room before she lets us in. Chris hurries into the first stall while I wait with her, leaning our backsides against the bank of basins.
“You’re very close to Kate,” she remarks, the fact that she’s striking up a personal conversation surprising me.
“I am,” I smile my confirmation. “I don’t make friends easily but it was easy with her. Women can be so catty, you know?”
Her snort tells me she knows exactly what I mean. “Try being a girl on the butch side.” She stares at the closed door, momentarily lost in thoughts that don’t seem pleasant at all if the look on her face is anything to go by.
My heart goes out to her as I imagine the hurtful, childish taunts that would go with what she’s implied, and my empathy blooms. I remember what it was like being on the outside of the social center.
“Or clumsy, or bookish,” I share, drawing from understanding. “Children can be mercilessly cruel, unthinking really. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could avoid putting any value on those formative experiences?” Catching her eye, I give her a wry grin that says I know it’s easier said than done.
Just then a relieved-looking Chris comes bounding out of the stall and we make way for him to wash his hands. “Mommy, can I have a babyccino?”
“Wif chocolate on top?” His sparkling eyes are cheeky, always looking to push his boundaries.
Chuckling, I tickle him under his arms. “Why not?”
I watch a small frown marring his forehead. “Because you always say chocolate is unhealfy?”
Cindy and I can’t help but giggle at his literal uptake of my rhetorical question. I shake my head, smiling and enjoying the way my toddler sees the world. This is one of the many reasons why Kate will have so much fun with her own children. You’ve gotta love their beautiful logic.
With her lips still happily curved Cindy looks to me. “Shall we get going?”
“Yep.” With a gesture, I show her to go ahead of us, the knowledge of our protocol sequence already ingrained in my habits.
She moves in front of us in her ultra-efficient manner, shoulders squared, cutting an intimidating yet reassuring figure. It’s hard to imagine that a moment ago she was laughing with us.
I watch her push down the steel handle of the door, her muscles moving smoothly and gracefully before they lock, her body jolting so powerfully her limbs suddenly seem stiff, almost robotic. I hear a weird buzzing-crackle noise and a strained, guttural grunting sound from her, as if she can’t open her mouth. Her whole body shakes violently before she drops to the floor like a sack of potatoes.
I don’t have time to think, the security measures that seemed so natural to me a second ago lost to the utter bizarreness of what just happened. I manage to shove Chris to safety behind me as I drop to my knees next to Cindy. In the background I catch my son’s anxious questions about her, but I’m too overwrought to reply.
Her eyes are rolled into the back of her head as if she’s having some sort of seizure, her body twitching with spasms. She tries to say something, the spittle in the corners of her mouth making silvery threads in her effort to produce a sound. “Bhaak,” she grits unintelligibly.
What the…? Epilepsy? I wonder for a beat as I try to think of what to do next, but that thought dies when the door opens to a pair of black combat boots. Relieved that help is here, I lift my gaze to explain only to have time come to a complete standstill.
Panic fires a fresh shot of adrenaline into my muscles, effectively clearing my daze. Still on my knees I stumble back through what feels like molasses, blindly feeling for Chris behind me to make sure my body is shielding his.
Oh, fuck! Oh, shit!
“José.” His name is a beseeching prayer falling from my suddenly dry lips, the word carrying a thousand pleas for our safety.
“Don’t be scared. I won’t hurt you,” he says calmly, almost kindly. “But we need to go. We don’t have much time.”
I swallow, trying to gather my thoughts, which have never been more scattered. I ask myself how he can say that when the contradiction to his words moans brokenly beside me. I watch helplessly as Cindy tries to push herself up, but José presses a black stick to her leg.
I hear that strange buzzing sound again and my eyes can’t help but find the source. When Cindy’s body shudders in response I realize that he’s tasered her, first through the metal of the door handle and now to make sure she stays down. My boy gasps and presses his head into the back of my neck, mewling and hiding. He’s sensitive enough to sense my distress, to know that something is seriously wrong. I snake my arm around the back of his legs, offering my silent reassurance, acting on instinct.
I remember Ray told me that the shockwave, though extremely painful, is mostly safe, but it never occurred to me to ask whether it could harm an unborn baby. Right then I grasp that my cooperation with José is almost guaranteed, but it’s the very last thing I want to give him.
He holds out his hand to help me up and I’ve no choice but to take it, my son and baby’s survival absolutely paramount, the only thing that matters now. Hesitantly I look into the face that was once so familiar, but now seems strange. For the first time I notice that his full mouth has a cruel twist to it, and his eyes, once light, now seem all but vacant.
“I can carry him,” he offers, his eyes darting to Chris. Again his kind tone takes me by surprise. It’s so at odds with his aggressive stance and what he just did to Cindy. When he reaches for Chris I spot the butt of a gun tucked into his pants.
Stall! I think to myself, Collins is only yards away. “Uhm. No… thanks, I’ll manage.” My voice is husky but clear as I fight the dread; instead I focus on wasting time. Slowly, I turn to grip Chris under his arms, then lift him onto my hip. I’m not sure how far I’ll be able to carry him, but I’d rather die than give him to José.
“We’ve got to be quick. Just act normal, okay?” he says conspiratorially, curling a guiding hand around my upper arm.
What? I don’t understand. He’s acting as if I should be relieved that he’s here, as if he’s somehow helping me, but I don’t have time to dwell on it as he pulls me into the hallway and toward the direction opposite from where my biggest chance of rescue is waiting – currently oblivious.
“Give me your phone,” he barks, mid-stride, just as we exit through the back door into a deserted alley. Again I fumble, trying to buy time, but I only annoy him. Roughly he yanks my bag from my shoulder before he roots through the mess to find my cell. When he crushes it under his boot I know that another possible avenue of escape has just been blocked.
I battle a fresh wave of hysteria as he bundles us through the sliding door of an unmarked minivan, the back of which is completely windowless. I don’t have the capacity to process the fact that the bench seat contains a booster seat for Chris, that this is obviously extremely well thought out and planned. We’re on the move before I even have Chris properly strapped into the toddler restraint. All I can do is coo quietly at my bewildered son as his large blue eyes reflect the fear I feel.
José is a man on a mission, driving with the sure knowledge of where he’s headed, weaving through the traffic but keeping to the speed limit, careful not to attract any unwanted attention. The route he takes is not one that tells me anything, and from where I sit I can’t make out that much. I haven’t been in Seattle long enough to identify anything but the famous landmarks.
Where is he taking us? Why? What does he want, and why does he act so strangely familiar? All these questions weigh on the tip of my tongue and cloud my thoughts. My heart is set at a perpetually racing pace and my nausea – I know – is not due to my changing hormones anymore.
I can’t even begin to imagine what Christian is going to do when he finds out that we’re missing. At least Cindy isn’t hurt, and though she was incapacitated, she’ll be a valuable source of information once the hunt is on. And it will be on. José has no clue what he’s unleashed. I just pray that we’re around to see him brought to justice, and that my precious husband doesn’t do something irrevocably irrational in his rage.
Finally I find my voice, shaky but there. “José, you know that Christian will be throwing everything he has into finding us. There’s no length he wouldn’t go to, no stone he’d leave unturned to get his family back.”
“Yeah, baby, I know,” he says evenly. “That’s what I’m banking on.”
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