Holy shit, did I really just do that? It must be the alcohol. I've had champagne plus four glasses of four different wines. I glance up at Christian who's busy applauding.
Crap, he's going to be so angry, and we've been getting on so well. My subconscious has finally decided to make an appearance, and she's wearing her Edvard Munch Scream face.Christian leans over to me, a large fake smile plastered across his face. He kisses my cheek and then moves closer to whisper in my ear in a very cold, controlled voice.
"I don't know whether to worship at your feet or spank the living shit out of you."
Oh, I know what I want right now. I gaze up at him, blinking through my mask. I just wish I could read what's in his eyes.
"I'll take option two, please," I whisper frantically as the applause dies down. His lips part as he inhales sharply. Oh that chiseled mouth - I want it on me, now. I ache for him. He gives me a radiant sincere smile that leaves me breathless.
"Suffering, are you? We'll have to see what we can do about that," he murmurs as he runs his fingers along my jaw.
His touch resonates deep, deep inside where that ache has spawned and grown. I want to jump him right here, right now, but we sit back to watch the auction of the next lot.
I can barely sit still. Christian drapes an arm around my shoulders, his thumb rhythmically stroking my back, sending delicious tingles down my spine. His free hand clasps mine, bringing it to his lips, then letting it rest on his lap.
Slowly and surreptitiously, so I don't realize his game until it's too late, he eases my hand up his leg and against his erection. I gasp, and my eyes dart in panic around the table, but all eyes are fixed on the stage. Thank heavens for my mask.
Taking full advantage, I slowly caress him, letting my fingers explore. Christian keeps his hand over mine, hiding my bold fingers, while his thumb skates softly over the nape of my neck. His mouth opens as he gasps softly, and it's the only reaction I can see to my inexperienced touch. But it means so much. He wants me. Everything south of my navel contracts. This is becoming unbearable.
A week by Lake Adriana in Montana is the final lot for auction. Of course Mr. and Dr.
Grey have a house in Montana, and the bidding escalates rapidly, but I am barely aware of it. I feel him growing beneath my fingers, and it makes me feel so powerful.
"Sold, for one hundred ten thousand dollars!" the MC declares victoriously. The whole room bursts into applause, and reluctantly I follow as does Christian, ruining our fun.
He turns to me and his lips twitch. "Ready?" he mouths over the rapturous cheering.
"Yes," I mouth back
"Ana!" Mia calls. "It's time!"
What? No. Not again! "Time for what?"
"The First Dance Auction. Come on!" She stands and holds out her hand.
I glance at Christian who is, I think, scowling at Mia, and I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but it's laughter that wins. I succumb to a cathartic bubble of schoolgirl giggles, as we are thwarted once more by the tall, pink powerhouse that is Mia Grey. Christian peers at me, and after a beat, there's a ghost of a smile on his lips.
"The first dance will be with me, okay? And it won't be on the dance floor," he murmurs lasciviously into my ear. My giggles subside as anticipation fans the flames of my need. Oh, yes! My inner goddess performs a perfect triple Salchow in her ice skates.
"I look forward to it." I lean over and plant a soft, chaste kiss on his mouth. Glancing around, I realize that our fellow guests at the table are astonished. Of course, they've never seen Christian with a date before.
He smiles broadly at me. And he looks... happy. Wow.
"Come on, Ana," Mia nags. Taking her outstretched hand, I follow her onto the stage where ten more young women have assembled, and I note with vague unease that Lily is one of them.
"Gentlemen, the highlight of the evening!" the MC booms over the babble of voices.
"The moment you've all been waiting for! These twelve lovely ladies have all agreed to auction their first dance to the highest bidder!"
Oh no. I blush from head to toe. I hadn't realized what this meant. How humiliating!
"It's for a good cause," Mia hisses at me, sensing my discomfort. "Besides, Christian will win." She rolls her eyes. "I can't imagine him letting anyone outbid him. He hasn't taken his eyes off you all evening."
Yes, focus on the good cause, and Christian is bound to win. Let's face it, he's not short of a dime or two.
But it means spending more money on you! my subconscious snarls at me. But I don't want to dance with anyone else - I can't dance with anyone else - and it's not spending money on me, he's donating it to the charity. Like the twenty-four thousand dollars he's already spent? My subconscious narrows her eyes.
Shit. I seem to have gotten away with my impulsive bid. Why am I arguing with myself?"Now, gentlemen, pray gather round, and take a good look at what could be yours for the first dance. Twelve comely and compliant wenches."
Jeez! I feel like I'm in a meat market. I watch, horrified, as at least twenty men make their way to the stage area, Christian included, moving with easy grace between the tables and pausing to say a few hellos on the way. Once the bidders are assembled, the MC begins.
"Ladies and gentlemen, in the tradition of the masquerade we shall maintain the mystery behind the masks and stick to first names only. First up we have the lovely Jada."
Jada is giggling like a schoolgirl, too. Maybe I won't be so out of place. She's dressed head to foot in navy taffeta with a matching mask. Two young men step forward expectantly. Lucky Jada.
"Jada speaks fluent Japanese, is a qualified fighter pilot, and an Olympic gymnast...
hmm." The MC winks. "Gentleman, what am I bid?"
Jada gapes, astounded at the MC; obviously, he's talking complete garbage. She grins shyly back at the two contenders.
"A thousand bucks!" one calls.
Very quickly the bidding escalates to five thousand dollars.
"Going once... going twice... sold!" the MC declares loudly, "to the gentleman in the mask!" And of course all the men are wearing masks so there are hoots of laughter, applause, and cheering. Jada beams at her purchaser and quickly exits the stage.
"See? This is fun!" whispers Mia. "I hope Christian wins you, though... We don't want a brawl," she adds.
"Brawl?" I answer horrified.
"Oh yes. He was very hot-headed when he was younger." She shudders.
Christian brawling? Refined, sophisticated, likes-Tudor-choral-music Christian? I can't see it. The MC distracts me with his next introduction - a young woman in red, with long jet-black hair.
"Gentlemen, may I present the wonderful Mariah. What are we going to do about Mariah? She's an experienced matador, plays the cello to concert standard, and she's a champion pole-vaulter... how about that, gentlemen? What am I bid, please, for a dance with the delightful Mariah?"
Mariah glares at the MC and someone yells, very loudly, "Three thousand dollars!" It's a masked man with blond hair and beard.
There is one counter-bid, but Mariah sells for four thousand dollars.
Christian is watching me like a hawk. Brawler Trevelyan-Grey - who would have known?
"How long ago?" I ask Mia.
She glances at me, nonplussed.
"How long ago was Christian brawling?"
"Early teens. Drove my parents crazy, coming home with cut lips and black eyes. He was expelled from two schools. He inflicted some serious damage on his opponents."
I gape at her.
"Hasn't he told you?" She sighs. "He got quite a bad rep among my friends. He was really persona non grata for a few years. But it stopped when he was about fifteen or sixteen." She shrugs.
Holy fuck. Another piece of the jigsaw falls into place.
"So, what am I bid for the gorgeous Jill?"
"Four thousand dollars," a deep voice calls from the left side. Jill squeals in delight.
I stop paying attention to the auction. So Christian was in that kind of trouble at school, fighting. I wonder why. I stare at him. Lily is watching us closely.
"And now, allow me to introduce the beautiful Ana."
Oh shit, that's me. I glance nervously at Mia, and she shoos me center stage. Fortunately, I don't fall over, but stand embarrassed as hell on display for everyone. When I look at Christian, he's smirking at me. The bastard.
"Beautiful Ana plays six musical instruments, speaks fluent Mandarin, and is keen on yoga... well, gentlemen - " Before he can even finish his sentence Christian interrupts him, glaring at the MC through his mask.
"Ten thousand dollars." I hear Lily's gasp of disbelief behind me.
What? We all turn as one to a tall, impeccably dressed man standing to the left of the stage. I blink at Fifty. Shit, what will he make of this? But he's scratching his chin and giving the stranger an ironic smile. It's obvious Christian knows him. The stranger nods politely at Christian.
"Well, gentlemen! We have high rollers in the house this evening." The MC's excitement emanates through his harlequin mask as he turns to beam at Christian. This is a great show, but it's at my expense. I want to wail.
"Twenty," counters Christian quietly.
The babble of the crowd has died. Everyone is staring at me, Christian, and Mr. Mysterious by the stage.
"Twenty-five," the stranger says.
Could this be any more embarrassing?
Christian stares at him impassively, but he's amused. All eyes are on Christian. What's he going to do? My heart is in my mouth. I feel sick.
"One hundred thousand dollars," he says his voice ringing clear and loud through the marquee.
"What the fuck?" Lily hisses audibly behind me, and a general gasp of dismay and amusement ripples through the crowd. The stranger holds his hands up in defeat, laughing, and Christian smirks at him. From the corner of my eye, I can see Mia bouncing up and down with glee. My subconscious is gazing at Christian, utterly gobsmacked.
"One-hundred thousand dollars for the lovely Ana! Going once... going twice..."
The MC stares at the stranger who shakes his head with mock regret and bows chivalrously.
"Sold!" the MC cries out triumphantly.
In a deafening round of applause and cheering, Christian steps forward to take my hand and help me from the stage. He gazes at me with an amused grin as I make my way down, kisses the back of my hand then tucks it into the crook of his arm, and leads me toward the marquee's exit.
"Who was that?" I ask.
He gazes down at me. "Someone you can meet later. Right now, I want to show you something. We have about thirty minutes until the First Dance Auction finishes. Then we have to be back on the dance floor so that I can enjoy that dance I've paid for."
"A very expensive dance," I mutter disapprovingly.
"I'm sure it'll be worth every single cent." He smiles down at me wickedly. Oh, he has a glorious smile, and the ache is back, blossoming in my body.
We're out on the lawn. I thought we would be heading to the boathouse, but disappoint-ingly we seem to be heading for the dance floor where the big band is now setting up. There are at least twenty musicians, and a few guests are milling about, furtively smoking - but since most of the action is back in the marquee, we don't attract too much attention.
Christian leads me to the rear of the house and opens a French window leading into a large comfortable sitting room that I've not seen before. He walks through the deserted hall toward the sweeping staircase with its elegant, polished wooden balustrade. Taking my hand from the crook of his arm, he leads me up to the second floor and up another flight of stairs to the third. Opening a white door, he ushers me into one of the bedrooms.
"This was my room," he says quietly, standing by the door and locking it behind him.
It's large, stark, and sparsely furnished. The walls are white as is the furniture; a spacious double bed, a desk and chair, shelves crammed with books and lined with various trophies for kickboxing by the look of them. The walls are hung with movie posters: The Matrix, Fight Club, The Truman Show, and two framed posters featuring kick boxers. One is named Guiseppe DeNatale - I've never heard of him.
But what catches my eye is the white pin board above the desk, studded with a myriad of photographs, Mariners pennants, and ticket stubs. It's a slice of young Christian. My eyes come back to the magnificent, beautiful man now standing in the center of the room.
He looks at me darkly, brooding and sexy.
"I've never brought a girl in here," he murmurs.
"Never?" I whisper.
He shakes his head.
I swallow convulsively, and the ache that has been bothering me for the last couple of hours is roaring now, raw and wanting. Seeing him standing there on the royal blue carpet in that mask... it's beyond erotic. I want him. Now. Any way I can get him. I have to resist launching myself at him and ripping his clothes off. He waltzes over to me slowly.
"We don't have long, Anastasia, and the way I'm feeling right this moment, we won't need long. Turn round. Let me get you out of that dress."
I turn and stare at the door, grateful that he's locked it. Bending down he whispers softly in my ear, "Keep the mask on."
I groan as my body clenches in response. He's not even touched me yet.
He grasps the top of my dress, his fingers sliding against my skin, and the touch reverberates through my body. In one swift move, he opens the zipper. Holding my dress, he helps me to step out of it, then turns and drapes it artfully over the back of a chair. Removing his jacket, he places it over my dress. He pauses, and stares at me for a moment, drinking me in. I'm in the basque and matching panties, and I revel in his sensuous gaze.
"You know, Anastasia," he says softly as he stalks toward me, undoing his bow tie so it hangs from either side of his neck, then undoing the top three buttons of his shirt. "I was so mad when you bought my auction lot. All manner of ideas ran through my head. I had to remind myself that punishment is off the menu. But then you volunteered." He gazes down at me through his mask. "Why did you do that?" he whispers.
"Volunteer? I don't know. Frustration... too much alcohol... worthy cause," I mutter meekly, shrugging. Maybe to get his attention?
I needed him then. I need him more now. The ache is worse, and I know he can soothe it, calm this roaring, salivating beast in me with the beast in him. His mouth presses into a line, and he slowly licks his upper lip. I want that tongue on me.
"I vowed to myself I would not spank you again, even if you begged me."
"Please," I beg.
"But then I realized, you're probably very uncomfortable at the moment, and it's not something you're used to." He smirks at me knowingly, arrogant bastard, but I don't care because he's absolutely right.
"Yes," I breathe.
"So, there might be a certain... latitude. If I do this, you must promise me one thing."
"You will safe word if you need to, and I will just make love to you, okay?"
"Yes." I'm panting. I want his hands on me.
He swallows, then takes my hand, and moves toward the bed. Throwing the duvet aside, he sits down, grabs a pillow, and places it beside him. He gazes up at me standing beside him and suddenly tugs hard on my hand so that I fall across his lap. He shifts slightly so my body is resting on the bed, my chest on the pillow, my face to one side. Leaning over, he sweeps my hair over my shoulder and runs his fingers through the plume of feathers on my mask.
"Put your hands behind your back," he murmurs.
Oh! He removes his bow tie and uses it to quickly bind my wrists so that my hands are tied behind me, resting in the small of my back.
"You really want this, Anastasia?"
I close my eyes. This is the first time since I met him that I really want this. I need it.
"Yes," I whisper.
"Why?" he asks softly as he caresses my behind with his palm.
I groan as soon as his hand makes contact with my skin. I don't know why... You tell me not to overthink. After a day like today - arguing about the money, Leila, Mrs. Robinson, the dossier on me, the roadmap, this lavish party, the masks, the alcohol, the silver balls, the auction... I want this.
"Do I need a reason?"
"No, baby, you don't," he says. "I'm just trying to understand you." His left hand curls round my waist, holding me in place as his palm leaves my behind and lands hard, just above the junction of my thighs. The pain connects directly with the ache in my belly Oh man... I moan loudly. He hits me again, in exactly the same place. I groan again.
"Two," he murmurs. "We'll go with twelve."
Oh my! This feels different than the last time - so carnal, so... necessary. He caresses my behind with his long-fingered hands, and I'm helpless, trussed up and pressed into the mattress, at his mercy, and of my own free will. He hits me again, slightly to the side, and again, to the other side, then pauses as he slowly peels my panties down and pulls them off.
He gently trails his palm across my behind again before continuing my spanking - each stinging smack taking the edge off my need - or fueling it - I don't know. I surrender myself to the rhythm of blows, absorbing each one, savoring each one.
"Twelve," he murmurs his voice low and harsh. He caresses my behind again and trails his fingers down toward my sex and slowly sinks two fingers inside me, moving them in a circle, round and round and round, torturing me.
I moan loudly as my body takes over, and I come and come, convulsing around his fingers. It's so intense, unexpected, and quick.
"That's right, baby," he murmurs appreciatively. He unties my wrists, keeping his fingers inside me as I lie panting and spent over him.
"I've not finished with you yet, Anastasia," he says and shifts without removing his fingers. He eases my knees on to the floor so that now I'm leaning over the bed. He kneels on the floor behind me and undoes his zipper. He slides his fingers out of me, and I hear the familiar tear of a foil packet. "Open your legs," he growls and I comply. He strokes my behind and eases into me.
"This is going to be quick, baby," he murmurs and grabbing my hips, he eases out then slams into me.
"Ah!" I cry out but the fullness is heavenly. He's hitting the bellyache square on, again and again, eradicating it with each sharp, sweet thrust. The feeling is mind-blowing, just what I need. I push back to meet him, thrust for thrust.
"Ana, no," he grunts, trying to still me. But I want him too much, and I grind against him, matching him thrust for thrust.
"Ana, shit," he hisses as he comes, and the tortured sound sets me off again, spiraling into a healing orgasm that goes on and on and wrings me out and leaves me spent and breathless.
Christian bends and kisses my shoulder then pulls out of me. Placing his arms around me, he rests his head in the middle of my back, and we lie like this, both kneeling at the bedside, for what? Seconds? Minutes even as our breathing calms. My bellyache has disappeared, and all I feel is a soothing, satisfying serenity.
Christian stirs and kisses my back. "I believe you owe me a dance, Miss Steele," he murmurs.
"Hmm," I respond, savoring the absence of achiness and basking in the afterglow.
He sits back on his heels and pulls me off the bed onto his lap. "We don't have long.
Come on." He kisses my hair and forces me to stand.
I grumble but sit back down on the bed and collect my panties from the floor and scoop them on. Lazily I walk to the chair to retrieve my dress. I note with dispassionate interest that I did not remove my shoes during our illicit tryst. Christian is tying his bow tie, having finished straightening himself and the bed.
As I slip my dress back on, I check out the photographs on the pin board. Christian as a sullen teen was gorgeous even then: with Elliot and Mia on the ski slopes; on his own in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe serving as a giveaway background; in London; New York; the Grand Canyon; Sydney Opera House; even the Great Wall of China. Master Grey was well traveled at a young age.
There are ticket stubs to various concerts: U2, Metallica, The Verve, Sheryl Crow, the New York Philharmonic performing Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet - what an eclectic mix!
And in the corner, there's a passport-size photograph of a young woman. It's in black and white. She looks familiar, but for the life of me, I can't place her. Not Mrs. Robinson, thank heavens.
"Who's this?" I ask.
"No one of consequence," he mutters as he slips on his jacket and straightens his bow tie. "Shall I zip you up?"
"Please. Then why is she on your pin board?"
"An oversight on my part. How's my tie?" He raises his chin like a small boy, and I grin and straighten it for him.
"Now it's perfect."
"Like you," he murmurs and grabs me, kissing me passionately. "Feeling better?"
"Much, thank you, Mr. Grey."
"The pleasure was all mine, Miss Steele."
The guests are assembling on the dance floor. Christian grins at me - we've made it just in time - and he leads me onto the checkered floor.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the first dance. Mr. and Dr. Grey, are you ready?" Carrick nods in agreement, his arms around Grace.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the First Dance Auction, are you ready?" We all nod in agreement. Mia is with someone I don't recognize. I wonder what happened to Sean?
"Then we shall begin. Take it away, Sam!"
A young man strolls onto the stage amid warm applause, turns to the band behind him and snaps his fingers. The familiar strains of "I've Got You Under My Skin" fill the air.
Christian smiles down at me, takes me in his arms, and starts to move. Oh, he dances so well, making it easy to follow. We grin at each other like idiots as he whirls me around the dance floor.
"I love this song," Christian murmurs, gazing down at me. "Seems very fitting." He's no longer grinning, but serious.
"You're under my skin, too," I respond. "Or you were in your bedroom."
He purses his lips but he's unable to hide his amusement.
"Miss Steele," he admonishes me teasingly, "I had no idea you could be so crude."
"Mr. Grey, neither did I. I think it's all my recent experiences. They've been an education."
"For both of us." Christian is serious again, and it could just be the two of us and the band. We are in our own private bubble.
As the song finishes we both applaud. Sam the singer bows graciously and introduces his band.
"May I cut in?"
I recognize the man who bid on me at the auction. Christian grudgingly lets me go, but he's amused, too.
"Be my guest. Anastasia, this is John Flynn. John, Anastasia."
Christian smirks at me and wanders off to one side of the dance floor.
"How do you do, Anastasia?" Dr. Flynn says smoothly, and I realize he's British.
"Hello," I stutter.
The band strikes up another song, and Dr. Flynn pulls me into his arms. He's much younger than I imagined, though I can't see his face. He's wearing a mask similar to Christian's. He's tall, but not as tall as Christian, and he doesn't move with Christian's easy grace.
What do I say to him? Why is Christian so fucked-up? Why did he bid on me? It's the only thing I want to ask him, but somehow that seems rude.
"I'm glad to finally meet you, Anastasia. Are you enjoying yourself?" he asks.
"I was," I whisper.
"Oh. I hope I'm not responsible for your change of heart." He gives me a brief, warm smile that puts me a little more at ease.
"Doctor Flynn, you're the shrink. You tell me."
He grins. "That's the problem, isn't it? The shrink bit?"
I giggle. "I'm worried what I might reveal, so I'm a little self-conscious and intimidated. And really I only want to ask you about Christian."
He smiles. "First, this is a party so I'm not on duty," he whispers conspiratorially. "And second, I really can't talk to you about Christian. Besides," he teases, "we'd need until Christmas."
I gasp in shock.
"That's a doctor's joke, Anastasia."
I flush, embarrassed, and then feel slightly resentful. He's making a joke at Christian's expense. "You've just confirmed what I've been saying to Christian... that you're an expensive charlatan," I admonish him.
Dr. Flynn snorts with laughter. "You could be onto something there."
"Yes. Originally from London."
"How did you find yourself here?"
"You don't give much away, do you?"
"There's not much to give away. I'm really a very dull person."
"That's very self-deprecating."
"It's a British trait. Part of our national character."
"And I could accuse you of the same, Anastasia."
"That I'm a dull person, too, Dr. Flynn?"
He snorts. "No, Anastasia, that you don't give much away."
"There's not much to give away." I smile.
"I sincerely doubt that." He unexpectedly frowns.
I flush, but the music finishes and Christian is once more by my side. Dr. Flynn releases me. "It's been a pleasure to meet you, Anastasia." He gives me his warm smile again, and I feel that I've passed some kind of hidden test.
"John." Christian nods at him.
"Christian." Dr. Flynn returns his nod, turns on his heel, and disappears through the crowd.
Christian pulls me into his arms for the next dance.
"He's much younger than I expected," I murmur to him. "And terribly indiscreet."
Christian cocks his head to one side. "Indiscreet?"
"Oh yes, he told me everything," I tease.
Christian tenses. "Well, in that case, I'll get your bag. I'm sure you want nothing more to do with me," he says softly.
I stop. "He didn't tell me anything!" My voice fills with panic.
Christian blinks before relief floods his face. He pulls me into his arms again. "Then let's enjoy this dance." He beams down, reassuring me, then spins me round.
Why would he think that I'd want to leave? It makes no sense.
We dance for two more numbers, and I realize I need the restroom.
"I won't be long."
As I make my way to the powder room, I remember I have left my purse on the dinner table, so I head down to the marquee. When I enter, it's still lit but quite deserted, except for a couple at the other end, who really ought to get a room! I reach for my bag.
A soft voice startles me, and I turn to see a woman dressed in a long, tight, black velvet gown. Her mask is unique. It covers her face to her nose but also covers her hair. It's stunning with elaborate gold filigree.
"I'm so glad you're on your own," she says softly. "I've been wanting to talk to you all evening."
"I'm sorry, I don't know who you are."
She pulls the mask from her face and releases her hair.
Shit! It's Mrs. Robinson.
"I'm sorry, I startled you."
I gape at her. Holy cow - what the fuck does this woman want?
I don't know what the social conventions are for meeting known molesters of children.
She's smiling sweetly and gesturing for me to sit at the table. And because I am lacking any sphere of reference, I do as she asks out of stunned politeness, grateful that I am still wearing my mask.
"I'll be brief, Anastasia. I know what you think of me... Christian's told me."
I gaze at her impassively, giving nothing away, but I'm pleased that she knows. It saves me telling her, and she's cutting to the chase. Part of me is beyond intrigued as to what she could have to say.
She pauses, glancing over my shoulder. "Taylor's watching us."
I peek around to see him scanning the tent by the doorway. Sawyer is with him. They are looking anywhere but at us.
"Look, we don't have long," she says hurriedly. "It must be obvious to you that Christian is in love with you. I have never seen him like this, ever." She emphasizes the last word.
What? Loves me? No. Why is she telling me? To reassure me? I don't understand.
"He won't tell you because he probably doesn't realize it himself, notwithstanding what I've said to him, but that's Christian. He's not very attuned to any positive feelings and emotions he may have. He dwells far too much on the negative. But then you've probably worked that out for yourself. He doesn't think he's worthy."
I am reeling. Christian loves me? He hasn't said it, and this woman has told him that's how he feels? How bizarre.
A hundred images dance through my head: the iPad, the gliding, flying to see me, all his actions, his possessiveness, one hundred thousand dollars for a dance. Is this love?
And hearing it from this woman, having her confirm it for me is, frankly, unwelcome.
I'd rather hear it from him.
My heart constricts. He feels unworthy? Why?
"I've never seen him so happy, and it's obvious that you have feelings for him, too." A brief smile flits across her lips. "That's great, and I wish you both the best of everything.
But what I wanted to say is if you hurt him again, I will find you, lady, and it won't be pleasant when I do."
She stares at me, ice-cold blue eyes boring into my skull, trying to get under my mask.
Her threat is so astonishing, so off the wall that an involuntary, disbelieving giggle escapes me. Of all the things she could say to me, this is the least expected.
"You think this is funny, Anastasia?" she splutters in dismay. "You didn't see him last Saturday."
My face falls and darkens. The thought of Christian unhappy is not a palatable one, and last Saturday I left him. He must have gone to her. The idea makes me queasy. Why am I sitting here listening to this shit from her of all people? I slowly rise, gazing at her intently.
"I'm laughing at your audacity, Mrs. Lincoln. Christian and I have nothing to do with you. And if I do leave him and you come looking for me, I'll be waiting - don't doubt it.
And maybe I'll give you a taste of your own medicine on behalf of the fifteen-year-old child you molested and probably fucked-up even more than he already was."
Her mouth falls open.
"Now if you'll excuse me, I have better things to do than waste my time with you."
I turn on my heel, adrenaline and anger coursing through my body, and stalk toward the entrance of the tent where Taylor is standing just as Christian arrives, looking flustered and worried.
"There you are," he mutters, then frowns when he sees Elena.
I stride past him, saying nothing, giving him the opportunity to choose - her or me. He makes the right choice.
"Ana," he calls. I stop and face him as he catches up with me. "What's wrong?" He gazes down at me, concern etched on his face.
"Why don't you ask your ex?" I hiss acidly.
His mouth twists and his eyes frost. "I'm asking you," he says, his voice soft but with an undertone of something far more menacing.
We glare at each other.
Okay, I can see this will end in a fight if I don't tell him. "She's threatening to come after me if I hurt you again - probably with a whip," I snap at him.
Relief flashes across his face, his mouth softening with humor. "Surely the irony of that isn't lost on you?" he says, and I can tell he's trying hard to stifle his amusement.
"This isn't funny, Christian!"
"No, you're right. I'll talk to her." He adopts his serious face, though he's still suppressing his amusement.
"You will do no such thing." I fold my arms, my anger spiking again.
He blinks at me, surprised by my outburst.
"Look, I know you're tied up with her financially, forgive the pun, but - " I stop. What am I asking him to do? Give her up? Stop seeing her? Can I do that? "I need the restroom."
I glare up at him, my mouth set in a grim line.
He sighs and cocks his head to one side. Could he look any hotter? Is it the mask or just him?
"Please don't be mad. I didn't know she was here. She said she wasn't coming." His tone is placating as if he's talking to a child. Reaching up he runs his thumb along my pouting bottom lip. "Don't let Elena ruin our evening, please, Anastasia. She's really old news."
Old being the operative word, I think uncharitably, as he tips my chin up and gently grazes his lips against mine. I sigh in agreement, blinking up at him. He straightens and takes my elbow.
"I'll accompany you to the powder room so you don't get interrupted again."
He leads me across the lawn toward the luxurious temporary restrooms. Mia said they had been delivered for the occasion, but I had no idea they came in deluxe versions.
"I'll wait here for you, baby," he murmurs.
When I come out, my mood has moderated. I have decided not to let Mrs. Robinson blight my evening because that's probably what she wants. Christian is on the phone some distance away and out of earshot of the few people laughing and chatting nearby. As I get closer, I can hear him. He's very terse.
"Why did you change your mind? I thought we'd agreed. Well, leave her alone... This is the first regular relationship I've ever had, and I don't want you jeopardizing it through some misplaced concern for me. Leave. Her. Alone. I mean it, Elena." He pauses, listening.
"No, of course not." He frowns deeply as he says this. Glancing up, he sees me regarding him. "I have to go. Goodnight." He presses the off button.
I cock my head to one side and raise an eyebrow at him. Why is he phoning her?
"How's the old news?"
"Cranky," he replies sardonically. "Do you want to dance some more? Or would you like to go?" He glances at his watch. "The fireworks start in five minutes."
"I love fireworks."
"We'll stay and watch them, then." He puts his arms around me and pulls me close.
"Don't let her come between us, please."
"She cares about you," I mutter.
"Yes, and I her... as a friend."
"I think it's more than a friendship to her."
His brow furrows. "Anastasia, Elena and I... it's complicated. We have a shared history. But it is just that, history. As I've said to you time and time again, she's a good friend.
That's all. Please, forget about her." He kisses my hair, and in the interest of not ruining our evening, I let it go. I am just trying to understand.
We wander hand in hand back to the dance floor. The band is still in full swing.
I turn to find Carrick standing behind us.
"I wondered if you'd do me the honor of the next dance." Carrick holds his hand out to me. Christian shrugs and smiles, releasing my hand, and I let Carrick lead me onto the dance floor. Sam the bandleader launches into "Come Fly with Me," and Carrick puts his arm around my waist and gently whirls me into the throng.
"I wanted to thank you for the generous contribution to our charity, Anastasia."
From his tone, I suspect this is his roundabout way of asking whether I can afford it.
"Mr. Grey - "
"Call me Carrick, please, Ana."
"I'm delighted to be able to contribute. I unexpectedly came into some money. I don't need it. And it's such a worthy cause."
He smiles down at me, and I seize the opportunity for some innocent inquiries. Carpe diem, my subconscious hisses from behind her hand.
"Christian told me a little about his past, so I think it's appropriate to support your work," I add, hoping that this might encourage Carrick to give me a small insight into the mystery that is his son.
Carrick is surprised. "Did he? That's unusual. You certainly have had a very positive effect on him, Anastasia. I don't think I've ever seen him so, so... buoyant."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"Well, in my limited experience, he's a very unusual man," I murmur.
"He is," Carrick agrees quietly.
"Christian's early childhood sounds hideously traumatic, from what he's told me."
Carrick frowns, and I worry if I've overstepped the mark.
"My wife was the doctor on duty when the police brought him in. He was skin and bones, and badly dehydrated. He wouldn't speak." Carrick frowns again, lost in the awful memory, despite the up-tempo music surrounding us. "In fact, he didn't speak for nearly two years. It was playing the piano that eventually brought him out of himself. Oh, and Mia's arrival, of course." He smiles down at me fondly.
"He plays beautifully. And he's accomplished so much, you must be very proud of him." I sound distracted. Holy Shit. Didn't speak for two years.
"Immensely so. He's a very determined, very capable, very bright young man. But between you and me, Anastasia, it's seeing him like he is this evening - carefree, acting his age - that's the real thrill for his mother and me. We were both commenting on it today. I believe we have you to thank for that."
I think I blush to my roots. What am I supposed to say to this?
"He's always been such a loner. We never thought we'd see him with anyone. Whatever you're doing, please don't stop. We'd like to see him happy." He stops suddenly as if he's overstepped the mark. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to make you uncomfortable."
I shake my head. "I'd like to see him happy, too," I mutter, unsure of what else to say.
"Well, I'm very glad you came this evening. It's been a real pleasure seeing the two of you together."
As the final strains of "Come Fly with Me" fade away, Carrick releases me and bows, and I curtsey, mirroring his civility.
"That's enough dancing with old men." Christian is at my side again. Carrick laughs.
"Less of the 'old,' son. I've been known to have my moments." Carrick winks at me playfully and saunters into the crowd.
"I think my dad likes you," Christian mutters as he watches his father mingle with the crowd..
"What's not to like?" I peek coquettishly up at him through my lashes.
"Good point well made, Miss Steele." He pulls me into an embrace as the band starts to play "It Had to Be You."
"Dance with me," he whispers seductively.
"With pleasure, Mr. Grey." I smile in response, and he sweeps me across the dance floor once more.
At midnight, we stroll down toward the shore between the marquee and the boathouse where the other partygoers are gathered to watch the fireworks. The MC, back in charge, has permitted the removal of masks, the better to see the display. Christian has his arm around me, but I'm aware that Taylor and Sawyer are close by, probably because we're in the crowd now. They are looking anywhere but at the dockside where two pyrotechnicians dressed in black are making their final preparations. Seeing Taylor reminds me of Leila.
Perhaps she's here. Shit. The thought chills my blood, and I huddle closer to Christian. He gazes down at me as he pulls me closer.
"You okay, baby? Cold?"
"I'm fine." I glance quickly behind us and see the other two security guys, whose names I forget, standing close by. Moving me in front of him, Christian puts both his arms around me over my shoulders.
Suddenly, a stirring classical soundtrack booms over the dock and two rockets soar into the air, exploding with a deafening bang over the bay, lighting it all in a dazzling canopy of sparkling orange and white that's reflected in a glittering shower over the still calm water of the bay. My jaw drops as several more rockets fire into the air and explode in a kaleido-scope of color.
I can't recall ever seeing a display this impressive, except perhaps on television, and it never looks this good on TV. They're all in time to the music. Volley after volley, bang after bang, and light after light as the crowd answers with gasps and ooohs and ahhs. It is out of this world.
On the pontoon in the bay several silver fountains of light shoot up twenty feet in the air, changing color through blue, red, orange, and back to silver - and yet more rockets explode as the music reaches its crescendo.
My face is beginning to ache from the ridiculous grin of wonder plastered across it. I glance at Fifty, and he's the same, marveling like a child at the sensational show. For the finale a volley of six rockets shoot into the dark and explode simultaneously, bathing us in a glorious golden light as the crowd erupts into frantic, enthusiastic applause.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the MC calls out as the cheers and whistles fade. "Just one note to add at the end of this wonderful evening; your generosity has raised a total of one million, eight hundred and fifty three thousand dollars!"
Spontaneous applause erupts again, and out on the pontoon, a message lights up in silver streams of sparks forming the words Thank You From Coping Together, sparkling and shimmering over the water.
"Oh, Christian... that was wonderful." I grin up at him and he bends down to kiss me.
"Time to go," he murmurs, a broad smile on his beautiful face, and his words hold so much promise.
Suddenly, I feel very tired.
He glances up again, and Taylor is close, the crowd dispersing around us. They don't speak but something passes between them.
"Stay with me a moment. Taylor wants us to wait while the crowd disperses."
"I think that firework display probably aged him a hundred years," he adds.
"Doesn't he like fireworks?"
Christian gazes down at me fondly and shakes his head but doesn't elaborate.
"So, Aspen," he says, and I know he's trying to distract me from something. It works.
"Oh... I haven't paid for my bid," I gasp.
"You can send a check. I have the address."
"You were really mad."
"Yes, I was."
I grin. "I blame you and your toys."
"You were quite overcome, Miss Steele. A most satisfactory outcome if I recall." He smiles salaciously. "Incidentally, where are they?"
"The silver balls? In my bag."
"I'd like them back." He smirks down at me. "They are far too potent a device to be left in your innocent hands."
"Worried I might be quite overcome again, maybe with somebody else?"
His eyes glitter dangerously. "I hope that's not going to happen," he says, a cool edge to his voice. "But no, Ana. I want all your pleasure."
Whoa. "Don't you trust me?"
"Implicitly. Now, can I have them back?"
"I'll think about it."
He narrows his eyes at me.
There's music once more from the dance floor but it's a DJ playing a thumping dance number, the bass pounding out a relentless beat.
"Do you want to dance?"
"I'm really tired, Christian. I'd like to go, if that's okay."
Christian glances at Taylor, who nods, and we set off toward the house, following a couple of drunken guests. I'm grateful when Christian takes my hand - my feet are aching from the dizzying height and tight confinement of my shoes.
Mia comes bounding up to us. "You're not going, are you? The real music's just beginning. Come on, Ana." She grabs my hand.
"Mia," Christian admonishes her. "Anastasia's tired. We're going home. Besides, we have a big day tomorrow."
Mia pouts but surprisingly doesn't push Christian.
"You must come by sometime next week. Maybe we can hit the mall?"
"Sure, Mia." I grin, though in the back of my mind I'm wondering how since I have to work for a living.
She gives me a quick kiss then hugs Christian fiercely, taking us both by surprise. More astoundingly still, she places her hands directly on the lapels of his jacket, and he just gazes down at her, indulgently.
"I like seeing you this happy," she says sweetly and kisses him on the cheek. "Bye. You guys have fun." She skips off toward her waiting friends - among them Lily, who looks even more sour-faced without her mask.
I wonder idly where Sean is.
"We'll say goodnight to my parents before we leave. Come." Christian leads me through a gaggle of guests to Grace and Carrick, who wish us fond and warm farewells.
"Please do come again, Anastasia, it's been lovely having you here," says Grace kindly.
I am a little overwhelmed by both her and Carrick's reaction. Fortunately, Grace's parents have retired for the evening, so at least I am spared their enthusiasm.
Quietly, Christian and I walk hand in hand to the front of the house where countless cars are lined up and waiting to collect guests. I glance up at Fifty. He looks happy and relaxed. It's a real pleasure to see him this way, though I suspect it's unusual after such an extraordinary day.
"Are you warm enough?" he asks.
"Yes, thank you." I clasp my satin wrap.
"I really enjoyed this evening, Anastasia. Thank you."
"Me too, some parts more than others." I grin.
He grins and nods, then his brow creases. "Don't bite your lip," he warns in a way that makes my blood sing.
"What did you mean about a big day tomorrow?" I ask to distract myself.
"Dr. Greene is coming to sort you out. Plus, I have a surprise for you."
"Dr. Greene!" I halt.
"Because I hate condoms," he says quietly. His eyes glint in the soft light from the paper lanterns, gauging my reaction.
"It's my body," I mutter, annoyed that he hasn't asked me.
"It's mine, too," he whispers.
I gaze up at him as various guests pass by, ignoring us. He looks so earnest. Yes, my body is his... he knows it better than I do.
I reach up, and he flinches ever so slightly but stays still. Grasping the corner of his bow tie, I pull so it unravels, revealing the top button of his shirt. Gently I undo it.
"You look hot like this," I whisper. Actually he looks hot all the time, but really hot like this.
He smirks at me. "I need to get you home. Come."
At the car, Sawyer hands Christian an envelope. He frowns at it and glances at me as Taylor ushers me into the car. Taylor looks relieved for some reason. Christian climbs in and hands me the envelope, unopened, as Taylor and Sawyer take their seats in the front.
"It's addressed to you. One of the staff gave it to Sawyer. No doubt from yet another ensnared heart." Christian's mouth twists. It's obvious this is an unpleasant concept to him.
I stare at the note. Who is this from? Ripping it open, I read it quickly in the dim light.
Holy shit, it's from her! Why won't she leave me alone?
Fuck, she's signed it Mrs. Robinson! He told her. The bastard.
"You told her?"
"Told who, what?"
"That I call her Mrs. Robinson," I snap.
"It's from Elena?" Christian is shocked. "This is ridiculous," he grumbles, running a hand through his hair, and I can tell he's irritated. "I'll deal with her tomorrow. Or Monday," he mutters bitterly.
And though I'm ashamed to admit it, a very small part of me is pleased. My subconscious nods sagely. Elena is pissing him off, and this can only be good - surely. I decide to say nothing for now but stash her note in my bag, and in a gesture guaranteed to lighten his mood, I hand him back the balls.
"Until next time," I murmur.
He glances at me, and it's hard to see his face in the dark, but I think he's smirking. He reaches for my hand and squeezes it.
I gaze out of the window into the darkness, reflecting on this long day. I've learned so much about him, gleaned so many missing details - the salons, the road map, his childhood - but there's still so much more to discover. And what about Mrs. R? Yes, she cares for him, and deeply, it would appear. I can see that, and he cares for her - but not in the same way. I don't know what to think anymore. All this information is making my head hurt.
Christian wakes me just as we pull up outside Escala. "Do I need to carry you in?" he asks gently.
I shake my head sleepily. No way.
As we stand in the elevator, I lean against him, putting my head against his shoulder.
Sawyer stands in front of us, shifting uncomfortably.
"It's been a long day, eh, Anastasia?"
"You're not very talkative."
I nod and he grins.
"Come. I'll put you to bed." He takes my hand as we exit the elevator, but we stop in the foyer when Sawyer holds up his hand. In that split second, I am instantly wide awake.
Sawyer talks into his sleeve. I had no idea that he was wearing a radio.
"Will do, T," he says and turns to face us. "Mr. Grey, the tires on Ms. Steele's Audi have been slashed and paint thrown all over it."
Holy shit. My car! Who would do that? And I know the answer as soon as the question materializes in my mind. Leila. I glance up at Christian, and he blanches.
"Taylor is concerned that the perp may have entered the apartment and may still be there. He wants to make sure."
"I see," Christian whispers. "What's Taylor's plan?"
"He's coming up in the service elevator with Ryan and Reynolds. They'll do a sweep then give us the all clear. I'm to wait with you, sir."
"Thank you, Sawyer." Christian tightens his arm around me. "This day just gets better and better," he sighs bitterly, nuzzling my hair. "Listen, I can't stand here and wait. Sawyer, take care of Miss Steele. Don't let her in until you have the all clear. I am sure Taylor is overreacting. She can't get into the apartment."
What? "No, Christian - you have to stay with me," I plead.
Christian releases me. "Do as you're told, Anastasia. Wait here."
"Sawyer?" Christian says.
Sawyer opens the foyer door to let Christian enter the apartment then shuts the door behind him and stands in front of it, staring impassively down at me.
Holy shit. Christian! All manner of horrific outcomes run through my mind, but all I can do is stand and wait.