Troll: My Life in Bomb Disposal

I’m greatly honoured to have published the memoirs of Justin ‘Troll’ Bell QGM.

He was a soldier in the British Army for 23 years, an expert in bomb disposal, for which he won the Queen’s Gallantry Medal. He was a husband and a father, and he was my friend.

We became friends when I started writing the play Later, After, and it was Justin’s expertise that made it so incredibly moving. You can see the theatrical trailer on the play’s page on this website.

Over the years, he sent me poems and writing he’d done about his time in the Army and how it affected him. When he became ill at the end of 2018, the race was on to collect all his work together and publish it. None of his friends believed that cancer would kill him, when two decades of terrorists couldn’t.

Just before Justin died in 2019, I was able to show him a paperback copy of his memoirs, but it was a rushed job and not as polished as I knew he would want it to be. It was two years before his widow and I felt able to face finishing the job.

I’m so glad we did.

Justin ‘Troll’ Bell served in the British Army for 23 years, most of those as an EOD Operator – a bomb disposal expert.

This is his story of tours served in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan – the adventures, the camaraderie, the hard truths and painful costs of a dangerous and stressful job.

But also the jokes, the pranks, and the stark humanity of a man who made ‘The Lonely Walk’ many, many times.

* * *
Justin J Bell joined the British Army in the late 1980s and quickly qualified as an Ammunition Technician within the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He completed over 20 years’ service as an Army Counter Terrorism Bomb Disposal Operator seeing service in three major conflicts.

He commanded EOD operations on High-Threat tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan; supporting over a decade of front line UK counter-terrorism activity including responding to the 2005 London bombings. He constituted part of the National Contingency Capability for dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

Justin supported discrete Foreign and Commonwealth Office tasks to various countries as part of a wider defence diplomacy programme, and finished his service as a Senior Explosive Ordnance Disposal Soldier responsible for the supervision and provision of multiple EOD teams in support of UK National Contingency Operations. During his service he received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his EOD activities, and was subsequently rewarded a second time on the Queen’s New Year Honours list on his retirement.

Identifying that the psychological well-being of EOD Operators was being largely ignored, he was instrumental in the implementation within EOD Units of the Trauma Risk Management programme originally instigated by the Royal Marines. He retired in 2009 to spend more time with his wife and children and pursue a career lecturing.

Troll: My Life in Bomb Disposal
Published: 1st December 2021
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Yveta’s Rhythm


As I lie in Luka’s arms, safe and warm, I think, we are alike, you and I. We are damaged. We are broken. Repaired, but uneven, and we are alike. And I wonder, can you love me? Is it possible? When I do not love myself?My mother’s people say, “With patience, it is possible to dig a well with a teaspoon.” I hope that is true.

Because I am in love with this man. His body heats the cool sheets of my bed. But his ravaged heart belongs to another.

I am his Snow Queen and he is my Winter Prince. We are frozen, two shards of ice: beautiful and brittle, but cold to the touch. So cold, our breath freezes; so cold, we burn.

My mother was from Ukraine—it is second-largest country in Europe and poorest. She traveled from Kiev to Moscow to meet a rich Russian husband. Instead, she met many men and one of them put a baby in her belly. I was born in frozen wastelands of Siberia; as a child, all I knew was cold and ice and hard work.

I had my mother’s beauty, a dancer’s body, and my own fear of poverty. They said I was too tall to be a dancer, but what was choice? Alternative was working as escort for rich Western men who came to my remote, oil-rich town—or I could dig potatoes in Ukraine, like my mother and grandmother, bent and broken by thirty.

So I work and work and work, dreaming of a better life, a kinder world. I dream of glittering, neon gods of dance; halos of electric lights; theaters filled with applause and approval, velvet seats and gilt chandeliers. I dream, I dream. And a hungry wolf is stronger than a satisfied dog.

When I was 14, I won a scholarship to important dance studio in St. Petersburg. Yes, 3523 miles, and yet I was in same country, speaking same language, with my provincial accent, cheap clothes and new dance shoes.

As a tall and awkward teenager, I met my best friend Galina who came from a small town near Novosibirisk. We fought and clawed our way to top of class and then across whole world. We thought we had found happiness in high heels and a towering headdress—real Las Vegas showgirls.

Foolish, foolish children who believed in happy endings.

We did not find liberty in land of free—we found only Bratva, pain and suffering: Russian crime lords who owned our bodies, our blood, and our souls. We danced to stay alive, and I did. I danced and I lived.

Was I lucky to survive? Sometimes, I do not think so. Sometimes, I wish that my bones lie beside Galina’s in a shallow, desert grave. And on too many nights when I remember what Bratva did to me, I think I will join her soon.

But then Luka shakes me from my nightmares, and soothes me with words and caresses.

“Yveta,” he says, “you are strong.”

I touch the long scar from my lip to my cheekbone, Bratva gift. I’m tired of being strong. So very tired.

I like to watch Luka as he sleeps, as if then I can hear his unquiet thoughts. He is a man between two worlds. He is father to Beth, his daughter who lives in England, but it is not Beth’s mother that he loves, but her uncle. Oh, yes. That was big shock too all—a man who loves brother but makes baby with sister. A remarkable family, I say to myself in dark moments, and it always sounds like sneering. I do not mean it like that—I am jealous.

Love is simplest of emotions, but has complex consequences.

Luka is dancer, like me. His hair pale gold, like me. His eyes the blue of a winter sky, like me. We are both tall and we share these high cheekbones of our Eastern European forefathers. We are often mistaken for brother and sister, but my feelings for him have always been more.

Love me, Luka! My battered heart cries, willing him to hear me.

I don’t sleep much—dark scares me. Always, I need light in hallway. Coming soon are long nights of another Chicago winter. In parks, leaves blaze with color, but they are dying and will soon shrivel. Sometimes, I think I am like leaf—dying a little more each day. Sometimes, I am like tree—my roots going far into ground as I cling to life.

I am victim, I am survivor—two sides of same coin.

I stare from window into glittering darkness. I see pale reflection of a woman afraid to live. But then there is second face at window.

“Yveta, did you have another nightmare?”

Gently, his arms wrap around me, and his warm chest presses against my back.

“You’re shivering.”

Yes, Luka. I’ve been cold for such a long time. Such a long, long time.

“Tantsui so mnoy,” he says softly, stumbling over the Russian I have taught him. Dance with me. “Pojaluista.” Please.

He takes my hand and leads me into living room. Sofa is pushed out of way, and music flows around us. My eyes close as rhythm pulses like beating heart. My scarred mouth lifts in half-smile. I know this music. Is good music. Is music of Spain, a place of heat and sun and sloe-eyed women with midnight hair; is music of passion. Flamenco is passion; Paso Doble is fight for domination—marching like matador at start of bullfight, I am cape to taunt and entice bull; and then is Rumba, dance of lovers, sorrow and sadness and sometimes hope. Rumba is hello; Rumba is goodbye.

This music is Andaluzaby Granados and it rises around me, around us, as Luka leads me into dance. Beautiful, evocative, shifting, rising and falling, joyful and sorrowful as guitar sings song of love and loss, hope and peace, at last.

My hands flutter, soft like bird wings; my fingers curl, hard like castanets; my back arches and my neck extends, my face lifting to a heaven I do not believe in—except here, in dance. Luka paces towards me, arms at his sides, his face proud, full of intent as his eyes lure me toward him. We swoop, we dip, we spin, we fly.

The dance crescendos and Luka stamps feet like Flamenco dancer, the apel; his carriage proud. My eyes glint with passion as I curve toward him and away, towards and away, on and on. My arms express more than my lips; my body speaks and his replies.

And then we are dancing Rumba, a tale of passion. Our movements slow, teasing, tempting, flirting, forward and retreat, teasing, longing, connecting, moving away, passion and need and desire. And love.

I love you, Luka.

And his body replies, Come closer. Feel my heat, burn for me, Yveta.

And this heat, this passion scares me, but I am moth to flame. Fire starts with sparks. Can I light a fire within my winter prince?

His pale skin and frosted hair gleam in moonlight, muscles moving in his arms and chest and thighs. A dancer’s body is beautiful—but Luka’s beauty glows more fiercely from inside.

But then music ends, final note hovering in air like last leaf clinging to tree before winter.

“Will you sleep now?” he asks, darkness stealing blue from his eyes.

I nod, but this is lie.

“My Snow Queen,” he says with a smile. “You’re beautiful, Yveta. What’s the Russian word?”

“Urodlivy. I am urodlivy.” Ugly.

He frowns. “Hmm? Well, I will say it in my language. Ti si lepa. Beautiful Yveta.”

He holds out his hand again.

“Are we going to bed?”

He is half in darkness, half in light. He smiles and shakes his head slowly.

“My Snow Princess is sad, so we will dance through the night. This song is for you.”

As he takes me into his arms, I recognize this song, and he sings to me, his voice soft and husky.

“In the pain there is healing, in your name I find meaning.”

We dance. We dance shoulder to shoulder, the open hip twist, the Alemana, the fan. We dance and we dance and we dance.

I was broken by Bratva, broken inside and out. But here, in this moment, I feel hope.

I am a dancer. I dance through darkness.

And this is my rhythm.


If you found this a little darker than my usual story, it’s true. I first wrote Slave to the Rhythm several years ago after reading about human trafficking.

The second book in the Rhythm Series followed the story of Luka through love and loss and fatherhood.

Yveta featured in both these books, a central but shadowy character. Here is more of her story. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you found it hopeful.



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The Rumspringa of Edna Peabody


England, 1969

Heat cracked the blue sky and the air shimmered. London slowly turned brown under an unusually hot sun, and across the East End, daring young women wore bikinis in their postage-stamp back gardens.

Edna felt sweat prickle her armpits and under her uncomfortable brassiere as she washed the saucepans she’d used preparing a full Sunday roast with all the trimmings. It had taken her the whole morning, slaving in the unbearably stuffy kitchen, but she knew that the food would be eaten in minutes, and Edna would be left to clear up the battlefield of a family meal. She sighed loudly, but there was no one to hear her.

“Mum, my football kit needs washing,” her son Roger called from the settee.

“You might have told me before now,” she complained tiredly.

“Thought you’d have remembered it!” he yelled back.

Edna found the disgusting heap stuffed inside his kit bag, clumps of mud falling from his boots all over the newly mopped kitchen floor, and her heart sank.

More cleaning, more work, no thanks, no care.

Edna Peabody knew that she was a plain woman with little to say. That is, her husband and children never listened to her.

“Is this my life?” she asked herself, up to her elbows in suds. “Is this it? When did I stop dreaming? When did I become a doormat?”

Just last month, men had walked on the moon, a giant leap for mankind, and the Rolling Stones had played to half a million people in Hyde Park, but womankind was still chained to the kitchen sink, or so it seemed to Edna.

Her daughter, Jean, would help with the lunch by clearing the table and piling everything haphazardly by the washing up bowl. Roger was watching the telly with her husband. Although Arthur was probably dozing over his newspaper by now.

“When did I become so boring?” she wondered.

If it hadn’t been for her magazines, she would hardly have a life at all, but Edna lived vicariously through the women’s magazines that she read at the hairdressers (and slipped into her shopping basket when no one was looking).

The world was changing, but Edna hadn’t changed with it. Jean wore miniskirts and thick black eyeliner that she thought made her look like Twiggy or Jean Shrimpton, but instead made her rather small eyes seem even smaller. Roger grew his hair past his collar and talked about bands she’d never heard of and listened to music that Edna didn’t understand and couldn’t decipher the lyrics. He thought working for a living was optional and that he’d become a guitarist in a band instead, even though he was tone deaf and couldn’t even shake a tambourine in time. The only time he got out of bed early was to play football in the local pub team on a Sunday morning at the Hackney Marshes football fields.

Arthur grumbled about Roger getting a job, but Roger said he was joining the revolution, then switched the radio on to listen to the pirate station Radio Caroline.

The doorbell rang, and since no one else seemed inclined to answer it, Edna plodded down the dark hallway, blinking as she opened the front door to a wall of sunshine.

“Alright, Mrs. P?” said Roger’s friend Brian, dropping a whiskery kiss on her cheek and pushing past her.

“Hello, dear,” said Edna, her blush lost in the heat of her washing-up-and-laundry damp skin.

Brain flopped down onto the settee and helped himself to The Sunday Mirror.

“Your mum’s nice,” he said to Roger. “Makes a lovely bit of sponge cake and a nice roast. I’m invited, innit? I’ve always had a soft spot for your mum. You’re a lucky sod.”

Edna smiled to herself. Brian was such a nice boy. What a pity Roger couldn’t be more like him.

“Yeah, she’s alright,” said Roger with supreme indifference. “Until she goes on about something she’s read in one of her magazines, then we all fall asleep from boredom. Come on, let’s get to the footie.”

Edna’s cheeks grew hot and tears pricked her eyes. Was this what her only son really thought of her?

“He’s right!” she cried to herself. “I am boring. They’ve made me boring. The only nice thing anyone has said to me in ages is that I make a nice sponge cake.”

The thought wouldn’t go away. It followed her when she made her husband’s breakfast the next day, washed up the dishes and scraped hardened egg yolk off the plates. It followed her as she made the beds, thrust a toilet brush into the family’s single lavatory bowl, and as she used a carpet sweeper up and down the stairs.

The heat was unrelenting and sweat dripped into her eyes. Edna washed the family’s smalls by hand and pegged them out on the washing line. They’d be dry in minutes and then she had to do the ironing. In this heat!

Her nylon tights stuck to her legs as she pulled them on, because respectable women didn’t do the shopping in bare legs, and she trudged up East Ham’s high street, stopping at the greengrocer, the baker, the fishmonger, and the new Co-op supermarket that had recently opened.

She treated herself to a copy of Woman & Home, attracted by the offer of ‘pretty summer sweaters in knitting and crochet’, even though it cost two shillings, and even though no one in their right mind would wear a knitted dress in this heat.

Then she wheeled her heavy shopping trolley home and made herself a nice cup of tea and put her feet up to read her magazine. It was her one treat.

Two hours later, Arthur frowned at the bags of shopping piled up on the kitchen table.

“Why haven’t you put the shopping away?” he asked. “I’ve been at work all day and I come home to this mess. What have you been doing all day?”

Edna stared at him despairingly as he shook his head and turned the telly on.

“I’ll wait for my tea in here,” he said.

Edna hurried to put the potatoes on and quickly laid the table. When the smell of frying fish filled the house, Roger and Jean appeared, slouching at the kitchen table table and continuing a conversation they’d started earlier.

“It’s the summer of love,” said Jean. “Marriage is out, free love is in.”

Edna stared at her, utterly appalled.

“It’s different for people your age,” she said to Edna, “the oldies. But no one wants to be stuck in a boring old marriage anymore. I certainly don’t. I’m a senior stylist, not just a hairdresser, and I’m saving up so I’ll have my own salon one day.” She yawned. “Are you making tea, Mum? I’ll have a cuppa while you’re at it.”

Edna turned to the kettle automatically. The habit of caring for her family was so deeply ingrained that she’d already picked up the kettle and filled it before she had a radical thought: Jean can make her own bloomin’ tea.

Edna hadn’t always been this way. As a little girl, Edna Evergreen had been adored by her parents. Her mum had tied yellow ribbons in her hair and took her to the library every Tuesday to choose a new book. Her dad had carried her on his shoulders and bought her an ice cream on Sundays.

But then her mum had died, quietly, without a fuss, and Edna had heard her dad crying at night. She was eight years old when she decided that if she looked after him, maybe he’d stop crying and take her for ice cream again. So she took on the role of running the house, doing the cleaning, and writing shopping lists for her dad.

“You’re a good girl, Edna,” he said. “Your mum would be very proud of you.”

But they never went for ice cream again.

After tea, Edna eyed the mountain of washing up and felt like crying, but she did it anyway, because that’s wives and mothers did.

And when she had five minutes to herself, she picked up her magazine again. And she read and read and read. Every single page, even the adverts. One of the articles she read five times, and she thought about it all the next day.

It was a funny word ‘rumspringa’. Edna had never heard about it until she’d read it in Woman & Home: “a rite of passage when adolescents of the Amish community in Pennsylvania, America, are allowed to experience the wider world”.

And the word itself meant to run around.

“That’s what I want to do,” Edna muttered to herself.

It was Arthur who noticed first. For the second evening running, his tea wasn’t on the table when he got home from work and Edna was nowhere to be seen. The beds hadn’t been made, the roll of toilet paper hadn’t been replaced, and no one had put the lid back on the toothpaste in the bathroom. The loaf of bread in the kitchen hadn’t been put away and had gone stale; the rubbish hadn’t been taken out so the bin men had missed it; and someone had eaten the last of the cheese.

When she finally came home, Arthur raised his voice. “What have you been doing all day?”

Edna sat down in front of the telly and kicked off her shoes. She didn’t tell him that she’d had a coffee in the new coffee shop where all the young people went. She didn’t tell him that she’d stared in the window of the record store until the owner had invited her inside and played the latest Jimi Hendrix record for her, explaining why it was pure genius. And she didn’t tell him that she’d eaten a ploughman’s lunch in a pub by herself, and spent the afternoon reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in the library, or that she’d bought herself a ticket to see Hair at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, and that she’d been only a little shocked by the profanity and nudity.

Instead, she looked at her husband, so familiar and yet as if she’d never seen him before.

“What have I been doing all day?” she repeated, looking at the empty plates and mugs that their children had left scattered around the lounge, the over-flowing ashtrays and the crumbs on the carpet that no one had swept up. “What have I been doing all day? Absolutely nothing. And it’s very tiring. I think I’ll go and have a lie down.”

Roger laughed. “Good old Mum! I didn’t think she had it in her.”

Jean laughed, too. “The worm has turned!”

Arthur didn’t laugh, but watched his wife climb the stairs to their bedroom, her footsteps as slow and predictable as usual. But he knew that something was very wrong. And he was hungry.

“Jeanie, put the kettle on will you, luv?”

“Sorry, Dad. I’m off out,” she called from the hallway. “Ask Roger.”

Roger’s smile dropped. “Bloody hell. Have I got to make the tea now?”

“Don’t swear,” said Arthur. “I suppose we’d better have beans on toast for tea. I think your mum’s a bit under the weather.”

Roger burnt the toast and the beans stuck to the bottom of the saucepan because he forgot to stir them. The two men prodded at their supper and grumbled.

Arthur was sure that things would be back to normal in the morning. But they weren’t.

He was running late because Edna hasn’t woken him with a cup of tea in the morning as usual, and then he had to make his own breakfast. She’d just rolled over and said she was having a lie in.

“I wish I could have a bloody lie in,” he muttered to himself as he frowned at the un-ironed shirt he pulled from a pile of washing.

And Roger wasn’t laughing the next day when he went to his football game and found that his soccer boots hadn’t been cleaned or his shirt and shorts washed. What’s worse, they were mouldy and stank.

“Mum’s gone stark staring mad,” he said to Arthur. “You’ve got to do something.”

“Serves you right,” said Jean. “Wash your own football kit.”

But Arthur was gazing disbelievingly at the note in his hand, written in Edna’s careful handwriting.

“She’s gone to the Isle of Wight,” he said. “Your mum. She says she’ll be back in a few days.”

Jean blinked. “She’s done what? Why’s she gone there?”

The train was packed, overflowing with young people—the men distinguishable from the women only by their beards. Their clothes were every colour of the rainbow and they smiled curiously at Edna in sensible shoes and beige coat.

She felt very out of place, wondering if she’d made a terrible mistake, but determined to see it through to the bitter end, no matter how ridiculous.

A young man sitting opposite stared at her owlishly, his face loose and fleshy like unrisen dough.

“Peace, man,” he said, passing her a thickly rolled cigarette which emitted a strong, sweet smell that reminded Edna of her father’s pipe tobacco.

His girlfriend grinned. “It’s good shit, grandma. It’ll bake your melon.”

Edna blinked at the coarse language but understood that she was holding a marijuana cigarette in her hand. An illegal cigarette.

She felt hot and cold all at the same time.

The young woman leaned forward, her gaze intense. “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception. You’ll fly so high, you’ll see the whole world.”

Edna stared at the fat roll-up, then took a tentative puff, coughing slightly. Her eyes widened as she felt a warm sensation of peace ripple through her, starting in her lungs.

She coughed again and took another puff.

It was rather nice, like sinking into a warm bath made of rose petals. She giggled at the thought of Arthur finding her in a bath of rose petals, and all the young people laughed with her.

Edna didn’t remember buying her ticket for the ferry, but as the sea breeze whipped her permed hair into a frizz, she didn’t care. All around her people were playing guitars and singing, enjoying life. Edna sat next to a woman with a baby and said that she was very much looking forward to seeing Joe Cocker play at the festival.

“He’s a god,” the woman nodded earnestly, as she unplugged her baby from a large, purple nipple. “But Bob Dylan, oh man, he’s a prophet—a prophet in poetry. He said it, man, the times-they-are-a-changin’. He knows, you know? When my kid grows up, there won’t be men or women, they’ll just be people, right? Our sons and daughters are beyond our command, you know?”

Edna sighed. “I don’t command anybody. I never have. My children ignore me.”

“I hear you,” said the woman, nodding slowly.

“Do you, luv?” Edna asked. “Do you really?”

“Yeah, man. Totally. Call me Moonflower.”

Edna beamed. It was so wonderful to talk to someone who listened to her. It was so wonderful to be heard.

“You’re all in beige,” said Moonflower. “But your aura is orange.”

“Is it?” said Edna, who’d read about auras and had always wanted one.

“Wow,” said Moonflower, squinting at Edna as if she were staring at the sun. “It’s getting brighter every second. Here…” and she pulled an enormous orange kaftan out of her rucksack and handed it to Edna. “Be orange,” she said, her voice very serious.

Edna pulled the kaftan over her head, then wriggled out of her skirt and blouse, even unhooking the iron-girdled brassiere. Feeling reckless and free as her bosoms descended to her navel, she tossed her clothes including her beige coat into the sea and watched them bobbing on the silky waves before they slowly sank.

“Rock on!” said Moonflower, impressed.

As Edna walked down the gangplank from the ferry onto the Isle of Wight, she felt like skipping; she felt like a girl again.

Along with 150,000 other people, she made her slow way toward the festival site, already hearing music pounding out. She ate chips from old newspaper, with purple candyfloss for pudding, and everyone was so kind. No one thought she was too old; no one asked her to make them a cup of tea or to darn their socks.

Tents of every colour dotted the fields around the music stage and Edna felt the holiday spirit settle into her bones, the blazing sun warming her from the inside out.

A woman with glazed eyes painted stars on Edna’s tired skin, and another stained her hands in intricate patterns with henna.

She fell in love with Joe Cocker and danced to the Moody Blues, waving her hands in the air, and when Bob Dylan came on, she cried out and fell in love all over again.

A tall, thin man with flowing blond hair and upside-down moustache smiled at her and held her hand as they swayed to the prophet’s music, the sun setting in a blaze of colours behind him.

“What’s your name, blue eyes?” the man asked with a lazy, hazy smile.

“Edna Pea— Edna Evergreen,” she said shyly, using her long-neglected maiden name.

“Ah, ever-green. It suits you. Ever green, ever young,” and he handed her another marijuana cigarette.

When he kissed her on the mouth, his moustached tickled her chin and she giggled. He smiled dreamily and they turned to listen to the prophet’s wonderful music.

Three days later, Jean glanced out of the window at the hippy walking down the street wearing a bright orange kaftan with flowers and stars painted on her cheeks. Then she looked again.

“Bloody hell,” she said faintly, then started to smile. “Mum’s back!” she shouted as she watched her mother climb the steps to the front door. “Cor dear! They won’t believe it when they see her!”

Roger stared open-mouthed, finally recognising his old mum under the orange kaftan and smeared face paint.

“Gone barmy, ain’t she?” he said to his sister, and circled his finger around his temple.

Jean shook her head and started to speak, but then her dad appeared.

“Edna!” he gasped in shock. “Where have you been? Why are you dressed like you’ve joined the circus? I haven’t eaten properly for days. I’ve been worried sick!”

Edna stared at him coolly. “Arthur, I’d like to talk to you in private, please.”

He started to argue but she simply turned and walked up the stairs, so he had no choice but to follow her.

“What’s all this about?” he demanded, standing uncertainly at the foot of the bed.

Edna met his gaze calmly. “Do you love me?” she asked.

“What? What are you on about?”

“It’s a simple question, Arthur. Do you love me?”

“I’m not staying to listen to this nonsense,” he said grumpily, and turned to head for the stairs.

“Because I love you,” Edna called after him.

His hand hovered over the doorknob, and he glanced over his shoulder.

“I don’t always like you,” she continued, “but I do love you.”

His lip quivered. “You don’t like me?”

“When you’re bossing me around and treating me like an unpaid servant, no, I don’t. But it’s not your fault ‘cause I’ve let you do it. I lost sight of Edna Evergreen,” she said. “I was so in love with you when we met; I couldn’t believe that a boy like you could love a plain girl like me, but you always treated me right. Until you didn’t. I know how hard you work at the office and I know that Mr. Arnold is a miserable old sod and difficult to work for. But it’s not fair that you take it out on me, is it?”

Arthur shook his head wordlessly.

“You didn’t mean to be cruel to me, but you were. I’ve been unappreciated for a long time, Arthur, and that’s going to change. And I’m going to appreciate you more, as well. But there are going to be changes: big changes.”

“Like what?” he asked uneasily.

“Every morning when I bring you your tea, I’m going to wake you up with a kiss,” she said.

Arthur’s jaw fell open.

“And you’re going to give me a kiss and say, ‘Thank you, my darling evergreen Edna’.”

“You what?”

“I mean it, Arthur. We’ve got to stop taking each other for granted.”

“I don’t!” he objected.

“Oh, yes you do! I bring you your cup of tea in the mornings and you just grunt at me or say that I’m making a noise; I make breakfast and I don’t get so much as a thank you before you disappear behind your newspaper. And I know you work hard all day, but so do I! I do the washing up and make the beds; I do the laundry and the ironing; I do the shopping, cooking and cleaning; I mend your shirts, darn your socks and scrub your unmentionables, and never any thanks. You fall asleep in front of the telly and haven’t said a civil word to me all day. Sometimes I think you don’t even see me!”

“Of course I see you. Don’t be daft.”

“Oh, Arthur, do you even know what colour my eyes are?” she asked in exasperation, squeezing her eyes shut.

There was a long, drawn out silence.

“They’re the most beautiful shade of blue,” he said, swallowing hard. “They’re as blue as a summer sky and as gentle as forget-me-nots.”

Her eyes flew open as she stared at him in shock.

“I married the sweetest, loveliest girl I’ve ever met,” he said hoarsely. “And I’ve thanked my lucky stars every day since.”

“You never said!” she gasped.

“I didn’t think I had to,” he replied, his voice full of confusion. “You knew. Didn’t you?”

Edna shook her head slowly and Arthur looked stricken.

“You mean the world to me,” he said solemnly. “You’re bloody everything.”

They talked all night, like they had when they were first married, and although they were both knackered by morning, they smiled at each other over the breakfast table.

“Jeanie, go and tell Roger that if he’s not down for breakfast in one minute, it’ll go in the bin.”

Jean blinked her enormous false eyelashes and gave a sly grin. “He was on the sauce last night with his mates.”

“I don’t care,” said Edna stoutly. “I’m not running a bloomin’ café.”

Jean smiled at her then ran up the stairs, pounding so loudly on Roger’s door that the walls shook.

“Blimey,” said Arthur, looking pleased. “I should have done that years ago.”

Rubbing his eyes and looking hungover, Roger stumbled down the stairs and opened his mouth to complain but Arthur stopped him.

“Your mum has something to say,” he said, crossing his arms and nodding at Edna.

She took a deep breath and launched into her speech about how unappreciated she felt and how things were going to change.

“And I won’t be taken for granted anymore,” said Edna firmly. “You kids are old enough to wash your own clothes and make your own beds.”

“You gone all women’s lib?” Roger asked, scratching his head.

“No, I’m just not cleaning up your mess anymore. And here’s another thing—you’re going to stop being a lazy sod and living off your father. Jean goes out to work, and if you want to eat, you’ll do the same. I don’t care if you want to be a rock star or a road sweeper—you’ll pull your weight.” She ignored her son’s shock and turned to her daughter. “Your father and I have some savings put by so we’re going to open a hairdressing salon. I’ll run it and you can be head stylist and assistant manager.” She paused. “If that’s what you want, Jeanie. You and me working together, doing something with our lives.”

Jean’s smile was wide and happy. “Sounds brilliant, Mum.”

Later that evening, while they were watching Coronation Street, Arthur whispered to Edna, “You’re not going to wear that ‘orrible orange kaftan again, are you?”

Edna started laughing. She laughed until she coughed and wheezed, her eyes watering and her nose running.

“What’s so funny?” asked Arthur, but then he started to smile, too.

THE END


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Red! Red! Red!

Today was different. And I’m still processing what I think about that. Who am I kidding? My mind is too fucked up beyond all recognition to think clearly about anything.

It started three weeks ago.

Some days I felt like my head was about to explode with all the fury, all the crap that passes for thoughts. You know those anti-smoking posters they show you in school, diseased lungs and all that? That’s what I imagine my mind looks like: twisted and black and disgusting; the kind of mind no-one wants, and no good person should have to be near – certainly not my family.

I went through the motions of living, if you can call it that: I went to school, I ran track, I rowed – mostly single sculls because no fucker was dumb enough to want to pair up with me anymore. I went to kick-boxing classes but the teacher was too worried that I’d beat the shit out of one of the other students to let me spar with anyone but himself. The only micron of relief I have from the foulness eating at me, is music. Sometimes, only sometimes, I can lose myself in the music.

Mom and dad were worried about me but they couldn’t save me from drowning. I didn’t think anyone could.

I started swiping dad’s Scotch a while back but there’s only so much water you can add to a bottle before someone notices: in this case Elliot. I’m grateful that he covered for me but he made it pretty clear he wouldn’t do it again. I just wanted to numb these intense feelings; I couldn’t take the way my brain seemed to bleed with anxiety every fucking second of every fucking day. My skin felt too thin and I just wanted to stop feeling all the time. I just wanted it to stop.

But every time some loser fucker made a comment to provoke me or even looked at me the wrong way, I lashed out. I got expelled from two schools for fighting. Mom and dad were going crazy trying to figure me out. Good fucking luck with that: nine shrinks and counting hadn’t got very far, and the useless fucker I was supposed to be seeing now didn’t have a clue. But the look of disappointment on my mom’s face just killed me. And as for dad, the only way I can describe it is that he looked scared: like he’d always expected this would happen… or some screwed up shit like it. So I drank more.

I started stealing liquor from anywhere I could, but it was getting harder. Out of my school uniform, I could just about get away with buying alcohol from one of those late night stores that didn’t really give a fuck about fake ID. But I got caught trying to swipe some Bourbon once and the security heavies beat the crap out of me. Mom just thought I’d gotten into a regular kind of fight: she patched me up and sent me to my room ‘to think about what you’ve done’. As if I ever did anything but think. I wanted to tear my brain out and mash it into a million pieces just to get some peace. One of the older students at school was known to sell uppers and downers: believe me, I was thinking about it. Do you know how low I sank? I was thinking about taking the money that Mia had been saving up. I knew where she kept it and one day I found myself in her room with the bills in my hand. How fucked up is that? I managed to put them back but I kept thinking about that money.

I couldn’t focus on anything: it was like watching one of those music videos where the images go so quickly, you can get dizzy trying to keep up.

I thought about sex constantly. I seemed to have a hard on constantly. If there was a competition for jerking off, I’d have won hands down, if you know what I mean. Elliot had a pretty impressive collection of magazines so I made sure some of them ended up in my room. Not that I needed a magazine.

The girls at my latest school knew me too well to hit on me after the first couple of months. I couldn’t bear anyone getting near enough to touch me, even though all I could think about was pushing them up against a wall and fucking them senseless. They thought I was stuck up or weird or gay, probably. It didn’t make any difference and I didn’t have space in my head to care what they thought. I just knew that sex, real sex, wouldn’t be possible for me. How can you have sex with someone if you can’t let them touch you? Yeah, my therapist was no fucking use answering that question.

So when mom said she’d got me a summer job working for the Lincolns I was happy enough to be out of the house and out of the reaches of her anxious eyes – and to earn some cash.

I knew the Lincolns vaguely from  mom’s endless fundraisers. All us Grey kids were expected to dress up, pass around the canapés and sweet talk all the rich fuckers who came. Elliot was pretty good at that: he could charm the women and be all buddy-buddy with the men. And everyone loved Mia: she was so cute and pretty and used to get away with saying all this outrageous stuff. It was pretty funny really. So that just left me: the ghost at the banquet.

Mom dropped me off at the Lincolns at 8.30am on the first Monday of the summer break. I’d wanted to cycle over but they didn’t even trust me to have access to my bike in case I disappeared on it somewhere. Mom hugged Elena and thanked her for giving me a job and then took off for the hospital.

I dug my hands into my jeans pockets and stared at the ground.

“This way, Christian,” said Elena.

I’d never been alone with Mrs Lincoln before. At least she didn’t try to be super nice to me like some of mom’s friends, or talk to me in that soothing voice reserved for nervous pets, which always annoyed the fuck out of me.

She led me around the side of the house to where they’d had an extension built onto their utility room. There was builders’ rubble all over one side of the back yard. My job was to clear it up, load it into a wheelbarrow and throw it all into a dumpster. Doing that by hand would take about four or five days. After that Elena had vaguely mentioned some work around the yard. I didn’t care: all that interested me was the $10 an hour she’d promised to pay.

The work was back breaking, not that I cared about that, but it was really hot, too. One of those Seattle summers where the breeze from the Sound doesn’t make it as far as Bellevue. I was out in the scorching sun for four hours, heaving bricks and wheeling them to the dumpster. I must have moved a quarter of a ton that morning. The palms of my hands were pretty tough from rowing, but even so, I was starting to get blisters. I wondered if there was a pair of workman’s gloves I could borrow but I didn’t know where Mrs Lincoln was so I couldn’t ask her.

Mom had given me some cold pasta and an apple to eat for lunch. There was no-one around so I’d pulled off my sweaty T-shirt and was cooling down under a tree. I heard a car pull up in the driveway and a few minutes later Mrs Lincoln came out with a glass of lemonade for me.

I was grateful for that because I’d drunk almost all the water I’d brought with me.

“I thought you might like this, Christian,” she said.

“Thanks, Mrs Lincoln. It’s gotten pretty warm.”

“So I see,” she said, looking me up and down, “rather hot, in fact.”

Her gaze made me feel uncomfortable and that made me pissed. Who the fuck did she think she was to stare at me like that?

But she was really attractive, too. She was wearing a thin summer dress that clung to her and she had bare legs that looked like they belonged on a model. I knew she was younger than mom; I guessed she was about thirty or so. It gave me a hard on just looking at her.

“You look pretty hot, too,” I said, arrogantly.

She didn’t smile or look embarrassed. She didn’t even look angry. She took a step towards me, took the glass of lemonade from my hand and put it on the grass.

I had no clue what she was going to do.

She slapped me, hard, rocking my head to one side.

It was so unexpected that I hadn’t had time to defend myself. But then she took another step towards me, grabbing my face with both hands and kissed me roughly.  She forced her tongue into my mouth and pushed me back against the tree.

I was so fucking scared that she’d touch my bare chest, I was paralysed. Every bit of my fifteen-year old cockiness and arrogance was stripped away. I was utterly exposed, raw.

But she didn’t touch me. She just kept kissing me and before I realised what I was doing, my hands crept around her waist, holding her loosely. She increased the pressure on my mouth, crushing my lips with hers, her teeth clamping down, and I was lost in a sea of lust as desire spiked through me. Suddenly she pushed away from me and I was left gasping. Then she slapped me again, turned on her heel and walked away.

I was reeling. I had no idea what had just happened. I was so turned on, but shocked, too, and both my cheeks stung from her blows.

I stood and stared at the house, wondering what to do. My heart was racing and I felt like I’d just gone ten rounds with my kick-boxing instructor.

But the house was quiet and there was no sign of Mrs Lincoln. I stood there, a fool in the summer sun. Finally, I picked up the lemonade and drank it down in one go, wiping my mouth with my arm. I went back to work.

I had no frame of reference for what had happened; no way to interpret or explain. No way to understand.

At 4pm, I heard my mom’s car in the drive. I pulled on my T-shirt and wandered around to the front of the house.

Elena was standing in the drive, talking to my mom through the car window. She completely ignored me.

I got into the car and slumped back in the seat.

“Christian!” said mom. “Where are you manners? Thank Mrs Lincoln for having you.”

“Thank you,” I mumbled.

Elena gave a brittle smile. “It was a pleasure. Same time tomorrow, Christian.”

Her words were calm but the unspoken promise went straight to my dick: I really wanted to see her again in the morning.

I was virtually silent on the drive home, answering all mom’s questions with monosyllabic answers. Eventually she gave up, sighing deeply, and simply told me to go take a shower.

Mia was waiting for me, sitting on my bed and bouncing impatiently.

“What do you want?” I said in a surly tone.

“Don’t be mean, Christian. I’ve been waiting ages for you. You promised we’d watch that movie together.”

That was true: I’d said we’d watch ‘Titanic’ together because she got scared at the bit where it started sinking. But I really didn’t feel like being with my little sister right now. I needed to be alone.

“Not now, Mia.”

“But you promised, Christian!” she whined.

“Maybe tomorrow, ok?”

“But you promised!”

I ignored her and pulled out some clean clothes then headed for the shower. Behind me I could hear her strident, pleading tones. I blocked them out as best I could.

The shower soothed my muscles which were aching pleasantly and the sunburn on my neck and shoulders. But it couldn’t soothe the vortex of half-formed thoughts that whirled ceaselessly in my head.

Why did she kiss me? Does it mean there will be more? And why did she hit me – twice? Does she like me? Does she hate me? She can’t know what I am or she’d never have come near me? I don’t understand. But I really, really want it to happen again. Just thinking about her rough touch had my body pulsing with desire. My cock was getting hard again so I took advantage of the privacy of the shower and pumped hard until I came, feeling some tiny bit of relief. It didn’t last. It never did.

The evening meal was a nightmare. Dad started going on about how difficult it was going to be to get me into another new school in the fall if my present one decided to expel me after another ‘incident’ at the end of the semester, and that if this kept up I’d have to be educated at home and take my High School Proficiency Exam by myself, and what did I think about that?

Frankly, I didn’t give a fuck but even I knew not to say that to my dad, so I just sat there in silence – a gesture he chose to construe as dumb insolence.

I got sent to my room again. For fucks sake – at this rate I was never going to get to finish a meal. And I was hungry after my day of laboring.

I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. Dad had already confiscated my CD player, I can’t remember what for – there were so many ‘incidents’ to choose from, so I didn’t even have the comfort of music; and I was too hyped up to read. I stared at the ceiling with no relief from my thoughts – thoughts chiefly about her.

I wasn’t surprised to hear a soft knock some time later.

I couldn’t be bothered to reply. After a moment’s hesitation, mom walked into the room. She sat on the end of the bed and sighed.

Great. Just what I needed: another fucking guilt trip.

“Christian, sweetheart, you really shouldn’t wind up your father like that. He only has your best interests at heart.”

That stung. “I didn’t say anything!”

“Exactly. He was trying to have a conversation with you.”

“That wasn’t a conversation: it was another fucking lecture.”

“Christian! You will not speak about your father like that!”

I didn’t start this!

“I’ve made an appointment with Dr Fostile for Wednesday. Maybe you’ll talk to him.”

I seriously doubt that: the guy is a dick.

Eventually she gives up but she’s left me a plate of bread and cheese. A baguette – my favorite bread. At least I’m not hungry anymore. Just fucked in the head.

 

The night passes slowly. Even though the house is quiet, I can’t sleep. Lying in bed feels like torture, so I get up and wander downstairs. I listen carefully before going into dad’s study and heading for the liquor cabinet. For the first time, it’s locked and I’ve no idea where he’s put the key. I guess he’s gotten wise to my game. Fuck! It’s the only thing that helps me to sleep.

I think again about what happened with Mrs Lincoln. I don’t understand what that was all about. It’s almost as if I dreamed it but I know I didn’t: my lips still burn from her touch. And I really want her to kiss me again tomorrow.

As dawn arrives I head back upstairs to bed. My eyes feel tired and scratchy but my body is alert. I sleep maybe twenty minutes before I hear Elliot thundering around down the hall. I pull on my jeans and a clean T-shirt and head to the kitchen for breakfast.

Mia is chattering away to Elliot and mom is making pancakes. Dad is half listening and half reading the paper. Whatever: I’d rather be ignored than yelled at again.

It’s my turn to clear the plates so by the time I’ve loaded everything into the dishwasher, dad and Elliot have already gone: dad to his office and Elliot to a summer internship he’s got with an eco building company in the city. Mia is going somewhere with her ghastly friend Lily, so mom drops me off first.

“Please be civil to Mrs Lincoln,” she says, warningly. “She’s my friend and she’s doing us all a favor by having you work for her.”

I watch as she pulls out of the drive then I make my way round to the backyard feeling tense. There’s no sign of Mrs Lincoln, so after a short pause I start clearing rubble and loading it into the dumpster.

I’m lost in the work, enjoying the physical labor when I turn and see her studying me. I think maybe she’s brought me another lemonade, but her hands are empty.

“There’s a coffee waiting for you in the kitchen,” she says, her eyes watching me appraisingly.

I note that she hasn’t asked me how I like my coffee as I follow her into the kitchen. I don’t know why but my heart starts beating faster. The chances are nothing will happen, that she regrets what she did yesterday. But a small, restless part of me is hopeful.

When we get to the kitchen she turns and leans against the breakfast bar. There’s no sign of coffee and my heart rate picks up again. She’s wearing tiny denim shorts that show off her great legs and tiny waist. She’s so fucking hot.

She walks towards me slowly. It’s almost as if she’s some sort of sleek predator and I’m her prey. Christ, I hope so!

She stops a few feet away.

“I’m going to kiss you again, Christian, like I did yesterday.”

She watches to see that her words have sunk in, then she pounces. She pushes me up against the wall, her hands in my hair, pulling hard. She bites my lip and then her tongue is in my mouth. Her right hand lets go of my hair and presses hard against my erection that’s sprung to attention.

Fuck! I nearly come on the spot.

Then she pushes her hand inside my jeans, inside my boxer briefs, and starts to stroke me. I’ve never been touched by a woman before and the feeling is indescribable. I feel baking hot and icy cold and my whole body is trembling. But then she lets go and slaps my face again.

I’m so confused. I don’t know how to respond. I just stare at her, my eyes filled with fear and lust.

“I know you want to fuck me, Christian, and I’m thinking about it. It depends on whether I think you’ll please me or not.”

Fuck?! Anything!

“Do you want to please me, Christian?”

I nod wordlessly.

“Answer me!”

Her voice is imperious.

“Yes.”

“Yes, what?”

I’m stumped: I don’t know what she wants me to say.

“Yes, I want to please you.”

I think I’ve made the right answer because she smiles and a cold, calculating look crosses her face.

“Good. Come with me.”

I follow her up the wide staircase and into a bedroom. The room is cool and white and has a large bed pushed up beneath the window. There’s nothing personal in the room and I wonder distantly if it’s a guest room. My heart is hammering in my chest and my cock is aching for her to touch me again.

She closes the door and stares at me.

“Do you trust me, Christian?”

Once again I don’t know what to say. I barely know her. I swallow and my eyes flick to the door.

“I promise I won’t touch your chest. Or your back. But if you let me touch the rest of you, you won’t regret it.”

I try to process what this means but my brain is in shut-down; there’s only one part of my body that is capable of responding. It’s pretty obvious which.

“Take off your T-shirt and give it to me.”

I’m not happy doing that: I feel too exposed. What if she’s lying about not touching me?

“Don’t hesitate. Do exactly what I say – or leave now.”

I don’t want to leave but I’m so fucking scared.

Slowly, I pull my T-shirt over my head and hand it to her.

“Good boy.”

She takes the T-shirt and holds it up to her face. She closes her eyes and breathes deeply.

“Mmm… nice and sweaty. You smell really good, Christian.”

Her words are such a turn on. No-one has ever spoken to me like that before. But she intimidates me, too. So I stand there, a mute fool, while her eyes drink me in.

She drops the T-shirt on the floor and cocks her head to one side.

“Take off your pants. Slowly.”

My mouth has gone dry and I feel like I’m going to pass out. I kick off my sneakers and socks at the same time. I swallow again and pull down the zipper on my jeans. My erection is pushing against the thin material of my boxer briefs. I feel my face flush with embarrassment and humiliation.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Christian,” she says quietly. “You have a fabulous body; a man’s body. And I’m going to pleasure you like a man.

She steps forward and I automatically take a step away from her, but the back of my knees hit the bed.

“Don’t walk away from me,” she says sharply.

She rests her hands on my hips and lets her nails dig into my skin. I gasp and stare at her. Then she runs her fingers around the waistband of my briefs tugs then down briskly.

And now I’m truly naked before her: every part of me stripped away. I have to trust her. Can I trust her?

“Lie down, Christian.”

I do as she says.

“I will only touch your face, your arms… and below your waist.”

I nod nervously.

“Good. Now put your arms above your head.”

She takes my left hand and slips something over my wrist then pulls hard and clips it to the headboard. Panic lances through me and I try to lunge off the bed.

“Calm down, Christian. You can trust me. Believe me, I have more to lose that you do.”

Her words pierce through the molten confusion of my brain and I let her cuff my other hand. I’m staring up at her, wide-eyes and scared shitless, but also aroused beyond anything I’ve ever known.

I realise she’s holding a riding crop in her right hand. She runs it up my thigh and along my pulsing, aching erection.

“Now I’ve got you where I want you, what shall I do with you?”

*  *  *  *

Today it’s my sixteenth birthday.

“Hey, little bro! Happy birthday! Sixteen! Woah! You’re legal to have sex, buddy!”

I know he’s trying to get a rise out of me and has no idea of the unintentional irony of his words, but it’s not lost on me. I’ve been having sex with Elena almost every day for the last five weeks. The days when I can’t see her hang slow and heavy. Mostly, this is because her husband, Linc, is around, or because she’s got something on in town that she can’t get out of.

I’m not grounded anymore, which makes things easier. I can jog over to Elena’s place in 20 minutes. The sex is just off-the-chart amazing. I never knew it could be like that. None of Elliot’s magazines showed anything more than spanking, but Elena has opened up a whole new world to me. And she talks to me – really talks to me. No-one has ever talked to me like that, like a friend. She’s teaching me about wines from around the world: the different grapes and shit like that… although she won’t let me touch hard liquor. Once I turned up and she tasted Bourbon on my lips: I won’t do that again. She beat the shit out of me; I mean, really beat me. I had to be really careful about making sure I didn’t wander out of the shower in a towel like I usually do, because then it would have been pretty obvious what was going on.

As it is, mom and dad don’t have a clue and I’m going to fucking well make sure it stays that way.

And she’s really into music: mostly golden oldies but she loves to dance and I’ve got no problem feeling her body pressed against mine as we move around to the music. For an older woman, she has a fucking fantastic body; I can’t get enough of her. And weird as it seems, I think she feels the same. She’s so sexy when she dances. Well, she’s fucking hot all the time but when she dances she seems a lot younger. And she’s teaching me. I used to watch mom and dad dancing and I thought I’d never be able to do that because I couldn’t let anyone get that close to me – Mia being the exception – but Elena has kept her promise; she’s never tried to touch my chest or back or any of my no-go areas. I can relax with her. I trust her. And we’ve fucked in ways that I don’t think even Elliot has dreamed of. But we have to be careful: if we got caught… I really don’t want to think about that. I’d lie and say it hadn’t started until I was 16; that’s the least I could do for her.

I don’t know why the whole submissive thing works for me, I just know that it does. Maybe it’s that there’s no uncertainty. I know exactly how I have to behave; she tells me exactly what she’s going to do, when and how she’s going to do it. She makes all the decisions; it’s like she’s put everything into black and white, and before everything was shades of gray. Somehow, my world has come into focus since I met her. I’ve got another way of expressing myself; somewhere else I can pour my energies. I can turn off part of my brain and give myself over to Elena. She knows what’s best for me.

She’s taught me a lot about my body already: about pushing my limits, about extending my pleasure and hers. I even enjoy it when she beats me because I can see how much it turns her on. It’s a real fucking head-spin trying to understand why I enjoy the pain. If I had a halfway decent therapist I might risk asking him, but the latest guy is an asshole. I hate having to see him but Elena says I must, because it makes mom and dad happy.

I don’t like taking money from her because it makes me feel like she’s paying me for sex or something. But she says if I didn’t have money for doing the yard work, it would blow our story. I’m going to save the money for something important: a car, maybe, when I’m seventeen.

Elena says pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin and I sort of understand that now. It was weird at first but she said I’d get used to it, and she was right. At least I thought so. Now I’m not so sure…

I had a couple of hours to myself. Mom and dad were less stressed about letting me out by myself but I still had to give them a fucking itinerary every time I made a move. Because it was my birthday they said I didn’t have to work at the Lincolns. Of course it was the only place I really wanted to be, so I said I was going for a run.

I arrive at Elena’s in 17 minutes, shaving 98 seconds off my personal best. The house is quiet but I know she’s in there somewhere, waiting for me.

I head straight for the guestroom, removing my clothes and folding them neatly the way she’s instructed me. Then I kneel by the door and wait. The room is cool and I shiver slightly, the sweat on my skin leeching heat from my body in the slight breeze. But my cock is already hard and I’m tense with anticipation.

I hear the door swing open and I straighten my back, keeping my eyes on the floor.

“You may look at me.”

I glance up and she looks fucking hot. She’s wearing a corset in a silvery color with plain silk stockings. She’s holding a thin cane in her hand. She said we’d be moving onto canes soon; I just hadn’t realised it would be today.

“I have two treats for you today, birthday boy,” she says softly. “Bend over the bed; let’s see that glorious ass.”

I do as she asks.

“Now stretch your hands out in front of you.”

I know this is because she’s going to tie them to the other side of the bed making it hard for me to move.

I can smell something fragrant. Hand cream, maybe? She rubs her hands together then starts massaging me.

Fuck! That feels…

“Aagh!”

She’s forced something up my ass and my mind is reeling, my body rebelling.

“Hush, now. Suck it up like a good boy.”

I try to breathe deeply and relax. The feeling is strange, alien and I know she’s crossed another boundary. I don’t know how I feel about this.

Then she starts with the cane, lightly at first, across my ass and thighs. She increases the strength of the blows and I can hear her breathing becoming ragged. The stings are getting hard to handle but she stops abruptly and pulls whatever it is out of my ass so suddenly that I cry out again.

I turn my head and see her walk around the bed to loosen my hands. My shoulders feel stiff.

“Lie on your back.”

My hands are still tied together so I have to shuffle awkwardly up the bed.

She stands looking down at me: I think she’s pleased. It’s hard to tell. Then she pulls down her panties and straddles me. She takes my cock in her hand and pumps it a couple of times. I can feel it building inside me and I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to control my reaction the way she’s taught me.

“Not yet. Oh, not yet.”

She kneels up and then sinks down onto me.

Yes! This is what I want! This is what makes sense!

She starts to ride me hard and I groan underneath her. I can feel her body quivering around me and I try to hold on, I really do but my body betrays me and I throw my head back, pouring myself into her.

I know I’ve disappointed her and I can’t meet her eyes but she strokes my face gently, lovingly.

“I think we’ll have to try that again,” she says softly.

I know it’ll only be a couple of minutes before I can follow her instructions but right now my brain is somewhere out of the entire fucking State.

She lies down next to me and continues to stroke my face. I open my eyes and stare into hers and I can’t help myself.

“I love you, Elena.”

Her eyes harden immediately and she sits up.

“Don’t be so fucking stupid.”

I’m stunned. She’s never spoken to me so coldly.

“You have no idea what love is, Christian. You’re just a fucking kid. When are you going to wake up and smell the fucking coffee?”

“I’m sorry! I…”

“Shut up! Shut the fuck up! Christ! Why do I saddle myself with such losers? What a complete fuck up! You stupid boy! You’ll ruin everything. Do you understand? Everything! When you come here we fuck: that’s it. That’s all.”

I don’t understand. I don’t know what she’s saying. What about the talking? The dancing? The music?

And then I realise. It’s me. It’s me: I’m so fucked up and disgusting that a woman as fine as Elena could never want or need my love. She’s revolted by it; she’s right to be revolted by it. I’ve always known that I was made wrong. She’s tried to show me a way to live with it and I’ve thrown it all in her face.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

“Don’t be so fucking pathetic, Christian! Don’t you have any control? Do you always have to behave like a fucking child? What’s the matter with you, for fucks sake?”

She carries on shouting at me, yelling at me about needing control, telling me what I already knew about myself and I can’t stand it. Not from her. Please, not from her.

She grabs my face in her hands.

“Look at me!” she snarls, and slaps my cheek hard.

I look into her beautiful, angry eyes and something inside me snaps. I’ve reached my limit.

“Red!” I whisper. “Red! Red! Red!”

I close my eyes tightly and turn my head away from her. There’s a sudden silence.

I feel the bed shift as she moves up towards the headboard. She unties my hands, lifting them down so they rest at my side.

Her fingers are in my hair, stroking it softly.

“My poor boy,” she croons. “My poor baby.”

We lie like that for some time as she strokes my hair and my face.

When my body has stopped trembling she sits up.

“Time for you to go now, Christian.”

I nod, feeling numb. She leaves the room and I pull on my T-shirt and running shorts.

I walk home slowly. I don’t have the energy to run. I don’t know what to feel. I don’t know how to feel.

“Happy birthday, Christian!” trills Mia as she sees me walking through the kitchen.

It’s like I’ve lost my voice so I just stare at her. Her face falls and I know I’ve hurt her but there’s nothing left inside me. I don’t know what to feel.

For N-Boston


O Brother

Elliot is behaving strangely. He’s just as fucking irritating as usual, but I can tell there’s something bothering him. And I think I can guess what it is. It’s a conversation that I’ve been putting off having, but after Ana’s warning, it seems as if today will be the day.

“Christian, he’s been asking Grace about Elena, wanting to know why she left your birthday party so suddenly, why she wasn’t invited to our wedding,” Ana pulled a face, “and why she and Grace aren’t speaking. He’s putting two and two together – he just hasn’t come up with five yet. And he’s been asking Kate why she was so riled up before your birthday, too. Don’t worry, she hasn’t told him anything, but it’s putting a strain on their relationship and that’s not fair. You can’t keep putting this off.”

“I know, baby,” I sigh. “I’ll talk to him.”

“Make it sooner rather than later, Christian,” she says, looking all serious and cute.

“Why, Mrs Grey. You’re getting awfully bossy.”

For a moment she looks surprised, then smile. “Yes, I am. Maybe I need punishing.”

My cock leaps straight to attention.

“You want it, baby, you got it.”

And she does. Several times. Fuck, I cannot get enough of my Ana.

So when Elliot phones, I’m ready. Sort of. I just don’t know how little I can get away with telling him.

“Hey, little bro!” he bellows down the phone. “Think we should spend some guy-time before I get hitched. Hit the bars, find some fast women – I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Kate would have my balls if I did any shit like that. How about going hiking. Peace and quiet: no phones.”

Which was why, this Sunday, I’m heading off into the hills, whilst Ana, Kate and Mia are planning on having a spa day at the apartment.

“Don’t look so miserable, Christian,” she teases me. “You love going hiking with Elliot, you just don’t want to admit it.”

“I’d rather stay here with you,” I say, stroking her belly.

Her skin is soft and smooth, but now there is the slightest round bump, where her stomach was once flat and toned. I feel such fucking awe every time I look at her, imagining our child growing inside her. It scares the fuck out of me, too. Ana keeps trying to reassure me that I’ll be a good father but how the fuck is that even possible? I can’t believe her, no matter what she says. How can a fucked-up bastard like me be a good father?

But my Ana works miracles, and I’ve put my faith in her.

“You could stay,” she says, in a sultry voice, that has my body responding instantly, “we’re going to paint our nails, eat chocolate, and have Franco come and do our hair, and then we’re going to watch ‘Dirty Dancing’ on repeat: ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’.”

“I know you’re quoting me from the movie, Ana, but I’ve never seen it. And I don’t think I want to.”

“Well, I might need to replay the part where she dances all sexily with Patrick Swayze then takes his shirt off before they have wild sex all night.”

“Fuck! Let’s cancel everyone and go to bed now, Mrs Grey!”

“Ok, but you have to watch the film with me first, Christian.”

“I think I’ll go get my walking boots,” I say, smirking at her.

“I’ve put them at the bottom of the bed,” she calls after me.

I drive the SUV myself, enjoying being behind the wheel again. Taylor has the less enviable job of staying at Escala and supervising. Which probably means he’ll hide in his office and keep the hell out of the way. Can’t say I blame him.

I pick Elliot up at his apartment and we head out towards the Olympic peninsula.

Elliot fiddles with the radio, and finds some station that’s playing Spanish guitar music. I park and we start walking north on a trail that will take us on a nine-mile circuit. It’s a favorite hike, and one that we did a lot when we were kids. Not so much since. It seems appropriate for today.

Elliot is quiet, which is a sign he’s pissed about something. I wait for him to pick his moment: first rule of business; see what moves the opposition makes before you show your hand. I don’t like thinking about my brother like that, but I need to be prepared.

“Christian, are you going to tell me what the fuck’s going on? Grace isn’t talking to Elena – and no one else is allowed to either. Some shit went down at your birthday and Kate won’t tell me dick, which is really fucking annoying. She just says it’s not her business. I mean, what the fuck? I’m your brother.”

Fuck, he sounds really hurt. I hadn’t counted on that: I thought he’d just be pissed because he was the last to know. Well, not quite the last: Mia seems happily oblivious and I really fucking want it to stay that way.

“It’s to do with you, right, bro?”

He’s cut to the chase but I’m waiting for him to show his cards.

“Yes, you could say that.”

“Does Elena have a problem with Ana? Because I just don’t fucking get that: I mean, Ana’s a sweetheart – how could anyone have a problem with her?”

I sigh: here it comes. “They don’t like each other: you could say that, yes.”

He waits, getting increasingly annoyed. I have to give him something.

“Elliot, this shit goes back a long way.”

He stares at me, puzzled and irritated. Fucking great.

“What do you mean? You only met Ana a few months ago, and by the way, bro, well done on getting her knocked up so quickly. You married her so damn fast, we all thought she must be pregnant, but I guess you waited till the honeymoon for your first time, huh?”

“Not exactly.”

“Woah! You nailed her before the honeymoon?”

I scowl at him. He is not talking about my wife like that. He gets the message and holds up his hands.

“Sorry, man, you know I love Ana; I don’t mean anything by it. I think it’s great that you guys, you know…”

He trails off suggestively as I rub my forehead; this is going to be harder than I’d thought.

“Yeah, but you were saying about Elena – and her problem with Ana – and mom. What’s that all about? You said it all ‘went back a long time’. Spill, bro.”

Time to pay or play.

“You remember how it was, when I was 15?”

I really hate talking about all this shit. Endless fucking therapists have analysed it ad nauseum. Thank fuck Flynn understood me so quickly. But even he still harps back on it – if I let him.

“You’d gone away to Yale and I was getting into trouble all the time.”

“Sure,” says Elliot, his voice serious.

“It was… a bad time for me,” which is the understatement of the fucking century. “I thought I was going fucking crazy. My head was just full of all this shit – and my therapist was a fucking asshole. I was drinking – stealing liquor from dad’s drinks cabinet. And I was fighting all the time – just to find a way to… find some sort of physical contact with people.”

I glance away, unable to bear the pity I could see on his face.

“The girls at school… well, you can imagine. I just… couldn’t.” I take a deep breath, fighting back those feelings of panic that used to suffocate me, when I couldn’t stop feeling, all the darkness spewing up, staining everyone who came near me. “Elena… she offered me a summer job, you remember? Clearing up building rubble after she and Linc had had that addition.”

“Yeah, I remember that. Just before your sixteenth birthday, right?”

“So… I did more than just yard work for her, Elliot.”

“Huh?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake – does he want an annotated fucking drawing?

“We had sex, Elliot.”

He just looks at me, like I’ve told him women don’t like chocolate.

“I had sex – with Elena. A lot.”

And his jaw drops so far he’s in danger of tripping over it.

“Are you fucking kidding me? You and Elena Lincoln? When you were fifteen? How is that fucking possible? I mean, no offence, Christian, but are you sure this isn’t one of those false memories? I’ve heard that people who spend too much time with shrinks can end up thinking that all this shit that didn’t happen is real.”

I knew Elliot secretly watched the Discovery Channel.

“Elliot, I fucked Elena Lincoln pretty much every day after school for three years, and then for another two years while I was at Harvard, and for some time after that, as well.”

A low whistle leaves his lips and I can see that he’s finally catching up. No need to give him all the grizzly details though.

“Why didn’t you ever say anything, Christian? I mean, I’m your brother. I thought… I would have helped or something.”

I shake my head. “I didn’t think I needed help. Elena… it gave me focus; discipline, if you like. She stopped me drinking and made me work at school. Not that mom sees it like that… or Anastasia.”

He gives me an acute look. “Are you surprised, Christian? I mean, popping your cherry at 15 to a hot, older woman: well, game on, but that’s not how women will see it? I mean, she was nearly 30 and she’s was mom’s friend. You can see how mom would think Elena was some sort of pedo.”

His comment makes me wince.

“Sorry, man. Just calling it how I see it.”

I shrug, knowing that he’s right. It’s certainly how Ana sees it, and mom has left me in no doubt that she thinks I was preyed upon by a cold and predatory child abuser.

I still can’t see it like that: they don’t get how Elena saved me. Fuck knows where I’d be by now if she hadn’t. Flynn disagrees: he says I’d have found another way to channel my intense anger. But he didn’t know me then, in all my multi-colored fuckedupness. I am what I am because of her, to some extent; the sum of my parts – including all the nightmares that are still locked inside me.

“And all this time she was married to Linc?”

I nod, like he’s missing the obvious.

His eyes widen and I see he’s getting it.

“So when Linc beat the shit out of her that was because…”

“…because he found out she’d been fucking me, Elliot. For six years.”

“Oh, man,” he breathes out, softly.

“Why didn’t you fucking tell me, Christian? I’d have helped – done something.”

I stare at him, my face cold, because his words make me feel too much. It’s too much. And I know I’ve let him down. He doesn’t care I’m fifty shades of fucked-up; he just cares that I’m his brother.

“What would you have done, Elliot?” I say, quietly. “What could you have done? It was a fucked up situation. I wanted Elena to go to the police, but she wouldn’t – because of me. I wanted to fucking kill Linc: if I’d seen him, you’d be talking to me in fucking jail now, because I’d have killed the vindictive bastard.”

He nods slowly, but he still looks hurt.

“And Ana knows all this?”

“I’ve told her everything.”

“And mom and dad know, too?”

I sigh. “They know most of it. I tried to spare them some of the details. But they’re pretty fucking pissed at me. Blaming themselves, of course.”

He rolls his eyes. “Kind of their job, bro. They weren’t expecting the family friend to be playing hunt the submarine with their 15 year old son.”

We walk in silence for some minutes whilst Elliot digests what I’ve told him. But I know it’s not over yet.

“So, what happened at your birthday? Why’d it all kick off then? Or were your nailing Elena behind Ana’s back? Fuck, that’s it, isn’t it? Fuck, Christian!”

“No! No, I’d never chat on Ana, never.”

The look on my face must be murderous, because Elliot immediately backs down.

“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean that… so what happened?”

I take a deep breath.

“Elena implied that I… needed more than Anastasia could give me. Ana… didn’t take it well. She threw her drink over Elena – one of dad’s lemon cocktails.”

“No, way! Little Anastasia Steele coming over all feisty! Oh, man! I’d like to have seen that. Was there any bitch-slapping? Because I’d have paid good money to see that.”

I can’t help smiling at him. Elliot rarely reacts how anyone expects him to; I guess we do have something in common after all.

“Actually, yes. But it was mom who slapped Elena. She overheard the last couple of minutes – enough to get the gist of what had happened between us.”

“Woah! Mom hit Elena?”

A slow smile creeps across his face: I can tell he’s impressed. Our mom, the street fighter.

And I start to breathe again because I think we’re about done with this fucking ghastly conversation.

Then Elliot frowns.

“So, you lost your cherry to Elena. But what I don’t get is… I mean, you never showed any interest in women, Christian. But you say you and her were finished when you were 21. So, what… I mean, you never mentioned anyone, never brought anyone home, never dated. What was going on with you, man?”

“I did.”

“Did what?”

“Date.”

It’s the only explanation I’ll be giving him.

“You mean you dated guys?”

“No, Elliot,” I say, losing my sorely-tried patience a notch. “Women. They just… weren’t the kind I wanted to introduce to my family.”

“Hey, wait a minute: that scary stalker chick who was in Kate’s apartment – she was one of your exes?”

His eyes are angry; I don’t blame him.

“Yes. She was looking for Anastasia.”

“Fuck, Christian! What kind of crazy chicks were you going out with? Are there any more? Is Kate going to find some other gun-toting crazy in there?”

“No, that won’t happen.”

“How the fuck do you know that, Christian?”

He runs his hands through his hair and, for the first time, I realise that’s a family trait. It’s rare to see Elliot so riled up. And I hate that: hate that all my sick, twisted shit is hurting my family. I’ve worked so fucking hard to keep all this from them. Every time I try and crawl up into the light, something comes to drag me back and I end up hurting people who care about me.

Christ, I don’t deserve them. Or my beautiful Ana. Why, why does she love me? Because she really does, and I trust her with my life. Without her, I wouldn’t have a life – not one worth living,

“Elliot, I’ve taken steps to make sure that will never happen again. Taylor has upgraded all the security at Kate’s apartment and… all my exes have up-to-date checks so I know exactly what they’re doing at all times. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

He seems mollified with my answer but then he says,

“How many?”

“Excuse me?”

“How many exes are there, bro? Because you’re really freaking me out, dude.”

I wonder what the best thing is to tell him. I don’t want to get into a pissing contest with my own brother, but I’m pretty sure I’ve fucked more women than he has, but he really doesn’t need to hear that. I’ll tell him the least amount of information I can get away with.

“Fourteen others, excluding Leila and Elena.”

His eyes widen in surprise.

“I guess you have been busy, little bro. All those evenings you were work late, huh. Fuck, Christian!”

“I do work late,” I say, irritated. “They had to… work around my schedule.”

“Jeez, bro, you make it sound like they were your beck-and-call girls.”

His double-take is so fast that it’s almost comical. For once I wish my preternaturally unobservant brother was less observant.

“Fuck, Christian! You paid them? Seriously, bro? They were… hookers? Is that why you never brought them home to meet the folks? Fuck, I’m not surprised, I just…”

“No, Elliot!” I snap. “They weren’t hookers, for fuck’s sake. I didn’t have time for a girlfriend. They were just women who were interested in what I had to offer. They were prepared to accept that I didn’t want a relationship in the traditional terms.”

“Ok, bro, you’re really going to have to explain that: how did this ‘non traditional relationship work?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Elliot!” I say, really losing it. “We fucked: we fucked a lot, but that was all. They were happy, and I got what I wanted.”

Nosy fucking bastard!

A slow, reluctant smile creeps across his face.

“Man, you really had a nice set up. I mean, come on, Christian! You had what most guys would kill for: limitless sex with no ties! No pretending to be interested in fucking vampire movies and shit. No need to buy flowers and chocolates. Fuck, who wouldn’t want that?”

I can’t help laughing at him: Elliot has a way of stripping away all the bullshit.

“So, why did you stop – it sounds like a pretty sweet deal?”

I roll my eyes; he’s reverted to his natural state of obtuseness.

“I met Ana. With her… I wanted more.”

He nods slowly, his expression serious again. “Yeah, I totally get that. There’s a time when a man’s got to grow up – stop fucking around.” He glances sideways at me. “But what I don’t get, Christian, is why you didn’t every say anything to me. I mean, sure, you couldn’t tell the oldies, but I’m your brother, man. We could have had some wild times if I’d known which way you were swinging, because I always thought you were a guy’s guy – no offence.”

“None taken,” I say, rather stiffly. “Because it wasn’t anyone else’s business, Elliot. It was… unconventional.”

“Shit? Really? Like kinky stuff: whips and shit?”

“No,” Well, yes, but that’s none of his business. “I meant ‘unconventional’ in the sense that they weren’t everyday-type relationships.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he says, a trifle sadly, still thinking about the whips, perhaps, as I do sometimes. “But, man, the way chicks dig you, we could have nailed half of Seattle. And now you’re a married man – how the fuck did that happen? Hey, does Ana know about these ‘unconventional’ relationships?”

“She knows.”

“Wow! And she wasn’t mad at you?”

That hardly begins to cover her reaction – but that’s private.

“We discussed it: she understands.”

“Fuck! And Kate – does she know?”

“She has an idea. I’m not sure how much Anastasia told her. And I really don’t want you discussing my sex life with your fiancée, Elliot.”

He grins at me. “Believe me, bro, we have a lot better things to talk about than your sex life.”

“Good. Let’s keep it that way.”

“I guess that explains why Kate was so mad at you at your birthday. She’d worked it out, right?”

“Yes, something like that. Can we change the subject, please, Elliot, before I die of fucking tedium repeating all this shit.”

“Yeah, sure, bro. But you know what: I hope John Flynn has signed one of your non-disclosure agreements.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Are you fucking kidding me, Christian? Do you know what kind of a book he’d be able to write if he could publish all your fucked up shit? I mean, it would have to be fiction because no-one would ever believe one man could be so bat-shit crazy; but one thing’s for sure – it would be a fucking bestseller.”

That’s my brother, and I can’t help laughing out loud.


Kate Reads The Contract

Yesterday was exhausting. Apart from travelling the best part of a day, the high emotions of last night, thinking Elliot had lost his brother and Ana had lost her… well, whatever Christian is to her. Feeling so helpless, watching Ana and Elliot go through so much pain.

It’s strange to be alone in this apartment. I haven’t had a chance to feel at home here yet and without Ana, too… Elliot has gone to his own place for a few hours and I miss him already.

I miss Ana. I just assumed she’d be here when I got back, same as she always was. I miss having her to talk to and to share everything with. I was looking forward to telling her about Barbados; I long to share my feelings about Elliot with her; and about the way Ethan kept asking me about her. But I think that ship has sailed; she seems totally smitten with Mr Moneybags. It makes me nervous; she’s so naïve about men and Christian has totally swept her off her feet.

I don’t know what it is about him, but he creeps me out. He obviously doesn’t like me, not that I give a damn about that, but it doesn’t exactly endear him to me either. Maybe it’s the way he acts like I’m in some sort of competition with him for Ana’s time, like he wants every bit of her. A girl like Ana could easily be swallowed up by a control freak like Christian Grey.

And he’s so secretive and closed in. It’s hard to believe that he and Elliot were brought up by the same parents. Elliot is kind and open and loving. He hasn’t got a controlling bone in his body, ok, well, maybe a little bit; he’s a man after all! He says Christian is a great guy; well, frankly, what brother wouldn’t? He obviously loves him, which makes me love Elliot more, if that were even possible!

The curious thing is he said it’s unusual for Christian to date. What does that mean? Christian is 27, well, 28 today, and, from what Mia says, he’s never brought a girlfriend home before. Never! And when I did that research for the WSUV article, there wasn’t a single picture of him anywhere with a woman. It’s just… odd, like he’s hiding something. I wouldn’t care one way or another, if it weren’t for Ana.

I miss my friend. Everything is different: me, Elliot, Ana, being in Seattle. It feels like a fundamental change, the tectonic plates of our lives shifting beneath us. I feel out of control and it’s not a feeling I’m used to.

I drift through the apartment looking at the too bare walls, boxes still unpacked. It’s not home; I don’t know what it is.

There’s some comfort in being in Ana’s room. Her bed, with the familiar, blue, folksy quilt her mom made, her hair brush on the table, a half-drunk glass of water, her clothes in the closet, a pair of jeans slung across the chair. I sit on the bed and gaze out of the window. The curtains are cream: I hadn’t noticed. I lie back on the bed and see that there’s a black jacket hanging on the door. It’s too big to be Ana’s; one of Christian’s obviously. I’m glad that he’s been here – or maybe he just leant it to her. She’s always going off without a sweater or a jacket! Maybe she just got cold; now I think about it, I can’t see Mr Control Freak spending time here when he’s got his vast art gallery at Escala.

Oh, Ana! I hope you know what you’re doing, but how can you? You’ve hardly even kissed a boy, let alone made love before. And now… now you’re living with Christian Grey. I can see how much you love him, but I can also see how much he overwhelms you, suffocates you.

At least I’ll be able to talk to you later at the birthday party, or glad-you’re-alive party, whatever it is.

I can’t help looking at the jacket in more detail. It’s a fine, light knit wool blazer, black, double vented. Good quality. Oh? Made in London; Savile Row, no less.

As the jacket swings on the peg, I notice that there’s a sheaf of papers stuck in one pocket. I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help myself: it must be the journalist in me. Maybe it’s some deal Mr Mogul is working on; it would be interesting to know how he does business.

I scan through a few lines: a contract between Christian and Ana? Then I read a few more. The blood drains from my face and I don’t remember sitting down, but I’m collapsed on the bed. What? No!

I can’t believe what I’m reading… Obedience? Hard limits? Flog, spank, whip, corporally punish the submissive for his own personal enjoyment? What the hell is this shit?

I read on with growing fear and disgust. She can’t look at him; she has to call him ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Grey’; gagging, bondage, suspension, anal fisting… Oh, Ana, what has he done to you!

It’s too much. I drop the vile papers and run to the bathroom, retching into the toilet bowl. I can’t believe it! Beautiful, sweet, gentle Ana with this… with this monster!

And suddenly it all makes sense… Ana’s tears, the mood swings, the uncertainty she always feels around Grey. That bastard wants to turn my best friend into his submissive.

NO. FUCKING. WAY.

I will crucify him! I will have his balls for earrings! I will make him wish he’d never fucked with Kate Kavanagh’s BFF.

I’ve never felt such raw anger as it floods through me. My chest is pounding, I can hardly breathe. Elliot must know; Elliot must know. He said Christian doesn’t date – obviously this is the reason why! But no, I can’t believe he wouldn’t have said something to me. I mean, he’s met Ana – he likes Ana. He can see for himself how innocent she is.

Not anymore.

Dear god!

And for the first time in a long time I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to tell, how to act, or how I can protect Ana. She’s obviously in his thrall.

My mind is reeling. Images from last night flash through my exhausted brain: the way she looked at him when he returned from the ashes; the way he looked at her. That was love, wasn’t it? It seemed that way; Elliot certainly thinks so, and Grace and Carrick, Mia.

I don’t understand, I just don’t!

I’ll have to speak to them: tonight, before the party. I have to know what’s going on. I have to know that Ana is… that Ana is ok.

Please god let her be ok.

If that vile fucking creature has harmed one hair of her head, I’ll tell the whole fucking world what a fucking monster he is, and all the fucking law suits he can throw at me won’t fucking stop me. No fucking way!

 

I feel numb. I turn the shower up to its hottest setting, the scalding water pouring over me; but still I feel nothing. I go through the rituals of washing like an automaton, but there’s a dangerous anger building inside me. It pierces the numbness: I want to do something violent to that monster; I want to hurt him – I want to pay him back for what he’s done to Ana. He WILL pay. I don’t know how, but he will.

The red dress that I put out to wear tonight seems appropriate for the scale and color of my anger. I apply my make-up like war paint; every angry slash of powder, a call to arms. That fucking twisted bastard!

When Elliot arrives to drive me out to Bellevue he can’t fail to notice that there’s something wrong.

“What’s the matter, Kate?”

I shake my head. I can’t speak about this, not until I’ve seen Ana. Ana is the one who is important here: nothing else matters.

“Katy, baby, please tell me what’s wrong? You look mad about something.”

“Elliot, just leave it, please. I need to talk to Ana, it’s… private. Girl stuff. Just leave it, ok?”

He presses his lips together but wisely says no more. I feel wretched not being able to talk to Elliot about this. Over the last two wonderful weeks we’ve talked about everything; he’s become my whole world. But this is about his bastard of a brother, and I can’t tell him how sick and twisted Christian really is.

My stomach lurches again. What if Elliot sides with Christian against me? I’ll lose him, I know it. And I can’t lose Elliot; I love him. Just saying his name is like learning to breathe again. This will rip his whole family apart. Oh, Ana, Ana, Ana!

The drive to Bellevue is intolerable. Elliot plays some music to appease the stony silence but I see him casting anxious glances at me as I stare out of the window into the blackness.

They Greys are all in party mood, full of high spirits and joy. I watch them as if I’m from another dimension; the ghost at the party. How apt.

There are Elliot’s grandparents, full of praise for their youngest grandson: how brave, how marvellous, how in love with Ana, how wonderful. And Grace’s eyes, glowing with happiness and some other emotion I don’t recognise. Carrick, full of life and bonhomie. Mia, at full volume, bristling with energy, waiting to see her brother. The strange, icy Lincoln woman, who seems almost as anxious as I am. Christian’s few friends and business colleagues. It’s all too much. I head away from the living area to find refuge in the dining room.

Elliot follows me, his eyes worried. At the same time we hear the crunch of car tyres on the gravel. Elliot throws me a puzzled look as I charge out to meet them: Ana – and the monster, Christian Grey.


PA to Christian Grey

What on earth? This isn’t right. Has Human Resources made a mistake? I stare at my pay stub: it’s bigger than usual. A lot bigger. I wish!

Sighing, I pick up the phone and dial HR.

“Hello, Mrs Beatty, this is Andrea Parker, Mr Grey’s PA. There’s a problem with my pay slip.”

“Oh? I’m sorry to hear that Ms Parker. Mrs Beatty is on vacation this week. You’re speaking with Anthea Thorne; I’ll just look into that for you.”

That’s probably what’s happened; Veronica Beatty is away.

Sometimes it’s just not worth going on holiday when you come back to a backlog of mistakes and inferior work. It’s not that I don’t trust Olivia to handle Mr Grey’s affairs when I’m away, except… well, I don’t trust Olivia to handle Mr Grey’s affairs when I’m away.

He’s a full time job. Oh boy, do I know that! I was up half the night directing press calls and fire fighting after Mr Grey’s helicopter crashed out near Silver Lake. But that’s what I do: handle crises. That’s why he pays me top dollar to be his personal assistant: and I’m very good at what I do. Mostly because I don’t have a life.

That’s not entirely true. I had a date last week… or was it the week before? Well, anyway, the guy was a banker from the east coast. I met him in that fancy cocktail bar Zig Zag Café. He acted like he was god’s gift until I told him who I worked for. That quietened him down a bit, but then he started trying to get an introduction to Mr Grey. I hightailed it out of there. And I was wearing a great new Prada dress, too. What a waste.

It’s certainly… expanded my horizons, shall I say, working for Mr Grey. I remember the day I got a call from the Executive Recruitment agency. I’d gotten a bit bored working for the MD of this blue chip company. He was such a jerk: always chasing me round the desk. I practically had to beat him off with a stick. Plus, the slimeball had me buying gifts for his wife and mistresses (plural). I mean hell, I had to keep a spreadsheet just to make sure no-one got the same gift, or the wrong gift. It was just so sleazy. But the final straw was when I caught him jacking off in his office. I mean, come on! Time and place! He just smiled at me and said he needed help with his outgoings. Yeesh!

I placed my resumé with the agency that evening. I really hoped they’d come up with something quickly. It’s always easier to find a job when you’re already in a position. But I was ready to walk if necessary. I’d even have taken a temporary contract just to get the hell out of there.

But as it turned out, I got a call to come in see them for a breakfast meeting. So I put on my Tom Ford suit, Xeroxed a dozen copies of my (though I say it myself) shit hot resumé and arrived at their offices at 7.30am.

Marlene De Witt, the head honcho, interviewed me.

She looked me up and down so conspicuously that I wondered if she was going to open my mouth and look at my teeth like an old horse doctor! But I could see she was impressed. Gotta love Tom Ford!

“Thank you for joining us so early, Ms Parker. May we offer you coffee?”

“Thank you, no, Ms De Witt. I’m good.”

“Excellent, well… we have a position that might interest you. It’s a considerable step up from what you’re doing now but, having said that, you’re resumé could be just what we’re looking for. You would however, be required to do long and possibly unsociable hours, but the renumeration package is more than generous. It also comes with the usual insurances, medical, dental and…” she paused long enough to make me salivate… “an Audi A2 automobile. I believe you can choose the colour.”

She had my attention. A new car? Nice! I didn’t know what an Audi A2 looked like, but it sounded foreign and lush. Drool!

Then she wrote a figure on a piece of paper and pushed it in front of me.

“This is the starting salary that’s been offered.”

Holy shit! How much? So, what was the catch?

It was as if Ms De Witt read my mind.

“The client in question is a young man… just 25…” Alarm bells were ringing like the cathedral at Notre Dame – all I needed was a hunchback to swing out yelling ‘Esmeralda’!

“Twenty-five?”

“Yes, Ms Parker. Is that a problem?”

Only if he plans on chasing me around the damn Board Room again! And I’m assuming it’s a guy – it usually is.

“I’m sure that won’t be a problem: I’m just a little surprised.”

“Yes, well,” she smiled a secret smile that really made me nervous, “our client is a most… er… unusual gentleman.”

Oh, that doesn’t sound good.

And if he has to pay the kind of salary, there must be something wrong with him. I need to dig.

“May I ask what happened to his last PA?”

She smiles like a Great White about to chow down on rowing boat full of fat fishermen.

“Nothing at all. His last PA is still in situ at one of his companies, but our client has just finished constructing a new office building and requires additional staff.”

Hmm: sounds like he wanted to get rid of someone, or sideline them. New office block? Interesting.

“We’re drawing up a shortlist of suitable candidates and we’d like to put your name forward, Ms Parker.”

Okaaaay.

“Do you have any questions?”

Oh yes!

“Can you tell me who the client is? I’d like to do some research before I take this further.”

“I’m so sorry, Ms Parker: that information is confidential at this stage.”

She doesn’t sound sorry.

“And if you’re selected for interview, you’ll be required to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.”

Woah!

“I see. So if I’m selected for interview I will, at that stage, be given some background on the client?”

“That is correct.”

Frankly, I have nothing to lose – except the jerk-off I currently work for.

“Well then, I’d be delighted if you would put my name forward for interview.”

We smile, shake hands and I’m left with a barrelful of questions.

As soon as I get to work I google new office blocks in Seattle. There are two possibilities: Capstan Service Industries and Grey Enterprises Holdings. The CEO of Capstan is a family man of 59; the CEO of GEH is Christian Grey and…. Fuck me! Gorgeous! Oh yes! Result! I really hope he wants to chase me around the Board Room after all!

I spend the rest of the morning checking my Blackberry for a message from Ms De Witt or one of her minions.

By 4pm I’m about ready to chew off my whole arm with anxiety; ok, not quite, but I decide to book myself in with that fancy beauty parlour Esclava and get a manicure, just in case. Jeez, as it’s Christian Grey, maybe I’ll get a complete facial, pedicure and wax. A girl can hope.

Just as I’m clearing my desk for the day, my cell rings.

“Good evening, Ms Parker, this is Marlene De Witt. I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve been selected for interview.”

“That is good news! Thank you, Ms De Witt.”

“Are you free now?”

What?! What about the pedicure, manicure and whole-fucking-body-cure I was going to have?

“Why, certainly.”

“Excellent: I’ll email the details to your cell and messenger over the NDA. Good luck, Ms Parker.”

I practically sprint to the ladies room, thanking the Almighty that I keep a toothbrush in my purse for emergencies. Nope: no spinach between my teeth. You didn’t have spinach for lunch, you ditz! I sniff my armpits – delightful, as always, but I spray on a little more Acqua Di Gio. Not too much, of course, gotta be professional. Yeah, I know that scent is for guys, but it smells adorable on me.

The NDA arrives by courier. I sign it without reading it and it’s returned the same way. I wonder if that was deliberate: not giving me time to read it?

And I really wish I had time to buy a fresh blouse but time to hustle.

Luck is favoring the brave today and I get a cab straight away and arrive at Grey House ten minutes early.

Holy fuck! It’s an impressive building; even the security guards are wearing great suits. This place is architect designed with a vengeance. And, regardless of how cute the CEO is, I really want to be a part of this. GEH is a happening company; you can’t live in Seattle and not know how happening. I feel really excited; this is a great opportunity for a girl like me. Who’d guess I came from the roughest part of downtown Detroit? Yeah, I’ve cleaned up real good.

Then this really cute guy with a buzzcut escorts me up to the twentieth floor. I’m having trouble remembering my own name, I’m so nervous at this point. I really want this job.

He shows me in to this enormous office with a drop-dead stunning view of the Seattle skyline; and then I see the Greek god who’s standing up to shake hands with me. He’s even better looking face-to-face than in his publicity shots. Wow! My mouth goes dry and I’m afraid I’m going to babble; I always babble when I’m nervous.

“Thank you for coming at such short notice, Ms Parker,” he says with a soft voice.

Drool!

“Er, not at all. I’m very pleased to be here.”

Oh, thank God! I can speak actual words!

He runs through the job description and I manage to ask some half-way intelligent questions. Then a weird thing happens: I realise I really want this job; not because my boss is just so yummy, but because I know I could really do something here, really make something of myself. This is my turn; my chance to fly. And I don’t get any sense from Mr Amazingly Fucking Beautiful that he’s just after me for my, admittedly, stunning Nordic looks. He asks me about my work and how I’d respond in a given situation. And I think he likes my answers; I almost forget it’s an interview.

After 40 minutes he sits back and asks if I have any questions.

“Only one, Mr Grey, when do you want me to start?”

I know that sounds arrogant but I think he’ll get where I’m coming from.

For a moment he looks taken aback and then he smiles. I nearly pass out.

“How much notice do you have to give, Ms Parker?”

“Two weeks, sir.”

“Then I look forward to seeing you in two weeks on Monday.”

“Thank you, sir!”

We shake hands and as I get up to leave, trying to avoid stumbling through the door he says,

“Oh, and Ms Parker, you will earn that salary.”

 

Two years down the line I’d have to say he was right. But hell, it’s been fun! Hard work, but fun. The only disappointment is that he’s never once chased me around the Board Room. I’ve pretty well given up hoping. But it’s nice to dream.

And although he can be hell on wheels and has a scary temper at times, I’ve come to realise that he’s also basically a decent person who cares about his staff. He knows everyone in the building, it seems; what they do and what they need. Pretty impressive given there are around 3,000 staff at Grey House.

Last week was one of the worst of my life: for a few bleak hours, I really thought he was dead. I was handling the Press, liasing with his family, speaking to the rescue services and trying to hold back the tears at the same time. And when the news came through that he was alive and well, I didn’t care that I was still working at 3am. I was just glad my scary-ass, drop-dead beautiful, irritating-as-fuck boss was still alive.

“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting, Ms Parker,” says Anthea Thorne. “But I’ve checked and there is no problem with your salary check.”

“But… it’s too much!” I say feebly.

“I believe that’s a bonus and a salary increase,” she says, a wistful tone in her voice. “Authorised by Mr Grey himself.”

“Thank you,” I say faintly and replace the phone. “Thank you very much.”

 


Kate and Elliot’s First Night

How ‘wild’ was their first night?

Christian isn’t the only naughty boy in the Grey family.

I hope Ana’s going to be ok. She’s such a lightweight! Perhaps I shouldn’t have let her drink so much, she’s not used to it. Oh well, she’s a grown up, and José is looking after her; she’ll be fine.

Hmm, I think I’ve drunk quite a bit, too. But I’m definitely not drunk enough to succumb to Levi’s limited charms. He’s a pretty good photographer but I’m so not interested. You’d think he’d get the message. Maybe I’ll go dance; that’ll burn off some of the alcohol. No point waiting for Ana, she almost never dances. She thinks she can’t, which is dumb, of course.

“Where’s Anastasia?”

What the fuck is he doing here?

I’m staring up at the angry face of Christian Grey. My brain has gone into neutral; I don’t know whether that’s the effect of the alcohol of the shock at seeing the ‘reclusive billionaire’ in this student dive.

“Ana – where is she?” he’s almost shouting at me.

“Er… she went outside to get some air. Hey, what…?”

He yells something to the guy standing next to him and turns on his heel. Oh! The guy standing next to Christian Grey is cute! Mmmm, yum, very cute.

“Sorry about Christian, he gets like that. I’m Elliot, his big brother.”

Oh! “Hello, Elliot Grey.”

“And you’re Kate, Ana’s friend.”

“Yes, Kate Kavanagh. Sorry, but why is he here?” I can’t help asking. Is it about those books?

Elliot shrugs. “He was worried about her – about Ana. She called him…”

She did?

“He couldn’t get here fast enough; I just happened to be with him. And I’m very glad I was.” He pauses and flashes me the most knee-trembling smile. “Would you like to dance Kate Kavanagh?”

Would I?!

“Ok.”

He takes my hand and helps me up. Oh, he’s tall. Mmm, the way his T-shirt clings to his chest beneath his shirt. I like! I like a lot. And those blue eyes. Oh, boy, dimples! They do something to a girl. Ok, they’re doing a lot to me.

The music is a techno beat, pumping, loud; it’s music to lose yourself to. And Elliot can dance. Unlike most men, he looks like he’s enjoying himself. Thank god he’s got rhythm; I hate dancing with people who really shouldn’t. I’m glad it’s crowded, it means we’re dancing close together. I wouldn’t mind being closer!

And I really let myself go, moving, curving, bending, flexing to the music, losing myself in the ocean of his intense gaze. What is it Ana would say? Oh, that’s right… Oh my!

Too soon Christian is back, towing a pale looking Ana behind him. He shouts something in Elliot’s ear; Elliot grins back at his brother, then, unexpectedly but delightfully, he pulls me into his arms. I can feel the heat from his body against mine, the muscles in his chest.

I’m admiring the view when he dips me, almost to the floor. I laugh out loud and cling onto him. His matching smile is mesmerising. Slowly, he pulls me upright and stares into my eyes. My smile slips away and desire pulses through me. He’s still staring, asking my permission, challenging me, daring me. I raise my arms and run my hands down the back of his neck. He closes his eyes for a second; when they open again, they’re blazing at me. I pull his head down and his lips are on me. The speed of his assault takes me by surprise but I’m not letting this chance go by. I force my tongue into his welcoming mouth and we’re joined together in an embrace that should set the whole room on fire. I run my hands down his back and he tightens his hold. Boldly, I push my hands into the back pockets of his jeans and pull his groin towards me. I’m beyond thrilled to feel his erection pushing into me, despite the barrier of clothing.

It feels like the length of a heartbeat when pulls away, his eyes almost wild, feral.

“Christ, Kate!”

It’s all he can manage, before our mouths meet again. This seedy bar has dissolved around us, and we’re the last two people on the planet; I’m cocooned by the thrill of his touch.

He pulls away again and we’re both panting.

“Let’s go to my place,” I say hoarsely.

He nods without speaking and at double speed he’s pulling me through the crowds and out of the door.

The air outside is cooler and I realise I’ve left my jacket inside. I don’t care; the whole of Seattle could go vanish into the sea and I wouldn’t care.

Before we get to the cab rank, I see an alley behind the club. I pull Elliot behind me and he doesn’t hesitate. He pushes me roughly up against the wall, and I can feel the brickwork through my thin T-shirt.

The small part of my brain that is still rational watches dispassionately at this depraved woman who is running her hands all over a man she’s only just met: in his hair, across his chest, down his back, forcing one hand into the front of his jeans, feeling the hardness of his own passion.

And he doesn’t hesitate. His hands are under my T-shirt, stroking and kneading my breasts, his teeth biting my neck. One hand moves down to the front of my jeans and he slips it inside, inside me.

“Oh god, Kate! Are you sure about this? Here, now? Because the way I’m feeling…”

And I can’t believe I’m saying this. “Yes, here, now.”

He groans and pulls back, staring at me, checking that I mean the words that have erupted from my mouth.

From the inside pocket of his jacket, he pulls out a condom and hands it to me.

I rip open the packet, almost dropping the slippery little piece of rubber in my haste and excitement. Hungrily, I unzip his jeans and pull his erection free. Oh fuck! That’s a lot of Elliot Grey!

At my touch, I hear a sharp intake of breath and he grips hold of my shoulders, almost glaring at me with the intensity of his need. I manage to concentrate for one vital second and roll the condom down his not inconsiderable length. He closes his eyes and bites his lip.

“Kate,” he whispers.

Then slowly, deliciously slowly, he pulls down my zipper, sliding one finger back inside me. I’m so turned on I’m afraid I’m going to come immediately. He smiles, a salacious smile and pushes another finger inside and that’s it; I’m lost. Before I’ve finished he yanks down my jeans and panties in one swift move and impales me sharply. It’s delicious, so full, almost painful. And he moves quickly, a frantic rhythm, stifling his moans in my neck.

All too soon, it’s over and we’re both breathless and weak.

“Jesus, Kate. That was…”

I laugh, an embarrassed sound. “I guess that’s what they call it a knee-trembler.” I don’t know what came over me: I have never, never behaved like that in my life. I would have called any girl who’d behaved like that a fool or a tramp – I can’t look at him. I couldn’t blame him for treating me like a whore, because that’s how I’ve behaved, isn’t it?

I feel his hand on my cheek and he gently lifts my lips to his.

“Sweet, sexy Kate.”

And he kisses me softly, yet passionately. He’s smiling.

“Do you think we can risk getting in a cab now; we might even make it back to your place this time!”

He’s laughing at me, but it’s a kind sound. Even so, I feel the need to give him some sort of explanation.

“I… I don’t know what came over me. I’ve never… never done anything like that before!”

His smile disappears. “Are you sorry?”

Only if you leave now.

“I don’t believe I am.”

His wicked smile is back. “Good. Now, about that cab?”

There’s no line, so we jump in the first cab we see. I give the driver my address and Elliot slides in next to me. He holds my hand and kisses the back of it gently. My body is instantly on high alert. I’ve never felt so… so desirable. And I want him again, badly.

His eyes are burning and I’m about ready to crawl over the seat to the front and slam my foot on the accelerator to get us home faster.

Suddenly reason comes back to me.

“Oh no! I’ve left Ana! We have to go back.”

He smiles. “Don’t worry about Ana; my little brother is taking care of her.”

“Christian?”

“Yes. Honestly, she’ll be fine.” He pauses. “I’ve never seen him like that with a girl; it’s unusual for him to… date.”

Oh, I’m not sure about this: leaving my best friend with Mr Control Freak.

“Kate, relax. He’ll take her back to the Heathman to sober up. She’ll be fine. He’s a good guy – he won’t take advantage.”

Hmm. I’m not so sure, but I don’t really see what I can do about it.

“I’ll just send her a quick text.” I pull my cell out of my pocket.

Gently he takes it from me. “I promise you, Katy, Christian won’t hurt your friend; he just hasn’t got it in him.”

I don’t like being told what to do but somehow his serious blue eyes tell me it’s going to be alright.

We get to the duplex and he pays the driver and helps me out of the cab. The cool night air and the cab ride have definitely helped to sober me up. This certainly isn’t how I expected tonight to pan out: coming home with a strange man that I just… Oh god! I can’t even bear to think about how I’ve behaved tonight!

“So, this is where you live?”

“Yes. With Ana.”

“Nice.”

I feel like a teenager; I’m almost too embarrassed to look at him.

“Are you going to invite me in… or would you rather I left?”

No! Don’t go!

“I’m sorry, I just feel… embarrassed. I don’t… I mean, I’ve never… You must think I’m such a…”

He places a finger against my mouth. “No, I don’t think that. I think you’re beautiful and bold and brave – and you take my breath away.”

Oh!

“And I would very much like to come in and make love to you, Kate.”

Oh!

“Kate?”

I realise I haven’t answered.

“Yes, I’d like that, too.”

He smiles that devastating smile.

I fumble for my key and let him in, putting on the lights as I go.

“Would you like a drink?”

“No,” he says, his eyes bright. And before I know it, he’s picked me up and slung me over his shoulder. “Which is your bedroom?”

I can’t stop laughing. “Left!”

He kicks the door open and throws me on the bed; now I’m the one who’s breathless as he stares down at me, his eyes bright with lust and determination.

“Oh, Kate, you’re so beautiful.”

“And you’re too far away. C’mere, lover boy!”

“Happy to oblige, ma’am!”

He dives onto the bed making the whole frame shudder. I’m half way between laughing and wanting to rip his clothes off. I opt for the latter, sending buttons flying in all directions from his shirt.

He tears my T-shirt over my head and pushes his face into my breasts.

“Oh, god!” he moans.

I’m pawing at his T-shirt, all hands and lips and legs intertwined.

He sits up suddenly and yanks it over his head. His chest is broad and strong and answers every promise the tight-fitting T-shirt made.

“Not enough; I want you naked,” I manage to say.

“Anything you say, ma’am.”

He kicks off his boots and I rip off his trousers and boxers.

Oh, yum! He’s really pleased to see me.

Then I leap on him and pin him to the bed and kiss him through his laughter.

He rolls me over and presses me into the mattress.

“This is a bit unfair,” he says. “I think you should be naked, too.”

“Well, what are you going to do about it?” I challenge him.

“This!”

He unzips my jeans slowly, torturously. And suddenly my heart is in my mouth.

“Now, whatever shall we do now, sweet Kate?”

 

*  *  *  *

When I wake up, or I should say, when I finally regain consciousness, sun is pouring through the window in a most un-Portland sort of way. And this glorious man, with his mop of blond curls is leaning his head on his elbow, a cheeky grin plastered across his face.

“Hey there, baby!” he says.

“Hey there, yourself!”

And he leans down to kiss me, a sweet, morning kiss, that soon becomes an urgent, desperate demand. Again. And again.

I flop back, exhausted. I had no idea spending all this time in bed could be so tiring! I’m ready to go back to sleep but Elliot’s phone keeps beeping until he looks at his text.

“I’d better get that. Oh, it’s from Christian: he says Ana is fine and that she’s sleeping off a hangover. Poor kid. She looked pretty wasted.”

Yes. I’ll certainly be speaking to Steele about that!

“Is he bringing her back here?”

“I don’t know. I’ll give him a call.”

He wanders into the living room completely naked and unashamed. It’s a sight that makes me very hungry. Who is this licentious creature that’s been unleashed?! I look in the mirror and try to tug a brush through my well-fucked hair, but it’s no use; I still don’t recognise the bright-eyed vixen who stares back.

Elliot is on his phone. I don’t think he knows I can hear him.

“Hi, Christian, d’you get laid?”

I listen, breathless, for the answer. Oh, Ana!

“Who’s with you?”

What?! No! Tell me! What did he say?

“Hi, Ana!”

Oh, Ana must be with him; she must be able to hear this.

“Heard a lot about you.”

She says something and laughs.

“Sure!”

And he ends the call.

“What was all that about?” I’m burning with curiosity.

“Christian’s bringing Ana back now.”

“Now?!” I leap up and drag on some clothes. I’m not having Mr Megabucks catch me in a robe! Elliot laughs and rummages around for his clothes which are scattered around my room.

“This shirt has seen better days,” he says ruefully.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” I bleat, my face turning puce.

“No problem. A trophy from a memorable night… and morning.”

“A trophy?” I turn to him, a horrified expression on my face.

“I didn’t mean it like that, sweet Kate. A memento.” He pauses. “Can I see you tonight? Maybe we could have dinner? Whatever you like.”

Whatever I like! I just want to see you!

“That… that would be great.”

He beams at me. “I thought you were going to say ‘no’ for a second. I’m really glad you didn’t.”

He sweeps me into his arms and kisses me into oblivion.

Hell! I’m going to have to wait till this evening – that’s hours and hours away!

“What are you doing today?” I manage to mutter between kisses.

He leans back, his eyes bright and takes a deep breath.

“Christian and I are going hiking.” He shrugs. “It’s kind of our thing. I don’t get to see my baby brother that much.”

“No, no, of course. I just wondered.”

I glance out of the window when I hear a car pull up. “They’re here.”

I go sit at the dining table and try to breathe naturally. Elliot follows, dressed at last, and sits next to me. He winks and holds my hand.

I watch carefully as Ana walks in. She looks pale and a little overwhelmed. She also looks… nervous. Why? What’s he done to her? I frown at Mr Megabucks and he stares back, his face impassive. He’s so cold; not like Elliot.

“Hi Ana!” I leap up and hug her tightly, then hold her at arms’ length to study her face. She flushes and looks down. I’ll speak to you later, young lady!

I realise, belatedly that I’m being rude. “Good morning, Christian.”

“Miss Kavanagh.”

Jeez! What a stiff!

“Christian!” says Elliot, amused by his brother’s formality, I think. “Her name is Kate.”

“Kate.” Christian nods politely. Oh fuck off.

I love it when Elliot gets up and gives Ana a big, warm, Elliot-style hug. “Hi Ana!” Ok, that’s enough hugging of Ana now!

“Hi Elliot,” whispers Ana, looking pleased but embarrassed.

“Elliot, we’d better go,” says Christian. Control freak!

“Sure.” Before I know what he’s doing he sweeps me into his arms and kisses me hard, then dips me to the floor, just like he did last night. I can’t help but giggle. This isn’t me!

“Laters, baby!”

Oh, yes! Laters! Lots and lots more laters, please!

Christian whispers something to Ana and she smiles shyly but he doesn’t kiss her or hug. Cold bastard. “I’ll pick you up at eight,” he says to Ana.

I so am going to find out what’s going on!

The Grey brothers leave and it’s just me and my bestest best friend.

“So did you?” I’m almost dying of curiosity…

 


Fifty ways to Seattle

When I finally walk up onto the porch I’m dog tired. I lean on the wall and lever off my work boots, listening to them down thud onto the wood. I shuffle through the door and hear Adele calling me.

“Hi honey!”

“Hey, baby.”

“How was your day, honey?”

“Well, to tell the truth, it’s been an interesting day.”

“Really? I thought you was just drivin’ down the usual route, wasn’t you, honey?”

Adele’s right. I do the trip down from Portland to Seattle several times a month.

“You’re awful late, honey? You ok?”

She studies my face, a look of concern on hers. I know her face as well as the I-5, which is to say, like the back of my hand. I know every smile line, every frown line and pretty much what she’s thinking when she’s thinking it. I’ve made a study of her face every day for the 38 years that we’ve been married.

“Yes, I’m fine, but it’s been an interesting day.”

“You sit yourself down there,” she says, opening a tab of beer for me, “and eat your supper. It’s got pretty dried up keeping warm in the oven, but I reckon it’s not ready to put out for the dogs yet.”

I love my wife: she’s a damn fine woman, but shit, sure she sure can’t cook. She says I must have a stomach lined with concrete to put up with it but it seems a small price to pay for coming home to the only person in the whole world I want to be with.

I chew my way through the toughest piece of steak this side of Texas and wash it down with ice-cold beer. A buddy told me once that Brits drink warm beer. I just don’t get that, and I’m not entirely sure he wasn’t yanking my chain.

When I’m finished Adele can barely restrain her curiosity.

“So how come you’re so late, honey? Are you going to tell me and put me out of my misery or am I gonna have to torture it out of you?”

I consider the options and decide to tell her.

“Well, I’d just passed Kelso and was making good time when I suddenly saw this guy standing at the side of the road flagging me down.”

“Oh, honey, you weren’t picking up hitchers again, were you? You know it makes me nervous when you do that.”

“Am I telling this story or you?” I say almost crossly. That woman can never let me tell a story straight.

“Well, get on with it then! Don’t drag it out like it’s some sort of state secret!”

And did I mention that she surely loves to have the last word?

“Well, this guy didn’t look like no hitcher. For one thing he was wearing a suit and tie and had real fancy shiny shoes. Except he was looking pretty hot and bothered. And then I see that he’s got a woman with him. She’s wearing a suit, too, but with high heeled pumps! In the middle of nowhere! I figured maybe they’d broken down but I couldn’t see no sign of a car. So I slowed down the truck and the look of relief told me that they’d got theirselves in some sort of bother.”

Adele is leaning on her elbows, all ears, listening to my story. And it’s only just getting interesting.

“I tell them to jump on in. And the guy is real gentlemanly, helping the woman into the cab of the truck and then climbing in after her. The woman looks all done in and she kicks off her shoes like they’re hurting her like the very devil, which I suspect they are. She says her name is Ros and that the guy is her boss and he’s called Christian. This surprises me as he looks kinda young to be anyone’s boss and she’s, well, a woman of a certain age, shall I say.”

Adele gives me a look, being a woman of a certain age herself.

“But I figure maybe he’s one of those college types who get themselves promoted ahead of the guys who’ve worked their way up. Turns out I was sorta right and sorta wrong.”

Adele rolls her eyes at me but she knows better than to try and hurry me up – it’s my story, after all.

“So I ask them how come they’re so far from anywhere. And the guy, Christian, he tells me that they were flying up from Portland to Seattle in a helicopter and had taken a side trip to go look at Mount St Helens when the engines caught fire. Imagine that! Both engines failed at the same time. Ain’t that just a shitload of bad luck? I say that to the young fella and his face gets kinda dark like he’s thinking maybe luck didn’t have anything to do with it, but he glances at the woman, at Ros, and keeps schtum. So I reckon there’s more to that story than meets the eye. I ask him what happened to the pilot, thinking maybe he’d stayed with the chopper but Ros says no and that Christian is the pilot. I wondered if he were may ex-army as he’s got a look about his eyes that says he don’t take no shit from no-one, but then I figure is hair is just too long for him to have been in the military. Anyhow, there they were, 200 feet up, fire in the engines and the helicopter just about falling out of the sky and the only thing he can do is shut the engines off and try to land somewhere flat. He must be some pilot, I’ll tell you that much.”

Adele’s eyes are as wide as a sumo wrestler’s pants.

“He manages to land on the eastern side of Silver Lake and then uses a fire extinguisher to put out the fire. But it’s all happened so quickly they haven’t been able to radio for help and, like I been tellin’ you for years, cell phones don’t work out there. So they’ve got no choice but to hike around the lake and across to the I-5 which is about four of five miles. But there aren’t any footpaths around there, just a few animal tracks and I’m not entirely sure made my animals you’d want to meet when you’re just walking out there on your hind legs. Now, Christian, he looks like a pretty fit young guy, but Ros there is high heeled pumps. Why you women insist on wearing such impractical shoes I can’t imagine!”

Adele thumps me on the arm, just like I knew she would and reminds me I like a good pair of legs in some of them stiletto shoes just as much as the next man, and tells me to get on and tell the story.

“So they’s climbing over rocks and jumping across streams and Christian figures out which way is west so they can get to the I-5 but they can’t go a straight route because it’s too hard for Ros. He’s got some fancy gizmo on his phone that shows him the direction and he manages to navigate them to the road. They’d just landed up there hot and dusty after walking for near on three hours. Ros says that four cars and one truck had passed them without stopping but then she stops talking when Christian gets that look like he’d like to beat the crap out of those folks that didn’t stop.”

“Your language!” says Adele. “I hope you didn’t talk like that in front of those nice young folks!”

“Let me tell my story my way, woman,” I tell her and she rolls her eyes at me and scoots on over to sit next to me.

“They were real hungry and thirsty so I shared my lunch with them. Well, gave it all to them, figuring they needed it more than I did. They had a few hundred dollars between them and they tried to give it to me but I couldn’t take all that money, not for a couple of baloney subs and a bar of candy. Mind you, they were so thirsty, I reckon they’d have paid that just for the soda I gave them.”

“I knew you wouldn’t take money from folks in distress,” says Adele, stroking my arm.

“Well, then Christian asks if he can use my cell phone as his has died navigating over to the freeway and Ros’s has given up the ghost, too. See, I been tellin’ you those cell phones is a waste of good money. From what I can tell he wants to call his sweetheart and let her know he’s ok. He looks as surprised as hell when I say I don’t carry one and I can tell it really bugs him that he can’t speak to her. I can see him checking in his jacket pocket to make sure he hasn’t dropped something. Ros asks him if he’s lost something and he says no and goes kinda quiet and I tell she’s as curious as hell, just like all you women. And she’s teasin’ him and teasin’ him to get him to tell her what it is. And then he starts to get mad at her and she’s laughin’ at him so I guess maybe she’s more like a friend than an employee. And she starts making’ guesses, sayin’ it must be from his sweetheart if he’s that worried about it and how cute that is. And I reckon she wears him down or else he just wants her to shut the hell up about it, so he says that yes, it’s from his girl who’s called Ana, and he can’t tell us what it is because he don’t know. Turns out that it’s his birthday tomorrow and she gave him this gift but told him not to open it!”

“Oh,” says Adele, “that’s so romantic! She must really love him!”

“What a load of baloney,” I say, “it’s damn torture, that’s what is, givin’ a fella a special gift and then not allowing him to open it. And we can both tell he’s pretty curious about what it is, but he gave Ana his word that he wouldn’t open it and he sure as hell ain’t gonna open it for Ros and me! I can tell he’s taken as much as he’s gonna about that darn present so I say that he’s one lucky bastard to have survived to have a birthday to celebrate. And then he goes real quiet and says, ‘All I could think about was that I wouldn’t see Ana again’. And then I guess that makes us all pretty quiet and I was thinking about how I’d feel if I knew I wasn’t gonna see you again, Adele, and Ros is quiet, too, thinking about her young man, I don’t doubt.”

At least that’s what I tell Adele as I don’t want to spoil a good story, but the truth is I have my doubts about whether or not Ros has a young man as I suspect her inclinations are about due south of that idea.

“What happened next, Hank?”

“Well, we were passing a truck stop and I asked if they wanted to rest there and contact their folks and I could see that Ros was pretty happy with that idea but Christian said no, he just wanted to get back as soon as possible without any more delays.”

“Well, isn’t that just like a man!” snaps Adele. “So impatient, without thinking about how his poor girl must be feeling all that time!”

And even though I feel like I’ve got to stick up for men folk in general, I can’t help agreeing with her.

“Well, anyhow, I drove them right back into the city and dropped Ros off first.”

I kinda forget to mention to Adele that Ros grabbed my face and kissed me on both cheeks saying I was her knight in shining armor. Christian looked kinda embarrassed on both our sakes but smiled and waved to her. And there she was, walking down the sidewalk in her bare feet, carrying them silly shoes and grinning to herself like she just won the lottery. Christian’s champing at the bit to get back to his Ana. He lives in one of them real fancy apartments in Escala. He climbs out of the truck and tries to give me money again and I say no, it was my pleasure helping folks in their hour of need. And here I am, Adele, honey: a real life, hero-sized knight in shining armor.”

“Oh, Hank, honey,” says Adele, “you always been my shining knight,” and she kisses me real sweet which makes me think we could be having one of our early nights. But then I look up and guess what! I see a photo of Christian on the TV.

“Turn that up, Adele, honey,” I say. “That there’s the Christian fella I was tellin’ you about.”

“You didn’t tell me he was so handsome!” she says huffily.

As if I’d have noticed a thing like that!

“Why, he’s not just some young guy,” she says. “Don’t you know who that is, Hank?”

Well, no I don’t because I don’t read those gossip pages that she finds so fascinating.

“That’s Christian Grey,” she says, “one of the richest men in America. Hmm, maybe you should have accepted that money from him; it’s not like we don’t need it.”

Well, maybe she’s right about that, because we surely could use the money but I say to her, “Well now, Adele, I guess it would have come in handy but you’re the one who’s always tellin’ me not to judge folks by the way they look, even if they’ve got pink hair and rings through their noses. In which case how can I accept money from someone who needs help just because he turns out to be rich?”

And then I’m pretty certain that I’m going to have me some lovin’ tonight because she comes over and sits her ass on my knee and kisses me real hard and tells me that she loves me. And just are things are getting good, there’s a knock at the door.

“Who on earth can that be at this hour?” she says.

I don’t care if it’s the Archangel Gabriel himself I’m feeling so damn horny for my old lady, but she gets up and goes over to the door. And there’s this young guy in motorcycle leathers saying that he’s got a delivery for me.

So I get up and go over to the door and sign for the package. And he messenger gets back on his bike and roars off into the night and Adele is fussing over him waking up the neighbors.

When I open up the package it’s a bottle of malt whisky – a real good one, and real old, from Scotland, England. There’s one of them typed cards with it. Adele picks it up and it says,

‘To Hank

From Ros and Christian

Who were grateful for the kindness of a stranger’.

Adele’s almost got tears in her eyes. “Isn’t that the sweetest thing ever?” she says. “But how did he know where to find you?”

Well, that’s a mystery to me because I didn’t tell him my name or give him my address but I figure when you’re as rich as he is, these things are as easy as falling off a log. Not that it makes me any less grateful because I figure he must have a whole parcel of things to do what with crashing his helicopter and nearly dying.

I’m trying to decide whether to try the whisky or see if I can persuade Adele to carry on where we left on when she says,

“What’s that in the box, Hank?”

I peer into the package that the whisky bottle came in and I see there’s an envelope.

“Hurry and open it!” says Adele, her eyes all bright and excited.

So I open it up and two pieces of paper drop out. The first is a handwritten note that says,

‘With gratitude. Christian Grey.’

The other is a check for $250,000.

“Oh my!” says Adele.

As for me, I have absolutely nothing to say.

 


I Vow to Thee

For Ebonie

I, Anastasia Rose Steele, take thee, Christian Trevelyan-Grey, to be my lawful wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.

I wake up with a huge fucking smile on my face, still hearing the echo of words from a really fantastic dream.

Ana is like a drug to me: she calms me, warms me, heals me, excites me – she completes me. I just cannot get enough of this beautiful, amazing woman. I didn’t think I was capable of the love I feel for her. Fuck knows I don’t deserve her but for some reason that I will never understand, she loves me. She wants to be with me and she’s agreed to marry me.

And maybe, once we’ve exchanged our vows, and she’s said the words ‘for richer for poorer’ she’ll be able to accept the wealth and lifestyle that comes with being my wife. Maybe.

‘For better for worse’: well, she’s the ‘better’ and I’m the ‘worse’ but I can live with that – if she can. I’ve always known it’s true, so it’s not like it’s telling me anything I didn’t know.

‘To love, cherish, and to obey’: I have no problem with that. I’ve loved her almost from the first moment I saw her, certainly from the first night we spent together – even though I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling at the time.

And I will cherish her. My God, I will cherish her. I want to protect her and take care of her, and every fucking day I will remember why I am the luckiest son of a bitch on earth. She’ll be mine – really mine. And I’ll be hers.

I love to watch her when she’s sleeping. Her beauty is translucent and she seems to glow from within – her goodness, her kindness, her decency. There isn’t a single thing I don’t love about this woman. She looks so fragile and breakable but she’s strong. I know how strong she is. All the shit I’ve put her through, all my fucked-upness and she just keeps on loving me. I don’t know how she does that and I sure as hell don’t know why she does it. I just want her to keep on loving me, like she’s promised to do. Because there is no power on earth that will stop me loving her.

She starts to wake up. Her eyelids flutter and a smile curves those beautiful, full lips. I wait for the moment when her astonishing eyes will look up at me and I’ll see her love reflected in them.

She stretches sleepily, knowing I’m awake already.

“See anything you like, Mr Grey?”

“Oh, Miss Steele – more than like.”

And finally, her eyes blink open and again their blueness and clarity take my breath away.

“Sex or breakfast?” she says, echoing my words from a few weeks ago – and definitely reading my mind.

She knows me so well.

*  *  *  *

Mrs Jones has prepared pancakes for Ana, by special request, along with bacon and maple syrup. My girl is hungry and I’m glad to see her eating so well. Breakfast sex always gives her an appetite. I have my usual egg-white omelet and black coffee. I rarely eat a heavy breakfast and I’ve booked a session with Bastille just before lunch; another good reason for not eating too much.

“I’m going to be late tonight,” says Ana, whilst running her eyes across one of her endless manuscripts. “I’m meeting Mia and your mother to go over wedding plans. Apparently my decision on the hors d’oeuvres is absolutely essential.”

She rolls her eyes and I can’t help smiling at her. As long as she’s not rolling her eyes at me, that’s just fine. On the other hand, eye-rolling is forever associated with twitchy palms in my mind, and that’s very fine indeed. Fuck. Now I’m thinking about it, I’m getting very fucking hopeful that Ana will roll her eyes at me. But I’m sure I’ll find some other transgression that deserves a gentle chastisement. Maybe with the silver balls.

Fuck. I’m really going to have to get my mind on something else or I’ll be going to work with a granite hard-on again.

“Yes, the hors d’oeuvres is certainly your department.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“And why is that, Mr Grey? Won’t you be attending this wedding?”

“Baby, wild horses and a Sherman tank couldn’t keep me from marrying you.”

“I’m very glad to hear it. But we should make time to work on our vows – we haven’t got that many days left to do it.”

I’m confused. Did I hear her right?

“Our vows? What about them?”

She cocks her head to one side and gives me a puzzled stare.

“Our wedding vows, Christian. We need to work on them. I want them to be perfect – to say everything we want to say. It’s important.”

“What are you talking about, Ana? We don’t have to write vows – it’s already been done. ‘I promise to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’; you promise ‘to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part’. See, easy. Job done.”

She looks at me with a mixture of impatience and amusement that really makes me want to take her over my knee. But probably not while Mrs Jones is hovering in the background.

“Christian! I’m not saying that!”

“Not saying what?”

Sometimes I have no fucking idea what she’s talking about: God, she’s adorable.

“Christian, I’m not going to promise to obey you!”

And all the air leaves my lungs. What the fuck? Calm, Grey, calm. She’s teasing you.

“Of course you are: that’s what the vows say. Women have been saying that for hundreds of years.”

“Well, I’m not saying that. I want us to write our own vows – special and unique to us. And you can bet your R8 that I’m not going to be obeying you. Honestly, Christian!”

“Yes, you fucking are!”

The words come out louder than I’d meant. From the corner of my eye I see Mrs Jones beating a hasty retreat.

“No. I. Am. Not,” says Ana, a mulish expression on her face.

“Yes, you are!” I repeat, staring her down.

She quails slightly, then squares her shoulders.

“I am not a submissive,” she says, in a scarily quiet voice. “I never was and I never will be. Deal with it, Christian.”

And she gets up and walks out of the room.

What the fuck just happened?

My head is spinning. Of course she’s got to obey me! How can I keep her safe if she won’t do what I tell her? She doesn’t realize what a fucked up place the world is. She has to obey me. I have to make her see sense.

I follow her into the bedroom.

“Anastasia…”

But she doesn’t let me finish.

“Christian, it doesn’t matter what you say: I will not be obeying you.” There’s a deafening silence. “I’m going to work.”

She picks up her briefcase and leaves the room. Again.

Fuck! She really means it.

She is so not going to walk away from me.

“Anastasia!”

I turn to follow her but she’s already disappearing into the elevator with Sawyer and Taylor is waiting for me, pretending that he hasn’t heard the tail-end of that exchange.

I move automatically, collecting my laptop, following Taylor into the elevator, climbing in the back of the SUV. But my brain is somewhere else, cartwheeling down the freeway – and I’m going to fucking crash.

I can’t explain the panic I feel welling up in me. Anastasia doesn’t understand! I can’t live without rules, I just can’t. Suddenly, I’m thrown back into all those feelings of a fucked up fifteen year old, spiraling out of control. I’m falling into this dark pit in slow motion and Ana’s just cut my safety rope.

I feel the sweat break out all over my body and my breathing escalates rapidly. Fuck, I’m having a full on panic attack.

“Are you alright, sir?” says Taylor.

His dark eyes are watching me in the rear-view mirror.

“Yes,” I say, curtly, although it’s very far from the truth.

I take some deep breaths and try to get a fucking grip.

By the time I get to Grey House, I’m beginning to breathe more naturally. I’ve got wall-to-wall meetings so it goes some way to distracting me from my dark thoughts. Ros is throwing me puzzled looks: she can tell I’m only half there. It’s not like me to be utterly focused but who the fuck am I if I don’t have the rules in place? I need them. Anastasia needs them: she just doesn’t know it. That’s what I’ll do: I’ll persuade her. I’ll make her see sense.

And for a few hours that seems possible.

Claude spends a happy 40 minutes kicking the shit out of me.

“Come on, Grey! You’ve been on your ass on the floor so many times, I’m beginning to think you like it down there!”

I try again, coming at him with a spinning back kick, but he dances out of the way and floors me with a quick jab and uppercut that snaps my chin back.

“Where is your head at, Grey? Come on!”

I’m panting like a lame dog, shaking my head as if all the bad thoughts will just drop out.

“You okay, man?” Claude’s expression is sympathetic. “Wedding nerves, huh? I get that.”

I glare at him and he smirks back. Fuck! I really want to land him on his ass! But it’s not going to happen today and he knows it. Bastard!

Things don’t improve much in the afternoon: the PR department is going crazy with all the fucking calls about the wedding. Haven’t those hack journalists got anything better to do, for fuck’s sake?

Sam is desperate for me to issue a statement but the only fucking statement I’ve got for the Press is no fucking comment and, unsurprisingly, Sam won’t tell them that.

Words. Statements.

I try to plan out in my head what I’m going to say to Anastasia to make her see sense. She’s a smart woman – she’ll understand.

A nagging voice at the back of my head argues that she won’t. And I can’t help thinking that it’s right.

But I do know one way to make her understand.

So while I’m waiting her to get back from meeting with mom and Mia, I dress to impress. Or rather undress. I pull on my ripped jeans, my playroom jeans as she calls them. I know they’re her favorites and I know what they do to her. A snug-fitting black T-shirt completes the look I’m going for.

And I wait.

I know she’ll have had a couple of drinks, so she’ll already be less able to argue with me. Good. I have no intention of playing fair.

I sit at the piano and play Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. It’s perfect: I’m feeling a little devilish.

Over the swirling notes I hear the elevator doors hiss open at last. I stop, mid note, and rise slowly from the piano stool.

“Good evening, Miss Steele.”

“Hello, Christian,” she says, a little breathlessly.

I smile at her, a gleam in my eye. Good! It’s working.

I pace towards her, slowly, so she’ll see my intent and know that I won’t be denied.

“Christian…”

She backs away slowly, a rosy flush rising to her cheeks. My body responds and I grow hard immediately, my body craving contact with hers.

“Christian, no. We need to talk…”

“We can talk later, Miss Steele. Much later.”

“Christian! You are not going to dazzle me with your sexpertise!”

“Are you sure about that?”

I halt, a bare millimeter from her, letting the heat from my body soak into hers.

“I’m not going to obey you,” she says in a whisper that has a slight tremor to it.

I scowl.

“Why not? It’s traditional. It’s…”

“I’m not saying it,” she says, more loudly this time.

And it’s there again: that panic rushing through me. I can’t let her see me like this. I turn on my heel, seeing the look of pain on her face.

I head to my study and collapse at my desk, my brain reeling.

She has to obey: she has to understand. I can’t do this without rules. I can’t. Why won’t she understand? She knows that I need this. What if something happened to her? What if I couldn’t protect her because she was disobeying me? Fuck, no! She has to understand.

And even though I’m staring out of the window, I feel her presence behind me. She lays her soft hand on my neck and I lean into her touch, aching to feel her, aching to bury myself in her.

“Christian, please. Don’t be like this. It’s so… I want our vows to show who we are as people – to show our love for each other – not just repeat some old words.”

But it’s her words that infuriate me.

“I’m busy, Anastasia. Can this wait.”

And it’s not a question.

She sighs and turns to go.

I’m desperate to run after her: I’m like a man dying of thirst in the desert without her touch. Death Valley – in an office thirty stories up, overlooking half of Seattle.

The failing sun throws blazing arrows, flashes of red light glinting off a thousand windows. Slowly the darkness creeps over the city. And I sit.

The apartment is quiet. Mrs Jones and Taylor, wisely, haven’t come near me since supper. Nor has Ana, since I snarled at her to leave me alone. She’ll be asleep by now: my beautiful angel, lost in dreams. Good ones, I hope.

In silence, I drift into our bedroom. Our bedroom. Not just mine anymore. We’re trying to forge a future together and once again I manage to derail it. What is the matter with me? How have I let myself get to this stage? Again. I’m not 15: I’m a successful, fucking successful, wealthy and respected businessman – and I’m completely falling apart.

I gaze down at her. God, she’s so beautiful. Her mahogany hair is spread out like silk across the pillow and her lips are parted, breathing softly. There’s a small frown line between her eyebrows so I know she’s thinking of me – of me in all my fifty shades of fucked-upness.

I undress quietly and ease myself into bed beside her. She murmurs something but doesn’t wake. I breathe in the delicious scent of her hair.

I close my eyes but sleep won’t come. It’s impossible to shut off my brain which writhes and snarls like wild animals, caging the vicious beast that’s the real me.

She must never know. She must never know.

I watch the moon’s shadows creep across the wall, growing paler as the hours pass. I don’t sleep but I feel something like peace with my Ana next to me.

Eventually, as dawn approaches, I rise, wraith-like, inhuman, as if I was never there by her side.

I dress quickly and meet Taylor for our morning run.

He doesn’t speak, correctly reading my mood, and we head for the elevator.

Mist swirls around the early-morning streets as if my thoughts are trying to solidify. The animus visible.  I must keep her safe. I must keep her safe.

She’s so precious: she’s my reason for living.

I barely notice that we’ve completed our six mile circuit. Fuck knows how far I’d have run if Taylor hadn’t been steering me back to Escala. I’d probably be half way to Olympia by now.

Fuck! I have to get a grip.

When we return to the apartment, Ana is sitting at the breakfast bar. Mrs Jones disappears immediately, sensing an impending argument.

Ana looks up.

“Are you talking to me now, Christian, or are you still too busy?”

Her tone stops me in my tracks; she sounds so angry, so cold. No, not my Ana! Please God, no!

But the voice that comes out of my mouth betrays me.

“Only if you’re ready to be reasonable, Anastasia. The traditional wedding vows have been good for hundreds of years; I see no reason to change them now.”

“Fine. Don’t change yours. But do not ever, and I mean ever, Christian, do not ever expect me to say I’ll obey you. Because you’d make me into a liar, and I won’t do that. I won’t let you do that to me. If you decide not to behave like an adolescent, I’ll be at your mother’s arranging our wedding.”

And once again, she gets up and leaves.

No! Don’t go!

But the voice stays locked in my throat and I can only watch as she vanishes.

I head back to my study and throw myself into work. She’ll come back. She always comes back… doesn’t she?

She didn’t say she was calling off the wedding. So I have to assume she’ll be reasonable – eventually.

So I spend Saturday working. I’d much rather have spent it making love to Anastasia but my girl is stubborn. I’ll have to be patient.

I work like fuck all day. This is what I do: this is what I’m good at. Reading the small print; understanding how a business is like a beautiful car. The outside must be sleek and aerodynamic; each tiny piece of the engine must fit perfectly; and the driver must know what the fuck he’s doing.

But do I know what I’m doing? When it comes to work, fuck, yes! But do I know what I’m doing with Anastasia? What if she isn’t reasonable? What if I can’t persuade her to change her stubborn mind? What if… what if I have to live without her obedience? Could I do it? Could I do it if it were the only way? Because I sure as hell can’t live without her.

No, don’t think about that, Grey. Give her time. Just give her time.

But when Ana walks back into the apartment her mouth is still set in a stubborn line.

“Good evening, Christian. Have you decided to see sense yet?”

I gape at her. I can’t fucking believe that she’s saying I’m the one who is in the wrong! She really is unbelievable. And that makes me fucking pissed.

I snarl at her and she backs away, a disappointed look on her face.

I retreat to my study to lick my wounds.

An hour later, I hear her soft tap on the door.

“I’ve brought you a cup of tea. I thought I could have mine here, too. If you’re not too busy.”

I utter something meaningless and her gentle sigh almost breaks my heart. She leaves the tea and trails off to bed.

Two unhappy, stubborn people at war over a stupid word.

I sip the tea. Ugh, horrible, insipid English breakfast tea. Twinings. The teabag has barely blinked at the water, let alone been allowed to steep so it have some flavor. I don’t know how Ana can drink this vile stuff. But it’s so her: my Anastasia, marching to the beat of her own drum. Fuck knows how I ever thought she’d make a good submissive. Yeah, I’m a fucking king at reading people.

I don’t even try to sleep. When I’m sure she’s not awake, I draw up my chair next to the bed and watch her. My girl. So stubborn. So beautiful.

I slip away before she wakes and try to outrun my demons again. But I never do. They always catch me. Taylor is his usual taciturn self but I can tell he’s worried. Probably worried about Anastasia. There’s definitely a bond between those two and it really fucking pisses me off. I trust Taylor with my life – in fact I’ve had to on more than one occasion, but if it weren’t for the fact I know he’s in a relationship with Gail, I’d have to seriously fucking think about keeping him on with Anastasia in the apartment. I’d have all female fucking bodyguards if it would keep my angel safe.

She’s waiting for me when we get back.

“Christian, we have to talk. I’ve had enough of your sulking.”

Sulking! I’m not fucking sulking! I’m… And suddenly I’m unsure. What the fuck am I doing?

She starts to speak and I’m mesmerised by her words:

“I give you my solemn vow to be your faithful partner in sickness and in health, to stand by your side in good times and in bad, to share your joy as well as your sorrow. I promise to love you unconditionally, to support you in your goals and dreams, to honour and respect you, to laugh with you and cry with you, and bring you solace in times of need. And to cherish you for as long as we both shall live.”

I think my mouth has dropped open and it’s hard to breathe. A pain without name fills my body.

“Christian, those are my vows – my promises to you. Please, say something to me Christian.”

But I can’t speak. I just shake my head and leave her sitting alone.

I have to get out of her. I have to… I don’t know what to do… where can I go?

Flynn.

Fuck, it’s Sunday. He’ll be at church with Rhian and the boys. No, it’s nearly 11am; he’ll be on his way home by now.

I pull out my cell. The good doctor is the second number on my speed dial; Anastasia is the first, of course.

“John, I need to see you. Can… Yes. Yes. Five minutes.”

I jog the remaining blocks to his office and wait outside the door, confused, agitated.

His car pulls up and I feel a brief moment of relief before the panic overwhelms me again.

“John, I need to talk…”

“Let’s get inside first, Christian.”

He’s dressed in a dark suit and white shirt. I’m not used to seeing him so formally dressed. In his consulting rooms, he usually wears an open-necked, button-down shirt.

Flynn unlocks the door to his consulting rooms and ushers me in, switching on the lights as he goes.

The familiar routine in a place where I can put order to my chaotic thoughts soothes me. A little.

Flynn sits in his usual place and I in the wingchair seat.

“Anastasia is refusing to obey me,” I blurt out.

He looks at me, waiting for more.

“I mean, in our wedding vows: she’s saying she won’t promise to obey me. How can I keep her safe, how can I protect her if she won’t do it? I stare at him, desperate.

“Has she suggested an alternative?”

“Yes,” I mumble. “It was… very beautiful. She promised to… love me unconditionally.”

I rest my head in my hands, unable to bear the weight of my thoughts.

“Promises don’t come much better than that, Christian,” he says quietly. “It’s not an easy thing to do, to love someone unconditionally.” He pauses. “Would you say that you loved Anastasia, no matter what?”

“Yes, of course!” I answer impatiently. “But that’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Actually it is,” he says calmly. “You say you love her unconditionally: surely insisting that she ‘obeys’ you to earn that love, is not unconditional.”

I blink up at him.

“I’m… I’m not insisting…” Am I? “How will I keep her safe? If anything happened to her…”

“Christian, you cannot control the whole world. You cannot wrap Anastasia in bubble wrap to protect her, no matter how much you might want to. She’s a strong, determined, loving young woman: she doesn’t want a gilded cage. And nor do you, not really.”

I wouldn’t be so sure about that, doctor.

“You love her liveliness and her energy. How many times have you sat her and smiled while you’ve told me how she’s challenged you?”

That’s true.

“So she’s written her own vows?”

I nod.

“And have you written yours?”

I shake my head. “That was done several hundred years ago, John, as well you know.”

He smiles. “Not what I was asking, as well you know. Let me ask you this: do you want Anastasia to be your submissive?”

“No, of course not!” Not anymore.

“Then why are you insisting that she obey you? Because I have to tell you, Christian, it’s not going to happen – not with Anastasia. You’ve spent years in a system of relationships that is rigid and confined: far beyond the workings of most Dominant/Submissive agreements, in fact. Anastasia is the woman you fell in love with: none of the others. You have chosen to step outside your set of rules. You made that choice by falling in love with Ana. Now you have to write a new set of rules: rules where you promise to love her unconditionally no matter what. You have to decide whether or not you can… because Ana has already decided that she wants her life to be with you.”

Just hearing him say those words brings some order to my whirling thoughts. Yes, my Ana has chosen me, fuck knows why, but she has. Can I make the same choice? Too late, I already have: without Ana I have no life.

I stand ready to leave.

“Thank you, John. I was beginning to…”

“I know. That’s ok, Christian. Anytime. In fact, next time, could you make your urgent appointment before the kindergarten choir sing the full-length version of ‘All things bright and beautiful’?”

“I’ll do my best, John.”

We shake hands.

On the way back to Escala, I walk slowly, going over his words. Can I do this? Can I find a way? I want to.

The apartment is quiet. There’s a note on the breakfast bar.

“Have gone to spend day with Kate. Girls’ stuff. Miss you. Love, Your Ana xx”

My study is suddenly a refuge from the overwhelming pain I feel. When I hear her return, I don’t look up.

“I’m back, Christian,” she breathes.

I nod, hearing her sigh.

It’s my dark night of the soul. I love her so much it scares me. Can I live without my precious rules? I don’t know. But for her, I will try.

I sit at my desk and think of all the words I should say to her and slowly I write them down. I’d have engraved them on my stony heart if I could.

 

I solemnly vow that I will safeguard and hold dear and deep in my heart our union and you.

Yes, I will keep you safe, forever. I will never let you go.

 

I promise to love you faithfully, forsaking all others, through the good times and the bad, in sickness and in health, regardless of where life takes us.

I’ll never want anyone else: only you, Anastasia. It’s only ever been you. I will love you whatever life throws in our way, whichever road we travel.

 

I will protect you, trust you, and respect you.

You are so strong and brave. You have my respect. I will give you my trust. I will protect you, always.

 

I will share your joys and sorrows and comfort you in times of need.

I want to share your life, Anastasia. I want to hear your laugh and wipe away your tears. There will never be anyone else for me.

I promise to cherish you and uphold your hopes and dreams and keep you safe at my side.

I will give you the world, my Ana, and protect you from it, holding you every day of my life.

 

All that is mine is now yours.

I give it willingly, lovingly because without you, it is meaningless.

 

I give you my hand, my heart, and my love from this moment on for as long as we both shall live.

Always in my heart, my Ana. I love you.

 

I lay down my pen feeling a peace and quietness flood through me; a feeling that I’ve not known for the last three days. Finally, my mind can rest. And so can my body.

I undress in silence and lie down next to this wonderful woman. I fold my body around hers, breathing in her delicious scent. She mumbles something and my heart thrills when I realize she’s saying my name. My Ana. She always forgives me.

Finally, I sleep.

No, no, no, no! Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! Nooo! You’re hurting me! Don’t let him touch me! Hurting me! Hurting me!

My heart is pounding and I’m covered in a cold, clammy sweat. Fuck! Another fucking nightmare! Not that one, please God, not that one.

I feel her warm, soft hand on my cheek.

“It’s ok, Christian. It’s going to be ok.”

“Ana. You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here.”

“I had a dream…”

“I know. I’m here, I’m here.”

“Ana.”

“Hush, I’m here.”

“Please let’s not fight.”

“Okay.”

“The vows. No obeying. I can do that. We’ll find a way.”

My words rush out in a tumble of emotion and confusion and anxiety.

“Yes. We will. We’ll always find a way.”

She kisses me, silencing me, bringing me back to the now.

My beautiful angel.