The attention of the entire restaurant is trained on Kate and Elliot, waiting with bated breath as one. The anticipation is unbearable. Silence stretches like a taut rubber band. The atmosphere is oppressive, apprehensive, and yet hopeful.
Kate stares blankly at Elliot as he gazes up at her, his eyes wide with longing—fear even. Holy crap, Kate! Put him out of his misery. Please. Jeez—he could have asked her privately.
A single tear trickles down her cheek though she remains expressionless.
Shit! Kate crying? Then she smiles, a slow disbelieving I’ve-found-Nirvana smile.
“Yes,” she whispers, a breathy, sweet acceptance—not Kate-like at all. For one nanosecond there’s a pause as the entire restaurant exhales a collective sigh of relief, and then the noise is deafening. Spontaneous applause, cheering, catcalls, whooping, and suddenly I have tears rolling down my face, smudging my Barbie-meets-Joan-Jett makeup.
Oblivious to the commotion around them, the two are locked in their own little world. From his pocket Elliot produces a small box, opens it, and presents it to Kate. A ring. And from what I can see, an exquisite ring, but I need a closer look. Is that what he was doing with Gia? Choosing a ring? Shit! Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t tell Kate.
Kate looks from the ring to Elliot then throws her arms around his neck. They kiss, remarkably chaste for them, and the crowd goes wild. Elliot stands and acknowledges the approbation with a surprisingly graceful bow then, wearing a huge self-satisfied grin, sits back down. I can’t take my eyes off them. Taking the ring out of its box, Elliot gently slides it onto Kate’s finger, and they kiss once more.
Christian squeezes my hand. I didn’t realize I’d been gripping his so tightly. I release him, a little embarrassed, and he shakes his hand, mouthing, “Ow.”
“Sorry. Did you know about this?” I whisper.
Christian smiles, and I know that he did. He summons the waiter. “Two bottles of the Cristal please. The 2002 if you have it.”
I smirk at him.
“What?” he asks.
“Because the 2002 is so much better than the 2003,” I tease.
He laughs. “To the discerning palate, Anastasia.”
“You have a very discerning palate, Mr. Grey, and singular tastes.” I smile.
“That I do, Mrs. Grey.” He leans in close. “You taste best,” he whispers, and he kisses a certain spot behind my ear, sending little shivers down my spine. I blush scarlet and fondly remember his earlier demonstration of the quite literal shortcomings of my dress.
Mia is the first up to hug Kate and Elliot, and we all take turns congratulating the happy couple. I clutch Kate in a fierce hug.
“See? He was just worried about his proposal,” I whisper.
“Oh, Ana.” She giggle-sobs.
“Kate, I am so happy for you. Congratulations.”
Christian is behind me. He shakes Elliot’s hand, then—surprising both Elliot and me—pulls him into a hug. I can only just catch what he says.
“Way to go, Lelliot,” he murmurs. Elliot says nothing, for once stunned into silence, then cautiously returns his brother’s hug.
“Thanks, Christian,” Elliot chokes out.
Christian gives Kate a brief, if awkward, almost arm’s-length hug. I know that Christian’s attitude to Kate is tolerant, at best, and ambivalent most of the time, so this is progress. Releasing her, he says so quietly only she and I can hear,
“I hope you are as happy in your marriage as I am in mine.”
“Thank you, Christian. I hope so, too,” she says graciously.
The waiter has returned with the champagne, which he proceeds to open with an understated flourish.
Christian holds his champagne flute aloft.
“To Kate and my dear brother, Elliot—congratulations.”
We all sip, well, I glug. Hmm, Cristal tastes so good, and I’m reminded of the first time I drank it at Christian’s club and later, our eventful elevator journey to the first floor.
Christian frowns at me. “What are you thinking about?” he whispers.
“The first time I drank this champagne.”
His frown becomes more quizzical.
“We were at your club.” I prompt.
He grins. “Oh yes. I remember.” He winks at me.
“Elliot, have you set a date?” Mia pipes up.
Elliot gives his sister an exasperated stare. “I’ve only just asked Kate, so we’ll get back to you on that, ‘kay?”
“Oh, make it a Christmas wedding. That would be so romantic, and you’d have no trouble remembering your anniversary.” Mia claps her hands.
“I’ll take that under advisement.” Elliot smirks at her.
“After the champagne, can we please go clubbing?” Mia turns and gives Christian her biggest, brown-eyed look.
“I think we should ask Elliot and Kate what they’d like to do.”
As one, we turn expectantly to them. Elliot shrugs and Kate turns puce. Her carnal intent toward her fiancé is so clear I nearly spit four-hundred-dollar champagne all over the table.
Zax is the most exclusive nightclub in Aspen—or so says Mia. Christian strolls to the front of the short line with his arm wrapped around my waist and is immediately granted access. I wonder briefly if he owns the place. I glance at my watch—eleven thirty in the evening, and I’m feeling fuzzy. The two glasses of champagne and several glasses of Pouilly-Fumé during our meal are starting to have an effect, and I’m grateful Christian has his arm around me.
“Mr. Grey, welcome back,” says a very attractive, leggy blonde in black satin, hot pants, matching sleeveless shirt, and a little red bowtie. She smiles broadly, revealing perfect all-American teeth between scarlet lips that match her bowtie.
“Max will take your coat.”
A young man dressed entirely in black, fortunately not satin, smiles as he offers to take my coat. His dark eyes are warm and inviting. I am the only one wearing a coat—Christian insisted I take Mia’s trench coat to cover my behind—so Max only has to deal with me.
“Nice coat,” he says, gazing at me intently.
Beside me Christian bristles and fixes Max with a back-off-now glare. He reddens and quickly hands Christian my coat check ticket.
“Let me show you to your table.” Miss Satin Hot Pants flutters her eyelashes at my husband, flicks her long blond hair, and sashays through the entryway. I tighten my grip around Christian, and he gazes down at me questioningly for a moment, then smirks as we follow Miss Satin Hot Pants into the bar.
The lighting is muted, the walls are black, and the furnishings deep red.
There are booths flanking two sides of the walls and a large U-shaped bar in the middle. It’s busy, given that we’re here off-season, but not too crowded with the well-heeled of Aspen out for a good time on a Saturday night. The dress code is relaxed, and for the first time I feel a little over . . . um, underdressed. I’m not sure which. The floor and walls vibrate with the music pulsing from the dance floor behind the bar, and lights are whirling and flashing on and off. In my heady state, I idly think it’s an epileptic’s nightmare.
Satin Hot Pants leads us to a corner booth that’s been roped off. It’s near the bar with access to the dance floor. Clearly the best seats in the house.
“There’ll be someone along to take your order shortly.” She gives us her full megawatt smile and, with a final flutter of eyelashes at my husband, sashays back from where she came. Mia is already jigging from foot to foot, itching to get onto the dance floor, and Ethan takes pity on her.
“Champagne?” Christian asks as they head off holding hands toward the dance floor. Ethan gives him a thumbs-up and Mia nods enthusiastically.
Kate and Elliot sit back on the soft velvet seating, hand in hand. They look so happy, their features soft and radiant in the glow from the tea lights flickering in crystal holders on the low table. Christian gestures for me to sit, and I scoot in beside Kate. He takes a seat beside me and anxiously scans the room.
“Show me your ring.” I raise my voice over the music. I will be hoarse by the time we leave. Kate beams at me and holds up her hand. The ring is exquisite, a single solitaire in a fine elaborate claw with tiny diamonds on either side. It has a retro Victorian look to it.
She nods in delight and, reaching over, squeezes Elliot’s thigh. He leans down and kisses her.
“Get a room,” I call out.
A young woman with short dark hair and a mischievous smile, wearing regulation, black satin, hot pants, comes to take our order.
“What do you want to drink?” Christian asks.
“You’re not picking up the tab for this, too,” Elliot grumbles.
“Don’t start that shit, Elliot,” Christian says mildly.
Despite the objections of Kate, Elliot and Ethan, Christian has paid for the meal we just consumed. He simply waved them aside and would not hear of anyone else paying. I gaze at him lovingly. My Fifty Shades . . . always in control.
Elliot opens his mouth to say something but, wisely perhaps, closes it again.
“I’ll have a beer,” he says.
“Kate?” Christian asks.
“More champagne, please. The Cristal is delicious. But I’m sure Ethan would prefer a beer.” She smiles sweetly— yes, sweetly—at Christian. She is incandescent with happiness. I feel it radiating off her, and it’s a pleasure to bask in her joy.
“Bottle of Cristal, three Peronis, and a bottle of iced mineral water, six glasses,” he says in his usual authoritative, no-nonsense manner.
It’s kinda hot.
“Thank you, sir. Coming right up.” Miss Hot Pants Number Two gives him a gracious smile, but he’s spared the fluttering of eyelashes though her cheeks redden a little.
I shake my head in resignation. He’s mine, girlfriend.
“What?” he asks me.
“She didn’t flutter her eyelashes at you.” I smirk.
“Oh. Was she supposed to?” he asks, failing to hide his mirth.
“Women usually do.” My tone is ironic.
He grins. “Mrs. Grey, are you jealous?”
“Not in the slightest.” I pout at him. And I realize in that moment that I am beginning to tolerate women ogling my husband. Almost. Christian clasps my hand and kisses my knuckles.
“You have nothing to be jealous of, Mrs. Grey,” he murmurs close to my ear, his breath tickling me.
The waitress returns, and moments later I’m sipping another glass of champagne.
“Here.” Christian hands me a glass of water. “Drink this.”
I frown at him and see, rather than hear, his sigh.
“Three glasses of white wine at dinner and two of champagne, after a strawberry daiquiri and two glasses of Frascati at lunchtime. Drink. Now, Ana.”
How does he know about the cocktails this afternoon? I scowl at him. But actually he does have a point. Taking the glass of water, I down it in a most unladylike manner to register my protest at being told what to do . . . again. I wipe my hand across the back of my mouth.
“Good girl,” he says, smirking. “You’ve vomited on me once already. I don’t wish to experience that again in a hurry.”
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about. You got to sleep with me.”
He smiles and his eyes soften. “Yeah, I did.”
Ethan and Mia are back.
“Ethan’s had enough, for now. Come on, girls. Let’s hit the floor. Strike a pose, throw some shapes, work off the calories from the chocolate mousse.”
Kate stands immediately. “Coming?” she asks Elliot.
“Let me watch you,” he says. And I have to look away quickly, blushing at the look he gives her. She grins as I stand.
“I’m going to burn some calories,” I say, and leaning down I whisper in Christian’s ear, “You can watch me.”
“Don’t bend over,” he growls.
“Okay.” I stand abruptly. Whoa! Head rush, and I clutch Christian’s shoulder as the room shifts and tilts a little.
“Perhaps you should have some more water,” Christian murmurs, a warning clear in his voice.
“I’m fine. These seats are low and my heels are high.”
Kate takes my hand, and taking a deep breath I follow her and Mia, perfectly poised, onto the dance floor.
The music is pulsing, a techno beat with a thumping bass line. The dance floor isn’t crowded, which means we have some space. The mix is eclect-ic—young and old alike dancing the night away. I have never been a good dancer.
In fact, it’s only since I’ve been with Christian that I dance at all. Kate hugs me.
“I’m so happy,” she shouts over the music, and she starts to dance. Mia is doing what Mia does, grinning at the pair of us, throwing herself around. Jeez, she’s taking up a lot of room on the dance floor. I glance back toward the table. Our men are watching us. I start to move. It’s a pulsing rhythm. I close my eyes and surrender to it.
I open my eyes to find the dance floor filling up. Kate, Mia and I are forced closer together. And to my surprise I find I’m actually enjoying myself. I begin to move a little more . . . bravely. Kate gives me two thumbs up, and I beam back at her.
I close my eyes. Why did I spend the first twenty years of my life not doing this? I chose reading over dancing. Jane Austen didn’t have great music to move to and Thomas Hardy . . . jeez, he’d have felt guilty as sin that he wasn’t dancing with his first wife. I giggle at the thought.
It’s Christian. He has given me this confidence in my body and how I can move it.
Suddenly, there are two hands on my hips. I grin. Christian has joined me. I wiggle, and his hands move to my behind and squeeze, then back to my hips.
I open my eyes. And Mia is gaping at me in horror. Shit . . . Am I that bad? I reach down to hold Christian’s hands. They’re hairy. Fuck! They’re not his. I whirl around, and towering over me is a blond giant with more teeth than is natural and a leering smile to showcase them.
“Get your hands off me!” I scream over the pounding music, apoplectic with rage.
“Come on, sugar, it’s just some fun.” He smiles, holding his apelike hands up, his blue eyes gleaming under the pulsing ultraviolet lights.
Before I know what I’m doing, I slap him hard across the face.
Ow! Shit . . . my hand. It stings. “Get away from me!” I shout. He gazes down at me, cupping his red cheek. I thrust my uninjured hand in front of his face, spreading my fingers to show him my rings.
“I’m married, you asshole!”
He shrugs rather arrogantly and gives me a halfhearted, apologetic smile.
I glance around frantically. Mia is at my right, glaring at Blond Giant. Kate is lost in the moment doing her thing. Christian is not at the table. Oh, I hope he’s gone to the restroom. I step back into a front I know well. Oh shit. Christian puts his arm around my waist and moves me to his side.
“Keep your fucking hands off my wife,” he says. He’s not shouting, but somehow he can be heard over the music.
“She can take care of herself,” Blond Giant shouts. His hand moves from his cheek where I’ve slapped him, and Christian hits him. It’s like I’m watching it in slow motion. A perfectly timed punch to the chin that moves at such speed, but with so little wasted energy, Blond Giant doesn’t see it coming. He crumples to the floor like the scumbag he is.
“Christian, no!” I gasp in panic, standing in front of him to hold him back.
Shit, he’ll kill him. “I already hit him,” I shout over the music. Christian doesn’t look at me. He’s glaring at my assailant with a malevolence I’ve not seen before flaring in his eyes. Well, maybe once before after Jack Hyde made a pass at me.
The other dancers move outward like a ripple in a pond, clearing space around us, keeping a safe distance. Blond Giant scrambles to his feet as Elliot joins us.
Oh no! Kate is with me, gaping at all of us. Elliot grasps Christian’s arm as Ethan appears, too.
“Take it easy, okay? Didn’t mean any harm.” Blond Giant holds his hands up in defeat, beating a hasty retreat. Christian’s eyes follow him off the dance floor.
He does not look at me.
The song changes from the explicit lyrics of “Sexy Bitch” to a pulsing techno dance number where a woman sings with an impassioned voice. Elliot looks down at me, then across at Christian, and releasing Christian, pulls Kate into a dance. I put my arms around Christian’s neck until he finally makes eye contact, his eyes still blazing—primal and feral. A glimpse of a brawling adolescent. Holy shit.
He scrutinizes my face. “Are you okay?” he asks finally.
“Yes.” I rub my palm, trying to dispel the sting, and bring my hands down to his chest. My hand is throbbing. I have never slapped anyone before. What possessed me? Touching me wasn’t the worst crime against humanity. Was it?
Yet deep down I know why I hit him. It’s because I instinctively knew how Christian would react seeing some stranger pawing me. I knew he’d lose his precious self-control. And the thought that some stupid nobody could derail my husband, my love, well, it makes me mad. Really mad.
“Do you want to sit down?” Christian asks over the pulsing beat.
Oh, come back to me, please.
“No. Dance with me.”
He looks at me impassively, saying nothing.
Touch me . . . the woman sings.
“Dance with me.” He’s still mad. “Dance. Christian, please.” I take his hands.
Christian glares after the guy, but I start to move against him, weaving myself around him.
The throng of dancers has circled us once more, although there’s now a two-foot exclusion zone around us.
“You hit him?” Christian asks, standing stock-still. I take his fisted hands.
“Of course I did. I thought it was you, but his hands were hairier. Please dance with me.”
As Christian gazes at me, the fire in his eyes slowly changes, evolves into something else, something darker, something hotter. Suddenly, he grabs my wrists and pulls me flush against him, pinning my hands behind my back.
“You wanna dance? Let’s dance,” he growls close to my ear, and as he rolls his hips around into me, I can do nothing but follow, his hands holding mine against my backside.
Oh . . . Christian can move, really move. He keeps me close, not letting me go, but his hands gradually relax on mine, freeing me. My hands creep around, up his arms, feeling his bunched muscles through his jacket, up to his shoulders. He presses me against him, and I follow his moves as he slowly, sensually dances with me in time to the pulsing beat of the club music.
The moment he grabs my hand and spins me first one way, then the other, I know he’s back with me. I grin. He grins.
We dance together and it’s liberating—fun. His anger forgotten, or suppressed, he whirls me around with consummate skill in our small space on the dance floor, never letting go. He makes me graceful, that’s his skill. He makes me sexy, because that’s what he is. He makes me feel loved, because in spite of his fifty shades, he has a wealth of love to give. Watching him now, enjoying himself . . . one could be forgiven for thinking he doesn’t have a care in the world.
But I know his love is clouded with issues of overprotectiveness and control, but it doesn’t make me love him any less.
I am breathless when the song morphs to another.
“Can we sit?” I gasp.
“Sure.” He leads me off the dance floor.
“You’ve made me rather hot and sweaty,” I whisper as we return to the table.
He pulls me into his arms. “I like you hot and sweaty. Though I prefer to make you hot and sweaty in private,” he purrs, and a lascivious smile tugs at his lips.
As I sit, it’s as if the incident on the dance floor never happened. I’m vaguely surprised we haven’t been thrown out. I glance around the bar. No one is looking at us, and I can’t see Blond Giant. Maybe he left, or maybe he’s been thrown out.
Kate and Elliot are being indecent on the dance floor, Ethan and Mia less so. I take another sip of champagne.
“Here.” Christian puts another glass of water before me and regards me intently. His expression is expectant— drink it. Drink it now.
I do as I’m told. Besides, I’m thirsty.
He lifts a bottle of Peroni from the ice bucket on the table and takes a long drink.
“What if there had been press here?” I ask.
Christian knows immediately that I’m referring to him knocking Blond Giant on his ass.
“I have expensive lawyers,” he says coolly, all at once arrogance personified.
I frown at him. “But you’re not above the law, Christian. I did have the situation under control.”
His eyes frost. “No one touches what’s mine,” he says with chilling finality, as if I’m missing the obvious.
Oh . . . I take another sip of my champagne. All of a sudden I feel overwhelmed. The music is loud, pounding, my head and feet are aching, and I feel woozy.He grasps my hand. “Come, let’s go. I want to get you home,” he says.
Kate and Elliot join us.
“You going?” Kate asks and her voice is hopeful.
“Yes,” Christian says.
“Good, we’ll come with you.”
As we wait at the coat check for Christian to retrieve my trench coat, Kate quizzes me.
“What happened with that guy on the dance floor?”
“He was feeling me up.”
“I opened my eyes and you’d hit him.”
I shrug. “Well, I knew Christian would go thermonuclear, and that could potentially ruin your evening.” I haven’t really processed how I feel about Christian’s behavior. I was worried that it would be worse.
“Our evening,” she clarifies. “He is rather hot-headed, isn’t he?” Kate adds dryly, staring at Christian as he collects my coat.
I snort and smile. “You could say that.”
“I think you handle him well.”
“Handle?” I frown. Do I handle Christian?
“Here.” Christian holds my coat open for me so that I can put it on.
“Wake up, Ana.” Christian is shaking me gently. We’ve arrived back at the house.
Reluctantly I open my eyes and stagger from the minivan. Kate and Elliot have disappeared, and Taylor is standing patiently beside the vehicle.
“Do I need to carry you?” Christian asks.
I shake my head.
“I’ll fetch Miss Grey and Mr. Kavanagh,” Taylor says.
Christian nods then leads me to the front door. My feet are throbbing, and I stumble after him. At the front door he bends down, grasps my ankle, and gently pries off first one shoe, then the other. Oh, the relief. He straightens and gazes down at me, holding my Manolos.
“Better?” he asks, amused.
“I had delightful visions of these around my ears,” he murmurs, staring down wistfully at my shoes. He shakes his head and, taking my hand once more, leads me through the darkened house, and up the stairs to our bedroom.
“You’re wrecked, aren’t you?” he says softly, staring down at me.
I nod. He starts to unbuckle the belt on my trench coat.
“I’ll do it,” I mutter, making a halfhearted attempt to brush him off.
I sigh. I had no idea I was this tired.
“It’s the altitude. You’re not used to it. And the drinking, of course.” He smirks, divests me of my coat, and throws it on one of the bedroom chairs. Taking my hand, he leads me into the bathroom. Why are we going in here?
“Sit,” he says.
I sit on the chair and close my eyes. I hear him as he messes around with bottles on the vanity unit. I am too tired to open my eyes to find out what he’s doing. A moment later he tips my head back, and I open my eyes in surprise.
“Eyes closed,” Christian says . Holy crap, he’s holding a cotton ball! Gently, he wipes it over my right eye. I sit stunned as he methodically removes my makeup.
“Ah. There’s the woman I married,” he says after a few wipes.
“You don’t like makeup?”
“I like it well enough, but I prefer what’s beneath it.” He kisses my forehead.
“Here. Take these.” He puts some Advil into my palm and hands me a glass of water.
I look and pout.
“Take them,” he orders.
I roll my eyes, but do as I’m told.
“Good. Do you need a private moment?” he asks sardonically.
I snort. “So coy, Mr. Grey. Yes, I need to pee.”
He laughs. “You expect me to leave?”
I giggle. “You want to stay?”
He cocks his head to one side, his expression amused.
“You are one kinky son of a bitch. Out. I don’t want you to watch me pee.
That’s a step too far.” I stand and wave him out of the bathroom.
When I emerge from the bathroom, he’s changed into his pajama bottoms.
Hmm . . . Christian in PJs. Mesmerized, I gaze at his abdomen, his muscles, his happy trail. It’s distracting. He strides over to me.
“Enjoying the view?” he asks wryly.
“I think you’re slightly drunk, Mrs. Grey.”
“I think, for once, I have to agree with you, Mr. Grey.”
“Let me help you out of what little there is of this dress. It really should come with a health warning.” He turns me around and undoes the single button at the neck.
“You were so mad,” I murmur.
“Yes. I was.”
“No. Not at you.” He kisses my shoulder. “For once.”
I smile. Not mad at me. This is progress. “Makes a nice change.”
“Yes. It does.” He kisses my other shoulder then tugs my dress down over my backside and onto the floor. He removes my panties at the same time, leaving me naked. Reaching up, he takes my hand.
“Step,” he commands, and I step out of the dress, holding his hand for balance.
He stands and tosses my dress and panties onto the chair with Mia’s trench coat.
“Arms up,” he says softly. He slips his T-shirt over me and pulls it down, covering me up. I am ready for bed.
He pulls me into his arms and kisses me, my minty breath mingling with his.
“As much as I’d love to bury myself in you, Mrs. Grey—you’ve had too much to drink, you’re at nearly eight thousand feet, and you didn’t sleep well last night. Come. Get into bed.” He pulls back the duvet and I climb in. He covers me up and kisses my forehead once more.
“Close your eyes. When I come back to bed, I’ll expect you to be asleep.” It’s a threat, a command . . . it’s Christian.
“Don’t go,” I plead.
“I have some calls to make, Ana.”
“It’s Saturday. It’s late. Please.”
He runs his hands through his hair. “Ana, if I come to bed with you now, you won’t get any rest. Sleep.” He’s adamant. I close my eyes and his lips brush my forehead once more.
“Goodnight, baby,” he breathes.
Images of the day flash through my mind . . . Christian hauling me over his shoulder in the plane. His anxiety as to whether or not I’d like the house. Making love this afternoon. The bath. His reaction to my dress. Decking Blond Giant—my palm tingles at the memory. And then Christian putting me to bed.
Who would have thought? I grin widely, the word progress running around my brain as I drift.