RUN!

/* A/N: My apologies to the readers of my other stories. This bit of fluff started as an attempt to re-inspire my muse so I could continue them, and it's taken on a life of its own. Don't know if I'll continue it or not (please – no coercion). Just thought you might enjoy. –C7 */

All rights and ownership of the original FSOG characters remain with EL James. I'm merely toying with them in my own virtual playground.

-AS-

The half-house rental Kate and I shared through 4 years of college is dark, just a lonely shaft of moonlight sneaking in my window. I am alone, huddled under my blanket, tears still seeping down my cheeks. Thank God Kate is out with her folks celebrating graduation; they'd planned on drinking and were staying the night at the Heathman.

At the thought, my heart squeezed and more tears gushed. The Heathman… him. The man who twisted my world inside out. The man who wanted me, but not to love. No, he doesn't do love. He wants me as his "whipping toy". A fuck-buddy. A slave. My thoughts replayed the evening as if in self-flagellation.

He'd come over earlier to talk about that damned contract again. He was so nice, brought a bottle of the most delicious champagne. Or maybe it was the teacups that made it taste so good. We talked and then he gives me that ridiculously expensive car! Then orders me to just be grateful for his gift; his far-too-much over-the-top gift that felt so much like a payment for sex. Yes, I felt like a hooker, felt like he was trying to buy my sexual favors.

Back in the house, I tried again to express my feelings about accepting the car. He just seemed to get angrier, then cut me off, telling me he'd discussed it with Ray who'd agreed it would be much safer for me, end-of-discussion. How dare he involve Ray in this!

And then in pure frustration, I'd rolled my eyes at him.

His eyes glittered with demonic glee and his voice dropped low and lethal. "Miss Steele, do you recall what I said I would do the next time you rolled your eyes at me?" I'd frozen, terrified, not even blinking as I stared at him with my heart in my throat.

He stood swiftly, took me by the wrist into the bedroom. The only light was the small lamp with the frilly shade sitting on the nightstand, about to have a ring-side seat. His movements quick and sure like ballet, he sat on the bed, yanked down my sweats, and had me across his lap, my right wrist secured tight behind my back, his forearm pressing me into the mattress.

"You will get eight strikes for not graciously accepting my gift, and ten strikes for rolling your eyes at me," he'd decreed. My heart hammered in my throat as I trembled in fear. "You don't have to count this time."

Count? Before the thought even fully registered, his hand came down and YOWZA it HURT! I yelped, tried to squirm but he pushed my arm down hard, keeping me trapped. "SILENCE!" he roared. Another hit. I grimaced, eyes mashed tight, teeth bared against the horrific pain. Three more and I was biting my lip to keep quiet, tasting blood and tears, trying to get purchase to get away. He was too strong!

Pain and panic shot into the stratosphere. My backside felt like hot lava was being poured on it. I couldn't stop the sobs, the dry whisper of screams muffled into the blanket. The world ceased to exist and there was only the consuming pain. The last several strikes came even faster and my body bowed, my free hand clawing at the bed, trying for grip, desperate to get away. Then it finally stopped.

He tried to pull me upright, but it felt like an opening, and the crazed animal I'd become took advantage. Feet on the ground, I grabbed the waistband of the sweats as I shoved hard at his chest and bolted, scrambling for the bathroom and locking myself in. I pushed my back to the door, still sobbing, then collapsed to the floor on my knees, huddled and beaten and hurting.

Bam. Bam. Bam.

"Ana, open the door," he commanded imperiously. As if! He rapped again.

"I'm ordering you to open this door. I mean it, Ana."

"Go away," I managed to croak, my throat clogged with tears.

Tears streamed down my face from the blistering fire in my ass and the escalating panic that he might find a way to get through the door, get his hands on me again. I huddled like a whipped dog, bracing against the door in faint hope it might keep him away. Holding my breath for a moment, I listened and heard him muttering and pacing just a few feet away.

"Ana, as your Dom I command you to open this door immediately. If you do not obey, the very next time I get my hands on you, no matter where we are, I will immediately turn you over my knee and tan your hide so bad you won't be able to sit down for a month. NOW OPEN THE DAMNED DOOR!" he roared.

"NO! GO AWAY! GO AWAY! LEAVE ME ALONE!" I screamed, out of my mind with pain and terror, choking on my tears.

"So be it, Ana. Just remember, I'm a Dom who keeps his word," he snarled.

Heart pounding, I could barely make out the sounds of his footfalls heading for the living room and the front door opening then shutting. I slumped further, wailing from the pain, the fear, the threat.

I snapped out of the horrible memory, trembling. How could someone LIKE doing that, hurting someone so bad? Just for rolling my eyes and trying to tell him I was uncomfortable with his gift? He wanted honesty and then I get punished for it? My heart felt like it was getting squished in a vise.

Unbidden, the horror-movie memory picked up where it had paused.

Fully a half hour later, I'd finally cried myself out. Weary beyond imagining, I forced myself to my feet, staggered over to the sink, splashed some cool water on my face. My eyelids were so puffy I could barely see, my face an ugly blotchy red, hair a frazzled mess.

I looked hideous. Another tear slipped out, surprising me that I had any left to shed. I dashed it away angrily, turned to the door, saw my reflection in the mirror hung on the back of it. Call it morbid curiosity – I had to see how bad my ass looked given that it still felt radioactive. I clicked on the overhead light, twisted my head to look over my shoulder as I slid down my sweatpants. I was shocked! No wonder I hurt so bad! Vicious red mixed with splotches of blue and purple – deep bruising already starting.

Pulling the waistband back into place, I shut off the light and finally cracked open the door. I peered around cautiously, fearful he was still here even though I'd heard his footsteps go out the front door, heard the sound of a car door opening and closing, a vehicle pulling out of the drive. I let go a deep breath in relief – I was alone.

A quick sprint to the front door had me locking it and throwing the deadbolt. Next stop, the kitchen. Thankfully there was still a tray of ice cubes in the otherwise empty freezer. I grabbed a plastic grocery bag, dumped in the cubes, wrapped a kitchen towel around it, and took my ice pack back to bed with me. After half an hour of 'on for five minutes, off for two' my backside felt a little better. I got up, dumped the ice in the kitchen sink, threw out the bag, and draped the slightly soggy towel over the handle of the oven door. Just to be on the safe side, I downed a couple of ibuprofen, clicked off the lights and went to bed.

So here I lay, wicked sore, confused, miserable and heart-sick, my thoughts still whirling. Oh I had wanted him, craved him in a way I'd never felt before. The way he'd made my body sing when he'd made love to me (well, in his words "remedied my condition") was extraordinary. So besotted, I'd finally agreed tonight to try being his sub. I had no freaking idea it was going to be like this!

An avalanche of pure terror slid its icy way down my spine in blinding realization: if he could willingly hurt me this bad with just his hand, how much worse would it be with all those paddles and whips and shit in his playroom? He had nearly a foot in height on me, must outweigh me by a good 60-70 pounds, and he's all muscle. What chance does a rabbit have against a lion?

I suddenly couldn't catch my breath, the fear taking over. No! I can't do this. I won't be abused, not by Husband Number Three and certainly not by Christian. Under that gorgeous exterior he's pure evil. My heart wrenched at the thought of letting him go, but there was no way in hell I'd ever let him do that to me again. I can't be what he wants. Doesn't matter if I have feelings for him, survival is paramount.

Rolling over, I hissed at the pain that radiated. It made something click in my brain, my anger began to fire. Bruising my ass for rolling my eyes at him? Oh, HELL no!

Anger was good. It was welcomed. It overrode the fear and came up with a plan.

-CG-

He stood at the bathroom door, his heart shredding listening to her sobs. It took every bit of his considerable training to rein in these strange feelings and project his Dom persona.

"So be it, Ana. Just remember, I'm a Dom who keeps his word," he said gravely.

Elena would be so proud of him for his control. He didn't go off the deep end and beat on the door, bleating for her to forgive him, although something inside his chest wanted to do exactly that. She was confusing him, confounding him, overturning his carefully ordered world. Now she was denying him his obligation to provide for her aftercare.

He forced himself to turn away from the door and leave, didn't understand the intense pull he felt trying to draw him back. He told himself couldn't stay: he was far too angry and confused and she was far too upset right now. Oh but how he longed to stay, to beg her to come out, to hold her in his arms and give comfort. NO! Elena's words rang in his head: "You are a DOM, Christian Grey. You do NOT have feelings. You are NOT indecisive. This is NOT the way I taught you!" He'd never felt so torn. What in the hell was this girl doing to him?

His thoughts tumbled as he walked out, shut the front door loudly so she'd be certain to hear it, headed for his car. He thought back over the evening, trying to understand where it had all gone wrong. He'd warned her several times about that eye-rolling, told her exactly what he'd do about it, and yet she did it again, obviously pushing him. Was she testing him to see if he'd do what he said? Why would she doubt him? But then it almost seemed like she didn't want the spanking. He'd had subs squirm and scream before, but not as if they were desperately trying to get away from him. Perhaps it was simply because it was her first time? Unease draped over him like a wet blanket. What made no sense at all was this twisting ache in his chest, as if in spanking her he was hurting himself.

Bewildered, he got in his car and drove back to the Heathman. He had an early breakfast meeting on campus, then had to take Charlie Tango back to Seattle for an overseas conference call in the afternoon, followed by several meetings that had already been rescheduled to allow him two days in Portland. This business about Ana would just have to wait until she moved to Seattle. That would give them both several days to calm down, give him time to maybe call Elena and get his head back on straight, figure out what he needed to do next.

-AS-

I glanced at the alarm clock, noticed it wasn't too late. I sat up to grab my phone, grimacing again at the pain, a potent reminder to do what I needed to in order to survive. I pushed speed-dial 3, heard it ring twice.

"Hello?"

"Hi Mom."

"Ana? It's nearly midnight here. Is everything okay?"

"Not exactly. Um, I'm sorry to call so late, but…"

"Nonsense. I'm here for you, honey. I'm just sorry I couldn't be there for your graduation because of Bob and his broken leg."

"I know, Mom. And I really don't know how to explain it, but I just have this feeling that going to Seattle really isn't the right thing for me."

"Oh? But you were so sure."

"I know. But, well, you know how you've gotten feelings about things…" I knew I was playing on her supposed intuition, but this was the only way to explain my sudden decision. No way could she ever know the truth.

"Do I ever! You had such a feeling?"

"Every time I think about moving to Seattle I just get this weird feeling, like something is telling me I'm making a huge mistake. Is that how your intuition feels?"

"Yes! Exactly that way."

"Mom, I know you mentioned that Bob could get me a job through one of his golfing buddies from the country club. Um, is that offer still open?"

"I'm sure it is. They're all businessmen with their own companies. One of them is bound to have some kind of job opening. So does this mean you're coming to Georgia?" she asked, excited.

"If you'll have me. Just until I can get my feet under me, then I'll find an apartment."

"Honey, I'd love to have you here. We've got three guest bedrooms so you can take your pick."

"Thanks Mom. I'll see you soon. Love you."

"Love you too, sweetheart."

I rang off, satisfied that my escape plan was set in motion.

Too wound up, and sore, to sleep, I got up and began packing up the rest of my stuff, leaving one small duffle open for the remaining toiletries and towel I'd use in the morning, plus my clothes for the trip. I stripped the bed, packed the linens, disassembled the frame. Thank goodness twin beds didn't weigh much. The nightstand lamp and clock got packed too – I'd use the watch Carla had given me from my bio-dad.

I emptied the last few items from my closet in a rush, keeping out a fresh pair of jeans and a white blouse to wear in the morning, a couple changes of clothes for the road. It took about an hour to get everything squared away, but it helped burn off some of the panic. I'd even washed the tea cups and repacked them for Kate.

A stab of pain went through me as I thought of her. If this went down as I hoped, we'd end up on opposite sides of the country. My best friend, closest confidant for the last four years, and suddenly I was breaking our plans and running, all because of that... that sadist! The thought worked like emotional alchemy, turning the last of my fear and panic into anger. Anger was good. Anger would keep me focused, keep me moving.

I gingerly sat down in front of my laptop – his laptop, yet another gift he'd shoved down my throat. I booted up, surprised that there was an email from him. No! I didn't care what he had to say. Focus, Ana! I opened a browser, searched for truck rental places.

Luck was with me – I found one that happened to be right next door to a used car lot. Using their online app, I arranged to rent a small truck for pickup in the morning. Looked like they had several in their current inventory. A one-way ride to Georgia.

Next, I skipped over to the Kelly Blue Book site, checked out how much that Audi was worth. My jaw dropped – base price was 30K! I rooted around, fairly certain that car had options, and decided best guess was that it was worth around 36K. I searched for used, current year cars, found they were going for anywhere between 28K and 35K. I had my bargaining point. With that settled, I closed the laptop, still intentionally ignoring his email, and set about the hardest task: writing a short letter to Kate, telling her I'd explain things later.

I grabbed 5 hours of sleep on the sofa, before a quick shower and change of clothes. I used a little mascara to brighten my still slightly puffy eyes, threw my hair into a tight twist secured with a large clasp, grabbed my purse and headed out the door. I snarled seeing that red Audi, but I needed it to get me where I had to go.

Checking the glovebox, I was happy to see the title, registration and insurance papers, all in my name. Since he was so adamant it was a gift, then I was free to do whatever the hell I wanted with it. I clicked my seatbelt, started it up, and took off down the road.

Okay, I'll admit it, it drove a lot nicer than Wanda. But red? Ugh! Ray had always warned me off red cars, called them "cop magnets" saying that cops tended to focus on red cars more than any other color. Well, hopefully that wouldn't be a problem for me beyond today.

First stop, MickeyD's drive-thru for breakfast and juice. Then, on to the bank. I arrived as they opened, and was able to quickly close out my account, a whole $1,031.22. Next stop, the rental company.

That took about half an hour. I looked over the trucks they had, talked to the bored sales-guy about how much stuff I had to move, finally settled on the 10' truck. I filled out the paperwork, gave him my credit card. He gave me copies of my receipt and the rental agreement, along with the keys. I mentioned I'd pick up the truck in a little bit, as I had to see the guy next door about selling my car. The sales guy looked surprised.

"You're selling that Audi? But, it looks brand new!"

"It is. Gift from an ex that I need to get rid of."

"How many miles are on it?"

"Uh, around fifty I think?" A chill swept over me at the number and it's association.

"How much you want for it?"

"What are you offering?"

"Hang on just a minute."

He went to a different computer, brought up a search engine, obviously looking to see what they were worth. I excused myself to make a quick trip to the ladies room. When I returned, he was just finishing up.

"That's the A3 sedan, right?"

"Yeah, lots of options on it. Would you like to see it?"

He nodded. We walked out of the small office, and I unlocked the car. He looked all over the interior, had me pop the trunk and the hood as well. I started it up for him so he could listen to the engine. He looked over the paperwork to verify it.

"You weren't kidding! It really is brand new."

"And I'd like to see it go to a good home. It's just… too many memories tied up with it for me to keep it." I tried giving him the puppy-dog eyes that Kate swore always got her what she wanted.

"Would you take 25K?"

"How about 30?"

We dickered a bit, came to a consensus on $28,500.

"There's just one problem – I'm heading out in just a little bit and I need the money now."

"Would you take a check for it?"

"Only if it's a bank check. But I'd prefer cash."

"Okay. How about this? You bring the title and I'll let us out and lock the gate. My bank is right across the street. I can get the money for you and we'll get your signature on the title notarized at the same time."

Twenty minutes later, I waved bye-bye to that red Audi, and pulled out of the lot in the rental truck, a bag of money stashed under the seat. Got home, and started loading up. With each box I was thanking my lucky stars that I wasn't the packrat and clothes-horse that was Kate.

An hour later, I closed the back door of the truck and used my combo lock to secure it. Back inside our apartment, I felt the melancholy creeping in as I looked around for the last time. We'd had some really good times here. I grabbed a few paper towels, wet them in the sink, wiped the sweat off my face and arms. Sipping on a bottle of water from the fridge, I moved the laptop and blackberry to the kitchen table, still debating whether I should read his email or not.

I had my hand on the lid, about to open it, when I came to my senses. There was no point in reading it. My plan was in motion. There was nothing he could say at this point to change my mind; I had to protect myself. Instead, I taped the letter to Kate on top of the lid, apologizing for running out on her like this. In my note, I asked for forgiveness, also asked that she return the laptop and phone to Elliot to give to him. I tried to explain my sudden decision using the same explanation I'd given my mom, told her I'd call her when I got my new phone, asked her to call José and let him know. Didn't think I could risk telling her the truth, as she might have Elliot with her when she returned. I hoped it would be enough. Then, a quick bathroom break, and I was on the road. Just 2,900 miles to go.

Took me three long days to get from Portland to Savannah, with overnight stops in Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City. In Utah, when I'd fueled up at a truck stop and had dinner, I bought a new cell phone. That evening, once I'd found a small motel room and settled in, I called Ray and let him know about my change of plans, and my new number.

Needless to say he was stunned. I apologized profusely, knowing I'd be putting so much distance between us, but he seemed to understand, counseled me to follow my feelings, and reminded me that nothing was set in stone: if things didn't work out in Georgia, I could always come back. I told him too that Christian and I broke up, asked that if he heard from Christian he wouldn't tell him anything. Ray was quiet for a long few seconds before asking if Christian had hurt me. I denied it, only saying that he was too intense and I needed space. Ray agreed without prodding further. That was another weight off my shoulders.

I was hot, sticky, sore and utterly wiped out by the time I pulled in mom's driveway that evening. My rental truck of course stood out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood of groomed lawns and classic southern manse. Carla surprised me, coming out to meet me at the truck.

"Mom," I gratefully whispered.

"Sweetheart! You made it!" She hugged me like a boa constrictor. "I'm so happy you're finally here."

"Me too. That was a very, very, long trip. But everything was good. No trouble at all."

"I'm so happy to hear that. You look beat. C'mon in. I saved you a plate of dinner."

Hah, if you only knew!

Carla fussed around me for a bit, getting my dinner nuked, pouring me a tall glass of iced sweet tea. Bob hobbled in on his crutches.

"Ana! You made it."

"Hi Bob. Yes, finally. Long trip."

"Coast to coast is a long trip."

"So how'd you get those crutches?" I never did get the story behind their aborted trip to Portland for my graduation.

"Golfing," he said, deadpan.

Was he serious? I chuckled, and my overtired brain said the first thing that came to mind.

"I thought the little ball was supposed to go in the hole, not your foot. Or was it a gopher hole?"

He laughed, shook his head as he took a seat across from me.

"Good one. Actually it's worse. I got run over by a golf cart."

"What?" I was chagrined. How was that even possible?

"I was on the seventh green, teeing up, concentrating so hard on my shot that I wasn't paying a lick of attention to what was going on around me. One of the other members of the club was drunk out of his mind, weaving his cart all over creation but heading right at us, waving a 9 iron and yelling something about squirrels. My foursome claimed they yelled to me, but I honestly didn't hear them. He plowed into me, ran me over, then kept going right into the water hazard."

"Seriously?"

"Oh yes, it was a day for the books, Ana," mom interjected, setting a warm plate of chicken stew and cornbread in front of me. "The groundskeeper threw a fit about having an ambulance on the greens. Then the police showed up and had to wrestle the guy to the ground as he kept swinging the club at them, cussing out the squirrels."

"I wonder what the squirrels ever did to him?" I puzzled, tucking into my dinner.

"We may never know," Bob replied. "The assault charges are still pending, and the club is filing their own charges against him for the damage he caused. The club captains called an emergency meeting of the membership and voted his sorry ass out. So, thankfully that's the last of him."

"Wow. I thought Savannah was supposed to be this sleepy little southern town."

"We have our moments," he chuckled.

"So, how long do you have to wear the cast?"

"Another 3 weeks. Wish it was less, the darned thing's starting to itch."

All in all, not a bad reception I thought, as I pushed myself to unload the truck – the contents of my life so far – into the covered back porch. I was surprised when Mom even began helping with some of the lighter items, until she heard Bob yelling for her, something about his pain meds. It took under an hour, and a quick call to the local rental company confirmed they would still be open for another 20 minutes. I got mom to follow me there, and I turned the truck back in, hurriedly remembering to grab the bag under the seat and stuff it into my oversized purse. Back at the house, I grabbed a shower, stuffed the money bag behind the access panel to the en suite plumbing, then hit the sack, finally feeling safe enough to let my guard down.

-CG-

I wiped the fear-sweat from my brow, courtesy of my latest nightmare, got out of bed and headed straight for the bar. Needed the bourbon to numb my jangling nerves, numb this creeping empty void in my chest. I downed a double shot, poured another, took it with me to the desk where I opened my laptop. Sighing, I frowned: Ana still hadn't opened my email. She hadn't responded to any of my voicemails either, her protracted radio silence worrying me.

It's been two days since I last saw her, and the twisting in my guts has only worsened, along with the nightmares. Instead of talking to Elena, figuring she'd be unhelpful and merely tell me to forget Ana, I opted earlier for a long session with Flynn.

It took nearly the full two hour session to pour out my heart and misery; a flood of uncensored verbal diarrhea that utterly shocked him. Once he'd recovered, he told me some things that I'm still not sure I believe, and yet, I have no other way to explain. He said that we don't choose who we fall in love with; that when we hurt the one we love we hurt ourselves; recommended that I not continue thinking of Ana as a sub; suggested it was time that I broke out of the narrow strictures of the BDSM lifestyle and opened myself to new experiences. Cagey Brit that he is, he hinted that for me to experience life on the normal side of the street would help me to understand - and possibly better manipulate – those on the other side of the conference table.

I asked what he thought I should do next, and of course he came back at me with that SFBT shit again, telling me that I should give it an honest try this time. Didn't see as I had a better plan, so I reluctantly agreed and he helped me set my goals: talk to Ana and offer to be her boyfriend and not her Dom (although I wasn't sure I could just give that all up – it's been part of my life for so long); apologize for spanking her so harshly (it had slipped my mind she wasn't an experienced sub and couldn't handle that much pain); and finally, try to do some 'normal' things like take her out on dates. Together we decided that the dates could take place at different venues in Seattle, give her a chance to get to know the city, as she and Kate were moving here tomorrow. He suggested I help them move, but I nixed that, told him I was already obligated to pick Mia up at the airport. So, he advised I bring her flowers when I go to see her new place.

Yeah, hearts and flowers. I shook my head, chagrined to find myself right back at square one. This Dom doesn't do hearts and flowers, and yet it looks like precisely the opposite of what I am and what I do is the formula I'll need to follow to get what I want.

Late the next day, after getting a text from Elliot saying he's back in Seattle and giving me their new address, I picked up the bunch of white roses I'd had waiting on the breakfast bar and headed out. Taylor met me at the elevator. I'd originally considered leaving him behind, but then thought perhaps he could be a bit of a buffer if Ana proved stubborn. I hoped stubborn was all I had to deal with. Their new place was just a few minutes away.

Taylor pulled up in front of one of the newer condo buildings, very modern and fashionable, and right next door to Pike Place Market, but I had him circle around back and park. Sure enough, I saw Elliot's truck. I glanced around but didn't see the red Audi, then considered perhaps it was in the parking garage. I grabbed the flowers, telling Taylor to wait here. Wasn't sure what I was walking in to, so best to keep him close at hand. Getting in, I signed in at the desk, headed up in the elevator, all the while considering how I could get Taylor to analyze the building's security, make sure it was adequate.

Seventh floor. Apartment 701. Deep breath. Don't blow this, Grey. No anger, no threats, no spanking. Just be happy to see her. I hit the buzzer and waited. A deadbolt shot back, the door opened, and there stood Kate with her jaw on the floor.

"Hi Kate. Um, is Ana around?" I took a tentative step inside.

She blinked once, then morphed into an enraged beast.

"HOW FUCKING DARE YOU! What the hell are you doing here?!" she screamed.

I recoiled, and blinked, dumbfounded. Looking past her I saw Elliot getting up from the sofa, coming up behind Kate and wrapping his arms around her waist. Protecting her, or protecting me?

"Bro, come in and sit down. We have to talk."

Experience taught me that was never the prelude to anything good. I swallowed hard as he literally pulled Kate back to the sofa, and sat her down. I sat in the chair opposite them, my stomach in freefall.

"What's going on? Where's Ana?"

"HOW THE HELL SHOULD I KNOW?!" Kate yelled again.

"Shush, Kate. Chris, I don't know how to tell you this." He ran his hand through his hair, blew out a sigh. "Ana's not here."

"WHAT?"

Over the next several minutes, Elliot related how Ana had apparently disappeared, taking her stuff with her. He hadn't found out until he'd showed up in Portland, ready to help move their stuff. Kate made to get up, but he tugged her back. She shook her head at him, whispered something, then he let her go. She headed over to the small kitchen, returned and handed me Ana's laptop and blackberry, rejoined Elliot but stared daggers at me.

"When I got home the day after graduation," Kate snarled, "she was already gone. All her stuff was just... gone. She left me a note, said she wouldn't be moving with me to Seattle and that she'd be in touch. She also asked me to give you those. What the hell did you do to her, Grey?" Kate's tears began flowing down her cheeks, her voice getting hysterical. "What did you do to make her run? We were supposed to move in here together, start our lives. Why did you have to hurt her?"

Kate succumbed to the sobs and Elliot pulled her close, holding her. I looked down at the laptop, saw a small folded note taped to it. With a trembling finger, I flicked it open. "You can't give me what I want, and I can't give you what you need. Goodbye. Ana" My eyelids mashed closed, contorted in lancing pain. This couldn't be happening.

"No," I choked out, "no. She can't be gone. I need her." I tossed the electronics on the coffee table, scrubbed my hands over my face trying to contain my tears. I must have dropped the bouquet on the floor – I don't even remember. Next thing I knew, Elliot had his hand on my shoulder. I looked up, noticed Kate was no longer in the room. He nudged me to my feet, and I followed him through the slider and out onto the little balcony. He reached back, closed the slider behind us, rounded on me.

"Chris, what the fuck happened? What did you do to her? Kate's been on a nonstop crying jag, and I'm pretty pissed too. Ana was a good kid. What happened with you two?"

"I… I, uh…" Shit! I can't tell him. He'd want to know why I spanked her so hard, hurt her, and that was a conversation I was not about to have with him or anyone else. I ran my hands through my hair, exasperated.

"Dammit, little bro. Enough with the lies and hedging. I'm not letting you off this balcony until you tell me."

Elliot stood in front of the door handle, shoulders back, arms laced across his muscular chest. I almost laughed seeing him in a Dom stance. Aw, fuck!

"Promise me you won't tell Kate."

"I can't make any promises until you tell me what the fuck you did to screw up the best thing that ever happened to you."

Fuck! I didn't have a choice. Maybe a dab of the truth would be enough.

"Alright. Fine. If you have to know, I spanked her."

Elliot looked totally flummoxed. Obviously what I said was nothing he'd expected to hear.

"Spanked… her?"

"She has the nasty habit of rolling her eyes at me, so I told her the next time she did it, I'd spank her. She did, and I did. Although I might have taken it a bit too far."

"Spanked… her."

"Then she locked herself in the bathroom and yelled at me to leave. I couldn't convince her to come out, so eventually I did leave. It was late, I had an early breakfast meeting on campus, then I had to fly back to take care of some other stuff."

"Did you even talk to her after that?"

"No. I figured she was upset with me, and I was angry, thought we could both do with some time to cool off. I sent her an email that night, which she apparently never read. I've sent her a lot of texts, tried calling a couple of times, but I can see now that was pointless if she didn't take her phone."

Elliot raked hands through his hair, his shoulders slumped, looking pained.

"Dammit to hell, Christian. Ana wasn't one of your damned subs. What the hell's the matter with you?" he hissed.

I froze, shocked. He glanced at me, sighed.

"Yeah, I know all about your so-called lifestyle, brother. I've known for years."

"How?"

"Look, we need to talk, and not here. Kate's going to get snoopy pretty soon. Let's go back to your place."

All I could do was nod, stunned that he knew my secrets, my depravity.

Back at Escala, we settled on the sofa in front of the fireplace, glasses of bourbon in hand, the bottle sat in front of us. Elliot took a hearty swig, then opened the chat.

"Y'know, it never set right with me that when you turned 15, you magically turned back into Dr. Jekyll. No more fighting, no more sneaking Dad's liquor, your grades came up. But you also began closing off from us even more than before. I suspected it had something to do with that witch Elena. You were spending too much time over there, and every time you came home you practically locked yourself in your room.

"I figured, okay, 15 and horny, drooling all over her body while you worked over there, you needed some privacy to take the edge off. But something just didn't feel right about it. Chris, Elena had made a play for me a couple of years earlier when I'd turned 15, and I'd brushed her off, threatened to tell mom and dad if she ever tried it again. She backed off and left me alone. I began to wonder if she'd gone after you, so one day I followed you over to her house. I peeked in the windows, saw some of what she did to you. I threw up in the bushes, tried to keep quiet so she didn't hear me."

I hung my head, gutted that he knew.

"Afters, I went home, did a lot of thinking about it. Then the next day, you seemed so, well, almost happy. It confused the hell out of me knowing what she'd done to you. So I finally figured that it was your secret, that it apparently made you happy and kept you civil, so I kept my mouth shut. Then a few years later, I met up with a friend of mine at the private club downstairs from Crypt."

My head shot up, staring at him, shocked.

"He was into the scene, not me. He offered to let me have a look at his world. We were at the far end of the bar when I saw you follow Elena in and head for the private rooms. I asked my buddy for a favor since he knew the owner, and watched you on the CCTV from the security suite. It twisted my guts, seeing her do all that shit to you, and you letting her. After you two left, my buddy pulled me back to the bar, told me he knew all about Elena, what a vicious Domme she was, how she supplied submissives for Doms who could afford her services."

What could I say? It was all true. I wanted it, felt I needed that pain to keep me on the straight and narrow, wanted the sex without fear of being touched on my chest or back. I watched Elliot down his drink, pour another.

"Again, I kept my mouth shut. Actually, I was afraid to say anything at that point. I knew if I did, you'd hate me, and mom and dad would be royally pissed that I'd waited to say anything, plus on top of it I'd have had to reveal why I had been there. I was so pissed that I ended up punching the Mustang."

"I thought you said that damage happened in a parking lot?"

"It did. From my fist. I was so mad, Chris. Mostly mad at myself and just sick that she'd gotten her claws into you, sick that I'd failed as your big brother to protect you."

He fell quiet, just staring at the flames for a time. I'd never known any of this.

"It was a year or two after you bought this place that I found out you were still into that shit. One of the guys I interviewed for a new construction crew I was putting together for the rehab of the Athletic Club, he mentioned he'd done some work for you. I asked him about it, but he said he really couldn't say anything as he'd signed your NDA. That got me to wondering why you'd hire someone besides me.

"So I gave him the job, and a few weeks later took him out drinking one night, kept the alcohol flowing. Got him thoroughly smashed, and he finally told me about this secret red room you had built. Damned if the next day I didn't see you and Elena together in your car. That weekend you skipped out on Sunday dinner in Bellevue, and I began to put two and two together. You usually worked all week, ferocious hours, so playtime had to be on the weekends. After dinner I drove past Elena's place, saw her through the front window so I knew she wasn't with you. I thought about dropping in at your place for a visit, but I didn't have the nerve.

"Couple weeks after that, I started seeing Bethany, met her roommate Lisa. It was strange, every Friday Lisa'd disappear, and return sometime Sunday. Couple weeks later I invited Bethany to mom and dad's for Sunday dinner, and I'd never seen you so friggin' nervous. Near the end of the following week, I used the same trick, got Bethany drunk, and she admitted that her roomie was in some kind of alternative-lifestyle-dating arrangement. That Friday, I stayed in my car outside her place, saw Lisa come out of the garage in that little red Audi, and tailed her as she turned into the Escala parking garage. Figured you'd have security cams, so I drove down the street and hired a rental car, came back. Sure enough, when I cruised the parking garage, there was that red Audi parked in one of the reserved spaces for the penthouse."

He sighed, sipped, stared again at the flames. Night had closed in, the only other light in the room came from the two hanging pods above the breakfast bar. It gave the great room a feeling of desolation, perfectly matching how I felt. All my careful planning, all the secret-keeping, for nothing. Well, not entirely nothing.

"So, you never said anything to mom or dad?" I risked.

"Hell no. I should have when I first found out, but after that, I just… let it be. I figured if you wanted my help, you'd ask."

I was stunned again to notice the reflection on his face, the firelight hitting the tear tracks down his cheeks.

"Mom told me you'd been abused, Chris, told me before they brought you home. For the life of me, I just can't understand how you'd want more of that crap."

"Wait, if you knew all along, then why all the gay jokes all those years?"

"Trying to hide that I knew, trying to keep your secrets from mom and dad. I figured if they thought you were gay, they wouldn't press you to get a girlfriend, get you riled up. You know how mom is. She's never made it a secret that she wants grandchildren someday."

Shit, even knowing my crap, he was still trying to look out for me.

"I always thought…," my throat closed for a moment. "Always thought that if you or mom or dad ever found out my secrets, you'd be so disgusted you'd never want anything more to do with me."

"Fuck, Chris! We're family! You never turn your back on family no matter what. Wait a minute – is that what that witch told you?"

Was it? I thought back to our earliest days. She'd always been so careful, telling me how it was our little secret and no one else would understand, how she wanted to help me, keep me in control.

"I don't know for sure. She stressed we had to keep things under wraps, but honestly I don't know if she planted the idea in my head, or whether it came from my self-loathing."

"And that's another thing, Chris. I just don't get it. Young, handsome, successful billionaire, smart, good family. Why do you hate yourself so much?"

God, I've never told anyone this except for Flynn.

"My mother was a crack whore back in Detroit, had a pimp with a nasty temper. The fucker beat me constantly, burned me with his damned cigarettes and she was too strung out to even care, never lifted a hand to stop him. If my own birth mother didn't care enough to save me, it followed that I wasn't worth saving. I'm nothing, Elliot. A pretty face over a rotten core."

"BULLSHIT!" he roared. "She was sick, Christian. She didn't have it together enough to save herself, let alone a toddler. And her pimp was even more fucked up than she was if he could hurt a child. You were innocent in all of this. Born to the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Shit happens, it doesn't automatically mean that you're shit. That's faulty logic. Three-year-old logic. You should have left that behind long ago. Instead you think you're nothing and let that witch abuse you? For what?"

"For control! I was going crazy when I hit my teens, Elliot. I was so damned mad all the time. I fought just to feel human touch. And the relentless taunting at school; shit, even my classmates thought I was gay. Gay Grey. I avoided the girls, couldn't risk them touching me, so the rumors kept going. I stole dad's scotch to help me numb the pain, try to get some sleep because my nightmares just kept getting worse. Every damned night her pimp was burning me, again and again and again. I was losing my mind. Elena offered to show me how to gain control of myself, put a lid on the anger. The carrot she dangled was sex. The incentive was pain avoidance."

"But, you saw shrinks for years."

"Assholes, every last one of them. Each one with some new technique or therapy, trying to get me to open up. I remember telling the first one, Dr. Hendricks, what was really going on with me, after maybe a dozen appointments. I was about 8 or 9 I think. She just looked at me like I was some kind of monster, then she ended the session abruptly. Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the waiting room, listening to her tell dad that I needed to see a specialist, that I was so badly damaged she felt she couldn't help me. It just reinforced my self-loathing, and I never told another shrink anything."

"Wait, what about this guy you mention now and then, Flynn. Does he help?"

"Yes. I've opened up to him, but it's been a long road getting there."

"Does he know about…"

"Yes, he knows about all of it. Kind of surprised him a bit too when I first told him, but his reaction was positive – he just said he wasn't highly knowledgeable about the lifestyle but that he would remedy that and be better prepared to discuss it with me. As a matter of fact, when I talked to him yesterday about what happened with Ana, he's the one who suggested I was in love with her, that I should bring her flowers."

"Speaking of, were you trying to make Ana into one of your subs?"

"I'm… ashamed to say yes. I was extremely attracted to her, like no one ever before, and I pursued her, got her to sign my NDA, told her what I was into, showed her the red room and a copy of my contract."

"Contract?"

"It's a sexual contract between a dominant and a submissive. What they will and won't do, likes and dislikes. It also contained a copy of my rules and expectations for my subs."

"Bet that went over like a lead balloon with Ana."

"She was shocked. Told me she had to think about it, that she had no experience with anything like this. And then she sat there in my office, and tells me she's a virgin."

Now Elliot's eyes get big.

"Oh fuuuuuck."

"Yeah. That's just how I felt. Here I am trying to coax her into my lifestyle, and I'm realizing she probably doesn't even understand half the words in the contract! I should have sent her home right then. I had Charlie Tango on standby with my backup pilot, told her she could leave any time. But dammit Elliot, there was just something about her. I felt this tingle every time we touched. I wanted her more than I'd ever wanted anything in my life."

It was my turn to drain my glass and pour another.

"You'll laugh at this, El. Me being the biggest ass that ever walked this planet, I told her that she needed some experience to know what she was getting into, that we should 'rectify her situation'."

I thought he'd be rolling on the floor braying like a donkey, but instead he just looked at me with this sad little smile.

"Yeah, I know. As I said, biggest ass on the planet. Damned thing was, she went along with it. I took her to my bedroom and took her virginity. And the next morning, thanks to your damned meddling, Mom found her here."

"So, why the hell did you spank her?"

"Because I still couldn't give up the idea of having her as my sub. Tried to entice her with my bank account and the things I could buy her, bought her dinner, tried to seduce her into giving it a try. Finally, the evening of her graduation, Kate was out and I went over and talked with her, brought a bottle of champagne with me. I'd discovered that the tipsier she got, the more openly she spoke. I needed to know what she was thinking in order to know how to convince her to agree to the contract. It was CEO 101 – discover the truth of what the person wants and doesn't want so you know how to negotiate. So finally she tells me she'll try. Never did sign the contract, but it didn't matter as I was out of my mind happy.

"Then I brought her outside to show her the graduation present I'd gotten her, an Audi A3. I'd talked to her dad, and he agreed with me that her Beetle was well past its expiration date. Then she gives me grief about spending so much on a car for her. I was floored. Every sub I'd ever had would have been gushing her thanks. Not Ana. So we argued about it, went back in the house, and I finally tell her that as my sub, she should simply be grateful for my gifts and no arguments. Mind you, I'd warned her a few times already about rolling her eyes at me, told her I would spank her if she did it again, and then she did. I reminded her of what I told her I would do. She got really nervous, but let me take her into the bedroom. I tossed her over my lap, told her she would get eight strikes for being less than grateful for the car, and ten for rolling her eyes."

"Seriously? Jeez, Chris. What the fuck? Her being nervous should have given you a fucking clue."

"That's just it, El. In the scene, subs are allowed to be nervous. It seemed normal to me."

"Now don't get me wrong, I know that some ladies are really turned on by a spanking, and I've given a few in my day. But they have to tell me that's what they want. You don't threaten a girl with one, at least not from the get-go."

"In the lifestyle, if you're a Dom you do, unless it's specifically listed under their hard limits. Then you can't."

"But if she didn't sign a contract, then how in the hell would you know what the fuck her limits were?"

"Elliot, if an experienced sub had done the same thing, I'd have shackled her to the cross and brought out my whip."

"WHAT?!"

"I figured spanking her with my hand on her bare ass was tame by comparison. Obviously I was wrong."

Elliot just buried his head in his hands and groaned. Then he went for a third glassful.

"You might be all kinds of genius, little bro, but as far as the ladies go, you are the biggest, most clueless asshole ever."

"I know. 20/20 hindsight."

"And another thing, even if she tells you she wants something like that, and you do it for her, you start with intensity so light it wouldn't hurt a butterfly's wing. Then you slowly increase it as she clues you in."

"And that's wonderful for someone who has regular relationships. It's NOT how things work in BDSM."

"Maybe not, but you still went way overboard considering she was such a novice. You should have known better and taken it slow. Is that why she ran?"

"Probably. Partly." My own guilt was chewing at me.

"C'mon, spill it. I know there's more."

I sighed, told him how she ran and locked herself in the bathroom, how I ordered her to come out then finally threatened her with another spanking.

"She screamed at me to leave, sobbing behind the door. I finally realized I was too angry and she was too upset, figured we could both do with a break, so I left. Didn't hear from her even though I sent her texts, emails, even called her."

Elliot just sat there, shaking his head no-no-no.

"Chris, did it ever occur to you that she was terrified of you at that point, afraid you were going to do something else to hurt her? No wonder she wouldn't unlock the door."

"What? Why would she be afraid of me? I'd punished her as I told her I would. It was over with, and as a good Dom I was supposed to provide aftercare. She refused to let me do that for her, and it just kept winding me up."

"And how was she to know you wouldn't hurt her further? You told me she wasn't knowledgeable about the lifestyle. How was she to know?"

"But… but she had safewords, El! She could have used them at any time to stop me and she didn't. Doesn't that mean she wanted it?"

"You ASS! She's in pain, her boyfriend's beating on her ass, she doesn't understand the lifestyle and you expect her to remember some stupid safeword? And then you threaten to do it again?! Fuck! No wonder she ran. She's probably scared out of her mind."

Oh fuck! What have I done? The words she'd left me ring clear: "You can't give me what I want and I can't be what you need." It broke me. I couldn't stop the sob, the tears.

"Aw, hell, Chris."

Elliot slid over, wrapped his arm around my shoulders.

"I've fucked it up, El," I choked out, "Managed to screw up the best thing that ever happened to me, all because she rolled her eyes at me, because she tried being honest with me by telling me she felt I'd spent too much on her."

"Chris, Chris, Chris. You may have fucked it up, but I'm blaming Elena. She's the one who fucked with your head, taught you all this shit. You never did manage to have a normal girlfriend, did you."

"No. Too afraid the girls would touch me, then Elena happened, then I had submissives. I never had the time, nor the desire, to have a girlfriend. Elena always drilled into me that love was for fools."

"That damned bitch. Tell me, do you think mom and dad are fools?"

I snorted tears, dragged a hand across my face.

"No, they're not. But I felt so damaged…"

"And that witch capitalized on how you felt, reinforced it, twisted you all around to her way of thinking so she could control you. Then you set her up with those salons after Linc kicked her sorry ass out the door, so she was tied to you. And then she provided your little playmates. Don't you get it? She's still controlling you! Wake up and smell the ammonia, brother."

Still controlling me? Was she? She did seem annoyed when I told her I didn't think I'd need any more submissives. I figured it was just her being pissed that she wouldn't get any more finders fees from me. Wait! Is that it? She was controlling me, using me, for my money? I sat up with a jolt.

"Hey! You alright? You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Not a ghost, El. The truth. You made me finally see the truth."

"Yeah? What truth?"

He sounded skeptical – I couldn't blame him.

"That Elena was controlling me so that she could use me, tap into my money stream. She's nothing but a gold digger. Pulled the wool over my eyes and I totally bought into her crap. Fuck, El, just shoot me now."

"Nope. Can't do it. You and me, bro, we got a little brunette to go find and get your mess straightened out."

I pulled back, looked at him as if he'd turned into a Martian. He just grinned at me.

"Luv doctor in the house, little bro. If I can't help you fix this, it ain't fixable."

"That's what worries me."

"Chin up. Take it from me, Chris. If you do it the right way, the ladies are forgiving. Just one little detail."

"What's that?"

"No more of this Dom shit with Ana. Either you can be a Dom or you can have Ana. I don't think you can have both. So make your choice."

It felt like I'd just be steamrollered. Give it up? Give all of it up? Could I do that? Flynn thought I could. El's telling me I have to. Was it even possible?

"It's all I know," I whined.

"Which is precisely why I'm here, to show you the right way to court a lady. If you're sincere about giving up the lifestyle in order to get Ana back, I'll help you. If you're not, then don't waste my time or Ana's."

"I need her back, El. She makes my world make sense."

"Do you need her enough to let go of everything that witch taught you?"

"I guess I'll have to."

"Hmm. No. Not there yet."

"Alright, alright. Yes, I'll give up the lifestyle to get Ana back."

"Much better."

"But I don't even know where she is."

"Not a problem. She said she'd contact Kate when she got a new phone."

"How do you know that?"

"Those two are inseparable. Aaaaand I might have read the note that Ana left for Kate."

God, I hated it when he looked so damned smug.

"So, we start making plans for Operation Get Ana Back, and just wait for her to call my little Katie-kat. Once she does, I'll wait until Kate's asleep and check her phone history. That'll give us Ana's number and I'm sure your whiz-bang tech nerds can use it to figure out where she is. Simple."

"And then what?"

"And then we put the plans in place that we'll make tomorrow. For right now, I'm toast, so I'm gonna go crash in one of your guest rooms. Nice chat, bro. Maybe there's hope for you yet."

He stood, threw back the last of his drink, thumped me on the shoulder and wobbled off.

-AS-

Next morning dawned clear and sunny, with a sultry warmth that promised a typical hot southern day. My watch said 7:30, and I scrambled out of bed, got a quick shower, dressed, and headed downstairs. Mom and Bob were in the kitchen. We said our 'good mornings' and I got myself a cup of tea, joined them at the table.

"So, what's on your agenda for today, honey?" mom asked.

"I thought I'd start by getting my boxes off the porch and up to the bedroom."

"Good idea. It's heading into the high 80's today, so you might want to do that while it's still comfortable out."

"Thanks, Bob. I will. Um, one other thing I need to mention." That got their attention. "I broke up with my boyfriend shortly before I left. If Christian calls, please tell him you haven't heard from me, okay?"

"Oh honey! Is that the reason for your change of plans, moving here instead of Seattle?"

"No, mom," I lied. "It just seemed that every time I even thought about Seattle I got this feeling, like racing down the hill on a roller coaster. Once I made the decision to come here, that feeling went away."

"Sure sounds like you got your intuition from me. Well, I hope it works out for the best for you. Don't worry, we'll keep mum about you being here. Oh, Bob offered to take us to dinner at the club tonight. Maybe we can introduce you to some of the other members, do a little networking and maybe get you a job."

"That would be awesome. Thank you!"

A while later I had the boxes hauled up to my bedroom; my twin bed and frame, plus some of the miscellaneous stuff, tucked into a corner of the basement. I sat on the bed, looked at the phone while arguing with myself whether or not to call Kate. I wanted to call, talk to her, tell her what happened and why, but fear stopped me: Christian had traced my phone and found me at the bar that time. What's to stop Mr. More-money-than-brains from doing it again and tracing me here?

I swallowed hard, his threat again swirling in my mind. No. I couldn't risk it. I'm sure she'll be pissed as hell at me, but I can't take the chance of him finding me. My heart is still too raw. I need it to heal up, I need to get established here. Then when he does find me – as I have no doubt he will – I can be strong enough to tell him to get lost and leave me alone, even threaten him with a restraining order if he doesn't take the hint.

One week later, my world is again settling in to a new groove. That Sunday evening Bob took us to the club for dinner, where he introduced me to a couple of his golfing buddies. We joined them in the bar after our meal, and over drinks I found myself having a rather impromptu interview with them. Harry Banefield was the head honcho at Banefield Engineering; fifty-ish, tall and thin, with sharp eyes that seemed to look right through me. Eric McConnell was the CFO of the largest realty-development group in the state. Eric reminded me of a teddy bear – round and jovial, easygoing, though there was a spark in his eyes that belied the affable exterior.

I must have had the right answers to their questions, as the next day I got TWO calls, both offering a job. Wow! I had to go in to their offices and interview with their HR people, but that seemed a mere formality. Those appointments ate up Tuesday and Wednesday. I'm spending Thursday with mom, shopping for a work-appropriate wardrobe, and considering the offers.

Banefield offered me a position as office manager. They were in the process of opening a second office and the current office manager was relocating. They needed someone smart and versatile, able to handle scheduling, travel arrangements, some PR work, and payroll, along with a laundry list of other stuff. Working there would give me a broad base of experience in a bunch of different areas. Arc Development, Eric's company, handled residential and commercial real estate development across the US, and was in need of someone to fill out the team in charge of advertising and sales support. Their offer was $5k less to start, but a guaranteed raise in 6 months if I did well. Plus, my grammar and composition skills would be immensely useful. Also, there seemed to be more growth potential.

"Ana? Earth to Ana," mom chided, holding up a soft beige blouse.

"Hm? What?"

"I asked what you thought of this one. Twice."

"Oh, it looks perfect, like one of those goes-with-anything pieces."

"That's what I thought too. Okay, I'll add it to the stack for trying on. So, still thinking about those job offers?"

"Yeah. Do I go for more money to start but essentially for a locked-in position, or opt for a little less to start with more room for growth and more potential? Honestly, I never expected to get two job offers! Thought I'd be lucky to get just one."

"Well, my two cents, for what it's worth, is to disregard the salary and focus on whether what you'd be doing is what you want to do, or if it's taking you in the direction you want to go."

"When did you get so smart, mom?" I was genuinely surprised getting such sage advice from her.

"Time has a way of teaching us things, I suppose. It's taught me that I have a wonderful daughter, and a lucky opportunity to get to know the lovely woman she's become. And, maybe it gives me a chance to make up for being less than the mom you deserved growing up."

I am stunned stupid at her words. She gives me a sad smile.

"It took a lot of years, and a lot of heartache, for Time to teach me that walking away from Ray was the worst mistake I ever made. Don't get me wrong, I love Bob, but Ray was a special kind of love. I was just too young and stupid to realize it, always thinking there was something better just beyond the horizon. And I'm sorry you ever had to put up with Husband Number Three. I'm hoping that helping you launch your career will make up for that in some small way."

I just grabbed her in the biggest hug I could manage. It felt like a crucial piece in my life finally shifted into its proper position. Maybe things did happen for a reason.

Now, here I was on another sultry Monday morning, getting a ride and a pep-talk from Mom, enroute to my first day of work at Arc. It was about a 20 minute commute; made me realize that I'd soon have to get my own transportation. The day was a blur of meeting people, getting situated, going thru a new employee orientation, filling out paperwork, and sitting in on my first meeting. It was exhilarating!

-CG-

It's Monday morning, and I'm sitting at the breakfast bar, my egg-white omelet in front of me. Mrs. Jones has left the kitchen, Elliot took off a bit ago, and I'm gutstruck at how much of a rut my life's become. Thoughts of that sassy little brunette still go through my mind, right along with Elliot's reasoning about how she must have felt and why she ran. I am such a complete fuckup. I should let her go, quit thinking about her. I've hurt and scared her. Threatened her. I know I'm trying to draw her into my darkness, and she's resisting for all she's worth. I'm no good for her. This will only end badly. So why in the hell can't I stop thinking about her?

Elliot promised to meet me at the Mile High club for dinner tonight, told me we need to start making plans to get her back into my life. How that's even possible I haven't the faintest clue. In my world, once a sub said she wanted out, that was it. Contract terminated, access to me and my world terminated, and I never gave another thought to her. So when Ana ran, why can't I forget her? Why does my chest feel like it's caving in now that I realize I've hurt her and scared her? Is this why Elena always told me love was for fools? Because it ended up hurting so bad? Was this love? That last thought freezes my blood. Would I be feeling this bad if it wasn't?

My stomach plummets at the realization. Love. Something I never thought I could achieve, feel, accept and appreciate. Then just when that most elusive desire defies all logic and grazes my fingertips, I grab it, crush it, drop-kick it and watch it scurry away. Now she has a small inkling of the monster that I am, and obviously wants no part of it. No matter how hopeful Elliot is about changing her mind; I'm not 'feeling it', as he'd say.

My thoughts jump back to being the terrified toddler, knowing her pimp would come back. Is this what Ana feels? If so, it makes one thing crystal clear: if I want her back in my life, I must change. Elliot was right – I can be a Dom, or I can have Ana. Well, maybe have her. Perhaps that should be step one of my plan – change myself in order to have something worthwhile to offer her, a person she might be interested in.

Grabbing my cell, I put a quick call in to Elliot, tell him my thoughts about step one.

"I'm proud of you, little bro. You really were listening to me. Now I suggest you talk to that shrink of yours and do something about dismantling your Dom."

Ah, Elliot – if only it were that easy.

I left work mid-afternoon for a 2 hour session with Flynn, knowing this change would require some serious work. He didn't disappoint. He helped me set goals: find other ways to moderate my anger and get back the feeling of control; ask don't order; and the biggest, get Ana back. Walking out of there I practically needed Taylor to help me to the car, I was trashed, emotionally and physically spent. But I now had goals, had a plan for achieving them, and I never back down from a challenge.