It was my own fault. I'd asked Christian to show me how bad it could get. And because I'd promised him I could handle it, he had.
I could feel the bile rising in my throat with each crack of the belt across my backside – the bitter sting that proved, louder than any words, that I wasn't – that I could never be what Christian wanted and needed. Yet still, I counted. I got to six before I started pushing away from him – some slumbering vestige of self-protection rousing itself and kicking in.
I raced from the playroom, my destination unclear. I didn't know where I wanted to be other than as far away as possible from him. How could I have fallen in love with a man who was so tender yet paradoxically also so vicious? As he followed me into the subs' room, or was it my room now, he pulled me hard against him. His tender hands and words attempting to soothe and reassure my battered flesh and injured soul. His offerings of arnica and Advil poor payment for the injuries he'd inflicted.
And yet he looked so lost. Fearful even. Who was he to look at me with such trepidation? I was the aggrieved party, here. I was the one to fall in love with an angel who turned out to be in equal part a devil. A man who was terrified of loving me and convinced, in turn, he was unlovable. So when my words finally came, it was an apology. I apologized for not being the woman Christian needed me to be. Yet Mr. Mercurial managed to turn even that on me.
"You're right. I should let you go. I am no good for you."
And I couldn't argue because my sore backside and even more injured heart were the proof.I didn't want to go, but my dignity would not allow me to stay. I'd fallen in love with a man of extremes – and while the good was so very good, there was an equally large part that scared and hurt me. But above all, I loved Christian Grey too well not to be everything he needed. I loved him too well to fail him.
The whole idea that he liked inflicting pain on me was repulsive. That he not only liked it, but that it aroused him. I loved Christian, and as my first and only lover, he'd been the one to introduce me to so much physical pleasure, but I couldn't bear the pain that he needed to inflict. Worshiping my body was not enough for him; he wanted to whip it, too. So I'd confessed my love, then gathering the tatters of my dignity around me I'd accepted a check for Wanda then left everything else he'd given me as I did the only thing I could do. And so I ran.
The first days were the worst. Returning to my new apartment on Saturday morning, I couldn't eat or sleep. The apartment was empty, and thanks to my time with Christian still unfamiliar, so I spent hours in my bed, cuddling the rapidly deflating Charlie Tango balloon that served as an apt metaphor for my short-lived and disastrous love affair with Christian Grey. He'd taken me to previously unknown heights, but then let me fall to untold lows. If it hadn't been for my job at Seattle Independent Publishing, I doubt I would have found the motivation to get out of bed at all. Yet Monday morning found me eyeing my wardrobe critically, looking for an outfit that was professional but stylish.
Recognizing neither of those epithets could be applied to my modest selection of clothing, I took Kate up on her long-standing offer of raiding her own copious closet. While Kate was taller and curvier than me, I knew from experience several of her dresses and separates worked on my smaller frame. With Kate's preference for short and tight clothing, on my figure her outfits were longer and a little looser. Perfect for work.
Slipping into a grey pencil skirt and a loose white handkerchief linen blouse, I finished the look with a thin red leather belt and a pair of moderate height red heels. My hair pulled up into a high ponytail with wisps framing my face, I added some concealer under my eyes, a little mascara and some lip gloss. Professional and a little edgy, I decided with a heavy heart. It was the first day of my first job, yet I could muster zero enthusiasm. Still – I refused to let my mind drift to the source of my unease. The illustrious Christian Grey. Today was meant to be about new beginnings, so pushing my errant thoughts about Christian aside I opened the fridge for the first time since I'd returned home.
Because of Kate's absence, and my own, there was precious little edible in its icy confines. In the end, I settled for a tin of soda, filching an apple from the fruit bowl to serve as breakfast and lunch, even though I knew in my present mood I'd be lucky to finish even that. Carefully checking the windows were fastened and locked, and the television off, I moved out to the foyer, deadlocking the apartment door behind me.
With Wanda sold, the proceeds still a check in my handbag, I wouldn't be driving to work. I hadn't had time to look up the bus schedule, although I knew the area to be well serviced. Deciding my first day warranted a treat, I hailed a cab and gave them the address of SIP. I was still getting used to Seattle. While I'd been here from time growing up with Ray in Montesano, I saw Seattle with visitor's eyes. It wasn't until I was almost upon it that I realized my route to work would take me past one of the most identifiable embodiments of Christian's success. Stopping at the traffic lights on the neighboring intersection, I looked up at Grey House – a building as cold and formidable as I'd sometimes known its owner to be. Fiercely modern, and almost aggressive in its functionality, there was nonetheless a beauty in its utility. A cold metal and glass shrine for a man who refused to believe he deserved to be loved. The scene of the crime, I thought to myself. Well; one of them, at least.
It was early; I wondered whether he'd be there yet? Or was he still at Escala? Christian had said he liked to work out during the week, so perhaps he was with his trainer now?
I found it fascinating that I knew the man so well, yet in other ways, Christian was a complete stranger to me. Where was he now? What was he thinking? Did he miss me as much as I missed him? Had he thought of me at all since I'd left him on Saturday morning?
My inner conscious seemed to take great pleasure in assuring me I was one of a long string of female playthings in Christian's life, and that by the end of the week he'd be lucky to remember my name let alone anything about me. By the coming weekend, he'd no doubt have a new girl reading an NDA then probably driving my little red Audi. My inner Goddess was shaking her head reprovingly, perversely reminding me of his look of panic when I'd left. The way he'd stood watching me as the elevator doors closed, looking as if his heart were shattering in sympathy with my own.
Shaking myself from my reverie, I refused to even look at Escala as we passed it not long after, lest I dissolve into a pathetic weeping bundle and miss my first day of work.
Pulling up out the front of SIP twenty minutes before I was due for my induction, I cursed my own inattention. Now I could either stand out the front for twenty minutes or find another way to occupy myself. Seattle's weather typically bordering on inclement, I handed a few bills to the cabbie and surveyed the block, spotting a likely looking café across the road all the while wishing I'd thought to bring a jacket.
Crossing the road, a handsome man opened the door for me. Standing straight upright, with short dark hair and eyes that didn't stop moving, thanks to my father, Ray, I recognized a military man when I saw one.
"Thank you," I said softly, slipping through the door and into the warmth of the café.
"You're welcome, Ma'am," he replied, following me into the café and walking straight up to the counter. After checking whether I was ready to order, he ordered a large black coffee to go while I stood looking at the menu. I didn't drink coffee – only ever tea. However since I doubted they'd have my favored Twinings English Breakfast tea, I decided to branch out and try a hazelnut latte. Paying for my drink, and wrapping my hands around the tall glass enjoying the warmth, I chose a seat in the window, perching on a stool and indulging in one of my favorite activities. People watching.
'A mom trying to get her son to crèche before work' I thought, watching a woman in her thirties steer a recalcitrant young lad wearing a brightly colored backpack down the sidewalk. 'Young professional guys – maybe commercial real estate agents,' I mused as a bunch of suited young men walked past, one catching my gaze through the window and winking saucily. Looking away in disgust, I turned my eyes to those inside the coffee shop. Mostly young professionals getting coffee to go, there were a few seated, including Mr. Military. Sitting side on to me several tables away, his attention was focused on what appeared to be a hunting and fishing magazine. Yep. Definitely a military guy.
The latte had been a surprise. Milky enough to disguise the taste of the coffee, the hazelnut syrup had given it a sweet, nutty flavor. But best of all the caffeine felt like it would give me a welcome spring to my step; just what I needed for my first day, especially given the circumstances. Carefully checking my watch, the modest gold one Ray had given me when I graduated high school, I saw it was five to nine. Early enough to show I was taking my new job seriously, but not early enough to be an inconvenience. Draining the last from my glass, I returned it to the counter before stepping out into the Seattle morning. Still overcast, I noted, at least it wasn't raining. Yet.
Walking through the glass doors to SIP, I stopped at the front desk.
"Hi. I'm Ana Steele. I'm starting today," I said channeling the signature Katherine Kavanagh confidence. Firm but friendly.
"Hi Ana, I'm Claire," the friendly woman on reception greeted. "You're meant to be meeting with Elizabeth Morgan, right?"
"Look, I'm afraid she's called in sick, today, but you'll be working with Jack Hyde, anyway. Take a seat; I'll just buzz him."
Looking at the low, leather seating, I was grateful Claire was the only occupant in the foyer. I wasn't sure how I'd be able to seat myself gracefully when the seats were so low. I'd just managed to arrange myself demurely on one black leather sofa, thinking that if the rest of the building were this cold, I'd definitely need to invest in a jacket, when the man I recognized as Jack Hyde came through the internal glass doors and into reception.
"Ana!" he said, walking forward, and extending a courteous hand to help me up before deftly turning it into a lingering handshake. "I can't tell you how pleased I am you're starting today! My previous assistant left with very little warning – family problems – and I am in desperate need of an assistant."
"I appreciate the opportunity, Mr. Hyde," I said, giving him a cautious smile.
"Oh please call me Jack. We don't stand on ceremony, here!" he replied in a boisterous voice. His eyes looked me up and down, possibly lingering on my breasts where my nipples had pebbled slightly in response to the chill of the building.
"I think you're going to fit in here just perfectly," he said confidently, blessing me with a broad smile.