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8

A/N: Something to think about: if E.L. James had named her characters Christian and Ana instead of Edward and Bella, none of you would be here now, no one would have read Fifty Shades of Grey, and it would not have been published, in all likelihood. Yet, despite that fact, many of you are resistant to reading anything original on the fanfic site. James and I appear to have had the same idea, probably at about the same time: using Twilight as a template, write an original story and tap into the huge Twilight fan base. Alas, I didn't know about the fanfic site. Hence I am here now, trying to duplicate James' experience and get my work published. I'm asking you to please consider reading my novel Complements and its sequel Force of Nature on this site. The characters are very much like Christian and Ana except I'd bet good money on the fact that you'll like Olivia better than Ana. Not sure about Daniel as he's even darker than Christian in some respects. Come on, people, start following; I need the big numbers.

As for A Darker Shade of Grey: I promised to bring you a stronger Ana with more dignity and I have. Some of the scenes required very minor tweaks. What's left undone are such minor changes, it doesn't pay to rewrite them. Hence from here on in, I'll be creating a bit more, rather than reproducing fairly faithfully. But this is the world of What ifs, right? So, hang in with me and I'll take you for a ride . . . **********

I heave through the glass lobby door of SIP with the end rush of my adrenaline, and then it abandons me entirely the moment I cross through to the refuge of outside. Leaning both hands on the brick wall of the façade to catch my breath, I know I'm in full view of Christian and Taylor, and thus safe at this point. I stupidly haven't eaten anything today, and my legs are mimicking the San Andreas fault during a temblor. Dimly I'm aware of two dark suits running over to me.

"Ana!" Christian shouts panicked. "What's wrong?"

Taylor is hovering right behind him.

I look at him and can't find my voice. I'm panting and I feel nauseous, desperately trying to regain some control over my body.

"Ana, tell me what's wrong, damn it!"

"Jack," I finally manage to croak out.

"Did he touch you?" he demands, anger flooding through his words.

I nod. "Just once."

I see Christian fire a look back at Taylor and nod. That's all it takes for Taylor to brush past me, heading into the entrance of SIP. Christian swings an arm around my shoulders and guides me over to the SUV. "What happened, Ana? Tell me exactly what that fucker did."

"He threatened me . . . and you, Christian. He read my emails and wants to know where your responses to them are. He touched me inappropriately . . ."

If anger was a color then Christian would be splashed with bloody red. I can see the whites of his eyes as his whole face contorts into a mask of fury and he roars, "I told you to use your Blackberry, damn it, Ana! Do you understand now?" He whips out his phone.

"Barney? Grey. Listen, I need you to go into the SIP server and wipe all of Anastasia's emails to me entirely. Got that? Good. I also want you to go into Jack Hyde's email box and sweep it clean—wipe anything and everything that pertains to me, or Ms. Steele. Do it now and call me once it's done." He stabs in another number. "Roach, Grey. I want Jack Hyde out now. This minute. Send security to get him out of the building or I liquidate the entire company before breakfast. You have more than enough on him to justify his immediate termination. Do I make myself clear? Good. I am at SIP now and I expect to see him escorted off the premises within the half hour."

He turns back to me. Right now, if he weren't holding me up, I'd surely be on the ground. Christian opens the passenger door of the SUV. "Sit down, Ana. Lock the doors and wait for me."

"No, don't go in, Christian, please."

"Ana, do as I say for one fucking time and stay in the car! I need to go in and see to the outcome."

"Please don't do anything stupid."

"Stupid?" he rages. "Do you even know what stupid is? How many times did I tell you to use your Blackberry? How many times did I tell you that Hyde is a sexual predator? How many times did I tell you to eat regularly? You're about to faint right now and I'd wager a good amount on the fact that you haven't eaten all fucking day. Am I correct?"

I roll my eyes and slam the car door on him, locking it. Fine, have at it, Christian. Yes, I am frequently beyond stupid, but he is always beyond ridiculous so we're even. I lean back into the headrest and try to calm myself. When did life become a theater for the absurd? My days used to be very routine and comforting. Ever since I met Christian, it's been one wild and insane ride after another. I wonder how much more I can tolerate before I begin to separate from my sanity.

Minutes tick by interminably. Finally, after about a half hour, Hyde comes slinking out, a cardboard box in his arms. Fortunately, I'm behind dark tinted glass so he can't see me. Immediately behind him follows the building security guard—uh, could have used him an hour ago—with Christian and Taylor bringing up the rear. The cab that was waiting to take Hyde to the airport is still here so Hyde gets into now, his destination radically changed. Christian raps his knuckles on the SUV window for me to open the doors and I comply. He gets into the driver's seat and Taylor hops quickly into the backseat, I suppose because I'm in the front. Thank God that episode is over but there's another on the horizon for me, certainly. The aftermath.

I watch Christian's face as he drives us home: though thoroughly impassive, I know he's seething inside. He doesn't like it when someone dares to touch his valued property and I am his most precious possession, in his mind. He's unable to grasp the concept that no one can own another person.

We reach Escala and Christian pulls over and gets out in front of the building, coming around to open my door. Taylor dips into the driver's seat to park the vehicle in the underground garage. Extending his hand, Christian says quietly, "Come, Ana. You need to eat before you pass out."

I take his hand and we step into the elevator. No words are exchanged but tension is pulsating in the enclosed space. He is truly pissed and I can almost feel the heat rising out of his pores. I hope I can somehow manage to calm him down. Hmm, I have a few ideas.

From the corner of his eye, he looks at me. "Thank God I got there when I did, Ana. I shudder to think wh—"

"Christian," I interrupt, "I can take care of myself, you know. I'm not completely helpless."

"He told us you kicked him in the balls. True?"

I nod, smirking. "Yes. Ray taught me self-defense. I happened to remember it all and it worked quite nicely."

"Good for Ray. Your technique for protecting yourself wouldn't have worked so well if you went to New York with Hyde, though. You do comprehend that now, don't you?"

The elevator doors slide open silently and we're in the penthouse. "No," I toss over my shoulder, "I don't." I head directly into the bedroom to change my clothes and I can feel rather than hear him follow me.

"Allow me to paint you a little picture, Anastasia. You go to New York with Hyde. That night he invites you to dinner—to discuss business, of course. When you step away from the table to use the restroom, he slips Rohypnol into your drink. Less than a half-hour later, you begin to feel dizzy and nauseous. Hyde is very solicitous: he quickly gets the check, pays it, and escorts you to your room, pronto, acting very much the concerned employer. When next you open your eyes, you're alone in your hotel room bed with a throbbing headache and a sore body. Must be all the travel, you think.

"The trip goes well. Hyde behaves himself. When you get back to SIP, he calls you into his office and removes a bunch of 8x10 glossies from a manila envelope, hands them to you. In the photos, there you are in the buff, strapped into a harness, maybe even with a bit in your mouth if he was feeling capricious, your naked posterior high in the air.

"Can you see it, Ana? He tells you that if you don't do what he wants, give him what he wants, he'll mail out the photos: one to your mother, another to your father, your best friend, even Roach, perhaps . . . and, most importantly, me. No opportunity to use your patented self-defense technique. Is the picture clear yet, Ana? Hyde is a sleaze from the word go."

I can feel gravity right now: the blood drains from my face, my stomach slides down and flips, everything inside is pulling down. I know what Christian is saying is the truth: that's what would have happened if Christian hadn't stopped the trip from happening. Still, I can't let him win the whole game. I have to maintain my self-respect.

"If I'd been unfortunate enough for that to occur—and don't be so sure it would have gone down like that, Christian—I'd go straight to Roach and tell him what Hyde did. Then I'd file sexual assault charges against Hyde and let my people know that someone was blackmailing me. He wouldn't win, whatever he did, Christian. But I'd like to believe that I wouldn't trust him enough to leave the dinner table in the first place: I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, you know."

"Perhaps. Still, I'm incredibly relieved that I killed the trip, Ana, and you should be, too. Come on, let's have dinner."

Mrs. Jones outdid herself tonight with baked chicken and Fettuccine Alfredo. I am much hungrier than I realized and scarf it down. For once, I finish dinner before Christian. He's watching me, amused, twirling his glass of wine.

"What?" I ask, swallowing my last bite.

He shakes his head. "It's good to see you eat. It's a rare enough occurrence."

I roll my eyes. Ah, shit. I just can't help it; it's an automatic response to annoying comments.

He smiles wickedly. "Did you just roll your eyes at me, Anastasia?"

"No, I don't think so, Christian. You really should have your own eyes checked soon. You are getting on in age, you know, and apparently starting to have trouble seeing things accurately."

"Very true, but I'm still quite sure of what I saw." He cocks his head, arching his brows suggestively. "Unfortunately, the rules of the game have changed, otherwise I'd take you into the playroom right now . . ."

"Well, we can bend the new rules this one time," I say. I want to go into the playroom and he's been gun shy about it since the day I left him. I still remember the look on his face as I, in my anger, skewered him, and it makes me want to cry.

"Mmm, I have a better idea. In the mood for a game of pool?" His expression is downright smug.

"Yes," I say, trying to be nonchalant, "I am. If I win, we go into the playroom again."

"And if I win?"

"Your choice, carte blanche," I whisper, feeling everything south of my navel tighten as I consider the possibilities.

He grins, a wicked shine to his eyes. "Game on, Ms. Steele. Follow me."

A/N (My hands-down favorite scene was the pool game—I'll bet many of you agree. Next post I'll try something new as I mentioned above.)