9

9

Part 14

It's dark inside the SUV and I can't see Christian's face all that well. What a shame; it's also not helpful to have a meaningful conversation in such conditions. As soon as we're on the road, he begins to speak to me.

"I suppose we're back to square one: negotiating our contract. This time, of course, I'll expect you to sign it."

"Christian, do we have to discuss the particulars right now," I point inconspicuously to Taylor in the front seat.

"Tonight I need to get you home: we both have to work early tomorrow. I suppose we can defer our talk until tomorrow evening."

"Oh . . . I'm having dinner with Jose, in all likelihood. How—"

"Cancel it."

Appalled, I peer through the dark. "I can't do that. It's bad enough I bagged out on him tonight."

"Anastasia, it was you who initiated contact with me. I might also remind you that it was also you who walked out on me. You're really in no position to be calling the shots."

"Calling the shots? I'm merely saying I have an engagement."

"And I'm telling you to cancel it. You have a more pressing engagement with me."

I sigh. Removing my phone from my bag, I call Jose. "Hi, it's Ana."

"Ana? What happened? Are you okay, niña?"

"Yes, I'm fine. Listen, Jose, did Nanette tell you that my dinner invitation still stands?"

"Yes, she did. Do you need me to come, Ana?"

"I don't need you to come, Jose. If you'd like to, though, you're more than welcome. We can catch up."

"In that case, can I take a rain check on it? I have so much paperwork to do in relation to the sales I've already made. You know, someone bought all seven portraits of you, Ana. I sold twenty-nine photographs in one night."

"Wow, that's great, Jose. A rain check it is. I'll call you next week and we'll talk more. Thanks for coming to my rescue tonight, Jose, even though it turned out the way it did. I appreciate it."

"No problem, Ana. Anytime you need a hand, give a holler. Take care, honey."

"Good night, Jose." I disconnect the call and turn towards Christian. "Okay, tomorrow evening it is."

"Good. I'll pick you up at your office at 5:30."

"Oh, shoot. I just remembered that Jack wants to go out for a drink, to celebrate my first week."

"He does, does he? Fine. I'll meet you at the bar. Where will you be?"

"I'll text you the information when I know."

He doesn't touch me at all: no embrace, no caresses, nothing. I'm beginning to think that all the progress I made with him has been entirely expunged: there will be no more for me, for us. If that's true, can I really tolerate it, being nothing more to him than a submissive, with no emotional attachment on his part? I don't think so. I'll have to wait until tomorrow to see what he offers. By the time the car pulls up in front of my apartment, my stomach is churning with anxiety.

"Thank you, Christian. I'll see you tomorrow." I start to get out of the car.

"Taylor, remain in the car. I'll see Ms. Steele to her door." He climbs out of the car on the other side and opens the cargo area, removing a large white box, then walks beside me up the walkway. When we reach the front door of the building, he hands me the box.

"No argument, please. I need to be able to contact you if we do resume our relationship, Ana. Your things are inside, including your car keys." He leans over and brushes his lips against mine. "I'll see you tomorrow."

I unlock the door, pushing it open awkwardly because the large box is making it difficult. Once I'm in the apartment, I open the box. Nestled in silver tissue paper are my laptop, my Blackberry, and a new iPad. Wow. I pick it up and start looking through it. Christian has downloaded an entire library of English classics, as well as several hundred songs on the iTunes account. Is he trying to tell me something? Judging from his behavior tonight, I don't think Christian Grey is capable of anything approaching love but he's still mightily jealous of anyone getting near me. I suppose I can convince myself that love is the motivating factor behind the jealousy.

If he wasn't planning on taking me back, why did he bring these things? He knew I wouldn't accept them under any other conditions. Is he playing me?

I was hoping to finally get a good night's sleep but when I fall into bed, exhausted, I still find sleep elusive and troubled when it finally comes.

The next day is insanely busy so the hours fly by and I have no time to think—which is a good thing lately. Jack has back-to-back meetings so by the time we do our update, it's nearly five o'clock. By 5:20, we're finished.

"Are you still up for a drink, Ana?"

"Sure, Jack. Where are we going?"

"To the bar across the street. Their drinks are neat and the prices are good. The music, however, leaves much to be desired—they play all oldies there. It's a 50s-style place."

"Ah, such nostalgia for the fifties," I say, my mind on my personal fifty. "Okay. I'll just clean up my desk and I'll join you there."

"Very good."

I text Christian with the information, and then I attack the mess on my desk. It's nearly six o'clock when I finish in the bathroom and make my way across the street. Immediately outside the front door of SIP, there's a strange looking woman standing there, playing with her hair and staring at me. I try to act normally and ignore her, but for some reason her presence bothers me.

Jack is at the bar with some other SIP people and they're arguing about the fate of the magazine industry. "Ana, what would you like to drink?"

I smile at the knot of people. "I'll have a beer, whatever's on draft."

"Good choice," he says and orders an amber ale, handing it to me with a smile. "On me, Ana. Congrats on a successful first week."

I clink glasses with him. "Thanks, Jack. This job feels like a good fit for me. I hope you agree," I say laughing.

I'm chatting with one of the IT guys—Amos—when I feel him behind me. Jack is glaring at him over my head, a glower contorting his ruddy face. I feel Christian's arm snake around my waist possessively, and his lips are in my hair, as he says loudly enough for others to hear, particularly Jack.

"Hi, baby. Ready to leave?"

"Yes," I nod. "Jack, this is my boyfriend, Christian. Christian, Jack Hyde, my boss."

A snake-oil salesman couldn't have a smarmier smile than the one Jack plasters on his face. "Oh, I remember Ana mentioned an ex-boyfriend or something like that," he's directing his comment exclusively at Christian.

Christian returns the volley with an evil smile. "No longer ex. Ana, we need to leave now."

"Ana, must you go so soon? You've just gotten here."

"I'm sorry, Jack. We made these plans weeks ago. But thank you so much for the drink. I'll see you bright and early on Monday," I say sprightly.

"Yes. Monday morning you're back with me; don't be late."

Christian nearly drags me out of the bar and into the SUV. "Where are we going, my place or yours?"

I shrug. "I guess mine."

"Taylor, take us to Ms. Steele's apartment, please."

"Yes, sir." He pulls the car away smoothly.

"I'm going to fire that SOB. He's after you, Ana."

"Christian, how can you fire him, for God's sake? Do you know people at SIP?"

"You might say that, I suppose."

"What does that mean exactly?"

He looks down his nose at me. "We'll discuss it later," and then turns his attention out the window. He really is a frustrating bastard and he's treating me so coldly. The only affection he's shown me since last night was the fake display in the bar for Jack's sake. I feel like crying.

Taylor edges the car expertly into the only open space in front of my building and hops out to open my car door. Christian gets out on his own and meets me in front.

"Taylor, around ten, I think. If there's any change I'll let you know."

"Very good, sir."

I look at Christian. "You're not staying the night?"

He shakes his head. I whip my head around and keep walking. This reconciliation is not going to happen and the sooner I deal with it, the better for me.

I say nothing until we're in the apartment but once inside, I don't give him a chance to even sit down. I whirl around to face him. "Okay, then, Christian. What's on the table here?"

"A little hostile, aren't we? Did you expect me to fall down on my knees in gratitude that you want to come back to me, Ana?"

"What? I didn't expect anything but a little warmth from you but you're incapable of feeling emotions, aren't you, Christian? I can tell you without even the benefit of discussion that this is not going to happen so call Taylor and tell him to turn around and come get you. Let me just get your things since I won't be needing them after all."

He grabs my arm, arresting my progress. "Just lower those hackles, Anastasia, and let's have a civil conversation. Sit down."

I wrench my arm out of his grip and plop down into a chair, furious now. My fragile self-esteem can't take another hit and the fucker seems intent on delivering one. I know I hurt him badly but it was his own stupid fault. Now it seems he wants to skewer me.

He sits across from me. "First, tell me what you want from me, Ana, with regard to a relationship. Then I'll tell you what I expect to get and we'll take it from there and see if we can come to an agreement."

"For God's sake, Grey, this isn't a fucking business transaction. Why are you such a freak? Do you know nothing about having a normal relationship?"

He's unflappable tonight. His face remains entirely impassive as he patiently repeats, "Tell me what you want, Ana."

I throw my hands up. "I want to love you and it would be really, really super if you returned some of that love. I want to be thrilled to see you, not afraid. I want to have fun, not be punished. I want a boyfriend, Christian. Is that really asking for too much?"

"I think you know it is asking too much from me personally. Perhaps with some other man, no, it's not asking much at all."

"Then why did you stop me from going home with Jose?"

"I didn't want you to do something merely in reaction to being hurt by me. I want you to think carefully about what it is you truly want at this point and time in your life before proceeding."

"Christian," I sigh, already emotionally drained, "I've told you everything already. You pursued me, knowing I wasn't part of your lifestyle. I became interested in you—and who wouldn't? I mean, really. I began to fall in love with you and you refused to promise not to beat me . . . so I left. The pain of losing you was more than I could bear so I contacted you with the intention of reconsidering my position. It's really as uncomplicated as that."

He strokes his chin thoughtfully. "Reconsidering? As in accepting the punishments?"

I nod miserably.

"Are there exceptions?"

"I don't know. I'm willing to try everything but if I can't tolerate it, I don't want to be kicked to the curb. You always said it would be no more than I could tolerate. If you stand by that promise, I'll try."

"Will you sign the contract?"

"Yes. But I need to know what I'll get in return and I don't mean material things, Christian."

"What is it that you want to hear, Ana?" His voice is gentle now.

"More. I want more and you promised you'd try. Is that still on the table?"

His eyes are boring into mine, as if he's trying to invade my very soul. I'm squirming under the intense scrutiny and not expecting what comes next. In a strangled whisper, I hear his response. "Yes," he says, and pulls me into his embrace, hugging me tightly and kissing my hair over and over.

So it wasn't just me then. He's a far better actor than I'll ever be. I squeeze him. "I love you, Christian Grey. Will you make love to me?"

He scoops me up as if I'm as light as a kitten and carries me into the bedroom.