A/N Here it is, my friends – "the moment"!
Even after that crazy, and late, evening, I still find myself awake at 6:30am. I stretch, throw on a robe and head over to my dad's room, hoping he's back. I knock gently. No answer. Cautiously I open the door, only to see the bed still made with military precision. A little pang of sadness hits me. I was hoping to talk to him about Christian as well as everything else that's happened.
I close the door again, scamper back to my room and grab a quick shower before dressing and heading downstairs.
"Good morning, Ana," comes a deep, rich voice from the breakfast bar.
"Good morning, Christian. Have you been up long?"
I take the seat next to him, getting a small kiss on my cheek, and a mug of hot water with a teabag alongside, set in front of me by Mrs. Jones.
"Maybe an hour or so. I tend to not sleep much." He sips his coffee, watches me fix my tea. "Meant to ask, can you swim?"
Hunh? Where did that come from?
"Yes, I can swim. Ray is a former Seal, remember? You think he'd have a kid who couldn't swim?" I saw his smile, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
"Ah yes. What was I thinking? I asked because I thought we could take my boat out today, have a picnic on the water.
Winds are out of the east today so it should be a good day for it."
Mrs. Jones set plates of scrambled eggs, bacon, fruit and toast in front of us.
"You have a boat? What kind?" I don't know why I'm so surprised; he's got everything, doesn't he?
"She's a catamaran, custom built. I named her The Grace after my mother."
"How big is she?"
He blinked, looked surprised. Hm, maybe he didn't realize I've been around boats before.
"She's 75 feet. Why?"
"Just curious. I've been on a few different boats, so I wondered what kind a guy like you might have."
He quirked an eyebrow. "A guy like me?"
"Yeah. That whole billionaire thing. I wasn't sure if you were talking about a yacht or a bass boat or something in between. Didn't expect to hear catamaran, although I guess it makes sense. Lots of big money guys are into big sailing ships. I presume she sails, right?"
"Yes, she does. By any chance have you ever had sailing lessons?"
"Sailing school was Ray's birthday gift to me when I turned 15." Hah, I think I shocked him.
"Excellent! I could use a competent First Mate. We'll leave for the marina in about an hour."
It was now early afternoon, and bikini-clad, I was sprawled in the web hammock over the water at the stern, belly full from Gail's yummy fried chicken, feeling content and warm and snoozy. The glurping of the small waves against the hulls begins to lull me into a nap. With so much crazy stress lately, this felt like heaven.
"Mind if I join you?" came that soft deep voice.
I squinted up at him, using my hand to try to shade my eyes from the midday sun.
"Not at all. Plenty of room for two here."
I scooched over, heard his low chuckle as he deftly spread out next to me. Oh YUM! Look at that landscape of carved muscle! Ana! Honestly! Quit drooling!
"You looked like you were really enjoying yourself."
"I was. I am. Fantastic weather, nice boat, great food, and excellent company. What's not to like?"
I lay back again, eyes closed, reveling in the perfect day while trying to catch a little bit of sun. Next thing I knew, I felt this oh-so-soft touch on the top of my hand, lazily skimming a path between fingertips and wrist. The tingles chased up my arm, down my torso, and nestled somewhere deep inside me. I couldn't help the smile.
"I'm glad we got the chance to relax today. Mother Nature's certainly being unusually cooperative."
I had to chuckle at that one. "I take it that doesn't happen very often?"
"Well, with my schedule, it's a rarity when I can find time for this. Add in the unpredictable Seattle weather, and it seems half the time my plans get foiled."
"Why are you doing all this?"
"I thought we could enjoy a relaxing day on the boat."
"No, I mean, well, all of it. My security guy, letting me stay at your place, solving the mystery of my mom's death… why? Why are you doing all this?"
"Because I feel something for you, Ana. Something I've never felt in my life, and I have no words to explain. You're precious to me. I want to protect you, keep you safe. I enjoy being with you, talking with you, sharing my world with you."
"This just seems to be such a complete one-eighty from that contract you showed me."
"I admit, it is. Contracts were the only way I knew to have a relationship. There were rules. I was in control, and I didn't have to worry that I would be touched. All of these strange… feelings… had no place in my world. Not until you showed up. And now that you're in my world, I find that I don't want it to go back to the shallow, lifeless way that it was before."
"I'll be honest, Christian. I find it very hard to believe that leopard like you can so suddenly change your spots. I like you. A lot. But I'm afraid that especially with my dad around, you've been on your best behavior. I keep wondering when you'll revert back to form."
"No worries on that score, Ana. I can't go back. I don't want to be the man I used to be. It's as if my whole world was so very rigid, so clinical, everything in shades of black and white, controlled to the nth degree. Suddenly you cross my path and my world is filled with color, light and life. For the first time ever, I feel like I'm more than just a robot going through the motions. I feel alive, I feel happy. And I feel happiest around you."
Wow! What do I say to that? My thoughts swirled over everything he just said, then skidded to a stop at that one phrase.
"What did you mean when you said you didn't have to worry about being touched?"
Dammit! I should have known she'd pick up on that. Well, I guess if I want a relationship with her, that means I'll need to be honest with her. God, I hope it doesn't make her run.
"It's the result of my… difficult… start in life. It's called haphephobia."
"Only half? Not even a whole phobia?" she deadpans.
I chuckle, shaking my head. That mind. That mouth! I spell it for her.
"It's a deep fear of touch. Part of the reason I indulged in the lifestyle was to prevent being touched. To this day any touch on my torso feels like I'm being burned," I confess.
Just talking about it is stirring up all the old feelings, making me uneasy. But I know if I shut this down, keep this from her, we will never be able to move forward. What was that old saw? Something about if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. Time to take a risk.
"Christian, what happened to you? Can you share it with me?"
"Are you sure you want to know? It's not a pretty story and I'm afraid it might ruin our wonderful day."
I'm so torn. Half of me wants her to drop it so I can shut down those awful memories, while the other half oddly wants to open up to her and be honest about my past.
"I would like to know whatever you're willing to share with me," she says, making it obvious that it's my choice.
Taking a moment to get my thoughts in order, I shift around, sitting cross-legged next to her. Outside of my family, Flynn, and Elena, no one else knows the ugly truth of what happened to me. I can't look at her, can't bear to watch her face as I reveal the horror of my early years. Deep sigh, as I'm still fighting down the panic inside. And then I feel her hand gently take mine, holding me, connecting to me. It gives me courage, and my need to share outweighs the panic.
"My birth mother was addicted to crack cocaine, and prostituted herself to afford her habit. I don't think of her as my mother, but as the crack whore. Her pimp…" I swallow hard, trying to get past the tightness in my throat. "He was brutal. I was beaten frequently, punched, kicked. There was never enough food, and my stomach always hurt. My mother was so strung out she couldn't see the abuse happening right in front of her. She never lifted a hand to stop him. It… it made me feel that I somehow deserved to be treated that way."
I swallow again, the words caught in my throat. Then I feel her hand tighten a little in mine, and I redouble my efforts to speak of the horrors.
"The older I got, the worse the abuse. Then one time, he was beating my mother with a belt. She was screaming. I tried to make him stop and he smacked me hard enough to throw me across the room. Then he dropped the belt and grabbed me, dangled me by my wrist. He called me a worthless little shit and said he'd… teach me to not interfere." Another hard swallow. I tried to take a deeper breath to loosen the tightening in my chest, causing me to pant. "He… he ripped off my shirt, then burned me with his cigarette."
I had barely croaked the words, listened for the gasp. Strangely, it never came. Eyes still closed, I went on.
"That's why I have these round scars on my chest and back. Anyway, not long after that, the crack whore died from an overdose. I kept trying to wake her, covered her with my ratty blanket trying to keep her warm. It was days before the police came. I was about four years old, malnourished, dehydrated, the burns now infected. They took her away and I never saw her again, no matter how much I screamed at them to let me go back to her. My adoptive mother, Grace, was the pediatrician on call that night. She tended to my wounds as best she could. I still remember screaming every time she touched my burns, putting salve on them and trying to put bandaids on. It felt almost as bad as what the pimp did to me."
That was as far as I could go. It felt like my words had tainted the air around us, and I waited for the pity from her. I didn't want that, but at the moment I had no more words to tell her that, just as I had no words for anyone the first two years after I was adopted.
"That slimy rat-bastard!" she growled. "He'd better never cross my path or I won't be responsible for raining hell down on his sick twisted ass!"
My head snapped up in utter shock. Wide-eyed, gape-mouthed, frozen-brained, shock.
"Believe it, Christian. No one has the right to do that to someone, especially not to a kid."
I blinked. Not pity, protectiveness. No one had ever reacted like this. It was always 'Oh poor Christian', making me feel like a victim all over again. Her words made me feel… different: I had been victimized, I was not still a victim. I closed my eyes again, my mind suddenly over-revving.
"Christian, are you okay?"
"I… I just need a moment. It's stunning to suddenly have my blinders ripped off."
Yes, that's exactly it. I was a victim. Past tense. But because I'd continued to feel like a victim, I'd built walls around me, trying to protect myself. I pushed, worked maniacally to make GEH a success so I wouldn't be a 'financial victim', dependent on working for someone else. I kept a rigid schedule, kept security close, chose an isolated penthouse to live in, even dressing well, all to keep from being a 'physical victim'. I kept my family at arm's length, maintained the lifestyle, all to prevent becoming an 'emotional victim'. And behind all of those walls still huddled a frightened four-year-old, perennially victimized by nightmares. For the first time, seeing those walls for what they were, I wondered if they had also trapped in the nightmares.
It was overwhelming to realize that my entire life had been spent trying to stop being a victim, and her caring and protectiveness had finally freed me. I felt her thumb gently rub against the back of my hand that she held, bringing me back to reality, grounding me. In that moment, I knew beyond any shadow of doubt, that I did have a heart, and it had just walked its way out of my chest and knelt like a submissive in front of her. I opened my eyes, saw the concern and the lingering bit of fire in her eyes. My beautiful miracle.
"I'm… okay. More than okay." I lifted our joined hands to my lips, softly kissed hers. "Thank you."
She cocked her head slightly, puzzled. "For what?"
"For being the strong and caring person that you are. For helping me finally see all the walls I'd put up, trying to protect my four-year-old self from the world and everything in it, and for giving me the courage to start breaking down those walls."
"Maybe you were just finally at a point where it was the right time."
"Maybe. But I'm sure you were the catalyst that allowed it to happen."
I gently tugged her hand and she sat cross-legged, facing me. I took her other hand, losing myself in those deep blue eyes that touched my soul. Keeping my eyes locked on her, I brought her right hand up toward my chest. Her eyes went wide as she realized my intent, pulled her hand back a little.
"Ana, please, do this. I need this. We need this."
"More sure than I've ever been. Please. Touch me."
I felt her resistance disappear, slowly pulled her hand to cover my heart, keeping my own larger hand atop hers. I was tense, expected the burning, but all I felt was that zinging electricity when her skin made contact. It was euphoric! I threw back my head, overwhelmed at the incredible feelings.
"More!" I demanded, bringing her other hand to nestle alongside the first.
The zinging intensified. My God, I wondered, if just her hands touching me felt like this, what would full body contact feel like? I straightened my head, knew my eyes were blazing as I focused on her. I saw her eyes widen in response. I dropped my hands away from hers.
"Touch me, Ana. Touch me all over. Please."
Her hands came away as she launched herself at me, knocking me on my back, hugging me for all she was worth, kissing me. I held her tight, kissed her right back with everything in me. Took me a second to realize that the wetness on my cheeks was from our mingled tears, but I didn't care. For the first time, my world felt right.
I rolled us over, trapping her beneath me, feeling her hands roaming over my bare back and it didn't hurt. I pulled my lips away for just a moment to catch my breath, saw the raw desire in her wide pupils, and knew that she felt it too.
"Ana, I am so sorry that I ever thought you could be just a mere submissive. You are far too good for that, so much more than that. Ana, I love you." I dipped in for a quick kiss. "I expected pity when I told you my story, not the protective mama bear you became. Thank you."
"For showing me that I was victimized, but that I am no longer a victim. For showing me that you care about me. Love is a whole new thing for me. I never expected to know what it was like, never expected to experience it first hand. And now that I have, I don't want to lose it, lose what you and I have." Another quick kiss.
"Christian, I love you too. And you're not losing me."
I crushed her to me, trying to feel every inch of her pressed against me. To feel all of this, with her, filled me to bursting. How could I have lived so empty for so long? No, that wasn't living; it was only existing. Suddenly I felt her tongue lap at my earlobe and I damned near lost it, pulled away a little to let her breathe.
"You love me too?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes. I love you, you strange complicated man. I think I fell in love with you the same day I fell into your office. Didn't know it at the time since I was never in love before, but I'm pretty sure that's when it happened."
"I think that's when it happened for me too, and like you, I had no idea what the strange feelings meant. I wanted you, of that I was certain."
"So why ask me to be your submissive?"
"Like I told you, that was all I knew. Ana, I never dated, never had a girlfriend. I was an angry, out of control teenager, seduced at 15, taught to endure extreme pain, taught how to read a woman's body, give her pleasure, and taught how to fuck. I was brainwashed to believe that love was only for fools, that it made you weak. But you've shown me that love makes you strong, not weak. I am so sorry I tried to get you to be something you're not, and I'm so glad you told me where to shove that contract. Maybe not so much that mule kick, though."
That ringing laugh was pure music, and it was glorious to feel her chest bouncing beneath mine.
"I'm sorry about that. When you smacked me, my training took over and I reacted before I even had a thought."
"I figured that out later, once I'd discovered that your Dad was a Navy Seal and had likely taught his only daughter self-defense."
"I hope I didn't hurt you too bad."
"I got over it."
"I, uh, I know I signed that NDA of yours, but I, uh, sorta talked to my dad about it a little bit after I got home that night."
I saw her gulp at my raised eyebrow. I'd figured she must have said something to him, now I wanted to know how much.
"I had to talk to him. I'd never kicked anyone like that, and the way you were crumpled on the floor afterward, moaning, I was terrified I'd done permanent damage. He wanted to know why you were hitting me, and I told him that you must have gotten frustrated with me when I said no, that I didn't want to be one of your bimbos, and you smacked my ass probably without thinking. He was pretty worried that a guy I'd barely met would raise a hand to me, told me to be careful.
"Christian, do I still have to be careful of you?"
"No, sweetheart. I promise I will never raise a hand to you again without your consent. It was wrong of me to have done it, and I apologize. You're right, I was frustrated when it happened, because I'd never wanted anyone as much as I wanted you. And there you were telling me no. I was such an idiot."
"No, not an idiot. Just a very talented businessman dealing with a failed acquisition."
I smiled wide at her assessment, shook my head at the simple truth, and a moment later kissed her again. Inspiration hit.
"You're right. You were a failed acquisition. So tell me, how would you feel instead about a successful merger?"
I saw the sparkle in her eyes and felt the warmth of her love just pour into me.
"Hmm, all depends I suppose," she rubbed her nose against mine, "on what the terms and conditions are."
"Well, one of the conditions is having you move in with me," I teased seductively, nipping at her luscious lips. "And the term, well, it's likely to be a very long term. Very.." Kiss. "Very.." Kiss. "Long term." Kiss.
She raised her hand, gently brushing across my cheek, sliding to the back of my neck where her nails lightly scratched at my hairline.
"But for all intents and purposes, I'm already moved in with you. At least for another week."
"Nope. The term isn't long enough. And though it's just a technicality, I want you in my bed, not my guestroom."
"Oh, you're a tough negotiator, Mr. Grey," she slyly teased right back, "but I made a promise to my mom a long, long time ago. So I have.." Kiss. "Conditions.." Kiss. "That need to be met before we can have.." Kiss. "A successful merger."
It took all of two seconds for me to understand what she meant, and another two to realize that I wanted her enough to agree. Me, the king of pain and pleasure, willing and eager to make that offer – it had to be witchcraft and I was ensorcelled and loving every minute of it.
I smiled at her, then pulled back from her, taking her hand and getting us back on deck. I had her sit on the bench on the starboard side, and then took her hands in mine, going down on one knee in front of her.
"Anastasia Rose Steele, you have completely turned my life upside down and inside out. You've shown me your caring and your love, and I am a parched and suffering man, needing every drop of it. Would you please do me the honor of merging your life with mine, and say yes to becoming my wife? Ana, will you marry me?"
A lone tear tracked down her cheek.
"Are you sure, Christian? Are you really sure, because it will crush me if you don't really mean it, if this isn't… very long term."
"I've never been more sure of anything, Ana. Please, you're killing me here. Will you marry me?"
"A merger, not an acquisition, right? If we do this, we're partners, right?"
"Absolutely. Definitely a merger. Although you might have to remind me of that occasionally as it's not what I'm used to."
"As long as you're willing to listen and accept when I remind you."
"Then my answer is yes, Christian. I will marry you."
It was my turn to launch at her, pinning her to the bench with my body, feeling her arms coming around me and holding on as I kissed her.
"You're crazy, do you know that? What guy takes a girl on a handful of dates and then proposes?"
"Hey, talented businessman here, remember? I have a finely honed gut instinct for making the right decisions, and I can already tell that this one is the best one ever. I love you, Ana, and I will spend the rest of my life loving you, protecting you, and doing everything to make you happy."
"I'll hold you to that, Christian."
"Hmm, I wonder if they're still open."
"Hunh? Who's still open?"
"Cartier. We can go pick out your engagement ring."
"Uh, how about you ask my dad first?"
"Oh! Right. I forgot about that bit. Do you know when he's coming back?"
"Not exactly. Probably just a couple of days."
"Good. I'll ask him when he gets back. Let's still go have a look at rings. What do you say?"
"Crazy complicated fiancé. All right, let's go and look at rings."
Not sure, but I think I was grinning like a loon.