She knows what I'm thinking? Am I that obvious? Since when?
As I strap her into the seat, her breath hitches. The sound travels straight to my groin. I cinch the straps extra-tight, trying to ignore my body's reaction to her.
"This should keep you in your place." The thought runs through my head, and I realize I've said it out loud. "I must say, I like this harness on you. Don't touch anything."
She flushes. Finally, some color stains her face--and I can't resist. I run the back of my index finger down her cheek, tracing the line of her blush.
Lord, I want this woman.
She scowls, and I know it's because she can't move. I hand her some headphones, take my seat, and buckle up.
I run through my preflight checks. All instruments are in the green with no advisory lights. I roll the throttles to "fly," set the transponder code, and confirm that the anticollision light is on. It all looks good. I don my headphones, switch on the radios, and check the rotor rpm.
When I turn to Ana, she's watching me intently. "Ready, baby?"
"Yes." She's wide-eyed and excited. I can't help my wolfish grin as I radio the tower to make sure that they're awake and listening.
Once I have permission to take off, I check the oil temperature and the rest of the gauges. They're all in normal operating range, so I increase the collective, and Charlie Tango, elegant bird that she is, rises smoothly into the sky.
Oh, I love this.
Feeling a little more confident as we gain altitude, I glance at Miss Steele beside me.
Time to dazzle her.
"We've chased the dawn, Anastasia. Now the dusk." I smile, and I'm rewarded with a shy smile that illuminates her face. Hope stirs in my chest. I have her here when I thought all was lost and she seems happier now than when she walked out of her office. I might just be the free ride, but I'm going to try and enjoy every damn minute of this flight with her.
Dr. Flynn would be proud.
I'm in the moment. And I'm optimistic.
I can do this. I can win her back.
Baby steps, Grey. Don't get ahead of yourself.
"As well as the evening sun, there's more to see this time," I say, interrupting the silence. "Escala's over there. Boeing there--and you can just see the Space Needle."
Curious as ever, she cranes her slim neck to look. "I've never been," she says.
"I'll take you. We can eat there."
"Christian, we broke up." I hear the dismay in her voice.
That is not what I want to hear, but I try not to overreact. "I know. I can still take you there. And feed you." I give her a pointed look and she blushes a lovely pale rose.
"It's very beautiful up here. Thank you." She changes the subject.
"Impressive, isn't it?" I play along--and she's right, I never get tired of the view from up here.
"Impressive that you can do this."
Her compliment surprises me. "Flattery from you, Miss Steele? But I'm a man of many talents."
"I'm fully aware of that, Mr. Grey," she responds tartly, and I suppress a smirk imagining what she's referring to. This is what I've missed: her impertinence, disarming me at every turn.
Keep her talking, Grey. "How's the new job?"
"Good, thank you. Interesting."
"What's your boss like?"
"Oh. He's okay." She sounds less than enthusiastic about Jack Hyde. Has he tried anything with her?
"What's wrong?" I want to know--has that prick done anything inappropriate? I will fire his ass if he has.
"Aside from the obvious, nothing."
"Oh, Christian, you really are very obtuse sometimes," she says with playful disdain.
"Obtuse? Me? I'm not sure I appreciate your tone, Miss Steele."
"Well, don't, then," she quips, pleased with herself. I like that she mocks and teases me. She has the ability to make me feel two feet tall or ten feet tall with just a look or a smile--it's refreshing, and unlike anything I've known before.
"I've missed your smart mouth, Anastasia." An image of her on her knees in front of me pops into my mind and I shift in my seat.
Shit. Concentrate, Grey. She looks away, concealing her smile, and stares down at the suburbs passing beneath us while I check the heading. All is well; we're on track for Portland.
She's quiet, and I steal the occasional glance at her. Her face is lit with curiosity and wonder as she gazes out at the landscape below and the opal sky. Her cheeks are soft and glowing in the evening light. And in spite of her pallor and the dark circles beneath her eyes--evidence of the suffering I've caused her--she's stunning. How could I have let her walk out of my life?
What was I thinking?
While we race above the clouds in our bubble, high in the sky, my optimism grows and the turmoil of the last week recedes. Slowly, I begin to relax, enjoying a serenity I've not felt since she left. I could get used to this. I'd forgotten how content I feel in her company. And it's refreshing to see my world through her eyes.
But as we near our destination my confidence falters. I hope to God that my plan works. I need to take her somewhere private. To dinner, maybe. Damn it. I should have booked a table somewhere. She needs feeding. If I get her to dinner, I'll just need to find the right words. These last few days have shown me that I need someone--I need her. I want her, but will she have me? Can I convince her to give me a second chance?
Time will tell, Grey--just take it easy. Don't frighten her off again.
WE LAND ON PORTLAND'S downtown helipad fifteen minutes later. As I bring Charlie Tango's engines to idle and switch off the transponder, fuel, and radios, the uncertainty I've felt since I resolved to win her back resurfaces. I need to tell her how I feel, and that's going to be hard--because I don't understand my feelings toward her. I know that I've missed her, that I've been miserable without her, and that I'm willing to try a relationship her way. But will it be enough for her? Will it be enough for me?
Talk to her, Grey.
Once I've unbuckled my harness I lean across to undo hers and catch a trace of her sweet fragrance. As ever, she smells good. Her eyes meet mine in a furtive glance--revealing an inappropriate thought? What exactly is she thinking? As usual I'd love to know, but have no idea.
"Good trip, Miss Steele?"
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Grey."
"Well, let's go see the boy's photos." I open the door, jump down, and hold my hand out for her.
Joe, the manager of the helipad, is waiting to greet us. He's an antique: a veteran of the Korean War, but still as spry and acute as a man in his fifties. Nothing escapes his notice. His eyes light up as he gives me a craggy smile.
"Joe, keep her safe for Stephan. He'll be along around eight or nine."
"Will do, Mr. Grey. Ma'am. Your car's waiting downstairs, sir. Oh, and the elevator's out of order. You'll need to use the stairs."
"Thank you, Joe."
As we head for the emergency stairwell, I eye Anastasia's high-heeled boots and remember her less-than-dignified fall into my office.
"Good thing for you this is only three floors--in those heels." I hide my smile.
"Don't you like the boots?" she asks, looking down at her feet. A pleasing vision of them hooked over my shoulders springs to mind.
"I like them very much, Anastasia." I hope my expression doesn't betray my lascivious thoughts. "Come. We'll take it slow. I don't want you falling and breaking your neck." I'm thankful that the elevator is out of order--it gives me a plausible excuse to hold her. Putting my arm around her waist, I pull her to my side and we descend the stairs.
In the car on the way to the gallery my anxiety doubles; we're attending the opening of an exhibition by her so-called friend. The man who, last time I saw him, was trying to push his tongue into her mouth. Perhaps over the last few days they've talked. Perhaps this is a long-anticipated rendezvous between them.
Hell, I hadn't considered that before. I sure hope it's not.
"Jose is just a friend," Ana explains.
Since she stripped me of all my armor and I discovered that I needed her.
She stares at me and my stomach tightens. "Those beautiful eyes look too large in your face, Anastasia. Please tell me you'll eat."
"Yes, Christian, I'll eat." She sounds less than sincere.
"I mean it."
"Do you, now?" Her voice is laced with sarcasm, and I almost have to sit on my hands.
It's time to declare myself.
"I don't want to fight with you, Anastasia. I want you back, and I want you healthy." I'm honored with her shocked, alleyes look.
"But nothing's changed." Her expression shifts to a frown.
Oh, Ana, it has--there's been a seismic shift in me.
We pull up at the gallery and I have no time to explain before the show. "Let's talk on the way back. We're here."
Before she can say she's not interested, I exit the car, walk around to her side, and open the door. She looks mad as she climbs out.
"Why do you do that?" she exclaims, exasperated.
"Do what?" Shit--what's this?
"Say something like that and then just stop."
That's it--that's why you're mad?
"Anastasia, we're here. Where you want to be. Let's do this and then talk. I don't particularly want a scene in the street."
She presses her lips together in a petulant pout, then gives me a begrudging "Okay."
Taking her hand, I move swiftly into the gallery, and she scrambles behind me.
The space is brightly lit and airy. It's one of those converted warehouses that are fashionable at the moment--all wood floors and brick walls. Portland's cognoscenti sip cheap wine and chat in hushed tones while they admire the exhibition.
A young woman greets us. "Good evening, and welcome to Jose Rodriguez's show." She stares at me.
It's only skin deep, sweetheart. Look elsewhere.
She's flustered but seems to recover when she spies Anastasia. "Oh, it's you, Ana. We'll want your take on all this, too." She hands her a brochure and points us toward the makeshift bar. Ana's brow furrows, and that little v that I love forms above her nose. I want to kiss it, like I've done before.
"You know her?" I ask. She shakes her head and her frown deepens. I shrug. Well, this is Portland. "What would you like to drink?"
"I'll have a glass of white wine, thank you."
As I head for the bar I hear an exuberant shout. "Ana!"
Turning, I see that that boy has his arms wrapped around my girl.
I can't hear what they're saying, but Ana closes her eyes, and for one horrible moment I think she's going to burst into tears. But she remains composed as he holds her at arm's length, appraising her.
Yeah, she's that thin because of me.
I fight back my guilt--though it seems she's trying to reassure him. For his part, he looks really fucking interested in her. Too interested. Anger flares in my chest. She says he's just a friend, but it's obvious he doesn't feel that way. He wants more.
Back off, buddy, she's mine.
"The work here is impressive, don't you think?" A balding young man in a loud shirt sidetracks me.
"I've not looked around yet," I answer, and turn to the barman. "Is this all you have?"
"Yep. Red or white?" he says, sounding disinterested.
"Two glasses of white wine," I grunt.
"I think you'll be impressed. Rodriguez has a unique eye," the irritating prick with the irritating shirt tells me. Tuning him out, I glance at Ana. She's staring at me, her eyes large and luminous. My blood thickens and it's impossible to look away. She's a beacon in the crowd and I'm lost in her gaze. She looks sensational. Her hair frames her face and falls in a lush cascade to curl at her breasts. Her dress, looser than I remember, still hugs her curves. She might have worn it deliberately. She knows it's my favorite. Doesn't she? Hot dress, hot boots...
Fuck--control yourself, Grey.
Rodriguez asks Ana a question and she's forced to break eye contact with me. I sense she's reluctant to do so, which is pleasing. But damn it, that boy's all perfect teeth, broad shoulders, and sharp suit. He's a good-looking son of a bitch, for a dope smoker, I'll give him that. She nods at something he says and gives him a warm, carefree smile.
I'd like her to smile like that at me. He leans down and kisses her cheek. Fucker.
I glare at the bartender.
Hurry up, man. He's taking an eternity to pour the wine, incompetent fool.
Finally, he's finished. I grab the glasses, cold-shoulder the young man beside me who's talking about another photographer or some such crap, and head back to Ana.
At least Rodriguez has left her alone. She's lost in thought, contemplating one of his photographs. It's a landscape, a lake, and not without merit, I suppose. She glances up at me with a guarded expression as I hand her a glass. I take a quick sip from mine. Christ, it's disgusting, a warm over-oaked chardonnay.
"Does it come up to scratch?" She sounds amused, but I have no idea what she's referring to--the exhibition, the building? "The wine," she clarifies.
"No. Rarely does at these kinds of events." I change the subject. "The boy's quite talented, isn't he?"
"Why else do you think I asked him to take your portrait?" Her pride in his work is obvious. It irks me. She admires him and takes an interest in his success because she cares about him. She cares about him too much. An ugly emotion with a bitter sting rises in my chest. It's jealousy, a new feeling, one that I've only ever felt around her--and I don't like it.
"Christian Grey?" A guy dressed like a vagrant thrusts a camera in my face, interrupting my dark thoughts. "Can I have a picture, sir?"
Damned paparazzi. I want to tell him to fuck off but decide to be polite. I don't want Sam, my publicity guy, dealing with a press complaint.
"Sure." I reach out and pull Ana to my side. I want everyone to know she's mine; if she'll have me.
Don't get ahead of yourself, Grey.
The photographer takes a few snaps. "Mr. Grey, thank you." At least he sounds appreciative. "Miss...?" he asks, wanting to know her name.
"Ana Steele," she answers, shyly.
"Thank you, Miss Steele." He slithers off and Anastasia steps out of my grasp. I'm disappointed to let her go and fist my hands to resist the urge to touch her again.
She peers at me. "I looked for pictures of you with dates on the Internet. There aren't any. That's why Kate thought you were gay."
"That explains your inappropriate question." I can't help smiling as I remember her awkwardness at our first meeting: her lack of interview skills, her questions. Are you gay, Mr. Grey? And my annoyance.
That seems so long ago. I shake my head and continue. "No--I don't do dates, Anastasia, only with you. But you know that."
And I'd like many, many more.
"So you never took your"--she lowers her voice and glances over her shoulder to check that no one's listening--"subs out?" She blanches at the word, embarrassed.
"Sometimes. Not on dates. Shopping, you know." Those occasional trips were just a distraction, maybe a reward for good submissive behavior. The one woman I've wanted to share more with...is Ana. "Just you, Anastasia," I whisper, and I want to plead my case, ask her about my proposition, see how she feels, and if she'll take me back.
However, the gallery is too public a setting. Her cheeks turn that delicious pink that I love, and she stares down at her hands. I hope it's because she likes what I'm saying, but I can't be sure. I need to get her out of here and on her own. Then we can talk seriously and eat. The sooner we've seen the boy's work, the sooner we can leave.
"Your friend here seems more of a landscape man, not portraits. Let's look around." I hold out my hand, and to my delight, she takes it.
We stroll through the gallery, stopping briefly at each photograph. Though I resent the boy and the feelings he inspires in Ana, I have to admit he's quite good.
We turn the corner--and stop.
There she is. Seven full-blown portraits of Anastasia Steele. She looks jaw-droppingly beautiful, natural, and relaxed--laughing, scowling, pouting, pensive, amused, and in one of them, wistful and sad. As I scrutinize the detail in each photograph, I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he wants to be much more than her friend. "Seems I'm not the only one," I mutter. The photographs are his homage to her--his love letters--and they're all over the gallery walls for any random asshole to ogle.
Ana is staring at them in stunned silence, as surprised as I am to see them. Well, there's no way anyone else is having these. I want the pictures. I hope they're for sale.
"Excuse me." I abandon Ana for a moment and head to the reception desk.
"May I help you?" the woman who greeted us when we arrived asks.
Ignoring her fluttering eyelashes and provocative, overly red smile, I inquire, "The seven portraits you have hanging at the back, are they for sale?"
A look of disappointment flits across her face but resolves into a broad smile. "The Anastasia collection? Stunning work."
"Of course they're for sale. Let me check the prices," she gushes.
"I want them all." And I reach for my wallet.
"All of them?" She sounds surprised.
"Yes." Irritating woman.
"The collection is fourteen thousand dollars."
"I'd like them delivered as soon as possible."
"But they're due to hang for the duration of the exhibition," she says.
I give her my full-kilowatt smile, and she adds, flustered, "But I'm sure we can arrange something." She fumbles with my credit card as she swipes it.
When I return to Ana, I find a blond dude chatting with her, trying his luck. "These photographs are terrific," he says. I place a territorial hand on her elbow and give him my best fuck-off-now glare. "You're a lucky guy," he adds, taking a step back.
"That I am," I answer, dismissing him as I usher Ana over to the wall.
"Did you just buy one of these?" Ana nods toward the portraits.
"One of these?" I scoff. One? Are you serious?
"You bought more than one?"
"I bought them all, Anastasia." And I know I sound condescending, but the thought of someone else owning and enjoying these photographs is out of the question. Her lips part in astonishment, and I try not to let it distract me. "I don't want some stranger ogling you in the privacy of their home."