My heart is pounding. The elevator arrives on the first floor, and I scramble out as soon as the doors slide open, stumbling once, but fortunately not sprawling on to the immaculate sandstone floor. I race for the wide glass doors, and I’m free in the bracing, cleansing, damp air of Seattle. Raising my face, I welcome the cool refreshing rain. I close my eyes and take a deep, purifying breath, trying to recover what’s left of my equilibrium.
No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why. Is it his looks? His civility? Wealth? Power? I don’t understand my irrational reaction. I breathe an enormous sigh of relief. What in heaven’s name was that all about? Leaning against one of the steel pillars of the building, I valiantly attempt to calm down and gather my thoughts. I shake my head. Holy crap – what was that? My heart steadies to its regular rhythm, and I can breathe normally again. I head for the car.
As I leave the city limits behind, I begin to feel foolish and embarrassed as I replay the interview in my mind. Surely, I’m over-reacting to something that’s imaginary. Okay, so he’s very attractive, confident, commanding, at ease with himself – but on the flip side, he’s arrogant, and for all his impeccable manners, he’s autocratic and cold. Well, on the surface. An involuntary shiver runs down my spine. He may be arrogant, but then he has a right to be – he’s accomplished so much at such a young age. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but why should he? Again, I’m irritated that Kate didn’t give me a brief biography.
While cruising along the I-5, my mind continues to wander. I’m truly perplexed as to what makes someone so driven to succeed. Some of his answers were so cryptic – as if he had a hidden agenda. And Kate’s questions – ugh! The adoption and asking him if he was gay! I shudder. I can’t believe I said that. Ground, swallow me up now! Every time I think of that question in the future, I will cringe with embarrassment. Damn Katherine Kavanagh!
I check the speedometer. I’m driving more cautiously than I would on any other occasion. And I know it’s the memory of two penetrating gray eyes gazing at me, and a stern voice telling me to drive carefully. Shaking my head, I realize that Grey’s more like a man double his age.
Forget it, Ana, I scold myself. I decide that all in all, it’s been a very interesting experience, but I shouldn’t dwell on it. Put it behind you. I never have to see him again. I’m immediately cheered by the thought. I switch on the MP3 player and turn the volume up loud, sit back, and listen to thumping indie rock music as I press down on the accelerator. As I hit the 1-5, I realize I can drive as fast as I want.
We live in a small community of duplex apartments in Vancouver, Washington, close to the Vancouver campus of WSU. I’m lucky – Kate’s parents bought the place for her, and I pay peanuts for rent. It’s been home for four years now. As I pull up outside, I know Kate is going to want a blow-by-blow account, and she is tenacious. Well, at least she has the mini-disc. Hopefully I won’t have to elaborate much beyond what was said during the interview.
“Ana! You’re back.” Kate sits in our living area, surrounded by books. She’s clearly been studying for finals – though she’s still in her pink flannel pajamas decorated with cute little rabbits, the ones she reserves for the aftermath of breaking up with boyfriends, for assorted illnesses, and for general moody depression. She bounds up to me and hugs me hard.
“I was beginning to worry. I expected you back sooner.”
“Oh, I thought I made good time considering the interview ran over.” I wave the mini-disc recorder at her.
“Ana, thank you so much for doing this. I owe you, I know. How was it? What was he like?” Oh no – here we go, the Katherine Kavanagh Inquisition.
I struggle to answer her question. What can I say?
“I’m glad it’s over, and I don’t have to see him again. He was rather intimidating, you know.” I shrug. “He’s very focused, intense even – and young. Really young.”
Kate gazes innocently at me. I frown at her.
“Don’t you look so innocent. Why didn’t you give me a biography? He made me feel like such an idiot for skimping on basic research.” Kate clamps a hand to her mouth.
“Jeez, Ana, I’m sorry – I didn’t think.”
“Mostly he was courteous, formal, slightly stuffy – like he’s old before his time. He doesn’t talk like a man of twenty-something. How old is he anyway?”
“Twenty-seven. Jeez, Ana, I’m sorry. I should have briefed you, but I was in such a panic. Let me have the mini-disc, and I’ll start transcribing the interview.”
“You look better. Did you eat your soup?” I ask, keen to change the subject.
“Yes, and it was delicious as usual. I’m feeling much better.” She smiles at me in gratitude. I check my watch.
“I have to run. I can still make my shift at Clayton’s.”
“Ana, you’ll be exhausted.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll see you later.”
I’ve worked at Clayton’s since I started at WSU. It’s the largest independent hardware store in the Portland area, and over the four years I’ve worked here, I’ve come to know a little bit about most everything we sell – although ironically, I’m crap at any DIY. I leave all that to my dad. I’m much more of a curl-up-with-a-book-in-a-comfy-chair-by-the-fire kind of girl. I’m glad I can make my shift as it gives me something to focus on that isn’t Christian Grey. We’re busy – it’s the start of the summer season, and folks are redecorating their homes. Mrs. Clayton is pleased to see me.
“Ana! I thought you weren’t going to make it today.”
“My appointment didn’t take as long as I thought. I can do a couple of hours.”
“I’m real pleased to see you.”
She sends me to the storeroom to start re-stocking shelves, and I’m soon absorbed in the task.
When I arrive home later, Katherine is wearing headphones and working on her laptop. Her nose is still pink, but she has her teeth into a story, so she’s concentrating and typing furiously. I’m thoroughly drained – exhausted by the long drive, the grueling interview, and by being rushed off my feet at Clayton’s. I slump on to the couch, thinking about the essay I have to finish and all the studying I haven’t done today because I was holed up with… him.
“You’ve got some good stuff here, Ana. Well done. I can’t believe you didn’t take him up on his offer to show you around. He obviously wanted to spend more time with you.” She gives me a fleeting quizzical look.
I flush, and my heart rate inexplicably increases. That wasn’t the reason, surely? He just wanted to show me around so I could see that he was lord of all he surveyed. I realize I’m biting my lip, and I hope Kate doesn’t notice. But she seems absorbed in her transcription.
“I hear what you mean about formal. Did you take any notes?” she asks.
“Um… no, I didn’t.”
“That’s fine. I can still make a fine article with this. Shame we don’t have some original stills. Good-looking son of a bitch, isn’t he?”
“I suppose so.” I try hard to sound disinterested, and I think I succeed.
“Oh come on, Ana – even you can’t be immune to his looks.” She arches a perfect eyebrow at me.
Crap! I distract her with flattery, always a good ploy.
“You probably would have got a lot more out of him.”
“I doubt that, Ana. Come on – he practically offered you a job. Given that I foisted this on you at the last minute, you did very well.” She glances up at me speculatively. I make a hasty retreat into the kitchen.
“So what did you really think of him?” Damn, she’s inquisitive. Why can’t she just let this go? Think of something – quick.
“He’s very driven, controlling, arrogant – scary really, but very charismatic. I can understand the fascination,” I add truthfully, as I peer round the door at her hoping this will shut her up once and for all.
“You, fascinated by a man? That’s a first,” she snorts.
I start gathering the makings of a sandwich so she can’t see my face.
“Why did you want to know if he was gay? Incidentally, that was the most embarrassing question. I was mortified, and he was pissed to be asked too.” I scowl at the memory.
“Whenever he’s in the society pages, he never has a date.”
“It was embarrassing. The whole thing was embarrassing. I’m glad I’ll never have to lay eyes on him again.”
“Oh, Ana, it can’t have been that bad. I think he sounds quite taken with you.”
Taken with me? Now Kate’s being ridiculous.
“Would you like a sandwich?”
We talk no more of Christian Grey that evening, much to my relief. Once we’ve eaten, I’m able to sit at the dining table with Kate and, while she works on her article, I work on my essay on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Damn, but that woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong century. By the time I finish, it’s midnight, and Kate has long since gone to bed. I make my way to my room, exhausted, but pleased that I’ve accomplished so much for a Monday.
I curl up in my white iron bed, wrapping my mother’s quilt around me, close my eyes, and I’m instantly asleep. That night I dream of dark places, bleak white cold floors, and gray eyes.
For the rest of the week, I throw myself into my studies and my job at Clayton’s. Kate is busy too, compiling her last edition of her student magazine before she has to relinquish it to the new editor while also cramming for her finals. By Wednesday, she’s much better, and I no longer have to endure the sight of her pink-flannel-with-too-many-rabbits PJs. I call my mom in Georgia to check on her, but also so she can wish me luck for my final exams. She proceeds to tell me about her latest venture into candle making – my mother is all about new business ventures. Fundamentally she’s bored and wants something to occupy her time, but she has the attention span of a goldfish. It’ll be something new next week. She worries me. I hope she hasn’t mortgaged the house to finance this latest scheme. And I hope that Bob – her relatively new but much older husband – is keeping an eye on her now that I’m no longer there. He does seem a lot more grounded than Husband Number Three.
“How are things with you, Ana?”
For a moment, I hesitate, and I have Mom’s full attention.
“Ana? Have you met someone?” Wow… how does she do that? The excitement in her voice is palpable.
“No, Mom, it’s nothing. You’ll be the first to know if I do.”
“Ana, you really need to get out more, honey. You worry me.”
“Mom, I’m fine. How’s Bob?” As ever, distraction is the best policy.
Later that evening, I call Ray, my stepdad, Mom’s Husband Number Two, the man I consider my father, and the man whose name I bear. It’s a brief conversation. In fact, it’s not so much a conversation as a one-sided series of grunts in response to my gentle coaxing. Ray is not a talker. But he’s still alive, he’s still watching soccer on TV, and going bowling and fly-fishing or making furniture when he’s not. Ray is a skilled carpenter and the reason I know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw. All seems well with him.
Friday night, Kate and I are debating what to do with our evening – we want some time out from our studies, from our work, and from student newspapers – when the doorbell rings. Standing on our doorstep is my good friend José, clutching a bottle of champagne.
“José! Great to see you!” I give him a quick hug. “Come in.”
José is the first person I met when I arrived at WSU, looking as lost and lonely as I did. We recognized a kindred spirit in each of us that day, and we’ve been friends ever since. Not only do we share a sense of humor, but we discovered that both Ray and José Senior were in the same army unit together. As a result, our fathers have become firm friends too.
José is studying engineering and is the first in his family to make it to college. He’s pretty damn bright, but his real passion is photography. José has a great eye for a good picture.
“I have news.” He grins, his dark eyes twinkling.
“Don’t tell me – you’ve managed not to get kicked out for another week,” I tease, and he scowls playfully at me.
“The Portland Place Gallery is going to exhibit my photos next month.”
“That’s amazing – congratulations!” Delighted for him, I hug him again. Kate beams at him too.
“Way to go José! I should put this in the paper. Nothing like last minute editorial changes on a Friday evening.” She grins.
“Let’s celebrate. I want you to come to the opening.” José looks intently at me. I flush. “Both of you, of course,” he adds, glancing nervously at Kate.
José and I are good friends, but I know deep down inside, he’d like to be more. He’s cute and funny, but he’s just not for me. He’s more like the brother I never had. Katherine often teases me that I’m missing the need-a-boyfriend gene, but the truth is – I just haven’t met anyone who… well, whom I’m attracted to, even though part of me longs for those trembling knees, heart-in-my-mouth, butterflies-in-my-belly, sleepless nights.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high. But in reality, nobody’s ever made me feel like that.
Until very recently, the unwelcome, still small voice of my subconscious whispers. NO! I banish the thought immediately. I am not going there, not after that painful interview. Are you gay, Mr. Grey? I wince at the memory. I know I’ve dreamt about him most nights since then, but that’s just to purge the awful experience from my system, surely?
I watch José open the bottle of champagne. He’s tall, and in his jeans and t-shirt he’s all shoulders and muscles, tanned skin, dark hair and burning dark eyes. Yes, José’s pretty hot, but I think he’s finally getting the message: we’re just friends. The cork makes its loud pop, and José looks up and smiles.
Saturday at the store is a nightmare. We are besieged by do-it-yourselfers wanting to spruce up their homes. Mr. and Mrs. Clayton, John and Patrick – the two other part-timers – and I are all rushed off our feet. But there’s a lull around lunchtime, and Mrs. Clayton asks me to check on some orders while I’m sitting behind the counter at the till discreetly eating my bagel. I’m engrossed in the task, checking catalogue numbers against the items we need and the items we’ve ordered, eyes flicking from the order book to the computer screen and back as I check the entries match. Then, for some reason, I glance up… and find myself locked in the bold gray gaze of Christian Grey who’s standing at the counter, staring at me intently.
“Miss Steele. What a pleasant surprise.” His gaze is unwavering and intense.
Holy crap. What the hell is he doing here looking all tousled-hair and outdoorsy in his cream chunky-knit sweater, jeans, and walking boots? I think my mouth has popped open, and I can’t locate my brain or my voice.
“Mr. Grey,” I whisper, because that’s all I can manage. There’s a ghost of a smile on his lips and his eyes are alight with humor, as if he’s enjoying some private joke.
“I was in the area,” he says by way of explanation. “I need to stock up on a few things. It’s a pleasure to see you again, Miss Steele.” His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.
I shake my head to gather my wits. My heart is pounding a frantic tattoo, and for some reason I’m blushing furiously under his steady scrutiny. I am utterly thrown by the sight of him standing before me. My memories of him did not do him justice. He’s not merely good-looking – he’s the epitome of male beauty, breathtaking, and he’s here. Here in Clayton’s Hardware Store. Go figure. Finally my cognitive functions are restored and reconnected with the rest of my body.
“Ana. My name’s Ana,” I mutter. “What can I help you with, Mr. Grey?”
He smiles, and again it’s like he’s privy to some big secret. It is so disconcerting. Taking a deep breath, I put on my professional I’ve-worked-in-this-shop-for-years façade. I can do this.
“There are a few items I need. To start with, I’d like some cable ties,” he murmurs, his gray eyes cool but amused.
“We stock various lengths. Shall I show you?” I mutter, my voice soft and wavery. Get a grip, Steele. A slight frown mars Grey’s rather lovely brow.
“Please. Lead the way, Miss Steele,” he says. I try for nonchalance as I come out from behind the counter, but really I’m concentrating hard on not falling over my own feet – my legs are suddenly the consistency of Jell-O. I’m so glad I decided to wear my best jeans this morning.
“They’re in with the electrical goods, aisle eight.” My voice is a little too bright. I glance up at him and regret it almost immediately. Damn, he’s handsome. I blush.
“After you,” he murmurs, gesturing with his long-fingered, beautifully manicured hand.
With my heart almost strangling me – because it’s in my throat trying to escape from my mouth – I head down one of the aisles to the electrical section. Why is he in Portland? Why is he here at Clayton’s? And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain – probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata where my subconscious dwells – comes the thought: he’s here to see you. No way! I dismiss it immediately. Why would this beautiful, powerful, urbane man want to see me? The idea is preposterous, and I kick it out of my head.
“Are you in Portland on business?” I ask, and my voice is too high, like I’ve got my finger trapped in a door or something. Damn! Try to be cool Ana!
“I was visiting the WSU farming division. It’s based at Vancouver. I’m currently funding some research there in crop rotation and soil science,” he says matter-of-factly. See? Not here to find you at all, my subconscious sneers at me, loud, proud, and pouty. I flush at my foolish wayward thoughts.
“All part of your feed-the-world plan?” I tease.
“Something like that,” he acknowledges, and his lips quirk up in a half smile.
He gazes at the selection of cable ties we stock at Clayton’s. What on Earth is he going to do with those? I cannot picture him as a do-it-yourselfer at all. His fingers trail across the various packages displayed, and for some inexplicable reason, I have to look away. He bends and selects a packet.
“These will do,” he says with his oh-so-secret smile, and I blush.
“Is there anything else?”
“I’d like some masking tape.”
“Are you redecorating?” The words are out before I can stop them. Surely he hires laborers or has staff to help him decorate?
“No, not redecorating,” he says quickly then smirks, and I have the uncanny feeling that he’s laughing at me.
Am I that funny? Funny looking?
“This way,” I murmur embarrassed. “Masking tape is in the decorating aisle.”
I glance behind me as he follows.
“Have you worked here long?” His voice is low, and he’s gazing at me, gray eyes concentrating hard. I blush even more brightly. Why the hell does he have this effect on me? I feel like I’m fourteen years old – gauche, as always, and out of place. Eyes front Steele!
“Four years,” I mutter as we reach our goal. To distract myself, I reach down and select the two widths of masking tape that we stock.
“I’ll take that one,” Grey says softly pointing to the wider tape, which I pass to him. Our fingers brush very briefly, and the current is there again, zapping through me like I’ve touched an exposed wire. I gasp involuntarily as I feel it, all the way down to somewhere dark and unexplored, deep in my belly. Desperately, I scrabble around for my equilibrium.
“Anything else?” My voice is husky and breathy. His eyes widen slightly.
“Some rope, I think.” His voice mirrors mine, husky.
“This way.” I duck my head down to hide my recurring blush and head for the aisle.
“What sort were you after? We have synthetic and natural filament rope… twine… cable cord… ” I halt at his expression, his eyes darkening. Holy cow.
“I’ll take five yards of the natural filament rope please.”
Quickly, with trembling fingers, I measure out five yards against the fixed ruler, aware that his hot gray gaze is on me. I dare not look at him. Jeez, could I feel any more self-conscious? Taking my Stanley knife from the back pocket of my jeans, I cut it then coil it neatly before tying it in a slipknot. By some miracle, I manage not to remove a finger with my knife.
“Were you a Girl Scout?” he asks, sculptured, sensual lips curled in amusement. Don’t look at his mouth!
“Organized, group activities aren’t really my thing, Mr. Grey.”
He arches a brow.
“What is your thing, Anastasia?” he asks, his voice soft and his secret smile is back. I gaze at him unable to express myself. I’m on shifting tectonic plates. Try and be cool, Ana, my tortured subconscious begs on bended knee.
“Books,” I whisper, but inside, my subconscious is screaming: You! You are my thing! I slap it down instantly, mortified that my psyche is having ideas above its station.
“What kind of books?” He cocks his head to one side. Why is he so interested?
“Oh, you know. The usual. The classics. British literature, mainly.”
He rubs his chin with his long index finger and thumb as he contemplates my answer. Or perhaps he’s just very bored and trying to hide it.
“Anything else you need?” I have to get off this subject – those fingers on that face are so beguiling.
“I don’t know. What else would you recommend?”
What would I recommend? I don’t even know what you’re doing.
“For a do-it-yourselfer?”
He nods, gray eyes alive with wicked humor. I flush, and my eyes stray of their own accord to his snug jeans.
“Coveralls,” I reply, and I know I’m no longer screening what’s coming out of my mouth.
He raises an eyebrow, amused, yet again.
“You wouldn’t want to ruin your clothing,” I gesture vaguely in the direction of his jeans.
“I could always take them off.” He smirks.
“Um.” I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of the communist manifesto. Stop talking. Stop talking NOW.
“I’ll take some coveralls. Heaven forbid I should ruin any clothing,” he says dryly.
I try and dismiss the unwelcome image of him without jeans.
“Do you need anything else?” I squeak as I hand him the blue coveralls.
He ignores my inquiry.
“How’s the article coming along?”
He’s finally asked me a normal question, away from all the innuendo and the confusing double talk… a question I can answer. I grasp it tightly with two hands as if were a life raft, and I go for honesty.
“I’m not writing it, Katherine is. Miss Kavanagh. My roommate, she’s the writer. She’s very happy with it. She’s the editor of the magazine, and she was devastated that she couldn’t do the interview in person.” I feel like I’ve come up for air – at last, a normal topic of conversation. “Her only concern is that she doesn’t have any original photographs of you.”
Grey raises an eyebrow.
“What sort of photographs does she want?”
Okay. I hadn’t factored in this response. I shake my head, because I just don’t know.
“Well, I’m around. Tomorrow, perhaps… ” he trails off.
“You’d be willing to attend a photo shoot?” My voice is squeaky again. Kate will be in seventh heaven if I can pull this off. And you might see him again tomorrow, that dark place at the base of my brain whispers seductively at me. I dismiss the thought – of all the silly, ridiculous…
“Kate will be delighted – if we can find a photographer.” I’m so pleased, I smile at him broadly. His lips part, like he’s taking a sharp intake of breath, and he blinks. For a fraction of a second, he looks lost somehow, and the Earth shifts slightly on its axis, the tectonic plates sliding into a new position.
Oh my. Christian Grey’s lost look.
“Let me know about tomorrow.” Reaching into his back pocket, he pulls out his wallet. “My card. It has my cell number on it. You’ll need to call before ten in the morning.”
“Okay.” I grin up at him. Kate is going to be thrilled.
Paul has materialized at other the end of the aisle. He’s Mr. Clayton’s youngest brother. I’d heard he was home from Princeton, but I wasn’t expecting to see him today.
“Er, excuse me for a moment, Mr. Grey.” Grey frowns as I turn away from him.
Paul has always been a buddy, and in this strange moment that I’m having with the rich, powerful, awesomely off-the-scale attractive control-freak Grey, it’s great to talk to someone who’s normal. Paul hugs me hard taking me by surprise.
“Ana, hi, it’s so good to see you!” he gushes.
“Hello Paul, how are you? You home for your brother’s birthday?”
“Yep. You’re looking well, Ana, really well.” He grins as he examines me at arm’s length. Then he releases me but keeps a possessive arm draped over my shoulder. I shuffle from foot to foot, embarrassed. It’s good to see Paul, but he’s always been over-familiar.
When I glance up at Christian Grey, he’s watching us like a hawk, his gray eyes hooded and speculative, his mouth a hard impassive line. He’s changed from the weirdly attentive customer to someone else – someone cold and distant.
“Paul, I’m with a customer. Someone you should meet,” I say, trying to defuse the antagonism I see in Grey’s eyes. I drag Paul over to meet him, and they weigh each other up. The atmosphere is suddenly arctic.
“Er, Paul, this is Christian Grey. Mr. Grey, this is Paul Clayton. His brother owns the place.” And for some irrational reason, I feel I have to explain a bit more.
“I’ve known Paul ever since I’ve worked here, though we don’t see each other that often. He’s back from Princeton where he’s studying business administration.” I’m babbling… Stop, now!
“Mr. Clayton.” Christian holds his hand out, his look unreadable.
“Mr. Grey,” Paul returns his handshake. “Wait up – not the Christian Grey? Of Grey Enterprises Holdings?” Paul goes from surly to awestruck in less than a nanosecond. Grey gives him a polite smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Wow – is there anything I can get you?”
“Anastasia has it covered, Mr. Clayton. She’s been very attentive.” His expression is impassive, but his words… it’s like he’s saying something else entirely. It’s baffling.
“Cool,” Paul responds. “Catch you later, Ana.”
“Sure, Paul.” I watch him disappear toward the stock room. “Anything else, Mr. Grey?”
“Just these items.” His tone is clipped and cool. Damn… have I offended him? Taking a deep breath, I turn and head for the till. What is his problem?
I ring up the rope, coveralls, masking tape, and cable ties at the till.
“That will be forty-three dollars, please.” I glance up at Grey, and I wish I hadn’t. He’s watching me closely, his gray eyes intense and smoky. It’s unnerving.
“Would you like a bag?” I ask as I take his credit card.
“Please, Anastasia.” His tongue caresses my name, and my heart once again is frantic. I can hardly breathe. Hurriedly, I place his purchases in a plastic carrier.
“You’ll call me if you want me to do the photo shoot?” He’s all business once more. I nod, rendered speechless yet again, and hand back his credit card.
“Good. Until tomorrow perhaps.” He turns to leave, then pauses. “Oh – and Anastasia, I’m glad Miss Kavanagh couldn’t do the interview.” He smiles, then strides with renewed purpose out of the store, slinging the plastic bag over his shoulder, leaving me a quivering mass of raging female hormones. I spend several minutes staring at the closed door through which he’s just left before I return to planet Earth.
Okay – I like him. There, I’ve admitted it to myself. I cannot hide from my feelings anymore. I’ve never felt like this before. I find him attractive, very attractive. But it’s a lost cause, I know, and I sigh with bittersweet regret. It was just a coincidence, his coming here. But still, I can admire him from afar, surely? No harm can come of that. And if I find a photographer, I can do some serious admiring tomorrow. I bite my lip in anticipation and find myself grinning like a schoolgirl. I need to phone Kate and organize a photo-shoot.