With Moby blasting in my ears I run down Southwest Salmon Street toward the Willamette River. It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m trying to clear my head. Last night I dreamed of her. Blue eyes, breathy voice…her sentences ending with “sir” as she knelt before me. Since I’ve met her, my dreams have been a welcome change from the occasional nightmare. I wonder what Flynn would make of that. The thought is disconcerting, so I ignore it and concentrate on pushing my body to its limits along the bank of the Willamette. As my feet pound the walkway, sunshine breaks through the clouds and it gives me hope.
TWO HOURS LATER AS I jog back to the hotel I pass a coffee shop. Maybe I should take her for coffee.
Like a date?
Well. No. Not a date. I laugh at the ridiculous thought. Just a chat-an interview of sorts. Then I can find out a little more about this enigmatic woman and if she’s interested, or if I’m on a wild-goose chase. I’m alone in the elevator as I stretch out. Finishing my stretches in my hotel suite, I’m centered and calm for the first time since I arrived in Portland. Breakfast has been delivered and I’m famished. It’s not a feeling I tolerate-ever. Sitting down to breakfast in my sweats, I decide to eat before I shower.
THERE’S A BRISK KNOCK on the door. I open it and Taylor stands on the threshold.
“Good morning, Mr. Grey.”
“Morning. They ready for me?”
“Yes, sir. They’re set up in room 601.”
“I’ll be right down.” I close the door and tuck my shirt into my gray pants. My hair is wet from my shower, but I don’t give a shit. One glance at the louche fucker in the mirror and I exit to follow Taylor to the elevator.
Room 601 is crowded with people, lights, and camera boxes, but I spot her immediately. She’s standing to the side. Her hair is loose: a lush, glossy mane that falls beneath her breasts. She’s wearing tight jeans and chucks with a short-sleeved navy jacket and a white T-shirt beneath. Are jeans and chucks her signature look? While not very convenient, they do flatter her shapely legs. Her eyes, disarming as ever, widen as I approach.
“Miss Steele, we meet again.” She takes my extended hand and for a moment I want to squeeze hers and raise it to my lips.
Don’t be absurd, Grey.
She turns her delicious pink and waves in the direction of her friend, who is standing too close, waiting for my attention.
“Mr. Grey, this is Katherine Kavanagh,” she says. With reluctance I release her and turn to the persistent Miss Kavanagh. She’s tall, striking, and well groomed, like her father, but she has her mother’s eyes, and I have her to thank for my introduction to the delightful Miss Steele. That thought makes me feel a little more benevolent toward her.
“The tenacious Miss Kavanagh. How do you do? I trust you’re feeling better? Anastasia said you were unwell last week.”
“I’m fine, thank you, Mr. Grey.”
She has a firm, confident handshake, and I doubt she’s ever faced a day of hardship in her privileged life. I wonder why these women are friends. They have nothing in common.
“Thank you for taking the time to do this,” Katherine says.
“It’s a pleasure,” I reply, and glance at Anastasia, who rewards me with her telltale flush.
Is it just me who makes her blush? The thought pleases me.
“This is José Rodriguez, our photographer,” Anastasia says, and her face lights up as she introduces him.
Shit. Is this the boyfriend?
Rodriguez blooms under Ana’s sweet smile.
Are they fucking?
“Mr. Grey.” Rodriguez gives me a dark look as we shake hands. It’s a warning. He’s telling me to back off. He likes her. He likes her a lot.
Well, game on, kid.
“Mr. Rodriguez, where would you like me?” My tone is a challenge, and he hears it, but Katherine intervenes and waves me toward a chair. Ah. She likes to be in charge. The thought amuses me as I sit. Another young man who appears to be working with Rodriguez switches on the lights, and momentarily I’m blinded.
As the glare recedes I search out the lovely Miss Steele. She’s standing at the back of the room, observing the proceedings. Does she always shy away like this? Maybe that’s why she and Kavanagh are friends; she’s content to be in the background and let Katherine take center stage.
Hmm…a natural submissive.
The photographer appears professional enough and absorbed in the job he’s been assigned to do. I regard Miss Steele as she watches both of us. Our eyes meet; hers are honest and innocent, and for a moment I reconsider my plan. But then she bites her lip and my breath catches in my throat.
Back down, Anastasia. I will her to stop staring, and as if she can hear me, she’s the first to look away.
Katherine asks me to stand as Rodriguez continues to take snaps. Then we’re done and this is my chance.
“Thank you again, Mr. Grey.” Katherine surges forward and shakes my hand, followed by the photographer, who regards me with ill-concealed disapproval. His antagonism makes me smile.
Oh, man…you have no idea.
“I look forward to reading the article, Miss Kavanagh,” I say, giving her a brief polite nod. It’s Ana I want to talk to. “Will you walk with me, Miss Steele?” I ask, when I reach her by the door.
“Sure,” she says with surprise.
Seize the day, Grey.
I mutter some platitude to those still in the room and usher her out the door, wanting to put some distance between her and Rodriguez. In the corridor she stands fiddling with her hair, then her fingers, as Taylor follows me out.
“I’ll call you, Taylor,” I say, and when he’s almost out of earshot I ask Ana to join me for coffee, my breath held for her response.
Her long lashes flicker over her eyes. “I have to drive everyone home,” she says with dismay.
“Taylor,” I call after him, making her jump. I must make her nervous and I don’t know if this is good or bad. And she can’t stop fidgeting. Thinking about all the ways I could make her stop is distracting.
“Are they based at the university?” She nods and I ask Taylor to take her friends home.
“There. Now can you join me for coffee?”
“Um-Mr. Grey, er-this really…” She stops.
Shit. It’s a “no.” I’m going to lose this deal. She looks directly at me, eyes bright. “Look, Taylor doesn’t have to drive them home. I’ll swap vehicles with Kate, if you give me a moment.”
My relief is tangible and I grin.
I have a date!
Opening the door, I let her back into the room as Taylor conceals his puzzled look.
“Can you grab my jacket, Taylor?”
He turns on his heel, his lips twitching as he heads up the corridor. I watch him with narrowed eyes as he disappears into the elevator while I lean against the wall and wait for Miss Steele.
What the hell am I going to say to her?
“How would you like to be my submissive?”
No. Steady, Grey. Let’s take this one stage at a time.
Taylor is back within a couple of minutes, holding my jacket.
“Will that be all, sir?”
He gives it to me and leaves me standing like an idiot in the corridor.
How long is Anastasia going to be? I check my watch. She must be negotiating the car swap with Katherine. Or she’s talking to Rodriguez, explaining that she’s just going for coffee to placate me and keep me sweet for the article. My thoughts darken. Maybe she’s kissing him good-bye.
She emerges a moment later, and I’m pleased. She doesn’t look like she’s just been kissed.
“Okay,” she says with resolve. “Let’s do coffee.” But her reddening cheeks somewhat undermine her effort to look confident.
“After you, Miss Steele.” I conceal my delight as she falls into step ahead of me. As I catch up with her my curiosity is piqued about her relationship with Katherine, specifically their compatibility. I ask her how long they’ve known each other.
“Since our freshman year. She’s a good friend.” Her voice is full of warmth. Ana is clearly devoted. She came all the way to Seattle to interview me when Katherine was ill, and I find myself hoping that Miss Kavanagh treats her with the same loyalty and respect.
At the elevators I press the call button and almost immediately the doors open. A couple in a passionate embrace spring apart, embarrassed to be caught. Ignoring them, we step into the elevator, but I catch Anastasia’s impish smile.
As we travel to the first floor the atmosphere is thick with unfulfilled desire. And I don’t know if it’s emanating from the couple behind us or from me.
Yes. I want her. Will she want what I have to offer?
I’m relieved when the doors open again and I take her hand, which is cool and not clammy as expected. Perhaps I don’t affect her as much as I’d like. The thought is disheartening.
In our wake we hear embarrassed giggling from the couple.
“What is it about elevators?” I mutter. And I have to admit there’s something wholesome and naïve about their giggling that’s totally charming. Miss Steele seems that innocent, just like them, and as we walk onto the street I question my motives again.
She’s too young. She’s too inexperienced, but, damn, I like the feel of her hand in mine.
In the coffee shop I direct her to find a table and ask what she wants to drink. She stutters through her order: English Breakfast tea-hot water, bag on the side. That’s a new one to me.
“I’m not keen on coffee.”
“Okay, bag-out tea. Sugar?”
“No thanks,” she says, staring down at her fingers.
“Anything to eat?”
“No thank you.” She shakes her head and tosses her hair over her shoulder, highlighting glints of auburn.
I have to wait in line while the two matronly women behind the counter exchange inane pleasantries with all their customers. It’s frustrating and keeping me from my objective: Anastasia.
“Hey, handsome, what can I get you?” the older woman asks with a twinkle in her eye. It’s just a pretty face, sweetheart.
“I’ll have a coffee with steamed milk. English Breakfast tea. Teabag on the side. And a blueberry muffin.”
Anastasia might change her mind and eat.
“You visiting Portland?”
“The weather sure has picked up today.”
“I hope you get out to enjoy some sunshine.”
Please stop talking to me and hurry the fuck up.
“Yes,” I hiss through my teeth and glance over at Ana, who quickly looks away.
She’s watching me. Is she checking me out?
A bubble of hope swells in my chest.
“There you go.” The woman winks and places the drinks on my tray. “Pay at the register, honey, and you have a nice day, now.”
I manage a cordial response. “Thank you.”
At the table Anastasia is staring at her fingers, reflecting on heaven knows what.
“Penny for your thoughts?” I ask.
She jumps and turns red as I set out her tea and my coffee. She sits mute and mortified. Why? Does she really not want to be here?
“Your thoughts?” I ask again, and she fidgets with the teabag.
“This is my favorite tea,” she says, and I revise my mental note that it’s Twinings English Breakfast tea she likes. I watch her dunk the teabag in the teapot. It’s an elaborate and messy spectacle. She fishes it out almost immediately and places the used teabag on her saucer. My mouth is twitching with my amusement. As she tells me she likes her tea weak and black, for a moment I think she’s describing what she likes in a man.
Get a grip, Grey. She’s talking about tea.
Enough of this preamble; it’s time for some due diligence in this deal. “Is he your boyfriend?”
Her brows knit together, forming a small v above her nose.
This is a good response.
“The photographer. José Rodriguez.”
She laughs. At me.
And I don’t know if it’s from relief or if she thinks I’m funny. It’s annoying. I can’t get her measure. Does she like me or not? She tells me he’s just a friend.
Oh, sweetheart, he wants to be more than a friend.
“Why did you think he was my boyfriend?” she asks.
“The way you smiled at him, and he at you.” You have no idea, do you? The boy is smitten.
“He’s more like family,” she says.
Okay, so the lust is one-sided, and for a moment I wonder if she realizes how lovely she is. She eyes the blueberry muffin as I peel back the paper, and for a moment I imagine her on her knees beside me as I feed her, a morsel at a time. The thought is diverting-and arousing. “Do you want some?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “No thanks.” Her voice is hesitant and she stares once more at her hands. Why is she so jittery? Maybe because of me?
“And the boy I met yesterday, at the store. He’s not your boyfriend?”
“No. Paul’s just a friend. I told you yesterday.” She frowns again as if she’s confused, and crosses her arms in defense. She doesn’t like being asked about these boys. I remember how uncomfortable she seemed when the kid at the store put his arm around her, staking his claim. “Why do you ask?” she adds.
“You seem nervous around men.”
Her eyes widen. They really are beautiful, the color of the ocean at Cabo, the bluest of blue seas. I should take her there.
What? Where did that come from?
“I find you intimidating,” she says, and looks down, fidgeting once more with her fingers. On the one hand she’s so submissive, but on the other she’s…challenging.
“You should find me intimidating.”
Yeah. She should. There aren’t many people brave enough to tell me that I intimidate them. She’s honest, and I tell her so-but when she averts her eyes, I don’t know what she’s thinking. It’s frustrating. Does she like me? Or is she tolerating this meeting to keep Kavanagh’s interview on track? Which is it?
“You’re a mystery, Miss Steele.”
“There’s nothing mysterious about me.”
“I think you’re very self-contained.” Like any good submissive. “Except when you blush, of course, which is often. I just wish I knew what you were blushing about.” There. That will goad her into a response. Popping a small piece of the blueberry muffin into my mouth, I await her reply.
“Do you always make such personal observations?”
That’s not that personal, is it? “I hadn’t realized I was. Have I offended you?”
“But you’re very high-handed.”
“I’m used to getting my own way, Anastasia. In all things.”
“I don’t doubt it,” she mutters, and then wants to know why I haven’t asked her to call me by my first name.
And I remember her leaving my office in the elevator-and how my name sounded coming out of her smart mouth. Has she seen through me? Is she deliberately antagonizing me? I tell her that no one calls me Christian, except my family…
I don’t even know if it’s my real name.
Don’t go there, Grey.
I change the subject. I want to know about her.
“Are you an only child?”
Her eyelashes flutter several times before she answers that she is.
“Tell me about your parents.”
She rolls her eyes and I have to fight the compulsion to scold her.
“My mom lives in Georgia with her new husband, Bob. My stepdad lives in Montesano.”
Of course I know all this from Welch’s background check, but it’s important to hear it from her. Her lips soften with a fond smile when she mentions her stepdad.
“Your father?” I ask.
“My father died when I was a baby.”
For a moment I’m catapulted into my nightmares, looking at a prostrate body on a grimy floor. “I’m sorry,” I mutter.
“I don’t remember him,” she says, dragging me back to the now. Her expression is clear and bright, and I know that Raymond Steele has been a good father to this girl. Her mother’s relationship with her, on the other hand-that remains to be seen.
“And your mother remarried?”
Her laugh is bitter. “You could say that.” But she doesn’t elaborate. She’s one of the few women I’ve met who can sit in silence. Which is great, but not what I want at the moment.
“You’re not giving much away, are you?”
“Neither are you,” she parries.
Oh, Miss Steele. Game on.
And it’s with great pleasure and a smirk that I remind her that she’s interviewed me already. “I can recollect some quite probing questions.”
Yes. You asked me if I was gay.
My statement has the desired effect and she’s embarrassed. She starts babbling about herself and a few details hit home. Her mother is an incurable romantic. I suppose someone on her fourth marriage is embracing hope over experience. Is she like her mother? I can’t bring myself to ask her. If she says she is-then I have no hope. And I don’t want this interview to end. I’m enjoying myself too much.
I ask about her stepfather and she confirms my hunch. It’s obvious she loves him. Her face is luminous when she talks about him: his job (he’s a carpenter), his hobbies (he likes European soccer and fishing). She preferred to live with him when her mom married the third time.
She straightens her shoulders. “Tell me about your parents,” she demands, in an attempt to divert the conversation from her family. I don’t like talking about mine, so I give her the bare details.
“My dad’s a lawyer, my mom is a pediatrician. They live in Seattle.”
“What do your siblings do?”
She wants to go there? I give her the short answer that Elliot works in construction and Mia is at cooking school in Paris.
She listens, rapt. “I hear Paris is lovely,” she says with a dreamy expression.
“It’s beautiful. Have you been?”
“I’ve never left mainland USA.” The cadence in her voice falls, tinged with regret. I could take her there.
“Would you like to go?”
First Cabo, now Paris? Get a grip, Grey.
“To Paris? Of course. But it’s England that I’d really like to visit.”
Her face brightens with excitement. Miss Steele wants to travel. But why England? I ask her.
“It’s the home of Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy. I’d like to see the places that inspired those people to write such wonderful books.” It’s obvious this is her first love.
She said as much in Clayton’s yesterday. That means I’m competing with Darcy, Rochester, and Angel Clare: impossible romantic heroes. Here’s the proof I needed. She’s an incurable romantic, like her mother-and this isn’t going to work. To add insult to injury, she looks at her watch. She’s done.
I’ve blown this deal.
“I’d better go. I have to study,” she says.
I offer to walk her back to her friend’s car, which means I’ll have the walk back to the hotel to make my case.
But should I?
“Thank you for the tea, Mr. Grey,” she says.
“You’re welcome, Anastasia. It’s my pleasure.” As I say the words I realize that the last twenty minutes have been…enjoyable. Giving her my most dazzling smile, guaranteed to disarm, I offer her my hand. “Come,” I say. She takes my hand, and as we walk back to The Heathman I can’t shake how agreeable her hand feels in mine.
Maybe this could work.
“Do you always wear jeans?” I ask.
“Mostly,” she says, and it’s two strikes against her: incurable romantic who only wears jeans…I like my women in skirts. I like them accessible.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asks out of the blue, and it’s the third strike. I’m out of this fledgling deal. She wants romance, and I can’t offer her that.
“No, Anastasia. I don’t do the girlfriend thing.”
Stricken with a frown, she turns abruptly and stumbles into the road.
“Shit, Ana!” I shout, tugging her toward me to stop her from falling in the path of an idiot cyclist who’s flying the wrong way up the street. All of a sudden she’s in my arms clutching my biceps, staring up at me. Her eyes are startled, and for the first time I notice a darker ring of blue circling her irises; they’re beautiful, more beautiful this close. Her pupils dilate and I know I could fall into her gaze and never return. She takes a deep breath.
“Are you okay?” My voice sounds alien and distant, and I realize she’s touching me and I don’t care. My fingers caress her cheek. Her skin is soft and smooth, and as I brush my thumb against her lower lip, my breath catches in my throat. Her body is pressed against mine, and the feel of her breasts and her heat through my shirt is arousing. She has a fresh, wholesome fragrance that reminds me of my grandfather’s apple orchard. Closing my eyes, I inhale, committing her scent to memory. When I open them she’s still staring at me, entreating me, begging me, her eyes on my mouth.
Shit. She wants me to kiss her.
And I want to. Just once. Her lips are parted, ready, waiting. Her mouth felt welcoming beneath my thumb.
No. No. No. Don’t do this, Grey.
She’s not the girl for you.
She wants hearts and flowers, and you don’t do that shit.
I close my eyes to blot her out and fight the temptation, and when I open them again, my decision is made. “Anastasia,” I whisper, “you should steer clear of me. I’m not the man for you.”
The little v forms between her brows, and I think she’s stopped breathing.
“Breathe, Anastasia, breathe.” I have to let her go before I do something stupid, but I’m surprised at my reluctance. I want to hold her for a moment longer. “I’m going to stand you up and let you go.” I step back and she releases her hold on me, yet weirdly, I don’t feel any relief. I slide my hands to her shoulders to ensure she can stand. Her expression clouds with humiliation. She’s mortified by my rebuff.
Hell. I didn’t mean to hurt you.
“I’ve got this,” she says, disappointment ringing in her clipped tone. She’s formal and distant, but she doesn’t move out of my hold. “Thank you,” she adds.
“For saving me.”
And I want to tell her that I’m saving her from me…that it’s a noble gesture, but that’s not what she wants to hear. “That idiot was riding the wrong way. I’m glad I was here. I shudder to think what could have happened to you.” Now it’s me that’s babbling, and I still can’t let her go. I offer to sit with her in the hotel, knowing it’s a ploy to prolong my time with her, and only then do I release her.
She shakes her head, her back ramrod stiff, and wraps her arms around herself in a protective gesture. A moment later she bolts across the street and I have to hurry to keep up with her.
When we reach the hotel, she turns and faces me once more, composed. “Thanks for the tea and doing the photo shoot.” She regards me dispassionately and regret flares in my gut.
“Anastasia…I…” I can’t think what to say, except that I’m sorry.
“What, Christian?” she snaps.
Whoa. She’s mad at me, pouring all the contempt she can into each syllable of my name. It’s novel. And she’s leaving. And I don’t want her to go. “Good luck with your exams.”
Her eyes flash with hurt and indignation. “Thanks,” she mutters, disdain in her tone. “Good-bye, Mr. Grey.” She turns away and strides up the street toward the underground garage. I watch her go, hoping that she’ll give me a second look, but she doesn’t. She disappears into the building, leaving in her wake a trace of regret, the memory of her beautiful blue eyes, and the scent of an apple orchard in the fall.Fifty Shades Freed Extended Version