Fifty Shades Freed (Fifty Shades #3)(9)

by E.L. James

No, Christian, it isn't. The thought saddens me, and for the first time I wonder if it will ever be finished. He'll always be Fifty Shades . . . my Fifty Shades. Do I want him to change? No, not really -

only insofar as I want him to feel loved. Peeking up at him, I take a moment to admire his captivating beauty . . . and he's mine. And it's not just the allure of his fine, fine face and his body that has me spellbound. It's what's behind the perfection that draws me, that calls to me. . . his fragile, damaged soul. He gives me that look, down his nose, half amused, half wary, wholly sexy then tucks me under his arm, and we make our way through the tourists toward the spot where Philippe/Gaston has parked the roomy Mercedes. I slip my hand back into the back pocket of Christian's shorts, grateful that he isn't mad at my presumption. But, honestly, what four-year-old child doesn't love his mom, no matter how bad a mom she is? I sigh heavily and hug him closer. I know behind us the security team lurks, and I wonder idly if they've eaten.

Christian stops outside a small boutique selling fine jewelry and gazes in the window, then down at me. He reaches across, grasps my free hand, and runs his thumb across the faded red line of the handcuff mark, inspecting it.

"It's not sore." I reassure him. He twists so that my other hand is freed from his pocket. He clasps that hand, too, turning it gently over to examine my wrist. The platinum Omega watch he gave me at breakfast on our first morning in London obscures the red line. The inscription still makes me swoon.

Anastasia

You are my More

My Love, My Life

Christian

In spite of everything, all his fiftyness, my husband can be so romantic. I gaze down at the faint marks on my wrist. Then again, he can be savage sometimes. Releasing my left hand, he tilts my chin up with his fingers and scrutinizes my expression, his eyes wide and troubled.

"They don't hurt," I repeat. He pulls my hand to his lips and plants a soft apologetic kiss on the inside of my wrist.

"Come," he says and leads me into the shop.

"Here," Christian holds open the filigree platinum bracelet he's just purchased. It's exquisite, so delicately crafted, the filigree in the shape of small abstract flowers with small diamonds at their heart. He fastens it around my wrist. It's wide and cuff-like and hides the red marks. It is also cost around fifteen thousand euros, I think, though I couldn't really follow the conversation in French with the sales assistant. I have never worn anything so expensive.

"There, that's better," he murmurs.

"Better?" I whisper, gazing into luminous gray eyes, conscious that the stick-thin sales assistant is staring at us with a jealous and disapproving look on her face.

"You know why," Christian says uncertainly.

"I don't need this." I shake my wrist and the cuff moves. It catches the afternoon light streaming through the boutique window and small sparkling rainbows dance off the diamonds all over the walls of the store.

"I do," he says with utter sincerity.

Why? Why does he need this? Does he feel guilty? About what?

The marks? His birth mother? Not confiding in me? Oh, Fifty.

"No, Christian, you don't. You've given me so much already. A magical honeymoon, London, Paris, the Cote D'Azur . . . and you. I'm a very lucky girl," I whisper and his eyes soften.

"No, Anastasia, I'm a very lucky man."

"Thank you." Stretching up on tiptoes, I put my arms around his neck and kiss him . . . not for giving me the bracelet, but for being mine.

Back in the car he's introspective, gazing out at the fields of bright sunflowers, their heads following and basking in the afternoon sun. One of the twins - I think it's Gaston - is driving and Taylor is beside him up front. Christian is brooding about something. Reaching over, I clasp his hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. He turns to look at me, before releasing my hand and caressing my knee. I'm wearing a short, full, blue and white skirt, and a blue, fitted, sleeveless shirt. Christian hesitates, and I don't know if his hand is going to travel up my thigh or down my leg. I tense with anticipation at the gentle touch of his fingers and my breath catches. What's he going to do? He chooses down, suddenly grasps my ankle and pulls my foot on to his lap. I swivel my backside so I am facing him in the back of the car.

"I want the other one, too."

Oh! Why? I glance nervously toward Taylor and Gaston, whose eyes are resolutely on the road ahead, and place my other foot on his lap. His eyes cool, he reaches over and presses a button located in his door. In front of us, a lightly tinted privacy screen slides out of a panel, and ten seconds later we are effectively on our own. Wow . . . no wonder the back of this car has so much legroom.

"I want to look at your ankles," Christian offers his quiet explanation. His gaze is anxious. What now? The cuff marks? Jeez . . . I thought we'd dealt with this. If there are marks, they are hidden by the sandal straps. I don't recall seeing any this morning. Gently, he strokes his thumb up my right instep, making me wriggle. A smile plays on his lips and deftly he undoes one strap, and his smile fades as he's confronted with the darker red marks.

"Doesn't hurt," I murmur. He glances at me and his expression is sad, his mouth a thin line. He nods once as if he's taking me at my word while I shake my sandal loose so it falls to the floor, but I know I've lost him. He's distracted and brooding again, mechanically caressing my foot while he turns away to gaze out the car window once more.

"Hey. What did you expect?" I ask softly. He glances at me and shrugs.

"I didn't expect to feel like I do looking at these marks," he says. What? Reticent one minute and forthcoming the next? How . . . Fifty! How can I keep up with him?

"How do you feel?"

He gazes at me, his eyes bleak. "Uncomfortable," he murmurs. Oh no. I unbuckle my seatbelt and scoot closer to him, leaving my feet in his lap. I want to crawl into his lap and hold him, and I would, if it were just Taylor in the front. But knowing Gaston is there cramps my style in spite of the glass. If only it were darker. I clutch his hands.

"It's the hickeys I don't like," I whisper. "Everything else . . . what you did" - I lower my voice even further - "with the handcuffs, I enjoyed that. Well, more than enjoyed. It was mind-blowing. You can do that to me again anytime."

He shifts in his seat. "Mind-blowing?" My inner goddess looks up startled from her Jackie Collins.

"Yes." I grin. I flex my toes into his hardening crotch and see rather than hear his sharp intake of breath, his lips parting.

"You should really be wearing your seat belt, Mrs. Grey." His voice is low, and I curl my toes around him once more. He gasps and his eyes darken, and he clasps my ankle in warning. Does he want me stop? Continue? He pauses and scowls.

What now?

He fishes his ever-present BlackBerry out of his pocket to take an incoming call and glances at his watch. His frown deepens.

"Barney," he snaps.

Crap. Work interrupting us again. I try to remove my feet but his hand tightens on my ankle.

"In the server room?" he says in disbelief. "Did it activate the fire suppression system?"

Fire! I take my feet off his lap and this time he lets me. I sit back in my seat, buckle my seat belt, and fiddle nervously with the fifteenthousand-euro bracelet. Christian presses the button in his door armrest again and the privacy glass slides down. I realize that this is for Taylor's benefit.

"Anyone injured? Damage? I see . . . When?" Christian glances at his watch again then runs his hand through his hair. "No. Not the fire department or the police. Not yet anyway."

Holy crap! A fire? At Christian's office? I gape at him, my mind racing. Taylor shifts so he can hear Christian's conversation.

"Has he? Good . . . Okay. I want a detailed damage report. And a complete rundown of everyone who had access over the last five days, including the cleaning staff . . . Get hold of Andrea and get her to call me . . . Yeah, sounds like the argon is just as effective, worth its weight in gold."

Damage report? Argon? What the hell? It rings a distant bell from chemistry class - an element, I think.

"I realize it's early . . . E-mail me in two hours . . . No, I need to know. Thank you for calling me." Christian hangs up, then immediately punches a number into the BlackBerry.

"Welch . . . Good . . . When?" Christian glances at his watch yet again. "An hour then . . . yes . . . Twenty-four-seven at the off-site data store . . . good." He hangs up.

"Philippe, I need to be onboard within the hour."

"Monsieur. "

Shit, it's Philippe, not Gaston. The car surges forward. Christian glances at me, his expression unreadable.

"Anyone hurt?" I ask quietly.

Christian shakes his head. "Very little damage." He reaches over and clasps my hand, squeezing it reassuringly. "Don't worry about this. My team is on it." And there he is, the CEO, in command, in control and not flustered at all.

"Where was the fire?"

"Server room."

"Grey House?"

"Yes."

His responses are clipped, so I know he doesn't want to talk about it. Why not?

"Why so little damage?"

"The server room is fitted with a state-of-the-art fire suppression system."

Of course it is.

"Ana, please . . . don't worry."

"I'm not worried," I lie.

"We don't know for sure that it was arson," he says, cutting to the heart of my anxiety. My hand clutches my throat in fear. Charlie Tango, and now this? What next?

Chapter Four

I'm restless. Christian has been holed up in the onboard study for over an hour. I have tried reading, watching TV, sunbathing - fully dressed sunbathing! - but I can't relax and I can't rid myself of this edgy feeling. After changing into shorts and a T-shirt, I remove the ludicrously expensive bangle and go to find Taylor.

"Mrs. Grey," he says, startled from his Anthony Burgess novel. He's sitting in the small salon outside Christian's study.

"I'd like to go shopping."

"Yes ma'am." He stands.

"I'd like to take the Jet Ski."

His mouth drops open. "Erm." He frowns, lost for words.

"I don't want to bother Christian with this."

He flushes. "Mrs. Grey . . . um . . . I don't think Mr. Grey would be very comfortable with that, and I'd like to keep my job."

Oh, for heaven's sake! I want to roll my eyes at him, but I narrow them instead, sighing heavily and expressing, I think, the right amount of frustrated indignation that I am not mistress of my own destiny. Then again, I don't want Christian mad at Taylor - or me, for that matter. Striding confidently past him, I knock on the study door and enter. Christian is on his BlackBerry, leaning against the mahogany desk. He gazes at me.

"Andrea, hold please," he mutters down the phone, his expression serious. He gazes at me, politely expectant. Shit. Why do I feel like I've entered the principal's office? This man had me in handcuffs yesterday. I refuse to be intimidated by him, he's my husband damn it. I square my shoulders and give him a broad smile.

"I'm going shopping. I'll take security with me."

"Sure, take one of the twins and Taylor, too," he says. And I know that whatever's happening is serious because he doesn't question me further. I stand staring at him, wondering if I can help.

"Anything else?" he asks. He wants me gone. Crap.

"Can I get you anything?" I ask. He smiles his sweet shy smile.

"No, baby, I'm good," he says. "The crew will look after me."

"Okay." I want to kiss him. Hell, I can - he's my husband. Strolling purposefully forward, I plant a kiss on his lips, surprising him.