“What is it, Ros?”
“Oh yes. The idiot who ran his fiber-optic company into the ground and then blamed everyone else.”
“The same. He’s doing some rather negative press.”
“Sam is concerned about the PR fallout. Woods has gone public about the takeover. How we came in and didn’t let him continue to run the company the way he wanted.”
I snort my derision. “There’s a good reason for that. He’d be bankrupt by now if he’d continued the way he was going.”
“Tell Sam that I know Woods sounds convincing to those who don’t know his story, but those who know him realize that he reached a level beyond his ability and made some really bad decisions. He’s got no one to blame but himself.”
“So you’re not worried.”
“About him? No. He’s a pretentious asshole. The community knows.”
“We could go after him for defamation, and he’s breached his NDA.”
“Why would we do that? He’s the kind that feeds off publicity. He’s been given enough rope to hang himself. Though he should grow some balls and let it go.”
“I thought you’d say that. Sam is agitated.”
“Sam just needs some perspective. He always overreacts to bad press.”
As I glance out of the window, there’s a young man with a duffel bag walking with purpose toward the apartment door.
Ros is continuing to talk, but I ignore her. The man looks familiar. He’s sporting the beach-bum look: long blond hair, tanned. Recognition and apprehension hit me at once.
It’s Ethan Kavanagh.
Shit. Who let Ana into the apartment?
“Ros, I have to go,” I bark into the phone as fear grips my chest.
I fly out of the car. “Taylor, follow me,” I shout, and we rush toward Ethan Kavanagh, who’s about to put the key in the lock. He turns in alarm to see us barreling toward him.
“Kavanagh. I’m Christian Grey. Ana’s upstairs with someone who could be armed. Wait here.” There’s a spark of recognition in his expression, but wordlessly—confused I think—he relinquishes hold of the key. I’m through the door and running up the stairs, taking two steps at a time.
I burst into the apartment and there they are.
Ana and Leila.
And Leila’s holding a gun.
No. No. No. A fucking gun.
And Ana is here. Alone. Vulnerable. Panic and fury burst inside me.
I want to lunge at Leila. Take the gun. Bring her down. But I freeze and check Ana. Her eyes are wide with fright and something I can’t name. Compassion, maybe? But to my relief, she’s unharmed.
The sight of Leila is a shock. Not only does she have her fingers wrapped around a gun, but she’s lost so much weight. She’s filthy. Her clothes are in tatters and her clouded brown eyes are expressionless. A lump forms in my throat and I don’t know if it’s fear or empathy.
But my biggest concern is that she’s still holding a gun with Ana in the room.
Does she mean to harm her?
Does she mean to harm me?
Leila’s eyes are on me. Her stare intensifies, no longer lifeless. She’s drinking in every detail, as if she can’t believe I’m real. It’s unnerving. But I stand my ground and return her look.
Her eyelashes flutter as she collects herself. But her grip tightens around the gun.
I wait. Ready to pounce. My heart thumping, the metallic taste of fear in my mouth.
What are you going to do, Leila?
What are you going to do with that gun?
She stills and lowers her head a fraction, but her eyes stay on me, gazing at me through her dark lashes.
I sense a movement behind me.
I hold up my hand, warning him to be still.
He’s agitated. Furious. I can feel it. But he doesn’t move.
My eyes never leave Leila.
She looks like a wraith; there are dark circles beneath her eyes, her skin is translucent like parchment, and her lips are chapped and flaking.
Christ, Leila, what have you done to yourself?
Time passes. Seconds. Minutes. And we stare at each other.
Slowly, the light in her eyes changes; the brightness increases, from dull brown to hazel. And I see a flash of the Leila I knew. There’s a spark of connection. A kindred spirit who enjoyed everything we shared. Our old bond, it’s there. I sense it between us.
She’s giving this to me.
Her breathing quickens and she licks her chapped lips, yet her tongue leaves no moisture.
But it’s enough.
Enough to tell me what she needs. What she wants.
She wants me.
Me at what I do best.
Her lips part, her chest rises and falls, and a trace of color appears in her cheeks.
Her eyes brighten, her pupils enlarging.
Yes. This is what she wants.
To cede control.
She wants a way out.
She’s had enough.
She’s weary. She’s mine.
“Kneel,” I whisper, for her ears only.
She drops to her knees like the natural submissive she is. Immediate. Unquestioning. Her head bowed. The gun falls from her hand and skids across the wooden floor with a clatter that breaks the silence around us.