Read Darker Online

Authors: E L James

Darker (4 page)

See how I am around you, Ana. See?

I run my hand through my hair, taking deep, thought-clearing breaths. I grab her hand. “Come, we need to talk.”
Before I fuck you.
“And you need to eat.”

There’s a restaurant close to the alley. It’s not what I would have chosen for a reunion, if that’s what this is, but it will suffice. I don’t have long, as Taylor will be arriving soon.

I open the door for her. “This place will have to do. We don’t have much time.” The restaurant looks like it caters to the gallery crowd, and maybe students. It’s ironic that the walls are painted the same color as my playroom, but I don’t dwell on the thought.

An obsequious waiter leads us to a secluded table; he’s all smiles for Anastasia. I glance at the chalkboard menu on the wall and decide to order before the waiter retreats, letting him know we’re tight for time. “So we’ll each have sirloin steak cooked medium,
béarnaise sauce if you have it, fries, and green vegetables, whatever the chef has—and bring me the wine list.”

“Certainly, sir,” he says, and rushes off.

Ana purses her lips, annoyed.

What now?

“And if I don’t like steak?”

“Don’t start, Anastasia.”

“I am not a child, Christian.”

“Well, stop acting like one.”

“I’m a child because I don’t like steak?” She doesn’t hide her petulance.

No!

“For deliberately making me jealous. It’s a childish thing to do. Have you no regard for your friend’s feelings, leading him on like that?”

Her cheeks pink and she examines her hands.

Yes. You should be embarrassed. You’re confusing him. Even I can see that.

Is that what she’s doing to me? Leading me on?

In the time we’ve been apart, maybe she’s finally recognized that she has power. Power over me.

The waiter returns with the wine list, giving me a chance to regain my cool. The selection is average: only one drinkable wine on the menu. I glance at Anastasia, who looks like she’s sulking. I know that look. Perhaps she wanted to select her own meal. And I can’t resist toying with her, aware that she has little knowledge of wine. “Would you like to choose the wine?” I ask and I know I sound sarcastic.

“You choose.” She presses her lips together.

Yeah. Don’t play games with me, baby.

“Two glasses of the Barossa Valley Shiraz, please,” I say to the waiter, who’s hovering.

“Er, we only sell that wine by the bottle, sir.”

“A bottle, then.”
You stupid prick.

“Sir.” He retreats.

“You’re very grumpy,” she says, no doubt feeling sorry for the waiter.

“I wonder why that is?” I keep my expression neutral, but even to my own ears
I’m
now sounding childish.

“Well, it’s good to set the right tone for an intimate and honest discussion about the future, wouldn’t you say?” She gives me a saccharine smile.

Oh, tit for tat, Miss Steele.
She’s called me out again and I have to admire her nerve. I realize our bickering will get us nowhere.

And I’m being an ass.

Don’t blow this deal, Grey.

“I’m sorry,” I say, because she’s right.

“Apology accepted. And I’m pleased to inform you I haven’t decided to become a vegetarian since we last ate.”

“Since that
was
the last time you ate, I think that’s a moot point.”

“There’s that word again, ‘moot.’ ”

“Moot,” I mouth.
That word, indeed.
I remember I last used it while discussing our arrangement on Saturday morning. The day my world fell apart.

Fuck. Don’t think about that. Man up, Grey. Tell her what you want.

“Ana, the last time we spoke, you left me. I’m a little nervous. I’ve told you I want you back, and you’ve said…nothing.” She bites her lip as the color drains from her face.

Oh no.

“I’ve missed you…really missed you, Christian,” she says, quietly. “The past few days have been…difficult.”

Difficult
is an understatement.

She swallows and takes a steadying breath. This doesn’t sound good. Perhaps my behavior over the last hour has finally driven her away. I tense. Where’s she going with this?

“Nothing’s changed. I can’t be what you want me to be.” Her expression is bleak.

No. No. No.

“You are what I want you to be.” You are everything I want you to be.

“No, Christian, I’m not.”

Oh, baby, please believe me. “You’re upset because of what happened last time. I behaved stupidly, and you—so did you. Why didn’t you safe-word, Anastasia?”

She looks surprised, as if this isn’t something she’s considered.

“Answer me,” I urge.

This has haunted me.
Why didn’t you safe-word, Ana?

She wilts in her seat. Sad. Defeated.

“I don’t know,” she whispers.

What?

WHAT?

I’m rendered speechless. I’ve been in hell because she didn’t safe-word. But before I recover, words tumble from her mouth. Soft, quiet, as if she’s in a confessional, as if she’s ashamed. “I was overwhelmed. I was trying to be what you wanted me to be, trying to deal with the pain, and it went out of my mind.” Her look is raw, her shrug small and apologetic. “You know…I forgot.”

What the hell?

“You forgot!” I’m dismayed. We’ve been through all this shit because she
forgot
?

I can’t believe it. I clutch the table for something to anchor me to the now as I let this alarming information register.

Did I remind her of her safe words?
Christ.
I can’t remember. The e-mail that she sent me the first time I spanked her comes to mind.

She didn’t stop me then.

I’m an idiot.

I should have reminded her.

Wait. She knows she has safe words. I remember telling her more than once.

“We don’t have a signed contract, Anastasia. But we’ve discussed limits. And I want to reiterate we have safe words, okay?”

She blinks a couple times but remains mute.

“What are they?” I demand.

She hesitates.

“What are the safe words, Anastasia?”

“Yellow.”

“And?”

“Red.”

“Remember those.”

She raises an eyebrow in obvious scorn and is about to say something.

“Don’t start with your smart mouth in here, Miss Steele. Or I will fuck it with you on your knees. Do you understand?”

“How can I trust you? Ever?” If she can’t be honest with me, what hope do we have? She can’t tell me what she thinks I want to hear. What kind of relationship is that? My spirits sink. This is the problem in dealing with someone who isn’t in the lifestyle. She doesn’t get it.

I should never have chased her.

The waiter arrives with the wine as we stare with incredulity at each other.

Maybe I should have done a better job of explaining it to her.

Damn it, Grey. Eliminate the negative.

Yes. It’s irrelevant now. I’m going to try a relationship her way, if she’ll let me.

The irritating prick takes too much time opening the bottle. Jesus. Is he trying to entertain us? Or is it just Ana he wants to impress? He finally pops the cork and pours a taste for me. I take a quick sip. It needs to breathe, but it’s passable.

“That’s fine.”
Now go. Please.
He fills our glasses and leaves.

Ana and I haven’t taken our eyes off each other. Each trying to discern what the other is thinking. She’s the first to look away, and she takes a sip of wine, closing her eyes as if seeking inspiration. When she opens them, I see her despair. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.

“Sorry for what?”
Hell.
Is she done with me? Is there no hope?

“Not using the safe word,” she says.

Oh, thank God.
I thought it was over.

“We might have avoided all this suffering,” I mutter in response, and also in an attempt to hide my relief.

“You look fine.” There’s a tremor in her voice.

“Appearances can be deceptive. I’m not fine. I feel like the sun has set and not risen for five days, Ana. I’m in perpetual night here.”

Her gasp is just audible.

How did she think I’d feel? She left me when I’d almost begged her to stay. “You said you’d never leave, yet the going gets tough and you’re out the door.”

“When did I say I’d never leave?”

“In your sleep.” Before we went soaring. “It was the most comforting thing I’d heard in so long, Anastasia. It made me relax.”

She inhales sharply. Her open and honest compassion is written all over her lovely face as she reaches for her wine. This is my chance.

Ask her, Grey.

Ask her the one question I haven’t allowed myself to think about because I know I’ll dread her answer, whatever it is. But I’m curious. I need to know.

“You said you loved me,” I whisper, almost choking on the words. She can’t feel that way about me still. Can she? “Is that now in the past tense?”

“No, Christian, it’s not,” she says, as if in the confessional again. I’m unprepared for the relief that rushes through me. But it’s relief mixed with fear. It’s a confounding combination because I know she shouldn’t love a monster.

“Good,” I mumble, confused. I want to stop thinking about that right now, and with impeccable timing, the waiter returns with our meal.

“Eat,” I demand. The woman needs feeding.

She examines the contents of her plate with distaste.

“So help me God, Anastasia, if you don’t eat, I will take you across my knee here in this restaurant. And it will have nothing to do with my sexual gratification. Eat!”

“Okay. I’ll eat. Stow your twitching palm, please.” She’s trying for humor—but I’m not laughing. She’s wasting away. She picks up her cutlery with stubborn reluctance but she takes one bite, closes her eyes, and licks her lips in satisfaction. The sight of her tongue is enough to provoke a response from my body—already in a heightened state from our kiss in the alley.

Hell, not again!
I stop my response in its tracks. There’ll be time for that later,
if
she says yes. She takes another bite and another and I know she’ll continue eating. I’m grateful for the diversion that our food has provided. Slicing into my steak, I take a bite. It’s not bad.

We continue to eat, watching each other but saying nothing.

She hasn’t told me to fuck off. This is good. And as I study her I realize how much I’m enjoying just being in her company. Okay, so I’m tied up in all kinds of conflicting emotions…but she’s here. She’s with me and she’s eating. I’m hopeful we can make my proposition work. Her reaction to the kiss in the alley was…visceral. She still wants me. I know I could have fucked her there and she wouldn’t have stopped me.

She interrupts my reverie. “Do you know who’s singing?” Over the restaurant sound system, a young woman with a soft lyrical voice can be heard. I don’t know who she is, but we both agree she’s good.

Listening to this singer reminds me that I have the iPad for Ana. I hope that she lets me give it to her, and that she likes it. In addition to the music I uploaded yesterday, I spent some time this morning adding more features—photographs of the glider on my desk and of the two of us at her graduation ceremony and a few apps, too. It’s my apology, and I’m optimistic that the simple message I’ve had engraved on the back conveys my sentiment. I hope she doesn’t think it’s too cheesy. I just need to give it to her first, but I don’t know if we’ll get to that point. I suppress my sigh because she’s always been difficult about accepting gifts from me.

“What?” she asks. She knows I’m up to something, and not for the first time I wonder if she can read my mind.

I shake my head. “Eat up.”

Bright blue eyes regard me. “I can’t manage any more. Have I eaten enough for Sir?”

Is she deliberately trying to goad me? I scrutinize her face, but she seems genuine, and she’s eaten more than half of what was on her plate. If she hasn’t eaten anything over the last few days she’s probably had enough to eat this evening.

“I’m really full,” she reiterates.

As if on cue, my phone vibrates in my jacket pocket, signaling a message. It will be from Taylor, he’s probably close to the gallery by now. I glance at my watch.

“We have to go shortly. Taylor’s here, and you have to be up for work in the morning.” I hadn’t considered that before. She’s working now—she needs sleep. I may have to revise my plans and my body’s expectations. The thought of deferring my desire displeases me.

Ana reminds me that I need to be up for work, too.

“I function on a lot less sleep than you do, Anastasia. At least you’ve eaten something.”

“Aren’t we going back via
Charlie Tango
?”

“No, I thought I might have a drink—Taylor will pick us up. Besides, this way I have you in the car all to myself—for a few hours, at least. What can we do but talk?” And I can put my proposition to her.

I shift uncomfortably in my chair. Stage three of the campaign has not gone as smoothly as I anticipated.

She’s made me jealous.

I’ve lost control.

Yes. As usual, she’s derailed me. But I can turn this around and close the deal in the car.

Don’t give up, Grey.

Summoning the waiter, I ask for the check, then call Taylor. He answers on the second ring.

“Mr. Grey.”

“We’re at
Le Picotin, Southwest Third Avenue,” I inform him and hang up.

“You’re very brusque with Taylor…In fact, with most people.”

“I just get to the point quickly, Anastasia.”

“You haven’t gotten to the point this evening. Nothing’s changed, Christian.”

Touché, Miss Steele.

Tell her. Tell her, now, Grey.

“I have a proposition for you.”

“This started with a proposition.”

“A different proposition,” I clarify.

She’s a little skeptical, I think, but maybe she’s curious, too. The waiter returns and I give him my card, but I keep my attention on Ana. Well, at least she’s intrigued.

Good.

My heart rate accelerates. I hope she goes for this…or I really will be lost. The waiter hands me the credit card slip to sign. I enter an obscene tip and sign my name with a flourish. The waiter seems excessively grateful. And it’s still irritating.

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