I cannot contain my jubilation. My subconscious gapes at me open-mouthed—in stunned silence—and I wear a face-splitting grin as I gaze longingly up into Christian’s wide, tortured eyes.
His soft sweet confession calls to me on some deep elemental level as if he’s seeking absolution; his three small words are my manna from heaven. Tears prick my eyes once more. Yes, you do. I know you do.
It’s such a liberating realization as if a crushing millstone has been tossed aside. This beautiful, fucked-up man, whom I once thought of as my romantic hero—strong, solitary, mysterious—possesses all these traits, but he’s also fragile and alienated and full of self-loathing. My heart swells with joy but also pain for his suffering. And I know in this moment that my heart is big enough for both of us. I hope it’s big enough for both of us.
I reach up to clasp his dear, dear, handsome face and kiss him gently, pouring all the love I feel into this one sweet connection. I want to devour him beneath the hot cascading water. Christian groans and encircles me in his arms, holding me as if I am the air he needs to breathe.
“Oh, Ana,” he whispers hoarsely, “I want you, but not here.”
“Yes,” I murmur fervently into his mouth.
He switches off the shower and takes my hand, leading me out and enfolding me in my bathrobe. Grabbing a towel, he wraps it around his waist, then takes a smaller one and begins to gently dry my hair. When he’s satisfied, he swathes the towel around my head so that in the large mirror over the sink I look like I’m wearing a veil. He’s standing behind me and our eyes meet in the mirror, smoldering gray to bright blue, and it gives me an idea.
“Can I reciprocate?” I ask.
He nods, though his brow creases. I reach for another towel from the plethora of fluffy towels stacked beside the vanity, and standing before him on tiptoe, I start to dry his hair.
He bends forward, making the process easier, and as I catch the occasional glimpse of his face beneath the towel, I see he’s grinning at me like a small boy.
“It’s a long time since anyone did this to me. A very long time,” he murmurs, but then frowns. “In fact I don’t think anyone’s ever dried my hair.”
“Surely Grace did? Dried your hair when you were young?” He shakes his head, hampering my progress.
“No. She respected my boundaries from day one, even though it was painful for her. I was very self-sufficient as a child,” he says quietly.
I feel a swift kick in the ribs as I think of a small copper-haired child looking after himself because no one else cares. The thought is sickeningly sad. But I don’t want my melancholy to hijack this blossoming intimacy.
“Well, I’m honored,” I gently tease him.
“That you are, Miss Steele. Or maybe it is I who am honored.”
“That goes without saying, Mr. Grey,” I respond tartly.
I finish with his hair, reach for another small towel, and move round to stand behind him. Our eyes meet again in the mirror, and his watchful, questioning look prompts me to speak.
“Can I try something?”
After a moment, he nods. Warily, and very gently, I run the soft cloth down his left arm, soaking up the water that has beaded on his skin. Glancing up, I check his expression in the mirror. He blinks at me, his eyes burning into mine.
I lean forward and kiss his bicep, and his lips part infinitesimally. I dry his other arm in a similar fashion, trailing kisses around his bicep, and a small smile plays on his lips.
Carefully, I wipe his back beneath the faint lipstick line, which is still visible. I hadn’t gotten round to washing his back.
“Whole back,” he says quietly, “with the towel.” He takes a sharp breath and screws his eyes closed as I briskly dry him, careful to touch him only with the towel.
He has such an attractive back—broad, sculptured shoulders, all the small muscles clearly defined. He really looks after himself. The beautiful sight is marred only by his scars.
With difficulty, I ignore them and suppress my overwhelming urge to kiss each and every one. When I finish he exhales, and I lean forward and reward him with a kiss on his shoulder. Putting my arms around him, I dry his stomach. Our eyes meet once more in the mirror, his expression amused but wary, too.
“Hold this.” I hand him a smaller face towel, and he gives me a bemused frown. “Remember in Georgia? You made me touch myself using your hands,” I add.
His face darkens, but I ignore his reaction and put my arms around him. Gazing at us both in the mirror—his beauty, his nakedness, and me with my covered hair—we look almost Biblical, as if from an Old Testament baroque painting.
I reach for his hand, which he willingly entrusts to me, and guide it up to his chest to dry it, sweeping the towel slowly, awkwardly across his body. Once, twice—then again.
He’s completely immobilized, rigid with tension, except for his eyes, which follow my hand clasped around his.
My subconscious looks on with approval, her normally pursed mouth smiling, and I am the supreme puppet master. His anxiety ripples off his back in waves, but he maintains eye contact, though his eyes are darker, more deadly. Showing their secrets maybe.
Is this a place I want to go? Do I want to confront his demons?
“I think you’re dry now,” I whisper as I drop my hand, gazing into the gray depths of his eyes in the mirror. His breathing is accelerated, lips parted.
“I need you, Anastasia,” he whispers.
“I need you, too.” And as I say the words, I am struck how true they are. I cannot imagine being without Christian, ever.