Chapter 7: Rotten Apples

A/N: In a flash so quick you may have missed it, Annie is now 16 years old… Last chapter covers two birthdays. So she's progressed from 14 1/2 to 16… Lots of stuff has gone down.

NEXT: Obligatory mea culpas for my prolonged hiatus… I haven't been absent, as you've no doubt noticed from my frequent appearances on FB, posting links and comments to other authors' great stories. I belong to a vast number of groups (and fandoms), so you probably couldn't evade me if you tried. CONFESSION: I know the beginning, the end, and a few points in between, but I haven't fully invested in the bridge to travel from point A to point B. Thank you all for sticking with me. It has been Paula's consistent encouragement (she's my one-woman cheer squad) and her gentle nudging that has made this update possible.

I suspect canon Ana had a repressed violent streak. Are we really expected to believe she didn't plan to blow Hyde's head off when she thought it was just him? There's just no way she could have believed that a man who attacked and tried to rape her in the break room, disabled Charlie Tango, committed arson and just pulled off an abduction for ransom would have been threatened by a tiny, irresolute woman waving a gun in his face. Honestly, if ever there was a time to put up or shut up! Just because Ana is kind doesn't make her a suicidal pacifist.

This chapter: What has happened in the last year or so? What are our MC's doing now? New revelations, new problems and a light at the end of the tunnel (no, it's not a freight train).

DISCLAIMER: I don't own Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele or the FSoG franchise. If I did, Ana would've taken a miss on the ransom drop… Hell, the only reason to save Mia in Freed is Rita Ora…

Since meeting Annie, it would be a blatant mistruth to say I'd been bored. Every moment, a new revelation made itself known to me. She just made it impossible to keep the blinders on. If I could fall in love with Ana and not lay a hand on her with sexual intent, surely Elena could have given me the same courtesy when I was fifteen. She only cared if I could get it up on command. She took advantage of my fear that my parents had finally had enough of my issues over the years and would wash their hands of me.

Even now, I find it difficult to resist playing the Devil's advocate on her behalf. Elena brainwashed me for so many years that black was white and white was black, made me believe she was my only friend, and that I was an unwelcome stranger to my family. How long had my parents reached out before they finally accepted that I only had so much to offer? And as Ana hinted, did they try long enough?

While Annie took up the challenge to "set me straight" and help me get my shit together, little does she know that Taylor already assembled a small team eager to heed her call. Taylor and Mrs Jones were working in tandem as gatekeepers, with Taylor taking extra pleasure in monitoring all inbound communications. I gladly handed off responsibility for dealing with Elena's irritating bullshit.

Long before he shut off all Elena's points of contact, Taylor had maintained a log of all visitors to Escala and GEH, which he was not finally putting to good use. Most ridiculous were her numerous attempts to communicate with me even when I was clearly abroad on business trips of which she was fully aware. After three days, she had called over twenty times, left twelve voice messages, sent seven emails and lowered herself to siccing Grace on me twice. Worse, she had shown up at Escala and GEH, though informed via email I would be out of town on business for a week. Either she thought I was lying to her, or she was pursuing ways to burrow herself deeper into my life during my absence.

Taylor, entered my office, silent and stoic as ever. I suppose it was a relic of his military training, but now his demeanor seemed more solemn than usual. He laid a leather-bound folder on my desk before taking his seat. Never before has he not simply launched into his regular report.

"Sir, I documented your incoming calls, letters, visits just in the past week, and I must admit… it's troublesome," he explained. "I also think I owe you apology for never impressing upon you the inner workings of your security. I should have done a full threat assessment on Elena Lincoln a long time ago."

I fell back into my chair, weakened. What the fuck?! I knew I'd let a lot of unacceptable shit from Elena go, going so far as to demand that no-one look into Elena too closely. I never wanted our relationship, past though it was, to ever come under scrutiny. I figured it was enough to have security vet the subs, but for Taylor to directly contravene my orders spoke of a far more serious situation. By forbidding my security to look in to her, I could pretend that there was nothing wrong with our friendship.

"Bottom line," I demanded flatly.

"Welch and I have determined you need to perform an independent audit of Esclava, focusing on Mrs Lincoln's finances. A few things didn't add up under our cursory examination, and we're certain that a deeper investigation will uncover some gross malfeasance," he said dispassionately, as if he hadn't just rocked my foundations. Why was I surprised that she'd steal from me considering she'd stolen my childhood?

I must have fazed out for a moment or two, as he continued, "And finally, we've come to believe she has been actively stalking you."

As he exited my office, silently closing the door behind him, I open the folder. On the inner cover was a 3x5 inch glossy photo of Elena, along with her name and vital statistics. On the first page was a 10-part questionnaire titled, "Are You Being Stalked?"

I was only mildly surprised when I scored a solid nine out of ten, considering I'd wavered on the tenth question.

"Fuck!" I shouted, hurling a nearby stapler, which struck the wall adjacent to the door. I wanted to rip my hair out in frustration. Everything was unraveling.

After Texas, I stepped back from the situation. I was determined not to take advantage of Annie's vulnerability. We were already close friends; I wanted to be nowhere near the friend zone. Worse, she was unavailable to any decent person, and for the first time in my life, I wanted to be the good man she believed I was. Two back-to-back meetings in Europe proved opportune.

However, once Taylor's investigation into Elena began in earnest, I was positioning myself to be the person Annie looked to when she was ready for a relationship. I hadn't dismissed her initial reaction to me, and I knew she wasn't indifferent, so I had that going for me. All I had to do not to fuck up was consult my "What Would Elena Do?" list and make sure not to do anything on it.

I gave her the opportunity to make friends and live her life unimpeded by my desires or demands. I didn't buy her a pager or a phone so I could keep track of her and have her call me at set times. I didn't drop in on her unexpectedly, or try to become buddies with her father. I never forced or encouraged her to keep our relationship secret, and I never lied to her about anything, no matter how embarrassing. I was completely under her spell and at her command.

Looking back, I couldn't think of one childhood friend. Not one. And after Elena got her hooks into me, any possibility of developing outside connections dried up like a raindrop in the the Sahara. And there's no fucking way I could continue to call Elena a friend. That lying bitch had isolated me from everyone and everything. I guess she knew that she didn't have a snowball's chance in hell against anyone adequate. Any healthy relationship would have highlighted the wrongness, the utter toxicity, of our union. Annie had immediately pegged Elena as poison before she'd learned the worst of it.

Thankfully, my stint as Elena's erstwhile protector died a natural death soon after our argument in Montesano. Our spat had awakened Ray from his slumber and he'd come to the screen door to see what was wrong. Annie lied, claiming she'd accidentally pushed me from the swing. Eyeing me suspiciously, he returned to bed. I'd left soon after, chastened and prepared to do everything I could to hustle Elena and her influence out of our lives.

Simply put, Elena was an anathema to her. Due to her trauma, Annie had become a self-styled expert in all types of abuse. Witnessing and experiencing the face of evil up close and personal, she recognized it in all its guises. Her tender heart had even caused her to reach out to other victims.

She understood why I had never admitted to how I had been abused, instead seeking to avoid acknowledging my past in anyway. I had internalized my feelings, turning the hatred, anger and frustration inward, no longer able to lash out for fear of Elena's retribution. Unless I looked at my chest or considered that no one could touch me, I could pretend it never happened. Like the nightmares that I've gotten used to as must everyone else. Everything was okay until it wasn't. Then I'd get full up and explode, usually all over someone else. Ana wasn't going to be anybody's punching bag at least not willingly.

Past shrinks would've been astounded by my progress, but I knew I still had many miles to go. I respected Ana more than anyone else. She was strong and smart yet remained kind and beautiful despite all she's survived. Not that she would take shit off of anybody. She's the kind of woman I wish my mother had been. I couldn't fathom Ana letting a man burn her child with cigarettes, kick or beat him. And she would definitely not allow her child to starve while she floated in a drug-fueled haze. Looking back, I'm amazed I survived. Ana and I are kindred spirits. We both overcame abusive, neglectful mothers.

We haven't discussed Carla much. Ana had washed her hands of her and wasn't looking back. After forking over the cash for her rehab, my investigators discovered that drugs and alcohol were only the tip of the iceberg. Carla resented the hell out of her daughter, and no amount of counseling could fix that. There is no rehab for self-involved narcissists. She was a rotten onion, and after peeling away the layers of hate, self-centeredness, and bullshit, I'm certain there'd be nothing left for the counselors to study.

Carla only had a few months left in therapy. If she was smart, she go her own way. She should stay far away from Montesano, but Ana and Ray don't have that kind of luck. She'll be sniffing around seeing if she could get some money or maybe get back in with Ray. At least when he caught his wife fucking around, he didn't put her in the hospital. Linc lacked his strength of character and restraint.

I had never looked into the dynamic between Linc and Elena. Elena was my Mistress, and I didn't even care that she was cheating on her spouse, never even thought to question her infidelity. Just shows what kind of snot-nosed kid I was. I had given absolutely no thought to the lives impacted by our actions. I put most of the responsibility for the affair on Elena. The logistics what when how how long was all on her. But the truth was when shit hit the fan, I ended up sticking up for her, paying her way, setting her up in business out of guilt. It was the first guilt I'd ever felt towards her regarding her husband. I felt as if I had ruined their marriage. As if I was the one with the lemonade and the kiss in the slap. I had taken ownership of her actions as well as mine, though I had been dragged along by my dick.

Whatever she needed from me. Attention. Money. Prestige. Sure she provided the subs, but I didn't need to spend that much time with her. But she was a mentor I treated as a retired pensioner. Someone who I owed my time. Our relationship was born in secrecy and was rife with guilt. She made me feel guiltier and dirtier, and I had never really paid attention until now. sure I was a fucked-up son of a crackwhore, but that gave her even less of a reason to contribute to my issues. She should have stayed far away from me.

At first, I was pissed at the crazies she'd sent my way, then later, she just started acting like those clingy bitches she used to warn me about. Was I not supposed to notice the similarity? When she dropped in, interrupting an important meeting with a food supplier for one of my charities, I snapped and had her placed on the proscribed list immediately. She'd never be able to pull something like this again. What was most interesting about this exchange was realizing Elena makes a terrible first impression, viscerally repulsing perfect strangers. How could Grace, Carrick and Mia stand her?

The gentleman I was doing business with didn't seem to get a kick out of what Elena was wearing, a black, glossy, skintight leggings with a few strategic cutouts and a corseted blazer reveling the the lace of the upper portion of her push-up demi-bra. He looked more disgusted than anything. She was a picture. He stared at her with fascination, as if she was some exotic bug he wanted to mount on his pinning board. She gazed at him curiously, then slowly backed out of the room and left. She had strutted in like she owned the place, only to scurry away like a rat off a sinking ship.

"Elena Lincoln, I presume," Mr. Gavin had stated coldly, obsidian eyes gleaming.

"Yes, she's a small business partner," I demurred.

"Surely too small to rate a walk-in without an appointment," he countered, head tilting in insulted disbelief. His people had invested two months with Ros just to fit him in.

"That woman is poison," he hissed.

"Well, I don't know about poison, but our business relationship is coming to a close…"

"Does she know that?" he asked speculatively, head tilting toward the door with which Elena had made her awkward exit. The subtext was undeniable; We were having more than one conversation. "What kind of business is it?"

"She runs a chain of successful spas. Esclava. You've probably heard of it," I replied shortly, attempting to cut off this disturbing topic, but it was not to be.

"Hmm. Well I never expected someone like you to be in the beauty business, but I guess it takes all sorts," he snorted dismissively. The meeting ended soon after, successfully from a business perspective, but I couldn't get his initial reaction to her out of my mind. I wouldn't remember the look in his eyes until I realized that Annie wore the same expression, and she's never met her.

He wasn't stupid. Everyone except for Grace and sometimes Carrick looked at her like they'd either smelled skunk or sucked lemon. She had rescued their wayward son, after all. Why shouldn't loving parents be grateful to someone who'd saved them so much time and embarrassment? I was no longer getting into fights or slacking in school. I'd even joined the rowing team and was winning awards right and left. I got accepted into Harvard, my father's alma mater. Everything was smelling like roses for the Greys.

If only I could forget about the shitstorm Carrick stirred up when I dropped out of my father's dream school with a "pipe-dream" to start my own business! What nonsense. I was throwing my life away! Even now my father couldn't accept, let alone admit, that I was right and he was wrong. Had I followed Carrick's plan, I would be a pauper compared to what I am now. At most I'd be pulling in a couple hundred grand a year working for someone else instead of the millions I garnered just this past quarter. With Carrick, it was always his way or the highway, even if his way led to me standing on the side of that highway, cup in hand.

What really pissed me off was that they had absolutely no compunction against asking for money though they didn't respect the way I made it. It wouldn't bother me so much if they didn't pretend that they had supported me the entire time. Tonight, I didn't even bother to go to their Coping Together Gala. This is the first one I've missed in years. Elena always enjoy the opportunity to attempt to make me dance with her, but I never succumbed despite the punishment. She would take it too far. Give her an inch…

I was sure my family would miss me, but make all the proper excuses. They were good with things like that. Making excuses. No Christian wasn't expelled. The school simply wasn't a good fit. There wasn't a fight. Just a couple boys letting off steam.

My reverie is disturbed by Ana swinging an arm around my shoulders. "Chris, what properties are you taking over next? Park Place or Reading Railroad?" she asked flippantly. She treated mergers and acquisitions as an expensive game of Monopoly, only with significantly higher risk.

Just returning from a two month-long series of business trips, Montesano was my first stop, despite a terrible bought of jet-lag. I missed seeing her beautiful face and her smart mouth. Lately, I'd thrown myself into building stronger international ties. It would be best if I'd already laid all the groundwork before she graduates from high school. If I wanted to be able to spend any real time with her, I'd have to delegate and re-prioritize.

I glanced over Ana's shoulder, where Ray stood a couple yards away, an inscrutable expression on his face. He motioned to the back of the house.

"Ana, I need to take a break," I murmured, hinting that I had to go to the bathroom. Walking into the house, I made a detour to the back door, where I met Ray. I knew before he opened his mouth, the conversation would not go well.