We drive in silence for some time, my thoughts winding like snakes. Beside me, Mia is uncharacteristically quiet.
Eventually she leans forward and turns on the radio: Toxic is playing. She turns it up – loud. I know she’s trying to provoke me. I stand it as long as I can then switch to the CD: Debussy’s La Mer.
“I was listening to that, Christian!” she snaps at me.
“No, you weren’t. You were just trying to irritate me. Well, it worked. Job done.”
She pouts. “It’s my birthday; I ought to be able to listen to whatever I like.”
I sigh. “Fine. What do you want to listen to? Not Britney, please god.”
“This is ok,” she shrugs. Mia can’t sulk for long. “Where are we going for dinner?”
“There’s a great Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found. They do a mean bún riêu.”
She wrinkles her nose. “I hate crab. Can’t we go to Pizza Hut?”
Oh, for fucks sake!
“If that’s what you really want!”
She smirks. “No, I just thought it was the most likely to drive you crazy. I’d like Italian, please.”
I can’t help smiling at her: she’s so annoying!
I park up and lead her into a small, family run Italian restaurant that I’ve been to a few times. I open the door for her and, after the evening chill of early Autumn, the warmth of the small place is welcoming.
“Bongiorno!” says the owner, a short, dark-haired man with a huge, comedy moustache. “Welcome back, Signor Grey, and your beautiful young lady.”
“Thank you, Giuseppe. This is my sister, Mia.”
“Ah, bellissima Mia! Your usual seat, signor?”
He starts to lead us to a table at the back.
“Can’t we sit by the window?” whines Mia. “I like to people-watch.”
I frown. I hate being stared at while I’m eating, but it is her birthday, as she’s already pointed out.
“Fine, a table at the front, please, Giuseppe.”
“Anything for such a beautiful signorina,” he says with a flourish worthy of the Hotel Charles Cinque in Paris.
Mia sashays happily to the table, her eyes sparkling.
“And what would the beautiful signorina like to drink?”
“Champagne, please, Giuseppe,” she replies.
He smiles. “Such a beautiful young lady should bathe only in champagne, but perhaps a sparkling mineral water or a soda to drink instead?”
I can tell Mia wants to be grumpy but she’s still young enough to be dazzled by flattery and I’m grateful that Giuseppe knows how to handle teenage girls.
“And for you, signor? Your usual: Pigato?”
“Not tonight, thank you, Giuseppe. Just a sparkling mineral water.”
He hands Mia a menu and she reads it slowly, a small pucker between her eyebrows, evidence of her concentration.
Mia loves good food: it wouldn’t surprise me if she did something in that direction. Mom and dad are faintly horrified by the idea. To them being in the restaurant trade means low pay and long hours. They’re right, of course, but you’ve got to use what you’re given. Maybe Mia could be a restaurant critic: she’s got the critical bit sewn up already.
She orders a tricolore insalata and a seafood linguini. I order olives and rosetta bread with penne marinara.
Then she leans back and fixes me with a determined stare.
“Who did you come here with before?”
“What makes you think I came with anyone?”
“Just so. Who was it?”
“That’s none of your business, Mia.”
“So you did come with someone. Why won’t you tell me, Christian? It is my birthday.”
“You’ve already played that card once; it won’t work again.” I try a diversionary tactic. “What’s been going on in school?”
She rolls her eyes. “Mrs Daniels nearly had a coronary when Lily turned up in an ultra mini skirt. She got sent to Principal Hayden. Her mom was furious.”
“That wasn’t a very responsible thing for her to do.”
Mia scowls. “That’s so hypocritical, Christian! At least she wasn’t expelled. How many schools did you get kicked out of? Don’t think I’ve forgotten!”
A fair point: but I don’t want my little sister following in my footsteps.
“Lily’s a bad influence.”
“Christian! You sound like dad! Lily’s my friend. I’ve known her forever. And she really likes you.”
I try to hide a shudder.
“But she doesn’t think you’re into girls.”
Mia continues, “She thinks you’re gay.”
Well, rather that than they know the truth.
“Are you, Christian?”
“I’m not anything, Mia,” I say, frowning. How true: I’m nothing. I’m no-one. “Change the topic, please.”
For once, she does as I ask and we manage to enjoy the meal in peace. We don’t have time for desserts if we’re to get to the theatre in time, so I promise to buy her an ice cream during the interval.
As we leave, Giuseppe helps her on with her coat.
“Buona sera e sogni d’oro, bellissima signorina! I hope to see you again soon, Signor Grey; you, your lovely sister and your beautiful mother.”
“I didn’t know you brought mom here,” said Mia. “She didn’t say anything?”
Fuck! And suddenly I can’t get out fast enough because the truth is I’ve never brought my mother here, only Elena. And now I sure as hell won’t be going back.
* * * *
It’s a big day for my new cell phone company, Grey Cells. After three months of calls, letters and emails I’ve managed to secure a meeting with the premier cell phone retail group west of the Mississippi; if I can nail this deal, the company’s future is assured. If not; it’s going to be a long, hard slog. My main reason for wanting to go for this company is their concentration on internet sales: I feel sure this is where the market is going to go in the next few years.
Ros is coming with me. She’s my head of R&D so she ought to be there. I briefly consider bringing Barney but I don’t think he’s ready for that sort of high level meeting. It’s hard to remember sometimes that he’s a year older than me; he seems like such a kid. I don’t ever remember acting like he does, talking the way he does, dressing like he just rolled a drunk outside a thrift store. Maybe I did when I was 14 or 15: it’s hard to remember back to those days; it’s as if they’re shrouded in mist and I don’t recognise that boy. Probably just as well: it was a miserable fucking time.
I shrug off the miasma of memories and concentrate on the sales pitch.
Ros knocks on the door of my office.
“Ready to go, Christian?”
I pack up my laptop and pull on my suit jacket. Showtime. There is one weak spot in the deal I’m going to offer them: me. I know they’ll look at me and just see a young hotshot who is trying to run before he can walk, although I’ve never felt young, not like that. I have to persuade them, force them even, to look beyond the face.
Ros nods and smiles as we walk into the staff parking lot.
Just as I’m pulling out, her cell rings. “Hi honey. Yeah, we’re just leaving… sure, sure… ok… Me, too.”
She hangs up. “My girlfriend. Just wishing us luck.”
“It doesn’t bother you, does it?”
I look at her questioningly.
“That I’m a lesbian.”
“No. Why should it?” I’m uncomfortable having this sort of personal conversation with her.
She waves a hand vaguely. “It bothers some people.”
I don’t reply and she lets the subject drop.
The offices of USC Retail are located on a large development of office units and warehouses on the outskirts of Seattle. Gray and anonymous.
“Mr Grey and Ms Bailey to see Mr Whelan,” I announce to the receptionist. She blinks rapidly and I’m irritated that I have to repeat our names.
“C-certainly, Mr Grey,” she says at last.
I eye her with irritation and she blushes. Ros looks amused but doesn’t comment. They don’t keep us waiting and we’re promptly shown up to the executive offices.
Whelan is a short, choleric man in his fifties. He greets us brusquely, failing to hide his surprise when he sees us – or rather me. He recovers his composure instantly and introduces us to his head of procurement, Ashley Peters. She reminds me of Elena; she has the same feline grace, platinum bob and long, claw-like fingernails. Polished and professional, as cold and smooth as glass.
“Thank you for coming to meet with us, Mr Grey, Ms Bailey. We’re certainly interested in considering your proposal. Perhaps you could give us a little more detail.”
I launch into my prepared pitch: benefits of smartphone technology, projected sales and market growth, linked updates and apps, our research and development in Seattle, our manufacturing plant in China, unit costs, shipping and lead times, and why Grey Cells are the option they should take. Ros follows on with some of the patented modification and innovations of our product and how we intend to stay ahead of the market.
Our joint presentation is flawless and I can see that Whelan is quietly impressed. Ms Peters is harder to read and I’m distracted thinking of how that, too, reminds me of Elena.
She asks sharp, considered questions, probing each of our statements, testing my business case. At no point have we shown her a chink in our proposal, nothing for her to seize hold of.
Finally she sits back and hands the reins over to Whelan.
“You’ve given us food for thought, Mr Grey, Miss Bailey. Your product seems impressive and our technical department is impressed. However…” Here it comes… “However, we do have some reservations.”
“I’m sure we can reassure you,” I respond smoothly.
“Despite your impressive achievements with GIC, Mr Grey, I have my doubts about entrusting such a major purchase investment to someone of your youth.”
He looks straight at me, not attempting to apologise for his words or to give ground in any way.
“I’m assuming you have no reservations beyond that, Mr Whelan, because I’m well aware that the product we’re offering at the unit price we have discussed, is the best deal you’ve seen for some time.”
He raises his eyebrows and hides a small smile.
“I can’t make myself older for you, Mr Whelan; Grey Cells is an excellent product – one that will profit your company considerably; one that your shareholders will be glad you purchased. You’ve seen the evidence for the sales projections which are conservative, as you’re well aware. I’m sure you won’t need the next 48 hours to consider the offer, but please take the time anyway. I’m sure your Board will be delighted once you apprise them of the situation.”
I know I’ve scored a hit here: he will want to make his decision before he presents it to the Board. He certainly won’t want them to influence his decision.
“Well, Mr Grey, you’ll have our decision within that time frame.”
We shake hands and Ms Peters shows us out.
“It has been a pleasure meeting you, Ms Bailey. Mr Grey, I do hope we meet again; in the meantime, if you have any questions… please do call me.” She hands me her card. “This has my private cell on it. Please call – any time.”
I frown but put the card in my jacket pocket.
“Good day, Ms Peters.”
Outside Ros is ecstatic. “They’re going to go for it – definitely. Whelan was blown away! You were fantastic, Christian!”
“You weren’t so bad yourself, Ros,” I say honestly.
“I didn’t like that bitch Peters, though,” she muses. “A real ball breaker. We’ll have to watch out for her; well, you will. She looked like she wanted to have you for lunch, Christian.”
I don’t like Ros’s inappropriate comment but I know she’s right because Ashley Peters is just like Elena.
We’re driving back to the office when my cell rings. I put it onto speakerphone.
“Mr Grey, Jake Whelan here. We were very impressed with your presentation; we’d like to offer Grey Cells the contract to supply our new smartphones. We’ll mail the contract from our lawyers tomorrow. I look forward to doing business with you, Mr Grey.”
“Thank you, Mr Whelan; we can look forward to a profitable relationship – you’ve made the right decision.”
“Good day, Mr Grey.”
Ros punches the air then leans across and kisses me on the cheek. I nearly crash the car.
“Sorry, Christian! But this is big! Fuck! This is huge!”
I glance over at her and she’s got this enormous smile plastered across her face. I can’t help smiling back.
“Yeah, it’s pretty good news.”
“Pretty good! Pretty good! Hell, Christian, this is one of the biggest deals in US telecoms. It’ll put Grey Cells on the map; it’ll put you on the map. The business press are going to be all over you like hair on a gorilla!”
The thought makes the smile slide from my face. Of course: publicity. The downside of success. And I have a lot of secrets to hide. I’m going to have to be considerably more careful from now on and take steps to bury my private life even deeper. If my private life wasn’t already on the critical list it’ll be six fucking feet when news of this deal gets out. Ros is right, and a BDSM lifestyle isn’t something any investors or banks will want to see on the front page of the Seattle Times.
Fuck! I’m going to be doing a lot more running at night.
The thought is depressing.
* * * *
Two days later the contract has been signed and USC Retail and Grey Cells have issued a joint press release announcing the deal.
The PR and marketing departments at both Grey Cells and GIC have been briefed on how to handle calls about me. Basically, with as little information as I think I can get away with. I know that won’t satisfy all the journalists so the next stage is to have all employees who work closely with me sign Non Disclosure Agreements.
The calls start immediately the release hits the news desks. Over and over again my staff report that, ‘No, Mr Grey won’t be doing interviews; no, Mr Grey does not have any further comment’.
Ros knocks on my door, accompanied by a nervous looking Chelsie, head of PR at Grey Cells.
“Christian,” says Ros, “Chelsie has a problem.”
Oh for fucks sake! She couldn’t come and speak to me by herself?
“I’m sorry, sir,” she stutters, “but we’re going to need to provide a photograph of you; the press are clamoring for it.”
“Tell them to fu… tell them I’ve got better things to do with my time!”
She blanches and looks anxiously at Ros.
“Christian, if we don’t give them something, they’re going to use one of your old rowing pictures that some journo has dug up. And if the business world think you’re too young now, they’ll definitely think so if they see one of those. You’re going to have to get some professional head shots done. Today. Chelsie has booked a photographer; she’ll be here at 2pm.”
“Oh for fucks sake, Ros!”
“Suck it up, Christian,” she says bluntly and closes the office door, taking the traumatized Chelsie with her.
I know she’s right; the thought makes me pissed.
At 1.30pm I hear a flurry of activity in reception. The fucking photographer has arrived. Even my parents have hardly any pictures of me; I hate having my photo taken.
The photographs will be taken in the meeting room; I’ve scheduled 15 minutes for the torture. Good thing Elena has trained me to take it.
Precisely at two, I stalk into the meeting room. I barely recognize it: silver reflector screens and a bank of lights have been positioned against one wall; cables trail across the floor.
Chelsie approaches me as if she suspects that I might bite. Only when I have written permission and, frankly, you’re not my type.
“Mr Grey, this is Tanis Bowden, your photographer.”
Ms Bowden is a tall, thin red-head in her early thirties. And for some reason she’s fucking gawping at me. Not a good look, Ms Bowden.
“You’re Christian Grey?” she bleats.
For fucks sake.
“Yes,” I reply icily.
“Oh, I beg your pardon; I was expecting someone… well, if you’d take a seat over there, we’ll get some head shots, then some standing.”
I scowl. “You’ve got 15 minutes.”
Her eyebrows shoot up but she quickly gets to work.
I sit in the appointed chair and try to force my mind to ignore the evidence of my eyes, to find somewhere peaceful where I’m not the object of everyone’s attention. I really hate this; it reminds me when I was a teenager, before Elena took me in hand, when my teachers and classmates used to stare at me like I was some rabid beast that could lash out at any second. Which wasn’t so far from the truth.
Why do people stare? It’s so fucking rude.
Ms Bowden’s carping voice stirs me from my thoughts.
“Mr Grey, if you could stand now, please.”
Her assistant pulls the chair out of shot and I stand, one hand in my pants pocket, one hanging uselessly by my side. What a fucking waste of time.
And I decide I’ve had enough.
“There ought to be something useable there,” I snarl.
She looks surprised but doesn’t argue as I march back to my office.
“Do you want to see the photographs, sir?” she calls after me.
“No I fucking don’t!”
* * * *
By six o’clock the building is quiet and I feel able to relax slightly. Ros pops her head in on the way home.
“Chelsie has mailed out your photograph and a brief bio to the journos who requested them, ok, Christian?”
She hesitates then shakes her head and leaves.
But the next morning the shit really hits the fan and I’m about to lose it – big time.
“Tell Chelsie to get the fuck in here!” I roar at Susan.
“Yes, sir!” she says, briskly, glad for once that she’s not the one in the firing line – possibly literally.
Chelsie enters looking pale and shaky. This is her fucking fault!
“What the fuck do you call this piece of shit?” I yell, throwing the Seattle Times down so it skids across the desk and lands with a thud at her feet.
I notice obliquely that her hands are shaking.
“I’m s-s-sorry, sir, I don’t understand!”
I run my hands through my hair in frustration. How fucking stupid is this woman?
Suddenly Ros enters and glances at the wan Chelsie.
“I heard voices, well, your voice,” she says calmly.
“Have you seen this crap?” I growl.
“Yes, Christian. You may go, Chelsie.”
“I haven’t fucking finished with her!”
“Chelsie, go,” says Ros firmly.
Chelsie sprints for the door.
“What the fuck?”
“Christian, you have to calm down. Bullying Chelsie isn’t helping.”
Bullying? Is that what I’m doing? Fuck.
I take several deep breaths but feel too wired to sit.
“This isn’t Chelsie’s fault, Christian. You know that, right?”
“Well whose fucking fault is it then?” I say, acidly.
“You know what newspapers are like, and you’re a story. But it’ll be a nine-day wonder and then they’ll go on to the next person.”
“How can they print shit like this? It’s an invasion of my privacy.”
“Don’t be naïve, Christian, it doesn’t suit you. Frankly, what did you expect? A millionaire entrepreneur before your 21st birthday. The newspapers love this sort of shit. By the way, your mom called; she says she wants a copy of the picture.”
She grins at me.
“Oh for fucks sake!”
The newspaper is still lying on the floor where I threw it. Ros bends down and picks it up, laying it carefully on my desk.
“Yeah well, at least your mom wants a picture of you,” she says bitterly. “Now leave Chelsie alone unless you want her spending the rest of the day bawling in the ladies’ restroom. She did her job; that’s all.”
She stands and leaves the office, closing the door quietly behind her.
I know she’s right; I feel like shit anyway. So what’s new?
I stare again at the newspaper headline underneath one of Ms Bowden’s pictures: ‘Is this Seattle’s most eligible bachelor?’
Oh for fucks sake!