MY CONVERSATION WITH WELCH is brief. My conversation with Russell Reed—the miserable lying
bastard who married Leila—is briefer. I didn’t know that they’d wed during one drunken weekend in Vegas. No wonder their marriage failed after just eighteen months. She left him twelve weeks ago. So where are you now, Leila Williams? What have you been doing? I focus my mind on Leila, trying to think of some clue from our past that might tell me where she is. I need to know. I need to know she’s safe. And why she came here. Why me? She wanted more, and I didn’t, but that was long ago. It was easy when she left—our arrangement was terminated by mutual consent. In fact, our whole arrangement had been exemplary: just how it should be. She was mischievous when she was with me, deliberately so, and not the broken creature that Gail described. I recall how much she enjoyed our sessions in the playroom. Leila loved the kink. A memory surfaces—I’m tying her big toes together, turning her feet in so she can’t clench her backside and avoid the pain. Yeah, she loved all that shit, and so did I. She was a great submissive. But she never captured my attention like Anastasia Steele. She never drove me to distraction like Ana. I gaze at the glider kit on my desk and trace the edges of the box with my finger, knowing that Ana’s fingers have touched it. My sweet Anastasia. What a contrast you are to all the women I’ve known. The only woman I’ve ever chased, and the one woman who can’t give me what I want. I don’t understand. I’ve come alive since I’ve known her. These last few weeks have been the most exciting, the most unpredictable, the most fascinating in my life. I’ve been enticed from my monochrome world into one rich with color—and yet she can’t be what I need. I put my head in my hands. She will never like what I do. I tried to convince myself that we could work up to the rougher shit, but that’s not going to happen, ever. She’s better off without me. What would she want with a fucked-up monster who can’t bear to be touched? And yet she bought me this thoughtful gift. Who does that for me, apart from my family? I study the box once more and open it. All the plastic parts of the craft are stuck on one grid, swathed in cellophane. Memories of her squealing in the glider during the wingover come to mind—her hands up, braced against the Perspex canopy. I can’t help but smile. Lord, that was so much fun—the equivalent of pulling her pigtails in the playground. Ana in pigtails…I shut down that thought immediately. I don’t want to go there, our first bath. And all I’m left with is the thought that I won’t see her again. The abyss yawns open. No. Not again. I need to make this plane. It will be a distraction. Ripping open the cellophane, I scan the instructions. I need glue, modeling glue. I search through my desk drawers. Shit. Nestled at the back of one drawer I find the red leather box containing the Cartier earrings. I never got the chance to give them to her—and now I never will.