A GoodReads Choice Awards Finalist for Best Romance
"In a class by itself." --"Entertainment Weekly"
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.
Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. So I have been volunteered. I have final exams to cram for and one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no—today I have to drive 165 miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious—much more precious than mine—but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me. Damn her extracurricular activities.
Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.
“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sore throat voice. How does she do it? Even ill she looks gamine and gorgeous, strawberry blond hair in place and green eyes bright, although now red rimmed and runny. I ignore my pang of unwelcome sympathy.
“Of course I’ll go, Kate. You should get back to bed. Would you like some NyQuil or Tylenol?”
“NyQuil, please. Here are the questions and my digital recorder. Just press record here. Make notes, I’ll transcribe it all.”
“I know nothing about him,” I murmur, trying and failing to suppress my rising panic.
“The questions will see you through. Go. It’s a long drive. I don’t want you to be late.”
“Okay, I’m going. Get back to bed. I made you some soup to heat up later.” I stare at her fondly. Only for you, Kate, would I do this.
“I will. Good luck. And thanks, Ana—as usual, you’re my lifesaver.”
Gathering my backpack, I smile wryly at her, then head out the door to the car. I cannot believe I have let Kate talk me into this. But then Kate can talk anyone into anything. She’ll make an exceptional journalist. She’s articulate, strong, persuasive, argumentative, beautiful—and she’s my dearest, dearest friend.
The roads are clear as I set off from Vancouver, Washington, toward Interstate 5. It’s early, and I don’t have to be in Seattle until two this afternoon. Fortunately, Kate has lent me her sporty Mercedes CLK. I’m not sure Wanda, my old VW Beetle, would make the journey in time. Oh, the Merc is a fun drive, and the miles slip away as I hit the pedal to the metal.
My destination is the headquarters of Mr. Grey’s global enterprise. It’s a huge twenty-story office building, all curved glass and steel, an architect’s utilitarian fantasy, with GREY HOUSE written discreetly in steel over the glass front doors. It’s a quarter to two when I arrive, greatly relieved that I’m not late as I walk into the enormous—and frankly intimidating—glass, steel, and white sandstone lobby.
Behind the solid sandstone desk, a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman smiles pleasantly at me. She’s wearing the sharpest charcoal suit jacket and white shirt I have ever seen. She looks immaculate.
“I’m here to see Mr. Grey. Anastasia Steele for Katherine Kavanagh.”
“Excuse me one moment, Miss Steele.” She arches her eyebrow as I stand self-consciously before her. I’m beginning to wish I’d borrowed one of Kate’s formal blazers rather than worn my navy-blue jacket. I have made an effort and worn my one and only skirt, my sensible brown knee-length boots, and a blue sweater. For me, this is smart. I tuck one of the escaped tendrils of my hair behind my ear as I pretend she doesn’t intimidate me.
“Miss Kavanagh is expected. Please sign in here, Miss Steele. You’ll want the last elevator on the right, press for the twentieth floor.” She smiles kindly at me, amused no doubt, as I sign in.
She hands me a security pass that has “visitor” very firmly stamped on the front. I can’t help my smirk. Surely it’s obvious that I’m just visiting. I don’t fit in here at all. Nothing changes. I inwardly sigh. Thanking her, I walk over to the bank of elevators and past the two security men who are both far more smartly dressed than I am in their well-cut black suits.
The elevator whisks me at terminal velocity to the twentieth floor. The doors slide open, and I’m in another large lobby—again all glass, steel, and white sandstone. I’m confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman, this time dressed impeccably in black and white, who rises to greet me.
“Miss Steele, could you wait here, please?” She points to a seated area of white leather chairs.
Behind the leather chairs is a spacious glass-walled meeting room with an equally spacious dark wood table and at least twenty matching chairs around it. Beyond that, there is a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the Seattle skyline that looks out through the city toward the Sound. It’s a stunning vista, and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the view. Wow.
I sit down, fish the questions from my backpack, and go through them, inwardly cursing Kate for not providing me with a brief biography. I know nothing about this man I’m about to interview. He could be ninety or he could be thirty. The uncertainty is galling, and my nerves resurface, making me fidget. I’ve never been comfortable with one-on-one interviews, preferring the anonymity of a group discussion where I can sit inconspicuously at the back of the room. To be honest, I prefer my own company, reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library. Not sitting twitching nervously in a colossal glass-and-stone edifice.
I roll my eyes at myself. Get a grip, Steele. Judging from the building, which is too clinical and modern, I guess Grey is in his forties: fit, tanned, and fair-haired to match the rest of the personnel.
Another elegant, flawlessly dressed blonde comes out of a large door to the right. What is it with all the immaculate blondes? It’s like Stepford here. Taking a deep breath, I stand up.
“Miss Steele?” the latest blonde asks.
“Yes,” I croak, and clear my throat. “Yes.” There, that sounded more confident.
“Mr. Grey will see you in a moment. May I take your jacket?”
“Oh, please.” I struggle out of the jacket.
“Have you been offered any refreshment?”
“Um—no.” Oh dear, is Blonde Number One in trouble?
Blonde Number Two frowns and eyes the young woman at the desk. “Would you like tea, coffee, water?” she asks, turning her attention back to me.
“A glass of water. Thank you,” I murmur.
“Olivia, please fetch Miss Steele a glass of water.” Her voice is stern. Olivia scoots up and scurries to a door on the other side of the foyer.
“My apologies, Miss Steele, Olivia is our new intern. Please be seated. Mr. Grey will be another five minutes.”
Olivia returns with a glass of iced water.
“Here you go, Miss Steele.”
Blonde Number Two marches over to the large desk, her heels clicking and echoing on the sandstone floor. She sits down, and they both continue their work.
Perhaps Mr. Grey insists on all his employees being blonde. I’m wondering idly if that’s legal, when the office door opens and a tall, elegantly dressed, attractive African American man with short dreads exits. I have definitely worn the wrong clothes.
He turns and says through the door, “Golf this week, Grey?”
I don’t hear the reply. He turns, sees me, and smiles, his dark eyes crinkling at the corners. Olivia has jumped up and called the elevator. She seems to excel at jumping from her seat. She’s more nervous than me!
“Good afternoon, ladies,” he says as he departs through the sliding door.
“Mr. Grey will see you now, Miss Steele. Do go through,” Blonde Number Two says. I stand rather shakily, trying to suppress my nerves. Gathering up my backpack, I abandon my glass of water and make my way to the partially open door.
“You don’t need to knock—just go in.” She smiles kindly.
I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling headfirst into the office.