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The Arrangement 19 2

But it’s not what I expected to see at all.

  Sean drops the rafter and falls to the ground, shaking with anger and tears flooding from his eyes, and screams. The sound rips my soul in two.

  On the floor, in the debris, is a severed arm with a gold ring still on one of her fingers. The pattern is unmistakable--it’s the Ferro family crest.

  It’s his mother’s ring. The one she wears every day and never takes off.

  Constance Ferro is dead.

  CHAPTER 3

  My throat tightens as I hear Sean cry out. I know he didn’t get along with his mother, hell she hated him--she hated everyone--so the extent of his reaction surprises me a little bit. I had no idea how much he cared for her despite her evilness.

  I don’t know what to think about this, about any of it. I stare at the severed arm and wish to God this never happened. The position of her arm makes it look as if she were asleep. Swallowing hard, I try not to choke. I’m so close to totally losing it, but I can't because of Sean.

  If I saw my mother blown apart, I’d lose it. I’d scream until my lungs burned, and my throat was raw. Terror would creep up my spine like an icy finger and make me sick. I’d see the world around me freeze. The flurry of meaningless daily tasks would blast from my mind. Every worry, every thought would be blown away--except for thoughts of her.

  Regret for all the things I didn’t get to say or do would consume me. I'd wonder if she was in pain when she died. The thoughts have no words at first. They fall slowly, becoming clearer as they land, little pieces of ash drifting through the air.

  Sean is living in that nightmare, the worst thought playing across his face--he failed to save her. He came close, but his failure means Constance's death.

  Throat tight and burning, I pad over the glass-covered floor and kneel next to Sean. I raise my hand to place it on his shoulder, my palm hovering over him, unsure of what to do. I want to pull him out of that thought. He couldn’t have saved her. He couldn’t have saved Amanda. I wrestle with the same thought of saving my parents. I feel the guilt of it around my neck squeezing the life out of me.

  Sometimes there is no fault, no blame. Even if there is a finger to point at someone, it’s not Sean. The man lives a double life. There’s a hardened exterior that’s cruel and frightening, but beneath the surface is a broken man with too much empathy to live with loss. The explosion adds one more life to the pile, one more person to mourn, and one more person to twist his tortured soul until he falls apart.

  “Sean.”

  He doesn’t move. His chest expands as he breathes and chokes back an angry sob. Those dark eyes focus on his mother’s ring; his lower lids twitch upward as if he can't control them any longer. His jaw locks and he shakes his head.

  Shock is a strange thing. At first it felt like I could pull us both to safety. I thought we’d save his mother and run out of here, but the queasy feeling in my stomach won’t let up. The only thing I can think about is his mother sitting out here, pressing the phone to her ear, scolding Sean right before the room exploded. Did she know she was going to die? She had to know, she screamed horrifically over the phone. It’s not a sound easily forgotten.

  I try to swallow, but can’t. The lump in my throat won’t move. My legs buckle, and I hug my knees tighter, intending to bury my face.

  Sean’s voice makes me tip my head to the side.

  “Avery?”

  I blink once, slowly. Suddenly, the room shifts violently and my face lands hard against shards of glass on the floor. I try to shake it off and sit up, but I can’t. The room won’t stop spinning. I blink a few times, trying to focus my eyes and failing. Sean’s voice echoes as if he were far away.

  Constance's ring is the last thing I see before the world goes dark.

  CHAPTER 4

  My body prickles with goose bumps, but I can’t feel the night air. I move my hand through the thin layer of fog feeling nothing.

  I’m not outside. I’m alone, standing in the middle of a vacant room. There are no walls, only darkness. I don’t know where I am. My heart thumps harder in my chest, and I can’t breathe. There’s smoke. It’s everywhere, filling the room from top to bottom in thick, billowy black clouds.

  I scream out for Sean, but I have no voice. I try again, but the only sound is a blood-curdling scream. It seems like it will never end. I fall to my knees and press my face to the floor, covering my head. Tears streak my cheeks, but I can’t feel them. I don’t feel the heat of the room or the smoke, but it chokes me all the same.

  My body betrays me, and I slump to the floor like a rag doll, no longer able to move. It's like I’m trapped on tar paper, pinned in place. I open my mouth and inhale deeply, intending to scream as loud as I can, but the scream is silent.

  No one can hear me. I’ll die here, alone.

  I blink, trying to focus. Across from me, like a tiny sun in the darkness, something flashed. I blink away the smoke and swallow the pain, trying to see what it is. I reach out toward the light and find a familiar touch--Sean. He’s wearing his mother’s ring on his pinky. He reaches out toward me and takes my hand.

  “I’m sorry, Avery.” His words are a whisper. They carry through the smoke and touch my ears like a kiss.

  Fear courses through my veins. Is he giving up? We can’t die here! Sean’s grip on my hand loosens, so I tighten my fist. I try to yell,

  “NO! Don’t leave me! Sean!”

  I manage to pull my heavy body forward, enough to grip his hand firmly. I want to pull his hand to my cheek. I want to touch him, to hold him one last time.

  My stomach is in knots as fear pushes my pulse into the stroke zone. I say things, things that have no meaning and lift his heavy hand, pulling it toward me. I press the back of his palm to my cheek, and when I lower my mouth to his skin, I press my lips to his skin.

  When I open my eyes, I see what I’m holding--Sean’s severed arm, dripping with blood. A scream rakes through my body, bellowing out of my mouth.

  I shoot up, covered in sweat and wailing like a banshee.

  A hand firmly grabs me and silences my shriek. Sean’s warm breath brushes against my ear.

  “You’re all right. Avery, we need to be quiet. Vic’s men are still here.”

  I blink, confused. Slowly, I turn toward Sean, heart still pounding in my chest.

  “You’re alive.” Tears sting my eyes as I throw my arms around his neck. “Oh, God, Sean.”

  “You were dreaming. I’m right here,” he says, kissing the top of my head.

  He holds me for a moment; his touch normally chases away my nightmares, but this time it doesn’t. Those hands, those strong, sure hands will end up as lifeless as his mother’s hands. A lump the size of a tennis ball forms in my throat. I can’t imagine my world without him.

  This is my fault. All of it.

  Sean pulls back but holds onto my shoulders. He offers a small smile before pushing a lock of hair out of my eyes.

  “You’ve been through Hell today. If you didn’t have nightmares, I’d be worried. It’s okay, Avery.”

  My lips try to pull into a smile, but they quiver and fall. I’m going to lose him. If we keep going down this path, Sean will end up beneath six feet of dirt. I look away, not wanting him to see my thoughts.

  My brows pull together as I notice my surroundings. Planks of age-darkened wood cover the walls and floor. A patch of moonlight shines through the roof, casting silver light across the aged floor. In the center of the small room is the trunk of a massive oak tree. I blink again.

  “How hard did I hit my head?”

  Translation: Where the fuck are we?

  “Welcome to Casa Dei Diamanti,” Sean answers, laughing. He breathes in the night air lustily, mirth reaching his eyes for a brief moment before the sadness sucks it away again.

  “Welcome to the demented house? Seriously?” My eyebrow shoots up inquisitively.

  Sean shakes his head, his dark locks falling forward. When he looks up, he glances up at me from beneath those dark
lashes, as if he were going to share some deep dark secret.

  “You’re joking, right? Everyone has to take a second language in high school. You are an over-educated woman, Miss College Graduate. How do you not know what ‘diamanti’ means?”

  Offended, I smile with feigned patience.

  “Spill, Mr. Jones. Where am I? The Batcave? Did the tree lift your evil underground lair into the sky as it grew?”

  He snort-laughs boyishly as if I tickled him in the perfect spot.

  “Why does everyone say that? I wasn’t a dark child.” He drops his gaze and looks at his hands, his tone serious now. “That came later, much later.”

  I know this place is right on top of a raw nerve for him, but I’m not sure why. I look around, hoping he’ll tell me more, but he’s silent. There’s a chest on the side of the room, right below a little window. There’s no sign of the escape hatch or hole in the floor, but there is a rickety rope ladder piled into the corner. I wonder how he got me up here. He must have carried me.

  The ceiling is low and crumbling, cedar shakes tumbling through holes in the roof. In its heyday, the little fort must have been swicked. I feel almost sad to see it in such disrepair, vines and branches growing through it unchecked.

  “So, we’re still by the mansion, then?” I ask, crawling over to the window. I test the floor carefully, pressing on each plank, worried I’ll fall through.

  “It’s sturdy. You won't fall. And yes, we’re still by the house.” Sean scoots back and leans against the wall.

  I glance over the sill and look out. All I can see is trees. Disappointed, I sit back down. The floor beneath me creaks under my weight, and I crab-crawl forward toward the tree.

  “Are you sure this isn’t like Owl’s house? That sucker blew away with Piglet and Pooh in it.”

  “Are you talking about a children’s book?” Sean blinks and grins.

  “Winnie the Pooh was stuffed with fluff. I’m a little more, well, stuffed with bones that don’t want to shatter when this thing falls out of the sky.”

  My heart is racing, unable to calm down. Sean smiles softly, taking my hand and pulling me toward him. I shake my head, refusing to move.

  “Are you afraid of heights, Miss Smith?”

  “Only when there isn’t a plane around me.”

  “Seriously?” Amusement lights his face, his expression betraying his belief that this is a silly thing to fear.

  “Tell me something," I say nodding and closing my eyes tightly. "Talk, or I’m going to flip out.”

  He notices the way I’m shaking and comes to sit beside me. He places his hand on top of mine and gently squeezes it.

  “We’re in my old tree house. Peter and I played up here as children. I had a tendency to find the tallest tree and climb it. My mother,” his voice catches in his throat, but he spits out the rest of the thought, “didn’t like it, but my father encouraged us to climb higher and go further. One day he took us back here and asked which tree I liked best. I picked this one. I showed him how high I could climb. The next time he walked us out this way, this tree house was two limbs higher than I'd climbed. When we were children, the man was always pushing us to go further, to climb higher, and to dream bigger. God, he’s changed.” Sean rubs his hand over his face and tips his head back against the wall.

  “So, once upon a time, your dad was nice?”

  Sean’s eyes cut over to me. He shrugs.

  “Yeah, he was. Before the mistresses came around, he gave Pete and me all his attention. He told me that I could have this place and do anything I wanted with it if I could get up here. There wasn’t a ladder. It took me a month to get up here. I suppose it was more for me than Pete. He was still young then and couldn’t climb the way I did. Dad added the ladder later for him.”

  “So, you played up here when you were little?” I look around again, wondering about the man sitting next to me. It’s a normal tree house, except that it’s practically in the clouds.

  “Yeah, I did. I can’t remember the last time I was up here. I had to be thirteen or so.” He smiles softly, lost in thought. “I'd just had my first kiss, and came up here afterward to get away from Pete and Jon. By then, it was overgrown and aging poorly. This morning, I almost couldn’t find it. The forest has grown up around it, devouring it.”

  The terror melts away as he speaks, and I get to see a side that he usually keeps hidden.

  “First kiss?”

  “Yeah.” He smiles. “It was sweet and quick. But at the time, it felt like a lifetime of bliss.” Sean realizes he has a smile on his face, and it vanishes.

  “Sean Ferro kissed a girl sweetly? I can’t imagine it. That’s like saying Dracula’s teeth are candy corn.”

  “How is that the same?” His eyes are laughing as he looks at me, and all I want is to keep him looking just like this.

  “Well, you think that he’s going to be all mean and nasty, but no--alas! The dark dude in the cape with a taste for blood is just a sugar addict who--”

  "You did not just compare me to Dracula,” Sean interrupts.

  “Blah! I vant to suck your sveets!” I hold up my hands and point my fingers down like teeth, speaking with my best Transylvanian accent. Sean's eyes go wide, and then he actually giggles.

  “You’re insane.”

  “Holy shit! You giggled. I heard it.” I grab his ultra tight shirt and yank him toward me. “Open.” I tap his lips. “I need to check your teeth.”

  Sean watches my mouth as I speak, with the sweet grin still in place. It’s so unlike him that it makes my stomach flip. He reaches for me slowly and, when our eyes meet, he holds my gaze. Sean brushes his hand against my cheek and slides his fingers around the back of my neck. His other hand finds my cheek and inch-by-inch he gets closer. My pulse is hammering in my ears, and it’s all I can do to not squeal. Butterflies erupt in my stomach and move through me in waves. The fierce flutter makes it hard to breathe as Sean’s beautiful mouth gets closer.

  Normally he takes what he wants or tells me to, but this is different. It has me supercharged, and every inch of me is tingling. It’s like I licked an electrical socket. I can’t move. I want to lean into the kiss, but I want to see what he’s going to do. The way he moves toward me and looks at me through those dark lashes, the way he cradles my head and cups my cheek--it's as if he's asking and it leaves me trembling.

  He stops right before our lips touch, a breath away. His gaze drops to my mouth, and he pauses, not kissing, just waiting. I can’t move. The magic of the moment makes the rest of the world melt away. It feels pure and perfect. I didn’t know he could be like this.

  Sean reveals another version of him, one long buried. I’m drawn to him, pulled to his mouth. I want his arms to hold me tight, but there’s nothing harsh or hurried. His breath washes over my mouth, and my lips part slightly, wanting him, waiting for him to kiss me.

  Sean’s dark lashes flutter closed, and he leans in, gently brushing his lips against mine. The butterflies wiz through me as his touch sets off a shower of sparks. The smoothness of his bottom lip against mine, the way he moves surely and gently sets every inch of me on fire. I want more, but he doesn’t deepen the kiss. Instead, he slowly slides his lips closed before pressing them to mine, and then pulls away.

  I’m breathless. The kiss feels like it froze time, but it passes too quickly. It’s an enigma I don’t understand. I blink wildly, and try to fathom why that affected me so much.

  Sean doesn’t smile or say any of the assy things he usually does. He doesn’t try to own me, make me, or command me. He just pulls away, as if he didn’t know what he did to me. How can one kiss do that?

  After a moment, I manage to catch his eye. The corner of his mouth pulls up, and he quickly looks away. My chest tightens as my heart beats harder. My impulse is telling me to jump him, but there’s something so fragile about him that I can’t.

  My chest rises and falls, as I suck in way too much air. I can’t hide what that did to me, how it made me fee
l. I finally breathe his name.

  “Sean?” He glances at me from the corner of his eye.

  “Yeah?”

  What do I say? I want to ask him why he doesn’t love me like that, but how can I? He mentions his first kiss and sugar, then gives me this orgasmically mind-blowing kiss. What the fuck? I can’t say any of it though, so I just sit there gaping, my mouth hanging open. He smirks.

  “So I suppose you like sweet kisses, now?”

  “I like your kisses, all of them. I like how you surprise me, how there’s always another side of you that I haven’t seen before. You literally took my breath away. Do you know how rare that is?” I stare at him and think that he honestly doesn’t know.

  “It’s not something I like to do.” He looks down at his hands, and I swear he’s sitting like a teenager, shoulders slumped forward, his back curved, and lowers his head into his hands. “It’s too--” He sucks in a shaky breath and finishes, “invasive.”

  That’s not the word I thought he was going to say.

  “How so?”

  “It reveals something about you, about me," he says without looking at me. "It’s vulnerability and weakness wrapped in pleasure. Pleasure has a way of stripping everything else away and making decisions we normally wouldn’t make. I swore I’d never kiss someone like that again.”

  I don’t know what to say. It feels like he just told me a big secret--I can feel the weight of it--but I can’t see how he got there. I touch his knee.

  “We can’t change who we are, Sean. Kisses like that are rare. It lasted forever, but not long enough. Sean, I’ve had sweet kisses before. That’s not it. It’s not that I’m a candy fang banger, either.” He smiles and looks over at me. “It’s you. It’s when you let yourself be seen--that’s the difference.”

  His lips part like he wants to say something, but he closes his eyes and looks away. Tipping his head against the wall, he opens those dark eyes and looks at the starry sky.

  “I have trouble with that. I know that’s an understatement, but it’s hard to give someone a piece of your heart willingly only to have it torn away. A person can only do that so many times.”