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The Arrangement 19 3


  “Yeah, but you still have a heart to give.” I bump his knees with mine. “Even after everything you’ve experienced. Sean, you’re not normal, and I think that’s great.” I smile at him.

  He swallows hard and looks over at me. “Another piece of me died today. When I saw my mother’s hand on the teacup, I thought she was dead. Then we found her. Avery, I thought we could pull her out. I thought... I wanted her to be somehow still alive.”

  I press my lips together and drape my arm over his shoulder.

  “So did I.”

  “I know you did.” Sean smiles weakly at me and takes a deep breath. His chest fills and slowly rises before he lets it out. “I keep making the mistake of thinking everything will work out, that I have time to fix my mistakes.”

  “She can still hear you. I’m pretty sure you know that, otherwise I wouldn’t have seen you talking to a headstone. Unless crazy is contagious because I do it all the time.” I smile at him for a brief moment. “It’s never too late.” He looks over at me, surprised.

  “And you really believe this?”

  “Yeah, I do." I nod, secretly shocked by my sudden certainty. "I guess that’s why I didn’t get sucked down an emotional black hole when they died, or with any of the shit that happened after. No matter what, I’m not totally alone. They hear me, even if I can’t hear them anymore. If I did, I think I’d pee myself.” I laugh and squirm thinking about it.

  “Thank you for not questioning me about my mother or our relationship. You took it as a given that she loved me and that I returned the affection in my way.”

  I do believe he loved her, but I’m not as sure about Constance. I study the old boards and wonder about the younger version of the Ice Queen, the version who worried her son would fall from a tree. I wonder how she turned into the cold, conniving woman who sat in the solarium each morning, the woman who wanted me gone.

  I don’t want people to wonder about me. I don’t want to go down that road.

  “Hey,” I say to Sean, bumping his shoulder with mine. When he looks over at me with those blue eyes, I say, “Promise me something.”

  “Anything.”

  “Promise me that we’ll have one more sweet kiss. Not right now, but at some time when things are normal and ninjas aren’t hunting us down.” I look toward the window, glad no one tended to this part of the woods. If they had, there’d be nowhere to hide.

  “They aren’t ninjas or we’d be dead already. Our saving grace is that Vic cheaply surrounded himself with bargain basement thugs instead of trained assassins." He turns and boops my nose. “Miss Smith, I think you might be a candy fang banger after all, but I'll grant your request. Reserved for you is one completely vulnerable kiss with no walls up, no distance, and no hidden heart. Just promise me you’ll use it for good and not evil.”

  I smile so hard my face hurts.

  “You know I’m going to refer to this place from now on as the Batcave, right?”

  “It’s because you want to say,”

  We say it together, and laugh, “To the Batcave!”

  CHAPTER 5

  My eyes flutter open, and I blink the sleep from my eyes. It takes me a moment to remember where I am. There’s a wooden board beneath my head and an arm draped over my waist; I smile as I realize it’s Sean.

  I roll towards him and my stomach rumbles. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days. There are dark circles under his eyes. He's awake and watching me.

  “Good morning, beautiful.”

  I smile at him, taking in his messy hair, scruffy face, and a tiny t-shirt. I look at it again, finally realizing what it is. Across the chest of the rust colored shirt, written in a burnt coffee color are the words CROSS COUNTRY. The rest is too faded to read.

  “Was this yours?”

  “A million years ago,” he says nodding.

  “You were a runner?”

  Sean sits up and stretches, the tiny shirt revealing his hard stomach as he moves. He leans back against the wall and tugs the hem down.

  “Yeah, it was one of the few school activities I enjoyed. Our father shoved us into everything else. God, you should have seen his face when Peter started swing dancing. The saddle shoes made the old man think Pete changed teams.” Sean laughs once remembering something from long ago.

  “I’ve never heard you say much about your dad.” I tread carefully. Sean’s a raw mess of emotions, which means he’s trying to keep everything locked up, but he’ll erupt at some point and go ape-shit crazy. “But I like the tight shirt; it's sexy.”

  He grins and looks down at the shirt before running his hands over the faded text.

  “Dad was difficult.” He pauses, searching for the right words. “He was either there too much or completely gone. He always went to extremes.”

  I smile faintly before my stomach rumbles again, louder this time. Sean looks over at me.

  “I’m sorry, we can’t grab pancakes. I wish things were different.” He crawls across the tree house floor and opens the old chest, pulling out bottled water and a silver wrapper that looks like a candy bar. He tosses them to me.

  “You stocked the tree house?”

  "Not me, Jon," he says, shaking his head. "He was a little paranoid a while back. Those meal bars last a decade. The water is a little questionable, but I drank it, and I’m still here. You’ll be fine.”

  I rip the wrapper open and stuff the meal bar in my mouth. I’m starving. It doesn’t matter that it tastes like a combo of hay, clay, and bark.

  “So, what’s with you and Jon?” He looks over at me.

  “What do you mean?”

  “It seems like there’s some tension there. I mean, not from you--you come across tense with everyone--but from Jon. He’s easy going with everyone except with you. Did you guys have a fight or something?”

  Sean takes a slow pull of air and lets it out, then runs his hands through his hair.

  “Something.”

  Okay. I guess we aren’t talking about that.

  Sean gets up and looks down. The sun isn’t quite up yet and the morning sky is light blue with a spattering of stars just barely visible through the treetops. He looks back at me.

  “Time to meet up with Masterson.”

  “Yeah. Marty.” I don’t know what to think of him anymore. I don’t like that he got so close to me, without my having any idea who he really is. It freaks me out. I glance at Sean wondering how much I still don’t know about him.

  “He’s an asset this way, and his being enamored with you has kept you alive. Come on.” He tosses the ladder over the side.

  I go to throw my leg over the side and look down. My heart jumps up my throat and falls out the window. “Holy shit! We’re up high!”

  “You looked last night,” he points out, laughing.

  “It was pitch black last night. The ground is much further away than I thought. Who the hell puts a kid's tree house thirty feet in the air?”

  “My father. And we’re not that high. You can do it. Just go one step at a time and don't look down.”

  “Fuckbunnies.” I mutter the word under my breath and toss my leg over the sill. My foot finds the first rung, and I slide the rest of my body over the edge and down the ladder. The muttering doesn’t stop until my feet hit the grass. “Thank God!”

  Sean jumps down behind me, skipping the last few rungs. He slips his hands around my waist and pulls me close.

  “I didn’t think you were a religious person.”

  “I’m not, not really. Why?”

  “You were praying the entire way down. I would have thought you’d be cursing up a storm, and you’re reciting Psalms. How do you even know them?” Sean looks surprised. I shrug.

  “My mom used to say stuff. I never really thought about it.”

  “Come on.” He takes my hand and we head toward the shed at the edge of the property. We shove through a door into a dark space that smells like grass seed and chemicals before seeing a lump of canvas covering a car. It’s hidden behind a
ton of lawn equipment.

  Sean rushes toward it and pulls off the cover. I blink at it several times before saying, “Holy shit! It’s the Batmobile!” There’s a pimped out matte black Maserati, with a shiny black racing stripe down the center. It’s got black rims and black glass. The thing looks totally swicked. “Why do you have this? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

  Sean ignores me and grabs a key from under the front wheel well and unlocks the door.

  “Get in.” I jump inside and yank my door closed.

  “So, are you going to tell me?” Sean starts the engine and the thing purrs to life. It looks new. I lean over and look at the odometer. It is new! I slip my fingers over the Italian leather and moan. “Is this the gardener’s car? Because if it is, I picked the wrong major by a long shot. I should have studied horticulture, ‘cuz damn!”

  Sean’s lips tug up in the corner. He presses a button, and a garage door lifts behind us. Sean backs up carefully, then shifts into drive, the car rumbling sensually beneath us.

  “It was Jon’s. Remember how he was acting like an irresponsible asshole?” I nod. “I took his car away and hid it in the shed.” I blink at him as he steers down the gravel path.

  “You hid a million dollar car in the shed?”

  “Yeah, I was trying to teach him a lesson.” Sean is straight-faced when he says it, but there’s a tiny twitch in the corner of his mouth like he wants to smile. I run my hands over the dashboard’s sexy curves before sitting back into my seat.

  “Did it work?”

  “Hell if I know. He went out and bought a cheaper car. The asshat thought he lost this one. He didn’t even tell our mother it was gone.”

  Sean navigates through the back of the property until we intersect with one of the back roads. He floors it, and the car roars to life. It’s the coolest car sound ever.

  “Let me get this straight: Jon thinks he misplaced an entire car?” Sean nods and jerks the wheel as we speed away from the mansion, passing by a line of emergency vehicles as we do so. “So, you can lose a million bucks and not feel it?”

  Sean steals a glance at me from the corner of his eye. He’s driving a sick car, shirtless, and covered in sweat. The slight twitch of his lips makes him nearly irresistible.

  “Maybe.”

  “Maybe means yes.” I grin and settle back into the seat. “So, a million bucks is like a penny to you? If you saw it on the sidewalk, you’d just keep walking? Wow.” I’m silent for a moment, thinking. I twist my palms together and look away from him, out the window.

  “I didn’t say that, you did, and I know that look. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s wrong.” Sean is taking back roads and racing insanely fast towards the beach. I glance over at him.

  “I did a lot more for a lot less. That doesn’t bother you?” I watch him for a moment, wondering what he must think of me. I lower my lashes and stare at my hands in my lap. Sean reaches over and takes my hand.

  “You are worth more than anything I own, anything I have. I’m glad you didn’t let me send you away that first night. I’m glad you left the room and played the piano with me. Avery, I’d give up everything for you. A woman like you comes along once a century, and you’re mine.”

  I look at the gashes on the back of his hand and mentally list everything he lost because of me. If I hadn’t entered his life, his mother would be alive, and his home would be more than ashes, smoke, and rubble. I can’t say what needs to happen, but I already know. I offer a weak smile and squeeze his hand gently.

  “I love you, Sean.”

  “I love you, too. We’ll get through this, Avery.”

  CHAPTER 6

  We drive on in silence, each of us lost in our thoughts until we come to the causeway that leads to Oak Island. It’s a wide-open road surrounded by sand dunes and beach grass. There are scattered deer among the low trees, feeding along the road. Sean floors it, and we fly over the first bridge so fast that my stomach is in my spine.

  I shriek and look for the ‘oh shit’ strap, but there isn’t one. Sean grins and glances over at me.

  “You like that?”

  Before I can say no, he floors it, and we dart away even faster. My knees are coming up, and I’m ready to curl into a ball and scream my head off. But Sean slows down before it gets that bad.

  “What’s with you?” He sounds perplexed. I want to slap him. I can barely breathe.

  “I hate bridges and you were driving 200 miles per hour over one!”

  “You’re afraid of bridges? Is it because of trolls?”

  A hysterical high-pitched laugh escapes my throat, and I look over at him.

  “Trolls?”

  “I thought you’d have a colorful answer. Sorry. Didn’t mean to make you freak out. Well, not that much.” He winks at me, then pulls into a parking lot. He rolls to a stop and grins. “Perfect.”

  Sean drives the car up next to a group of kids. They can’t be more than sixteen and, from the looks of it, they’re really bored. They all watch as we get out of the car. A kid with a beanie on his shaggy hair stands up. He might be a little stoned.

  “Gnarly ride, man. Is that, like, a real Maz?”

  Okay, he’s super stoned. Another guy with a skateboard stands up and hands his friend a log of cured meat. It looks like a Christmas sausage from Hickory Farms. The stoner bites off a piece and chews it like a goat.

  “Yeah, it is.” Sean nods and tosses the keys at the kid.

  It makes the guy drop his meat log and cover his face. He screams as he does it while his friend laughs like it was the funniest thing ever. The keys peg him in the head and fall to the ground.

  “What the hell, dude?” He drops his hands from his face, glaring at Sean.

  “Do you like the car?” Sean is too Sean-ish to deal with them. His tone is beyond exasperated.

  “Fuck yeah.” Both guys reply in unison.

  “I’ll let you take it for a drive if you agree to do me one little favor.” Sean looks at the four kids, scanning their eyes for signs of coherency. The chick sitting on the curb doesn’t look up, but I can tell she’s having a WTF moment. The guys are too pumped to notice how weird this is.

  “Sure, man. Whatever you want.”

  “Good. Take the car some place with no cameras, beat the shit out of it, and leave it there. No cops and you can’t get caught." Sean points at the girl on the curb. "I strongly suggest that girl drives, since she’s the only one of you that's still sober.”

  Everyone in the little group turns and looks at the girl. She has long blue hair tucked beneath a black barrette. She's suddenly staring at her feet so intently her gaze could burn holes straight through them. Sean’s right, she’s not stoned, just pretending to be.

  “Why would you think--” Sean cuts her off.

  “Seriously? Are you going to let one of them drive? You’ll end up falling off the bridge. I'd find that an unpleasant experience.” She looks up and smiles.

  “Hey, don’t I know you?”

  “It’s unlikely.” Sean’s voice is flat.

  The girl’s gaze drifts over Sean’s abs peeking through the bottom of his tiny tee and then over to me. She frowns and looks at the car.

  “Why do you want to wreck it? It’s a sweet ride.” Sean sighs and pulls a lump of cash out of his pocket.

  “No questions. Take this and buy a station wagon or something. It's win-win--your friends will follow you around because you have the wheels, you won’t have to smoke that shit, and they won’t care.” He holds out a wad of hundred dollar bills that could easily be three grand. The girl isn’t stupid though. She looks over at me, and I wonder if this is a good idea.

  “What if they get caught?” He looks at me like I have bricks in my brain.

  “Then Jon says he lent it to them. Since he can’t remember where he put the damn thing, he won’t say it was stolen.” He turns back to the chick. “But it’s better if you don’t get caught.”

  “So why trash it then?” I ask even though
I shouldn’t.

  “So Jon can’t get into more trouble when he finds it.” Sean looks back at the girl. “Do we have a deal?”

  She takes the money and smiles, before bending down to pick up the fallen keys. The guys she’s with pump their fists and holler, “Shotgun!”

  They slip inside, and she starts the engine. As she revs the engine, they roll the windows down, and I can hear them yelling as she speeds away, “To the Batcave!”

  “I don’t want them to get in trouble,” I say, looking over at Sean.

  “As long as they don’t knock over a liquor store, I think they’ll be fine. No one is looking for the car, except Jon, and honestly it’s possible that he’s forgotten. It’s been a while since I took it.” I smile and fall into step with him.

  “I can’t believe you did that.”

  “I can’t believe Jon never goes in the shed.”

  We both smile a little and start walking toward the water. We need to walk down a few dunes to get to the boat. It’s better to do it in a spot where there are other people. Most of the male runners around us shuck their shirts, so Sean blends in a bit more if we’re walking among them. As we pass a trashcan, he pulls off his shirt and tosses it in. I’ve got my bare-chested man back.

  As the sun creeps higher in the sky, the morning light paints the clouds orange and pink. I breathe in deeply, enjoying the sea spray and the wind in my hair as I walk hand in hand with Sean. I wish I could freeze time and keep things like this, locked in this moment when it’s just him and me, neither of us consumed by grief or heartache.

  That thought solidifies something, a nagging sensation that didn’t materialize until now. It’s clear--there’s only one path that leads to Sean’s happiness, and this isn’t it.

  CHAPTER 7

  When we arrive at Marty’s house, it’s empty. Sean and I both stuff our faces with leftovers from the refrigerator and then head for the couch. Sean sits down and pats the seat next to him. I stare at his hand, at the way he touches the seat, and think about his mother’s lifeless arm, her body blown to pieces. It could have been Sean. The only reason he’s still alive right now is because of Marty. Sean wouldn’t have been in the mansion if it weren’t for me. I’m going to get him killed. Sean glances up at me with those beautiful blue eyes.