Settings

The Arrangement 19 4


  “Stop thinking so much.” Smirking, I sit down and tuck my leg under my butt, before leaning into him.

  “Easy to say, not so easy to do.”

  We sit there in silence, and before I know what happens, I’m in the black room again. The smoke forms little black clouds that engulf me whole. I can’t see. I’m stuck, and then I hear his voice. It sounds like he’s far away, but I see his hand--I see that ring flashing in front of my eyes. I reach out and take it.

  Gripping Sean’s arm, I try to pull him to safety, but there is nowhere safe. I’m holding a severed hand, still dripping with blood. A scream rips through me, and I’m awake.

  Sitting up, I gasp and look around. Sean isn’t next to me anymore.

  “Oh, God.”

  I throw my legs on the floor and rub my face. I stay like that for a moment, willing my heart to slow, when I hear the creak of wood floorboards. It could be a floorboard on the back porch. My spine goes straight, and my eyes widen. I get up and rush over to the wall, careful not to make a sound.

  I don’t see Sean, just Marty’s granny furniture. I slide along the wall until I’m in a tiny kitchen. The back door is open, swinging gently in the wind, its window curtain flapping. The sound comes a second time. It’s closer, louder.

  I can’t see anyone. It has to be Sean, but the way my body reacts makes me think it isn’t. As I inch closer to the window that overlooks the porch, I hold my breath. As I inch up to peer out the window, a voice booms behind me.

  “What the hell are you doing?” Marty laughs and steps toward me. I scream like someone stuck a fork in my eye and fall on my ass.

  “Marty? When did you get here?”

  “Uh, last night. You slept for nearly twenty-four hours straight, princess.”

  Confused, I look out the window. It’s sunrise. Did I seriously sleep that long?

  “Really?”

  “Yeah, but don’t worry about it. You were run ragged. You could probably sleep for a week.”

  As Marty talks, I look him over. He’s more tan than usual, and he's wearing tight black jeans and a fitted pocket t-shirt. His sandy hair is getting longer, so he’s slicked it back. He would look kinda nice if he weren't a freaking hit-man.

  “Don’t give me that look.” He scolds, wagging a finger at me before sitting on a counter top.

  “Like what? Like you lie too much or like I slept next to you, poured my heart out, and have no idea who you really are? 'Cuz they both suck.” Marty rolls his eyes. He slides off the counter.

  “Go chew some Midol, princess. We can’t all be as forthright as you are. Oh wait, that’s right--you lie like a dog, too. Not to mention that you're rather smelly. If you don’t mind, shower, then we can fight.”

  “I hate you.” I say the words without feeling, not meaning them. It’s more like I hate the fact that I still like him, that I still care about him.

  He walks into a hallway, plucks a towel from a closet and hurls it at my head.

  “Yeah, yeah. Tell me something I don’t know. I put fresh clothes in the bathroom for you.”

  Tucking the towel under my arm, I shove past him. Marty stops me with his arm and looks down at me. His hair falls forward, softening his features.

  “I’m glad you’re safe.”

  I look up at him and want to cry. I want to tell him the same thing, but I can’t. My throat gets clogged with insults and nasty things to throw in his face for lying to me all this time.

  “Avery, it’s okay that you’re mad. I don’t expect you to forgive me.”

  He puts his hand on my shoulder, and I lose it. Sobs bubble up from deep inside me, and I fall apart. Tears roll down my cheeks as I stand there blubbering.

  “I can’t do this! It was bad enough finding out that asshole Victor Campone is my father, but I have a brother too! And he doesn’t want to meet me and see how his little sis has been all these years, no! He wants to put a bullet in my head! And when they can’t get at me, they strike at those around me. I shouldn’t be here, Marty. You’ll end up with your throat cut, and--” The snotty crying has gotten so bad that my speech is no longer intelligible.

  Marty steps in and wraps his arms around me. He holds me like that until I glance up and see Sean in the living room. I jump back like we were doing something wrong. I wipe the tears from my face and rush past him. When I get to the bathroom, I turn on the shower and cry, not even feeling the water cascade down my body.

  They’re risking everything for me, and there’s no way to ditch either of them. I could run, sneak away in the middle of the night, but Sean will come looking and Marty will help him. I need to do something drastic, something that will make Sean walk away from me.

  As I stand there, finally done crying, the hot water easing my sore body, an idea forms. It’s horribly cruel and completely final, but it will get Sean to walk away and not look back.

  For a moment, I can understand what it must be like for Sean living with the death of his wife because I feel the same aching guilt about him getting sucked into all of this. The sensation only hardens my resolve. I have to do it, and I know he won’t forgive me for it.

  Not ever.

  CHAPTER 8

  After being cooped up for three days in Marty's beach house, they finally agree it's safe to venture outside, but only after dark. The sun is setting, and Sean and I stroll down the private beach alone.

  I tangle our fingers together and try not to focus on the rapid beating of my heart. I lean against him, enjoying the warm feel of his body against mine and wish it could stay this way forever. I want a life where there is nothing to run from, no one to fear. There's only one way to get it. I have to find my brother. I have to dismantle the remains of Victor's mafia, so there is nothing for Sean to take over.

  Scenarios turn over in my mind, each ending with me in a body bag. I should have gone to college for something else. My degree does me no good here. Also, I should have taken a freaking gym class. As it is, my thighs are burning trying to walk in the sand. I didn’t think I was out of shape. Maybe I’m just tired. Sean squeezes my hand and glances over at me.

  “Penny for your thoughts, Miss Smith?” The corners of my lips tug into a small smile.

  “You’re richer than God and you offer me a penny? Are you cheap, Mr. Jones?”

  “Only when it comes to you.” He says it deadpan and then smirks.

  I stop walking, my jaw dragging on the sand. “You did not just say that!”

  “What are you going to do about it?” Sean turns toward me and pulls me to him. He places a hand on my cheek and sweeps his fingers across my skin, leaving a tingly sensation every place he touches.

  Reaching up, I put my arms around his neck and pull him toward me, so we’re eye to eye.

  “Mr. Jones, do you seriously want to be beat up by a girl, right here on the beach? Don’t tempt me.” There’s a smile in my voice even though I’m dying inside.

  “Then stop being so damned sexy.” He presses the tip of his finger to my nose. “Boop.”

  I laugh. I can’t help it. “Really? ‘Boop’?” He nods.

  “It’s a trick I learned from this hot chick. She’s going to be a shrink, so she knows all this Freudian stuff about reading people and getting into their heads. The thing is, she’s so far into mine, that I’ll never be the same. She has no idea how amazing she is, and how much she’s worth. She also thinks she can take on the world alone, but she doesn’t have to.” His voice is so soft that I can barely hear him over the sound of the waves. We stand there like that, watching each other. “Don’t do whatever you’re considering doing.”

  I don’t want to deceive him. I don’t want things to be like this, but I’m the one pulling him down. I nod and slip my hands down his firm sides, feeling the pads of my fingers slip over each firm muscle until I rest my hands at his waist.

  The thought is in my eyes, and I know he sees it. Sean can see right through me, that’s why it kills me to say this, but I have to do it. A knife to the heart will
add blood to the water. It will taint everything, every emotion, every thought.

  Pressing my lips together, I look down at the sand and spit it out. “Sean, I don’t want to talk about it now. Talking about this will only make what's already hard, harder.” He swallows hard and watches my face.

  “That’s why you need to tell me. Let me help you.” My lips part. I have the words, but swallow them back.

  “I’ll figure it out. It’s not a good time.”

  “Avery, there’s never a good time. Just tell me.” He takes my hands, and we stop walking. I’m looking at the sand, trying to find the guts I need to say the words. They’re going to rip him in half.

  “I think you’re right, about Trystan.”

  He looks surprised, which is good. It means he won’t see it coming. It means I was right about this wound still being open. Sean thinks I belong with Trystan.

  “I’m surprised to hear you admit it.”

  I kick the sand and take a step back. I look up at him, careful to meet and hold his gaze. It can’t look like I’m lying.

  “I knew; I always knew how I felt about him. The thing is, I wanted you more. But Sean, I can’t live like this. Terror follows you around. I was yanking your mother’s severed arm a few days ago.” Tears start to roll down my cheeks.

  “Avery, I know, it’s hard.” He looks scared now.

  “Sean, as much as I love you, this isn’t going to work.” The words slice through me, tearing out my heart as I say them. My tone is level and cool. I sound detached and sincere at the same time.

  Sean looks as if I struck him. He blinks once, shocked, and nods. I know he won’t refute a plan he created, not when it compromises my safety. I know why Sean wants us together--he thinks I’m in love with Trystan. The insecurity is the size of a grain of sand, but my words make it a mountain. The last part is the worst. For a moment I think I won’t be able to do it, but before I can’t back down, I say it.

  “The thing is, it’s not just about me anymore and soon I won’t be able to hide it. Do you remember the night Trystan and I disappeared together? Something happened. You were right Sean--there is something between me and Trystan.”

  Sean is silent. His face is blank, expressionless as I shove the lance through his heart. My stomach twists in knots and I want to cry, but I don’t. I can’t. He has to believe my story, all of it. Sean’s hands drop from my waist. He looks at the surf and asks, “You slept with him?”

  “I did.” Sean won’t detect the lie because I don’t know if I’m not telling the truth, for any of it. “There’s something else.”

  Sean turns back to face me, his eyes glassy from tears that refuse to fall. He thinks he was right, that Trystan stole me from him. The lump in my throat is getting too big to speak. I have to tell him the rest. I have to put the final nail in his heart, so he will let me walk away.

  “I don’t know how to say it, so I’m just going to tell you. We didn’t mean for it to happen.” I start twisting my hands as I speak and look at the waves crashing on the sand. “It just did. We were both upset and found comfort in each other. That’s the thing, Sean--when things with you are bad, Trystan is always there. He’s sweet, and he cares about me. That’s the only reason I’m not flipping out right now.” The wind whips my hair into my face, and it catches in the streams of tears still pouring from my eyes.

  “Sean, I’m pregnant. I’m sorry. I’m sorry it’s not yours. I can’t--”

  “Who?”

  My jaw drops and I suddenly can’t do it. This will kill him. What’s left of his soul will shrivel up and die. I reach for him, but Sean pulls away. “Sean, I didn’t think we even--”

  “A name. You owe me a name.” He stands there in the sand with the wind catching his hair and blowing it back into those deep blue eyes. They were once as still as the ocean, and their depths held secrets laced with too much pain for one person to bear. It's too late to undo this, and it's still the best way to keep him safe. Sean would die for me, I know he would--that’s why I have to finish. Swallowing hard, I whisper the name.

  “Trystan.”

  The man in front of me turns to stone. Those dark eyes don’t blink. They remain fixed on a spot on the shore, as he stands there perfectly still. It’s like I sucker-punched him with a mace at the worst time, in the worst way. No matter what Sean wants, there’s no future for us. No white picket fences, no little house. Nothing. All these things are racing through his mind. Each thought severs the connection we've found and decimates any hope things will end well for us.

  That was the problem--there is no happy ending for us--not with the way things have unraveled. All this time I was the target, not Sean. All this time they were hunting me, and perhaps it wasn’t vicious initially, but it is now. There’s no way out for me, but if I can get Sean to walk away, he’ll live. He’ll heal. He can’t move forward with me.

  My future will end with a toe tag and a body bag.

  My stomach churns like I ate glass. I want to puke all over the sand and fall on my face, crying. Everything I did was in vain. Everyone who tried to protect me died. The people around me were deprived of a long life because fate had me cross their paths.

  My parents… I can’t even think about it. My mother spent her entire life hiding me, my father protected both of us, and in a snap--gone. They died because of me.

  My biological father is a murderer who wanted me dead. Since Bryan shot him, I’ll never know why. What did I do that warranted a bullet in the head? Was it a vendetta against my mother or me? Marty said I was supposed to die that night, too.

  My brother will finish what our father started. If he was willing to go after the Ferro family--if Vic took out Constance--I’m toast. There’s no chance I’ll walk away from this. I can’t condemn Sean to die. I can’t pull him down with me.

  I feel cruel. I know how this will rip Sean apart. I know what my words are doing to Sean as we stand there in silence. There’s no coming back from this point. I walked our relationship to the edge of a cliff and shoved it off.

  He wants to walk away. He has to.

  Sean stands there, silent for way too long. His face is slack as he stares at the ocean. Memories of us come flooding back. The way he sat with me on the sand, the day he held me and loved me, the fights that always seemed to reconcile--all those memories tainted now. I poisoned the well.

  Finally, I walk over and stand next to him. I need to finish. I need to make sure he doesn’t pull a Lazarus and come back for me again.

  My mouth feels dry and my heart races as I form sentences in my mind, lacing together things I don’t want to say.

  “Sean, I didn’t know how to tell you. I’m sorry.”

  When he finally speaks, his voice is flat. There’s no fight left in him. Sean stares past me, and the only indication that he’s upset is the way his jaw tenses.

  “We talked about our pasts and lovers--Avery, you lied to me. How could you tell me…” his voice cracks before he can finish. He clears his throat and runs his hands through his hair, pushing it back from his face. When Sean looks up, the sheen in his eyes is gone. The tears that would have fallen will never be shed. He’s hardened himself.

  I can see him shut me out in those seconds, and it’s like having a guillotine drop on my heart.

  My tears are real, so real that they burn my skin. They might as well be acid for how much they hurt. I swallow hard and turn to face the wind. It bites at my face and whips my hair. The tightness in my chest is paralyzing, but there was no other way.

  Sean will never forgive me for this.

  I’ve destroyed any chance of a future we could have had, but I know Sean will be safe. That’s worth it. He’ll walk away from all of this. He’ll live. Sean will go back to his life in California and make another billion bucks. He’ll look back at this time with me as a plague that tormented him. He’ll never be the same, but at least he’ll live, which is more than I can say about me.

  There’s still no way for me to get out of
this mess without a body bag.

  CHAPTER 9

  Sean doesn’t speak to me after that. We walk on in silence, and I’m the only one who has wet cheeks. The tears keep falling even though I wish they wouldn’t. A fake pregnancy and pretend engagement lie ahead of me. I’ll jump through the hoops and hope that I can figure something out so I can find my brother before Trystan gets hurt. I can’t let anything happen to him either. He’s been through enough.

  “You’re thinking about him.” Sean’s voice pulls me from my thoughts and the guilty look on my face is the only answer he needs. “You should have told me. I thought he was attracted to you--I know he is--I just didn’t realize it went both ways.”

  Lie. Avery, you can't tell him it was an accident. You can’t tell him you aren’t sure what happened that night, the little voice in my head wails. This is torture. I walk faster, pressing my feet against the sand harder and lengthening my stride.

  “It does. When you noticed, I felt bad, so I denied it--but we’d already slept together by then.” My jaw tightens as I spit out the words.

  “So I was right, and Trystan meant it when he said he’d steal you from me. I’m sorry.”

  “What?” I nearly trip over my feet. Sean catches me by the elbow and turns me toward him. “Why would you say that? You have nothing to be sorry about. I was the one who--” Sean places a finger over my lips as he stares into my eyes.

  “I did this. I broke you, neglected you, and pushed you to your limits. When you needed me the most, I threw you together with Trystan. He loves you, Avery. I know you’ll be happy together. He can give you everything I can’t.” Sean’s hands linger on my face. He trails his finger along my cheek and pushes a strand of hair behind my ear. I pull away from him, horrified.