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The Arrangement 19 5


  “I cheated on you. You didn’t make me do it, and I sure as hell didn’t slip and fall on his dick! Sean, take this for what it is--the end.”

  A couple of old people turn toward me while I yell. The old woman has on a sunhat and her lips twitch when I swear. Her eyes are gray, and her skin is wrinkled with age. She leans into her man-friend and whispers something. A moment later, she walks up to Sean, leans in and whispers something. I can’t hear a word. Sean looks at her as if she said something absurd. The old woman waggles her pointer finger at him as she walks away.

  “Don’t forget what I said,” she calls with a wink as she turns back to the older man and takes his hand.

  That could have been us--old and happy. It’s a future we’ll never have. I shake the thought from my mind as curiosity takes hold.

  “What’d she say?”

  “Gibberish, nothing more,” Sean says, shaking his head.

  I go to grab his arm and stop myself. Sean looks at his arm, at the place I want to touch him. His dark eyes lift and meet mine.

  “Sean, won't you tell me?” It feels petty. I just ripped apart his soul, and I’m asking to know what a stranger said in passing. The truth is, he doesn’t have to tell me anything anymore. That’s what I want, right? To push him away? To keep him safe?

  I stop pressing him and lower my gaze. Things have to change. The arrangement is no longer the same. There will never be a ring or a wedding, not with Sean Ferro. The shared secrets will fade like a snowflake on the pad of my finger. I’ll remember how he felt, and the shape of his face, but soon those memories will fade, too.

  I have no right to ask anything anymore. The thought leaves a path of loneliness in its wake. I wrap my arms around my middle and take a deep breath. Glancing up at him, I force a smile.

  “Sorry.” It’s such a small word, but it means so much.

  I’m sorry things ended this way.

  I’m sorry I brought so much pain into your life.

  I’m sorry death is following me and casting its shadow over you.

  I’m sorry things can’t be the way we want.

  I’m sorry I can’t find another way to leave you behind.

  I’m sorry I hurt you.

  I’m so, so sorry.

  He watches me for a moment, his blue eyes slowly searching my face before meeting my gaze. The look lingers, and every regret I have about us plays across his face. It’s like he knows how I feel and how much I wish this didn’t have to happen.

  He thinks the baby is real. It’s not.

  In that moment, the world fades away. The only thing I can think about is the life I've thrown away. Not the picket fence or the little house, but the real life we could have had together, the real baby that looks like Sean. I mourn the real life of passionate kisses from a man who adores me and midnight conversations that last until dawn.

  For the longest time, I only saw the outside of things--the house, the yard, the flowers--not the family within the house. I never realized how much I wanted to hold his child in my arms. Now I never will. I feel like I'm going to be sick, and try to hide it. Sean notices.

  “You’ve been doing all this pregnant. I didn’t even notice. I’m sorry for everything, Avery.”

  He takes a deep breath and looks down the beach at the elderly couple. When he glances back at me, the softness in his gaze fades as his walls go back up.

  “She said you’re going to have a baby girl. Old people can spot a pregnant woman a mile away. She thought I was the father. I didn’t correct her. Come on, let’s find Trystan.”

  CHAPTER 10

  Even though it’s night, and there is very little light, I still feel like I’m going to get my head blown off. Their goal is for me to leave and get away with my rock star boyfriend, while the two of them figure out how to get out of this clusterfuck of a mess.

  As we approach the shore, there’s a little white boat sitting on the sand, two oars stretched across the seat.

  “Get in.” I climb into the little watercraft and go to sit on the seat while Sean grabs the oars. He shakes his head and points to the spot in front of the bench. “You can’t sit up. This plan only works if no one sees you.”

  Mucky water, sand, and something slimy covers the bottom of the boat. I make a face and nearly protest, but when I look up at Sean, I just do it. I press my body down into the bottom of the boat, resting on something cold and slimy, unable to smell anything but rotting wood.

  Sean takes us through the reeds around back, moving the boat insanely slow as to not make a sound. He’s constantly looking around, scanning everywhere without moving his head. I can’t imagine what’s going on inside his beautiful mind. He must feel so betrayed, but I had to do it. Sean isn’t indestructible. His mother was indestructible, and still she’s dead.

  When we pull up to the dock on the opposite shore, I sit up and wipe the slime off my face. Sean grabs a rope and ties it to the boat, then turns to help me onto the dock. We’re at a launch a few houses down, directly across from the main road out of here.

  “Why’d we come over here?” I don’t understand what they’re doing. No matter what, I’ll be seen going down this road.

  “Masterson is meeting us here with a speed boat. He’ll drive you to a different port and Trystan will pick you up there. I couldn’t risk you being seen leaving from here.”

  Before I can respond, the hairs on the back of my neck rise. A moment later, the hairs on my arms follow suit, and goose bumps cover my body.

  “It feels like someone is watching,” I whisper to Sean.

  “I know.”

  “Who is it?” I stumble out of the boat like a drunk ballerina, swirling around to catch my balance. Sean takes my hand and steadies me.

  “I don’t know, but they had plenty of opportunities to take us out and they haven’t.”

  “So it’s a friend?”

  His brows crinkle together as if I should already know the answer to that question. He releases my hand and looks over my shoulder before returning his gaze to mine.

  “Do you know anyone who would risk their life for you that isn’t already here?”

  I swallow the sob that wants to come up and shake my head. He hates me. Oh, God!

  Sean tips his head to the side, indicating that I should follow him. I try to walk next to him, but Sean doesn’t wait for me. His stride is too long, so he’s about half a step ahead.

  “Trystan isn’t that stupid. His distance keeps you alive, so it’s not him. Everyone else associated with you seems to have fled. I’m assuming you noticed that, right? Black is silent, Gabe is gone, and Mel ran.”

  “Mel didn’t run. Someone framed her. The cops are still looking for--“

  He rounds on me, cutting me off.

  “No one is looking for her, Avery! Mel isn’t your fucking friend and at the rate you’re going, you’re going to be lucky if you weren’t her mark, too,” he yells in a hushed whisper.

  “Mark for what? For a fabulous life of hookerdom? What the hell are you talking about?”

  He closes his eyes and presses his fingers to his temple. When he looks at me again, he’s beyond livid.

  “Victor. All this goes back to him. It started with him, and it should have ended with him when Bryan put a bullet in his head, but his shit-for-brains kid showed up. Think about it Avery, why would Victor name you in the will? Why would he insist on dividing his assets between his two kids?”

  I look away. I’ve stopped walking. Wrapping my arms tightly around my middle I stare into space, blinking back tears that can’t form.

  “I’d rather not think about that man. I have trouble believing he’s my biological father, but…” my voice trails off. The way my mother acted all those years, always worried, always looking over her shoulder, it makes more sense now. I suck in air and look at Sean, who has stopped a few steps in front of me. “I know Victor wanted me dead.”

  “Right, so why put you in his will? It’s either to piss off Vic junior or--”
/>  “Or what?”

  Sean looks down at me and lowers his lashes. His jaw tightens, and he looks away.

  “Or what?” I march over to him, wanting a fight. “Tell me.” When he doesn’t answer, I shove him and yell, “TELL ME!”

  Sean grabs me around my waist and pulls my back to his front in one swift move, before knocking my legs out from under me. We fall to the sand, me face first, with Sean’s hand over my mouth to muffle my cries. His body is pressed against me, pinning me to the sand. He twists my head to the side so I can breathe and whispers in my ear.

  “It was a final safety precaution. If you lived and Victor died, you would forever be branded as the bastard daughter even Victor Campone didn’t want. He branded you. It was a giant, personal fuck you from the afterlife.”

  The words rip through me, tearing me in two. I fight to get Sean off of me, kicking and twisting until I manage to face him.

  “That was the nastiest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

  “It’s true. The man hated your mother and clearly didn’t want you. He spent his life trying to erase you.” Sean’s voice is hard and even. His gaze is closed off, devoid of emotion. I can feel his lungs expand as he breathes in, making his body press against mine. The way he looks at me, the way he’s drowning in betrayal and mistrust, makes me die inside. I want to wrap my arms around him and tell him the truth, but I can’t.

  I hate feeling him this close. I hate that his words are true. Now that Sean’s said it, there’s no erasing the thought.

  Sprawling my fingers, I grab a fistful of sand and throw it at his face. The wind catches it and blows most of it the wrong way. As soon as my fist opens, Sean grabs my wrist and pins it down. He uses the rest of his body to hold me in place so I can’t move.

  “The truth is, we’re both fucked up people no one wanted. Learn to live with it.” Sean releases me and pushes up. He’s on his feet and walking toward the house again without a backward glance.

  I deserved that, I know I did, but he hurt me with the one wound that would bleed forever.

  I guess that makes us even.

  CHAPTER 11

  I follow Sean down the shoreline, walking in the loose sand up by the dunes, for a mile or more. My muscles are burning. Every step I take feels like someone is jamming knives in my thighs. Sean is ahead of me, walking fast, not bothering to turn around. His t-shirt was white, but it’s now clinging to his sweat-covered body. His jeans ride low around his trim waist, and it’s hard not to notice how beautiful he is.

  I swallow hard and force my gaze to the sand. I can’t think of him like that anymore. I need to figure out how to find my deranged brother and end this. I’ve got to get both of them to walk away from me first. I think Sean is ready to do that. A few more nasty words and he’s gone.

  An idea forms and I decide to follow it through. Chasing after Sean, I rush up beside him. “Ferro, wait up!”

  Sean doesn’t look at me or slow his stride. His legs are pure muscle. The man is a god, showing no sign of strain other than his glistening body.

  “Hey!” I grab his arm and tug. “I’m talking to you! Stop!” Sean jerks his arm away.

  “We don’t have time to chat, Avery. Vic is looking for us, Marty is risking his life, and someone is following us. Whatever you want to say doesn't matter. Keep walking.” Sean’s brow pinches together when he turns away and starts to take a step. I round in front of him and hold up two hands. He plows right into me.

  “Holy shit, Sean!” I nearly fall over. Sean doesn’t try to steady me. Instead, he tries to keep walking. I yell out as he passes, “I wanted to tell you something, but if you’re going to be such an asshole, you don’t deserve it.”

  He stops. His body tenses, shoulder blades nearly touching, and he rounds on me, getting up in my face.

  “I don’t deserve it? I’m the one who was unfaithful and got knocked up? Oh, wait, that was you!” His eyes narrow into thin slits, and the way he looks at me makes me worry. The old Sean is still there, waiting to consume him. I don’t know how far I can push without destroying him. The wind whips my hair into my face. I shove it back and launch into it.

  “You put me with him! I wanted you, but where were you, Sean? Gone! You weren’t there when I needed someone the most! You’re never there!”

  Tears fall from my eyes. I’m using his insecurities against him, driving the wedge between us so hard we’ll crack apart and never recover. There won’t be anything left after this. He’ll walk away from me.

  “I was taking care of people I love. Some of them have gotten into deep shit, and you know what? No one else helped, but I could, so I did. I’m sorry I couldn’t hold your hand and coddle you. I’m sorry I made you hang out with a rock star and dress like a slut on stage and dance with him. If I’d never done that, I wouldn’t have lost you.”

  As he speaks, the bluster in his tone dies down, and his gaze softens. No! He can’t forgive me. What the hell is he doing? He was supposed to fight back, but he’s backing down. I shove his chest hard, and he steps back. I do it again, slapping hard.

  “That’s not good enough! You were never around! You put everyone else before me, even your mother! She didn’t even love you! You ran into a fucking war zone for someone who hates you!”

  Sean remains utterly still. His chest doesn’t rise or fall. His eyes don’t blink. His lips are the only thing that move, and as I speak, they part and his jaw drops lower and lower. Every shot is below the belt, precisely aimed to eliminate any fondness he still felt toward me. I prey on his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The Sean I love, the open version of him that was so hard to draw out, will never appear again.

  I lock my jaw in place and tense the muscles to prevent their quivering. I’m ready to cry, but I can’t. He’ll know what I’m doing if I suddenly break down weeping.

  Finish this.

  Mashing my lips together, I cast the final stone, the one that will shatter everything.

  “I never loved you. How could I? You’re a monster, Sean Ferro. You were my mark from day one. Miss Black wanted you on her client list, and I told her I’d get you to sign." As I speak, the muscles in Sean’s arms cord tightly until the vein in his neck jumps up. It’s pulsing hard, anger flooding his body. His hands flex into fists. I keep talking, spewing lies until he cracks. "It was never about you. I wanted your money, and she wanted her thumb on a Ferro. You were a business acquisition, and nothing more.”

  He rushes at me, his hands on my shoulders gripping me hard. His blue eyes are somewhere between livid and wounded. His voice is barely audible.

  “You don’t mean that. None of that is true.”

  “You’re so naïve. You only see what you want to see; you’ve been played. Your first instinct was correct, Black set you up and you fell for it.”

  He works his jaw for a moment and then asks, “How could you do this to me?” His eyes meet mine, holding my gaze, waiting for the answer that will destroy him. My words will send him straight back to the hell he resided in for so long. My lips part and I know what I need to say, but the words won’t come. I start to tremble and then manage to twist away from him, pulling out of his grip. I step back once, and then again. I’m standing between the grass plants on the dunes. Looking at the sand, I spit it out. I have to. He has to walk away, or he’ll die. My lips quiver slightly, but my voice is firm and flat.

  “You murdered your wife and unborn child. Do you really think I’d have any empathy for a wife killer? Who needs family planning when you’re around?”

  I look up as I say the last part. I have to make sure he believes me. I watch those blue eyes fill with anguish as I speak. For a moment, he says nothing. Then Sean falls forward, face-first into the sand. My eyes widen when I see a man standing behind him with a gun in hand. I glance back down at Sean to see red blossoming from a single point on the back of his shirt.

  The man is thin with dark hair peeking from a once-shaved scalp. A tattoo wraps around the back of his skull. I can’t t
ell what it is from here. Every muscle is showing through his tanned skin, corded tight, like rope. He tips his head to the side, and four other guys--huge scary looking men--immediately flank him.

  “Take out the trash.”

  He stares at Sean as his men grab him by his arms and drag him to the water. Sean is still alive, swearing, trying to pull away, but he can’t. One man holds him while the other thrusts his face into the water and holds him there. Sean’s arms and legs flail as they try to drown him.

  I rush forward, ready to beg for Sean’s life, but the man applauds slowly, one clap at a time.

  “That was fucking beautiful. You played this asshole for months, strung him along, and led him straight to me. No wonder why Pop didn’t want you around. You’re one heartless bitch.” He follows my gaze to the water where I’m watching Sean struggle less and less. Vic snaps his fingers, and his thugs pull Sean’s face out of the water.

  Sean comes up gasping and choking. His entire shirt is bright red and clinging to his back. Sand sticks to the side of his face as water rolls down his cheeks. He looks up and sees me standing next to my brother. The way his eyes flash with understanding scares the hell out of me.

  Sean’s voice is rough. He spits onto the sand and tries to pull away from the men holding him, but he’s too weak. He glares at me.

  “You fucking whore. It was you.” He chokes again and lifts his sagging body, before trying to rush at me. Vic’s men hold him back. “It was you! This whole time, everything that happened, everyone who died! It’s your fucking fault! You were working together from the beginning!”

  It feels like he stabbed me in the stomach with an icicle. Fear races through my veins as he pieces everything together, forming a pattern that lines up with my other lies. He thinks we planned this together--that Vic and I were coming at his family from different sides. Without the Ferro clan in the way, my family keeps a firm control on New York--on every wealthy family, every corrupt businessman, and every two-faced politician.