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The arrangement 23, p.10

The Arrangement 23, page 10

 part  #23 of  The Arrangement Series

 

The Arrangement 23
 


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  “Where’s Black?” I ask, wondering if she’s dead or alive.

  Sean’s jaw tightens in anger. “I don’t know. She’s not dead, but she soon will be.”

  I shake my head and hold onto his arm. “Don’t. She’s the reason I’m still alive. Sean, she was trying to protect you.”

  “She did a shitty job and nearly killed you. If it weren't for her, you wouldn’t have been sucked into this.”

  I shake my head, filling him in on everything that transpired between Black and me this evening. Then, I finally add, “If it weren't for her, I would have died before you met me. If she ran, let her run.”

  “If that’s what you want.” He watches me carefully.

  I don’t need a moment to decipher Black’s true colors. “I do, let her go.”

  Sean wraps his arms around me again and holds onto me gently, careful not to hurt me. He breathes in my ear, “Anything you want. God, Avery, I didn’t think I’d reach you in time. I thought I’d lost you. I was convinced you’d light up this place.”

  “I was going to,” I explain and then glance at Mom. “I got sucker-punched when Vic showed me what he’d been hiding.” I bite my lips hard and suck in a long pull of air that races out in a jagged rush. “This is my Mom.” I extend a hand, introducing them and then start sobbing.

  Sean wraps his arms around me, holding me like he’ll never let go, and then his tears start as well. They fall freely, welcome, and weary. People talk around us, and there’s a murmur of voices, but I can’t focus on anything but Sean. So much has happened that I feel completely insane. I was mentally prepared to end everything, lose my baby, my life—and then Mom was there, and Sean wasn’t gone. I feel caught between hysterical laughter and retching from the tumble of nerves uncoiling within me.

  I don’t know how much time passes like that before I manage to whisper in his ear, “I need to tell you something.”

  I’ve put off telling him about the baby. I didn’t know how he’d react and honestly, it scares me. What if he’s not ready? So much has changed since we spoke about picket fences and children. What if he’s changed his mind? The pain in his voice when he talked about finding Amanda and losing his child still clings to the inside of my mind. What if he doesn’t want to go through it? Pregnancy is uncertain, and there’s no guarantee of anything. I’ve been beaten thoroughly tonight—what if the baby isn’t all right?

  Sean kisses the top of my head. “We need to take care of something first. Is that all right?”

  I meet those beautiful blue eyes, and smile carefully before I nod. I’d rather tell him when we are alone. Clearing the tightness from my chest, I lean into him and ask, “What is it?”

  Head bowed, he grins at the floor. “You’ll see.”

  CHAPTER 16

  This feels surreal. All of it. I’m experiencing sensations again. It’s as if someone jump started my heart again and restored my ability to feel. Excitement mingles with exhaustion, and the only thing I want right then is to curl into Sean’s arms and press my body against his chest in a big warm bed. That has to wait, though.

  Men I’ve not seen before rush past, dressed in black fatigues with thick vests covered in pockets housing weapons and bullets, communicating through earpieces. Gabe follows close behind and beams a huge smile at me. He stops in his tracks, takes my face in his hands and frowns briefly before laughing and throwing his arms around me. “I didn’t think I’d see you again.”

  Crushed by the bear hug, I wince and pat his back. The thick man steps away, suddenly regaining his composure. He inclines his head at Sean who is trying not to laugh. Gabe has been fairly stoic the entire time I’ve known him. On rare exceptions, he shows emotion, but it’s usually anger—not this—not joy.

  “Things changed,” I smirk at him.

  “I heard. Your mother is alive.”

  I avoid his eyes, afraid that I’ll start crying again and slide my palm over my arm, smoothing the goosebumps. “Yeah, I didn’t see that coming.”

  “I’m sorry, but neither did we. The morgue records indicated both bodies were identified and claimed. I never suspected that your mother was alive and hidden somewhere.” He glances at Mom and inclines his head in a bow of respect before saying to me, “Some people couldn't recover from something like this. Let me be explicitly clear. You are not one of them. You’re strong, a fighter, and you’ll heal. You both will. I’m glad you stuck around, Avery.”

  “Me too.” My voice is so taut that it’s barely audible. I force a smile. “So, I guess this place will be crawling with cops shortly. Shouldn’t we leave?”

  Gabe glances at Sean, and it becomes clear that they aren’t telling me something. “Something like that. I need to take care of a few things. I want to hear everything, if you want to say it. But first, if you’ll excuse me.” Gabe rushes down the hallway.

  We start walking again, and I say to Sean, “So that was weird.”

  “What do you mean?” Sean avoids my gaze and focuses on the carpeted floor leading down the corridor.

  “Something like that?” I mimic Gabe’s thick old dude voice and grin. “Fine, I don’t want to know. I’m just not looking forward to giving a statement about any of this.”

  Sean squeezes my hand. “Don’t worry, Avery. One thing at a time.”

  I’m walking through Vic’s hallway with no fear. He’s gone, dead. It wasn’t until I stopped crying and noticed his body that I saw what I did to him. That piece of wood was sharp enough to puncture his skin but too short to hit any organs. Mel told me how to fight with a knife, and I must have held the shard the same way. When I swung, Vic must have moved because the stake caught the edge of his neck, puncturing it. My sick bastard of a brother drowned in his blood.

  As Mel tends to Mom, I walk hand in hand with Sean into a room with a couch and a small fireplace. It’s lit, crackling happily as if this was any other regular night.

  Constance is sitting in a wing chair, appearing weathered and worn out. Her body is thinner than it should be. Her sallow skin is paper thin and shows scars that weren’t there the first time we met. She doesn’t watch me. Instead, her attention is on a furry white mountain at her side—the bear. The animal lifts its head and considers me for a moment, sliding those freaky pink eyes over my battered body.

  Constance commands, “Rest.” The creature lowers his head and doesn’t move.

  Gaping, I point at the carnivore sitting by Sean’s mother. “Vic’s bear ate someone. Why is it here?”

  Constance snorts. “Because he’s mine.” She sighs deeply, too tired to explain, but there’s no way I’m letting that go.

  “You owned him first? Why?” My mouth is hanging open, and I regard Constance like she’s insane.

  Constance sighs and waves her fingertips in a small circle as if this is normal. “Security reasons, and unlike his second owner, I didn’t announce that I owned this beast. So when I learned Vic was shopping for an intimidating pet, I had my people sell him to Vic. Bears are loyal to their first owner.”

  Shock renders me silent. Constance explains that she had the bear first, trained it, sold it to Vic without him knowing and then used it to attack his men to get into the mansion. Damn, she’s devious. This woman is always ten steps ahead of everyone else and planning for things years in advance. Who buys a bear?

  Sean crouches beside me. “I need to find a doctor for you, your mother, and mine. I’ll be right back.” He turns his attention to his mother, glaring at her cold eyes. The two of them stare like they might start fighting, but then Sean says, “Thank you.” The words are sincere, painful, and utterly heartfelt.

  Constance nods slowly to her son, confessing, “It was always for you.”

  Confusion dances across Sean’s face. He remains still, waiting for more of an explanation. His mother sighs deeply and presses her fingers to her forehead and avoids Sean’s penetrating gaze. “I had an agreement with Vic’s father—let’s call it a trade agreement.”

  Sean’s jaw locks
as his fingers dig into the arm of my chair. I press my palm on top of his, and he stills. “You were trafficking drugs?”

  “Only things that the affluent wanted and couldn’t find in tasteful social circles. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, Sean. It put dirty little secrets in our pockets and cash in Victor’s. It gave us power and position. None of New York’s elite knew how I found out. They’d been so careful. They only used the man their friend used for drugs—heroin, crack, and those other disgusting vices. Not one of them realized I was the one who offered the first recommendation. That rumor began with me.”

  “Don’t gloat, Constance. You were working with my brother. Don’t deny it.” My voice is firm but not forceful. I say it like a fact. Sean squeezes my hand.

  She nods. Silence passes for a few minutes, and there’s only the ticking of the mantel clock as the bear nuzzles his maw into his massive arm and closes his pink eyes. Then Constance swallows hard and lifts her gaze toward her son. “When the alliance with Victor Senior ended abruptly, there was a power vacuum. I wasn’t able to secure it. Being in that kind of position created too many questions. I let things play out, which turned into a massive mistake. One misstep cost me dearly. Victor’s son took the helm of that empire and then everything went to hell. Vic Jr., your brother, tied a rope around my neck when he started moving different merchandise.”

  “They weren’t merchandise.” I protest. “He sold women, and you helped him.”

  “Not just women.” Constance looks me in the face, and I finally see the horror in her eyes. “Men and children as well. Some for sex, some for other purposes. I didn’t ask. I vied my time until I could sever our business relationship but it became apparent that time would never come. I tried to protect my sons, behaved very badly, and did anything to distance them from the family—from me. I could accept the consequences for what I’d done, but I didn’t want you to pay for my mistakes, Sean. And not Peter, and certainly not Jon. Your father,” she shrugs as if he didn’t matter, “the man has been on my shit list for two decades. They would have cleaned up a mess for me.”

  I flinch at her coldness. “You don’t mean that.”

  She glares at me. “You have no idea what it is to take on another man’s sins and wear his shame as your own.” She glances at her son. “I warned you to keep your distance from her. I tried to protect you.”

  “You should have told me,” Sean hisses through clenched teeth.

  She shakes her head, ever proud. “Absolutely not. They were my iniquities, and I was willing to pay for them. As it is, the bulk of it landed on me.”

  Sean snaps, his voice cuts through the room, piercing my ears, “THE BULK OF IT LANDED ON AVERY! You did this to her! She killed her brother because of you!” Sean is in his mother’s face, snarling. I’m up and at his side, my hand on his arm.

  “That was inevitable and would have occurred without me.” Constance explains, coolly. “I did what I could. I know you can’t see it from where you stand, but Sean—”

  The tension in his body nearly cracks his jaw. “I don’t want to hear it. You lie. You’ve always lied about everything. You put Avery in the middle of this. You’re the one responsible.”

  Constance drops her gaze and replies softly, “I am. This entire nightmare was my fault. There’s nothing I can say to prove to you my motives were pure. You’ll see what you see.”

  Sean stops breathing. He doesn’t respond.

  I ask him, “Can I talk to your mother alone for a moment?”

  Sean’s eyes shift to the side, glancing down at me as if I’d asked for a monkey or something else equally insane. But he doesn’t protest. “Of course.” He peers at his mother, pointing a finger at her as he chides the woman. “And make sure you tell her what you said to me.” He retreats without another word, leaving me standing in front of his mother, studying her sickly form.

  After the door closes I pad over to the wing chair opposite Constance and lower myself carefully into the seat. Everything is sore and hurting. “What did Sean want you to tell me?”

  “That I’ve accepted you into the fold.” She stares at me as the firelight dances across her face. Her expression screams that this acceptance was coerced, rather than sincere. She flicks her hand into the air and smirks at me. “Welcome to the Ferro family.”

  I laugh bitterly and pace in front of the fire. I stop after a few steps and cross my arms over my chest. I finally say, “You know something. Something that you didn’t tell Sean.”

  She snorts. “I know a lot of things.”

  I glare at her. “You don’t know everything.”

  A smile snakes across her face as she regards me. “Fine, we can trade. One piece of information that I’m not privy to for one secret relevant to you.”

  I sneer at her. “You don’t know anything about me.”

  “Yes, I do. Your brother didn’t put you in his crosshairs because of repressed mommy issues or jealousy—although the sick bastard had both those in spades.” Her refined mannerisms are reemerging in front of the glowing flames. “There was a particular reason why he hated you so fiercely, and I’m confident that you are unaware. So if you want to trade secrets, you better have something of equal significance to trade.”

  I glower at her and fold my arms over my dress, smearing the blood across my pale skin. “I have a secret that will affect the Ferro fortune in perpetuity.”

  She scoffs at me, laughing. “No, you don’t. There’s nothing that could possibly…” she trails off and her brows knit together. “Tell me.”

  “You first.” I don’t trust her and probably never will. We stare at each other in a standoff until she finally rolls her eyes and swats a hand at me.

  “Fine, but I’m tired of seeing you in that disgusting dress. It’s dripping blood all over the carpet.”

  Looking down, I study the rug before lifting my eyes back up at her. “Why should I care? The cops will show up soon and—”

  Constance laughs like fairies broke free in her concrete soul and are tickling her ribs. She swats a hand at me. “Cops. That’s funny, dear. The police aren’t coming. Ferro’s clean up their own messes. Well, except for Sean and I suspect there’s a story behind that event.” She's talking about Amanda and I realize there’s another secret she doesn’t know.

  “Really? You’re not sure of your son?”

  “Did you see how many men he killed to save you? He’s a murderer.”

  “I suspect we all are after tonight.” I meet her head-on and look her square in the eye. I tell her point blank, “He did not kill his wife. He loved her, he still does. You owe me two secrets now because you didn’t know that.”

  Constance frowns at me but doesn’t contest the addition of the second secret. She also doesn’t try to tell me that she already knew the answer. “The carpet.”

  I glimpse at the rug under at feet. “What about it?”

  “You don’t want to drip blood everywhere because this is yours.”

  CHAPTER 17

  Constance makes no sense. Why would I want Vic’s rug? The confusion must be apparent, because she adds, “And you don’t want the police here because you’ll end up spending the rest of your life in jail.”

  I blink at her, still not getting what she’s trying to insinuate. “Too late on that front—Gabe’s already here. Dude is with the FBI.”

  “He is not working for the police,” Constance explains with exasperation coursing through her tired body. She doesn’t roll her eyes or snap at me. There are no visible signs of contempt, other than the unamused death-stare she’s shooting my way at the moment.

  I shake my head. “I’m too tired and have no clue what you’re getting at, Connie, so spell it out.”

  She bristles at the informality with which she’s addressed but doesn’t comment on it. “Gabe was working in a different capacity tonight. That man hasn’t worked for the FBI for a long time. He was on my payroll along with the rest of his new team. Surely, you’ve noticed how many unfamilia
r faces are present this evening?”

  No, not really. I had other things on my mind than playing spot the new guy, so I don’t respond to any of that. Instead, I bounce back to her other statement. “What do you mean this carpet is mine? Are we rolling bodies out in it later?” I’m too tired to decipher her subtleties right now and wish she’d just tell me.

  Constance snorts in derision. “No, little girl. This isn’t that simple. Don’t ask what happened to the bodies. You don’t want to know. The carpet, though, that’s a story you’ll want to hear.” She stares at the creamy rug and the sprawling pattern of blues and grays.

  “So tell me. Why should I care?” I’m waiting for her to say something ridiculous or berate me, but her mood tempers and her voice sounds wearier than anything else.

  “It’s the reason why your brother took a nose-dive off the sanity bridge and pressed Black to the breaking point to secure you. He wanted to see you suffer. When the executor of his father’s will explained things to your brother, he didn’t take it well.”

  My brow lifts as my lips part. I finally shake my head and say, “What are you talking about?”

  She snaps, waving a filthy hand in the air. “You’re too obtuse. Your father knew about you and your mother—your birth father. Victor. He spent two decades trying to track you down. I knew you had a tie to the Campone family, but I didn’t know what it was, so I had an eye on you too. His entire estate was left to the sole child of his first wife. That’s you, my dear.”

  I stand without realizing it. “What? That’s not possible. Mom and Victor weren’t married. She wasn’t his wife.” I spit out the last word as if it’s a curse.

  “They were,” she replies plainly, as she examines her filthy nails. “What you were told was a lie. I suspect your mother didn’t realize that she got into bed with someone as evil as that man. Victor Senior had a way of sweeping a woman off her feet. He was charming when he wanted to be. When your mother figured it out, she took you and ran, then shacked up with your father.”

 
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