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The arrangement 23, p.11

The Arrangement 23, page 11

 part  #23 of  The Arrangement Series

 

The Arrangement 23
 


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  “That’s not true.” I hiss again and stand up before realizing there’s no place to go. I regard the bear, not wanting to go near it.

  “Please, do you seriously think I’d make this up? Sit down.” She points a tapered finger at my chair. “The truth hurts. Are you certain you want to hear the rest?”

  I nod once and press my tongue between my teeth as I retake my seat.

  Constance lets out a long sigh. “The will decrees that everything is passed to Victor’s first wife, who was no longer living thanks to his idiot son. The wreck wasn’t caused by your father—Vic Jr. arranged and carried out that plan. Your father was trying to find you. His son was already jealous of your mother. Victor didn’t realize the plan his son set into motion until it was too late. By killing your parents, Vic Jr. thought he erased the competition. Apparently, he stashed your mother away. I had no idea. I thought they both perished.”

  “So did I,” I say faintly.

  There’s a moment of silence before she continues. “Victor finally married Vic Jr.’s mother, but that freakish young man knew that if you appeared, he’d lose it all. He probably could have held onto everything, but not without bloodshed. Victor named you in his will. Nothing was left to his son or his second wife.”

  I blanch. “What do you mean? What’s in Victor Campone’s will?”

  “It’s written there in black and white—Avery Grace Campone is the sole heir of every possession, every business venture, everything.”

  “That’s not my name.”

  “Yes, I’m afraid it is the legal name with which you were born. Avery Stanz doesn’t exist. It’s how your mother kept you hidden for so long. Have you ever seen your birth certificate?”

  I make the same excuse my Mom made so many times, and it had seemed reasonable back then. “It was lost when we moved. I have one. I could have gotten another one, but the hospital where I was born burned down. Since it was before records were digital, there’s no copy.”

  Constance smiles faintly, as if amused.

  I add, “But the hospital burned, that part is true. I looked it up.”

  She sighs and shakes her head sadly at me. “Be that as it may, I can guarantee you weren’t born there because the hospital where you were delivered is still standing in the center of Long Island, entirely unscathed—Good Samaritan Hospital.”

  “That can’t be...” Shock fills me, and I don’t know what to believe. After a moment of silence, I extend a palm toward her, urging, “Please continue.”

  Even if the story isn’t true, I want to hear the rest. Maybe parts of it will make sense. Maybe there are kernels of truth lodged in with the lies. I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell them apart. And what do I say to my mother after all of this? I can’t be angry at her for any of it. She lived in fear for so long. I just want her to feel secure and try to be happy and play with her granddaughter.

  “Your brother was livid.” Constance’s expression goes dark. “He watched his father never give up on you, and the nail in the lunacy coffin came with the reading of the will. People say your brother’s eye was twitching for days and he’d laugh when anyone tried to talk to him about it. After that, everything was downhill. He tightened his leashes on every business he had his fingers in and squeezed until you popped up. And lucky me, you were attached to my son.”

  “Sean found me.”

  Her icy eyes bore into mine. “I’d done everything I could concoct to keep Sean away, and you lured him in and held him here. He was never supposed to remain in New York.” There’s a fight brewing beneath the surface, but then she douses it. “It was my fault. He saw your file and knew I was interested in you.”

  “You had a file on me? What for?”

  Constance sighs deeply and presses her fingers to her forehead. “Because Victor was searching for you. I thought you were an asset to be played. I didn’t know you were his daughter until later. I was misinformed of your significance. The short version is that all of this is yours.” She extends her arms, palms up, gesturing to the room.

  The words fall upon me like a tidal wave. I don’t understand. “Say what, now?”

  “Everything.” Constance arches a brow at me while placing her palms on the arms of her chair. “Your brother buried the lawyer who delivered the news, but the court already had the will. This is yours. Every asset is yours. Every mob affiliation is also yours, although I assume you’ll pour glitter on it. I’d suggest you sell it off if you don’t want it. Letting it sit is not a good plan.”

  I blink, shocked. All of this belongs to me? That can’t be. “Can’t another relative contest the will?”

  Constance shrugs, which is odd for her. “I suppose your mother could challenge it, but I doubt she would. She tried to hide you from that man for twenty years. It would require admitting she was still married when my nephew shot her first husband.”

  I nod slowly and study at the dancing flames within the hearth. I don’t want it, all this. It’s blood money. Curiosity makes me ask, “How much is there?”

  She laughs. “About as much as I have. Let’s leave it at that.” She steeples her fingers and meets my gaze. “Now, a secret for a secret. What do you know about my fortune?”

  It takes me a moment to shift gears. I turn toward her and glance into her face. “There’s a new Ferro to add to the succession for the estate.” I force a smile, not sure how she’ll react and place my hand on my belly.

  Her stony countenance lightens for a moment as her fingers touch her lips and a giggle escapes. “A baby?”

  “Yes.”

  “Does Sean know?” She appears truly delighted. I expected her to challenge the baby’s legitimacy, to claim it belonged to another man. But she doesn’t do that at all. Doesn’t even hint at it.

  I shake my head. “I’ve not been able to tell him yet. I didn’t know if he’d want her. I mean, with everything that happened…” I trail off, leaving the painful memories out in the open.

  Constance rises and steps toward me in two long strides. She wraps her arms around me and says into my ear, “He’s ready.” When she pulls back, she adds, “Tell him. It’s time to lay old wounds to rest. It’s time to put this chapter in the past. I’ve not seen him so fiercely devoted to anyone. Ever. I would have thought he’d hold his heart back after all that ugliness, but somehow Sean persevered and I know the exact reason.”

  “What is it?”

  “It’s you, Avery. You brought that man back to life and vanquished the monster he was becoming.”

  I glimpse at the carpet. “He was always a good man underneath.” I glance up at her. “I wanted to be like him, and bury myself in that darkness. I never wanted to feel anything ever again. Instead of learning how he did it—”

  Constance sniggers. “Your glitter rubbed off on him, and now he’s all rainbows and sunshine, which appears to be contagious.”

  I snort a laugh. “Yeah, something like that.”

  “A word of warning,” Constance asks me if it’s alright and I can tell she’s sincere. I nod in assent, and she continues. “Sean still thinks his life is made of eggshells that will swiftly crack if he makes a wrong move. Strong women don’t like to be handled gently.”

  She levels her eyes to mine. It’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to me, and I don’t doubt her genuineness. Something passes between us, a mutual understanding that we both will do anything necessary to protect our families, which will soon be one and the same.

  Constance lifts a brow and smirks. “Knock him on his ass because this little event here tonight scared the shit out of him. He’ll want to play it safe. Don’t let him. You brought him back from the deep. Now you have to hold him here.”

  CHAPTER 18

  The rest of the night passes in an exhausted blur. Sean’s brothers appear on the site. Peter rushes at Sean and throws his arms around him. Jon doesn’t wait his turn and slams into the two of them.

  When they break apart, Jon promptly scolds his oldest brother, slapping Sean in th
e back of the head which makes hair fly into Sean’s eyes. “You should have said something! I would have been here.”

  Peter gives more of the same, another swat the back of Sean’s head with an exasperated expression on his face. “You should have said something! You scared the hell out of me. Mom called me. Mom. Do you know how weird that is? I thought you were dead.”

  Sean doesn’t know what to do with the onslaught of affection. That crooked grin lights up his face as he punches them both in the arm in an affectionate sort of man-hello. Then he says to Peter, “You have a new wife.” Sean inhales deeply and runs his hands through his hair, glancing between his brothers, confessing, “I didn’t want to suck you two into this. I didn’t want to pull you back into this shit. It’s been messy.”

  Peter nods before he glances at me and walks over, leaving the other two talking softly and exchanging more man-punches. Peter’s wearing a crisp white button-down and his face is covered in stubble. There are lines on one side of his cheek as if he’d been sleeping.

  He goes to say something, smiles so brightly that it reaches his eyes, closes his mouth and then steps into me, wrapping me in a hug. His voice is in my ear, “If anything happened to you, Sean would be lost. Thank God, you’re safe.” He pulls back and rests his hands on my shoulders to look me over.

  I’m covered in grime but too weary to care. I don’t know what to say. I just stare up at him. Peter and Sean appear to be so similar but there’s one major difference—there’s light in Peter’s eyes. Hope. I wonder if Sean will ever get there and be completely free to love and laugh again. It’s as if Peter senses my thoughts because he says in a soft voice, “We all heal, Avery. Each at our own pace. Lean on him. You won’t knock him down, and you never know—it might be exactly what he needs to finally be happy.”

  “Yeah?” I snort with an unconvinced smirk. “He needs a sad girl crying on him to make him happy?”

  “Weirder things have happened.” He wiggles his eyebrows at me. “Sometimes tears need to fall to make room for the sunlight.”

  “Always a poet,” I smirk and watch Sean converse with Jon. Their conversation flows freely, and the apprehension, the wall that was between them is gone. Whatever sins that divided Sean and Jon were decimated tonight. I’m happy for them.

  “You know it,” Peter smirks at me. It’s a smile nearly identical to Sean’s, slightly crooked and completely charming. “Seriously, Avery. I’m glad you’re safe.”

  Sean and Jon wander over together, and Sean asks, “Avery, can you give us a few minutes?”

  I jest. “Family meeting with Mom?”

  Sean glowers while Jon laughs, “An alliance with the winter witch.”

  I almost don’t say it. I don’t want them to think I’m naïve, but I’m too damn tired. “Your mother is a chess master—”

  “No shit,” Jon blurts out.

  Peter shoves Jon’s shoulder once, hard, to shut him up. And then Peter extends a palm toward me. “Please continue.”

  I glance between them, the three of the Ferro brothers standing side by side. I don’t think they know, so I tell them. “You’ve suspected that you were the pawns and your mother was the queen. But you three were never pieces she was willing to lose. She was the queen—still is—but you guys are the one bit that ends the game for her. You’re the king. All three of you were always that piece to your mother. She’ll protect you at all cost and not stop until she’s won.”

  Sean is taken aback a dark brow lowering above a sapphire eye. The corner of his lips quirks up, surprised. “You’re defending her?”

  “No,” I say plainly and look up at the man I love. “I’m telling you what I see. You were never expendable. She just made you think you were. If I could have saved my mom from everything she’s suffered, I would have done the same thing.” There are tears in my eyes when I say it. “Sean, the two of you have been playing for the same team this entire time.”

  “Why are you so certain?” he asks and I can’t blame him. It’s been horrific to watch Constance’s plans play out only to end up with another knife in your back. With Constance, there is always a reason.

  “Because,” I confess with complete certainty. “I’m no longer on the chessboard. Distance makes it incredibly clear. So does hindsight. She tried to move all three of you out of check and the only way to accomplish that was to force you out. You guys were pretty much estranged when I met you. Now you’re not. Your mother is a frightening woman, but she had your back through all of this. I’m certain of it.”

  Sean steps toward me and takes my hands in his. “I believe you.”

  I smile carefully, feeling way too vulnerable. “You don’t think I’m foolish?”

  He laughs, and it’s a deep rich sound. “Of course not. You have more perspective on this than I do. Can we trust her?”

  I meet three set of blue eyes, one at a time, and then nod slowly. “I think so, but trust should be earned. Offering to start over is more than she imagines. She doesn’t expect your forgiveness. You can let things fall as they may, but if you want to be a family again, I could see it happening.”

  Three crooked smiles on three men, each standing on his left foot with the right knee slightly bent, and sculpted arms folded across a broad chest. They nod once, tightly, in unison letting me know they’ve heard what I had to say. Peter’s hair falls into his eyes. When he pushes it back, he turns, followed by Jon. The two men walk shoulder to shoulder down the hall, away from us.

  Sean steps closer to me, kisses my grimy cheek. “You're incredible. What did you want to tell me before?”

  “We’ll talk later.” I wave a hand at him, gesturing for him that it’s all right to leave. “Go confer with the Queen.”

  Sean smirks. “She won’t like that nickname.”

  “It’s better than the previous one.” I grin wickedly.

  Sean snorts and hugs me once more before hurrying to catch up with his brothers. They walk together ready to face whatever’s next. If that powerhouse learns to work together, they’ll be able to do anything.

  CHAPTER 19

  I’m drooling on myself and half-conscious by the time the doctor finishes with my mother. I’m still in Vic’s house, in a room down the hall from the Ferro clan meeting. My mom is lying on a couch with her hands folded together on her chest. She remains perfectly still, in a coffin-esque pose. The older man is wearing scrubs as if he were pulled from surgery at the local hospital. Good Sam, as the locals call it.

  He’s a narrow man with sunken eyes, white hair, and a large hook-shaped nose. His features are sharp and unforgiving. He’s all angles and muscle, even under-aged skin with a sprinkling of sunspots on his forearms. He’s wearing blue scrubs with a white t-shirt. It pokes out from the V-neck top. He crosses the vast room where I’m sitting on the edge of an armchair.

  He towers over me, and I rise. He extends his hand and speaks in a deep voice, like James Earl Jones’ baritone territory. “Miss Stanz? How are you feeling?”

  We shake hands briefly. “I’ve been better, but not bad, considering everything. How’s my mom? What happened to her?” Then a bit of panic strangles me and I blurt out, “It is her, right?” I need someone to confirm this. I’m so afraid to accept it and the shit-ton of emotional crap that will come flooding in when I do.

  The man bows his head and slightly wrinkles his brow as he peers over his shoulder at her. Mom hasn’t moved. Her chest rises and falls slowly with her gaze locked on the ceiling. When the doc lifts his head, he explains, “I can confirm that this is your mother. I’m afraid most of her fingerprints were removed. However, I was able to ascertain her true identity using her dental records. It’s her.”

  “Thank you.” I’m watching my mother and a moment of silence passes. It’s really her. We get another chance.

  “She went through a lot, Avery,” the man offers solemnly.

  I’m almost too afraid to ask. “What did they do to her?”

  He asks me flatly, “Do you really want
to know? Your brother was cruel and tortured her relentlessly. I’m shocked she’s still alive, to tell you the truth. Her body tells a graphic story of all she endured. Not speaking very much at this point is expected. Still, I can put the pieces together. I know what they did to her.”

  I swallow hard and tighten my arms across my middle and hang my head, shaking it. “Maybe I’m a coward, but I don’t think I can bear it right now.”

  He places a hand on my shoulder. “There’s not a drop of cowardice in you.”

  I laugh bitterly and try to step away, but he doesn’t release me. “I doubt that.”

  He tips his head to the side and meets my gaze. “Fear debilitates most people and keeps them from taking action. You did what you had to despite being afraid. You saved your friends and your mother.”

  “I killed him.” I blurt it out and swallow a sob swiftly. My face crumbles as my mouth twists as I try not to fall apart. Tears flow down my cheeks in twin rivers. I hate crying, but I’m so weary that I can’t hold it back any longer.

  I swat at my face, wiping the dampness away. “Why am I crying? Vic was a horrible person. I feel like I can’t breathe.” I clutch my neck and inhale sharply, trying to eradicate the invading emotion. I don’t want to mourn him. The residue of existence stained me forever, and I’m blubbering about it.

  “If you weren’t crying,” the doc says, “you would be a horrible person. Avery, you’ll grieve his loss like he was family because he was family.” I feel his kind eyes on me, waiting for me to look up, but I can’t.

  “No, he wasn’t,” I retort sharply, still wiping my eyes and cursing under my breath. “He may have been blood, but he wasn’t family.”

 
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