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The arrangement 23, p.13

The Arrangement 23, page 13

 part  #23 of  The Arrangement Series

 

The Arrangement 23
 


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  “I tried. Stuff kept happening—”

  His mouth is on mine, kissing me hard, smiling while he does it. “I love you. I am so crazy, fucking in love with you. You have no idea. None. I feel like my heart is going to explode with glitter.” He’s up on his knees and laughing. He takes my hands and stands us up in the middle of the mattress. “Do you see what you do to me?”

  “I didn’t do this. You’ve always had the Lucky Charms guy living inside you. No wonder why you never talked to anyone. That seems a little bit cray cray, Sean.”

  “Only good things come in green tights.” He barks a loud belly laugh.

  “I’ve never seen you act like this. Has there really been a repressed happy guy in there all this time?” I place my hand on his heart.

  His voice is deep, filled with mirth that’s warm and full. “I have no fucking clue, but it feels like I could do anything right now. Avery, my God…” He inhales sharply and jumps. When his feet hit the mattress, I fly upward. If the ceiling weren’t nearly twenty feet tall, I’d hit my head. We’re all giggles, holding hands, and laughing until there’s a loud crack at the foot of the bed and the bed frame snaps, making us topple over.

  Sean, blue eyes glittering, leans over me. “I’m sorry, are you okay?”

  “Yes, but you broke the bed. Your mom’s gonna kill you!” I tease before we deteriorate into laughter.

  Then there’s a knock at the door and a voice asking if we’re all right.

  Sean jumps up, grabs a robe, ties it, and throws open the door. Constance is standing there, bleary-eyed and hair a mess. “What on earth was that sound? The ceiling shook. Sean?” She meets her son’s eyes at the same time he grabs her shoulders, forgetting himself, and pulls her into a bear hug.

  Sean releases his stunned mother a moment later. “I’m going to be a father and the baby is going to call you Grammy.” He waggles his eyebrows at her and then bounds down the hallway hollering, “I gotta tell Pete!”

  I’m still sitting on the broken bed smiling after him, wearing one of Sean’s t-shirts. Constance glances at me. “I told you he was ready.” She hides a knowing smile before arching her eyebrow and looking at the bed. Then says, “I don’t want to know what you two were doing in here.”

  “It’s not like that. Hey!” She’s gone, closing the door before I can explain.

  Sean whoops from the end of the hall, his voice echoing back toward me. I’ve never seen him so happy, never heard that much inflection in his voice, ever. It’s as if his bindings finally broke free. If there was one thing holding Sean down, it was Sean Ferro. Joy eradicates fear, fries it up until there’s not a drop left. I saw the emotions splayed on his face, fighting for control. Today joy won and fear lost.

  Today will be different, and I can’t stop smiling about it.

  CHAPTER 21

  The strangest things happen when you least expect them. I worried about Constance ripping my mother’s frail emotional state to shreds. I mean, the woman was barely talking. Mom retreated so far into herself to survive the terrors that met her daily for months on end. There was no break, no time to gather herself and rebuild her mental state during that period. The doctor warned me that she’d need a lot of patience and understanding. Trauma victims tend to behave differently, and the slightest thing could set her off and cause her to regress—a turn of phrase, a sight, or smell.

  I walk on eggshells around her, but not Constance. At first, I berated Constance for it, but she didn’t listen to me. She explained, “Acting as if she’s broken will only keep her that way.”

  Constance is a paradox of a person. She’s fierce and kind with my mother. I don’t understand how she’s both at once, but it doesn’t send Mom back to the darkness. I watch the two of them together and know they’ve shared more time talking than they let on. They seem to have more in common than a grandbaby and the misfortune of meeting the Campones.

  When morning breaks, I’m green with nausea. I roll out of bed trying not to wake Sean. An eyelid opens, and a groggy voice asks, “Are you okay?”

  Nodding, I tug on a robe and explain quickly. “Morning sickness. It’ll pass. Go back to sleep.”

  Sean watches me for a moment. I feel awful, but his eyes say I’m a goddess. “I love you.”

  I smile at him, wishing I could say more but then feel my throat tighten and rush to the bathroom. After that settles down, I decide that getting sick with something in my stomach would be far better than dry heaving.

  I head down the hallway to the kitchen. It’s barely five in the morning, but there’s a light cutting through the darkness. When I round the corner and enter the room, the sight surprises me.

  Mom is wearing yoga pants and an oversized sweatshirt. Her dark hair is tugged into a high ponytail with wispy curls sticking out. There’s a dusting of blush on her cheeks, and a sweep of mascara on her lashes. Sleep is long gone from her eyes. She’s clinging to a cup of coffee, holding it in front of her and inhaling deeply. There’s a soft smile on her lips. She’s happy at that moment. There’s no need to wonder if it’s a fake attempt to be content just then. There’s something about the sweep of her shoulders and the light touch of her fingers on the mug that tells the story on her face is real. She’s far from all better—I’ve heard her wake in the night, screaming.

  There’s a long way to go, for both of us. Restlessness woke me and it didn’t begin with morning sickness. Dreams churned into fear which twisted everything until I had a knife in my hand and watched Marty’s eyes become lifeless. The dream repeats every time I close my eyes. Out of all my sins that one I regret the most. I was wrong about him. Marty played his hand so well that I couldn’t tell which side he was on until it was too late.

  Sitting opposite from Mom is Constance in her blood red dupioni silk robe. It has a floral pattern woven into the thick damask. Velvet lined lapels extend down to a thick scarlet sash tied tightly around her narrow waist. Constance’s hair is a mess, one side flat with the other side still kempt as if she slept on that one side all night.

  They stop talking and turn to watch me. Mom smiles. “How’s my baby this morning?”

  Constance smirks and adds, “You look awful. Saltines are on the counter.”

  Mom glances at me again and corrects Constance. “She doesn’t look awful. Avery’s glowing.”

  “Because she just vomited,” Constance replies with a flick of her eyes. “Make sure you brush and floss every time you wretch or your teeth will rot. Then the dentist will tell me he thinks your bulimic and the newspapers will have a field day and blame me.” She rolls her eyes and then sips her coffee.

  Mom nods in agreement before she sees me still standing in the doorway and lifts her mug. “Do you want some coffee, honey?”

  I shake my head and go straight for the box of crackers before sitting down next to both of them. I pull one out from the plastic wrapper and suck on it. Constance glares in disapproval. I glare at her and take the cracker from my mouth.

  “Yes?” I dare her to say one more comment on dental hygiene or morning sickness.

  “Nothing, dear.” She smirks at Mom and takes another sip of coffee.

  I ask my mother, “What do you have planned for today?” I shove another cracker into my mouth and slouch forward. Constance’s perfect posture makes mine seem like an aerodynamic granny.

  “We’re planning to go shopping. Constance made us an appointment at one of those little boutiques. I want a poet’s shirt with lace.” She grins broadly and wiggles her fingers just below her chin, indicating a lacey neckline.

  Constance snorts. “You’re lucky that style made a comeback or we couldn’t be seen together. If I have a hippie friend, people will talk. Suddenly everyone will think I’ve gone soft.”

  I laugh from behind my crackers, “No one will ever think that. Like ever.”

  Constance puffs up, proud. “Well, it doesn’t matter what other people think.”

  “Oh really?”

  She eyes me. Her long tapered fi
ngers and ruby polish are immaculate. “I’m completely serious. I earned my reputation protecting my family. You’ve done the same. People will define you in ways that are unbecoming. Just look at what the chatter about you—”

  Mom must have kicked her because Constance suddenly stops talking.

  I flick my gaze to Mom and then Constance, and then back to Mom. “Why, what are people saying about me?”

  Mom tries to soften it. “Your parentage is being discussed, and the disappearance of your only sibling is creating gossip.”

  “Ma, I don’t care what they think, but I still want to know. Vic was an abomination, and I’m not sorry that he’s gone. I guess that makes me a monster.” A frown twists my lips as I stare at my row of crackers.

  Constance snorts. “A monster? You?”

  I lift my eyes, not shying away from my thoughts. I know what I did. I’m just not certain who I am because of it. Confessing bluntly, I admit, “Yeah, me. I lost it that night. I let the beast off the leash.”

  Constance starts laughing, and it's a high-pitched giggle. She presses her fingertips to her mouth after putting down her cup of coffee so that it won’t spill. She places a hand on my arm. “Your beast is not a monster. It’s a character trait many people wish they had. You’re the girl who stood up to Satan and walked away.”

  “Right, but at the same time, doesn’t the person who killed the devil become the devil?”

  “No,” Constance snaps, entirely confident. “It’s not as if he were possessed by an evil spirit that now resides in you. Vic was a man, a deranged one, but his decisions were his own. His sins don’t flow into your hands.”

  I realize that I don’t believe her. I twist in my chair, not liking this topic of conversation, but I manage to spit out what’s been keeping me awake. It’s a tiny thought, one that will fester and putrefy if remains unaddressed. “Vic became who he was because of me. If I hadn’t—”

  Mom cuts me off, her hand suddenly on mine, possessive and assuring. “If you hadn’t been born? You can’t think like that. You did nothing to make him that way. Vic made his choices, and you made yours. You are not responsible for his actions. Sometimes people become so fixated on one thing. They think that their life would be better if this person didn’t exist. It poisons the well and seeps out into every aspect of their life. Blaming someone for your shortcomings is easy. Looking in the mirror is not. Avery, you spend more time examining yourself and your motives than anyone. You’ve tried to stay true to yourself, and you have. What do you care about more than anything?”

  I swallow hard and blink back the tears in my eyes. “My family. But Mom—”

  She pats my hand and squeezes. “And you saved yours. If you didn’t directly challenge Vic, I’d still be locked in that godforsaken basement. You saved me.” There are tears in her eyes. It’s the first time she’s talked about any of this with me.

  Constance leans back in her chair and adds, “You saved my clan as well. That makes your loyalty unquestionable. You’re family, Avery. I hope you didn’t have plans on leaving because now you’re one of us. I meant it when I said that the other night. As far as I’m concerned, you earned the name Ferro.”

  Tears well up and I start sobbing. Before I plaster my hands over my eyes, Mom and Constance exchange a horrified expression.

  Mom’s hand is on my back. She’s crouching next to my chair, trying to comfort me. “Honey, what is it? What’s wrong?”

  I’m completely crazy on the inside. I should be happy. Why the hell am I crying? “I don’t know!”

  I feel Mom smile as she holds me tight against her. She runs her hand over my hair and sings a song from when I was a little girl. When she finishes, she adds, “I know why you’re crying. You thought you lost everything, but you haven’t. Coming to terms with that fact is giving me issues too.”

  Constance blurts out, “Plus you’re pregnant, and your hormones are rapidly changing. Everything is going to feel paramount, even little things. Don’t explain yourself. You don’t have to—not to us or anyone else for that matter.”

  Mom kisses the top of my head and squeezes me. “I love you.”

  “I love you too. I wish Daddy were here. I keep thinking that and it feels like I’m an ingrate.” I pull back and swat at my tears. “I miss him.”

  Mom’s eyes are glassy. She nods for a moment, unable to speak.

  Constance leans forward and asks, “Tell me about him. I want to hear everything.”

  It’s not until hours have passed and Sean is up that I realize what Constance gave us. Mom and I were able to talk about Daddy together, grieve his loss, and smile at his memories. Sharing a life doesn’t stop when that person is gone. I’m my dad’s girl. Victor Campone may be my biological father, but I will always be Ray Stanz’s daughter. His strength, laughter, and grit flows through my veins. I never noticed how much I’m like him.

  In this moment, who I am and who I will always be, emerges from the shadows. The demons that have been at my heels for so long, waiting for me to fall and devour my remains are dispelled. Now, in the early light of dawn, they slither away. There’s a certainty to life that was missing for so long, a piece of knowledge that whispers today will come and go, the sun will rise and set, and I will still be breathing. The shadows that once clung to me so fiercely peel away. The crushing tightness in my chest recedes, the weight vanishing so that I can finally breathe again.

  I know exactly who I am and what I’m capable of—Sean was right about that. People reveal their true nature at times of duress—some fall apart when pressed, while others turn rancid. My hands are stained with the blood of friends and foes—and I can live with it. I don’t need to worry about devolving into a monster or becoming the likes of the Campones. I’m a Stanz and a Ferro through and through.

  CHAPTER 22

  The powdery sand clings to the soles of my feet as I pad down the long strip of beach. I adjust my sarong around my hips, tugging at the knot when the wind threatens to whisk it away. Sunglasses shield my eyes from the golden light as the sun reaches its apex in the cloudless azure sky. A sheet of turquoise water stretches past the horizon to my left. The occasional sandbar peaks out from the surface of the tranquil sea. Scattered palm trees surround the large home behind me. It’s the only house on the entire island.

  This isn’t Manhattan. No, we left that world far behind. It’s not that I never want to see that place again—I do—it’s just that the one thing I wanted most was time alone with the people I love with no press badgering us. There’s a shit-ton of drama waiting for me when we get home. I’m the sole heir to the Campone empire, marrying into the Ferro family, and I survived the wrath of Vic Jr. One of those things would make me the talk of every paper and television show—but all three? That threw me into a frenzied media limelight. Constance shielded me as much as possible, but whenever we left the building, there were reporters in tow.

  As more information came to light, it intensified. An increasing number of disturbing incidents involving my biological brother surfaced. Let’s just say I’m glad I went mental that night and fought like it was the end. If I hadn’t, if Vic had captured me instead—I wouldn’t have recovered. His hatred was aimed directly at me. He blamed me for everything. There wasn’t a rational thought left in that man’s mind.

  As I sweep my toes through the sand, I wonder if I changed that much. On this island, with no one but Sean, I have time to think. I don’t hide from my thoughts, which made them less turbulent as the days stretched into weeks.

  Mom and Constance were here with us at first. Sean suggested escaping for a while, and Constance revealed she had a private island in the South Pacific. She described the house and the beach—said that there was an airstrip big enough to accommodate the jet. It was a chance to have some downtime and escape the tumultuous life that fell on our shoulders.

  Mom was the first to agree to it. She lingered inside and at the infinity pool by the house. She did regular Mom things and cooked even though the h
ome was fully staffed. The fridge was magically full of food and Mom prepared a feast that first day there. I think baking offered her some solace and gave her a place to vent her feelings. Just about every dish she made was thoroughly beaten with a meat tenderizer first whether it was needed or not.

  Constance was either in the kitchen talking to Mom or on the pool deck. Although she always had a book or magazine in her hands, I rarely saw her reading. She watched the horizon most days, lost in thought. If Constance did that too long, Mom showed up and suggested a diversion. We all have to face our struggles alone, but we heal better together. The day before yesterday, they collected shells to take back to New York. Mom wanted to fill a jar with them. After a couple of weeks, they decided to return to life. Not that they were both fine now, but they’d had enough downtime and were ready to resume some semblance of normalcy. Sean and I lingered, staying behind.

  As I approach the cabana, the gauzy curtains billow in the breeze. Sean is stretched out on a teak chaise with a newly acquired waterproof e-reader in one hand and the other tucked behind his head. His dark hair is damp, slicked back from his face. Those sapphire eyes are concealed by smoky sunglasses. A dusting of dark stubble lines his jaw. There’s an empty lounge chair next to him, topped with a fluffy white towel and a book that fell into the ocean one too many times. The pages are wrinkled, and making it appear to be more of an albino bat than a piece of bound literature.

  Sean glances up at me. “Good afternoon, Miss Smith.” He puts his tablet on the table between the two chairs, rises and strides toward me. His chest gleams in the midday sun, each muscle well-defined and covered in a thin sheen of sweat. A pair of board shorts cut to mid-thigh cling to his hips in a bright blue that matches the ocean. A smirk curls his lips as he steps toward me and opens his arms.

  “You look beautiful today, Mr. Jones.” I step into the space, and close my eyes, basking in the sensation of being in his arms—in this once forbidden spot close to his heart.

 
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