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The arrangement 23, p.14

The Arrangement 23, page 14

 part  #23 of  The Arrangement Series


The Arrangement 23

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  For Sean, this embrace meant everything. He didn’t let anyone in. Now he holds me here and welcomes me to stay. The walls that cracked and fell back in Manhattan didn’t jut back up. Sometimes I can tell he’s fighting the instinct that was once responsible for his wellbeing. If Sean didn’t have thick defensive barriers, he wouldn’t have survived.

  A pleasant sound escapes from my mouth as I sigh against his chest and feel the warmth of his body. “I still can’t believe we’re here.”

  He keeps his strong arms wrapped around me, holding onto me like he’ll never let go. “I know. All I’ve ever wanted was to have you all to myself, with no distractions, no family drama, and no limits.”

  I pull back and study him. Arching an eyebrow, I ask, “No limits? You never had any limits with me, remember? Miss Black talked me into checking everything on that sheet.” I make a face and add, speaking more to myself than him, “Now that I Googled that stuff, I’m not sure what I was thinking there.”

  Sean laughs as he steps back and slides his hands down my arms. He tips his head to the side, indicating we should walk over to the shade of the cabana. We both sit on his chaise, hip to hip.

  I bump my knee to his. “So, what are you reading? The Wall Street Journal? The Tediously Dreary Report by Bryan Boring?”

  He grins sheepishly and reaches for his e-reader, which was not a typical expression for him. That peaks my interest. So does the speed that he moves, trying to get it before I do. I lunge for the device, curious. The mirth on his face coupled with a tinge of, what—shame? He almost appears bashful. I grab the tablet first and turn it on.

  Sean represses a grin before he simply states, “Don’t judge me.”

  The book opens, and I scan the page before I click the top of the screen to read the title. My eyebrows rise into my hairline. My jaw drops and I gape, unable to speak. I know which book this is, but I have no idea why he’s reading it.

  Sean squirms uncomfortably before plucking the device from my hands. “Don’t look at me like that.”

  I find my words and try hard not to laugh, but I can’t contain my smile. “Since when do you read smut, Sean Ferro?”

  “I thought I’d try something different.”

  I’m still gaping, shocked. “You can say that again. Why’d you pick that book? It’s almost erotica.”

  A delighted grin lights up his face with a smile so seductive it’s difficult to look anywhere else. “Because you were reading it. And it is a really dirty book. Too bad you didn’t get to the ending.” He waggles his eyebrows at me as he tries not to laugh.

  I gape for a split second. When I slap it shut, I ask, “How’d you know that I didn’t finish it?”

  Sean smirks as he talks with his hands. “I saw it in your dorm room and it was in the same sorry state as that poor bastard.” He points to the water-logged, half sun-dried novel on my chair. “The last few pages were stuck together, but the front of the book had apparently been thumbed through more than once. I wanted to see what captivated your attention so much.”

  I shrug and glance over my shoulder at him, answering seriously. “I don’t know. It’s romantic. The idea of no secrets and not taking anything off the table.”

  Sean leans in close, catches my eye. “I’ve been thinking about that.”

  “Have you?” I hold his gaze and wonder what’s gotten into him. Since we got here, we’ve been together a few times, but he appears like he’s been holding back.

  “Yes.” There’s a sense of hesitation there, the tiniest bit of worry creasing his brow. “And I’d like to propose a plan of action for our more amorous activities.”

  “Really?” I don’t say more because I have no clue where this conversation is going.

  I’ve been worried he wouldn’t touch me for nine months, but Sean hasn’t made me believe we’d be celibate. We both have a lot of things to work out. It won’t all just fall into place in a few days. When tons of bad things happen all at once, it screws with a person. Neither one of us was immune to that. We’ve both woken screaming, trapped in a dream that was all too real. But since we stepped foot on the sand, those nightmares lessened. I can sleep in his arms whether we’re in the house or on the beach.

  Sean presses his lips together and puts the device down before turning to face me. “I think we need a new arrangement.”

  “Oh?” I ask trying to hide the unnerved feeling from my face.

  He nods and takes my hands in his, rubbing his thumbs along the back of my hand. He tips his head back slightly almost austere. “I do. Things have changed since we made the first agreement. Significantly.”

  Worry wrinkles my brow. I’m not sure I have much more to give in this department. Sean is already so dark in the bedroom, and while there’s a lure to that, I’m not sure I can go darker. I can’t fathom what’s left that we haven’t done.

  Caution fills my voice even though I try to sound chipper to hide my worries. “What’d you have in mind?”

  Sean swallows hard, and when he doesn’t immediately blurt out the answer, I lean in and lift the sunglasses from his eyes and place them on the table to my side. Whatever it is that he has to say is weighing on him. Sean usually isn’t so cautious with his words. It seems like now that he started the conversation, he wishes he hadn’t.

  When I face him again, I offer, “You can tell me anything. I want to know what you’re thinking about, especially with this part of our relationship.”

  Pressing his lips tightly into a thin line, he nods once, tightly. Sean pushes his palms on his knees and rises. He turns away from me, runs a hand through his thick hair, and sucks in a jagged breath. When he turns and looks down at me sitting on the chaise, he confesses, “I know I’ve said things and led you to believe I wasn’t interested, but it’s something we skipped over—something I desperately want with you.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Avery, that night in the cabin, before things got dark, where we were just there—in the moment. I traced your curves and learned the feel of you. There was a softness to it that I wasn’t interested in at the time, but I am now.”

  I try not to smile. My voice comes out small, “You are?”

  He nods. “There’s an immensely potent draw to discovering what makes you moan and brings you to the edge. I want to try the soft touches and the teasing seduction. The fear that was once required has fallen silent.”

  I stare up at him, shocked.

  Sean continues, “It doesn’t beckon me the way it once did. This new desire has sprung up in its place. I’ve been worried about telling you because I made such a big deal about not going this route in the past. I said traditional sexual acts were off limits, that I didn’t want to go down this road again. The thing is, it’s not plain—not with you. It’s enticing and it calls to me in a way I can no longer ignore. There’s something sublime in the act of mutual submission that I was blind to before, but I see it now. I was afraid you’d think I was a flake for even suggesting it. Maybe I’m not capable of tenderness like that at this point—I don’t know—but I want this with you. I want to try.”

  When he glances up from under those dark lashes, clear blue eyes meet mine. Sex has always been a recreational activity for Sean, and when it started to feel like something more, one of us ran. We’d never willingly, knowingly entered the bedroom with this mindset. He’s right, from day one it wasn’t something he wanted or offered. It wasn’t something I was interested in, but now that he’s suggested it—I can’t breathe.

  My heart twists in my chest, half fearful and half elated. My lips part and when I try to speak, no words come out. I flap my jaw and move my arms, trying to tell Sean. It’s like I took a brick to the head and am trying to figure the square root of three. Nothing comes out but incoherent sounds.

  That’s when Sean steps forward and takes my hands in his, and assures me. “Nothing has to change. We can keep things the way they are. I was just wondering if you liked having your neck kissed…wondered if you’d stay
or push me away. Wondered if you’d—well, what you’d do if you weren’t tied up.” He smiles briefly, but it falls away in disappointment when he thinks I’m not interested in discovering those things with him. “It’s okay, Avery.”

  Holy! Words! Talk! Move your mouth and make words! The chick living inside my head is beating my brain with a broom trying to prod me to speak.

  I finally move and lean to the side to catch Sean’s eye before he backpedals and convinces himself he shouldn’t have said anything. “Hey, I’ve wondered that too.”

  “You did?”

  I nod quickly. “Yeah, of course, I did. I just didn’t think you were interested in all that stuff. I mean, it’s not as exciting as having someone under your complete control, is it?” An awkward smile falls off my face because I think it’d be utterly intoxicating to be with him like that. It’s not something he’s offered, ever. In fact, Sean made it really clear that he would never offer that kind of intimacy, so I assume my ears broke and I’m misunderstanding him.

  The corners of his lips curl up into a boyish smirk. “It’s completely foreign to me. I don’t know what you’ll do, and that’s the draw to it. I'm not sure if you’ll push back, guide me, or what. It’s uncharted water for us.” He watches my face carefully, trying read my thoughts, but there’s so much apprehension in that beautiful face.

  A broad smile lights up from within me. My voice warbles when I try to agree, “It is.”

  Is this actually happening? Sean is dropping the rest of his guard with me. It’s completely down, and as he stands there before me, I know he truly loves me. That’s what this is about—he wants to show me—but our past arrangements have limited how we do that. Even when we moved past the contract, this aspect was off the table.

  “Sean, I want a chance to know you like that.” I bite my lip to keep from squeeing or crying. I’m in emotional overload.

  Sean sees it and pulls me up. When I stand in front of him, he steps closer and slips his hands across my cheeks, tipping my face up toward his. Tears stream down my face as he confesses, “I’ll love you forever if you let me. I want to discover you, who you are now, what makes your toes curl, what makes you scream out my name in ecstasy. I want to know you in every possible way. I want all of you, Avery Stanz—shadows, light, and glitter. I’ll never let you go. You are the very best thing that’s ever happened to me. Please let me show you how I feel.”

  Trembling works its way through me, but I manage to say the word that will start the next part of my life. “Yes.”

  Want to see Sean Ferro in the flesh?

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  Grab yours now and get ready for some Summer Ferro fun!









  SECRETS & LIES 7 (series finale)


  by H.M. Ward

  Turn the page to start reading the New York Times bestselling sexy, dark story with more Sean Ferro. This series tightly intertwines with THE ARRANGEMENT.

  Please be advised that this series is very dark and intense. The faint of heart should not turn the page.

  Chapter 1


  The sky is clear except for a few white glittering stars. They’re hung high out of reach, impossibly beautiful and distant. The air has that crisp fall scent, and I know there will be frost tonight. Dad would have covered his plants with plastic to get a few more weeks from their fragile lives. The tarp is in the basement, still folded, where he kept it. The pansies will freeze and fade. This is their last night in this house, as it is mine.

  Pushing the swing on the back porch with the tip of my foot, I start it swaying again. Life is so fleeting, so meaningless. The hole that’s swallowing me is relentless. I thought I’d cry more, but I haven’t even been able to do that. The tears won’t fall. Neil says it’s because my father’s death hasn’t hit me yet, but it has. The weight of his loss presses so hard on my shoulders that I can’t lift my face from the dirt. For all those years, it was just the two of us. He was always there for me. He saved me from incomprehensible misery and now that he’s gone, I find myself back in the shadows, unable to escape.

  My eyes sweep over the wooden fence, taking in the rotten boards. Things were tight and I knew Dad sacrificed for me, but I had no idea how much until now. My college bills, my car, and all the things I needed were paid for without a blink, but I never stopped to wonder where the money came from. Dad worked hard, so I assumed it was enough.

  I was wrong.

  There hadn’t been enough for a long time, and I had no idea. He never said anything. When I came home from classes at the end of the day, he’d hand me a twenty and tell me to be a kid and go have fun. He said stuff like that all the time. It makes me wonder if he knew what was coming, but there’s no way he foresaw this.

  When I came home from class last week, I found him in the yard, face-down in a pile of leaves. My throat tightens and I push away the memory. It’s not something that I ever want to see again, but the recollection lights up over and over again in my mind. My senses are overloaded. I can still feel Dad’s cold skin and the weight of his lifeless body as I rolled him over. The texture of his tattered flannel jacket is still on my fingertips. The sound of my strangled voice crying out his name over and over again still rings in my ears. It’s been a long time since I felt so afraid.

  For the first time in a long time, I am alone.

  My phone is on the wooden swing and chirps next to me. I don’t feel like talking. Silence has encased me in a tomb of misery since that day. Neil stood next to me and held my hand until hours blurred into days. He didn’t want to leave me here alone tonight, but I insisted. It’s my last night in this house. I’ll never step over the threshold again. I’ll never catch the scent of my father’s aftershave in his little bathroom. All the memories will be lost and it will be like he never existed.

  There’s no grave in which to lay his body, no stone to mark his plot. Those were things I couldn’t afford. It kills me to leave him in the morgue, and let them have him, but I don’t know what to do. There’s not enough money to change anything, so when I found out the mortgage also needed to be brought up to date or they’d foreclose, I collapsed. It was too much. I understand Neil’s concern and he’s been a good friend, but there are some things a person has to face alone.

  This last night in my house is one of them. It’s my only chance to really know and hear that Dad’s gone. He won’t walk down the hall and I won’t hear his footfalls on the stairs. It’s just me now.

  Neil’s text beeps a second time and I finally flick the screen to life. Are you all right?

  No, of course not, but that doesn’t change my answer. Yes, I’m fine. That’s what people say when they’re in despair so deep that there are no words. They pretend to be all right and hope to God that one day, they will be. The fantasy that there is a day somewhere ahead of me where everything will be fine keeps me breathing.

  Call me if you want me to come over. Love you, babe.

  Neil is great, but I have to do this on my own. Saying goodbye isn’t something he can do. Besides, I can’t crumble into his arms and fall to pieces. For one, Neil is in graduate school working on his shrink degree. He won’t let me fall to pieces. Losing control is bad for the soul, he would say. I don’t know if I agree with him, but right now it feels safer to sit in my somber cocoon and stare at the ailing lawn. I want to soak in every last detail and say goodbye before I’m thr
own out in the morning.

  When the chill in the air bites through my pajamas, I pad across the crunchy grass and head inside. My laptop is on the kitchen table where I left it. The screen glows dimly and I stare at my story. For the past few nights I poured my heart into this computer. I don’t really know what I wrote or why I wrote it. The things in this story aren’t recent. They’re from a former life where I was happy, loved, and safe. I relive those nights, the ones I spent in Bryan Ferro’s arms, doing things that Neil would never condone. As I write, I find that love has two faces, passion and companionship. The long lost days are filled with silly stories of things I remembered doing with my Dad—learning to drive and running over a Canadian goose. They’re the things that float to the top of my head, so I write them down without thought, without judgment.

  It was my life, and now it’s not.

  The story floods and overflows from one page to the next, shifting between joy and agony, pain and pleasure. Sunlight and darkness mingle, fracturing the foundation of my life. They spill out of me like a living thing that needs to escape. I can’t contain it. The words block the pain that pierces my heart and drowns out the sorrow that never ends. I find solace lost in a world of memories, in a world that’s no longer real.

  I scroll to the bottom of the document and start writing. This is the end. The daydream will shatter after tonight and the morning will bring the reality of my life. I’m homeless. Neil is the only person who’s offered me help, so I took him up on it. His face lit up when he asked me to move in with him and I said yes. But tonight, I’m lost in the past, writing about things that happened long ago. Grief pours from me in waves until I type the final word, but it isn’t enough. The gut-wrenching pain that is at the center of my chest doesn’t ease. I still feel it there, twisting and pulling like a demon is trying to suck my soul from my body.

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