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The arrangement 23, p.4

The Arrangement 23, page 4

 part  #23 of  The Arrangement Series

 

The Arrangement 23
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  Black frowns and takes me by the elbow and tugs me forward. Her claws dig into my arm as she hastens her pace from casually slow to more of a businessman stride. Imagine Black with a briefcase on the sidewalk in Manhattan, except in this case she’s striding on a carpet of grass, and I’m her attaché case.

  Black moves with determined strides, spine straight, with her head tipped back slightly. While her poise screams business as usual, her voice does not.

  She remains a few inches from my ear, staring straight ahead when she addresses me. “Play along, or we both die.” It’s barely a breath. There’s no way the thug heard it.

  I glance at her and look back at the man trailing us, suddenly wishing he were closer. Black is a crazy person. Not as bad as Vic, but in the same classification of sociopath with no conscious. “Yeah, sure. Anything you say, boss.” I mock her and start to smirk.

  Black immediately leans in and brushes her lip to my ear, speaking in quick hushed tones, “Just keep walking, and you sure as hell better not put up a fight.” Her red lips linger there, and I stiffen.

  Black hates me. I know that. So whatever she has planned is going to channel that hatred into something and aim it directly at me. She glances back at the thug, and her lips twist into a wicked grin of anticipation. As we approach the back glass doors to the home, she indicates I should pass over the threshold first and enter the mansion. I hesitate for a moment, meeting her eyes, wondering what she’s doing. For a moment, I consider making a stand but think better of it.

  After I pass through the glass doors, we continue down the hall. The thug doesn’t follow. Instead, he remains in the vestibule by the entryway. Wine colored carpet stretches out in front of me as more gas lamps flicker, casting a warm glow on ornate wallpaper broken up by chunks of gold moldings, antiques, and paintings. We approach the far end of the corridor and a massive wooden door. Vic’s man is still in sight when Black steps close. Her lean body rounds with animal-like speed and shoves me into the door. She presses her breasts to mine and lowers her thick lashes. I can’t look away. I’m trapped between her body and the door. She warned me twice to play along. Is this what she’s talking about? Why would it matter if she…?

  Before I can finish the thought, her mouth is on mine, and her hand is my hair, commanding me—demanding that I kiss her back. She steals my breath as I tense in her hands. I can push her away and yell. I can try to overpower her, but Vic’s man is only a few paces away, watching us.

  Her mouth is hot, and she’s strong. There’s nothing shy about it. Not a second later, one hand holds my neck in place while the other slips down my side, and grabs the hem of my dress. Black slides her palm higher, making it disappear beneath the fabric of my dress.

  Play along and then what? I can’t think past that point because Black’s tongue meets mine in a fiercely commanding kiss. I nearly jerk away, but she pulls me harder toward her. I could fight back now and have Vic’s men restrain me, which will take away any chance I have, or I can wait and see how this plays out. People don’t like public displays of affection. It makes normal passersby look away. Vic would probably stare, but he’s not here—his guard is the one nearby, and the man appears extremely uncomfortable. He shifts his feet and avoids looking our way when Black kisses me.

  Fight her. Fight him. Or wait and play the game in a way that is possible to win? Right now my odds suck. After a moment, I jerk away, slamming my head into the door. Black’s hand flies and slaps my cheek before she clutches my face in her hand, leans in slowly, and then kisses me harder. The man remains where he is, his eyes bouncing around like a ball, jumping over us and then glancing at the floor. He looks back out the glass doors, shifts his weight, and then clears his throat.

  What the hell is Black doing? I decide to do the only rational thing—I cave. The tension leaves my body. I clear my head and stop fighting her. Eyes closed, I pretend she’s Sean. My hands cup her cheeks as I kiss her back, softly. She sighs in my mouth, and her arousal seems real, which confuses me. There’s a brief moment when she pulls back and looks at me before she slams me into the door, pressing her body tighter to me until our curves line up flawlessly. It’s odd, having this many breasts here. Before I can contemplate whether I’m excited by this or confused, the door opens.

  Black must have opened the door. She extracts herself from me and inclines her head toward the empty room, indicating I should enter before turning back toward the thug. She arches a brow at him and gives a sadistic smile before following me into the space and closing the door.

  Her fingers touch the corners of her mouth as her eyes rake over me. “That was rather convincing, but then again, so was your little stunt in the office. Are you considering changing teams, Miss Stanz?”

  I keep my back to her, against my better judgment, and glance around the room. The lamps are off, and the only reason I can see the tall bookcases and velvety furniture is because of the pale beams of moonlight coming in through the windows. They cut through the darkness, casting the room in boxy shadows.

  Still poking around, running the pads of my fingers over ancient books on a thick shelf, I toss over my shoulder. “As much as you are, I suspect.”

  When she doesn’t respond, I turn on my heel and look at the woman. I hate her, but there’s something there—something I almost comprehend. It’s as if she’s a mirror, a version of me a decade from now. I don’t like what I see.

  Black’s hand drops to her side as she walks across to the couch and sits softly. She places one hand on her lap, before lifting the opposite arm and resting it on the sofa back. She glances over at me. “Tell me, Miss Stanz—Avery—exactly what do you suspect?”

  “And spoil all the fun, Razelleia?” I lift a brow as I casually toss out her name, glaring at her, and fold my arms over my chest.

  Black snorts and rolls her eyes. “You don’t expect me just to tell you. That would be asinine.”

  “No,” I correct, “That would be prudent, and if you’re anything, you’re always carefully prepared. But not this time.” I pad over to the side of the couch and stand behind her, “Something threw you off your game tonight. No, not something, someone.”

  Black remains poised, but she’s holding her breath. I know I’m on the right path, but my conclusion doesn’t make any sense. Did she fall for me? Should I try and crack her or get the hell out of here? She managed to get us in a room alone. I need to know why, especially since she’s made no move to assault me with the fireplace poker. There’s no video camera as requested either, which makes me believe that Black has her plans.

  As I ponder my next move, she replies with a lazy flick of her manicured hand. “We all have someone who makes us aspire to be more.”

  “No,” I state firmly, “not you. You’re a loner. You’d never side with anyone but yourself. You’re just like—” Sean. I think it but don’t say the word. Is that it? Is this about Sean or me? I stand at the end of the couch opposite her, arms folded across my chest and wait.

  “Say it.” She glances up at the dark fireplace. “I’m just like him. Just like your brother.” Her dark gaze flicks up and latches onto mine, demanding that I meet her dark eyes. “You cannot offend me. Your insignificant observations cannot hurt me.”

  Black sits there, watching me carefully and radiating defiance. When she finally breaks her death-stare, she touches the golden keys that hang on the chain around her neck. She taps the one that has no diamonds, no intricate pattern, before working her jaw and resuming her former placid pose. Her crimson dress is still immaculate, unmarred. Unlike me. My black dress is torn and covered in Marty’s blood. Bits of grass cling to the soft fabric. I don’t brush the carnage off, and I don’t cringe at the sins that are clinging to my skin. I pace a few steps away before circling back to her.

  I redirect the conversation, trying to get at the core of this clusterfuck. “I never meant to do any of those things.” For a moment I think I need to explain my meaning. But it’s Black, and she somehow knows what I’m
talking about—I see it in the somber expression on her face. She knows the dark things I’ve done, the unspeakable sins that should leave me cowering at the person I’ve become.

  A moment of silence passes between us when Black barks a bitter laugh, shaking her head.

  I step toward her and curb the sharp words that want to slash at the vile woman before me. Instead, I ask, “Is this funny? Then say it. Say you regret all of this. Say you made a big fucking mistake.”

  Her ruby red lips reply with a single word. “No.”

  “Really? You can stare death in the face and befriend psychotic assholes, but you can’t admit how you feel about one man?”

  Her dark eyes meet mine with a softness that disarms me. “Emotions are the Achilles’ heel of life.”

  “That’s very poetic, but it doesn’t mean anything.”

  Black snaps, “Bullshit. It means everything. Emotions will lead you astray and ruin everything you’ve perfected. Then, when you least expect it, years after they’ve been buried and forgotten, a young girl will surface and bring those cancerous feelings back. It’s as if they were never gone at all.” She makes a bitter sound in the back of her throat as she lifts a hand to examine her nails. “Emotions become this colossal threat, constantly looming, and ready to break everything apart.”

  The sense of loss that fills the room is palpable. It's visible in Black's posture as she sighs and sinks back into the couch, pressing her manicured fingers to her temple. Hell, I can feel it, and I’m ninety-nine percent numb to everything. The hollowness of Black’s eyes have a haunted expression that she rarely reveals, but at this moment it is completely unguarded. Her long tapered fingers touch the gold chain around her neck again, curling it around her forefinger.

  She stares straight ahead, admitting flatly, “We die here, tonight—you and I. There’s no way out. I’d hoped…” She trails off and shakes her head before dropping her hands to her lap with a thump.

  I sit down at the other end of the couch, wanting more information. If the core of her statement is correct—there’s no way out of this hell—then she’s being held captive by Vic, too. I need to find out how.

  CHAPTER 7

  I slouch down into the cushions and pick the drying blood from under my nails, mainly to annoy Black. She’d smack a ruler onto my butt for my lack of perfect posture back when I first met her. Black was scary then. Now she just seems—lost. This is what’s left after the tiger stops shredding everything and realizes it’s trapped. There’s no snarling, no sharp comments, or ruthless stares. She doesn’t cower, but it’s as if she knows her fate and it ends here. Just like mine.

  If we have any chance of getting out of here, Black needs to snap out of it. I try to push her buttons and light her up. Teasing, I joke darkly, “What did you hope? To rule New York with Vic? Vic already has at least five lunatics living in his head. There’s no room for another.”

  Black snorts. The sound is so unexpected that I glance over at her. Her gaze lowers to the couch. “If I had it all to do again, I’d make the same choices. The same mistakes. The things I regret are not for me, but for him—Sean. Then you showed up and…” She lifts her eyes and meets mine. “I hated you for it. You pulled him from that eternal darkness where I could not.”

  I can’t look away. The pain etched across her face is pure. Her carefully constructed walls have disintegrated and blown away. There’s no point in keeping them erected if she won’t live to see daylight.

  I can’t help it. I half expect Black to be playing me but ask anyway, “Do you regret losing Sean?”

  Her expression remains blank. “If I’d stayed with Sean, he wouldn’t have been with Amanda. That train wreck would have never occurred.” She takes a long slow breath as if pulling on a cigarette. She stares ahead, her eyes unfocused, her mind fixed on a point in the past.

  After a moment the coldness in her gaze slithers back into place though her tone is far from calloused. “I accepted my lot in life, but I’ve never been able to accept Sean’s.”

  The way she cradles her body forward, it’s as if it’s the only thing holding her in one piece. Sincerity is there in full force, and I finally realize what she’s doing. This is a last confession. A tear rolls down her cheek, followed by another. She doesn’t swat them away but leaves the little river of regret visible on her face. Remorse spills from her soul like I’ve never seen before—not from Black.

  I don’t know what to say. Black's tears are curious, so I sit quietly, watching her as if she were an aberration. I’m leery of Black and always have been, but I need to know how she went from the calculating bitch of business to the woman in front of me now. As far as I can tell, that disconnect with my feelings broke clean away. There’s no fragment to cling to, to rebuild a bridge to my soul. That’s the real question. If she’s as I am now, soulless, how is she crying?

  The abrupt change in demeanor makes me wonder if this is an act to lure me into something worse or if she’s truly accepted this is the end.

  Still leery, I regard her carefully, evaluating every movement, every breath. “So what changed?” The question is intentionally vague, allowing her to shovel her hole deeper or redeem herself.

  Black lifts her chin to glare at me. There’s a sheen in those dark, cold eyes. “You.” Her mouth wraps around the word in a deliberate way. It’s as if she were spitting out a disgusting piece of meat on the pavement.

  “Me?” I ask, shocked. “What’d I have to do with anything?”

  Her eyes lock on mine. “That’s why this is so fucking troublesome. Vic wants you dead, and I’d kill you myself to get you out of the way, but—” She presses her lips together, locks her jaw, and cuts off the words. Her eyes close for a moment as she tips her chin to the side and shakes her head, brushing the traces of tears away.

  “But you couldn’t do that to Sean again.” That’s when I see it. She’s truly in love with Sean. Her actions have been to protect him. “Oh my God. This entire time—you were defying Vic and spared me for Sean. And then he died anyway?” My voice rises on the last part, making it come out like a question.

  Black looks up at me from under her damp lashes as she sits forward, glaring with thinly veiled hatred. “It was all for him, everything I did.” A smile breaks through and vanishes like the sun behind a cloud. “But it didn’t matter. Sean was too far gone. Nothing I offered helped to ease his pain. There was no way to reclaim the past. Then you appeared on my doorstep, a serendipitous event indeed.” She takes a long pull of air and leans back into the couch, her eyes raking my body before a menacing smile tugs at the corners of her mouth. “You could destroy me or free me from this nightmare. It all came down to you, and for the first time in my life, I was at a loss and didn’t know how to proceed.”

  “It didn’t seem like it.”

  As we’ve been talking, my posture changed from slouching to erect. Our bodies are mirroring each other. More head games from her, no doubt. I shift intentionally to see if she’s trying to manipulate me into thinking we’ve similar struggles, but she doesn’t move. Despite her hard exterior, there’s weakness penetrating the cracks of her withered soul. It’s difficult to tell if she’s breaking like I did or if there’s a point past this, a lower threshold, something darker and deeper.

  Black sneers. “Your Pollyanna naivety was amusing but short-lived. Stop pretending, Avery. This is your last confession, and most likely mine as well. If you have something to say, say it, or you may never have the chance.”

  I’m right. Black’s clearing her conscience, trying to accept her fate with dignity. I don’t know what I think about that.

  “Fine,” I blurt out. “I confess that I’m an idiot for not seeing sooner that you’ve had a target on my head since we met, and I suspect it goes back further than that. Does it? Why the hell was I singled out? Why’d you pick me?”

  Black releases a rush of air from her nostrils before standing on those long, lean legs. She leans a hip against the side of the couch and folds h
er arms over her chest. “You’re asking the wrong player. I’m not the chess master in this game. I got caught in the crossfire, same as you.”

  I try to meet her eyes, but she won’t do it. Shock fills me as I realize that it’s not defiance, but shame. I’m getting impatient, tired of being jerked around. “For once in your life, give me a straight answer. What the hell are you talking about?”

  She crosses the room to look out the windows, her gaze on the trees and keeping her back to me. The moon casts a rim light around her figure, making the edges of the scarlet dress appear to burn. “Did you not wonder why Sean was at the corner of Deer Park Avenue, day after day? Why he was furious when you showed up at the restaurant as one of my girls the first time?” She laughs bitterly and turns to look me over, her face in a condescending sneer. “How could you be so obtuse as to not puzzle it out?”

  The pieces were spinning in my mind for a long time, but then everything happened with Henry Thomas which snowballed into Vic chasing me down. I protest, “If one thing has been clear, it’s that Sean is on my side. He’s protecting me, so you’re insinuating—”

  She yells, her arms shooting from her sides, “Not Sean! Constance. Goddamnit, Avery.” She snaps my name as if I were a dog. She turns to face me, her face revealing the frustration inside of her. “I was two steps ahead of Constance Ferro, right up until you walked into the picture. That woman has everyone in her pocket—except me. Not me. Never. I could run my business my way and do whatever I wanted. I was untouchable. The one thing that could bring me down, the one place where I was vulnerable, was Sean.” The passion in her voice peaks mid-speech and then drops into a mournful wish by the time she utters the last word.

  I stand and walk over to her, stopping a few paces away, still leaving a healthy distance between us. “What are you talking about?”

 
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