The Arrangement Vol. 15 by H.M. Ward

CHAPTER 1

I stagger backward and mutter things that make no sense before my hands fly over my mouth. Images flash before my eyes of things I've said to Amber and how Naked Guy tried to hurt me. The memories dance like restless ghosts, conjuring an eruption of emotions. Now they're both dead. Gone. Amber sits there staring blankly with her eyes open. I turn and vomit on the hallway floor. Sean grabs my arm and pulls me away, all the while he's talking to Gabe, who's nodding. The old guy closes the door.

"That was supposed to be me." I swallow hard, not realizing I spoke aloud. My eyes are too wide, and my heart is racing too fast. My legs twitch like I need to run but they won't move.

Sean has a tight grip on my wrist. He tugs, so I look up at him. "Nothing will happen to you." He speaks with such certainty, as if he knows he can protect me, but how can he know that? How can he be sure?

Stomach churning, my eyes cut to him as we race down the stairwell. My voice quivers when I speak, "He knows me. This is personal and it's about me." I don't really think about what I'm saying, it's just a gut impression that's taken hold of my heart. Something about this makes me think it, and the thought won't shake. I feel it in my bones and I just know it's true.

Sean shoves through the metal door, out of the dorm, and into the parking lot. Before I know it, we're in his car and lost in traffic. That's when he speaks. "Why do you think he knows you?"

My eyes fixate on nothing and scan every car, every tree, and every person as the car crawls through the gridlock. "It looked angry, not random. Amber saw him, but the guy under the bedding didn't. Those shots, the places where he put the bullets." I stop speaking and cringe. The shots to the groin and shoulders didn't kill him. The murderer made him suffer before putting the final bullet in his body. "It just didn't seem impersonal to me. If that was you…"

I suck in a shaky breath and bite my tongue. I couldn't bare it. We were supposed to be in that room, the dead couple should have been us. Amber wasn't supposed to be there. But, that means this isn't some insane vigilante doing a moral cleansing of Black's hookers, not if it left two of my acquaintances dead. "What did I do? I don't even know what I did to deserve this? Sean?" I'm panicking, pleading, looking over at him.

Sean swallows hard and those big blue eyes are filled with fear. He's going to lose me. Either I'm going to walk out or someone is going to put a bullet in my head. I ramble about the mistaken identity of the call girl in the hotel room, how everyone thought it was one of Black's girls. The whole thing seems like a scattered mess, but it's not. I just don't see the common thread. There has to be one. I have to find it before he makes another attempt, before more people die.

Numbly, I tell him, "Take me to Henry Thomas."

Sean glances over at me like I'm crazy. "No." His voice is firm and sounds more like a scold than a response. There's no way he'll let me near Henry, but he's the only common thread I see.

I explain my thoughts to Sean. "He's the only connection. We have to confront him. We can't wait for him to come for me. Go there, now."

Sean shakes his head. "Avery, you're not thinking."

"Sean, I can't take this anymore!" My hands are balled and slam into my lap. They're clenched so tightly that my nails bite into the soft flesh of my palms.

Suddenly, Sean slams down the accelerator pedal and I'm thrown back into my seat. He cuts across traffic like a race car driver, and gets off the parkway before turning around. We were headed toward the strip club, but now we aren't. I glance over at him. "Where are we going?"

His features are stoic and the mask is in place, the one that I tried so hard to shatter so the real Sean would shine through. He grips the wheel tightly, making his knuckles pale. "I need to speak with someone."

"Who? Everyone is at the club."

"No, not everyone." He works his jaw and takes a moment to reveal the rest of his thoughts to me. He darts through traffic, cutting in and out with ease. He knows this car and how to handle her as well as he knows every inch of my body. When he glances over at me, he adds, "The most sly, cunning person is at the mansion. I need to speak with my mother."

CHAPTER 2

When we walk inside the Ferro residence, it's quiet. Sean paces the grand foyer like a school boy with a bad grade. He taps his fingers to his palms over and over again, while he waits for his mother to accept his arrival. I can't imagine it. How is this a home? How is Constance a mother if she makes her son wait at the door—but those were the directions. No one is to be admitted into the residence this afternoon without her permission.

A butler returns with a grave expression on his face, and bows to Sean. "Mrs. Ferro states that you may wait for her in her favorite room." The man turns and starts to walk away. We follow him down opulent hallways and past shiny marble statues. Priceless paintings line the walls from various artists that haven't walked the earth for ages.

I point at one, gaping, "Is that real?" I recognize it from a textbook. The colors are a medley of blues and a man stands with his back to us, staring out at the sea that crashes around him. I remember the piece because I liked the way it made me feel when I looked at it. I didn't know if the man was happy, sad, or waiting for someone to return. The way he stares at the sea is the way I stare at the stars, wondering and waiting for something to save me from this hellish life I've fallen into. At the same time, his posture, the squareness of his shoulders, and the way he clasps his hands behind his back state that he is not a victim in the least. His confidence, despite the sea spray and the rocks that symbolize peril, is inspiring. I stop in front of it unable to look away.

Sean gives me a small smile and takes my pointing finger in his hand to turn me toward him before he nods. "It is. But, you must never discuss money with my mother. Ever. That includes her treasures, as she calls them." He tips his head toward the painting.

"Why did we come here?" I ask, just as we round the corner to a glass room filled with flowers and plants. In the center of the room is a clearing with a beautiful antique white table with two chairs. A bottle of wine sits on top, opened. Constance Ferro is standing in the center, wearing a silk robe and a pair of matching slippers with a glass of wine in her hand. She swirls the contents carefully, examining it as if it might be poisoned.

"Yes, my thoughts exactly." Constance is wearing a blood-colored duster with a floral pattern burnt into the silk. It makes her hair look like spun gold. After placing the wine glass down, she clasps her hands together and then parts them as she tips her head to the side with a viper-like smile on her aged lips. "What on earth would make my most resentful offspring dare to show his face unannounced?"

Sean's gaze flicks over his mother's outfit without concealing his disdain. "Another consort?"

"No, a lover. Consort is such a cold word, Sean. Really. I don't know where you get it from. Either way, you're wasting my time and I'm needed elsewhere. You mustn't spoil other people's delights." She smiles so falsely that I think her porcelain face might crack. "So tell me the reason for your joyous visit, or keep your silent thoughts to yourself, turn, and walk away." Constance continues her serene pose the entire time she speaks, like her words aren't barbed and filled with venom.

Sean stiffens. I can't imagine what's going through his mind. I glance over at her and then back at him. If I didn't know better, I'd think Sean is afraid of her. That makes two things that scares the bejesus out of him—love and his mother. No wonder he's so messed up.

When Sean doesn't speak, Constance makes an annoyed sound, and turns on her heel to walk away. I blurt out, "There was blood." My throat is still too tight to speak, but it's enough. She stops and turns slowly, looking back at me.

Constance crosses the room, one slippered foot at a time, and looks down into my face. A dark brow raises high and disappears under her hair. My heart thumps in my chest and feels like I've tripped down a staircase.

"Where?" She glares at me when she spits out the word.

I maintain eye contact even though it's like staring down a rabid bear. There's no doubt in my mind that this woman could eat me alive. I steady my voice as best I can. "In my room. In his room. Everywhere."

Sean is still silent. His jaw is mashed shut and his fingers clenched. His mother looks over at him. "And you think it's him?" It sounds like she's referring to someone that Sean already knows.

"It's possible." Sean's terse tone doesn't go unnoticed.

Constance laughs. "It can't be—he's not even in New York."

Sean's arms fold over his chest and he exhales loudly. He demands, "Who's seen him?"

I raise a finger. Interjecting, "Who are we talking about?" But they ignore me.

Constance mirrors her son's stance. "Everyone. Dear God, Sean. You surely don't think he'd do something like this?"

Sean becomes the man I first met, intimidating and overbearing. He seems to grow an inch or two in that moment. His deep voice resonates as he steps closer to his mother with determination in his voice. "Actually, I do, otherwise I wouldn't be standing here. You were friends with his family. You know where his father is, and I'm guessing he's waiting for you now." They glare at each other in a silent storm. There's so much passing between them, so much that I don't know.

Sean finally breaks the quiet standoff. "Where is his son?"

Constance laughs and her features change, softening quickly. "His son had his ribs broken because of your toy here, and wants to avoid you at the moment. Don't worry, I'm sure he'll come after you again, just not right now."

I blurt out, "Are you talking about Henry?" They both look at me.

Constance sneers and then addresses Sean. "Take a long moment to stop and consider who the real target is here. A dead pilot, dead call girls, all who were supposed to be near you, my dear."

"Then, why did he keep returning to Avery's room?" Sean asks.

"Because you were there." Constance appears smug and turns away, as if she's had enough and is going to leave.

"How do you know all of this?" I ask, and she looks amused. The pilot? How does she know about him? Does she know I killed him or just that he's missing? Maybe she's bluffing and doesn't know anything, but from the look on Sean's face, that can't be true.

His mother turns toward me with a narrowed gaze. "Avery Stanz, it's my job to know everything from the color of your eyes to the amount of money you have in your checking account. You're fu**ing my son. Enjoy his body all you want, but you won't get a dime of my fortune."

My hackles rise. I step forward to chew her out, but Sean places a hand on my shoulder. He speaks over me. "She doesn't want to be a part of this family, Mother. I already asked her. Do you see a ring? No, so there's your answer, and you can stop behaving so defensively." He doesn't look at me or let me speak. Instead, he steps closer to his mother, leaving me behind them. In a low voice he demands, "Find out what I need to know."

"You mean, find out if it was Henry Thomas?" Constance is practically laughing at him.

Through his teeth, Sean hisses, "Yes."

"And what favor will you grant in return?" Constance tips her head to the side and swings the tassel on her gown once before slapping it into the center of her palm. She does it without looking, and with such ease that I get the distinct impression that she's whipped people and thoroughly enjoys it. I wonder if she laid a strap to Sean, if some of the mental scars are from physical abuse. She seems like the Mommy Dearest type, except her lash isn't given in a fit of rage—it's cold and calculated.

My jaw drops at her vile comment. I can't help it and speak out of shock. "You think that someone is trying to kill your son and it's a favor to help keep him alive?"

"It is a favor." She snaps at me, before giving me a stare so evil that the Devil must have taught it to her. Her gaze flicks back to her son. "So, what will it be, Sean? Ditching the trailer trash and going home sounds like an amiable bargain. I hear your wife-to-be is missing you."

Sean watches his mother for a second and I'm horrified because she's talking about me. She thinks I don't know about his fiancée, but I already do. Nothing in the world would make Sean agree to that bargain, but he puts his hand out and she takes it.

Sean replies stoically, "Done."

Constance grins triumphantly as they shake hands. "Wonderful."

CHAPTER 3

I'm not wearing Sean's ring. I have no right to blow up at him and scream in his face, but I want to. The ride back to the club is filled with tense silence. Sean grips the wheel until I think it's going to break off in his hands. His forehead is drawn together forming angry lines, and I know he's lost in thought, livid.

I stare out my window, equally enraged. He accepted help from the devil and traded me in like I was worthless. I was his bargaining chip. He threw me away like a piece of trash. Sean didn't even hesitate. It feels like he ripped my heart from my chest and handed it to his mother. I can't take this anymore.

When he pulls into the club's parking lot, Sean slams on the breaks and jumps out. He doesn't open my door, or wait for me. He disappears into the building without a word. I trail after him, not knowing what to do or say. I'm furious, but I can't react, not now. Not here.

When I push through the door, no one is around. I hear Sean's voice behind the closed office door. He's arguing with Jon, and it sounds like Bryan is in there too because someone is laughing. Only he'd be crazy enough to laugh at Sean when rage is pouring off the man in sheets.

There's a worn black couch in the back corner. I head over and sit down hard, slipping lower into the seat until I look like a sulking teenager. Leaning my head against the backrest, I stare at the ceiling. There are two ways to look at this situation—I rejected Sean, so he's agreed to his mother's request because it doesn't change anything. Or, he's trying to protect me and is willing to give me up to do it.

A tear is about to fall from the corner of my eye when the seat next to me dips. "Hey," Trystan says, and hands me a tissue.

I have no idea why Sean hates him so much. Trystan is one of the nicest guys I know. I take it and dab. "Thanks."

He doesn't ask me what's wrong, or pry. He just sits there, slumped back like me, and crosses his arms over his chest. That ring glints from below his shirt as he stares at nothing. "So, I'm thinking philosophy is bullshit. The more I think about it, the more it seems like fate is a bunch of crap. I mean, that's the same thing as walking around and letting luck guide your life, right?"