The arrangement 22 (the ferro family)

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The Arrangement 22The Ferro FamilyH. M. WardLaree Bailey PressContents

Copyright

The Arrangement

1.CHAPTER 1

2.CHAPTER 2

3.CHAPTER 3

4.CHAPTER 4

5.CHAPTER 5

6.CHAPTER 6

7.CHAPTER 7

8.CHAPTER 8

9.CHAPTER 9

10.CHAPTER 10

11.CHAPTER 11

12.CHAPTER 12

13.CHAPTER 13

14.CHAPTER 14

15.CHAPTER 15

16.CHAPTER 16

17.CHAPTER 17

18.CHAPTER 18

COMING SOON:

PRE-ORDERS BY H.M. WARD

COMPLETED SERIES BY H.M. WARD

MORE FERRO FAMILY BOOKS

SUGGESTED FERRO SERIES READING ORDER

MORE ROMANCE BY H.M. WARD

CAN'T WAIT FOR H.M. WARD'S NEXT STEAMY BOOK?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This book isa work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 by H.M. Ward

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form.

LAREE BAILEY PRESS

First Edition: August 2016

ISBN: 978-1630351311, 9781630351526 (paperbacks)

ISBN: 978-1-63035-130-4

The ArrangementVolume 22CHAPTER 1

Adry runat Miss Black’s place seems like a good idea, assuming the whole thing doesn’t go to hell. If she’s hiding records regarding the source of her income in her home, they'll be locked up tighter than a vault. Part of me understands this is incredibly stupid, but there’s no going back. God, I feel sick.

We pile in the van with the two nerds, Mel, Marty and me in the back, Henry scowling from the passenger seat next to Sean. We slowly roll through a suburban neighborhood, passing landscaped houses with solar lights trailing along mulched beds leading to the inviting front doors. Cement walkways shift to stone, as the driveways change from concrete to intricately patterned brick pavers. We’re in the upper-class area now. Sean drives up and down the streets, searching for an address and scoping out the neighborhood.

I don’t want to be here. Thoughts flutter inside me like drunken bats, bouncing off my brain and landing with a THUD in my stomach. I don’t want to do this, but I have no choice. There’s no way to hide, no way to erase the past few weeks and pretend they never happened. If I don’t do this now, I’m as good as dead. It makes my stomach twist and my throat tighten, but I have no alternatives. Kill or be killed isn’t the type of situation I thought could ever happen to me. Not in a million years. I understand why my parents didn’t tell me, why they kept their secret—so I could live without fear, ignorantly enjoying my childhood. Had I not discovered how they tried to hide, how they spent years running, constantly watching over their shoulders, only to die anyway, I might have taken that path instead. I might not have chosen to kill someone to protect myself. Murder should never be the first choice, but can be a dark reality when life bends you past your breaking point.

There’s a hollowness in Sean’s eyes when he doesn’t notice I’m watching. He stares blankly, lost in thought, lost in the past. The Ferro mansion is a pile of rubble. He’s lucky he only lost his mother—it was possible he could have lost his entire family in that single explosion. I’m glad he doesn’t have to endure that pain. For once, I’m glad I didn't grow up with siblings. I can't imagine pulling them into this. Apologizing wouldn't fix a damned thing.

We’re going to be lucky to walk away from this alive. I’m not a fool. I know the odds are against us. But when there’s nowhere else to go, no other plan of action to free us, we have to stand and fight back.

Marty sits at my side, cautious, perched on the wheel-well, while I sit on the floor with my knees hugged to my chest, head tipped against the side of the van. His dark blonde hair is pushed back, slicked away from his eyes. There’s an empty can of gel somewhere. For possibly the first time since we met, I can see his whole face. The angular features of his cheek and jawline, coupled with the worry lines pinching the smooth skin between his brows and at the corners of his eyes, reveal his age to be older than me by several years. When his hair was a mop hanging in his face, he looked younger, innocent.

Marty glances at me as we drive through the darkness toward Black’s house. Those warm brown eyes see the things Sean misses. I know he senses I’m going to implode, that there’s too much remorse simmering inside of me, filling my mind with poison. It festers, turning my mood rancid.

I have no idea how Marty walks around with blood on his hands, how he can look in the mirror and see anything but a murderer. I’ve killed. The act of snuffing out another life is not something that vanishes, and it doesn’t matter if it was justified. It still stains me in a way that is impossible to treat. A little Stain Stick won't wipe my past clean. Nothing will.

My mind jumps to memories of Amber, but skitters away quickly, not wanting to fixate on her at all. It doesn’t matter, though. The center of my chest fills with concrete, and I can barely swallow. There’s a trail of bodies in my wake, so many lives lost. Even if it’s not my fault, it still feels like it is—it’s as if I killed her with my own two hands. Amber lived with me. She has a family somewhere who loved her, and now she’s gone.

We roll slowly down another street in Black’s Eastern Long Island neighborhood, passing homes nestled on half an acre and surrounded by towering trees. As we roll by, a yellow sign reading, HORSE CROSSING, catches my eye.

Mel sits across from me, her feet tucked under her butt with her hands on her thighs, her eyes burning a hole into the side of my face. She’s leaning forward a little, ready to pounce. Her eyebrows knit together, and I can’t stand it anymore.

I finally lift my head from the wall of the van and glare at Mel, "What? Why are you staring at me like that?”

Mel cocks her head, making her gold hoop earrings sway. “Stop thinking.”

I frown involuntarily, then glance up at her and ask, "Are you telling me you don’t think about anything? Like anything? Ever?”

“No,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t relive things I can’t change. I see that look in your eye—you’re thinking about something you didn’t want to do. It’s over, Avery. Focus on what lies ahead.”

I avoid her gaze and find myself looking at Sean’s profile again. “The past doesn’t work like that, Mel. It’s always there. It doesn’t go away just because I want it to leave.”

“If you let it, that weight will settle around your shoulders and crush your neck until your throat closes too tight to breathe. That’s when you jump off a bridge or wander onto the Expressway begging God to be hit by a big rig. Fight, Avery. Chase it away. Surviving doesn’t mean shit if your brain is too jacked up to enjoy living.”

Mel has a somber expression on her face. She's wearing a dark tracksuit with the hood pulled loosely over her head, her gold earrings glinting in the darkness.

I turn away, desperate to look anywhere else. Sean and Henry sit rigid and silent in the front. Goatee and Justin are crammed into a corner, looking paler than usual. Marty stares out a window silently. A chainsaw couldn't cut through the tension in the vehicle.

I squirm and look up at Sean. “Why are we circling her house? We’ve been down this street four times already.”

Henry sighs and glances back over his brown tweed shoulder at me. “We’re looking for anomalies, other possible residences she may use in conjunction with her primary home. Like this one,” he points as we drive by a small white house. “It’s registered to Cecelia Black—that was her mother.”

Mel barks, “How’d you know that? I don’t even know Black’s first name. How’d you find out who her mother was?” Mel glances at me and adds, “I totally thought Black was a fake name.”

“Me too,” I admit.

Sean lingers at a stop sign and turns, looks at me, and explains, “Henry possesses an exceptional talent for research—especially information buried for years, for which supposedly no records remain.”

Henry scoffs, “There’s always a record. What idiot would think there wasn’t?” He picks a piece of lint off his black sweater vest and watches it fall to his slacks, frowns, and repeats the movement.

Mel offers, “Black? Am I right? I'd bet a Benjamin she thought there wasn’t a trace of her past anywhere.”

“She wiped everything years ago," Sean says, nodding, "but there’s always someone who remembers—some overlooked source who knows the truth.”

“And if you find said person,” Henry continues shaking the piece of lint off his fingertip, “and offer a financial incentive to recall forgotten things, it’s amazing what information you can attain.” Speck forgotten, he beams as he glances back at us. His gaze meets Mel’s, and he winks at her.

“Big deal," Mel blurts out, frowning. "You waved your money around and discovered her name. So spill, what is it?”

Henry is practically giddy. He grips the back of the seat, pivoting completely around and beaming at us. “You couldn’t possibly guess! It’s as if the woman wanted to be Rumpelstiltskin!”

Mel isn’t amused. Her face is devoid of expression. She says flatly, “What’s her name?”

CHAPTER 2

Henry makesan annoyed sound in the back of his throat. “Honestly, you’re no fun at all. Her full name is Razelleia Vita Black.”

I speak up, “Sean, did you know that?” They had a thing for a while, so he probably knew. I don’t ask him much about that relationship. It’s in the past, and he’s no longer the same man.

Sean shakes his head and glances over his shoulder, his eyes sincere in the amber light from the streetlamp. “No, she never told me.”

That’s weird. Black talked about Sean like their relationship was close. Maybe the intimacy was one-sided and lived mostly in someone’s crazy mind. I prod a bit more. “I thought you were friendly at one point. What did you call her?”

“Babe,” Mel snorts, reaches across, and chucks my knee, laughing.

Sean rolls his eyes. “It wasn’t like that. We kept things formal. There was no use of first names, and I’d prefer not to speak of this in present company.”

I don’t answer. Instead, I concentrate on Sean's chiseled profile and the sweep of his dark hair. Although it was a long time ago, it still makes me ache for him. Not in a dirty way, but in a soul-crushing, hideously sad way. Sean wasn't close to anyone for a long time. It must have been awful to go through so much while being that isolated.

“Bloody lunatics, the both of you.” Henry spits out the words, suddenly devoid of his trademark light, teasing tone. Anger rolls over him and he visibly prickles. “What do women see in you? How could Amanda choose to live with the likes of you?”

The van is suddenly silent as Sean’s jaw locks. His grip on the steering wheel tightens until his knuckles blanch. Mel's jaw gapes with shock, while I sit painfully aware of how hard that hit landed. Still, Sean doesn’t reply.

Henry groans and prattles on, “How could you possibly seek warmth or comfort in this man, Avery? His previous lovers are worse for the wear from being with him. Amanda is lucky she died at his hand, or she’d be in a lunatic asylum like his other victim—I mean lover. It just goes to show—ow!” Henry stops his rant and glares at Mel, who has climbed over the techies to pop him across the back of his head in the passenger seat.

“What the hell gives you the right to shit on other people’s misery?” Mel scolds as she swats at his head again. “You had the hots for Amanda, but she picked Sean. Get over it. The man lost his wife! Do you think he doesn’t feel?”

Henry swats back. “Of course not! Look at him! He has about as many feelings as a robot!” Mel slaps Henry in the back of the head—hard. He stills and narrows his gaze at her, yelling, “Bloody hell, woman!”

Mel is stepping on the geeks as she tries to take another swing. “You’ve got eyes, but you don’t see jack shit.”

“Who’s he? I know a Jack Shat, but that’s all.” Henry teases.

Mel slaps him again. “You think this is funny? You think I haven’t figured out what happened between you and Sean yet? Wake up, white boy!” Mel goes to slap the back of his head again, but he dodges, swaying in his seat. Justin finally manages to crawl to the back of the van with the other guy tumbling after.

“There’s no way you know,” Henry returns.

“Well, I do.” Mel glares at him.

Henry laughs lightly holding up a hand like a historian in a lecture hall. “Enlighten us, madam. Pray tell, just what occurred between us?”

Mel grins, glances at me, then Sean, then back at Henry. “You two knew each other, were friends even.”

“Anyone could see that—” Henry sighs.

“I’m not finished,” Mel snaps. “You two were close until Amanda came running to Sean for help. He didn’t steal your girl. In fact, he did everything he could to keep his distance—but you got suspicious and went batshit crazy on them. You ruined your relationship with Amanda, not Sean. Then you carried your shit over into your work and sabotaged him. Amanda caught you and any chance of winning her back vanished. It’s your own damned fault you lost her, so stop blaming Sean for your idiotic mistakes. And for the love of Christ, can we just clear the air once and for all?”

Sean shakes his head slightly and hisses at Mel, “Don’t—”

I reach for Mel, warning, “Mel, wait—”

Mel swats at me and glares at Sean. “Sean didn’t kill Amanda. There was no murderer.”

“What are you talking about?” Henry twists in his seat to see Mel.

“Mel, don’t—” I try to cover her mouth with my hands, but she shoves me away. Marty leans forward, intrigued. The tech guys press themselves to the van door, looking as if they’re ready to bolt.

I manage to wrap my hands around her face, covering her mouth. I hiss at her, “Don’t you dare! It’s not your secret to tell!”

Henry is more intrigued now. He glances at Sean. His voice takes on a softness I haven't heard before. “What’s she talking about?”

Sean tenses. “Nothing. She doesn’t know a thing.” He glances at me, thinking I told Mel.

I shake my head. “Sean, I didn’t tell her a thing.”

“Tell her what?” Henry yaps.

Mel licks my hand, and when I don’t move, she sinks her teeth into the meaty part of my palm. I shriek. Then, Mel moves fast and pins me down to the van floor. “Amanda killed herself, stupid. So every time you blame Sean, you sound like a fucking moron.”

“What?” Henry glares at Sean, demanding an answer. “The papers said you did it. No one even suggested suicide during your trial.”

Sean pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes for a moment. “I wanted it that way. If people had known she did it on purpose, that she chose to take our baby’s life with her own, they would have been cruel. It would have broken her parents' hearts. It would have devastated anyone who knew her.” Sean glances up at Henry, and it becomes clear he never told Henry a thing because he still thought of the guy like a brother.

There’s complete silence. The two nerds glance at the ceiling and twiddle their thumbs like they’d love to be anywhere else. Marty's eyebrows lift with shock, but he doesn't utter a word. No one dares to speak. It’s as if he cast a massive blanket over us, letting it slowly settle around us.

Henry’s face crumples as he strangles his trousers. “You never said—Sean, why?”

Sean is silent, staring straight ahead.

Mel sighs, and answers softly, “Because he cares about you, fool. While you’ve spent the past decade trying to ruin him, Sean was hiding the truth from you because he knew how much it would hurt you. If that man is your enemy, I need some new friends. Holy fuck—Sean had your back, and you didn’t even know.”

I’m squashed under Mel, still pinned to the floor. “And how did you find out all this stuff, Melanie?”

She grins. “I got people.”

I give her a look. “Is your people a stocky, middle-aged man who works for the—?” Mel stuffs her hands over my mouth to shut me up. I balk and kick at her, accidentally lobbing Justin’s nose with my shoe.

“Hey!” Justin pushes me away. “Watch it.”

“Chill out, Nerd. It’s only a flesh wound.” Mel glances at him, shifting her weight to free me. “If you say it, you’re in deep shit. Don’t even think it.”

Sean lets out a long sigh at the front of the van. “Gabe told you.”

“Hey!" Melanie turns toward him, shocked. "How’d you know that?”

Sean twists around and shoots her a look. “Now that everyone knows everything—including two petrified members of my tech team—can we please get on with this?”

Henry is pale, all the color having drained from his face. “I had no idea. My God! Sean, what you must have lived through—all for her.” He sits there, stunned.

“This isn’t open for discussion,” Sean states. “We have a job to do, so let’s get it done. The mother’s house first, then the main house. I’ll park around the block.” We’ve been sitting at the stop sign way too long.

Henry is speechless, as Sean rolls forward and then turns the wheel as he eases into a spot by the curb.

After a moment, Henry breathes, “Nothing has shocked me as much as you just did. I don’t know you at all, do I?”

Mel smacks Henry in the back of the head again, “No, you dumbass. You don’t, and since we’re not on Oprah, let's get moving. You two can kiss and make up later. That’d be something worth seeing, am I right?” Mel waggles her eyebrows at the tech guys, Marty, and me, while Sean presses his eyes closed, channeling enough patience not to kill her.