- The Arrangement 9
The corners of Sean’s lips twitch, as if he wants to smile. “Are you jealous, Miss Smith?”
“Don’t call me that, and don’t change the subject. Who is she?”
The woman steps forward with a wrinkle at the dead center of her eyebrows. “I think there’s been a misunderstanding. I’m Mr. Ferro’s assistant for the Granz Project.”
“For what now?” Mel barks, folding her arms over her chest. Seriously, Mel and I look like vagrants. All we need is an old shopping cart and a bottle of booze.
“This house. Mr. Ferro is restoring this old home and I’m the person in charge.” Her big brown eyes blink at me and then Mel. When no one says anything, she adds, “I’m his employee.” A nervous smile flitters across her mouth and then disappears.
Sean continues to stare at me while his business buddy speaks.
Mel clarifies, “So there’s no nothing going on between the two of you? You’re not his wife, hidden in the suburbs or something?”
The woman’s eyes go wide and she takes a step back as her hand covers her heart. “Oh God, no!”
“Yeah, but you seem kinda cozy—”
The woman looks mortified. “I’m a family friend. Sean and I were children together. He gave me this job and that’s it. I’m not his wife! I don’t even like him.” She glances at Sean. “Well, not like that. It’d be like dating my brother.” She makes a face and laughs. “Sorry, but that’s gross.” She pats Sean’s shoulder and walks back to the construction in front of the little house.
Sean watches me the entire time, never looking away. Those blue eyes pin me in place, stealing my breath away. Mel slaps me in the back. “Well, then…”
“Yeah…” I say, and rub my hand over the back of my neck, suddenly feeling the need to look at my feet. “So, Granz—isn’t that your brother’s name?” He nods. “So, you’re building him a house?”
“Restoring a house. It’s a gift. Did you seriously think that I turned you down because I already had the white picket fence with the wife stashed somewhere?”
Oh God, I can’t even look at him. It sounds really bad. He takes my chin in his hand and tips it up. Our gazes lock and my brains fly away. A few stray thoughts bang against my skull like drunk bats. “It seemed reasonable. Nothing else made sense.”
He smiles sadly at me. “I told you the truth. I’m not a marrying man. There’s too much—” he stops talking and looks over at Mel, who is leaning towards us, not wanting to miss a thing. “Do you mind?”
She puts her hands behind her back and shakes her head. “No, not at all. Go on.”
“Ah, Mel…” I ask and smile at her, hoping she’ll take a hint and go for a walk.
Mel rolls those amber eyes and then turns on her heel. She chases after the chick working for Sean and asks to see the house. Mel looks over her shoulder at me and points to the front door, telling me that she’s going inside. I nod and wave at her.
Turning back to Sean, I don’t know what to say. “I’ve been trying to get on with things and act like you don’t matter, but you do. The thing is, I want a relationship with you and there seems to be no way to have one.”
Sean leans to the side and drops his helmet to the ground before stepping toward me. His lips are parted like there are things he wants to say, but doesn’t know how. The haunted expression that I’ve seen on his face so many times is lost for the moment. There’s no past and no future. All we have is right now and we both know it. We’re toe to toe when Sean lifts his hands and brushes his fingers against my cheek. I lean into his palm and hold it to the side of my face as his other hand slips back into my hair. “I know. I’ve been thinking about you a lot, too.”
I smile sadly. “Tell me why. I mean, you mentioned it before, but I felt like you didn’t really tell me why you didn’t want to get married.”
“Avery, don’t you see what’s standing in front of you? You deserve so much more than I could possibly give you—”
“That’s not a reason.” I hold onto his hand, but pull it away from my cheek. Keeping his hand in mine, I look at our fingers. They intertwine perfectly. There’s no awkward hand holding, where you don’t know whose fingers go where, and he doesn’t have cactus hands that are covered in calluses. He’s perfect for me. He knows it, I feel like he knows it, but he’s holding back. I smile grimly and look up at him. “After last night, I thought we had a shot. I mean, I really thought you might say yes, but I guess I was wrong.”
“I don’t follow.”
I pull the ring from my pocket and place it in his palm. “I bought this for you. I was going to propose.”
My voice catches in the back of my throat and I take a deep breath to muffle the sound. Then I smile too brightly and continue to talk, like it’s for the best even though I’d rather be shot in the head. “Some things aren’t meant to be, I guess. Maybe we’re too alike,” I shrug and talk to his feet. “I mean, we’re both so f**ked up that it’s amazing we haven’t been committed. Getting married would probably just make life harder for both of us. It’s not like it’d fix anything, and just because you love someone—well, it doesn’t mean anything. Love isn’t enough, is it?” I glance up at him and see Sean shake his head.
He looks down at the ring in his palm and turns it over, examining the carved band and the stone. “You picked this out for me?” I nod, like a despondent teenager. If I throw in a ‘whatever,’ I’d nail it. He lets out a slow rush of air and tilts his head to the side, looking back at me. “Why the pattern and stone? It’s an interesting choice for a wedding band.”
Tucking a piece of hair behind my ear, I take it back from him and run my finger over the pattern. “It’s woven together, string by string, just like life. Sometimes it seems like those little threads snap and we’re left hanging. Marriage weaves them together, so even if one string breaks, there are others to hold us up.”
“And the stone?”
“Blood binds, but so does pain. I don’t know. We’ve both been through so much that we’ve bled our hearts out and have nothing to show for it. Maybe that sounds morbid, but that stone looks like a drop of blood. It reminds me of everything we’ve been through and that we’re still standing.”
I smile at him shyly and pinch the ring between my thumb and index finger. I hold it up to the sunlight and watch the stone turn bright red. “I was going to ask you to share my life.” I take a deep breath and look over at him. Sean’s eyes are on the ring, sparkling in the sunlight. His jaw is locked tight, like I said something horrible. I brush his arm with mine and smile at him. “It’s fine. I’m not going to ask you.”
“You’re not?” His eyes flick back to mine.
“Then, why’d you show me and tell me all that?”
“So you’d know what you are missing.”
“Avery,” he says, reaching for me. But I step away.
Pocketing the ring, I glance up at him with a soft smile on my face, feeling less fragile than a moment ago. “It’s fine. Buy me when you come to town, or do what you did last night, but you have to realize that I’m going to have other clients eventually. Marty can’t buy me every weekend.”
As soon as Marty’s name comes out of my mouth, Sean looks livid. “Marty?”
“Yeah, Marty. I was with him the night before last.”
Sean’s entire body tenses. He tries so hard to hide it, but he can’t. Out of all people to be threatened by—Marty? Seriously? Sean’s fingers stretch and bend, as he cracks them one by one. “Anyone else we know?”
Is he jealous? Oh my God, he’s sexy when he’s like this. I realize that I’m lighting a firecracker with a blowtorch, but I do it anyway. “Henry Thomas. He seems to have an issue with you. Gabe beat the shit out of him when he took it out on me.”
That does it. Sean snaps. He steps towards me and pulls me into his arms, crushing me to his chest. It wasn’t the reaction I was going for, but I don’t protest. His hands grip the back of my head fiercely and when he pulls away he looks a little scary. Okay, very scary. His head twitches ever so slightly as all the muscles in his neck strain so tight that they’re ready to pop. “Thomas hurt you?” The words come out one by one. I feel the muscles in his arms flex and relax over and over again, like he’s trying to calm himself down but can’t.
“A little. It scared me more than hurt me. Why does he hate you?”
Sean presses his eyes closed and pinches the bridge of his nose. “He had something that I wanted a few years back. I took it. He hates me and the feeling is mutual. The only reason I sold him that patent was because of you. I wanted to make you happy, but seeing you with him killed me.” Sean looks down at me with a hurricane of emotions in his eyes. “Fuck, and you were with Marty, too? I’m not going to be able to let that guy walk around with his nuts intact, you know that, right?”
“Amber is trying to get me to do a threesome…” I look up into his eyes with my face totally blank. I don’t know why I said it—to get a reaction I guess, but Sean just laughs and turns his back on me.
He starts to walk back toward the house. I follow after and fall into step beside him. “Are you?”
“Am I, what?”
“Are you going to do it?” He shakes his head. “Forget it. Don’t tell me. You’ve probably done worse than that for Black, by now.” He looks over at me with question in his eyes, like he wants to know, but doesn’t.
“I was going to ask you to marry me even though you have some serious issues with sex and call girls. Are you really going to condemn me for being one of those call girls?”
Sean grins at me and shakes his head. “You f**ked me in more ways than you will ever know.”
“Oh, I think I do.”
“No, you seriously don’t. I haven’t…” his voice drops and he stops. Sean leans in close and rests his hand on my arm. “There’s been no one. I can’t even tell you how badly I need to feel what that kind of sex makes me feel, but Avery—I can’t. You freakin’ broke me. I sent a hooker home last night.”
“Last night? Wait, what? You were with a hooker last night?”
He nods and looks over at me, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. “Yeah, well, not for long. I didn’t realize it until she got there, but I didn’t want her. I wanted you.” I blink at him over and over again. He sees the look on my face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Everything. The things he’s said that don’t make sense start to snap into place. I’m almost too afraid to ask, but I do it anyway. “Uh, Sean. What’s your cell number?”