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The Arrangement Vol. 18(2)

By:H.M. Ward

Sean is being uncommonly kind, especially for him. "Avery, this isn't the time to argue. Besides, you two are good for each other."

"Ahhh," I nod, catching his meaning, "Trystan. You think I belong with him."

"He's the safer choice." Sean seems serious when he says it, like he thinks I actually have a better shot with Trystan than with him.

It makes me irate but I temper my rage, holding it just below the surface. "I don't understand. You'd rather see me in the arms of another man?"

"No," his voice is barely a whisper, and sounds almost like a confession. "But I messed up too many times, and I keep telling you that I can't be the guy you want-the guy you need. Trystan can. He's going to ask you-"

"Shut up about Trystan. He's not the one I want. I want you."

Sean steps away and shakes his head. "It's too late."

"It's never too late. I do anything and everything, for a price. Remember, Mr. Jones?" My voice is even, confident. A pen and pad of paper catch my eye. I pace over to them and scrawl my terms onto the pad. Then I hand it back to him.

Sean glances at the paper and then looks up at me. "Are you coming on to me, Miss Smith?"

"Don't be absurd." I'm so sleepy that I can't tell if I'm thinking clearly. But it seems like a good idea, so I go with it. "It's a business contract, nothing more, nothing less. I heard you're a business man."

"I am, which is why there needs to be an additional clause..." Sean takes the paper and adds something.

When he hands it back to me, my stomach flips. "Those aren't the usual terms."

Sean smirks at me. "I'm an unusual man. Besides, fucking a married woman once in a while would be hot. And in the meantime, you have your best friend close by."

My heart pounds harder. I didn't come here expecting this, but I'm not backing down. I snatch the pen and add a few terms and then push it back at him. "Oh," tapping the pen to my lips, I add, "and my fee is doubled since your terms are so specific." I don't expect him to go for it. I think I'm just calling his bluff-because marrying Trystan Scott is insane.

"And let me guess, you're cutting Black out of the deal?" Sean watches me with those blue eyes, slowly sliding them up and down my body as I write.

I don't look up. "Maybe."

"She'll come after you if she finds out."

"Is that a threat, Mr. Jones?" I step toward him and raise a brow, holding the paper in one hand.

"It is. If you don't follow through with your end, Black will find out and you won't like what happens next." The threat doesn't feel hollow, but the smile on his face negates his menace. Sean's hand strokes the edge of my cheek and dips down my neck, lingering above my chest.

We're back at the beginning, and it kills me.

I thought we'd come so far, but I'm back to signing contracts and agreeing to be his sex toy. That's exactly what the terms stipulate-I belong to him and agree to do what he says-including being Trystan's girlfriend and maybe more.

Softly, I ask, "Trystan knows?"

Sean nods, and moves around behind me. Whispering in my ear, he says, "Sign it." His hands are wrapped around my middle and his warm breath makes me want to melt into him. I want so many things in this moment, but the one that screams the loudest is that I wish he was real, I wish this was real.

I'm caught in the middle with no way out, and unsure as to whether or not Sean means to harm me, so I take the pen and scrawl my signature across the page. I don't think he'd hurt me, but after everything that's happened, who the hell knows? I can't chance it. Even exhausted, I have to keep playing along and trying to see where this road ends.

Sean snatches the paper away, and then tugs me to him. "Your payment, Miss Smith." He takes large bills from his wallet and tucks them in my waistband. "The contract is complete."

My stomach has fallen into my shoes. I can't believe we're back at the beginning again. It's like the first night I worked for Black and walked over to his table. When he realized I was the call girl, he was furious. He thought he'd been played by someone he trusted. That must be what I'm feeling now. Swallowing hard I ask, "So, now what?"

"Now, I give you something that I know will make you smile." Sean turns to his desk and pulls out a small present. "Open it."   


"You bought me a present?" I stare at it, not bothering to hide the disbelief on my face. This is weird. I don't know what to make of him.

It's as if Sean can read my mind, because he says, "Just open it. Remember, you belong to me. Do as I say and don't ask questions." Sean folds his arms over his chest and leans in closer, obviously excited.

As I rip the paper, I mutter, "If this is a dog collar, we're going to have a serious conversation-oh my God." It's a dark frame and under the sheet of glass is a diploma with the name AVERY ANNA STANZ, complete with signatures and an embossed stamp.

I stare at it in disbelief. All the air has been stripped from my lungs and I can't breathe. I sacrificed everything for this and it still slipped between my fingers. I can't even manage a full sentence. "How? I never finished my finals. How did you get this? Is it even real?"

Sean laughs. "Yes, it's real. You worked your ass off for that. I told the Dean that your roommate died and that it was your final semester. He said that there was a bereavement policy that would allow you to pass your classes, which in turn earned you the degree. Someone just had to file the paperwork."

"You filed the paperwork?" He nods. Suddenly I feel sick. I worked my butt off for this and it's tainted with blood. My mouth is hanging open, staring in shock. "So, this is because Amber died? I get to graduate and her family gets nothing. Sean, this is wrong, I can't accept this-"

He takes my hands gently, as if he knows I'm about to lose it. I've been held together by a thread for so long and it's beyond frayed. "Avery, you earned this. If Amber and her boyfriend lived-if no one was hunting you like a fucking animal-then you would have gone to class. You would have gotten higher grades than the university gave you." He reaches for my shoulder, lifting a strand of hair, letting it slip between his fingers. "There's a reason they have that rule in place, and it's for people like you. You worked so hard and have come so far, despite everything that was thrown your way. Most people would have quit. You didn't."

My voice is too high, but I can't help it. "I can't take this. I didn't earn it. They died, Sean. Because of me." A tear escapes from my eye and rolls down my cheek. It splatters on the glass, obscuring my name. "I don't deserve this."

Sean wipes away another tear before it can drop. His warm hands cradle my face, but he doesn't force me to look up. Instead, I stare at the diploma while a whirlwind of feelings cyclone together inside my chest.

My parents were supposed to be here. They would have been proud. I had plans for graduate school and plans for life, now none of them will happen. At least that's what I thought. Getting the diploma changes things, but when I look at it, I don't see my struggles or my accomplishments-I see blood on an eyelet bedspread and the blank look on Amber's lifeless body.

At some point I start prattling these things, bearing my soul to Sean in a way I've not done in a long time. I wipe away a tear. "How am I supposed to be proud of this when every time I look at it the only thing I see is death?" I laugh nervously and avoid his gaze. "Now isn't a good time to return me, or throw back any of the dumbass things I've done lately. Don't push me Sean, I can't handle it."

Sean shifts his stance. He's been listening to me, closed off, with his arms plastered to his chest. However, with my last statement, his arms drop to his sides and he steps forward, closer. "I'm sorry things didn't happen the way you wanted. I'm sorry you feel like their blood is on your hands, but it's not. I also know that I can tell you that for twenty years and you won't hear it, so hear this-I never, ever thought I'd be this close to you again."

He suddenly falls silent, so I glance up. His eyes are on the carpet and his hands are in his hair, as if he doesn't know what to say. "I pushed you away, too hard, too many times. You deserve better."

We stare at each other for a moment. Neither of us speaks. Time stills and this feels like one of those points that matter. I can blow him off and we can go back to the squabbling or I can do something else, something different and see where it leads.

My face scrunches up as I try not to cry. Stepping forward, I put the diploma down and step into Sean's space and press my body to his chest, hoping his arms will come up around me. He's not good at comforting, and this embrace reminds him of Amanda, I know it does, so I've avoided it-but not anymore.   


Slowly his hands lift and find my back. He slides them into place and holds onto me.

I go on, bearing my soul. "Naked Guy was a douchebag, but I wouldn't have wished that on him. He tried to hurt me, plus he launched those videos of me sexting all over. But Amber-she didn't deserve it. If every bitch in the world was shot, there'd be less than a dozen women remaining and a lot of horny men."

Sean stifles a giggle and nearly chokes, but he seems to sense what I'm thinking. "Listen to me, Avery. Amber was a cop, and she knew the risk going in. Her death isn't on your shoulders, and you shouldn't feel badly about getting your degree either. You worked for it. You sacrificed everything, every moral, every virtue, so you could have this degree."