Authors: H. M. Ward
coat wrapped around my shoulders and the blanket draped over my hips, I watch the two women on stage. Their laughter rings true, and I can’t help feeling envious. Their lives must be so much easier than mine. I haven’t laughed myself sick for a very long time. A combination of tears and terror ward off any moments of pure bliss.
I feel Jon’s gaze on the side of my face. He leans close so we’re nearly cheek-to-cheek and whispers, “As far as I know, they both have a bag of demonic cats living in their brains. That chick,” he nods at Sidney, “confronted my mother.”
My jaw drops and I stare at him, gaping. “No.” The word is drawn out, and my unspoken question hangs in the air—who has the balls to challenge Constance Ferro?
“Yes. That one,” he points to Avery, “she’s still fighting the tide, but refuses to go under.”
“How do you know that?”
He shrugs. “I sense it.” I suspect there's a story behind his comments, but Jon dodges further discussion by joining Trystan by the stage.
Trystan Scott—blue-eyed heartthrob, sex on a stick, and all around ladies man—pushes back into the dark leather chair, worry pinching the tanned skin between his eyebrows. Dark hair falls into his eyes as he claws the arm of his seat, backing away from the crazy chick making herself at home in his lap.
Sidney and Avery stand arm in arm in mirrored poses, their opposite hands on their hips. Avery calls out, “Hey, little bro Ferro.” She laughs and says to Sidney, “He’s not very little is he?”
Sidney shakes her head and giggles. “I’ve heard nothing about him is little.”
Peter, who had been standing quietly behind me, is suddenly across the room and marching up the steps. “Hey!”
Sidney smiles at him as he crosses the stage and wraps her arms around his waist. “Girls like to talk, and it’s hard to avoid hearing rumors since people ask me way too frequently about you.”
Peter’s eyes turn into beach balls, and he nearly chokes. “Excuse me? Where do people ask you these things?”
She shrugs, ticking off a list on her fingers. “At the market, at school, in the ladies room.” She looks over at Avery. “Do they bug you about Sean?”
“They think I’m a hooker, so I’m invisible.” Avery picks at a spot of glitter on her arm. “Besides, my profession doesn't exactly make me a credible source. Who cares if Sean's call girl said he’s huge?”
Everyone stops and gawks at her. Bryan stops teasing Trystan to give his full attention to Avery. “He hired you?”
Stunned faces snap to hers, but Avery's expression remains placid as if she’s accepted it and moved on. In the echoing silence, a needle could drop and sound like a grenade.
Jon practically growls, “I don’t know why anyone is shocked. We are talking about Sean.” He seems pissed, and shoots a quick glance at me from the corner of his eye, then moves across the room to sit by Trystan.
There’s a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Based on the facial expressions of the people here with me, I'd guess it’s contagious—we all feel it.
I keep my eyes down, but I hate that Jon said it. I hate the way no one tries to protect her. Strength on the outside is just that—outside. It doesn’t keep the world from trampling your heart.
I find my voice, “She’s more than that, you know.” The words spill out, and once I start I can’t stop. I jump up, dropping the jacket and blanket behind me. I pad toward him, standing there covered in glitter, my corset hoisting my breasts to my throat and my thong revealing my entire backside.
Jon realizes how it sounded and attempts to correct, but he’s already flown that thought into a mountainside. “I know, but—”
“No little girl says, ‘I want to be a stripper when I grow up.’ Not one of us would sell sex if there’d been another way to survive. Every single woman who works here has the same story—fucked up life, no money, and no hope. Don’t you dare damn her for it! If you do, you’re damning me, too, and I refuse to accept your pity, or whatever the hell this is.” I’m in his face, an inch from his nose, breathing hard. It looks like I’m going to pop out of my corset every time I breathe. Mounds of flesh swell well above the low neckline, glittering like twin disco balls.
I expect him to look at me, but he doesn’t. Jon presses his lips together, letting his silence build between us while the others stare in shock. When his blue gaze lifts to meet mine, he tips his head to the side. No trace of a smile softens his lips. Nothing subdues his sharp look. “You don’t know Sean. He’d show up with a corpse if it suited him.”
Something inside me snaps. I straighten, laughing bitterly. “You’re an asshole.”
“No, I’m not. I’m just saying—”
“Shut up, man. She hears exactly what you’re saying.” Trystan peers around the girl in his lap, forgetting his own awkward situation for the moment. The girl sits perfectly still, but I can see her thoughts running wild behind her eyes.
Jon growls, “No, she doesn’t. This isn’t about any of you. It’s about my brother and me.” There’s obviously a huge rift between Jon and Sean, but he’s poking a bear with Pixy Stix. What does he think is going to happen?
“It might also be about your apparent distaste for working girls.” Avery folds her arms over her chest and juts one hip to the side, glaring at him. “So, Little Ferro, spill it. Did your first hooker mistreat you? Or was it one of your strippers?”
Jon’s body tenses and he sits so still he might explode. It’s the moment of utter silence before a bomb detonates and blasts everything around it to bits. One of his fingers presses into the chair, and I see something flash across his face. It’s raw, a wound that’s still weeping.
He’s quiet for a moment, swallows hard, then stands and walks into the office. The door closes soundlessly behind him. Something happened to him. I’m sure of that. Someone hurt him badly.
Apparently Avery senses it too because she slips off the edge of the stage and rushes toward me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
I glance at the closed door and then back to her pale face. “Neither did I. I’m not sure any of us did.”
I feel like a fucking idiot walking away to hide in the office. I’m not a kid anymore. This shit shouldn’t bother me, but it’s always lurking—ready to rear its fuck-ugly face when I least expect it. Of course they all think I had hookers and strippers. I’m not a priest. I’m a Ferro. I live up to my reputation and then some. But that’s not what made me back down. I know I don’t see things accurately at times. I know my past taints my vision, clouds it, and makes me respond in the worst possible ways.
I sit down at the desk and stare at the packet of papers. I wonder if I’m reacting to Sean or my past. How can I protect Cass when I can’t even deal with this?
There’s a knock on my door, and before I can answer, Avery steps inside.
“Hey," she says, "I didn’t mean to do that.” She's standing there, her long brown hair sweeping over her shoulders and a somber expression on her face. She steps around the door, pushing it shut behind her with the heel of her foot. No shoes.
“You didn’t do anything.” I’m not telling her shit. She’ll report back to Sean, and I don’t want him involved in this. His chance to intercede is long gone.
I shuffle through the stack of papers on the desk, ignoring Sean’s envelope. I’ll look at it when she leaves.
“Maybe not, but it seemed like I found a sore spot and ripped it wide open.”
I act like it doesn’t matter. I’m not telling her shit. “I misspoke. Cassie is hurting. It was reasonable to assume I insulted all of you.”
Avery stops in front of my desk, turns to a ninety-degree angle from me, and rests her denim-clad hip against it. She folds her arms loosely across her chest. “We’re all hurting.”
I glance up at her. Is that a hint? Is something going on with my brother? “Sean included?”
Her eyes dart to the side. She pushes off the desk and looks at a picture of the club on the wall. All the dancers are standing with the bouncers and the former owner, posing as if it were a yearbook picture. “You don’t know him anymore, do you?”
“There’s nothing about him that’s worth knowing.” I sound like a cold motherfucker, like I don't give a shit about my brother, but the tightening sensation in my chest tells me otherwise. The growing unease in my stomach, the way it twists like it’s filled with shards of glass, reminds me of something I don’t want to admit. I suppress it with one swift blow, forcing my emotions back down where they belong. “Maybe you don’t know, so I’ll tell you the drive-by version. Sean thinks I’m a piece of shit stuck to his shoe. No one willingly walks through shit, Avery. He’s here to save his ass. It has nothing to do with me.”
“You don’t know him.”
I appreciate the audacity of this woman. This is the first conversation we’ve had, beyond initial pleasantries, and she’s picking a fight? I lean back in my chair and look at her. She’s smart. I'd bet anything that she’s scanning that picture for Cassie’s face. It’s not there. Cass always dodges pictures, probably because of her ex.
I roll my eyes and sit up quickly, reshuffling papers that don’t need it. “I don’t want to know him. There’s nothing there worth saving, no way we’ll ever be anything but blood. I don’t give a shit what he does or if someone puts a bullet in his head. Actually, I’ve been waiting for it to happen. Between his past and the shitstorm in the press, it’s only a matter of time. I wouldn’t get too attached, Avery.” It’s a dick thing to say, but this conversation is over.
She takes the hint and heads to the door. Her hand rests on the knob for a second then she looks over her shoulder at me. “Too late. I’m already attached.” She smiles sadly, watching me until I meet her eyes. “And no matter what you think, Sean cares about you. I see it in his eyes. I hear it in his voice when he talks about you. Think what you want, but take it from someone who knows what it’s like to be utterly alone—Sean’s here out of more than loyalty. You’re more than blood to him. I’ll see you around.” She walks through the door without waiting for a reply.
SECRETS & LIES 3
THE ARRANGEMENT 22
THE ARRANGEMENT 23