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A soft smile brightens my face, and I can't hide how much I want to say yes. At the same time, a dark thought takes root in my mind, planting seeds of doubt. I can't fathom why I feel that way. It's not Sean. At least, I don't think it is.

I repress my initial grin and search the crevices of my brain for reasons not to get married tonight. One big fat thought springs up like a Pop Tart from the toaster. Holding the ceremony here—in this lunatic's house—seems incredibly wrong.

Sean lifts his hand and runs his fingertips along my cheek. His eyes linger on my face as his hand strokes my skin. "You speak volumes without saying a word." He sounds disappointed, but he doesn't press me.

"Sean—" I want to explain. My joy mingles with shame, and finding words to express my feelings is difficult. I verbally stumble around, jaw flopping like a docked fish, trying to make it clear I'm not rejecting him.

It's not him.

Sean's tender touch is possessive and gentle. It's an enigma similar to the man himself, naked on the giant bed. He's a mountain of muscle and strength, yet he's soft and patient with me now.

"It's just a thought. You don't have to explain Avery." He's quick to speak, pitching his voice low as if my floundering doesn't hurt. But his eyes tell a different story, pinning me in place with their intensity.

The corner of my mouth pulls up, and I drift closer to his face, resting my forehead against his. I wrap my arms around him and clasp my hands behind his thick neck, half naked, my lower parts tangled in the bed linens. "Sean, I'm saying yes. I want to be your wife—I just don't want our wedding here. I don't want Henry standing there while I say my vows. That man tried to..." I inhale a jagged breath, trying not to relive those moments.

My gaze slides to the bed. I focus on the texture of the raw silk comforter, the way it weaves in and out, the way the fibers vary in appearance. Some are thicker in spots, making the weave stand out, smooth and rough combining to form something exquisite.

Sean's fingers are on my chin, lifting my gaze to meet his. His lips are full and soft from sex. The stubble on his face is darker than usual, and the worry typically pinching his brows is, for once, absent. He's afraid, of me, of what I'll say, but he forces his walls down. I want to cry from the sheer beauty of it, knowing it's all for me.

"Tell me what you want. I'll make it happen." He waits, sliding the back of his palm down the side of my neck and brushing my hair over my shoulder before dropping his hand to his lap.

I think for a moment. Two thoughts battle inside my head. One insists that I marry him now—we may never have another chance. The other requires this entire clusterfuck behind us before we commit to something that should be a joyful occasion.

Sean tips his head, catching my eye. "I wish you would talk to me. I know you're thinking something."

"I want both," I tell him. "I want to marry you in a ceremony far away from here, some place we both love. I want to spend our honeymoon basking in your undivided attention." I wring my hands nervously as I speak. "We don't get that, do we?"

"What do you mean?"

"Some people have simple lives, but that's never been true for you, has it? I don't want unrealistic expectations." Besides, I ruined my life plenty, too. Eventually, the ramifications of that will shake out. The only reason they haven't caught up to me yet is because I'm running on adrenaline, boxing and locking my emotions until I can take the time to deal with everything.

He watches me, his blue gaze never leaving my face and nods. "Ask me what you want to know. I hear you dancing around it, but you're too afraid. Ask me, Avery. I'll tell you."

This exposed version of Sean unnerves me. It encourages me to say what I'm thinking, and that's not always a good idea. I don't know what my problem is—it's not Henry—it's not his house. Why am I saying I want a white dress and a happy day? Traditions never mattered to me before, why do I suddenly want them now?

My mouth opens, but I can't find the right words. I look up at him through my lashes, worried. "I—it's not you, or anything you did, I swear it's not. I just have this hunch our lives will always be like this, complicated beyond measure because you're a Ferro." I swallow hard, avoiding his eyes. "I'm a coward, a calloused jerk for thinking it, but it's there. It's like we're cursed." I trip on the "we" part, and it's clear I have a different thought floating around in my mind.

Sean doesn't miss it. Just as the concept materializes in my head, he says it. "You think I'm damned. You think I'll pull you down with me." There's no question in his voice. He pushes off the bed, stands and runs his hands through his hair, leaving me gaping at his naked back. Strong muscles flex, exhibiting his emotions in physical form.

I named the one thing that scares him.

I jump from the bed and duck in front of him, grabbing his hands. His interpretation of my thoughts is slightly off. I feel the walls rising around him. If that happens, I won't get back in. I press my thumbs to his palms and catch his gaze. "That's not what I'm thinking."

"Don't lie to me."

"I'm not. You're wrong, Sean. I love you so much. I'm worried we both have too much baggage. I don't want the things that have happened—or the events yet to be—to crush you. Add in your problems, and the fact that you're a Ferro, paying for the sins of your parents until you die, and it feels hopeless." He tries to pull back, and

step away from me, but I don't let him. My hands slip up his arms, sliding along the lean, firm muscles to rest near his elbows. My breasts brush against his lower chest. The height difference between us overwhelms, so I rise on my toes until we're nearly eye to eye.

"I want us to be happy, and I know what that means for you." I take his face in my palms. His walls are somewhere in the middle, not all the way up, but not dropped the way they'd been. "I don't know how to get over this part of my life."

"How do you mean?"

My lips slowly form the words and it's like leisurely pulling off a band-aid. It stings. "How do I reconcile who I am with who I was, with who I wanted to be? I can't forgive myself for my actions. I'm not a good person, not anymore, and I have no excuse. You had horrible things thrust upon you, Sean. None of it was your fault. But this..." I drop back down, my heels sinking into the thick carpet.


He tries to cut me off, but I keep going. I opened Pandora's box and released all my evil spirits into the world. "Vic, Henry, and Black—I did that. That was all me!"

"You didn't have a choice—"

I laugh bitterly. "I don't deserve you. I don't deserve a happy life." My eyes swipe to the side, and my stomach sinks. "I'm a horrible person. I blamed you for my problems because I couldn't live with myself otherwise—not with my sins. I whored, lied, cheated, stole, killed, and whatever will happen tomorrow."

The unshed tears in my eyes blur the room, making it appear warped. Sean stares at me, frozen in place. I can't read his thoughts, and I'm too afraid to look at his face.

I suck in a shaky breath and spit out the rest. "My own parents would find me deplorable. I'm not the girl I was before this began. I don't deserve a white dress or a sweet little house. I almost screwed that psycho downstairs for money. I didn't mind at the time. What kind of wife would that make me?"

I've been talking so rapidly it almost sounds like a rant. My hands started out flying around, punctuating each thought with a staccato movement. By my final words, my arms wrap defensively around my middle, my hands tucked tightly into the crooks of my elbows, pinned in place.

Head bowed, I realize my problem is me.

I can't accept who I've become.

I don't know how.

I'm not sure if I can.

A moment later, Sean's arms slip around me, holding me comfortingly. I press my face against his chest, inhaling deeply, wondering if he can love me like this. "I'm no longer the girl you met on Deer Park Avenue, chasing her jacked POS car. She's gone."


"She's not coming back."

"Avery, listen to me." I pull back, face covered in tears and look up at him. His eyes fill with compassion and understanding. "She never left. That's one thing you taught me, and I fought you over it every time you brought it up. The man I was is still inside me, broken and bleeding out, but not gone. Who I am changed, but that part of me—the good part—it's still there. It doesn't die, especially if we don't want it to."

I'm sobbing now, shaking in his arms. "I'm not like you! I did this to myself. I chose it, Sean. You didn't."

"You didn't choose this. You didn't want to be the biological child of a murderer. You didn't ask the adoring parents, who kept you safe for nearly two decades, to orphan you when you needed them most. You didn't set out to make bad choices. You did what was necessary to survive."

I mouth no, begging him to stop. I did this.

But he won't relent. The words keep coming, and it hurts so much to hear the way he talks, like he still has faith in me, like I'm not lost. "Avery, no one faults you for that, least of all me. You showed me compassion when the world only offered scorn. You saw the man I am, and saved me from losing myself, from becoming the monster people think I am—it was all you. That's how I know the girl running down Dear Park Avenue is still alive—she refused to let me go." He kisses the top of my head and holds me close.

I can't stop shaking. The floodgates holding everything back are about to break. There's more misery coming, a tsunami of pain and regret waiting to destroy me. Spoken aloud, my thoughts terrify me. I never let them out, never examining or evaluating my actions, because I know in my heart, I had a choice but made the wrong decisions. I press the gates of my mind closed, holding them there, but they leak. There's no way to seal all the thoughts away until another day.

"How do you live with it?" I ask him. "How do you accept good things as they come your way, especially when you know you don't deserve them?"

"Ah, there's the problem." Sean speaks with a soothing voice as he pulls away from me. He clasps his massive man-hands on my shoulders and looks at my tearstained face. "You don't know who you are anymore. That's all right. It happens from time to time. It happened to me."

"How did you reconcile it? How'd you get back to wanting the baby and the house?"

"You." He smiles with certainty. "It was all you, Avery. You reflected a version of me that was long gone. I couldn't remember how to be that guy, but then you saw all of me—shadows included—and didn't run. You taught me to fight for myself, to consider myself worth saving. You reminded me that I matter, that I'm loved. I believed you. It's hard not to. You can be very convincing."

I sniffle. "So, you don't want to marry me out of guilt?"

He tosses his head back and laughs. His dark hair falls into his eyes when he looks at me again. He's smiling so voluminously I'm blinded by the wattage. "Avery, I want you to be my wife so I'll be with you at times like this, reminding you who you are and loving you without judgment or regret. I want to revel in your smile when you laugh, to delight in indulging your desires. If I can return even the smallest portion of the happiness you give me, I'll die a happy man."

I can't help it. I grin through the tears. I brush the moisture off my face and feel my heart thumping in my chest. "I'm still alive."

"You are. You wouldn't be without making the choices you did. When most people confront their limits, they break. You didn't. Be proud you held on without falling apart. It's a rare gift."

I'm quiet for a moment, thinking things over. The hole in my heart, that unbearable weight, dissipates as we talk.

I realize it's time for another choice.

Reject his thoughts and self-destruct.

Or believe him and forgive myself.


My eyes cut to the side and then up to his face. I take a step toward him. "Weirdest ever conversation while naked, right?"

"Well, we once had a discussion about a box that ranked highly on the scale, but this one tops it," he says as he smirks.

"We should get married at The Container Store," I blurt, jokingly.

Sean chokes on his laugh and pulls me into his arms. "That's why I love you. You transform my fucked-up mess into something wholesome. You're my light in the dark shit-storm of life. I adore you." He kisses my temple and rests his head on mine. "I always will."

I feel his content smile, warm against my cheek. Sean figured out how to survive in the present, preventing his past from choking him to death.

Meanwhile, my transgressions rip their way from silent tombs, intent on drowning me. My sins are too great, too awful. I can't outrun the way they're constantly looming, ready to destroy me. At least, that's how I felt at the beginning of this conversation.

I refused to talk about what I did, how I got here, but it still lurks in the dark corners of my brain, poisoning my thoughts.

I savor the warmth of Sean's body, the strength of his arms. In his embrace, I'm at peace. The man who returned me, the man who only appeared for brief glimpses before vanishing now remains in plain sight. Somehow he pacified his past to allow for a future.

I want to be a part of it.

I wrap my arms around him and press my cheek against his chest. Hugging him close, I say, "Yes, I want to marry you, but not tonight. Not here."

He holds his palm to my cheek and assures me. "It's all right, Avery."

"I love you, Sean."

> "I love you, too." He clears his throat and sounds more chipper. Sean happy? After being rejected? It's totally weird. "The moonlight is stunning this evening. How about a walk?"


I wear the ivory chemise meant to line my dress for tomorrow's end game. We're in the garden, walking quietly in the shadows. It's still the middle of the night.

Sean holds my hand, wearing a pair of black tux pants and a matching white shirt. I wonder if they're his or Henry's. They seem to fit him, which releases a whole second set of questions. Sean pulls a lily from the garden and hands it to me. "For you."

The sweet scent fills my head as I admire the pale pink petals. I say I don't like pink, but, privately, I love it. That color makes me smile. It's so girly and cliché that I hate myself for it, but I have worse faults to focus on. "Thank you."

He raises a brow and grins, pulling me to him by my waist. The flower rises between us, its aroma filling our heads. "I know you like pretty things." His lips pull up, those eyes dancing with ideas that make my stomach twist. He leans in close, and whispers in my ear, "Pretty, pale pink things. It's okay. I do, too."

"I can't believe you said that!" I laugh at his innuendo and try to push him away, but he doesn't let me.

"Don't act so shocked. Besides, you like dirty talk, Miss Smith." Sean presses his finger to the tip of my nose.

My spine straightens and I step back, huge grin on my face, jaw hanging open. "I do not."

He cocks his head to the side and gives me a look. "I thought you wanted to learn to live with your dark side. Admit it. Tell me how much you like hearing about my dick doing you any way I want, every time I want you. Like now. I could push you down right here, rip those panties off, and tease you until you beg me to screw you senseless." He touches the side of my face with the tips of his fingers, gazing at me with those dark, sapphire eyes, thinking about ravaging me here and now. His voice is deep, dripping with sex, and he doesn't hide it. He's proud of it, of how much he wants me, of his desires. It makes me breathless.