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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 1

EVERLY

“SHE WON’T BE COMING OVER,” I heard from the doorway of the yoga studio room. The smile on my face dropped off like a ton of bricks.

It’d been only two months of me living in sunny Florida with my estranged father, but it felt like two lifetimes. I met his blue-eyed gaze with my own. The color of them was about the only thing my father had handed down to me. “Carl, seriously?” I whispered.

“Mr. Milton, don’t you think your daughter can make the decision herself?” Wes Bauer rolled up his yoga mat and stood up near me.

“I can make that decision myself,” I pointed out, combing a hand through the waves of my hair that had succumbed to the rigorous workout.

My father scoffed, his face turned beet red. “I agreed to you working here at the fitness center for us to build a relationship, Evie. This isn’t the way to do it.”

I sighed, “Can we talk about this later, Carl?”

“We’ll talk now.” He shook his finger at me.

This was why I hadn’t seen him in eighteen years. Carl Milton was truly a baby, an only child that had inherited a fortune from grandparents I had never met. He’d gone on to live a life where no one defied him, leaving my mom and me when I was just six years old because we “weren’t good listeners.”

He’d actually only agreed to have me come work for his fitness center after my mother guilted him into it. She’d said I needed to escape my hometown and start a new life away from the graduate school I’d dropped out of.

She was right, of course. I knew that. I was drowning under a deep sea of pain that I couldn’t swim above. I’d planned to leave and start anew somewhere else, but I’d never wanted it to be here.

Yet, Carl insisted. Said he was going into heart failure, that he should be getting to know his only biological daughter.

I’d given in to the naive hope of the little girl still wanting her father’s love and relocated halfway across the country to Florida two months ago.

Like an idiot.

“If you go, I’ll call Declan.” Carl announced, and Wes groaned as he tightened the dark man bun on his head.

“Call me for what?” Declan Hardy’s voice was always strong. Deep. Authoritative enough that it commanded all the attention in the room even as all six foot three of him leaned casually against the doorframe. With chiseled muscle and a famous, beautiful face, the retired NFL star had not a care in the world—even though he’d intruded on someone’s private conversation.

My seething father huffed as he walked over to his business partner. “Evie thinks she’s going to a party at this asshat’s house again. Please, for my sake and our business, take care of it.”

With that, he walked out, leaving me with that word again bouncing around in my head.

Again. That was the real problem. This wasn’t the first time my father had intervened in my dating life. He’d called Declan a month ago and had him fly in to retrieve me from Wes’s house.

Fly. Like in an airplane. And Declan had just gone along with it, knocked on Wes’s door, and demanded I leave. That was the world I was living in. To them, I was Carl’s precious daughter, breaking a cardinal rule.

Wes chuckled and winked at me before he said, “I’ll swing by and pick you up at the end of your shift, Evie.” He stalked out of the studio, holding Declan’s gaze as he murmured back to me, “Maybe you can stay the night.”

My father’s business partner flicked his vivid green eyes to me with that comment, capturing my stare and holding it hostage like he owned it. I saw the spark of anger, the question, and the entitlement.

“Everly,” he ground out, his voice rumbling so deep in his throat before it emerged that I shivered.

Tension ricocheted off the windows and the mirrors as I stood nonresponsive, the silence engulfing us. I let the quiet stretch on and on, unwilling to give him an iota of the information that I knew he must want. He didn’t deserve it nor was he entitled to it. Yet, even still, my whole body practically shook with the need to submit to him, to give up control to him.

Did he have this effect on everyone? So dominating and attractive that he could bend most people to his will? He thought he could just silently lean against a doorframe and make a person to answer a question he hadn’t even asked yet.

His jaw ticked up and down, up and down before he dropped the question so casually, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. “How many times have you slept with him?”

I blinked once. Twice. Three times before the words registered. Anger, hot as molten rock, flowed through my blood as my mouth dropped open at his audacity. “Are you serious?” I breathed out, twisting the towel I held in my hands. Then I wiped it over my face, trying my best not to freak out. With a wet sports bra that had the HEAT logo on it, my curls frizzed out, and only twenty minutes until my next one-on-one training session, I shouldn’t have even been entertaining the ridiculous conversation.

And yet, it was technically with my boss.

“Yes, Everly.” He pushed off the doorframe and stepped toward me. Hissing my full name like no one else would was another show of him trying to grate on my nerves. I just knew it. And on top of that, he came close to tower over me like he could intimidate me. “How many times did you sleep with that fucker?”

I stood toe-to-toe with him, meeting his gaze right back even if he was a whole head and a half taller than me. My body never reacted in fear the way it should have with him, it got stupid butterflies in my gut instead. I figured everyone got those, though.

Declan Hardy was a global sensation for a reason. It wasn’t just that he was an investor in my father’s hospitality and fitness empire either. That face, his thick dark hair, those piercing green eyes that stared into my soul every time he glanced my way. “That fucker?” I emphasized his language and lifted an eyebrow as I glared at him.

He shook his head like he wanted to chastise me and waited for me to explain. Yet, I’d learned long ago not to indulge in idle conversation around my personal life.

He breathed out when he realized I intended to stay quiet. “You’re Carl’s daughter, Everly.” He said it like I should know better.

I shoved the plush towel into my duffel while grumbling, “I can’t believe he tattled to his partner about where I’m going again.”

Declan pointed at a sleek gold bin. “There are clean towels in the locker room. You can dispose of that one there.”

The luxury this man was accustomed to made me wrinkle my nose. “I’m fine reusing.”

He wiped a hand over his face. “You’re going to make us all go insane.”

“Seriously?” I scoffed. “You barely see me.”

“And yet every time I do, you’re ruffling feathers,” he pointed out.

I tried not to raise my voice as I hiked my duffel bag up onto my shoulder. “If you’re talking about the meeting you couldn’t attend last week, I’d simply requested an empty yoga studio for the Sunville kids in this town to utilize for children’s yoga.”

“I—” He narrowed his eyes. “Your father didn’t say it was for kids.”

Could I roll my eyes at this point or would that have been too disrespectful? Sunville Elementary was an underserved school that was in desperate need of more after-school activities. It was a way for the HEAT Empire to give back to the community. A win-win really. Yet, my father had immediately shut down the idea.

“Had you not skipped the meeting, you would know that, Mr. Hardy.

“Declan,” he corrected, his eyes flashing with irritation. “I’m busy. I train athletes, have shareholder meetings, and—”

“Yes, a skydiving appointment seems like it should take precedence.”

That chiseled jaw ticked fast. Maybe he thought because I was quiet that I would back down, that I would roll over since he was a major shareholder of this elite fitness and hospitality brand. HEAT stood for Hardy Elite All-Access Team and supposedly spanned the nation with resorts, fitness centers, restaurants and more.

My backbone wasn’t impressed and was still very much present when it came to what I’d be doing while I was here. I intended to make an impact where I could even if I didn’t plan to stay forever.

“I’m sure it wasn’t skydiving.”

“Fine. Racing a car.” I shrugged and squeezed the bag’s strap on my shoulder when he dragged his gaze up and down my body like he was measuring me up.

“I’m not going to argue with you, Everly,” he said softly. Still, it somehow felt like he was grinding salt into a wound.

“It’s Evie,” I threw out, knowing it wouldn’t matter.

“Look, have more classes for the kids. I’ll never say no to that.” He scratched the back of his neck, his bicep bunching and showing off a few of the tattoos he had on his upper arm beneath his white T-shirt. “I just had other meetings. If you need to discuss implementing new classes that you know your father is going to disagree with, you should probably make sure I’m available. Do you check the schedule?”

Could I smack the condescension out of his tone or would I lose my job for that? “I’ll make sure to double-check it next time.”

“See that you do. And let’s not get your father’s heart worked up. Wes is probably twice your age. You can’t be seen with that asshole.” He said it offhandedly, like he could slide one extra request in.

I combed a hand through my waves. “Twice my age? Get real, Mr. Hardy,” I sneered his last name since he couldn’t be bothered to listen to my request either. “I’m twenty-four. And just because I’m his daughter doesn’t mean I’m not going to date people I’m interested in.”

He tilted his head, like he needed to study me all of a sudden. Like he was realizing I was more than ten years old. His gaze dragged over me, licking up every curve of my body, and then he shut his eyes tight as if seeing what appealed to another man was painful. It infuriated me that my body even responded to his perusal. “He’s not just a guy, Everly. He’s an asshole. Being seen with him is bad for press. You’re a part of HEAT now.”

“Really?” I cocked a hip and lifted an eyebrow, ready for this to be over. “So, there are rules already regarding who I date because of a headline? You’re going to continue to come to his house and drag me out because you’re nervous it might tarnish a brand name? Do you hear how ridiculous that sounds?”

“We barely accepted him into HEAT based on his reputation and how he’s played in the NFL. He plays a dirty game and his fuckboy reputation—”

“I don’t watch football and can make my own judgments on a person. I don’t need the press telling me who to date.” I cut him off, furious that my father’s business partner thought I’d let the media’s story on a person sway me.

I wouldn’t let journalists or the internet paint someone’s story like they had mine once before. In my hometown, I wasn’t trusted, wasn’t looked at as a person, wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt.

“You don’t watch football but you know how to rehab an athlete?” He really hated that I was working in his gym with no credentials when it seemed all his other employees were overqualified.

“I provide stretching techniques, not full rehab.” As he knew. I’d gained client after client for the unique way I handled each of them and there’d not been one complaint since I started. “And I’m going to be late for a one-on-one. So, if we’re done here …”

I brushed past him, but before I could walk away, his voice rolled over me cold enough to freeze me mid-step. “You didn’t answer my question.”

I turned to look at him. In the middle of this yoga studio, he was a beautiful sight among the mirrors reflecting around him with the backdrop of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the Atlantic. “What was it?”

“How many times have you fucked him?”

My whole body tightened at how he phrased it this time. My stomach, my throat, my nipples, my sex squeezed and ached in hate but also something more. The visceral reaction I had to this man was dangerous, tempting, and completely wrong.

“That’s absolutely none of your business.” The answer was zero and would probably remain that way. We’d casually gone on a few dates that led to nothing because Wes didn’t cause a reaction in me at all.

“So, you haven’t. That answer changes, Everly, and I’m coming for him.” Declan’s voice was low in warning, like I shouldn’t question him, and I felt the vibration of it shoot through my body, giving me goose bumps everywhere.

I considered giving him the finger as I left him in the studio by himself. But he was my boss.

My off-limits boss I hated and wanted all at the same time.


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