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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 10

EVERLY

“WELCOME HOME,” he said, and, like an ominous sign, lightning cracked in the sky and it started to rain. The clouds couldn’t hold the water a second longer, just like I couldn’t hold in the emotion and tension from the day.

His house was even bigger than Carl and Melinda’s, albeit in the same gated community. The appeal of that had been made very clear when the security guard closed the iron gates on the paparazzi that had followed us from the will reading.

I’d never known fame that intense. Sure, I’d had cameras on me once before, but they were for a news article, not glossy magazines and paparazzi. The flashes almost swallowed me up along with the crowd in that moment.

Declan didn’t exactly care about me, he’d demonstrated that more than once over the past few months, but he must have had a heart somewhere in that broad chest because his hand found the small of my back as he pulled me close and rushed me to his Bugatti Veyron.

I knew the car because I’d been so shocked at seeing it the first time. I’d seen a Lamborghini and other expensive cars, but nothing like that. It was always parked in the owner’s spot, and I had a weak moment of looking one day.

Its price was astronomical yet surprised me less now that I was staring at his house.

He drove us down a winding street where I saw the brick pillars with yet another bigger, black gate that stood taller than the last one we passed. Declan pressed a button on the steering wheel and the two fences swung slowly outward as we approached.

Gray brick weaved up and then fanned out toward a massive garage of dark wooden doors and an over-the-top staircase to the entrance.

I stared at the trees rustling in the wind, so high over our heads. Those trees told me that this land had been here far longer than any of us. Yet, his home had sleek lines, straight angles, and had a clean look like his fitness center.

As the water droplets pelted the windshield, I muttered, “Looks like a modern-day castle.”

He glanced over at me. “It’s actually your castle now, if you want to call it that, but it’s really just a house.”

“Declan, just because we signed a contract for a year doesn’t mean it’s my house in any—”

He cut me off by shaking his head. “What’s mine will be yours, Everly. You can’t tiptoe around me 24-7. Carl wouldn’t have wanted that, and I don’t either.”

Hearing his name even now when Declan and I hadn’t discussed him really since that night at the sauna made the guilt bubble up. “I probably should have reached out to him more.”

“You take the blame a lot for a woman who was only a child when your parents divorced.”

I dragged one finger down the window, following a line of a water drop on the other side of the glass. “I remember the anger I had that my father wouldn’t come home. I remember consciously making a choice in my teenage years to not visit after so many years of him not visiting a single time and forbidding me to come for the holidays. I forced an estrangement too. That’s on me. I was being selfish and emotional.”

He sighed. “Carl was selfish and emotional—he was the adult. You can’t take full responsibility. He could have pushed, insisted like a father should have.”

I nodded and, as I glanced at Declan, saw the charm everyone else did right then. He was meeting me on my level, smiling at me softly so as not to push me while in a vulnerable moment. Declan Hardy was dangerous this way, sitting in the quiet pitter-patter of the rain in his expensive sports car.

The world faded away as we sat in silence, as my eyes skirted over his lips, his vivid eyes that suddenly held some sort of emotion, and that massive frame I always knew would be so easy to curl into.

“I think it’s best we don’t discuss this with others.” I tried to veer myself in the right direction. We would have to make up rules, and I was happy to start right then. The sooner we laid out everything, the easier it would be. People were going to want answers. Why was I staying with him? Where was I sleeping? What was in the will?

“Marriage is public record. It’s going to come out. But discussing the stipulations within the trust and the will isn’t necessary. If asked, we can call it what it is.”

“What’s that?”

Cracking his knuckles, he said, “A marriage of convenience for the sake of the HEAT empire.”

“Okay. So, don’t talk with the media and keep things vague if asked.” I had to make it clear, though. My heart wouldn’t allow for anything else. For me, this wasn’t about their empire. “And, just so you know, this is for my mother’s studio … where my whole past life took place.” He needed to understand.

“There’s also compensation involved for you, Everly—”

“I would never have done this for the money.”

He searched my eyes like he wasn’t sure. “So, this is for a past life?”

I cleared my throat, trying to strip away my fear of him finding out about my past and dragging it here. Florida was supposed to be my new start. I sat up straighter. “Maybe that’s another rule. We have separate lives. Let’s leave them that way. My past is my past. Yours is yours. What you do with the present and future, totally fine also. It’s not my business unless we need to discuss it for the sake of the media.”

He hummed. “You plan on discussing your Cobra with the media?”

“I …” Did he expect me to stop seeing Wes? Expect me to have an answer for everything right this second? “I’m not going to change who I’m seeing because my father was acting irrationally.”

“Just your marriage status, right?” Declan said in a sort of monotone voice.

“Do you really care? People have open marriages.”

“Yes, and marriages of convenience all the time too,” he said so softly while staring at me with those green eyes that I wasn’t sure he agreed with me at all. Normally, he’d have an outburst and not handle his emotions with this well at all. Normally, he wouldn’t be able to contain the fire burning in his eyes that I saw right there. “We’ll make it work. Carl wanted you taken care of. I can give him that.”

I shrugged. “Or he wanted his way.”

“Well, he can have his way for a year.” His tone was matter-of-fact, like this was one more chore he had to complete for the day.

I nodded and tried my best to mirror his emotion. “Well, should we do a press release? We could—”

“Let’s keep it quiet until someone figures it out. We can keep doing what we’re doing. Seems easy enough,” he said.

I wouldn’t agree. There were more rules we should define, more commitments, more boundaries. “I’ll be living on your property and in your space for a year. I’d venture to say that may pose some challenges.” I pushed him a bit.

“You nervous about my house, Drop?” A small smile all of a sudden played on his face.

“No. I just don’t want to be intrusive, and I want to make sure we iron everything out now.”

“No rules. I’m laid-back about my space.” He eyed me up and down, and butterflies erupted in my stomach, fluttering around near my ovaries in a way they shouldn’t have. “And maybe I’m okay with you being in it.”

Immediately, I shook my head. “No. That’s … us mixing this marriage with pleasure is a bad idea. No sex or real relationship. I don’t like the spotlight and you’re constantly in it. I don’t— This is the opposite of the life I want.”

He squinted before he admitted, “You’re nothing like most of the women I’ve met. You know that?”

“I think most everyone around here is led by their ego. I let that go a long time ago. I simply want peace.”

He nodded like he agreed. “And what do you think I’m led by?” he asked softly.

Something painful flashed in his eyes, like he had secrets too; like his heart wasn’t open for the world to see in all the magazines he posed for, but it was those magazines that made me say what I did. “I don’t know, Declan. I think you and my father enjoy being kings. And you’re interested in being the ruler of an empire I want no part of.” I shrugged, trying to ignore the pull I had to him. “So, let’s just keep this marriage easy. I’ll live in the guesthouse, and you’ll live up there, and as long as you knock, I’m laid-back about space too.”

The rain pounded harder now, in sync with the rapid thundering of my heart as I waited for him to agree, as I waited for us to start a freaking year together.

“I’ll make note to have my assistant get you access to everything.” He grunted out. He must have realized what I was saying was for the best. “I’ve already texted her to get the movers going on your apartment.”

My mother had texted. She’d been read her portion of the will this afternoon, once Declan and I secured her assets. Once I traded my marital status for her life and livelihood. That’s what I’d signed away my life for.

My mother, who’d probably left a voice mail checking on me, hadn’t even been invited to watch her only child’s nuptials. I hadn’t even had time to tell her I was being married never mind ask if she could be a witness. She had no idea that I had bound my life to a man—with vows and everything.

It was only a year.

I took a deep breath, but it was small. Another small one. Too many small ones to count. I whipped open the car door in his driveway and stumbled into the rain, trying my best to breathe, but no air came.

“Jesus Christ,” I gasped. I tried to scramble for control. I’d had to rein in my emotions before. I could do it again.

Then he was right in front of me as I bent over. I saw his stupid expensive leather shoes and watched how the water beaded off them like he’d had them shined before the meeting. They made the air around me come even slower, although I was trying to breathe faster.

A football player turned billionaire who was everyone’s dream but my worst nightmare. I saw his house, so gigantic it felt like it was towering over me, like it would eat me alive if I stepped foot into it.

“Everly, breathe.”

I gasped. “I can’t. I … I married you, and it’s all wrong. I don’t want this. Or you. Or your expensive shoes.”

He grabbed my shoulder, pulling me up to standing again. Then, he grasped my chin and tilted my face to look up at him. “Breathe, Drop.”

I shook my head because the air wasn’t coming in even as I gasped for it.

“Now, suddenly, something finally bothers you?” he growled. “This is when you need to keep it together, not fall apart. Do not fall apart on me.”

It was a command. Forceful. And a slight at my character, as if he knew why I tried to keep it together.

He had no idea.

I stood there as water pelted us both and glared up at him, my black dress already soaked through from the rain. “Just because I’m having a moment doesn’t mean you need to target my weakness.”

“That’s exactly what it means. It’s how this empire has operated, how I played in the NFL, and how I’ve structured my life thus far. Everyone targets the weak and acts swiftly.” He smiled softly then. “It’s how you can see whether that weakness has a backbone or not. Seems you do.”

He was pointing out that I was breathing just fine now. He’d saved me from my panic but angered me at the same time. “Are you proud of targeting a weakness? Proud that it got you that nice house on a hill, and an empire where everyone acts like they care when really they only want to be a part of it … for what? Prestige?”

“I’m sorry. Do you not work for that empire?” he threw back.

A part of me was ashamed to say, “I do. It’s a job rather than a point of pride though. That exclusivity is—”

“It’s a luxury,” he finished, his hands fisting. “Obviously you know that since you’re here working for that luxury too.”

“Yes. Declan Hardy, billionaire CEO of the most exclusive hospitality brand in the country, providing us all a luxury we can’t possibly pass up.” I sneered it like a child, past the point of holding in my frustration. “And most eligible bachelor … Well, not anymore, considering we’re legally bound in marriage.”

He saw I was mocking him. It was a taunt like he’d taunted me. “Make sure you call that Cobra boyfriend of yours and tell him that.”

It was a low blow. We both had to figure out where we’d go from here, and yet him throwing it in my face right after I’d almost hyperventilated on his pavement was infuriating.

“No need to tell him when I still intend to be with him. And with anyone else I want. I don’t belong to you or Wes or anyone. I’ve made that perfectly clear. I’ll go to any guy that I want … whether my husband likes it or not.” I lifted my chin and let the cool droplets cascade down my face. I didn’t even back up a step when he came forward to stand chest-to-chest with me.

“Your husband, Mrs. Hardy, will make you regret going to another man for anything.”

“Doubtful. Just because you provide the facade of luxury, Mr. Hardy, doesn’t mean you deliver it.” The words were whispered.

Maybe it was the rain, the smell of earth and storm clouds in the air, or the lightning cracking at us in the sky but I felt the pull to him.

He stared at me as the storm raged between us like he was contemplating how we could move forward, how he could make me bend to his will. Suddenly, his hand dragged up the bare skin of my arm, following the rain’s trail to my shoulder and then across my collarbone to my neck. Even though the water was cold, my skin felt like it was on fire. Heat flowed through every part of me.

He pulled out the gold necklace that meant so much to me, the string necklace with pop tabs, and the threaded necklace under it, turning them over in his hand. “What do these mean to you?”

“Friendship necklace.” I held up my wrist also to show him I wore string bracelets too. “They match the bracelets I make. Pop tabs I collected with my mom for—”

“For cash?” He chuckled and I snapped my gaze up to meet his in shock. “My brothers and I thought we were going to be millionaires one day when we’d collected thousands of them and turned them in.”

“You did it too?”

“Sure.” He shrugged. “What kid doesn’t want to be a millionaire?”

One of my eyebrows lifted. “Guess you got what you wanted.”

A small smile played on his lips. “You think I’m only a millionaire?”

Right then, it dawned on me that the guy had billions in his bank. “Oh my God. Cocky much?” I poked him in the shoulder and he snagged my hand in his as he laughed, like we could finally release a bit of tension.

“Just about what I should be, Drop.” He didn’t let my hand go and I didn’t pull it away as his other fiddled with the necklaces. I felt the hunger in his eyes now, the way he licked his lips like he was going to devour me.

I saw the man who’d conquered the world and how he was ready to take what he wanted now from it.

Even with me. Fuck all the consequences because Declan didn’t hesitate or wait to be told a damn thing. He didn’t dwell on what might be or what might have been.

“What’s with your gold owl necklace?” He asked quietly.

“They symbolize change. And growth, I guess. It meant something to me once.” I bit my lip as I looked at his, how close he was now, how I could feel his breath mingling with mine. “Felt like a symbol of being saved.”

“Hmm. Do you want to be saved now?”

“From what?”

He didn’t give me a moment to consider more. He pushed me up against the front of the Bugatti and devoured my mouth. I tasted his hate for all we were going through, his anger, his intrigue. I met it with mine. Bite for bite. Touch for touch. My hands were in his hair—pulling, clawing, consuming.

His fingers dug into my thighs as he lifted me onto the hood of his car and lapped at my neck as he shoved himself between my legs. I wrapped them around him immediately, my body latching on like a starved animal who’d found a feast.

Declan was bad for me. I knew it. Knew from the way he held himself in luxury and riches that he was as entitled as the last man I’d been with, and that last man had almost been the death of me.

Still, I couldn’t stop. Not even when the thunder cracked right after lightning struck bright and bold over the mansion he called a home.

He ripped his lips from mine only to drag them over my neck, to taste my sensitive skin there, to suck it like he owned it. “No. You don’t want to be saved from this. From me. You want it, Everly. All of it.”

I shook my head but held him close, ground my hips into his length and moaned loudly when I felt how big he was between my legs.

I wanted his reaction here and couldn’t ignore the pull of desire.

My body enjoyed a man taking control, even though I normally avoided it at all costs. “I’m here because I have to be, aren’t I? Living with all you people even when I don’t want to be.”

“Don’t want to be?” He lifted one eyebrow, and then his hand was skirting under my dress and into my panties. “Is it the rain making you wet or me?” he murmured against my ear as I breathed in the smell of Declan mixed with rain. Cold, raw, powerful.

Fighting his pull was useless. My body shook with need as though it’d been lost a long time and was finally coming home, back to what it knew, back to what it wanted.

“My late partner’s daughter, and she can’t even answer … doesn’t know which. My wife has no understanding of what really makes her so wet she’s dripping down my hand.”

His fingers moved against my folds, and my hips responded even though his words were cruel and mean. I didn’t care. I knew I would only have him now, this one time, and then I’d find a way to hate him again. “Just shut up and let me feel this,” I said practically to myself.

“You want all the control, don’t you baby?” he murmured before he got on his knees, his slacks instantly dampening where his legs touched the ground. He moved my thong to the side and bared me to the cold right before he dragged his tongue over my clit.

My fingers flew through his hair, gripping him immediately, grinding my sex into his mouth. Rushing toward my high was uncontrollable when his tongue flashed across my pussy, knowing exactly how to make me feel good.

But right when I was about to get there, he gripped my wrists and pulled his head away from me even though I tried to pull him back. “Please, don’t stop,” I whimpered.

“Say your husband’s name when you ask for it then, huh?” He slid a finger inside me as he stood, and I moaned, willing to take what I could get. “Jesus, you taste good when you want something so bad, Drop. You always this sweet when you lose your composure? And that pussy tightening around my fingers like they’ll give you life. You want life, Everly? You’d better say my name then.”

“Please, Mr. Hardy.” I knew it would drive him insane, but he was doing the same to me. I felt how he was holding back, how he stroked my clit, how his thumb brushed over it soft instead of rough, how my hips chased each touch, and he smiled like he had all the control.

Here, he did. Here, I loved seeing how he did too. It was almost like my body sighed, relieved in how he took all the worry away by knowing exactly what we both wanted, by steering the ship when I wasn’t sure how to anymore.

“Mr. Hardy?” He chuckled darkly, then slid his finger out of me. “I’ve been waiting to redden your ass for sneering my name like that all the time.”

He flipped me over without permission and bared my ass to the wind, to the rain, to him. Then he ripped my thong from my body.

“Hey, those are my nice ones!” I tried to act frustrated, moving to lift my stomach from his car, but he shoved me back down.

“I’ll buy you the whole lingerie store,” he growled. “Just stay where you are. On my car, bent over for me. Like a fucking painting in the rain.”

I looked at him over my shoulder but didn’t move. We studied one another as he stepped back and unbuttoned his suit jacket, threw it off, and rolled up the cuffs of his white collared shirt. It was instantly soaked by the rain, allowing the outline of his muscles, the hints of black tattoos on his chest and his strong biceps, to show through. I saw the man every woman longed for.

The man who was to be mine for a year.

He undid his trousers, pulled himself from them and stroked up and down, up and down. I whimpered at the sight, him drenched with water droplets teetering on every edge and angle of the strong bone structure of his face.

We came from different worlds. He loved control and domination while I wanted to appease the masses and squeak by unnoticed. He was intense and larger than life, and I was quiet and enjoyed the silence.

Somehow, we were all wrong for one another. Yet, I couldn’t stop myself from calling out for him. “Declan.”

He came immediately, walked up so close, I felt his hard cock against one cheek. I bent further into it, and he ran one hand through my slit while his other pushed my dress up my waist so he could explore my breasts, making my nipples bead up once exposed to the cool metal of the car. “I like my name on your lips, Everly.”

I thought he was about to reward me, that I’d get his thick fingers back in my pussy. Instead, his hand left me, and then I felt the slap.

Hard, loud, fast, and the pain as bright as the lightning strike.

I yelped at the feeling against my ass cheek, but the zing of the pain instantly made my pussy pulse and drip with pleasure. “Jesus, Declan.”

“When you say my name and want it, you beg with please, Everly. Say what you want nicely this time.”

My body shook. Not from the cold, but from the need to have him. To have this man at the center of my body, in me so deep I could feel all of him at once along with the emotions I hadn’t experienced in so long. He’d awakened my pleasure, my adrenaline, my desire again.

“Please, Declan. Please fuck me.”

“Drop wants it now. Even willing to beg for it. You on birth control?” He rubbed the ass cheek he’d spanked, kneading it slow and letting the water falling down on us cool it. His fingers continually grazed close to my puckered hole, turning me on in a way I’d never expected.

I nodded fast, “Yes, I haven’t …” I didn’t want to tell him I hadn’t slept with anyone for a long time. “I’m good. Please, please, please fuck me.”


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