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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 12

EVERLY

THE FIRST MORNING I awoke as a married woman felt about the same as any other day except there was a knock at my door and a woman with thick black-framed glasses and bright-red lips greeted me as I opened it. “I’m Maggie. Ignore me while we move in your items from your apartment. Mr. Milton had the extra key. You don’t have a car, do you?”

“No, but I—” Wasn’t it five in the morning?

“Good. We don’t have to worry about that. Declan said you can use any of his in the garage.”

I shook my head and tried to wake up.

“Well, I have a team here to organize. Go about your day as you like. Also, Declan requested lingerie and work attire.” She snapped fingers behind her, and I immediately moved aside as people marched in with clothing racks of athleisure and literal panties of all colors dangling from gold hangers.

“I don’t need more clothes.” I tried to stop her but she walked past me like I was insignificant.

It was too early to argue, and I escaped to my bedroom when my phone rang. I grabbed it like a lifeline but groaned as I answered. “Mom, it’s too early, like still-dark-out early,” I croaked into the phone.

“You’re fine, Evie. You know I’m an early bird. Talk to me a minute, and then go back to bed.” She knew me well enough to know I would sleep until the last second I could. “Tell me how things are going.”

“Everything is fine. I already told you.” It had been via text, however, because I’d avoided talking to her directly. Which was normal. My mother had her own life and we didn’t need to talk unless big things were happening. I yawned and stretched before getting out of bed. “I’m staying with Declan as we iron out the details of the will.”

“Hmm. Are you dating him? What aren’t you telling me?” I wanted to say the same to her. She hadn’t ever told me my father owned the yoga studio or our home.

“Not dating him.” That wasn’t a lie. “It’s nothing. There’s some nuance to the terms, and I want to make sure—”

“Do you think maybe you should come home?” She hesitated over it, like she wasn’t sure she should even offer the idea.

Still, I wondered the same. But going back to my hometown wouldn’t solve anything, not now.

And I’d left for a good reason.

“I don’t know if that’s a smart idea.”

“I don’t either.” She sighed. “When he gets out, I’m going to make sure to—”

“Don’t go to the courthouse. Don’t do anything. Andy has a lot of ties everywhere. The judge already gave him his sentence.” I walked through the guesthouse again, opening the linen drapes to see the gardenias outside my window. To avoid the smell, I’d make sure not to open it. “Plus, we can’t keep living with the fact that we don’t think he got what he deserved. We have to accept it, remember? You told me that.”

Still, moving on from a past sometimes wasn’t that easy. It infected the present, made you hesitate about your future.

“Yes, you.” She grumbled, “I told you that. I’m your mother. I teach you how to do better than me before I rip someone apart for hurting you.”

That was the problem with us though. My mom had reacted badly once in the media. She’d stepped over the line when the cameras were on her, lunged at them when they called me a liar. And, according to my lawyer, they’d never forgiven us.

From that point forward, the attorney thought it best to keep her out of the limelight and made sure every time a camera was on me, or I was in the public eye, I dressed the part, held my pain and anger, held my fear, held my heart at bay. My composure was the only weapon I had.

I sighed in the phone. “I love you for that, Mom.”

“I hate me for it,” she grumbled back as if remembering the day, “but we’re through some of the hell, right?”

“Right.”

“So,” she ventured tepidly, fiddling with her braids, the beads clinking over the phone line. “How are you?”

I shrugged, not knowing what to say but also knowing she couldn’t see me.

Still, my mother’s intuition was always at work. “He was your father, Evie. It’s okay to be sad you lost him. It’s only been two weeks. The funeral was hard on you.”

We’d all sat in the pews and listened to Melinda and her daughters and Declan and his brothers give eulogies.

The family that he loved, that he built, that he’d surrounded himself with had everything all mapped out. I understood it. I’d done the same already for my mother. We knew she would be cremated and given back to the land like she wanted. We’d talked about her belongings, and she’d said she was giving the studio and house to me.

Now, I questioned all that. Yet, I couldn’t question her. Giving her the burden of pointing a finger at her wouldn’t help.

“I’ll be fine.”

“You don’t always have to be fine, Evie,” she said quietly. Yet, my mother had always been fine. She’d never cried about the divorce or about being a single mom. She got up, ran the yoga studio, and taught me to do the same all on her own.

“It’s just hard to digest it all,” I said quietly. “He was trying with me, you know? And now …”

“You can miss the idea of him, baby girl. You have to give yourself grace to miss and to hurt, even though you didn’t know what the future held. Maybe you miss your hopes. That’s real and you shouldn’t discount it, okay?”

I took a shaky breath as I peered around the house. “I know you’re right. I just don’t like change, and I like to be one step ahead.”

“Or a million steps ahead.” She chuckled. “It’s okay to breathe, to feel, to let go a little.”

I nodded. “I’m going back to bed, Mom. You’re my sunshine.”

“My only sunshine,” she replied back. It was the song she’d always sung to me on a bad day, the lyrics we still exchanged as I love you’s now. I hung up and tried not to cry, curled up in that bed, and tried to ignore people milling around organizing my life.

Not much later, the movers and assistant were gone, and Declan knocked on the oak front door. I padded over the plush cream carpet to swing it open. “Hi?” I said, wiping the sleep from my eyes, not sure why he was here.

“Were you still sleeping?” He squinted at me as if it was absurd.

I tried to smooth the hoodie I had on as I took in the formidable man standing before me, looking as bright and awake as the sun. “I’m not a morning person. Your assistant stopped by though.”

He nodded. “You get all your belongings?”

I glanced at the lingerie and clothing rack. “I got more than that.”

He hummed. “Wear what you want. Return what you don’t. I promised a lingerie store.”

I chewed my lip and tried not to melt at how casually he offered an explanation. “I really didn’t need it—”

“I really wanted to give it though. So, I did,” he said without a worry in the world about it. “Anyway, you always wake up this late for work?”

I shrugged and nodded.

He chuckled, “That’s shocking actually.” The desire to slam the door in his face grew as his eyes twinkled with what looked like amusement and pure energy that I needed to get from a big dose of caffeine. “You’re normally ready to go when you get to the gym.”

“Sort of shocking you know that considering you never used to say hi to me or notice me the mornings I work.”

He leaned against the doorframe, “I’ve always noticed you, Drop, no matter how damn hard I try not to.”

My heart beat fast at his confession. “Well, I normally have a gallon of coffee. So, I’m up by then.” I tried to stifle a yawn and motioned toward him at my door. “Was this a wake-up call or do you need something from the guesthouse?”

It was then I took a minute to look him up and down. Declan normally wore gym shorts and a T-shirt—or no shirt at all—when he was working out. Instead, standing on the white doorstep, he was dressed in a navy suit with shiny gold cuff links and a HEAT pin on his lapel. Clean-cut, tailor-made for him. “Are you going to work or someplace else dressed like that?”

He pulled at his collar. “I have meetings most of the day. My brothers are stopping in, and we’ll be talking with shareholders, discussing new designs, ironing out what will happen with the gyms, spas, and resorts in the next year or so.”

“Oh.” It occurred to me that only Declan and his brothers had been invited, that Carl’s legacy wasn’t being passed down to me at all. “I guess that makes sense.”

“You guess?” He lifted a brow.

“It’s mostly your company now, right? It might benefit you to take into consideration all the dynamics.”

“Do you think we don’t do that already?”

“Melinda is managing the spa, she may want—”

“That woman won’t be managing anything.” He cut me off. “I talked with her and Anastasia last night. They’ve given me voting rights because they have a spin class.”

Jesus, did they not care about anything other than their damn lifestyle within HEAT? “Okay. Well, I know it’s an exclusive access for some but the kids that come now love it. It could benefit HEAT to work in more charitable ventures for them and—” I stopped myself. “I’m sure you know this.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I’ll make note of it.”

I figured he’d forget what I said. “Well, is there anything else?”

“We’re leaving in thirty minutes for work. My driver will be here then.”

“I don’t need a ride. I like to jog to—”

“It’s five miles now, Everly.”

“Good. I can walk some of that and—”

“Jog at work on the track. We need to discuss our lives for the next year, and I think you’re unaware of the fact that yours will be changing drastically once the news outlets find out you’re staying here. You can’t go jogging by yourself anymore.”

That had the retort dying on my lips fast. “The paparazzi,” I whispered, frustrated that he was probably right. “But they don’t know yet.”

“No. I intend to keep things as quiet as I can for as long as I can.”

I nodded and glanced out the window. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No. I have enough energy as it is.”

As much as I’d tried to avoid the news about him in the last few months, I saw the headlines. Declan Hardy lived a high impact, fast life that people admired. He pushed his body to the max in any way he could. He’d go bungee jumping on his day off or one day Juna whispered to me he and his brother-in-law—who was a questionable businessman but also the head of our nation’s cybersecurity—were photographed together pushing electric cars to high speeds. Supposedly his brother-in-law had helped calibrate them.

“In that case, I guess I’ll take you up on your offer, and I’ll be ready in twenty minutes.”

“Are you not going to invite me in?”

“I have to get dressed.”

He lifted a brow and laughed before pushing off the doorframe and walking right in. “I’ve seen you naked, Drop. I’d actually prefer to wait here and catch another glimpse.”

“Are you always like this in the morning?”

“Like what?”

“Pushing boundaries.”

“Sure. People are vulnerable when they’re tired. Might learn something new about my wife.” He shrugged and smirked at me, like we were suddenly friends.

“I don’t … It’s too early for this. Don’t call me that.”

“What should I call you then? My late business partner’s daughter?”

I glared. “Probably better.”

“Probably not since even knowing that, the first time I saw you, I pictured fucking you on the conference table.”

“Oh my God.” I rolled my eyes but couldn’t stop the blush that spread across my cheeks.

“In my defense, I didn’t know you would be working for us or that you were his daughter until you were introduced.”

“I don’t know whether to be offended or—”

“Or turned on? Go with that.” This was bad. Playful Declan in the morning was not something I could contend with without caffeine.

“I think you need to go back to your mansion, Mr. Hardy.” I shoved him but hated how my heart fluttered as he caught my wrist instead of backing away and pulled me close.

“My mansion feels empty when I know there’s a woman in the guesthouse who tastes as sweet as she smells.”

“I think we’re going to have trouble with our rules if you don’t start following them,” I said as he nestled into my neck.

“Right. Not sure flirting and stealing a kiss here and there are a part of the rules. I sat up all night thinking about you over here.”

“We said no sex,” I pointed out.

“And then we fucked.” He shot back. “Plus, this isn’t sleeping together. Although, I can change that if you want.” He eyed the island counter like he had ideas.

“Okay. You need to leave. Your mind is in outer space with alien life-forms this morning.” I turned his shoulder toward the door and pushed his back. He leaned his weight into me, and I chuckled. “Come on. Are you joking me? That’s not fair.”

“What do you mean? You’re the one who practically tackled me the first time we met.”

“Tackled? Get real. You fell over like a child who’d gotten a scraped knee when you thought I’d break your precious wrist.”

“Ah. My Drop does have some sass under that cool, calm composure.”

Who was this man, and what had he done with my brooding boss? “Oh, stop.” I took that moment to step away from him fast, and he almost fell over without me trying to shove him out the door.

“Good. Not good enough though.” He stumbled to right himself. “I’m learning the way you move.”

“Learning? How?”

“I see how you scrap around in the ring every now and then with clients. You use their weight against them most of the time.”

Why did the fact that he was watching me every now and then warm me in places it shouldn’t?

I shrugged. Then, I turned on my heel and went to get dressed, smirking to myself when I saw Wes’s jersey in the overnight bag Declan’s assistant had left. I snapped it up.

He wanted to tease me in the morning, I’d do it right back. Playful felt good, felt new, felt like something I could be, if only for just a second with him.

I slipped on the jersey as I peeked around the corner at Declan. “I see the SUV outside. I’ll meet you out there.”

“Fine,” he dragged out the word like he was pouting, then I heard the door open. I swiped on a bit of lip gloss and spread some cream in over my waves before throwing a change of clothes in my duffel and bounding out the door and into the Escalade.

Declan was on the phone as the driver pulled out. “Then, find another way. I want to see every line of that document.”

He turned to me, and I saw how the cheeriness drained from his eyes. The twinkle faded away, and his jaw tensed as he continued to listen to the person on the phone.

“Right. I understand the legalities. I just don’t care about them … which means you need to not care about them either. Find me a way.”

This was business Declan. I saw the NFL player—the man willing to go to great lengths, seeking the adrenaline rush for his team. Then I saw the ruthless businessman—the one who didn’t smile and tell you to get the job done next week. He wanted things done his way. And now.

“See that you do,” he murmured before pulling the phone from his cheek.

Yet, the Declan in front of me now … I wasn’t sure which it was. The player or the businessman, ruthless and angry, ready to get his way.

“Peter, turn the car around.”

“Sir?”

“Peter, don’t. We’ll be late for work,” I said with a surprising amount of authority.

“Ma’am.”

I kept my composure as Declan clicked a button and suddenly a black partition slid up between the front seats and the back. With every centimeter of the driver disappearing from view, my heart rate skyrocketed.

In a way I wanted.

In a way I shouldn’t.

“You have another shirt in that duffel bag to wear?”

“Not one I’m willing to put on right now. It’s for after my workout.”

“Then we’re going back to the house for you to change, Everly.”

“Mr. Hardy,” I drawled his name, “this is merely a shirt. Please don’t tell me you’re going to lose your temper over it.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Are you trying to piss me off?”

I pursed my lips, attempting not to smile. He had to know I was going to wear my HEAT sports bra under this at the fitness center. “Are you truly that easy to rile? I’ll wear my sports bra there, Declan.”

I broke eye contact so I wouldn’t burst out laughing right in his face.

“Carl would be so disgusted with you right now.” He shook his head in disappointment. “Part of that will was to not have you entertaining the idea of Wes when you’re married to me—”

“I’m not really married to you.” The laughter bubbled out. I couldn’t help it. “This is all so ridiculous.”

“Fuck me,” he groaned. “What’s ridiculous is you thinking that a Cobra is going to be okay with you staying at my place every night.”

“Your guesthouse.”

“You think he’s going to enjoy knowing I fucked you into oblivion on the hood of my car?”

I couldn’t stop the flush from overtaking my body. “We aren’t telling people any of that. When the time comes, I’ll be honest with him and let him know it’s a marriage of convenience with stipulations for the benefit of HEAT’s corporation. We were doing what my father wanted. No more, no less.”

“Isn’t it ‘more’ since I know how your pussy tastes, Everly?”

“Declan, that was— It won’t happen again.”

“We got a whole year of you and me crossing paths, and you think it won’t?”

“Why would it? We had our fun.” I straightened in my seat and tried not to even look at him now. If I did, he’d know I was thinking about how he felt inside me, how I couldn’t stop imagining it. “And now we have a commitment to fulfill. Let’s do it efficiently without changing things or throwing in surprises.”

“That’s the thing babe, I don’t mind a change or a surprise.”

“I do. Plus, I know I’m personally no good at relationships.”

“And why is that?” He lifted a brow.

Sharing my past with him would mean trusting him to not look at me like most people in my town did. I didn’t trust anyone with that yet. “Past is in the past.”

I said it and tried so hard to believe it.

I saw how he sighed, how he nodded and tensed his jaw. Good, he needed to put his barrier back up too. “Fine, other than our tax status, our lives stay the same. Nothing else has changed. Easy.”

Famous last words.


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