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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 18

EVERLY

THE NEXT MORNING, just as the sun broke over the horizon, there was a knock at my door.

I grumbled as I got out of bed, and right then, my phone rang too. I snatched it and speared the green button. “Mom, it’s too early.”

“I know.” She chuckled and then I heard her deep sigh. “Tonya came by yesterday, though, and I figured you should know. She looked lost.”

I closed my eyes briefly, willing away the thought, as I trudged to the door. “I can try to call her, but she probably won’t answer.”

“I know that too.” She tsked. “You’re best friends. Andy shouldn’t have been able to take that from you. It’s not fair.”

But life wasn’t fair. Andy could and had taken everything from me. He’d taken my trust in men, he’d taken my heart, he’d taken my soul, he’d taken my security. And he’d destroyed it all.

With the spread of a single story.

He argued I’d done the same to him.

And the town believed him, a golden boy they knew over a homeschooled girl they didn’t. Maybe I’d never stood a chance against the media then, but I’d tried.

The story I told of abuse and assault at his frat party was swept under the rug. Not even the women he’d hurt before me would testify against him. Instead, his family painted a different picture.

Stories spread, friendships broke, the home I loved crumbled, and my life changed forever.

I ran my hand over the necklace I used to share with Tonya, although I knew she never wore hers anymore. “Someone’s at my door. I’ll call you later.”

“You are my sunshine, Evie,” she murmured.

“My only sunshine, Mom,” I said and hung up just as I swung open the door for Declan.

“You don’t look ready.” His smile was as bright as the sun and as annoying as an alarm clock at dawn.

“I told you I wasn’t going anywhere with you today. I have to go to Clara’s and then to work.”

“All that has been cancelled.”

“I planned to do—”

“Plans change.” He shrugged and stepped past me into the house. I noticed he was holding coffee, and it was the only reason I allowed him to continue as he handed it to me on his way in.

He didn’t wait for an invitation into my living space. He walked past the living room and kitchen and went right into my bedroom.

“What are you doing?” I stuttered as I hurried after him, setting my coffee on the counter.

He pulled open a dresser drawer where I’d color coordinated all my clothing for the week and pulled out a blue sweater that I wouldn’t have ever worn that day. Blue was for Wednesdays.

“You’ll wear this,” he murmured and pulled out jeans and even freaking lingerie.

“I’m not wearing any of that.” I huffed and grabbed the sweater to shove it back into my dresser.

He grabbed my wrist and pulled me close. “Do you really want to argue, Drop? Just about clothing? You like all your clothes, right?”

“Of course I like my clothes.” I shook my wrist in his hand, but he didn’t let it go.

“Then it isn’t a big deal to wear what I like to see you in when I’m going with you somewhere today.”

“I don’t know where we’re going, so I don’t especially think—”

“I’m taking care of it.” He cut me off. “Put this on or do you want me to dress you?”

My eyes widened. I couldn’t stop myself from reacting when he was being a demanding asshole. “You don’t always get what you want, Declan. I told you I wasn’t going with you—”

“Right.” He sighed, like this conversation irritated him. Then he grabbed my sleep shirt and yanked it over my head. “Dressing you like a child isn’t exactly what I had in mind for the morning, but I don’t mind getting you naked.”

“Are you out of your mind?” I wiggled around but Declan was a great body handler although he shoved my sweater on without a bra at all and I wasn’t really putting up much of a fight. “You know what? Fine. I’ll put it on.”

I wiggled the last part of my arms into the material. “Give me a minute, then.”

One side of his mouth kicked up, showing one of his dimples. “Finish getting dressed, babe. I’m staying.”

“What? You don’t think I will?” I narrowed my eyes into slits and poked his big dumb shoulder. He was wearing a white V-neck with aviators hanging on the collar that hugged his pecs. His shirt tapered down to black shorts and he had slip-on moccasins.

Business Declan was hot, but Casual Declan was divine.

“I think you might take your precious time. Maybe formulate a whole schedule in your head or map out every scenario this day could turn into.” He cracked his knuckles. “I’m too impatient for that. Plus, you need to live without thinking too much about it for a day.”

As I stared at him, I wondered if he knew how much I wanted to, if he knew that my mind was swimming with every idea already regarding my mother’s phone call. I wondered if he could make me forget it too, if him making the decisions today would allow me a moment where I didn’t need to worry, where I felt safe.

My hands crept up over my thighs to my panties, and I hooked my thumbs in slowly.

Declan didn’t turn around. Instead, he sat on the soft comforter of my bed and leaned back to watch.

“Not going to turn around?”

“Why would I? People pay millions to have masterpieces in their homes, to stare at them displayed for their eyes only. You naked in front of me is a masterpiece, and I don’t intend to ever miss an opportunity to stare, babe.”

I let the panties fall and the lace fabric caused goose bumps to pebble over my legs. My body reacted to him so quickly I knew I was already wet. He’d gotten ahold of something I wanted no man to have.

My lust for him.

My desire.

And my trust in him grew. Exponentially. Dangerously.

Declan waited for me, coaxing and persuading in measures. He demanded, but he also offered praise, a safe word, and a way out if I wanted it.

He handed me pants he’d picked out, and I slid them on slowly in front of him.

No words were exchanged. We didn’t need them. His gaze on me, watching and lingering where he wanted, was enough.

By the time I was dressed, I wanted to get undressed again.

“Ready?” He clapped his hands together like we were simply going to go about our day.

I wanted to scream, and we hadn’t even done anything yet.

“Where are we going?” I turned to my mirror and fluffed my curls.

He walked around my room, taking in everything. “A little place about twenty minutes away.” He stopped and grabbed several hair bands that I had in a small jar on my dresser, putting them on his wrist one by one.

I swiped on some mascara and was applying lip gloss but stopped and pointed the applicator toward his wrist. “What are you doing?”

“You always forget these things.” He shrugged like it was nothing, but my heart pounded harder and harder against my chest for him.

“I can wear them, Declan.”

“You could, but I’m going to instead.” Then he pointed at my makeup. “You don’t need any of that. Your face is fine.”

“My face is fine?” I chuckled and turned to swipe another coat of gloss on.

“You’re beautiful.” He suddenly was right behind me, his stare taking me in as he leaned close and nestled into my hair near my neck. “Makeup won’t change that your eyes rival the color of the sea, Drop. Or that your lips were made to be kissed by mine.”

Why did my thighs instantly tremble at his words? I gulped and said, “Fine. I guess this is all you’re getting today since you’re rushing me.”

He slid his arm around me without hesitation and pushed my curls out of the way so he could lick right below my ear. “This gloss and the way you look … like you just rolled out of bed … it makes me think of having you in it.”

“I—”

His mouth moved like lightning, like he wasn’t thinking about the consequences, and his length hardened against my belly where I could be reminded of how deliciously big he was. There was no denying him that kiss, even if we shouldn’t have indulged. His hands went to my ass as he picked me up, and I wrapped my legs around him as he turned and set me on the vanity. I clawed at his back, pulled him closer with my legs, and met his tongue swipe for swipe.

“Fuck,” he murmured as he pulled back for a second. “Forget the plan for the morning. Let’s stay here.”

I finally willed myself to push him back. “I’m not skipping work and changing my plans only for you to cancel whatever you insisted I attend with you and stay in bed.” I hopped off the vanity. “Let’s go.”

He grumbled the whole way, rearranging his pants and making sure I knew it. I smirked as I grabbed my coffee off the counter and made my way out to his Bugatti instead of an SUV with Peter. “Driving today?”

“I like to drive when I can.” He shrugged. “It’s too early for the paps to be out. Might as well enjoy a fun ride.”

I nodded and took a deep breath. This was Declan. Snap decisions, going with his gut. I wanted to consider every scenario first. If the paps did happen upon us, what would we do? “Everly”—he tapped my temple as we both stood in front of his car, me not making a move to walk toward it—“stop thinking.”

“It’s hard for me to do that. My mind is trained to be in overdrive.”

“Care to tell me why that is?” he asked as we stood on his massive driveway.

What could I say? I glanced at him and took in his strong jaw, the way he didn’t pry since he knew it was important now that he didn’t, the way he handled me with care when it was necessary and roughness when I wanted it.

“I should tell you.” I breathed, and my hands fisted. “I will tell you. You’ll need to know if the paparazzi start digging into my past—”

His brow furrowed suddenly and then he cut me off. “Tell me when you’re ready. I’m not going to have the media push us to share our lives prematurely. I’ve had to do that one too many times. Until then, I want you to stay here.” He pointed to the ground. “In the present, with me. I’m taking care of you today.”

“What do you mean?” I whispered.

He stepped close, and his hand went to my throat where he rubbed his thumb up and down, up and down. “Just let me take care of you today. Let me handle the anxiety, Drop. Let me praise or punish you for listening or not today, huh?” My throat moved under his grip. “I think maybe someone broke your trust. I’m earning it back now, though. I get my chance. So, today, I’m taking control, and you’re not going to think about it at all. You’re going to listen. Got it?”

Ten more months with him. Ten. We would have to work together, be seen together, endure a lot together. I had to trust him.

This was for the best.

“Right.” I nodded. “I can do that.”

His jaw worked. “We’ll see.”

Yet, even as he opened the door for me, I couldn’t help but ask, “Will you at least give me a hint of where we’re going?”

He smiled as he pushed the button for the gate to open between the visors of the car, one hand on my hip so he could lean in. He took his time, rubbing a circle on the bare skin through the hole of my jeans. “Sure, I’ll give you a hint, babe.”

Then he slammed the door in my face and rounded the hood of the car, dragging a finger across it. One side of his mouth lifted up at me devilishly. I hated that I blushed, and when he got in and pushed the start button, he murmured, “Being shy looks good on you, Everly.”

Before I could answer, he shifted into gear and peeled out of the drive. I gripped the dashboard and yelped as he sped past the gate before taking his foot off the accelerator a second later. “There’s your hint.”

I narrowed my eyes but didn’t get a chance to respond because Clara was texting me.

Clara: I’m only going because you are … And because Declan asked for me to go because of you. Also, Declan said I shouldn’t mention it to Anastasia, that there wouldn’t be room.

“You invited Clara?” I asked, staring at my phone. He nodded, pulling his aviators on. “Why?”

“Why not?” He shrugged. “You were going to go to her bakery. This seemed like the better option.”

“Better than both of us going to work?” I scoffed. “Plus, what’s she going to say about us showing up together?”

“That I was trying to do something nice for Carl’s estranged daughter? You’ve been on edge since he passed and felt isolated.”

“Is that what you told her?” I picked at a fingernail, not sure whether to be offended or relieved. “I mean, it’s good that you did. We can’t be telling people anything else, but other than me staying in your guesthouse, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to tell them we talk at all.”

He shrugged and pinned me with those green eyes. “Is it that much of a stretch, Drop? I drive you to work every day. They know we talk.” We didn’t actually even talk that much in the car. “She doesn’t know I fucked you, but I’m happy to tell her that, too, if you’d like.”

“No,” I snapped. “Of course not.”

He hummed and then made another turn, his grip on the wheel seeming to tighten.

I texted Clara back.

Me: Where are we even going? Declan won’t tell me.

Clara: He said you’ll see when you get there. I’m happy we’re doing this.

“So, you can instruct her not to tell me—make a plan involving me—but you want me to let go and go with the flow?” I blew out a raspberry.

He chuckled and made two more turns.

Clara: It’ll be nice to do something that Carl would have wanted us to do together.

Yet, I shook my head vigorously when I saw the track.

“I’m not racing or getting in a race car, Declan,” I immediately spit out. “You barely can go the speed limit and—”

“Drop,” he said the nickname and his hand went to my thigh to squeeze and stop me from rambling all the reasons this was a bad idea. “I’m taking care of you now. I told you not to worry.”

I breathed out as we pulled up to the entrance. There were only about five other cars there, and I recognized Clara’s immediately—bright red against all the other black ones lined up next to it. She jumped out of the car with a cherry-red smile that matched the red roses all over her jumpsuit.

She waved enthusiastically as I hurried to open my door before Declan could. He glared at me and murmured, “One.”

Not sure what he meant, I brushed it off and turned to Clara. “Are you doing this?”

She giggled excitedly. “My dad was so excited about Declan testing the cars. Isn’t your sister and her husband coming, Dec?”

He nodded. “They’re here already.”

Clara jumped with excitement. “I’m literally in love with Cade Armanelli. I mean, no disrespect to your sister but—”

“Wait.” I stopped Clara. “You know Cade Armanelli?” It came out a sort of whisper as my heart started to race and my palms sweat. The Armanellis were infamous, badass businessmen that the law could never touch. They were like the godfathers of our century.

“You know who he is but didn’t know me?” Declan looked disgusted. “You told me you didn’t watch TV.”

“I don’t, but I have a phone and read the news. The Armanellis somehow evaded and then holstered the law as a tool. They’re infamous globally, and Cade is—” I stopped myself.

“Hot?” Clara squealed. “And a freaking genius. Oh my God. Please smack me if I act like this in front of them.”

“I’ll probably act that way too. We’re meeting him? He’s like … N-no one ever meets him,” I stuttered as we walked toward the entrance. “You’re related?”

“He calibrated the car we’re testing, and he married my sister,” Declan grumbled like he hated the idea of it. “Anyway, I need to make sure it can hit two hundred quick for a brand sponsorship next week.”

Clara was practically skipping at this point, and I really couldn’t blame her. But she almost tripped and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw another black car pull up. This one was just as expensive as the Bugatti, and the man that got out was just as good looking as Declan.

Dom’s sunglasses hid his expression as he strode over. “You brought the women? For what?” He glared at both of us as Clara’s eyes widened.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe for a bit of fun maybe,” she sneered and fluttered her fingers in front of her to emphasize it like Dom needed a demonstration on what fun might look like.

Declan chewed his cheek like he wanted to laugh in Dom’s face. “Yeah, Dom. Maybe for some fun.”

With that, he hooked his arm in mine, and we walked in. I heard Clara tell Dom to go to hell but didn’t look back to see why they were so frustrated with one another. Obviously they knew each other from a time before I was around.

Instead, I focused on the track where everything seemed brighter, faster, and more intense. I saw a white car zooming around that looked a lot like a new sort of electric vehicle. I took in the smell of rubber and dirt and glanced at Declan. “You do this a lot?”

“Enough, Drop.” He nodded, his eyes sparkling as he watched the car practically fly by.

Before I could ask another question though, a couple near a sleek-looking car caught my attention. They could have rivaled the sun with their heat, tension, and what felt like hate for one another. They stood there arguing as we approached.

Cade and his wife. She’d been kept out of the news from what I’d seen. Most of the coverage didn’t really focus much on them but rather his brother, Sebastian Armanelli.

“Cade, I’m driving as fast as I want around the fucking track as many times as I want or—”

“Or what?” He stepped up to her, dominating her space, his tattoos flashing on his neck like a vicious reminder of who he was.

“Or I’ll hold out for this whole damn pregnancy.” She saw us as she said it and waved us over.

The woman was bold, I recognized it in the way she held herself, stepping right up to her man like she was sure he couldn’t harm her at all.

The love he had in his eyes showed he wouldn’t. Yet, he still smiled menacingly at her. “I’d love to see you try and hold out.”

“Are you two kidding me right now?” Declan glared at them both before pulling her in for a hug. Izzy had his exact same face shape along with the dark hair. They were siblings for sure. “Quit talking about hooking up with my sister, Cade. Izzy, meet Everly.”

She looked me up and down and then pulled me in for a hug as she whispered, “So sorry you had to marry my brother. Hope he isn’t an ass the whole time. Cade and I hacked the system to view your father’s will. Promise we fucking hate the press so don’t worry about that.” Then she pulled back with a huge smile on her face.

Brilliant. She didn’t look at all apologetic, and she was so straightforward, I couldn’t even hate her for it.

This was going to be just great.

“Declan?” I whispered, my eyes widened in panic.

“They’re fine, Everly.” Declan pulled me close and gave me a squeeze.

“Fine with what?” Dom asked from behind us.

Izzy’s eyes bounced from Declan’s to Dom’s. She wiggled in place like she wanted to unleash a storm.

“Don’t start, Izzy,” Declan growled and glanced over at Clara.

Izzy immediately picked up on what he was insinuating. Not everyone here knew we were married. “Oh, fuck you, Declan. Dom and I never get to tease you together.”

Declan grabbed my hand. “I’m taking Everly on the drive first.”

“I want to drive though!” Izzy whined.

“Izzy, you’re not getting in the damn car. You’re pregnant,” Declan snapped at the same time Cade said, “No.”

She must not have been too far along because I didn’t see a baby bump.

“So what if I’m pregnant?” Declan’s sister shrieked. “Dom, tell Declan and Cade they’re idiots. This is only the first trimester.”

“Izzy,” Dom sighed like he was the voice of reason in the family, but his gaze was hard as he reproached her. “None of you should be getting in that car. It’s dangerous. And I’m guessing none of you know how to drive stick?”

Clara cleared her throat. “I can.”

“Well, then.” Cade smiled. “She can drive. As for you, baby doll, you’re not driving shit.”

“If you don’t drive me around this track as fast as possible, I’m not kidding, Cade, I’ll be pissed. I already hate being babied this much.”

Cade stood staring at his wife like she was the only person in the world, fisting his hand once and then twice before he ground out, “One lap around, woman.”

When she jumped up on him, he caught her with one arm, like he anticipated her every move and her legs wrapped around him like a vice.

“Why I subject myself to you two is beyond me,” Dom grumbled while Declan rolled his eyes. Obviously neither of them were fully on board with Cade like Clara and I were.

She nudged me, and when I looked at her, she had tears in her eyes. “If a man doesn’t love me like that, I don’t want him.”

I nodded, agreeing with her. “It’s really special.”

“And rare,” Clara added, her red hair blowing in the wind. Her eyes held such a sadness that I found myself leaning in and patting her shoulder.

“But not impossible,” I finished. Normally, I avoided hope. Normally, I knew better than to plant that seed. Yet, today, maybe just maybe, Clara and I were on the right path. We may not have been sisters like I’d always wanted, but we could be friends.

We were given directions on how to handle ourselves within the vehicle and then we went to change.

Cade discussed some key mileage markers with Declan and they both worked through what was needed for the launch of this new car brand.

I didn’t understand a thing.

Yet, Declan told me to trust him, and when I sat down in that car and he looked over at me, I saw what must have drawn the whole country to him. Fearlessness. He smiled big and asked, “You ready to ride, Drop?”

My mouth was dry, my hands were shaking, my toes were literally tingling, but I nodded.

“Take care of me, Declan,” I said, and he hit the gas.

The car went zero to sixty in one and a half seconds, and I knew Declan was pushing it to its limit. They’d adjusted this car to have smooth tires rather than street tires, giving it better grip to achieve higher speeds as quickly as possible.

I’d tried to listen to more of the science behind it, but it went out the window as my heart threatened to jump into my throat as we climbed dizzying speeds, speeds that felt impossible, speeds that weren’t controllable.

Through our headsets, Declan yelled, “No controlling this, Drop. Just enjoy it.”

I gripped my own thighs for dear life as we neared the turn.

Declan winked at me like he was a fucking NASCAR racer, and part of me wondered if he had been one.

He didn’t seem at all concerned with our safety, and his confidence had me watching him rather than the road. No wonder he could own the world. He wanted to test every limit, wanted to push so far past comfort zones that he was the only one who had control, and he had the confidence to do it.

I didn’t hear what they told him over the speakers or comprehend if we were doing anything correctly at all. I was lost in what Declan was. He’d bottled my worries and anxieties so I could try to enjoy something. He’d brought me along to do this with his family like I mattered too.

And for what?

When we got to the last turn, I smiled as he took it a bit harder, felt my heart lurch but then tumble back into place with a stronger connection to the man who’d gotten it to move in the first place.

When we stepped out of the car, Cade smiled like a villain who’d accomplished mass destruction. “My calibration works perfectly.”

“Yours?” Izzy rolled her eyes. “I practically came up with the whole thing.”

“You want to tell the news that?” Cade yanked her toward the car.

“No. Absolutely not. I don’t want to be in the news at all.” She scoffed, then she smiled at us. “There’s bigger news that will be out soon enough anyway.”

“What’s going on?” Clara narrowed her eyes.

“We’ve gotta go.” Declan threaded his fingers through my hands. “Clara, you can ride with Dom, right?”

“I … Oh. If he wants to be a passenger.”

Dom eyed her up and down, and I saw the blush stain her cheeks. “Let’s see how good you are at driving, Clara. I have a feeling I won’t like it one bit.”

She narrowed her eyes.

“Well, since you guys are leaving, it was good to meet you,” Izzy yelled as she got into the car. “And Declan, be nice to your wife.”

My jaw dropped as Cade murmured “That’s my girl” right as Declan growled “Oh, fuck me” and Clara barked out “What?”

So much for keeping our marriage a secret.


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