Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 2

EVERLY

A HOT SHOWER after my shift didn’t help to scald away any of my frustration. Nor did brushing through the tangles of my hair harder than intended.

Putting on my tennis skirt and a coat of lip gloss and mascara before I texted Wes I was on my way over, though, had me feeling much better.

Po and Noah saw me exit the revolving door of the fitness center as they sat on the fountain’s edge in the circular drive. “Evie, you coming to Vibe Club with us later?” Po asked.

I pointed toward a small path that led down to. HEAT Health and Fitness sat atop an ocean cliff, providing beautiful views and connecting to their Oceanside Resort. “I’m walking over to Wes’s actually.”

“See, bro. Everyone’s going to Wes’s. Let’s just go.” Noah shoved his friend.

“Goddamn,” Po grumbled, combing his big hand through his wavy mess of hair. It look styled but I knew for a fact neither of them cared a bit how they looked. Instead, they both lifted most of the day at the fitness center, ran, took yoga classes, and then they trained on-ice a few times a week. Their lives, even in the off-season, revolved mostly around hockey.

Noah cajoled, “You know puck bunnies are going to Wes’s. Let’s just go. Plus, Evie will be there.”

Po reached for my duffel, then hiked it up onto his shoulder. “Fuck it. We’ll walk with you.”

I chuckled as we stepped onto the sand and started our trek along the water, waves lapping softly along the way.  “Are you both going just to hook up with women?”

“If I say yes, will you think less of me?” Po asked.

Sighing, I stopped to pick up a white shell and grabbed at the pocket of my duffel bag to slide it in. “No, because I already think pretty low of you and your hookup habits.”

Po glanced at me collecting the shell. “You realize there’re better ones up at the tourist shop than that?”

I shrugged. People stepped all over the shells like they weren’t beautiful pieces to be reused and what was the use of buying them when I could have the experience of finding one myself?

A seagull hopped close but jumped back as we stepped toward it. So, I waved at the guys and tried to give him and his flock a wide berth. I made sure to do it every day when jogging to work so as not to scare them off.

“Evie,” Po deadpanned, mirth in his dark eyes. “Just go through the gulls. They’ll fly away and come right back.”

I sighed and fell into step with them all. “They’re different from the blue birds and cardinals back home in Wisconsin. You scare them and they’re gone to another feeder for a whole season.”

“Florida’s filled with seagulls that’ll never leave. You’ll get used to it soon enough,” Noah said as he nudged me on the way up to Wes’s oceanfront property.

Getting used to hanging out with people who owned homes five times the size of my apartment like Wes’s wasn’t going to come easy.

Getting used to everything at HEAT Health and Fitness was near impossible. My mother and I had owned a run-down yoga studio that we charged a five-dollar fee to attend. Here, members paid hundreds of thousands in dues each year. They got access to private clubs, spas, hotels, and red carpet events like they were celebrities.

When I walked into Wes’s house, I saw that many of them were in fact celebrities. Athletes. Moguls. Millionaires, all of them. The kind of people who dressed in their best just to hang out with friends.

Wes met us right away and introduced me to some of his team. Po and Noah draped their arms around women immediately, which would have been impressive if it hadn’t been so gross. Yet, when Wes wandered off once or twice, Noah appeared near me right as I started to wring my hands. “Got you, Evie. Want to go sit by the pool?”

In that first hour, Noah and Po demonstrated their acceptance of me as not simply as a yoga instructor but as a friend. They stayed close while Wes was off hosting, and they didn’t let me out of their sight.

Women and men walked around in bikinis and swim trunks but somehow still managed to look like they belonged.

“I probably should have gone home and changed,” I mentioned to Wes when he came back over, but he shook his head.

“Oh.” He dragged his gaze over me before he hummed, then smirked to himself. “People always want to dress up for shit like this. No worries. One sec. I’ll get you something.”

Po rolled his eyes at Noah. “Bet he brings one of his fucking jerseys.”

They both laughed seconds later when Wes came bounding down his sleek floating stairs carrying a small Cobras jersey and a beer. He held it out to me as Noah teased him. “How many of those you got upstairs? You have every size?”

“Fuck off,” Wes chuckled. “We get a few boxes for fans, dumbass.”

Po grumbled, “More like you bought a few boxes.”

I didn’t want to be rude, so I slid on the fabric and smiled. “Thanks.” But I shook my head at the beer. “I’ll just have water.”

He nodded and skirted around the island’s white marble counter to grab a glass with ice and water. From there, it was like I had a golden ticket. Women tried to engage in conversation with me, men offered me drinks and places to sit, always trying to be accommodating. The jersey seemed to hold a lot of status.

“Evie?” I winced when I heard the high-pitched voice behind me. I actively had been avoiding that voice since the first time I’d been introduced to my stepsister Anastasia. Her blonde hair swung as she walked over from the backyard pool area in her pastel-pink dress that hung loosely enough to show her bikini underneath, and then she hooked her arm into my other stepsister’s arm.

Clara and Anastasia were two years apart in age, and they couldn’t be more different. Clara wore bright florals and had a permanent smile on her face as she called out a soft “Hi, Evie” before her sister elbowed her.

Noah glanced between us and must have seen my discomfort because he draped an arm around my shoulder and said, “Happy I get to hang with you Milton ladies tonight.”

He probably thought he was defusing tension, but Anastasia practically stomped her pink high heel. “She’s not a Milton, Noah.”

“My mother changed our last name back to her maiden name when my parents divorced.” I explained since Noah looked a bit confused. Clara’s face turned pink, but I wouldn’t feel ashamed for someone else’s rude behavior. I stood tall and sipped a bit of the water before continuing. “Anyway, Carl was gracious enough to let me come stay in the guesthouse for a week, but our families really haven’t mixed since he left when I was six and you both were …?”

“I was ten and Clara was eight when Carl came into our lives,” Anastasia announced like everyone needed to know. “He’s been a great stepfather.”

I nodded and chewed my lip, trying not to feel any sense of disappointment. Anastasia had made it very clear we’d never be sisters. Nor did she care to get to know me.

Noah, being the laid back guy he was, squeezed my shoulder and lifted his drink. “Well, to Carl bringing us all together then.”

Anastasia eyed us both up, though, and wrinkled her nose when she saw my attire. “Where did you get that?”

“Wes let me borrow it.” I shrugged because it didn’t mean anything to me honestly.

“Make sure you give it back before you leave. We don’t wear Cobra gear,” she ground out before pushing past me. I wasn’t sure if she was actually mad about what I was wearing or the fact that I was being accepted into her circle in the slightest.

I glanced at Clara whose green eyes rolled before she murmured, “I’m sorry about her. She’s in a mood.”

The freckles across her nose had started to peek out from under makeup as she wrinkled it, looking at her sister like she was disgusted with her behavior. I waved it off. “It’s fine. I came straight from work and was underdressed.”

She blinked twice, her fake eyelashes noticeable but still doing a great job of framing her eyes beautifully. She’d inherited her mother’s high cheekbones and tall frame, and I could see how she was appealing to the masses even if she didn’t see it herself. “Not underdressed when you’re in the quarterback’s jersey. Are you two a thing?”

“Not really. Just seeing where things go, but he knows it’s casual.” I played with some of the string bracelets on my wrist, but she was hummed like she disagreed.

“Carl will get over it if you are. He always huffs and puffs first, then deflates after a bit. Anyway, I’m still sorry about Anastasia. She just hasn’t gotten to know you.” She pointed to a plush couch where we could sit and waved Noah off.

“Why should you be sorry?” I shrugged and swirled the ice in the glass while I glanced around for Wes. He was taking a shot with his friends, and a girl was leaning on his arm. It was another indicator that this was casual flirting between us and nothing more.

She sighed. “Because she’s rude, and she’s my sister. So, I should probably teach her some manners.”

“She’s old enough to know.” I pushed the waves out of my face and smiled. “I learned manners like that the first time I listened to Bambi.”

“Listened?” Clara tilted her head and her dark red curls fell from her shoulder.

I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that Clara was attempting to talk with me even knowing her sister wouldn’t like it. “My mom was weird about TV and movies. So, I listened on headphones to them.”

She gave me a once-over. “That makes a lot sense.”

I waited for her to elaborate.

“You do this”—she motioned in front of me—“a lot.” Again, I waited. “You don’t fold in a moment of awkward silence, like you have a much more controlled attention span than we do.”

I laughed at the assessment. “I’m just waiting for you to finish.”

“No. no. It’s really true.”

I glanced at a woman laughing near the pool, reluctant to get in. “I was homeschooled for a long time and not around other people much. Makes me a bit awkward, I guess.” I wasn’t ashamed of that anymore. “I had my mom and a few friends that came to her small yoga studio, but that’s about it.”

“Were you lonely?” Clara whispered, like she shouldn’t be asking.

“Sure. I wanted …” I sighed. Carl used to send cards of him with his new wife and the children she’d had with her first husband. I’d have those childhood dreams of Christmases together, that I would have sisters, that my mother and their mom would become friends. Yet, I’d overheard my mother asking, heard her agree with my father that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. I saw Anastasia glance over at us and roll her eyes. “An only child gets lonely sometimes, but I also learned a person can keep themselves company probably better than anyone else can.”

“Clara, get over here!” Anastasia yelled, waving her manicured hand in the air for Clara.

“I see.” Clara leaned in and whispered, “Well, sometimes having Anastasia as a sister can get lonely too.” Before I could pick apart what she’d said, she nudged my shoulder. “Oh, don’t start reading into it, Evie. We’ll talk later. Come to the bakery sometime next week.”

I couldn’t help but smile at the idea until she stood up and gasped. I followed her line of sight. “What?”

“Probably won’t talk later since he’s coming this way.”

I heard whispers, felt the air in the room shift, and like a parting sea, saw how the crowd moved for him.

He towered over most everyone as he paced through the room, straight up to me without looking away. Anastasia murmured something to him, but his laser focus couldn’t be deterred.

“Everly.” Declan breathed my name out sternly as he came toe-to-toe with my running shoes.

Why hadn’t I changed again? Sitting there in my workout gear with one of Wes’s jerseys draped over me now felt a bit ridiculous as he glared down at me. “Yes?”

“Get up. I’m taking you home.”

Commands from a man that didn’t have any authority over me. Couldn’t he see that people were listening, were watching, that he had no claim on me whatsoever?

He’d done this once before, come to Wes’s and told me to leave. It’d been with far less people to witness it though. This was beyond disrespectful. I’d made that clear to him. So crystal clear it was freaking transparent. He might have been business partners with my father, but he wasn’t my dad. We weren’t even friends. We were barely even colleagues.

“Hardy, man, you come to have a good time with the wrong team?” Wes called out from behind the counter. He’d had enough to drink that it seemed he was willing to put all rivalries aside.

“No. I came to take Everly home,” he growled.

An hour. I’d been gone from the gym for an hour. That meant he’d found out and came straight here. No hesitation, no thought of the repercussions. Not one ounce of consideration for how embarrassing this might be for me.

I stood up and Declan gave me a once-over, his eyes widening before he pinched the bridge of his nose through a grimace. I saw how his cheeks blew out, too, like he needed a couple deep breaths. “His jersey, Everly? Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Mr. Hardy,” I ground out his name. “Thanks for stopping by, but I’ll take an Uber home if I leave. But you being here is completely unnecessary,” I whispered angrily, trying to reason with him without everyone hearing.

“You being here when your father forbade it is even more unnecessary.” He folded his arms over his chest.

I grabbed his big elbow and led him to a corner of the house, caring too much that eyes were on us. Then I squared up to him. “Forbade his estranged daughter from going to a house with a guy she’s been seeing? Do you even hear yourself? I’m here just like Clara and Anastasia.” I poked his shoulder, because at this point, everyone was watching us anyway.

“Clara and Anastasia know better than to date Wes.” His eyes flashed. “Why can’t you just listen?”

“Listen to you like everyone else does?” I threw out my hands. “What? Because you own HEAT?”

A few people gasped, and Anastasia chose that exact moment to walk up to Declan and wrap her arm in his, her pink saccharine smile condescending as she pointedly said to me, “I know you haven’t lived here long, Evie, but Declan does a lot for all of us.”

“Not me,” Wes chuckled, his drink sloshing in his hand. “Declan, chill. I can get you a glass of whiskey if you’re—”

“I’m not staying.” He stared at me, a fire of determination in his eyes. “We’re leaving.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Oh, I’ll carry you, Drop. Try me.” With a warning tone, he used the nickname he’d come up with the first time he’d met me. I tried my best not to roll my eyes. He knew I hated nicknames other than Evie, and that one associated me with being as small as a raindrop.

All of it was too juvenile, too over-the-top to argue about.

“Wes, can you walk me out?”

“Really?” Wes suddenly sobered like he couldn’t believe I’d leave his party. “I mean, sure. Sure. Let’s go.”

I looped my arm in his and brushed past Declan. Weaving through the people still watching the confrontation was bad enough but walking outside to hear Declan intone “You can give him his jersey back” was nearly my breaking point.

Still, I gripped the sides of it. Causing more of a scene wasn’t worth it. None of this was. Yet, Wes smiled big like he wanted to piss Declan off and announced, “Keep it, Evie. I’ve got more.” Then, he pulled me close and kissed me in front of Declan. It was our first. We’d been strictly friendly before that moment.

His lips tasted of bitter beer and were all wrong. It was like we were playing a game, and Wes simply wanted to win the prize. I stepped back and let him know I’d call him, even though I considered not.

Declan opened the door of a black SUV idling in the driveway.

I gave myself one pass with my anger when I stepped into it and grabbed the door from him, slamming it hard behind me.

He rounded the hood of the car and slid in next to me, while announcing to his driver, “Peter, Everly lives at Carl’s.”

“I don’t,” I corrected. “I moved.”

“Moved?” he questioned but quickly waved it off. “Tell Peter your address so we can get you home.” I turned my gaze on him, waiting for him to at least apologize. He waited too, like he was studying me as I was studying him. “You’re pushing the wrong boundaries, Everly.”

“There shouldn’t be boundaries outside of work with my boss,” I pointed out.

“You were at work when you decided to come to this fucker’s house,” he ground out, his jaw working up and down.

He was angry? Great, I thought. Me too. “Are you going to apologize?”

“For what?” His nostrils flared as he breathed out.

“For the scene you caused,” I almost screeched, my composure slipping a little as I pointed toward Wes’s house. “For embarrassing me again.”

“I don’t really give a fuck what scene I cause. And if that’s embarrassing, don’t go to a dumbass’s house and expect I’m not going to come for you. I’ll come every fucking time, Drop.” He clenched his fists like he was holding onto his fury just as I was.

I almost told him to stop calling me that, but we were barreling toward an explosion if one of us didn’t do the mature thing. I ignored his comment and told the driver where he could find my apartment.

His eyes bulged. “But you’ve been jogging to work.”

“Yes.” I shrugged and played with the edge of the jersey.

“That’s a four-mile run and some of the side streets aren’t great neighborhoods. What are you thinking?”

“Excuse me for enjoying the morning and evening breeze.”

“The damn breeze …” he grumbled. “When I have you work overtime—”

“I’m capable of taking an Uber. I’m smart about running, not that I should have to be. Female runners are notoriously blamed for other’s behavior. Studies show sixty percent of us have been harassed on runs, yet we’re told to know when to run, to run in groups, to—” I paused, realizing I was rambling and then waved myself off. “It really isn’t that big of a deal.”

“Jesus, is nothing a big deal to you?”

“As opposed to you acting like everything is a big deal and storming into a party to demand I leave?” I pulled my hair back, combing it up to put into a bun, but when I grabbed at my wrist for a hair band, I growled, realizing I’d forgotten to add one to my wrist.

“You shouldn’t be at Wes’s party.”

“Oh, Jesus. Not this again.” I sighed, so tired of him and my father. “I’m trying to see if we’re compatible.”

“You’re not. He’s not your type,” Declan concluded for me.

“That’s not your call.” I blinked slow and tried to calm my frustration. “I’m being reasonable, Mr. Hardy.”

I heard him breathe out like a frustrated bull. “Well, it’s tiring being reasonable,” he shot back.

How did he get by acting out like this? “Is it really that hard to do?”

“Fuck yes,” he bellowed. And then he shut his eyes for a moment. “Your father cares about you, and I care about—” I waited. If he wanted to admit more, I’d let him. “Our brand. About your father’s wishes. He’s done a lot for me. So he expects when you’re working in the gym I manage that you’ll be taken care of.”

My heart sort of crumbled hearing his justification, though I didn’t know why. Declan and I were colleagues, nothing more. “You’re getting heated for no reason. We’re in this situation because you’re an absolute hothead with no one to rein you in.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Tonight’s a perfect example. You have no hold on me and shouldn’t get to dictate where I go, yet no one questioned your antics at Wes’s party. You’re the king of this elite empire you’ve built.” I motioned out at the city lights passing us by.

“Right.” He nodded. “So you should be listening to me.”

“Oh, Mr. Hardy. I’m not part of your empire. I’m a short-term transplant just passing through. I intend to be out of your hair in no time.” That was the plan at least.

He narrowed his eyes as the SUV came to a stop in front of my apartment building. “Everly, do me a favor. While you’re in my empire, please don’t wear that fucking jersey and stop going to his place.”

I sighed. “You should learn to not let things bother you so much.”

He leaned in. “What’s bothersome to you? Because I’d really like you to feel exactly how you make me feel.”

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