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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 21

EVERLY

HE PRACTICALLY THREW me into the passenger seat and went the extra mile to buckle me in like I couldn’t do it myself.

“I can buckle my own seat belt,” I ground out as he did. I hated that I’d been hurt hearing him talk with Melinda and Anastasia, hated that I cared, hated that I hadn’t thought over the consequences of running to work right after.

Emotions were to be tamed, controlled, and wrangled into submission.

Be calm. Collected. You can’t show anything else.

I knew that. I’d done it back home. I should have been able to do that here. Yet, Declan infected me with a hope of something better, and I’d fallen stupidly for it.

“I’m not sure you can at this point,” he growled. “You seem to suddenly want to throw caution to the fucking wind when it comes to safety.”

I scoffed at his ridiculous statement, but he didn’t give me time to reply as he swung my door closed and got in the driver’s side.

We stewed the rest of the way to work as I shuffled around my duffel bag and glanced behind us to make sure no was taking pictures. “If that really does come out in the magazines—”

“I’m going to dinner with Piper and Anastasia. I’ll make sure she knows.”

“Right,” I seethed, rolling my threaded bracelets around on my wrist. I couldn’t be mad at him for going to dinner with them and yet I wanted to. I wanted to scream at him for it even though it’s what he should have been doing. And when Declan pulled into his designated owner’s parking spot, separating him and everyone else, it only served to remind me of the vast divide between us—I was an employee, he was the boss.

I got out of the car fast before he could open my door.

“That’s two times now you’ve done that.”

“Done what?”

He followed me. “Gotten out of my car without letting me open the door for you.”

“I don’t need help with a freaking door, Declan. Or anything for that matter.” I approached the revolving door and hoped Declan wouldn’t attempt to step into the same wedge of glass as me.

He did.

And then he slammed his hand on the glass behind us to stop the rotation. I jumped as I whipped around to see the glare he had directed at me.

“You need help with this door, Everly?” he said, his voice low in warning, like I’d pushed him to the edge of sanity. Me. The woman he’d fucked a few days earlier but then told his friends was just an employee. He held it there, not letting the autorotation continue.

“Are you serious?” I glanced at the front desk where I saw Juna wide-eyeing us.

“Dead fucking serious.” His stare held mine, his presence powerful and vibrating with energy.

“What are you even mad about right now that would warrant this public of a reaction?”

“You seem to think I give two shits about the public. The public cares about me, I don’t care about them. If they want to document me having a fit with my wife, they sure as shit can. But what they’re not going to do is see you getting away with endangering yourself again. You won’t be jogging to work or home from work. If you do, I’m hiring security to tail you.”

“You can’t think that’s—”

“And since you finally decided to step foot in my house, you can join me for dinner every night. Breakfast in the morning too.”

“That all?” I said, the anger boiling in me now too. Did he think I would easily bend to his will?

“I will open doors for you, Drop, or I’ll keep them closed until you let me.”

“Well, that’s just immature, Declan.” He was being a child and letting his frustration get the best of him. “Is this how you handle your emotions?”

“I can take you to the locker room if you want me to show you how I really handle my emotions when it comes to you.”

I pulled at the collar of my sports bra, trying to let the heat my body felt escape. “Do you hear yourself?”

“Yes. I’m sick of not being in control. I let your father call a lot of shots in our business, but he’s gone. The only thing he gets to control now is our marriage. I let the media push me one way when I wanted to go another. I didn’t used to until this empire’s responsibility began bearing down on me. I’m about done with letting the press dictate my life.”

“We have to maintain public composure and approach this with level heads—”

“You want me to have a level head, Everly, then listen.” He didn’t wait for me to respond, his eyes were a dark, dark green, like they’d changed with his mood. “The press is about to dig into our relationship hard because we’re arguing on the side of a road. So, now might be the time to drop the news.”

“Of our marriage?” Why did I sound so scared?

He nodded like we were about to go to war and took a breath. “It’s time to take control of it. I’ll let Piper know. Tell who you need to.”

I didn’t want to tell anyone. So, I gulped instead.

He smiled softly. “Now, ask me nicely to open the door for you.”

I stomped my foot as I glanced around and realized clients were waiting to get in and out. People’s phones filmed him, and I stood there looking like an imbecile. “Please, open the damn door, Declan, so we can get to work,” I grumbled, and then muttered under my breath as he took his hand off the revolving door, “And next time you manhandle me on the sidewalk, I’m laying you out.”

“I hope that’s a promise and not an empty threat. I’m happy to be laid out if you’re on the ground with me.”

“You’re totally and completely ridiculous. I say that after assessing all angles and knowing I can’t come to any other conclusion because obviously I have to be the logical one here.” When I looked at him, he was smiling like he’d won another freaking Super Bowl as he walked behind me. “See you at six for your rehab.”

“Looking forward to it, Drop,” he said rather loudly as he passed by and nodded to Juna.

“Drop?” she whispered.

“Just a dumb nickname,” I said, scanning my watch.

“Are you going to tell me what that was?” She pointed to the doors. “Because I’ve seen Declan mad on the field and in the tabloids but never here. Here, he’s practically the nicest guy!”

“I don’t know. He’s having a bad day.” I shrugged and waved her off. “Go home so you can get your day off.”

“I feel like if I go home, I’m going to miss something,” she said, her dark eyes the size of saucers staring at me.

“What are you going to miss?” Clara intruded on the conversation, bouncing over with tulips on her dress and an actual flower in her hair. I wondered if she’d plucked it on the way to work or if she went to a boutique to buy it in order to complete her outfit. I wouldn’t have put any of it past her.

“Declan yelling at Evie. He nicknamed her Drop and held her hostage in the revolving door to start off the day, so I’m guessing the drama is only going to get more and more intense as the day wears on.”

Clara whipped her head over her shoulder as if she was watching out for someone and then whipped back to us. “Weird. Anyway, see you later, Juna.” Juna didn’t take much offense to Clara dismissing her because she was really in a hurry to get out of the gym. But as soon as Juna was out of earshot, Clara leaned in with a glare. “I’m going insane keeping this secret, Evie. My sister and mom are like hawks when it comes to you two.”

“I know it’s difficult—”

“And Piper is going to be pissed. She doesn’t act like her and Declan are a thing, but if someone’s going to replace her, she thinks it’s going to be Anastasia on Declan’s arm. If it’s you …” She practically yanked at her hair. “I’m sorry, but she’s going to be furious.”

“I’ll handle it.” I waved a client over and scanned their watch. Then, I examined the schedule one last time. “I have one-on-ones after an hour of front-desk duty. I think we just go about our day as if nothing has changed—”

“Were you just jogging down Oceanside Street with Declan Hardy trailing you?” A young client with blonde hair and excited hazel eyes asked me.

“I’m sorry?”

She pulled up her phone and turned it to me. “Is this you? Are you Everly Belafonte?”

The paparazzi worked fast. So fast, I saw in real time how the views climbed for the video. Someone had filmed us. And with his fame, I knew it was only a matter of time.

That hour standing at the front desk lasted way longer than normal. With me wearing the same outfit as in the video being viewed by everyone, people recognized me over and over.

Once out from behind the desk, I kept my workouts moving. I held two beginner yoga classes and the dozens of men and women were respectful to one another as they helped each other reach perfect poses and hold them. Learning to breathe, control movement, and center yourself had benefits for everyone, especially me that day.

“Great class today,” One guy said on his way out as he dropped a few pop tabs into the bin near the door. “I’m happy to hear the charity this year is for the schools throughout Florida.”

Glancing at the sign near the pop tabs, I scanned it to see there would be a gala in a few months and sighed, knowing Declan had probably made that happen.

How could I be mad at him when he was like this? Removing gardenias, actually following me to work because he was concerned about my safety, setting up a freaking charity going for the kids in town?

I reminded myself that this was his home, his life, all of his friends that he had to answer to about me being here. After the year was up, I could move. He couldn’t really. His fame would follow him everywhere.

I grabbed a towel to brush over my arms just as I saw Wes walking toward my studio. He cracked his knuckles and nodded my way. “How’s living with the NFL’s golden boy?”

I’d been avoiding his texts and figured sooner or later he’d confront me about it. I leaned against the doorframe. “I’m not living with him. Just in his guesthouse. You know that.”

“I know.” He pulled at his hair a bit. “Just saw that video of you two.”

I glanced at my duffel where I knew my phone was probably receiving texts and calls. “Who knew a video could spread like fire in a dry forest here. Anyway, I’m trying not to let it get to me too much.”

“You’re something special, Evie. The fact that you’re irritated about going viral rather than excited makes you a gem of a woman, seriously.” Wes looked more intrigued with me than he ever had before. Like I was an exotic bird to him all of a sudden.

“I don’t enjoy attention.” I shrugged.

“I love that about you,” Wes said, then stepped close. “I miss you.” He couldn’t possibly. We’d only been out a handful of times, and since I’d moved into Declan’s we’d fizzled. Our interactions were limited to conversations at the gym, he’d extended no invitations and I’d been glad for it. “Haven’t been able to get you to come to my place or even a text back for a while. We haven’t done much for almost two months.”

“It’s been busy and … a lot with Carl passing.” I tossed out the excuse easily. The hard part was I hadn’t even missed him. He wasn’t a bad guy, just not the guy for me. Not even casually. I didn’t get butterflies or feel sparks or any sort of emotion toward him at all.

“Can we do dinner tonight?”

“I didn’t bring a change of clothes or anything …” Was that enough of a reason?

“We’ll go somewhere low-key.”

Po’s weights clanked behind us and he barreled up right as our watches went off. “Stop hogging, Evie, Wes. I’ve got a one-on-one with her where I need to discuss all the ins and outs of this video.”

“Oh God.” I pinched the bridge of my nose and Po’s broad smile whipped across his face immediately as he pulled me in for a hug.

“Kidding, woman. You know I don’t care about that shit.” That was probably true. Everyone had an ego here and didn’t need to give attention to those who were destined to be a one-minute wonder online.

“We can do a small yoga class if that will help with stretching,” I suggested to Po.

He nodded with a smile on his face. “Sure it will help you too. Looks like you need an outlet at this point. Hot yoga?”

“You want to do it or are you doing it for me?” I asked. “I think you could actually use hot yoga to loosen the muscles after playing hockey.”

“Whatever helps that fucker’s balance.” Noah walked up and shoved him, but Po didn’t move a muscle.

He lifted a brow. “We should probably let Noah and Wes join considering Noah’s dumb ass can’t even bend over without falling. Didn’t you fall trying to hit the puck last night?”

Although he took it in stride, I saw how Noah’s neck tensed, how his stance stiffened up a little. They all cared about their sport and didn’t want to lose. “Fuck off. You know it’s because I took Johnny’s hit.”

I waved them on. “Let’s go before someone gets their feelings hurt.”

“Po knows I’ve got great balance. Next season, I’m going to kick your ass,” Noah pouted and I figured this was the commentary I’d have to listen to through this spring and summer during their offseason.

Wes glanced over at me with a smile and dragged his finger down his cheek. “They’re such babies,” he whispered to me as we walked to the studio, but Noah overheard him.

“Like a quarterback could take one of us on?”

“I could take either of you.” Wes puffed up, but Po and Noah didn’t even give him time to defend himself. They cracked up and elbowed one another.

I stood outside the room to swipe my watch, increase the temperature on the thermostat, and log that we were utilizing the studio. I typed in the time and who would be in there with me.

Just as I was finishing it up, Gianni waved at me from the ring in the center of the gym. “You opening a hot yoga class?”

I shrugged. “For those who want a quick workout.”

He hopped out of the ring and combed a hand through his dark hair. At six two, he was a tall soccer player, but he moved nimbly from what I’d heard, and was good at the game—better than most, actually.

I waved him in right as the locker room door opened and Declan walked out. With the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean as his backdrop, he strode down the gym hallway, and I had a hard time looking away. “Hot yoga then, huh?”

“What?”

He tapped his watch. “I’m ready for the workout.”

“Declan, this is for—”

“Anyone who wants it, so the schedule says.” He breezed past me into the room, and I squeezed my eyes shut.

Great.

It took only ten minutes to warm up the room and stretch. After twenty minutes, everyone was sweating with the poses.

“Gianni, if you came to learn yoga, quit staring at me and get into downward dog.” I didn’t say blatantly that he was staring at my ass, but he was too obvious not to call out.

“Evie, you know I can’t help it,” he whined. “Your ass looks like you’ve been doing yoga your whole life.” In his defense, I think he was truly led around in life only by his dick, even if he did have a good heart. The first time I’d met him, he’d hit on me and then completely respected my refusal, explaining we could still be friends. Then, he’d called a girl two minutes later who sounded like she was happy to meet him for a hookup later that same day.

He also was great about immediately yelling at others for doing the same thing. “Wes, you can quit looking at her ass too.”

“Fuck you, man. Evie and I have a different sort of relationship.”

“And exactly what type of relationship is that, Wes?” Declan hadn’t said a word all class though I’d felt his eyes on me. I was aware of the tension in his muscles, and I swear I was attuned to the blood in his veins boiling at this point.

“Aw, man. Can we get past our bullshit? You two are obviously friends, okay? I get it. She’s going to be my girl one of these days though.” He looked at me with puppy eyes. “Can we go out tonight? It’s been too long, babe. And after—”

“After staring at your ass this whole time like a damn creep, he feels deprived,” Noah threw out because he loved giving Wes hell.

No one responded to him though because our watches all buzzed at the same time. We didn’t brush off the alert because it could be a change in schedule or … big news. Big HEAT news that is. In this particular case, though, it was epic, devastating, catastrophic news.

“HEAT Heiress Everly Belafonte Married to Declan Hardy”

The HEAT PR team released the following statement this afternoon: “Declan Hardy is officially off-limits. He and Everly Belafonte were wed in a small ceremony at an undisclosed location shortly after Carl Milton passed. Sources claim they are committed to their marriage and request privacy as they enjoy their time as newlyweds.”

That explains why Everly has been driven to work by Declan and why they’ve been seen together so often. The biggest question on everyone’s minds, though, is how long have they been dating and how did Everly steal him right out from under all of us without anyone being the wiser? Details to come …

My eyes flew to Declan’s as each of the men in the room turned his way. Even Wes shrank back with the rest of them. It was as if the alpha dog came to the party and suddenly none of the betas wanted to challenge him.

Declan didn’t say anything. I wasn’t even sure he’d looked at his watch. Instead, he just crossed his arms and stood there bigger than life, like he ruled the studio, gym, and empire he presided over with utter confidence and power.

“Sorry about commenting on your wife’s ass,” Gianni grumbled as he literally backed up toward the door. “I respect you and your athleticism. You’ve done great things for every professional sports league in the country, and I want you to know I didn’t mean any disrespect.” Then, much like a dog with its tail between its legs, he rushed out.

Po and Noah were next, though they were more protective. I was suddenly their little sister. “You two seriously married?” Po inquired.

“You think we’d lie?” Declan finally responded. “What’s it matter to you anyway?”

“I mean, I don’t know.” Po continued, “Evie’s a damn knockout, and she trains us the best. If this was for something in Carl’s will… I just don’t want her hurt—”

“Everly is more than capable of making her own decisions.” He cut him off. “Our marriage is our business.”

He didn’t say more or less. He didn’t say he wanted to be married to me, that we were in any sort of relationship, that this wasn’t for show.

It shouldn’t have hurt. That was the plan. But my heart wasn’t listening. Be calm. Collected. You can’t show anything else.

Declan didn’t correct him but motioned toward the door instead. “I have a few things I’d like to discuss with Everly now that the news is out.”

Noah and Po immediately walked out of the studio but Wes murmured to me, “I’d like to still see you tonight. Text me, huh?” He didn’t wait for an answer and even as Declan opened his mouth, he was already out the door.

“You’re not seeing him tonight.”

“I should see him tonight because he needs some clarification on our relationship.”

“Don’t we all?” Declan threw up a hand before he started pacing back and forth. “I think it’s best for you to come to the meeting tonight with Piper and Anastasia.”

“Nope.” I halted him right there. “You know that’s not in my best interest. I hadn’t spoken a word to Anastasia since the funeral until this morning, and Piper is her best friend. I don’t belong in this circle—”

“If I do, you do.” He strode toward me.

I chuckled and shook my head. “As much as I’d like to make this easier for everyone and agree, Declan, we both know I can’t. I might even offend them by showing up.”

“I won’t have you feeling like you’re less—”

“You won’t,” I clarified, “but they will. And that’s fine. I won’t encroach on their territory longer than our contractual twelve months anyway, which is why you all should handle it as you see fit.”

He opened his mouth to say something more.

“Without me, Declan.”

“Without you,” he muttered and then he was toe-to-toe with me, looking down at me as I looked up at him. “You realize that for the past couple days, I haven’t had a thought without you in it. My mind doesn’t work without you in it. My dreams, my nightmares, my subconscious, my conscious … none of them operate lately without you.

My throat was closing, tears sprang to my eyes, and my heart felt like it wanted to leap out of my chest into Declan’s hands. I’d have to hope he’d hold it carefully, and I hated that I’d started to believe it too.

Yet, I’d be opening myself up to everyone and it wasn’t something I was willing to do.

“Is it bad that every day I’m with you, every part of me is learning that it doesn’t want to be without you either?” I took a shaky breath. “It is bad because we’ll have to be without one another soon enough, Declan. You know this. And what would you have me do?” I whispered, “Go and frustrate your PR manager so she doesn’t want to help us at all?”

A guttural sound came from deep within his throat, and I saw his turmoil as he dragged a hand over his face. “I should just fire her and get somebody new.”

“I don’t think we have time for that. Plus, you said she’s good at her job. She just has to keep the story the same. We’re married,” I said but air quoted the word married.

He narrowed his eyes. It only took him walking past me to grab a towel and press a button on his watch that dimmed the door’s window for me to remember all the things we’d done in the walls of this gym mere nights before. When he turned and grasped the back of my neck to pull me close and drag the towel across my collarbone, I bit my lip to keep from moaning. “Yes, we’re married. Completely committed to one another right?”

“Well,” I hesitated, feeling the fire in his eyes. “We’re committed to a marriage of convenience.”

He leaned in close so that I felt the scruff of his five-o’clock shadow against my cheek. “We may be committed to a certain timeline with this marriage, but I’m also committed to punching my clients in the face after they stare at you doing yoga in front of them. Should we add that in, Everly?”

No answer was needed from me as his grip tightened and he rubbed more sweat from my chest, then my cleavage. We both knew the answer, and yet my breathing became rapid, and my nipples pebbled as I stood in front of him. Hoping. Wanting. Aching for him.

A shift in his hold on the back of my neck and his hand was threading through the waves of my hair, urging me to arch into him so he could tilt my face up and descend on my lips. Declan’s kiss was possessive, animalistic, and full of control.

He wanted it all now, and I was seeing what made him a world-class athlete and thriving businessman. He dominated and plowed through all my reservations and boundaries. He obliterated my hesitation with the pleasure he delivered with how his hands held my hair tightly, his tongue roved around in my mouth, his lips owned mine.

I folded into him, whimpering and clinging. I took because I knew we wouldn’t be able to soon, that this marriage and our secret was about to become a colossal misstep. With that thought, I pushed him away and held my mouth, breathing hard as I closed my eyes, trying my best not to indulge any further. It wasn’t realistic, I told myself. “We can’t do this. You’re having a pissing contest with these men because you slept with me, Declan. And for what? Nothing between us would ever actually work.” He glared at me. “Declan, get real. I’m the girl who you thought was a burden without any experience a few months ago. You essentially told my father you didn’t want to babysit me and that I was ruining your sanctuary.”

“And you were.” He nodded, still letting his gaze run up and down my body like he might be picturing me naked.

“Exactly. And my past can ruin your reputation in the press.”

“I don’t care about the press.”

“Well, I do.” I tried to keep going. “And we’re from different lifestyles. We’d never be compatible.”

“You feel pretty compatible when you’re screaming my name.”

“You’re on another level right now, you know that?” I shook my head at him. “Let’s just focus on the original plan. We’re together and married if the press asks. For those close to us, we can tell them it’s a marriage of convenience.”

He stared at me as I paused. I wasn’t sure why I did. Maybe I wanted him to demand that this marriage was more than that, that we could be more than that. But he only asked, “Is that what you want?”

I took a deep breath, trying to hold onto my logic rather than following a silly little hope dancing around in my head. “Yes, it’s the smart thing to do. You can talk with Anastasia and Piper and see how they want to run with it. I’ll let Wes know.”

“So, he’s that close to you?”

“He deserves an explanation, Declan. I trust he’ll be discreet with the information. And as for the public, I don’t think they need to know anything else.”

He hummed, those eyes searching me for answers he wouldn’t find. I was closing the box and locking it before the media came looking for bread crumbs.

I moved toward the door and opened it. “It’ll be good for us, Declan. This is the plan.”

For another ten seconds, he stood there, a pillar of vibrating emotion, and I wasn’t sure what would erupt. “Be home at a reasonable time, Everly, or I’m coming to find you.” Then, he walked past me out the door and held up three fingers. “Three times now you’ve opened the door instead of me.”

Why did him counting like that send shivers down my spine?


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