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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 26


“I’M NOT sure what the article says, Declan.” I tried to keep my voice steady and hold back the tremor in it. “So, I can’t say. I haven’t read it yet.”

He stormed across the room as I started to type in the headline, ready to read it myself, but he snatched the phone from my hands.

“No.” His voice echoed through the room, so powerful in his anger I knew he felt blindsided and furious. Then, he strode away to put our phones down on a dresser and turned back to me. The fury ricocheted off the walls around us. “You tell me what happened. Who is Andrew Baldeck?”

My ex’s name in his mouth sounded wrong, vile. So revolting my stomach churned. “He’s a man from my past. We’re not talking about—”

“Everly, the rules have changed. The past is now in the fucking present. Let’s be honest, it always has been.”

“I … I don’t know what the newspaper wrote, but I can guess they painted me as a liar, as someone who made up a story because I was a jilted lover.”

“Is. It. True?” he asked again, and my heart cracked because I didn’t know what he meant.

“Me being a jilted lover?” I looked up at him and felt my throat closing as tears filled my eyes. My emotions were finally bubbling out after I’d held them in for so long. “Or the part where they say my account of being cuffed to a bed by my ex who assaulted my best friend and then me is a lie?”

Declan didn’t wince. The fire in his eyes though, it licked through the room at my words. “You know what part I’m asking about. Is. It. True?”

“The sad part is, Declan, I really don’t know.” I wanted to disappear, wanted to not even ask, but everyone who I’d thought would stand by me, who were supposed to be my friends, turned their backs on me. I’d put on a show for so long, I just swallowed down the hurt and the pain again as I gulped, and said softly, “The story was twisted so much over the last year that I really don’t know. I can say, the only part of these stories that are normally true about me are the ones they say are false. I don’t know what they wrote today, but it doesn’t matter. I got as much justice as the system allowed me to get, and the rest is whatever you want to believe for whatever suits your reputation and narrative now. You’re more of a public figure than I am. So, if the news is tainting your name, I can make a statement—”

“Stop.” He shook his head, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Just fucking stop.”

He grabbed the phone, taking a deep breath and walked over to me with purpose. Leaning behind me to grab the comforter on either side of me, he folded it around me, wrapped me into a cocoon of sheets and pulled me into his lap, curling around me like he could encase me and protect me with his own body. Then he held the phone in front of me. “You’re going to see it, but I only want you looking once. Then, I’m having Piper go after every tabloid she can.”

“Declan, we don’t have to—”

“I’m taking care of you now, Everly.” He said with a controlled tone. “Please just listen.”

I took a deep breath and read.

“Everly Belafonte: One Scam After Another”

The mastermind strikes again. Everly Belafonte was a graduate student at Edgewood University more than a year ago when she claims she was assaulted. According to her statement:

“Andrew Baldeck invited my friend and I to a frat party at Beta Zeta Delta. We had three mixed drinks each before he invited us upstairs. We walked into his bedroom and he locked the door. He was my boyfriend, so I trusted that he wasn’t doing anything cruel, but when he opened his nightstand to pull out a gun, he wasn’t the man I trusted anymore.

He told us to take off our clothes. I kept telling him to think about what he was doing, but he grabbed handcuffs from the drawer too and directed me to put my wrists next to the bed post. When I hesitated, he pointed at my friend who was crying. He then grabbed her by the hair and threw her on the ground. He assaulted her and threatened to do more to her if I didn’t cooperate. I promised I would and begged him to let her go. He unlocked the door and told her to be quiet. I told him I didn’t want to do more, yet he assaulted me against the bedpost for what seemed an eternity. I was compliant until he stopped, and then I asked him to uncuff me. I told him I was enjoying it, and so he did. I fought him for the gun as soon as I was free and called 911 once it was in my possession.”

Belafonte’s story is just that: a story, according to sources who have claimed Belafonte’s friend, who was later name as Tonya Lakeland, doesn’t talk to her anymore and that no one at the frat party would corroborate her story. Andrew Baldeck was a D1 football player, straight-A student, and has no record. He claims she “wanted the fame and was mad I’d kissed her friend once. So she twisted this story. Her friend knows it too. We still talk, actually. We were all just having a good time that night.”

Baldeck has a parole hearing set for next month after spending over a year in prison for assault and attempted rape—a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Beta Zeta Delta refused to comment. According to sources, no investigation of the fraternity house was done.

When asked about Belafonte now, after being told she has just married NFL star Declan Hardy, he laughed. “Of course. It was probably all a big plan so she could cry to her estranged father and get this laid out for her instead. Seems about right.”

Is Everly Belafonte scamming us all?

“They’re making you look like a fool,” I said, and one tear slipped from my eyes. One tear. That’s all it took for a mask to drop and for everyone to see you were leading with your emotions. I swiped it away. “Oh God, I do not want to cry over this now. I’m sorry—”

“Sorry?” he whispered. Then he bellowed, “Sorry? What the hell do you have to be sorry about?”

He literally wouldn’t let me go as I wiggled in his lap. Instead, he turned me towards him. “Declan, I need to approach this without succumbing to—”

“They twisted your pain into making it seem like you’re some kind of a damn con artist, Everly. You want to cry over it, you’re entitled to that,” he ground out. His face turned red, so red I nearly reached up to soothe him before stopping myself by snatching my hand back.

“How do you know what they’re saying isn’t true?” I whispered.

“Are you fucking with me, Drop?” He took my face in both hands as he stared into my eyes, brushing his thumbs over my eyelashes.

“Honestly, I think there are days where even my best friend isn’t sure she can believe me, and she was there. The press does a great job of—”

“Messing up the truth. But you had Carl. Why didn’t he …?” Declan narrowed his eyes at me.

“Carl didn’t know at first. We’d covered it up well with not releasing my name immediately. It’s what my lawyers and I thought was best. But over time, most of the town found out. Andy was expelled from school, listed as a sexual offender, and has served a year in prison. Unfortunately, no other women would come forward. There were more. Past girlfriends, dates. They called, sure, and thanked me for being brave.” I shrugged. The justice system was broken. There was no evidence for those women. And the evidence there was at one point had probably been destroyed. They didn’t keep rape kits that long back then. It’d taken years to implement procedures that helped survivors like us, and even still, societal norms were stacked against us. “But my evidence wasn’t great. He was my boyfriend, I went to his frat house willingly.”

“What about your friend?”

“She didn’t want to testify either.” I sighed. “Tonya gets wrapped up in wanting to be a part of the group. She’d kissed him before, behind my back. It was the perfect twist on the story. I was angry, I made up a story, the end.”

“Is it true she still talks to him?” he asked softly as his hand rubbed up and down my arm as if he wanted to soothe me. “Was that her on the phone earlier?”

I winced because having my friend talk to Andy was the hardest part some days. “It’s complicated. Andy’s charming, and his family has money and a reputation. Most of us didn’t.”

“But Carl could have gotten you a legal team or—”

“I wanted a father, not a payday, so no.” I snapped, still irritated that the article was questioning my integrity. “I never asked for a lawyer nor would I have accepted one. We worked with what we had.”

“So, what? They bought everyone off while you just endured their shit?”

“In all fairness, I’d been at a frat party drinking with my boyfriend, a straight-A student with no prior legal trouble. Even with my father’s backing, I would have had to fight, and it would have tainted the Milton-Hardy legacy in addition to everything else it destroyed of mine. I was a homeschooled loner people didn’t trust. My lawyers recommended that I drop the case or take a settlement. Still, I couldn’t. So, now I’ve been branded a liar and jilted lover in the town I call home.”

And I should have rejoiced according to my lawyers. We won. Or so they say. I still had to deal with the trauma of that night.

“Everly … How did I not know this?” He swore and the pain in his voice brought tears to my eyes.

“Because I didn’t want anyone to know! My father agreed.” I shook my head and looked away from the pity in his eyes. “Do you know what it’s like to have your body taken hostage and controlled by someone you thought would never hurt you? To give that trust and then they proceed to do their worst with it?”


I didn’t want his pity or his consoling words. I just wanted to get it out. “I died that night, okay? You asked me once how I knew about experiencing death … that’s how. Who I was. who I wanted to be, she died. He stole that from me. I contemplated murder, Declan, once I got out of those cuffs, I fought him for that gun, held it to his head, and shook while convincing myself not to pull the trigger for minutes. Whole minutes I considered killing someone when mere minutes before that, I’d hoped I would die myself.” I quaked with sobs then, and Declan let me break down. Let me get it out. Let me crumble. “He cried as I held the gun to his head, saying he was sorry, that he was drunk, that he was so wasted he wouldn’t remember in the morning. But I was drunk too, Declan, and I remember every single detail.”

His gaze was locked on me. “I want his full name and address,” he ground out loudly, but the volume of his voice didn’t scare me.

“Declan.” I shook my head. “This has been over for a while now.”

“He did all those things to you. He shouldn’t go free. He should be dead.”

He searched my eyes for how I felt, but I wouldn’t hide it. Most days, I wished I’d pulled the trigger after hearing what he did to the others, after they called and cried to me like it could absolve them of the burden and trauma he left them with.

“Everly, fuck.” He paused like he didn’t know how to say the next words. “I was rough with you last night. I’ve been rough with you.”

“I wanted that from you.” I poked him in the chest. “I get to want what I want, Declan. Why can’t I, huh? You read the article. The media got what they wanted. Andy got what he wanted from me too. But do I get what I want ever? To move on?”

He petted my hair, trying to take away my pain, but no one could do that except for me.

I sighed and shifted in his lap to look out the window instead of in the eyes of a man I was falling for when I shouldn’t be.

“The media never covers the aftermath of a victim.” I pushed the blankets off and went to grab the jersey he’d dropped. He let me go, knowing this was important for me. I put my hands on my hips, jersey hanging down my thighs, and faced him. “I’ll be honest. Yes, he took control of my body for a few minutes. That’s it. Was it the longest couple of minutes of my life? Probably. Have I struggled with my sex life since? Sure. Will I always? I don’t know. Either way, I learned that night that I could fight back. That I wanted to fight. That I wanted to survive.”

“It’s why you insisted on the self-defense classes,” Declan said, like he was putting it all together.

“Sure. Among other things. Andy had hit me before that. Self-defense is a gentle reminder that I shouldn’t allow that without fighting back. I did for so long. And I jog to work even though there may be a risk of assault, but I’ve equipped myself. I wear what I want even if I have to plan ahead to quell my anxiety of doing so. I don’t think it’s fair that I should live with a burden he created.”

“Jesus Christ. I …” He pulled at his hair. “I’ve manhandled the shit out of you more than once, Everly.” Regret he shouldn’t feel was something I knew I had to blame on my ex, another wrench thrown in for survivors of abuse that their lovers had to endure too.

“And so … what? I have to take a gentle lover now because I’m some victim when that’s not what I want? Not only can I not act out, but I should be careful where I go now, be aware of who I love, stay cautious and have every one of those responsibilities put on me? I have to consider it all every day, and I don’t want to. I don’t freaking want to.” I repeated it pointedly, furiously.

I hated that when I glared at him in front of me, his eyes were glassy too. Declan, the man who acted on every emotion was now holding his back from me too.

I dug my nails into my palms, ready to let him know this last thing and then package this up in a box to bury far, far away as a memory I didn’t want. “You know, my lawyers said the best way for a ‘mixed woman’ to fight the media is to stay calm. That I’d done a good job not hurting him when I had the power to. I was praised for not taking his life and having a level head even though he’d taken everything I was from me.” I dragged in a shaky breath. “I’ve made sure to always have a level head now with cameras on me. You’ll be able to count on that for the remainder of this marriage, at least. If I cried back then, it would have made me look crazier. If I screamed or got mad, it would have been over. My mom did. She grabbed a cameraman one time to protect her only daughter. You know what they did? Labeled her as trash.”

Just that one day had created so much turmoil for us both. I remember how she’d cried, how her braids slid over her shoulders as she hung her head, and I vowed then to never let the media get to her again.

Calm. Silent. Void of emotion. My demeanor was a weapon in that courthouse that I used effectively.

“You deserve more justice than what you’ve been given.” I saw how the veins on his neck protruded, how his jaw worked, how his knee jumped in fast fury.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m trying to live my life the way I want and feel what I want. I won’t live in fear or be ashamed of my desire for another person because of what he did to me.”

His jaw worked up and down. Up and down. When someone cares for you, your pain is their pain. He was mulling through what I knew most people in my life had to work through, and it wasn’t easy. Tonya couldn’t even do it.

“I’m still me, Declan,” I whispered, not sure he understood that I wasn’t ruined, that I wasn’t tainted by all this, that I’d survived in the best way I knew how.

“But, baby, you’re so much more. Don’t you get it? You’re the drive to keep going when someone took everything from you. You’re the will to survive when most of us would have given up by now. You’re all the raindrops in a tsunami of courage and strength.” He got up and came to me, lifted his hand to my cheek, but before I could get comfort from his touch, he fisted it and pulled it away.

There it was. That past catching up with me and molding the people around me again. The past followed me everywhere. It shaped the present and the future. A past I couldn’t escape no matter how hard I tried.


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