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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 28

EVERLY

THE WHOLE NEXT WEEK, Declan was careful, gentle, loving.

We went to work like nothing was wrong, like the news of my life hadn’t dropped around the nation. Yet, the paparazzi were handled. Piper wasn’t just good at her job, she was the best.

It should have been perfect.

Yet, it wasn’t. Declan tiptoed around me, made me meals, catered to me without commanding me, without feasting on me, without doing what he’d always done.

Every night after dinner, he kissed my forehead as I announced I was going home. Then, he let me walk off. Sometimes, I saw him go back into his house, but a few times that week, he got in his car and drove away.

I’d watched for his headlights every night.

I didn’t see them until much later, and my heart crumbled at the thought of him with other women, women who probably didn’t come with the baggage I did.

I didn’t ask. I didn’t have the right to.

Maybe that last weekend had been our goodbye, maybe that was all it took. I’d been zoned as a victim to him now. I felt caged by it, tortured by his kindness, my desires neglected by his soft touch.

We both were quiet on the way to the will reading. He typed away on his cell as his driver turned into the parking lot. But tension vibrated through us both. We hadn’t had each other the way we wanted for weeks, and we’d already blurred the lines of the marriage more than once.

“Declan, I—”

He started too. “Everly, we—”

“You go.” I waved a hand at him.

Glancing at my left hand, he grabbed it and held it in front of him. “You don’t wear a ring to show we’re married,” he said more to himself than her.

“I don’t think you’d want that when you go out, nor would I.”

“Why not?”

“If a woman wants to indulge in a relationship with you—”

“They’d have to take my attention off you first, which is near impossible at this point,” he growled, then clenched his mouth shut, his jaw moving. Leaning to the side, he grabbed a small velvet box from his pocket, a deep red and with gold etching on it. He didn’t take his eyes off me as he opened it. Beautiful large diamonds lined the gold wedding band. “I want you to wear this.”

I opened my mouth to object, to respond negatively in some way, to tell him this wasn’t right but he slid his hand to my jaw and placed a thumb on my lips to quiet me.

“Let me finish. I know you’re not supposed to be my wife, but to the world, you’re mine, and a man should think twice before fucking with what’s mine for the next nine months.”

“And what about you?” I countered.

He smiled and leaned close, “I’d like a ring made of that string like the one on my wrist. Black seems to be our color, right?” He tapped the bracelet I’d already made him. “I can give you ring measurements.”

I bit my cheek as I tried not to feel his answer in my heart where it could settle and bloom into something like love. Instead, I gave him a jerky nod as he slid the ring on.

“The stipulations might be crazy, and I’ve tried my best this past month to get more information, but Mrs. Johnson had it locked down.”

“We can figure it out together.” I shrugged but felt the anxiety of the reading building, felt my world starting to shift again, and felt my breath becoming shallow because of it.

When we exited the SUV, he rounded the vehicle, hooked his arm in mine, and grumbled, “You didn’t wait for me to open your door.”

Combing my hair back from the wind, I sighed. “I didn’t think we were still doing that.”

He stepped in front of me to open Mrs. Johnson’s office door. “We’re always doing that, Everly.”

The elder woman straightened her knitted blazer as she cleared her throat when we walked in and she wiggled her beaded glasses at us as she told us to take a seat.

The other lawyers, dressed in all black huddled in that same corner as last time. She shuffled around a few papers and then dove right in. She didn’t spare me five minutes or even a warning before she dropped the bomb on my life. “If you two wish to proceed in your marriage and thus the conditions of the will, at this juncture, it is required that you produce an heir.” She sighed and dropped the air of formality as all the air seemed to be sucked from the room. “It’s just one baby, and technically you’ll be meeting the requirements of this condition as long as you’re trying. Carl did tell me it’s for the good of empire and for your reputation, Everly. This should be easy peasy.”

“Easy … peasy?” I wheezed with wide eyes.

“Yes, Carl made this the last condition. The terms require you to go see a doctor, send me your visit information, and updates when you start trying for a child. If you can’t conceive after six months, IVF would be the next step for the remaining three months of marriage, then everything is yours.”

“If we don’t agree?” Declan ground out and I saw how the blood had drained from his face like he’d seen a ghost, or maybe the ghost of the life we’d been living before this idiotic will.

“If you both don’t agree, you may divorce after your sixth month of marriage, but it is expected that you try for a child with Ms. Anastasia Milton if you wish to retain majority shares, Declan. Everly, you have your choice of the Hardy brothers to conceive with if you wish to retain your mother’s home and business. It’s all here”—she held up the folder—“but quite complicated. Anastasia will only be made aware of this caveat under those specific circumstances and—”

She kept going and going and going like she hadn’t just rattled off the fact that my father expected me to be a freaking baby factory with my choice of Hardy brother. I white-knuckled the chair, tried to take a breath, and bit my tongue until I tasted blood in order to maintain a poker face of some sort.

I turned to the only person here who would know how I was feeling, who would be on my team, who I trusted now. I fisted my hands and felt the ring he gave me on my finger. Yet, Declan was watching my every move, his forest-green eyes studying me. Cautiously. Warily. Almost like he’d agree, like he was willing to sign on the dotted line again without thinking this through.

“Declan,” I whispered. “You can’t honestly—”

“Oh, Everly. Now, it isn’t a big deal.” Mrs. Johnson reached across her desk and patted my fist with her perfect manicure. I pulled my hand away and folded them into my lap because if I didn’t, I’d claw his and her eyes out for staring at me.

“Everly, we’re already sleeping—”

“Just because I fucked you doesn’t mean I want to have children with you.” The words flew out of me fast and were meant to be vulgar, meant to be vicious and cutting. I wasn’t thinking about who was listening or watching or judging me now. I wanted a war if he thought this was something we could just dive right into.

“Well,” Mrs. Johnson’s eyes widened as if she’d suddenly realized this was deeper than a transactional deal. “Seems the marriage is very convenient, and we should give you two a moment to discuss.”

“Mrs. Johnson, we can commit to visiting the doctor’s office and go from there,” Declan said, like I wasn’t even present. Like he thought I was just fine with going with the flow.

I scoffed. “We won’t be going to the doctor’s office.”

Mrs. Johnson slid papers across the table toward Declan instead of me. “Well, if you do agree, it’s all here.”

She left us staring at that sheet of paper. I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t. I got up instead and walked over to the side of Mrs. Johnson’s beautiful oak desk and vomited into her gold trash can.

He held my hair back and then used a stupid hair tie that he had on his wrist to wrap it up. The gesture brought tears to my eyes, tears of fury and pain and love and hate. I breathed in and out as I stared at that ring he’d just put on my finger. It shined so bright against the dark oak.

“You put a ring on my finger like it means something more to you than some shares and a reputation, but you’re willing to agree to this bullshit before deciding with me?”

“That ring does mean more.” He said it like he meant it. Yet how could he? “Whether you want this or not, it means the same damn thing. But we should move forward rather than shutting it down before we even discuss.”

“Or we discuss and then give them a decision. I’ll discuss right now. I don’t want to have a baby. So we’re getting a divorce immediately.” I said the words pointedly. “There’s no reason for the marriage.”

“You told me you did want children and Carl wanted us married for—”

“Who cares what he wanted!” I threw my hands up and turned to stare at him. “He wasn’t thinking right. I’m surprised they even allowed him to put this in a freaking will without questioning his sanity.”

“Carl had friends in high places. The judge of this town—”

“I don’t care.” I cut him off. “I do not care how he did this because he was wrong.”

His brows lifted, and he crossed his arms in his stupid collared shirt. I hate that he looked as good in that as he did workout clothes, that he still looked delicious when I wanted to be furious with him. “He did it to protect you. I know that now. The one way to beat the press is to give them what they want. A new story.”

“I don’t need to beat the press, Declan. I need to disappear.” My voice shook with emotions I couldn’t contain now. “All I wanted was to leave my past in my hometown, and now I’m here facing it again—”

“You would have faced it again and again because your hometown means something to you. You can’t outrun it. I see that when you talk about it, Everly. You have to change the narrative, control it, and fight through it.” He pinched the bridge of his nose before he said, “Carl knew your image would change with a child.”

I winced at his words. What a terrible way to see the world and how sad that I knew he was right. The media would eat up that I was pregnant, that we wanted a beautiful family to carry on the legacy. “Or he wanted his legacy protected.”

“Probably a little bit of both.” He shook his head, and then he quietly murmured, “It can’t be that bad thinking of having kids with me, Everly.”

I glared at him, thinking about babies with him, thinking about the life I wanted, thinking about how he could be a part of that. “Happily ever afters aren’t made this way.” My voice cracked even though I whispered it and I hated that tears came to my eyes.

I slid his ring off and he immediately shook his head at me, his gaze hardening as he commanded, “You keep my ring on your finger, Everly.”

“I’m not wearing this ring. And you shouldn’t have that bracelet on either.” I grabbed for his wrist but he held it out of reach.

“You’re not taking my bracelet.” He said it like he was truly offended.

I almost screamed but stomped my foot and glared at him instead. Then, I used my teeth to untie my matching bracelet from my wrist, holding his fighting gaze with my own. I held them both up and outstretched my arm for him to take the jewelry. “Take them. I don’t want them.”

“No. Put them back on.” He crossed his arms, his tone authoritative.

I lifted a brow. “Absolutely not. I’m never going to wear anything from a man who makes decisions without me. If you think—”

“I said we’d go to the doctor. That’s it,” he proclaimed.

“Without my fucking say,” I bellowed as I threw the ring and bracelet at him. He didn’t flinch as he caught them both somehow.

“Jesus Christ, Everly. I didn’t think it was a big deal to just go to the—”

“I don’t care! It’s a baby, Declan! A freaking baby. For the legacy of a man I barely even could call my father.”

“Drop, he thought what he was doing was right. You wanted kids—”

“Not like this.” I stumbled back away from him, using the desk to hold me upright at his words. “Not because my father says so. Not because some fucking will says so. You would do it just for that?”

“No.” He shook his head, then growled up at the ceiling. “Yes. I don’t fucking know. With you? Yeah, I’d have a fucking kid with you. I don’t need to plan it like you, Drop, or think about all the different outcomes. In my life, if it feels right, I move forward. I push the obstacles out of the way, and I get what I want. You’ve always felt right, babe—”

“But a baby? Like this? Does this feel right?” I slammed my hand on my desk and shut my eyes, trying to block out how his words felt in my heart, cracking away at my walls and making me imagine something that couldn’t possibly be right. “Because this feels like we’re forced, like we don’t even have a real relationship and now we’re rushing to bring another human into it for what? A studio and some shares? I won’t. I’ll find another way.”

“This isn’t just about a studio anymore. And there isn’t another way.” He groaned. “I met with the lawyers all last week at night, okay? I made the damn calls. I’ve had them working on a way of getting out of whatever stipulation I thought would be coming. They told me whatever it was that it would be upheld in court because the fucking judge knew Carl.”

“So that’s where you were going every night?”

“Yes,” he said it cautiously.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I narrowed my eyes at him.

“You didn’t need something else on your plate—”

“Don’t ever treat me like I can’t handle something, Declan. I’ve handled shit my whole fucking life.” I stepped up to him and poked his chest. “Don’t think that because I let you take care of me a time or two, you know how to handle burden better than I do, that I haven’t held bone-crushing burden on my shoulders too.”

His jaw worked up and down, up and down, but his gaze held remorse even as he ground out, “I’m always going to take care of you, Everly. I won’t apologize for trying to—”

“You’re not acting like this is even a friendly partnership between us.” I pointed to that bracelet on his wrist. “I gave you that because we were starting to operate as a team. We’d committed to that by signing the marriage contract, I thought. Teams share what they’re doing for one another, and then they work together. That’s a commitment, that’s a team, that’s a marriage. I’m your equal, not a damsel in distress and—”

“No. You’re not my equal, Everly!” He cut me off, his hand slicing through the air. “Don’t you see that? You’re so far above me, I’m scared to even touch you right now. You endured a shit ton of pain but still made it out without a single thing to mar your soul. But I know the media, I know how they twisted the story of my wrist, how they said I’d never play again. That shit ate at me for months, how it happened, how everyone lied. And it’s fucking nothing compared to what you went through. Carl knew our marriage would bring them back out, and he’s put us here for me to fucking change the narrative. So you have to let me try.”

I shook my head at him. He rammed straight through everything, wanted to bulldoze into getting his way, and he truly believed he would get it. He did most of the time.

But how could we be sure enough to do it again? And did it matter? Because at the end of the day, I had to want this. We had to want a baby.

My heart thumped while my blood rushed around, and my thoughts scrambled everywhere. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know how this is possible.” My life was slipping through my fingertips like sand, and I couldn’t catch a single part of it.

“Because your father made it that way.”

“Do you really want a child right now? Does this sound like a good way to have one?” I searched his eyes and then took in the way he shifted on his feet and then met my gaze with determination.

“We’d make a beautiful baby, Everly.” He pulled at a strand of my hair and I felt it all the way down to my toes. My body still wanted him, still yearned for him, even if my mind told me not to. “We could still have so much good even if we gave into a fucked-up way of getting there.”

“What’s the good? A kid born to parents that did this for a studio and an empire?”

He narrowed his eyes at me, like he wanted to say more, like he wanted there to be more. “Go to the doctor with me, and let’s just see.” He said it with conviction, with confidence, and with authority as he wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me close.

My body immediately sought to fold into him but I took a step back. How could I not? Would we be good parents? Could I even get pregnant? What if I had a genetic problem or … oh shit. And then I blurted out, “I don’t even have insurance.”

“You what?” His hand in my hair froze, and his brow furrowed. “What do you mean? Full-time employees always are offered insurance.”

“I didn’t want the extra cost when I got my own apartment. Plus, I’d already gotten preferential treatment and you were so mad I was coming to work at all when I didn’t have the credentials. Taking insurance felt—”

A sound from deep in his throat came out before he said, “It’ll be taken care of.”

“I don’t want—”

“You don’t want anything, Everly. You don’t want my car in the garage or my ride to work or extra clothes or any of it.” He spun away from me to pace up and down the office. “You’d rather earn every fucking thing in the world, but the world doesn’t work that way. It’s unfair and murky and there aren’t exact measurements that tip the scales towards right and wrong, okay?” He turned me so he could hold my face in his hands, and I knew he wasn’t only talking about the insurance now. “We’ve just got to give it a shot.”

“But what if—”

“Don’t think. Let’s just do, baby. Do you want your mother’s yoga studio and do you want kids one day?”

“Of course. But I can’t—”

“Then, we’re going to the doctor and deciding the rest later.”

I stared at the papers and then fisted my hand before grumbling out, “One doctor’s appointment.” Then, I brushed past him to leave the office.

He followed me and said, “Put your ring back on, huh?”

“Not happening. You need to earn that ring being on my finger.”


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