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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 30

EVERLY

HE DIDN’T ACTUALLY MAKE love to me that night. He just did everything to me but that. Then, he reported our doctor’s visit to Mrs. Johnson and we went to work like nothing had happened. For weeks, our routine became the same.

No sex. No ravaging. Nothing.

He’d drive me to work, act like a charming gentleman who opened the door for me, then disappear to train a new athlete or go into meetings. The stretching of his wrist was nearly done, but I still met him every night to do our routine. He didn’t bother with much small talk. Instead, he’d take work calls through an earbud or let silence fill the room.

“Mrs. Johnson now knows you’re off birth control,” he’d say in passing. And when I’d try to reply, he’d cut me off. “We can discuss later.”

“Mrs. Johnson knows you didn’t pick up birth control,” he reported a different day. “We have another few months to discuss next steps.”

That was it. Efficient. Precise. And Committed to the will.

Piper handled the paparazzi because she seemed to know how to twist them into exactly what she wanted them to say. Nothing about my past was brought up. It was disappearing just like Carl had planned.

The only problem was Anastasia had their own ideas about where the story should go. She wrote social media posts about how Declan was doing it all for the family, for the HEAT empire, and even maybe for her. Magazines ate it up and became obsessed what could have been for her and Declan. It had me starting to think that Piper might be helping her, that they hadn’t kept their word on being discreet about what Declan and I were really doing.

He seemed to know that too because he handed me a magazine one day in the car and pointed to it. “We need to be seen together more because the media is focusing on something we don’t want them to.”

I cleared my throat and tried to start the discussion we should have been having the day of the reading with Mrs. Johnson. “Declan, maybe we should talk about—”

“We can discuss that later. Give yourself time.” That was it. He refused to open it up for discussion because he dialed a number on his phone and immediately jumped out of the car once we were parked at work. Of course, that didn’t stop him from coming around to open my door for me even while on the phone.

All day, I worked out and considered my options, but nothing stuck, nothing made sense, nothing felt right.

I snuck away from the gym to grab a snack at Clara’s after Juna grilled me again about my situation. Clara was humming in the back of her bakery with a delicious scent of cinnamon and chocolate wafting out. She wore an apron with hydrangeas of all different colors flowing over it. The color completely clashed with some of the blown glass she had on the counter of the bakery. And the tables. And the walls.

Yet, Clara’s charm was that she could smile and everything worked well together around her immediately somehow. “Evie! Did you come for lunch?”

“Just stopping in. I’d love a snack if you have time to whip up a sandwich.”

She nodded and pushed her wavy red hair from her face, smudging some flour on her cheek in the process. Clara in the kitchen was something very different than Clara with her sister. “You got it. Turkey with bacon, lettuce, and mayo work?”

“You know it.” I pulled a barstool over to the counter where she had a gold espresso machine and smoothie mixer. Behind it, she housed a few essentials for drinks and had a window into the kitchen.

She rushed around, peeking over her shoulder to ask, “How’s the gym?”

“Great. Just got done with a yoga class.” I frowned at a magazine near her tablet that had her sister on the cover. The article title screamed at me—“Anastasia Should Have Been His Wife.”

“Ignore the magazine!” She clattered around and buzzed up to the front to snatch it from my view and throw it in the trash. “It’s nonsense.”

“It really isn’t.” I sighed, although I’d already silenced the alerts that had been chiming on my watch with news. “The world knows it. And so do I.”

“The world doesn’t know anything, and they definitely don’t know you.” She stuck her finger out at me.

“And yet we let them define us every day,” I muttered.

“You ever look up Declan’s Super Bowl story? The last one?” Clara asked as she let the bacon sizzle. “He never let the media define him.”

“No. He told me some and I figured I’d let him define himself for me when he was ready.”

“Yes, you would do that.” Clara chuckled and came around the counter to pull her phone from her apron. “Just watch.”

“Okay.” I gave in, wanting to bond with Clara and wanting to find out anything about Declan at this point.

The newscaster was going over the game highlights and announced that Declan had done what no other man could by carrying that ball in for a touchdown after breaking his wrist earlier that season. They’d given him one shot to prove he still could handle the ball, and even with the press betting against him, he went in and proved everyone wrong.

Then the newscaster went on to condemn Wes as a clip of him played. “The quarterback of the Cobras instructed his linemen to crush Hardy’s hand in the first game of the season, putting Hardy at a huge disadvantage for the year.” A clip of Wes yelling “Crush his hand” to his linemen was replayed.

I clicked the phone off as my jaw and heart dropped. Shock and anger flew through me fast. He might not have done it himself, but Wes had encouraged the fight on the field, encouraged his team to mess with another athlete’s body. “Was this his last season?”

She nodded as she grabbed the bacon for my sandwich and then brought it out on a bright-pink plate. “Yes, well, the season before that now. He rehabbed and came back to run a record number of touchdowns in a single Super Bowl to clinch the team’s victory. And he did that all when everyone said he couldn’t.”

He’d told me we could get to a place where the fucked-up wasn’t bad anymore, that we could make good from it. He honestly believed it. “I don’t think he will let anyone define what he can and can’t do.”

“No, he won’t, and you shouldn’t either.” She tilted her head and wrinkled her nose. “I wish you both would have been given a shot at a relationship outside of the marriage. You would have worked beautifully, I think.”

I took a big bite of the sandwich so as not to respond, but I shook my head no. We’d never have worked. He’d disliked me and my lack of credentials on sight.

“I saw the way he looked at you before our father passed.” She did that now, called him our dad instead of hers, and I appreciated how it warmed my soul to be bound to her even in that way. “He liked you.”

“I really don’t think so,” I mumbled as I kept eating.

“Who liked Evie?” Dom waltzed in and glanced at his HEAT watch before coming over for a hug.

“Clara’s imagining things.” I waved her statement off and hugged him back.

“That sounds about right.” Dom shrugged and grumbled.

“Can’t blame a girl for being optimistic.” She didn’t say it with kindness. It held an edge, and I wasn’t sure what for.

Dom didn’t let me dig in any further as he asked, “You got a ton of work later today or you able to spar a few rounds?”

Taking one last bite, I jumped at the chance, pulling at one of my arms to stretch it right away. Something in me was brewing after watching Declan, and I needed a place to work it out. Dom had gotten in the ring with me before, and we’d both learned how to navigate our weaknesses and strengths. I enjoyed that about him … and that he seemed to be a watered-down version of his brother.

“I can now.” I nodded at Dom and then turned to Clara. “Make sure this comes off my HEAT tab. It was delicious.”

“It will absolutely not come off your card because this is me trying to get you to visit your stepsister. I realize maybe a lot of people let you down in the past, but I’d like to not be one of them.” She picked at a napkin on the counter, and I blushed with her words. “This bakery is safe from the media and from judgment. I hope you’ll come here more often.”

Clara was trying, so why couldn’t I make the same effort? I was allowing the past to control my future, allowing my anxiety of past relationships to taint my new ones.

I focused on dusting off my yoga pants so I didn’t end up a blubbering mess in front of both of them. “I’m definitely going to try, Clara.”

She rounded the counter and bombarded me with a hug. “Oh, and are you going to HEAT’s charity gala? Declan has to go. Be prepared—it’s a few weeks away.”

There was probably a reason he hadn’t asked me. “That’s not really my thing.”

“It’ll be fun.” She shrugged and then kissed my cheek. “And don’t let my sister’s ridiculous magazine articles get to you. We are the only ones who can define ourselves. This life. Not the one on social media, not the one in the press, and not the one in magazines. Remember that.”

Her words echoed around in my head as Dom and I made our way into the ring. And when I saw Declan walk off the elevator with Anastasia right next to him, Clara’s words clattered around and then flew out my mind altogether.

The media’s words. The magazine’s words. Even the fact that the will had been made in the first place to keep me safe from the press were each another needle to my heart. I’d gotten through a media slaughter once before on my own. I’d left town and started anew just so I didn’t push the pain onto my best friend anymore.

I could define this too, get out of this too. Me. I slammed Dom to the mat, and he wheezed before I jumped up and stalked toward Declan and Anastasia. I didn’t let her continue her conversation as she laughed and started to say something more to him, but his gaze had drifted to me storming up. “Wes intentionally had your wrist broken.”

“Um, yeah.” Anastasia popped a hip and frowned at me. “Everyone knows that. Wes is a weasel but since Declan forgave him, we know not to talk about it.” She wrinkled her nose like I’d broken an imaginary HEAT law.

“You didn’t tell me that.” I held Declan’s gaze. “You didn’t tell me you were the bigger person with him and still won the Super Bowl against his team that year.”

“It’s irrelevant what he did. We won,” he said, popping the button on one of the cuffs of his shirt and rolling it up slow. He was doing what I used to do when eyes were on me. He was acting like none of it mattered, like the process behind all of it, how he’d trained, how he’d navigated to that win wasn’t a big deal. “It may have been a fucked-up situation, but we can still make it a good one.”

“The fact that it happened still matters, Declan!” I threw up my hands. “What he did, that shouldn’t be ignored.”

“I know that, Drop. I fucking know.” His jaw worked up and down, up and down as he slowly rolled his cuffs before he murmured, “We don’t ignore it, Everly. We conquer it, knowing we’re stronger than it. If you can survive the past, you can damn sure barrel through any obstacle in the present and create a peaceful place to thrive in the future.”

I chewed at my cheek, knowing what he was saying. Knowing that he somehow wanted me to be strong enough to do the same, but I wasn’t sure I could. “Some things can’t be muscled through, Declan.” I meant it for myself, for my past bleeding into my present, for a child being pushed on us without love. For everything.

Didn’t he see we were broken and ruined before we even began? Could I really believe we’d get through that? That he’d even want to get through it?

Noah was on the bench press and piped up like he’d been listening the whole time. “Yeah, about the gala, you going with your husband, Evie?”

Dom had walked over and draped an arm around me as he stared down his little brother. “Pretty sure my brother will be taking Evie. Right, Declan?”

Anastasia leaned in to whisper between Dom, Declan and me. “Declan and I were just talking about that, and I told him it would actually be best if we went together again. Piper and I discussed it. You know the press actually wants to see it and with this only being a marriage of convenience, maybe it’s best we start to show some sort of separation …”

She drifted off with her statement. My heart raced and my body shook with a jealousy I knew I should control. I bit my tongue before I murmured out, “Yes, it probably is for the best.”

Anastasia sighed into Declan, her small frame dwarfed next to him as she hooked her arm in his while he stared at me. “You really think it’s best?”

I nodded.

“We’ll see about that.” Dom hooked his arm in mine suddenly, and Declan’s gaze flicked to our connection with a flash of warning. “If Declan’s not taking you, you’re coming with me. My family is going to want to meet you.”

“Your family?”

“Yes,” Dom turned to Declan. “Mom’s still furious she wasn’t a witness to your marriage vows, by the way. She said stop ignoring her calls. She’s not coming to the gala, but she expects you to bring Evie home in the next month. But Lilah, her crazy-ass husband, their kid, and Izzy and Cade will be here. Lilah said she’d get a handle on the situation for Mom.”

“What the fuck?” Declan’s hand shot into his pocket to grab his phone as Dom started laughing. “Not happening, Dom. We’re on a damn group text. Why the fuck hasn’t anyone said anything?”

“Right, but it’s been quiet for a reason.” He paused to see if Declan would catch on, then rubbed his five-o’clock shadow. “We’ve all been texting on the other group chat about you. I think Dimitri named it, Declan Didn’t Invite Us to the Wedding or something like that.”

“Jesus fucking Christ. Are you all twelve?” He glared at him and then me. “We’ll talk later.” Then he stormed off like he was going to conquer the world and his family all at the same time.

“Well, that’s awkward.” Anastasia flicked a nail, not making eye contact with me but instead talking only to Dom. “You know if I ever marry him, I’ll definitely invite all of you.”

Dom must have felt my whole body stiffen because he patted my arm. But I was off kilter, not minding how I acted and feeling like anything I said to her was self-defense as she passive aggressively threw punches my way.

Facing an attacker head-on was what I was taught. I didn’t really have anything to lose at this point anyway. “Oh, Anastasia, I don’t think that’ll ever happen.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m married to him, and I’d object a hell of a lot to another woman marrying my husband.” I felt those words in my bones, they rattled in me like I owned Declan now as much as he owned me. I wanted that, and I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I knew I had to figure it out.

A baby needed to be created in love but the questions began with what he’d said to me. Could we fight through the past? Could we make good from bad? Could we conquer how this was starting and where I’d started from to create a happily ever after?


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