ANDY DIDN’T LOOK like prison had aged him even a day.
He stormed into HEAT Health and Fitness demanding I see him. It’s the feeling of fear that’s as strong as the pain and the anger and the bitterness that makes blood run so cold that a person freezes when they should run. Then the fury wars with the fear and fight-or-flight kicks in.
Today, my blood froze and then burned, the rage taking over. He’d actually come all the way from Wisconsin after ruining my life once like he was entitled to ruin it again. HEAT alarms went off, alerting security that there was an intruder, and without an employee watch swipe, guards would have been at the door, but I swiped the panel quickly, silencing the short burst.
Still, as quick as I was, Noah was training with Po and they both noticed at the same time Leo glanced up from his one-on-one. All three men zeroed in on Andy approaching me, and it was like they fell into a prearranged formation.
A wall of men willing to defend me, protect me, and be the friends I’d missed growing up. As fast as my heart was pumping, it still recognized their display of loyalty.
Andy was a charmer and smiled at all of them. To them, he was a stranger; his face hadn’t been splashed all over the media coverage. His family had made sure of it. To them, he could have been an old friend for all they knew. Immediately holding his hands up, he said, “I’m here to talk with Evie.” He peeked around them. “Evie, you got a second?”
I chewed on my cheek before I nodded. “It’s fine,” I told them, because suddenly I wanted him all to myself. There was no intimidation here. I’d trained for him, I’d texted him, I’d actually asked him here. I wouldn’t make a scene, but I wouldn’t back down again either.
He shrugged at them all and chuckled before he walked up to the counter. “Missed you.”
As most of them dispersed, I murmured, “So you came?”
“I did.” He narrowed his eyes. “Should I ask for a one-on-one?”
“It’ll only end with you on your back, so I’d recommend not.”
“Feistier than when I last saw you.” He smirked. “Let’s go somewhere private then and talk. I have a few questions I need answered.”
“I can have a driver take me to my house. That’s about it.” I shrugged. I wasn’t stupid enough to leave with him, but I didn’t need anyone else involved.
He cracked his knuckles. “Fine.”
I turned to Leo and told him to cover my yoga class. It wasn’t like me. I knew it and he did too because his brow furrowed. Still, I needed him out of the facility where something would most likely be recorded.
My driver was always idling outside at this point and greeted us both with an eyebrow raised. “Ms. Belafonte … and?”
“Someone you don’t need to know,” I murmured as I got in the car.
Andy chuckled and slid in with me. Even his body heat near me made me want to gag. “So, you didn’t take his last name, huh?”
“Maybe one day.” I told him.
All the right turns to the gated community had Andy tsking. “Guess you did well for yourself for a bit while I was away.”
“Away? Is that what you call it now?”
“I can’t say anything else, Evie,” he ground out, the pitch of his voice changing. I knew that voice. I used to fear that voice. But a sense of calm washed over me as the gates opened to my house. Our driver went around a bulldozer in front of the guesthouse and stopped at our front doors. “You put me in such a bad predicament.”
The driver cut him off. “Ma’am, I’ll stay right outside if you need anything.”
“I won’t.” I got out and told Andy to follow. “You have ten minutes to ask what you need before I tell you to leave or before my husband gets here. I reckon he’s on his way.”
“Your husband?” he growled as I pushed the door open and let him walk into the foyer. He glanced at the large chandelier and then sneered at the stairway. “Do you think flaunting your new boyfriend in my face is really something I’m going to enjoy while I’m away?”
“You mean my husband?”
He cracked his knuckles again. It was something he used to do when he wanted to hit me, when he was trying not to. “You’re irritating me. Don’t act like we’re not supposed to be together. I’m done with this little fucking game, and you’re going to make it up to me that you had me in prison for a little fucking joke.”
“A joke? Andy are you delusional? You assaulted me.” I tilted my head.
“I gave my girlfriend what she wanted,” he shouted. “You dressed like you wanted me to fuck you that night, so I was about to do just that. When I touched your pussy, you liked it.”
“Even if I’d worn lingerie to that party, it wouldn’t have given you a right. And I told you I wanted to stop. I said no. I begged for you to stop and think. You kept going. So, I endured it until you took the cuffs off.” I tried to make him see. “Do realize how many women you’ve hurt?”
“You’re all a bunch of whores!” He lunged, albeit carelessly considering I’d made sure to stand right in front of the banister where I could sidestep and let him crack his head into it. He yelped and then ran at me. This time I used his momentum to swing him straight into it again. “Fuck! You bitch.”
He turned and barreled toward me but our front door swung open and Declan plowed through, fury in his eyes. His body somehow looked more massive, more vicious than it ever had as he tackled my ex to the ground.
Andy tried to scramble and scrap, but Declan was too powerful, too in control, too dominating for Andy to even get a punch in. My husband beat my ex to a pulp, punching him over and over.
I finally grabbed his arm and said softly, “Declan, he’s unconscious.”
Declan’s eyes were wild as he looked back at me. Then he got up and grabbed my elbow to pull me close.
My body was coiled tight to fight now, though, to register every movement as a danger to me. So, my reaction was instant. A remnant of what I’d dealt with in the past and was dealing with. I jolted back.
I saw the moment he noticed, felt his grip loosen, as if he wasn’t sure what to do, and then he tightened it. The frown on his face was one of fury. “He’s made you scared of me.”
“Not you, Declan.” I glanced at the man unconscious on the floor. “It’s just my knee-jerk response to any man putting his hands on me right now.”
He breathed out like he was trying to dissipate his anger, and then he rubbed his thumb up and down the arm he had a grip on. Slowly, enticingly, and what felt like longingly. “I intend to spend my life making sure you never have to respond that way again, Everly.”
Then, he grabbed Andy by his throat and dragged him towards the back of the house.
“Wait. Where are you going with him?”
“To my backyard to fucking kill him,” he bellowed, like it should be obvious.
I opened my mouth to tell him to stop or at least try to plan a course of action, but no words came out. Declan stared at me for another second and then said, “Go upstairs, Drop.” Then he paused. “Or stay if that’s what you want.”
He disappeared through the patio doors. A million thoughts ran through my head, but the only one that stuck was with the baby in my belly. I wouldn’t have my husband go to jail for a man that didn’t deserve another second of our time, wouldn’t have him carrying the burden of this on him forever.
I came outside to take in the scene and saw my husband standing over my ex who was moaning now on the grass. No one had access to Declan’s backyard except the birds and the sun. We waited while a cardinal flew by and I smiled at seeing one bird I always saw in my hometown rather than the seagulls I always saw at the beach.
How was a scene so serene now? How was I not scared now? How did I know even without planning that this day would work out perfectly? Declan, the man I love, the man that went with his gut, the man I knew I would spend the rest of my life with was rubbing off on me.
“Declan,” I sighed. “You can’t kill him.”
The beautiful man cracked his knuckles as he glared at Andy and grumbled. “Oh, yes I can, Everly.”
“He’s not worth it.” I shook my head. “We’re having a baby. We’re going to build a life together. We’re not starting it this way.”
“Why not?” Declan practically whined but I saw how he met my gaze, how he considered my decision here too now. Declan never hesitated.
Except now. With me.
We were a team now.
We were married truly now.
“She can’t hurt me, man. Don’t you see?” Andy laughed and then groaned into the grass like his ribs might be broken. The man was a pitiful make up of a human being but he still acted like he held all the power here outside.
I smiled with him. I grabbed the emotion this time and felt all of it.
I laughed with him. I laughed and laughed until tears streamed down my eyes and continued laughing long after he’d sobered.
“What? Are you fucking psycho too now?” he taunted.
My smile dropped off fast. “Psycho? No. Not at all, Andy. I’m laughing because you think you have control here like you thought you did the night you tied me up and made me watch you assault my best friend.”
“Tonya liked it,” he ground out, wiping at his lip that was bleeding. “She’d kissed me before.”
“I don’t really care what you did with anyone years ago, Andy. It doesn’t change the fact that neither of us wanted you that night. The power you thought you held as I sat there scared … with all that power, I was still able to get away.” I got up and walked up to him where he squirmed like a fish out of water. “I still had you begging for your life that night.”
“Shut up. You couldn’t even finish the fucking job. You got that gun off the nightstand and couldn’t pull the trigger because you still love me. You know you do. I should have you get on your knees for me now—”
I knew Declan wasn’t going to allow his words. The man I loved grabbed him by his neck and choked him as he growled, “Careful. She gets this because she deserves it, but I’ll beat you to death. I don’t give a fuck.”
“Stop,” I said quietly, and Declan backed away, giving me the space I wanted with the man I never thought I would want it with again. “You know, I always tell myself I can move on from my past. I even told Declan to leave our past in the past, but I carry it with me. I carry the pain and the regret and the memory of losing my friend because of you with me every day. I carry the past assault with me every fucking second. I worry and stress and try to plan every single instance of my day so that I don’t misstep. I do…not you. I do. The survivor. Not the assaulter.”
“You liked it,” he tried to counter.
I scoffed at the lies, glancing at Declan who nodded at me to keep going. “I might have been homeschooled and quiet and looking for love because I didn’t get it from my father’s family, but I wasn’t stupid, Andy. You hurt me. You fucking ruined me. And I won’t ever be the same.” I took a shaky breath and found Declan’s gaze. “I won’t be the same but I’ll be better. I’ll carry my past with me and I’ll build a better future because of it. Stronger, smarter, and full of love from a man that deserves me.”
“Well, I love you. I know you love me too,” Andy said, and his words made my stomach roll. He tried to stand but crumbled to the ground again and wheezed. “I think something’s wrong with my chest.”
Declan laughed, “No one cares what the fuck is wrong with your chest. Apologize to my wife for the hell you put her through now.”
Andy must have realized then that his life was on the line. He started crying, whining, pleading, and apologizing to me over and over.
Declan was beyond forgiveness though. He came to stand beside me and leaned close, “Do you want to take his life or can I?”
“We can’t kill him, Declan.” I took a deep breath. “He’s probably going to sue us as it is. We shouldn’t get our hands dirty when you’re that all-American dream of the nation.”
Declan smiled at me. “I like my hands dirty, babe.” Then he kissed my cheek and commanded, “Go back inside.”
I chuckled at my husband, and then I kissed him hard and fast before saying, “No killing. We just need to get him out of here.”
“I’ll take care of it,” he murmured. “Give me a second alone with him, huh?”
“Promise to not do anything you can’t come back from?” I lifted a brow.
I turned to go inside as I listened to my husband telling Andy, “No one will remember you. No one will care from this moment forward. I’m going to make sure of it. Your family’s businesses are going under. I’ll manage how the media will paint you in the magazines as a rapist and that’s it. A woman’s worth was always more than yours, and you got away with thinking the opposite for far too long.”
I didn’t look back. I went to make bracelets and sit in silence in the living room.
A bit later, I heard Declan come inside but he was on the phone and it was on speaker.
“Cade, I need a favor.”
“I’d say no, but I saw who entered your gym, so I’m guessing this’ll be good.”
“You saw him come into my gym and didn’t fucking call me?” Declan said furiously.
“I glanced at your location before I bothered with a call and your ass was going a hundred on the highway to your place. Figured you had it under control.”
“Whatever. He’s here.”
“Don’t tell me he’s dead. I’m too tired to handle it today,” Cade said, bored like he didn’t give a shit about my life or anyone else’s.
“He’s unconscious but still breathing in my backyard. There’s a lot of blood.” I heard a muffled rustling as I walked up to Declan to wrap my arm around his waist and lean into him.
Then I heard Cade mumble to Izzy, “Your brother lost his mind like you did years ago, and now I have to go clean up his damn mess.” He didn’t say anything else to us. He clicked off the phone.
“Should I be more worried? We’ve just committed a crime,” I said, not feeling much remorse or sickness or anything really.
“I worry about things,” the man I loved said, “not you. You worry about our baby in your belly and that’s it.”
“There’s blood in your backyard,” I whispered as two of Declan’s brothers stormed through the front doors. My eyes widened at the fact that they could be liable too. “Wait! Don’t come in here—”
“They know, Drop.” Declan shook his head and smiled softly at me before he glanced at his brothers. “He’s outside.”
“You okay?” Dom pulled me close for a hug.
“I’m fine. I’m … Well, we’re all going to jail for battery,” I blurted out.
Dom sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Honestly, with the way my brother acts before he thinks, I normally would say there should be some sort repercussion, but in this case, I would have done the same. We’re definitely not going anywhere for that fucker out back.”
“Cade will take care of it.” Declan shrugged and pulled me out of Dom’s arms. “Want to go get french fries or ice cream?”
“Seriously?” I glanced at all of the Hardy brothers smiling at me and knew I was finally a part of a family, one that would take care of me in a way I’d never been cared for before. Wrapped in love. “Both?”
“I know the perfect place.” He ushered me to the downstairs bathroom where I showered and got ready with him. We didn’t talk about the men traipsing in and out of the house as we walked to his car because when I glanced at him, he said, “My wife doesn’t worry about things, Drop. I do.”
He didn’t drive me to a place in town to eat. Instead, he drove me to a private airstrip with a Global Express standing by. “Where are we going?”
“Somewhere I’ve been wanting to take you.”
I think getting out of town, getting away from the burden that had been on my shoulders for so long, and maybe the pregnancy caused me to fall right asleep on that plane. I was in and out most of the flight, hearing him making calls and probably working.
When we landed, he scooped me up and placed me in an SUV where he buckled the seat belt for me, and once we were out on the road, I knew. “Declan, this is my town …”
“Yes … it is your hometown,” he said quietly, then he threaded his fingers through my hand. When we pulled up to the diner I’d told him about, he smiled softly. “And here’s your diner, baby.”
“HEAT bought it an hour ago. You needed the fries and ice cream.”
My heartbeat quickened as my jaw dropped, and I glanced again at the window. Inside, I saw my mother and Tonya smiling with a sign that read Let’s get married again.
I turned to him with tears in my eyes. “Declan …”
“You wanted ice cream and fries, right?” His brow was furrowed as he squeezed my hand.
“Yes …” I whispered.
“Good. Because my wife gets what my wife wants.”
“No, yes to marrying you. Over and over. Forever and ever.”
“I didn’t ask, Drop, and I’m not going to.” He slid another diamond on my finger. It looked like an engagement one that was a bigger rock than I’d ever seen.
“You’re mine. I just need the wedding to let the world know it too.”