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Between Commitment and Betrayal: Chapter 8


“MARRY HIM? I’m not marrying him.” My voice shot out but still shook as I said it. I glanced around at all of them. Mrs. Johnson sat there with a HEAT pin on the lapel of her white jacket with shoulder pads while Declan and I, along with his three brothers sat around the table too.

All four of those Hardy brothers wore black suits and black ties. Tailored perfection, they were a picture with their dark hair, each of them quiet but with varying expressions on their faces.

Dex handled the brand’s security, and he smirked like this was a joke. Dom had sparred with me a few times in the gym, knew me better than the other brothers, and glanced over at me with concern. Dimitri studied Declan, awaiting his response.

I did too. Declan and I had distanced ourselves since the night of Carl’s death, though he had stood up for me with Melinda by saying I was a part of the family.

I wasn’t.

I didn’t belong, and I didn’t know if I even wanted to. I survived the press at the funeral only because my mother and I beelined it out of there as fast as possible. We’d been subjected to scrutiny before and we didn’t want it again.

Yet here I was, being forced into it.

Mrs. Johnson had read the instructions after summoning us all to a large conference room within her legal firm. She’d announced that Declan and I, along with his brothers, were to be read the first stipulations of the will privately. Then everyone else, one by one, would be read theirs. Melinda, Anastasia, Clara, and my mother.

Since Mom had already flown back home after the funeral, she called to tell me she’d just video chat in. “It all seems so formal,” she’d said, pushing her beaded braids away from her face. “You know how I hate all that.”

I assured her it would all be fine. I figured we’d be given nothing. We hadn’t been given anything in the past.

That was before Mrs. Johnson dropped the bomb that exploded in my stomach. I gripped the wooden desk in an effort to stay upright, to endure the shock of it, to breathe through it.

“That is completely your choice, Ms. …” She hesitated, probably realizing I didn’t go by my father’s last name. “Ms. Belafonte.” She straightened her glasses, then she sighed, and her manicured fingers pulled them off her face to allow them to hang from the beaded string around her neck. “Everly, forgive me if I’m overstepping, but you know I’m a part of the HEAT organization, and I do so appreciate all the service you’ve given me throughout the last few months. To turn down this opportunity—”

“Mrs. Johnson, this isn’t an opportunity. This is a forced marriage. This is blackmail.” I felt my voice rising, so I took a breath, trying to remain calm.

“Your father wanted what was best for his family and his legacy. A marriage for one year isn’t the end of the world.”

“Can you please read the last paragraph to me one more time?”

“Sure.” She cleared her throat. “Everly and Declan must marry if they would like the shares of my company that give them majority voting rights over the HEAT brand. If they do not, these shares will be donated to StoneArm Real Estate along with voting rights. And, I promise, I know best. I’m not having my daughter end up with a Cobra. Not when my empire is on the line. And not when her name needs to be cleared.”

“He just didn’t want me marrying a Cobra!” I screeched, ignoring the fact that he was trying to clear my name too. I couldn’t even attempt to focus on that.

“Well, that, and you’ve got a bad name, it seems.” Declan narrowed his eyes at me, and my heart beat fast at what I might have to tell him, at what they all might find out.

“Sure it’s no worse than yours,” Dom spoke up through a chuckle.

“Don’t fuck with me right now,” Declan threw back at him.

“I’ve got no name in this town, let’s be honest,” I ground out. “And I don’t want one.” The pencil I was holding snapped in half. There went keeping my composure. I’d tried. I really had. No one could agree to this though. I cleared my throat. “I won’t do it.”

Dom nodded like he agreed with me. “You don’t have to do it, Evie.”

Yet, I saw how Dimitri and Dex glanced at one another. Their careers—their brand—was on the line. This wasn’t a rash decision I should make on my own anymore.

“I think you need to understand all the stipulations,” Mrs. Johnson tried.

I hated to feel like I didn’t care about them, like I was throwing these men to the wolves. Yet, even if I ended up homeless and without a penny of his to my name, I wanted nothing to do with this. “I don’t want anything. I’m sorry, but you can all figure it out without me. I don’t need his money or—”

“He owns your mother’s yoga studio and home. Those will go to Melinda and Anastasia Milton if you don’t agree to the marriage.”

“Shit,” Dex grumbled, and Dom swore too.

“What?” I whispered out. I felt my heart, the way it pounded and then dropped like a hole to hell had opened up and it was falling right down into it. The blood ceased to pump through my veins, my brain stopped working, and my life screeched to a halt. “No. Not her studio. He wouldn’t.”

“Oh, Everly,” Mrs. Johnson tsked, then patted my hand. “He was always a bit too good at business, and he had a knack for meddling as well. But he loved you. He’ll also be compensating you. He set aside a good amount of money for you once this year is through.”

She pointed at an amount on a sheet of paper, and the zeros on it were dizzying.

I glanced over at Declan, ready to lay the blame on anyone. His posture was rigid, hands fisted at on his thighs, jaw hard as stone. He didn’t look at me, not even when there was a long stretch of silence that would have given him the opportunity to. He nodded slow, like he was deciding his own fate, and then that strong jaw worked up and down. Up and down. “I’ll have majority of shares, Mrs. Johnson?”

His words were cold, calculating, and cruel. The man everyone thought was a charmer was actually just as ruthless as my father. He wanted the business, the money, the legacy. He didn’t care that it would ruin me for a year. Didn’t care that I didn’t agree.

I’d grown up in that house, in that studio. It was all my mother had. And although I moved away from it all, it was the only safe place I had at the end of my time there, the place my mother and I worked so hard for.

“Well, Declan, you’ll get majority shares of the gym. Voting rights for the brand, including the hotels, the restaurants, golf courses, everything. I can give you the list but you and your brothers will be set to make the calls you want for the HEAT empire for life. If not, you will forfeit Mr. Milton’s shares to StoneArm Real Estate.”

“I haven’t heard of them,” he said, waiting for more information.

Dimitri spoke up finally. “We don’t care about any of that shit. If you don’t want this, we can rebuild.”

“I care, dumbass. We built this brand with Carl for years. I’m not just giving it away.”

Dex chuckled like it was all ridiculous. “So what? You can do it again. You’re a damn male Kardashian.”

Dom loosened up and laughed at that along with Dex.

“Fuck you guys,” Declan sighed as he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“What? You mad because you piss on something and it turns to gold?” Dex elbowed Dom. “Remember that one commercial he did for the spa, and we thought that shit was going nowhere because he was such a bad actor. Instead, we opened up six more spas attached to resorts that year because of advanced bookings.”

“So damn dumb,” Dimitri said. He was usually the brother who seemed most concerned about Declan, but he busted out laughing too. “All because you caught a few good balls.”

“It wasn’t only a few good balls.” Declan mashed his teeth together. Then he took a deep breath, like he knew they were trying to rile him. “This isn’t a joke, guys.”

“We know.” Dom sobered. “But it is if we want it to be because you don’t have to do shit if you don’t want it.”

The brothers all nodded, banded together in support of the one who needed it most in the moment.

“I’m not giving this brand away to a random-ass company.” He met my gaze suddenly, his eyes blazing green with resolve. “Not if I can help it.”

Mrs. Johnson cleared her throat. “StoneArm Real Estate is privately owned and very random. Not much information there. We could dig, but I’m guessing their evading skills will match our researching ones.”

“One year?” Declan restated.

Dex smirked at his brother. “You’ll be off getting your picture taken half the time anyway. So, not even 365 days. Don’t be a whiny bitch about it.”

Dimitri elbowed him. “They’ve got to get fucking married, bro.”

“So?” Dex shrugged. “Declan acts like this gym is his baby, and he’s got hundreds more across the nation. He believes these resorts and restaurants and all our golf courses and casinos are part of the team. He’s going to give that up for one measly year?”

They all glanced at one another. His siblings having an unspoken conversation. About me. About my life. About a whole year of me being attached to their brother.

Then Declan finally spoke up. “Does my whole legal team agree this is the best scenario?”

“Yes.” Mrs. Johnson nodded. She glossed over the details and gave us the big-picture information. I didn’t need the details. I just needed air, needed time to digest, needed a damn drink of alcohol. “There are a few other insignificant details that I can have the legal team look over for you.”

She shuffled the papers around, and Declan glared at her. “That just doesn’t sound at all legal.”

“You’d be surprised what a trust and will can help you get away with, honestly.”

Carl. He had always found a way. It’s what I’d seen in the few months I’d spent with him.

She smiled softly like she was a fairy godmother, ready to help both of us. “I promise we will get through this together, okay? You two get married and try it out. Arranged marriages were the norm less than a hundred years ago and still are in some cultures. It’s for the best.”

“Send the papers to my legal team then,” he growled. I got the sense he was perturbed but willing.

“Mr. Hardy!” I finally couldn’t take it anymore, his name leaving my lips fast and loud, full of accusation.

“Yes, Ms. Belafonte?” The way he sneered my name reminded me why this would never work.

“You can’t be serious?” I breathed out.

“Why wouldn’t I be? This is my company. I’m not handing it over because I need to change my marital status for 365 days.”

“I … I don’t belong here,” I whispered out the words. The walls seemed to shift inward, the air stale with entitlement, the ground too soft for someone who’d lived a different lifestyle. Then I caught his gaze and held it. His were filled with determination, and they must have matched mine. “I do not belong here.” This time I said it with a fury I knew wouldn’t serve me well.

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

I growled as I pushed the emotions back down and shut my eyes for a second. They wouldn’t take me seriously if I cried now, if I got mad.

“One year and you can belong wherever you want. You need to pack your things and move. Take a few days or a week. But this year, Everly, you belong with me.”

That adrenaline, that same rush I’d felt with him in the SUV, snaked through me at his words.

“Actually”—Mrs. Johnson held up the gold pen she’d been using as a pointer—“this is effective immediately.”


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