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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 11

CLARA

Thank every soul that was holy on the planet and in the universe that it was Sunday. I woke to a rising sun on my face in the soft down comforter and a fresh smell of clean linens. But drool lined my cheek, and it stunk like margaritas with strawberries and extra lime. It was getting all over me and the soft pillows. So soft they couldn’t have been mine.

I shot up out of the bed and grasped at the sheet to hold it up over my body while I searched the massive room. A large television, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city, and sleek black-and-white decor. I was in a penthouse suite at the Pacific. Had I booked this room last night?

The idea of how expensive that would be had me feeling like I might break out in hives, and I checked my arms immediately, groaning with the pain of the hangover.

“This was bad, bad, bad for your health, Clara,” I breathed out. I’d gotten better about not drinking as much because flare-ups were the inevitable consequence of that particular indulgence. Minding my diet, stress level, and medication and vitamin routine got tiring though. It was painful to imagine life without needing to factor those things in, and those types of thoughts had me resenting the life I lived when I should have been grateful for it.

Moments with a disease were harder to enjoy, but they were still mine. I was getting them and that was enough, I told myself over and over. Most days I believed it, especially with my bakery.

I sighed and shook off my frustration, focusing on my bank account instead. If I booked this room … That would be impossible. The resort wasn’t open. So, I either broke in here or …

And like a terrible movie, the memory of my night played through my mind. “Fuck.”

That was not a memory I wanted, nor a moment I would ever enjoy reliving.

Dominic had carried me back. Jesus, what had I said to him? I groaned, then looked down and saw I had no clothes on. So, I’d also undressed in front of him. “Okay, today, is the day you hate yourself, Clara.”

Even so, I knew now wasn’t the time to succumb to gravity and throw the sheets back over my head. I had a million things to do before this bakery opened.

I only had two months to make this place what I wanted, and after dealing with Dom’s arrogance, I was going to. Own it, he’d told me. He probably didn’t mean owning the ridiculous display I’d put on the night before, but as my phone rang and I saw my mother calling, I owned that I didn’t want to pick it up. I also owned that I didn’t want to pick up my sister’s call either.

My sister called about twenty more times that morning before I finally answered. “Yes, Anastasia?”

“You know, I’m getting really tired of you being there to pursue this idiotic dream, Clara? What the fuck?”

I winced because for some reason, I still wanted my sister’s approval. I wanted to wake up one day and feel like she loved me how she used to. Somewhere along the way that had changed. Somewhere, we’d lost each other, and I hated that feeling. “Anastasia,” I sighed. “I don’t want to do this with you. If you could be happy for me, I’d love for you to come visit and see why—”

How could I tell my sister that without her here, I was better. She was my mother’s replica, but I swear she had to remember the days we would play outside together, run through the sand on the beach, and swim in the ocean like we were mermaids for hours.

“Do you know what those Hardy brothers did to us?” she asked, and I heard her voice shaking with anger. Anastasia hadn’t only been cruel to me over the years, she’d also taken it out on Carl’s estranged daughter, Evie. Evie had married Declan Hardy, and he was not about to have anyone be disrespectful to his wife. So, I knew they pulled her membership to the HEAT Empire. I agreed with their decision.

“Can we not do this?” I whispered, because in the past month, I’d made a sanctuary. I’d manifested change in my life, and I’d embraced not looking back. I didn’t want to. I wanted my life here to be different.

There was silence on the other side of the phone.

“Why don’t you tell me how things are going for you? How’s Florida?” I tried to change the subject because my heart still wanted us to be seven again, back when we were the only ones who understood each other, who knew the pain that came from being under our roof, who could sympathize with one another.

I’d only had a few memories of my father and mother together when they were happy. He played with us when he was around, taking us to the park, to fancy dinners, and showering my mother with gifts. We had videos of him swinging me high up in the sky. He was a charmer who spoke beautiful Spanish and flew us around the world for a few years before we found out about his other family, leaving my mother with nothing.

It broke her and ultimately broke us. She never got over his betrayal, and I remember how she became obsessed with it being our fault.

“If you slouch at another dinner with Carl, Clara, I promise you won’t get another dinner for a week.” She had thrown the warning out, and it hadn’t been just that. It had been a promise. My mother had starved Anastasia and I before.

Anastasia had been older and she’d been smart enough to hide food. She’d share it with me in the middle of the night. My mother made her pay for that when she was finally caught.

How’s Florida? Florida is fucking awful, and you know it. It’s why you left me here to fend for myself.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “You can come visit if you want, Anastasia.”

“Oh, so you leave without telling me, and now you want me to come visit? Typical, Clara. Make up your mind. One way or the other. You want me there or not?”

I glanced around the penthouse, the quiet and calm of it reminded me of what I had here now. “You’re right. Maybe it’s best you don’t come.”

I heard her gasp like I’d struck her. But Anastasia and I hadn’t been close in a way that I’d wished for in years. She’d delivered metaphorical blow after blow since becoming my mother’s sidekick. My stepfather hadn’t known about my mother’s physical and emotional abuse, but Anastasia stood by her and pointed out my faults every time, finding that it took the attention off of her.

I heard my sister grumbling to my mother then, and I sighed, a lone tear falling down my face. “No, I didn’t tell her you were in the room, Mom. She just doesn’t want me to come. This is what I mean about her picking our stepsister over me. She’s a—”

“I can hear you, Anastasia, and that’s not true. It’s—”

“I don’t care if you hear me! You’re fucking useless anyway. You’re trying to leave us behind and get back into the HEAT empire. You think we don’t see through your act?”

“Anastasia, can you stop and think about what you’re accusing me of?”

She scoffed and hung up the phone. My heart cracked a little, but also the blocks I was building around it stacked up a bit higher.

I took a deep breath and tried not to even think about it as I showered off my makeup and used some mint-infused shampoo in my hair before the conditioner. Thankfully, the bathroom was stocked even though there weren’t guests staying here yet. If nothing else, relaxing in the luxurious rain shower with unlimited amounts of hot water destressed me a little.

I’d give Dominic credit for this at least.

No credit for anything else though. Not even the orgasms he’d given me—although I thought about it once or twice as the water cascaded down my body.

Once I was out of the shower, I knew I owed him a thank you.

Me: Thank you for getting me somewhere safe last night.

Dominic: Good morning, little fighter. And a thank you? That’s surprising.

Me: Well, the follow-up to that thank you is a question: Why am I in the penthouse suite?

Dominic: Didn’t read the note on the nightstand yet? You still in bed?

I glared at my phone and pounded out the next text.

Me: No. I’m showered and ready to go.

I walked over to the solid oak nightstand and my heart of steel toward him softened just a little. There was a large glass of water with Advil right next to it. Laying just below that was a crisp white sticky note with the HEAT emblem behind it that read,

So you don’t claim I screwed around with you and then sent you on your way. Penthouse for a cupcake.

Me: You didn’t need to put me in the penthouse suite.

Dominic: I know. But I did anyway. Do I get an extra thank you for that?

Me: Considering you cut the party short and that my kittens are probably worried sick, I think just one will have to do.

Dominic: Kittens? You’ve only been here a month, Clara. Why the hell would you get pets?

Dominic: Did you pick up strays? Those have fucking diseases.

I ignored that text, swiped the Advil off the nightstand and gulped down the water in hopes it would curb any sort of headache that was bound to come on without food or caffeine. I needed both sooner rather than later. It was still pretty early, only eight o’clock, and if I beelined back to my bakery, I could probably whip up coffee before going home, changing, and then getting back to work.

And getting shoes.

I’d lost my favorite heels and my purse last night, and I thought about crying over it. They’d been thousands of dollars, and my mom had said over and over again that I’d looked good in them.

What is it about wanting a parent’s love so much that people would keep trying even when they didn’t deserve it? Those shoes were that for me, and I hated that I’d lost them even if it was probably better to let them go.

I sighed and wove my way through the Pacific’s halls without freaking shoes, hoping I wouldn’t see anybody. I’d called my Uber and knew if I could hide away in the bakery with the lights off until he got here, I’d be just fine.

It was a terrible walk of shame that wasn’t even a walk of shame because I hadn’t gotten any the night before. But when I turned the corner into the lobby, I froze and felt the embarrassment of a million shameful walks.

Dominic Hardy stood right outside my bakery, leaning against the doorframe, beautiful in his tailored black suit and shiny Italian loafers, with a scowl on his face once he looked up from his phone as if he could sense my presence.

Why did he have to appear so completely put together? I tried to ignore the tension dancing between us in the air and the urge to dart away from him. No one here was supposed to make me feel that way. Here, I was taking control of my own life. So, I steeled my spine as I walked up to him completely barefoot.

And then he smiled as he murmured, “There’s my little fighter.”

It’s like he was watching my every movement, learning me in a way most people didn’t. He’d seen my hesitation and watched me overcome it to walk to him. Still, we didn’t exchange good-morning niceties. I used my key fob to swipe us in and he jumped right into irritating me instead. “You didn’t answer my text.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sugar and Spice aren’t strays.”

“Where did you get them then?” He followed me in without an invitation.

“Outside my apartment. So, they aren’t strays now.”

“Oh, fuck me.” He groaned. “Do you realize that you can’t—”

“I’m a big girl, Dominic.” I wouldn’t tell him that I’d just now realized they both needed to be spayed and get shots or about my mishap with the carriers.

“It’s Mr. Hardy, Ms. Milton. We’re at work.”

“Right. Great.” We needed that boundary anyway, and Dominic was great at creating them. “Anyway, I won’t be here long.” I immediately rushed to the espresso machine. Caffeine would give me life enough to get through these next ten minutes. “I already called an Uber.”

“What for? Are you not working today?” He appeared disgusted that someone would take a day off even though it was Sunday.

“I’m working. I just need to go home and change, get shoes, and—”

That’s when I saw him reach for what was on the crook of his arm. Two bags. A Christian Louboutin bag—I knew that bag. Most women knew that bag—and a freaking orange one.

“What is that?” I whispered.

“Presents.”

I narrowed my eyes, not believing it for a second. “For me?”

He held them out and then glanced at his phone when it vibrated. “Who else would it be for, cupcake?”


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