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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 17

CLARA

His future wife?

What the hell was wrong with him? He’d conveniently dropped the statement like Natya wouldn’t have heard it. Like the saleslady wouldn’t immediately turn around and post the juicy tidbit on her social media.

I bickered with him about it the whole way back, then I insisted he drop me off at the bakery, and when he left me to my own devices, it was with a loopy smile on his face.

For another whole week, I woke up, stretched out the aches and pains of working my butt off in the bakery, and then I bicycled there. I figured I was so sore from the addition of my secondhand bike, nothing more.

I took my meds and vitamins and tried my best to avoid unhealthy foods. I avoided the media and calls from my family too because I knew the news about us was out now.

Of course, Dominic showed up with that same smile even when they started printing things about us, serious things. Much more serious than me being a girlfriend. Instead, I was his future wife.

For that whole week, my phone rang off the hook. Every time it did, I snarled at it. Evie wanted details, so I texted her. We’d talk more later, but the bakery kept me busy.

My sister and my mother wouldn’t stop calling. Over and over, they called like I owed them an explanation. Maybe I did, but I was too overwhelmed to give them one.

Then Dominic would sit there in his ridiculous glasses that I decided didn’t even look that good on him and chuckle as I glared at it, vibrating on the counter. “Don’t you have an office?”

“Sure, but I’m trying to spend time with my future wife.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re an asshole. You know that? You keep joking about it, but we’re dealing with the blowback already. You know how many times my mother has called me?”

He tsked. “Want me to answer and talk to her?”

I did kind of want to make him deal with it. “You have no idea how ridiculous it is dealing with her.” When my phone rang again, I sighed, but he snatched it off the counter. “Dominic, don’t you dare.”

He had already answered. “Ms. Milton, how are you?” Silence. “Yeah, I’m dating her. She’s proven to be a joy in my life I’d missed out on for quite some time.” Silence. “Of course her bakery is going to do well here. She’s made a cupcake that has a poppy on it—” Ah, my mother couldn’t stand talking about that. “No. She’ll definitely continue baking, Ms. Milton. Why would I do that?”

My heart fell and I shook my head, trying to grab the phone away. I knew what my mother would say. I should be staying home, taking care of him, and my investment in baking was a frivolous one.

Dominic stood up and backed away from the counter, keeping the phone out of my reach as he frowned. “Ms. Milton, your daughter loves baking. It makes her happy, and what makes her happy should make her mother happy, right?”

As he waited, he hummed low, and I knew that look. He didn’t agree with anything she was saying.

“Well, I’ll see what we can do. Clara’s been very busy because I do have her work hard. We also haven’t sent invitations for the reopening to outside guests yet. Exclusive HEAT members at this time have access. And that means you’d have to talk to Evie—”

I saw the phone light up, saw that she’d hung up on him, and he was smiling when he set it down on the counter. “She’s a real piece of work, huh? How long haven’t you been talking to her?”

“Very sparingly since I’ve been here.” I shrugged.

“Why?” he asked softly, coming around the counter to pull me close.

“Because I’m trying to create something healthier for myself. I just … I was stressed there. Seriously in pain.” I truly felt it in my bones sometimes, there was no other way to describe it. “Here I feel lighter. I’m trying to do what’s best for me, and sometimes that means …”

“Means what?”

“Means making a choice to choose me.” To choose yourself sometimes wasn’t selfish, right? It was necessary.

He whispered, “Own it, cupcake.” And then he kissed me like it was what we should be doing.

I stepped away from him, too comfortable in his arms, left him with a small smile, and went back to reorganizing the spices in the back kitchen. “I emailed Rita with my next change. She’s not happy. You’ll have to talk to her. Again,” I informed him.

“Am I going to have to argue with her?” He lifted a brow and then actually wrinkled his nose. Fuck, those glasses were so stupidly hot. Who was I kidding?

“I’d told her I wanted pink and red dishes.”

“She’s going to flip out then. I should be rewarded for the shit I’m going to take for getting you these five changes.”

“Isn’t this your resort?” I quipped.

“Rita thinks she owns my resort, along with your bakery,” he admitted, and that actually made me chuckle.

“Want a treat for your efforts?” I pointed to one of the chocolates I’d just made. He eyed it longer than normal. Then he shook his head and closed his eyes.

He dug into his pocket and popped one of his dumb mints instead. Then he mumbled, “I want a treat, but I want it to be your pussy, not a damn truffle.”

“Oh my God.” I rolled my eyes and went back to work.


Not much later, Paloma twirled in, waving her phone at both of us. “You two move fast, don’t you?”

“I think Dominic just accidentally said that. Right?” I stared at him pointedly. “They’re making it much bigger than it should be.”

Of course the man hadn’t said anything in an hour, but he had the audacity to speak up right then, “If you say so.”

I ground my teeth together. “Knock that off, Dominic Hardy. We have a resort to open, not a freaking wedding to plan. Stop creating gossip for no reason.”

He smirked at me. “Want to go gossip in the back room for a minute?”

Paloma squealed and plopped down next to him. “She’s fucking furious, and you love it. You two are so cute.”

I huffed at them both, “Neither of you are getting any food from me today.”

Paloma groaned and Dominic grabbed another of his stupid mints as he shrugged. The two of them had me needing a moment of fresh air. There was too much gossip and too many whispers about me going around, so silence was what I wanted. But then I turned toward the lobby doors and saw another person I’d been avoiding texts from because he was too good of a friend to lie to about my fake relationship.

His blue eyes shone bright, and he had a smile that was so infectious, I squealed with delight. “Noah freaking Romero, what are you doing here?”

He opened his arms and bellowed out, “Lucy, I’m home.”

There wasn’t an ounce of hesitation when I ran to leap into his arms, and he caught me like I was lighter than air. Immediately, I felt home. He smelled like ocean breeze and spicy cologne and his hair was shaggy enough for me to rub back and forth as I nuzzled into his arms. He’d been a laid-back friend long before we did more than just hang out. He was supportive and fun and never had one expectation of me other than being there when it meant a lot to him.

My pink hydrangea-printed maxi dress swung around us as he spun me in circle after circle until I stopped giggling. “You didn’t say you were coming. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“What? I’ve called you damn near fifteen times.” He let me slide down his body but kept his arm around my waist. “If I’m not one of the first to see Clara’s Bakery in California, I’ll always regret it.”

I laughed. “Not the name.” I sighed as I looked above the doors. “We actually don’t have a name yet. I just put in a request for approval.”

“What is it? Am I the first to know? Tell me I’m the first to know, and I’m going to be the first to see this finished place of yours.”

I rolled my eyes. Noah wanted to be the first at everything, the best, and the person that would always be on your mind. He would have been for a lot of girls. For me, he was a friend who’d filled a void for a while. I did the same for him, and that’s as far as it went.

“Clara? You going to show me?” He crossed his arms over his chest, waiting.

Damn. I knew Noah also loved to stir a pot big or small, and Dominic was a big-ass pot to stir.

“Fine.” I grabbed his arm and pushed through the doors fast.

“Clara Milton,” Noah breathed out right when he walked in. He did not turn to Paloma or Dominic, he gave my bakery his attention first, which made my heart swell and brought tears to my eyes right away. He ran his big hands over the leather seating and said, “The pink seats suit you. You about to blow it up with color in here?”

I bit my lip. “I’m trying.”

“You better, babe.” He snatched a chocolate cupcake off the table and moaned when it hit his tongue. “Goddamn, I missed these.”

Paloma snatched one too before I could smack her hand away.

“And this wall you did, right? Damn, I love it.”

I waved off Noah. “It needs to be fixed. I’m fading it a bit and cleaning up the edges.”

His eyes checked the corners, and he started laughing. “Guessing that got your ass in trouble.”

I wrinkled my nose. “But you like it?”

“Of course. I’m here for a day, going up to Vegas after. Want help?”

I went to stand by where the pink bled onto the white, dragging a finger over it.

“I’ve already told Clara I’ve got it handled.” Dominic’s voice was low, quiet, and completely dominating in my small bakery. He closed his laptop slowly and turned in his seat to stare down Noah.

Noah didn’t seem at all deterred. He just turned back to me and flicked his eyes to the wall and then to me. “Proud of you, little dancer.” His nickname had Dominic standing up slowly. “You know, pink’s your fucking color.”

“Don’t start, Noah.” He had that look in his eye.

“But you blush and it shows up all over you.” He smiled and his eyes glinted as he went to stand right in between me and Dominic, cutting off my line of sight to him. Instead, I was staring at my old friend, giving me a look I knew very well. I’d enjoyed that look for years. We were friends with benefits after all. “See. Like right now. Bet I know for a fact that under that dress, you—”

“Clara.” Dominic’s voice cut through the bakery, loud and authoritative. When he used it like this, my body jumped to attention.

Why did I feel guilty immediately when I peered around Noah’s massive shoulders to see Dominic standing there?

“And Noah Romero.” He said the name carelessly, like it didn’t hold any real weight. “What are you in town for?”

“Hey, man.” Noah walked up to shake his hand. They were cordial, had met before when Dominic was in Florida, even trained once or twice together at the HEAT gym. It should have been an easy handshake, quick and friendly, except Noah continued, “Here to see my girl and her bakery, of course.”

I’d never seen Dominic stand taller and really size someone up. He didn’t even do it here. He was utterly confident in his ability to outshine another man, and yet I saw the way his jaw ticked when Noah said my girl. Would he correct Noah when there was no need? He was respected and feared around here because he threw the truth fast and ruthlessly. Yet, Noah wasn’t talking to him about the resort, only about me.

“Your girl and her bakery?” Dominic questioned and must have squeezed Noah’s hand hard because Noah visibly frowned as he glanced down and then smiled.

“Yeah. Clara here has been working hard.” He squinted at Dominic, catching the tension but continuing forward. He threw his arm around my shoulder casually.

I wide-eyed Dominic and shook my head just a tad. The man lifted an eyebrow at me, and I swore now they were both smiling.

Dominic wouldn’t, I thought at first. He didn’t care one way or the other about my friend with benefits. “Dominic, want to show Noah around?” The resort was the thing he cared most about anyway.

His eyes didn’t break from Noah’s arm around mine. “You like your girl’s ideas for the future design here too?”

“I intend to find out.” Noah’s eyes narrowed.

“So I assumed.” Dominic’s green eyes held fire. They licked between us before he said softly but loud enough for both of us to hear, “Your girl tell you she’s my girl now?”

My jaw dropped while Noah tilted his head in confusion. I felt his body tense as he looked at me and then back to Dominic. “That shit in the tabloids true then?”

I cleared my throat to start explaining, but Dominic beat me to it. “She’s my girl. So remove your fucking arm from her shoulder.”

“Dominic,” I chastised immediately and rushed to correct him “we’re friends and he was just—”

Noah cut me off with a smile and then squeezed my shoulder before he dropped his arm. Then his blue gaze hardened. “I came here to support a friend, but you can bet I was looking to support her in all different types of ways.”

There was the Noah the NHL knew and loved, searching for a freaking fight. I saw how he cracked his knuckles and tilted his jaw one way and then the other.

“He was not going to be supporting me in that way, Dominic.” I stepped between them, glaring up at Noah, who just winked down at me.

“Fine, little dancer. I’ll play nice.”

“No need to play nice for me. You touch my girlfriend, I’ll break every bone in your body, on the ice or not,” Dominic threw back.

I spun and snapped at him, “Are you joking?”

“Noah knows who’d win in a dogfight, baby. I’m just reiterating it for him, right, Noah?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you and I both know the last time I was in Florida sparring with people at the gym, your ass wouldn’t even step inside the ring.”

“It was the beginning of hockey season and—”

“Care to go down to the ring now?”

“Guys!” I threw my hands up between them. “For what? Are we measuring something here? Dominic, you know I’m with you. Noah, we’ve had our fun.”

“Still here to have fun when you want,” he threw out, which just made Dominic growl like a caveman.

“Stop. Right now.” I flicked Noah in the shoulder. “You don’t care about who I date, and you know it. You’ve got puck bunnies in literally every state.”

“Yeah”—he combed a hand through his hair—“came to talk to you about a specific one, actually.”

I saw how his gaze drifted away for a second, and I rolled my eyes. “See. Stop glowering at each other for no damn reason.”

“Fine,” he grumbled and plopped down on a barstool, ready to submit like the good friend he was. “You’ll come out tonight with me?”

Paloma had been sitting there silently the whole time with wide eyes, but she chimed in right then. “Yes! Let’s all go out and have a good time dancing. I’m Paloma by the way.”

Dominic didn’t give in so easily. When I glanced at him and whispered “You good?” he pulled me close and held my gaze.

“I’m not sharing you, cupcake. I’ve told you that before.” Then he proceeded to kiss me like he was laying claim every which way. I couldn’t stop him either. I didn’t even want to try.

The kiss was too good.

And that was a problem.


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