Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 18


“You’re staring.” My brother Dex had flown out to LA and then decided to come to the club with me primarily to discuss the meeting he’d had about his casino deal. Instead, he was bothering the shit out of me because he knew I didn’t want to be here.

How I’d agreed to meeting here was beyond me. “Of course I’m staring. He’s dancing with my girlfriend,” I ground out, watching Clara and Noah spin in circles as she laughed wildly at his antics. We’d all agreed to meet at the club later that night. She’d insisted she had to go home and get ready with Paloma, because I guess that’s what every girl did. I knew my sisters historically did the same—get ready with their friends for hours.

In her defense, Clara walked into that club looking goddamn divine in an orange floral maxi dress that swayed with her every movement. Two slits at each of her legs teased my eyes every second. So, I wasn’t going to look away even if it was obvious to my brother.

Plus, Noah was glued to her side. Loud, over the top, and too happy and charming to be in our vicinity. I hated that fuckboy with a passion. Was he good to her? Sure. Was he still a fuckboy whose eyes roved over every good-looking woman in the club? Absolutely.

She deserved the best and it wasn’t him. Not that they were dating. But they had a romantic-type relationship in some sense of the word, and I was starting to think Clara didn’t hold herself in a high regard if she’d been linked to him for this long.

When he dipped her low and she hooked her arm around his neck, his eyes were only on her. On her mouth. On her body. On her flawless face.

“He’s being respectful. That guy hasn’t even grabbed her ass once.”

“What the fuck?” I shoved my brother. “If he fucking grabs her ass, I’m killing him.”

“Jesus, our brothers-in-law rubbing off on you?”

“I’m starting to understand it.” When my little brother chuckled darkly, I knew we were all going down the wrong-ass path. At least we accepted it. My sisters had married men who’d allegedly been in the mafia. I said it that way to anyone I was doing business with. At home, we fucking knew they killed people. The sad thing was I understood why now.

Someone had hurt my sisters, and for that they deserved to die. My brothers-in-law loved them so they’d reacted, swiftly and without mercy. I wondered if they also reacted when they were jealous too. I was verging on exactly that watching Noah with Clara now.

I didn’t give a shit what Dex said, I saw how Noah’s eyes lit up. He had some sort of feelings for her. It’s why he was here even if he blamed that shit on wanting to hook up with another woman. He’d blabbered on about some woman that was giving him the cold shoulder, how he’d fly around the country after her if he had to and how she was supposedly at a casino on the Vegas Strip.

Given his proximity to my girl, I didn’t care about what he said about another. He leaned in to whisper something in her ear as he pulled her close, and that’s when I’d had enough of them both tonight. Leaving my brother behind, I stormed over without a word, and clapped Noah on the shoulder. “Time for the boyfriend to cut in.”

Before Noah stepped away, he groaned, and Clara looked torn before she said, “Dominic, you get me all the time.” It was a great excuse, but one she was using to avoid the inevitable.

“And still, I want more of you, Clara.” The words that left my lips weren’t a lie. I wanted her close, wanted to smell her, wanted to learn about where she was taught to dance like that. I held out my hand. “Dance with me.”

Noah stepped back, probably because he knew he wasn’t going to break the connection I had with her now. No one was. Something about Clara and her light and her damn colorful dresses had infected me, and I was hooked on making sure everyone knew it.

It was for the good of the company, right? I could indulge for the time being too.

She stepped up to me, taking my hand with a small smile playing on her lips. “You think you can keep up? Noah’s been dancing since he was a child.”

“I see.” I stepped with her, immediately taking the lead, and turned her to the music. I could waltz, salsa, and foxtrot.

Her eyes widened as I led her around the floor. “You dance?”

“I keep up,” I murmured in her ear.

She chuckled and then she let me spin her out. We moved to the music. Song after song.

Her lines were much cleaner than mine, her body much more trained in controlling movement. She was practically a professional. She’d probably done ballet or dance most of her life, and I loved watching her do it. Whatever sadness I’d seen in her eyes earlier that day was gone. She was alive with the music, with the laughter around her, with Noah cheering her name. When I pulled her close after a slower song came on, I whispered against her hair, “You’re divine when you dance. But let’s give them the show they want.”

Her emerald eyes glanced at me. “Dominic,” she warned.

I wasn’t thinking about a warning. I was thinking about her lips, her body up against mine, how she felt like a bright light to my soul when I’d been happy with the mediocre flickering of it for a while. The tabloids thought the news was fake, that we might be joking. I didn’t want even a sliver of a question. It wasn’t about Natya anymore. It was something else.

I kissed Clara Milton for everyone to see that night, and we made a statement that wouldn’t be forgotten. Even with our eyes closed, flashes went off. It meant the paparazzi caught it. It meant our coworkers, my brother, everyone caught it. Natya would too. I didn’t give a damn about any of them.

I let her go mingle again when she pulled away from me, flustered and saying she should hang out with Noah a bit more. Appeasing her friend was what she wanted, what I was finding Clara needed to do to feel comfortable. I let her go to talk more business with my brother.

It wasn’t much later that Noah proved to be the true idiot I’d always thought him to be. He lifted my girl up and set her on the bar and then put Paloma right up there with her.

“What the fuck?” I swore again and stood up.

“Calm the hell down. They’re just having fun. Plus, you can’t be the big brother to everyone,” Dex grumbled and pulled me back into my seat.

“Fuck you. I’m not her big brother. I’m her goddamn boyfriend.”

“So you’re really into her then? It’s real?”

“As real as it gets with me,” I said, and I don’t know if it was to my brother or myself.

Dex had all the same features as me, but his hair was longer, his eyes more mysterious. My brother kept to himself most of the time. So, when he whispered, “How did you know?” I immediately studied him harder.

“Bro, I know because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be real.” I leaned to knock my shoulder into his. “You got something real over there?”

He sighed. “I think I might.”

We all knew about Dex and Keelani, his long-lost love. Him thinking he might meant it wasn’t real, meant he was still pining over her, trying to fill the gap with someone new. I should have let it be but, chalk it up to my being the eldest … “Don’t make a dumb mistake and give up on her for someone that’s less than her. I don’t have dumbasses for brothers.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I should fuck this casino deal up just because you said that.”

I wasn’t listening to him though. I was staring at Clara, staring at how more and more men walked up to that damn bar. When a guy hollered at them, I felt my muscles tense. But her muscles were all loose, languid, full of sway and movement. Her eyes met mine over the crowd, and her smile was slow.

I shook my head at her and mouthed, “Get down.”

She pouted and before I knew it, she was doing exactly what I didn’t want her to. Her hip rolls got more animated, her stare sultrier, her eyes on fire with a damn challenge.

“Goddamn it,” I growled as I stood up again.

My brother didn’t even attempt to stop me. He knew it was getting out of control, guys were swarming the bar as she dipped low, her maxi dress to her ankles but still showing every curve she had. Paloma wasn’t helping with her hooting and hollering for Clara to continue, but Paloma’s yelling died when she saw my face.

She hopped down immediately, but Clara kept on. That mesmerizing red transfixed every man there, and she even waved a guy up and glanced back at the bartender. “Give him a shot.”

Everyone listened to her. The whole damn place was hyped up on my little fighter’s energy.

I yanked the guy back as he tried to grab her ankle and flirt with her. “Mind if I cut in?” I growled before jerking him away from her. It was loud enough that she whipped her head toward me, and Noah was right at the bar immediately.

“She’s having a good time,” he declared, but there was a knowing smirk on his fucking face.

We both looked up at her lifting her hair off her shoulders, and her cheeks were rosy and alive with excitement, her mouth in a full-on smile that dropped just a centimeter when she met my gaze. It dropped all the way off as the guy I’d moved just a second before tried to lunge for her leg. I had him by the throat and pinned on the bar in seconds while the bouncer was a moment too late.

Noah told me to let go and Clara instantly gasped, stopping her dancing to crouch down. “Dominic, let go of the man’s throat.”

“You think you can touch my girl after I removed you once? Twice and I’ll kill you.”

“Fuck you, man,” the guy spit at me.

“Dominic, let go,” Clara repeated, her hand now on my shoulder, eyes suddenly sobered.

The problem with me that people didn’t seem to get was that I was the ruthless one in my family. Maybe I’d hardened over the years after what Natya had done, maybe I’d always been this way. I locked my emotion down because I knew what happened when I let it out. I felt the rage deep in me. I felt it more maybe than my other brothers. Declan smiled, Dex handled our tech, Dimitri was quiet until he wasn’t. I protected them, protected what was mine. Clara was now that.

I squeezed the man’s neck harder as I held her gaze. “Clara, he was about to assault you. Had that been my sister up there—”

“I’m not your sister,” she countered, “I’m just me, Dominic.”

“Yeah, she’s just a fucking slut,” the guy wheezed. “Let me go.”

Clara was pleading now. “I’m not worth this. Think about your name on your resort. It’s not worth it.”

Her words rattled me. Like she didn’t know her worth. Did she expect me to not know it either? “You’re always worth it, cupcake,” I whispered before I lifted the man up by his neck and pounded his head down into the bar.

It took not one but two bouncers and Dex to get me off the man, and when the manager of the bar hurried out from the back to see what the commotion was, he pointed to the man immediately for the bouncers to remove him. “So sorry, Mr. Hardy. Please, I don’t want problems.”

No one wanted a problem with the Hardy empire. We owned most of these clubs in some way anyway. He and I both knew it. “Make sure he’s never allowed back in here,” I ground out.

Dex had turned to the people with phones and muttered “shit” before he quickly got on his.

The lights flickered, and I knew exactly what was happening. My brother was working on clearing the footage. “Leave it,” I commanded. “I don’t give a fuck.”

Dex mumbled to himself before he glared at me. “My deal goes through, I won’t care either. Till then, I’m keeping your dumb ass in line.”

Someone had to, I guess, because as I looked up at Clara still kneeling on the bar, I knew my mind wasn’t operating right with her. She was the sweet to my sour and the calm to my storm. I couldn’t have her balancing me out when I had to be more on top of my game now than ever before. “Come on, Clara. No more bar dancing.”

Squinting at me, she put her hands on my shoulders so I could grab her hips and swing her off. “You’re not going to reprimand me?”

“For what?” My hands were at her waist as I set her down and didn’t let go right away. I pulled her close and whispered, “My girl wants to have every guy’s eyes on her. I told you, they just have to be ready to fight.”

She scoffed. “I was only dancing, but maybe—”

“Go, keep dancing.” I smacked her ass and smiled when she gasped. “Paloma looks about ready to combust. So go have fun with her.”

Smiling, she rose up on her tiptoes and kissed my cheek before whispering, “I think I might combust, too, if I don’t get away from you.”

Watching her make her way over to her friends had my neck on a damn swivel now. I didn’t want any guy near her, not after that.

“Okay, so, no bars in the future when we go out. She can go on stage, but not—” Noah started, suddenly back by my side like he was going to mend a fence that he broke the second he put her up there.

“Fuck off, Noah,” I said, my voice low and quiet, but I knew he heard it even with the music loud. “I’m not here to play with you. I don’t even like you. So, don’t play with me. You’ll lose.”

“I’m aware. I already lost her to you, not that I really had her anyway.” He frowned. “I never wanted her that way. Even so, I don’t really think there’s more to lose here tonight.”

“How about your damn ego? I’m happy to bring you to the ground after the shit you just pulled.” I cracked my knuckles, still ready for a fight. My body itched for it at this point.

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew he was in the wrong. The man could have assaulted Clara, and he’d instigated it. “You know what? I like you, Dom. I really do. But you just started seeing her, right?”

Clara and I hadn’t gotten through the details of what we’d been doing. I wasn’t going to elaborate with him now. “Not your business, Noah.”

“Fine.” His shoulders sagged a little as we both stared at Clara animatedly describing something to Paloma over the table. “But I’m going to tell you something in case you don’t know. Clara doesn’t get up on the bar. She doesn’t have the fun she’s having here. Ever. She doesn’t do anything for herself. You know that, right? She’s quiet and sweet and does everything for her mom and her sister. She gives them the limelight when she should be in it.”

“What’s your point?”

“Let her shine here, man. She fucking deserves it.”

So, he cared about her more than just wanting to sleep with her. I filed that thought away for later. I still wanted to punch his dumb ass, but not as much. “I know how to take care of my girlfriend.”

“We’ll see.” He shrugged and we both watched as she laughed at something Dex was saying to her and then turned to Paloma. “Honestly, if you don’t know how to take care of her, Dom, I’m coming for you.” Before I could reply, he cut me off. “Not because I want her. I don’t. I actually came to tell her that specifically. I got a girl I’m going to wife up if it’s the last thing I do.”

“You …” I stopped. “What the fuck, man?” He chuckled as he backed away from me. He’d been irritating the hell out of me for no reason. “If you intend to wife up some girl, better make sure she doesn’t know that you came to visit your friend with benefits, dumbass.”

His face fell momentarily, then he murmured, “Fuck.” He glanced up at me. “You got Clara tonight?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, man. Go do damage control.”

He went and hugged her, then was gone. Dex chuckled next to me, “She’s going to give you hell man.”

“I’m more than aware.” I shook my head as we both stared at her coming over to our cocktail table. Clara sauntered up, her laugh light and airy as she looked at my scowl. “Relax, Mr. Hardy.”

I hummed when she dropped low in front of me, that dress of hers was long but had slits going up to the thighs allowed me a direct line of sight to her soft supple skin. Then she brought her ass right up against my cock. Fuck, my body instantly reacted as I pulled her against me and then caged her back to my front against the cocktail table. I felt how she rolled her ass right against my length. “Jesus, cupcake, we need to leave.” My patience had frayed at every edge.

“We?” She looked at me, confused, and then her small mouth formed a little O. “That’s okay. I’ll just, um … get an Uber?” She glanced around like she needed help getting out of the situation.

I leaned close. “My girlfriend would never take an Uber home, cupcake. Tell your friends bye.”

Instead, she peered over at my brother. “Dex, tell your brother that of course I would go home in a cab. I could potentially be so very angry at you for making such a scene in a club with all our colleagues and friends.”

“And I could be so over your shit that I’ll throw you over my shoulder and carry you out of here if you don’t listen.”

“Yeah, I’m avoiding this one.” Dex shook his head and took two steps back. “But give him hell, Clara.” He winked at her and walked away.

“We go home or I’m taking you to a bathroom to bend you over a sink to teach you what happens when you don’t listen.”

She bit her bottom lip slow, her eyes dipping to my pants. “What happens?”

I leaned in as I wrapped my arm around her stomach to pull her close and whispered against her ear, “I fuck you so good, the only way you get home is with me carrying you out of here. That what you want?”

Her green eyes had misted over as her ass rubbed back and forth on my cock and we swayed to the music. I was right on the edge now, ready to drag her to a dark corner.

“You came!” Paloma yelled loudly from two tables down and both Clara and I snapped our attention that way. Then she smiled at us and waved us over. “Clara, didn’t I tell you he would come if I said you were here?”

At this point, we were well into the night and Clara was stifling a yawn as she rubbed at a spot on her shoulder I knew must cause her pain. She massaged it a lot. Even so, she smiled brightly and pulled me over to her friends, saying, “Valentino, I’m so happy you came.”

Valentino combed a hand through his hair and smiled softly at her. “Didn’t want to miss a moment with the delightful woman who makes delightful desserts.”

Goddamn, when she blushed at his compliment, I knew right then. I’d be damned if I let Valentino or anyone else have her attention for a second longer. “We’re headed out actually.”

He had the audacity to look hurt, like Clara meant anything to him at all. “Well, the market is tomorrow, Clara. We could meet? How about I give you the address?”

Before I could tell her no, she handed over her phone as she vibrated with joy while he added details.

I wasn’t going to deny her the perfect ingredients at whatever this so-called market was tomorrow, but she damn sure wasn’t going to be going without me. As he handed her phone back, I leaned close to her, “We going to your house or mine?”

She frowned and pouted out her bottom lip, like she was so sad about leaving all her friends. “It’s rude that we’re leaving when more people just showed up,” she grumbled as we exited through the back doors into an alley.

“I’m not staying just to appease people, Clara.” The woman would have stayed all night and well into the next morning to make everyone happy.

“Well, maybe you should try every now and then.” She folded her arms over her chest, and as I saw the goose bumps rise on her skin, I sighed at her lack of foresight.

I shrugged off my suit jacket to drape over her shoulders. “And you should try not appeasing people. Your happiness shouldn’t be reliant on theirs.”

“It’s not,” she retorted much too fast and then stomped her foot, drowning in my jacket now. “I just know things go more smoothly when you try to accommodate—”

“What about yourself? You willing to sacrifice your comfort for theirs?”

“I’m not uncomfortable.”

“You’ve been kneading at your neck and shoulders for the past ten minutes,” I pointed out and massaged her shoulders for a second. She gave in enough that she closed those emerald eyes and sighed. “You were yawning too, cupcake.”

“Whatever,” she grumbled because she knew it was true.

I pointed over to the corner of the street and said, “Callihan will pick us up over there. Don’t want to block this alley.”

I steered her that way as she went on and on about how I of course didn’t care about other people’s feelings. “And if you’d just let me take a cab home—”

“Not happening.”

“Fine.” She threw her hands up. “We have to go to my place though because my cats need to be fed, but I don’t want you staying over.”

I never stayed over at a woman’s house. It was a damn rule. Yet, I was immediately pissed she didn’t want me to. “You can’t have your boyfriend stay at your place now?”

“My fake boyfriend is rude.”

“Because I left a few people at the club early?” I scoffed.

“No. You’re rude all the time. You’re rude about my bakery too. You have Rita just run over all my ideas.” She waved wildly around, getting animated now. “And I’m so sick of it. And I’m sick of her emails signed as the ‘head interior designer’ and her—”

“Are we listing off everything you’re angry about right now?” I lifted a brow as I tried to hold back a laugh.

Under the streetlights, away from the crowds, and with the cool ocean air whipping through her hair, Clara tipsy and crabby was extremely flawed. She wobbled in those heels, one tendril of her dark-red hair was low on her forehead, and her green eyes sparkled with a little extra fire. Flawed so perfectly for me that she was flawless.

If I could have built a building of her curves, drawn her into a blueprint, designed her into some structure, I would have. “What’s wrong with the designer, little fighter?”

“She just changes everything last minute.”

“She has a right to do that, Clara. She’s invested in the opening of this bakery.”

Damn, I nearly felt the blood rise to her cheeks, I felt the wave of fury flow through her to me. She wasn’t just Clara anymore, she was Clara with fire, with a vengeance.

“I really hate that you’re standing here on these cobbled stone streets that are supposed to be beautiful, shrouded in late-night fog. I read this romance novel once and they had such an epic kissing moment in just the same place. Instead, I’m with you, telling me your designer needs to be listened to even though she has no actual stake in the business but her paycheck.”

Her eyes widened, blazing green in fury and, fuck, I loved to see it.

I’d make this woman hate me over and over just to see her unleash that beautiful fire on me any day.

I didn’t indulge much, but I was starting to find I was going to indulge with her over and over.


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