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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 2

DOMINIC

Clara Milton wasn’t going to discuss a thing with my interior designer. She instead was hoping I would just hand it to her.

I wouldn’t. When a person wanted something in life, they had to fight for it.

And Clara didn’t know how to fight. At all.

I pinched the bridge of my nose, thinking back to how her mother had treated her when I’d dropped her off that day. Clara had been ready to walk right into that messed-up situation just to save her family’s reputation.

She didn’t fight it at all. And it had fucking bothered me more than it should have.

Now, she was ruining my resort and wasn’t even really fighting me for her changes either.

Every text was a question, an idea, a “maybe.” If someone was going to come in and change all my plans, they better believe in their vision. White-hot rage filled my blood just thinking about it. The only time she’d put her foot down was a half of a year ago to go look cute on her hockey player boyfriend’s arm to placate him.

No one said no to a meeting with me in this industry to placate someone else, especially not another man. So, now, I didn’t have time for nuancing Clara’s idea for matching pink seating with her pink truffles or whatever the hell she said.

She needed to listen to me. I’d designed numerous buildings for the brand, and the Pacific Coast Resort was especially important to me. It was mine. The one I’d spent years perfecting, and the one I was most proud of. I’d designed how the cobblestone streets paved an ideal walkway to our restaurants, how they wove around the gardens and landscaping to the golf course, to the pools, to the beach, to the vineyards. Meticulously and tirelessly, I’d built it from the ground up. I’d sweated over every minute detail. I’d made sure to avoid any distractions so that I could present a damn masterpiece to the world that no one would question.

Never again would I be questioned.

And arguing over pink seating was ridiculous.

So, I’d put off the texts and approving the designs until the very last moment. We were opening the resort in a mere three months. But yesterday with Rita, it seemed Clara hadn’t budged. She’d emailed her saying she was continuing with her design against Rita’s recommendations.

So, I intercepted her in the lobby where she was supposed to meet Rita that day. “Ms. Milton,” I grumbled out as she spun in a circle looking up at the crystal chandelier we’d made sure expanded across most of the lobby. With soaring cathedral ceilings, it presented quite a sight. That’s what my whole resort was supposed to do.

She stood there, a goddamn beacon of color in my white-marbled lobby. Her thick dark-red hair was curled immaculately around her face, falling down her shoulders and stopping right at her curves.

Clara Milton was lethally beautiful. No doubt about it. Stunning with high cheekbones, smooth skin, and big green eyes, she appeared out of place and vulnerable without anyone by her side.

She didn’t live in or understand the real world. But she was going to learn to live and fight for what she wanted in mine or she wasn’t going to survive. That I would make sure of.

“Mr. Hardy?” Her voice was full of surprise as she stumbled over her words, but then she smiled at me, her eyes twinkling with what seemed to be hope. “Mr. Hardy. You came.”

That hope was going to have to be squashed. This was simply a quick business meeting. “Rita called, Ms. Milton.” I glanced at my watch.

“Oh.” She frowned, her smile wobbling. “Well, that was nice of her to tell you when I’d arrive.”

“I’m not here to welcome you to town.” And there went her smile. Good. “I’m here because Rita informed me of your pushback.”

“Right.” She hesitated, then her fingers threaded together in front of her bright-green dress. “I thought she might,” she admitted, but there was no remorse in her tone. Just that familiar rasp that I’d hated over the years, something about the way she let the words whisper out of her mouth made her sound dark and sinful but vulnerable all at the same time.

“I only have a minute, and then I’m sure she’ll be here to discuss further with you, but I spoke with Mrs. Johnson, and she is aware of your unreasonable requests.”

“Unreasonable?” Her eyebrow lifted like she was affronted.

“Yes. They’re ludicrous, but besides that, Mrs. Johnson reiterated that in order to be in compliance with the will’s requirements, we need to secure final approval from you for the design changes.” I winced because it pained me to say it. Mrs. Johnson was taking her position as executor of the will much too seriously.

I was under her thumb and under Clara’s, too, it seemed. The woman picked at the fabric on her dress that looked like a palm tree leaf and avoided my gaze for a second. So, I took her in. I’d known her for years, but only in passing, and I didn’t mingle with women in high society anymore. It had proved to be toxic with a woman I thought I’d loved.

A mind can play tricks on you when you’re distracted by bright colors, pretty eyes, and red lips. And Clara had checked all those boxes.

“You need to reconsider the backsplash above the sink.” It was a small part of the bakery, true, but no detail was too miniscule.

“Like I told Rita, the soft pearl-pink color scheme will be an excellent accent there.”

“We’re not accenting color anywhere in the resort,” I ground out. It’s like she couldn’t understand that putting a girly, Technicolor Barbie in the middle of my perfect, classic black-and-white film didn’t work. There wasn’t a place for her whatsoever. “The backsplash can be a checkered pattern of grays if you want something a little different but we need to stay on theme.”

I heard her sigh, and then I saw how her chin actually quivered before she straightened and whispered, “Don’t you think I should get one thing?”

Jesus, another request. And I wasn’t a giver. Not anymore. Even when a woman with doe eyes the color of emeralds appeared to be about to cry.

I took, I executed, and I didn’t look back. That’s how empires were built. That’s also how people got ahead while others were left behind. I knew that because I’d been left behind before.

Maybe that was Clara’s problem. She needed more of a spine. “You’re getting a bakery in a resort that’s sure to be in every magazine in the country. Isn’t that enough?”

She hadn’t even sent me a real blueprint the first time I’d asked. I’d have fired her then if she’d actually been on my team.

“You know I’m going to have to be here after we’re done designing it, right? You’re aware that people will actually be walking around your resort wearing freaking color, right, Dominic? The place can’t be pristine and untouchable forever.”

I cracked my knuckles at the thought and paced away from her before I paced back. “I’m aware.”

“So can you imagine that some people might even like color?” She mocked me by having her eyes bulge in feigned surprise.

She was trying to irritate me, and most people here didn’t do that. They listened because I’d earned their respect. “What’s your point?”

“There should be color somewhere. And I’m going to bring that here. If not in my bakery, I’ll be wearing it.” She spun in front of me. Could I enforce a dress code? “I’m going to wear what I want.” She narrowed her eyes like she was reading my goddamn mind. “Also, my macarons are a favorite in Florida and—”

“Do you want a checkered backsplash or just white tile?”

Her eyes closed briefly, and I felt a tinge of loss, which was surprising. I never felt bad about snuffing out color. People used it as a crutch to draw attention away from their flaws. “This is the last thing I’m giving up, Dominic.”

“Clara, it’s what’s best.” I shrugged. “I don’t want you to have to deal with the design critics. If you were down the street by our food trucks or out on the boardwalk, I’d let you do what you want.”

“Are you saying my design isn’t good enough?” I couldn’t tell if it was hurt or anger in her voice.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m saying you and I have different styles and they don’t exactly go together.”

“Oh, I’m well aware that nothing about you is like me and that we don’t go together at all.”

She grumbled it with such disdain I was caught off guard. I knew we were opposites but having her aware of it also suddenly sat wrong with me. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, isn’t it obvious?” she snipped out before sighing. “I make desserts and you don’t even eat them. It’s like you’re allergic to sugar.”

There was no point in eating what was practically poison to the body when you could eat protein or something that was actually good for your health. I rarely went into her bakery in Florida, and I didn’t plan to walk into this one either. “You might want to consider what food you’re making within this bakery—”

The intake of her breath was sharp as she stepped back. “Do you think I’m so incompetent that I haven’t considered the menu?”

Well, I wasn’t so sure. “I haven’t seen a menu sent to Rita.”

“Because neither of you have asked for one.” I heard the anger now, noticed how fast she snapped the words out before she exhaled, likely attempting to dissipate the emotion. “Nor have you asked for the marketing strategy, the name of the bakery, or the—”

“Is that a problem? We’ve provided a list of staff that can work morning hours with you, provided you the contact for weekly produce vendor, and Rita has handled most of the design. If you want to send over the rest, fine.”

“No thank you,” she replied fast.

“No thank you?”

“You’ll just change it. I’m working with you on the design because it is required, and I want to be colleagues, not enemies. I’m set for produce and have hired someone from your list of staff—”

“Who?”

“Matt Connor will start training in two weeks.”

“Matt Connor?” I knew of him because he had worked at the resort down the street and Valentino had interviewed him. I hummed, not knowing whether I had an actual reason to say no to him working there.

“He was on the list.”

“Yes, I’m aware. He interviewed with Valentino’s team.”

“Why isn’t he … oh. So, you gave me Valentino’s leftovers?” Her hand was on her hip immediately. “I thought you wanted the best of the best throughout your resort.”

“I do. But I’m not sure your bakery is going to be a part of my resort for long.” My words were pointed and cutthroat. She needed the practice of dealing with bad reviews. She’d be getting them. This wasn’t her daddy’s hotel anymore. People didn’t know her like they did in Florida.

“You really mulled over my future here, haven’t you?” Her words came out in a shaky whisper, and for a second, I considered whether I should back away now in hopes I wouldn’t have to stand there while she cried.

But then Clara Milton did something I wasn’t expecting. She bit her lip, dragged her teeth against the soft plumpness of it, and walked in a circle around me, slowly and with calculation. “You just sat there … creating my space and thinking about how my coming to town would go. I’m happy you were here to at least welcome me to your lobby, Dominic. I think I’ve been accommodating enough on changes, though, and maybe my bakery will be out of your resort soon. Maybe I won’t make it, just like you’re hoping. And then you’ll have the resort you dreamed of. For now, be happy I’ve been willing to compromise on some things. But the rest …”

Her voice drifted off like she didn’t want to say it. “The rest, Clara?”

We both waited in silence.

“It’s nonnegotiable, Mr. Hardy. It’s my bakery.” Ah, there was the spine I thought she didn’t have. She came alive with that comment—red stained her cheeks, power flew off her into the air as her glare held me hostage.

“You sure about that?” I’d conquered a lot over the years. People saying my designs weren’t worth it, fighting with other engineers, ruthless competition, failure. Still, the last few years without meaningful pushback and true competition because I’d finally made it had left me content but bored.

Pushing Clara’s buttons wasn’t boring at all. Not when I suddenly saw the fight in her eyes.

“Why wouldn’t I be sure?”

“People are paying for a Hardy-designed resort, not a—”

“Don’t even finish what you’re going to say,” she whispered with venom. “Throw underhanded barbs somewhere else, Dominic. I’m done with them. This is the last thing I’ll give you.”

And with that comment, Rita’s loud heels could be heard clicking across the otherwise empty lobby.

“Last thing you’ll give me, huh?” I murmured.

Her gaze flicked to Rita before it latched back on to mine as she crossed her arms. “Yep.”

“If you want to go head-to-head with me, you can try. You won’t win though, little fighter. This is my playground.”

“We’ll see,” she said before Rita walked up with tall and lanky Matt Connor right next to her.

“Dom, you have a meeting.” She then turned her eyes to Clara. I loved how Rita wasted no time. “Clara, it’s nice to meet you in person …”

I didn’t say goodbye or spare them a backward glance.

I hadn’t smiled the whole day, but I smiled the whole walk to my next meeting.


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