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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 22

CLARA

I hadn’t dreamt him saying that. I also hadn’t dreamt that Dominic took me home the night before and that the cats loved him. They were purring loudly in the room with me bright and early the next day. Except I didn’t feel their fur.

And I’d swear he closed the door last night to my room.

I peeked over and saw the door was now open and both cats were beside him.

Also, a large muscular arm was draped across my waist. I tried to slide away, I felt the scruff of his five-o’clock shadow as he nestled into my neck and yanked me closer. “Go to bed next to me, you wake up next to me, cupcake.” I felt his cock and the length of him immediately made my body react by rolling my hips. “Don’t tempt me unless you want to deliver.”

I sort of did.

But I needed to remind myself that this was fake. I sighed. “Stay in bed if you want, but I have to get up and get ready for the market. Plus, Sugar and Spice are here. Did you let them in?”

“They were meowing at your door this morning.” He shrugged. “I fed them, and they scarfed it down like two full-grown dogs.”

“Yeah, I think they were starving outside when I picked them up,” I murmured, trying to stop the pitter-patter of my heart. Did people know the Dominic Hardy I did? Or did they just know Mr. Hardy? Because Mr. Hardy was quiet and ruthless but had earned respect. Dominic Hardy on the other hand, didn’t wait for respect. He’d taken it last night, swiftly and unapologetically before he came here to worship me and then took care of my freaking kittens.

He rolled over to pet both of them, whispering something only they could hear.

I evil-eyed them both. “You two slept next to him when you know your mother feeds you every single day?”

“They know when there’s a good man in their bed.” He claimed to hate animals, but he wasn’t acting like it as he scratched Spice’s neck.

“You should be ashamed, Spice.” I swear she narrowed her eyes at me before I huffed and got out of bed right as my phone rang. I knew that ring tone, and I winced before I silenced it.

“Who are you avoiding?” He glared at the phone, probably hoping it would announce an answer to his question. With a stare that inquisitive, I was surprised it didn’t.

“Anastasia.”

The usual vibration from deep in his chest rumbled out before he said, “Not talking?”

“She doesn’t approve of my being here. So, I don’t really talk to them much at this point.”

“But she’s calling because …?”

“I don’t really know.” I shrugged. This was my new start, and I was trying my best not to taint it. Boundaries were built through blood, sweat, and tears. Mostly tears here because I wanted something with my sister that I couldn’t have. “I’m avoiding it right now. I’ll answer later, but I have enough going on with this bakery. I realize my boundaries are probably—”

“Just what you need. Keep establishing them, babe.” He said it with conviction like he knew.

“You have boundaries over there too?”

“Well, you met my Natya,” he offered, and I waited for him to continue, my whole body tensing at her name. Muscles that were conditioned in feeling heartbreak, feeling like second best. A mind can ready itself for that type of thing after enough time spent with people who tore them down.

“I met your ex,” I said softly.

“Well, the woman is good at wiggling between every boundary but I made quite a few of them after I left her.”

“Most women in love are good at that.” I picked at the fabric of my bed. If I was being honest with both of us, he needed to consider what he might be doing, passing on Natya for a fake relationship with me. “I think she loves you and you should probably be sure—”

“Sure I want her out of my life?” He chuckled and pulled me close by the wrist of the hand I was using to fidget. “You hedging on whether or not I want to keep dating you, little fighter?”

“I’m not … I’m trying to make sure you don’t make some catastrophic mistake in your life by pushing her away if you really—”

“I’d be making a catastrophic mistake losing you. How about that?”

I sighed and tried to smile as I glanced at Dominic staring at me and shook my head before I got out of the bed. “We’ll stay in bed all day if we don’t move.”

“I don’t mind,” he grumbled, but that was a lie. Dominic worked harder than anyone I’d ever seen. His eyes roved over me before they froze halfway down and widened on my body.

He was up and out of the bed so fast, I jumped. “What?! Is there a spider?”

“Not a spider.” He growled, snapping his hand out fast to catch my arm. Then he said in a grave tone. “What is this on your arm?”

Looking down, I saw the culprit of his worry and immediately relaxed but slapped a hand over it to hide it away. Wrinkling my nose, I turned around and went digging through my closet to find a light long sleeve. “I get rashes sometimes.”

“Sometimes?” I heard rustling but didn’t turn around. “Since when?”

“Since I was a teen.” I chuckled, trying to brush off his concern. It was the first concern I’d witnessed over my health in a while. I’d been the only one to go to the doctor, the only one to listen to the signs and pursue more tests, being the most concerned about the results.

“Everyone has ailments, Clara. We can’t worry about them now,” my mother had said over and over.

I got tired even thinking about that conversation.

“Did you ever get it checked out?”

“Dominic,” I glanced over my shoulder. “You do realize people have ailments they live with, right?” It was something my mother would have said, a way to downplay the truth, but I was facing it and handling it.

His face hardened, “You do realize if something’s wrong, you should be seeing a damn doctor?”

“I have and I do when necessary,” I shot back fast, somewhat defensive. And when he tried to say something else, I shook my head. “Leave it, Dominic. I take care of myself just fine.”

He hummed. “Maybe it’s time someone else starts taking care of you too.”

“I’m fine,” I reiterated and then I turned away. Owning it. Living with a disease meant learning to not dwell on it. I’d come to terms with what was healthy for me and moved forward with capturing the beauty of life rather than dwelling in the ugliness of it. Both actions took up the same amount of time, yet one was much brighter than the other.

Dominic would have done the same, which was why there was no use burdening him with it. “If you’re fine, then—”

“There’s towels in the bathroom if you want to shower,” I pointed at the bathroom and lifted a brow. We were changing the subject whether he liked it or not. His glare showed that he didn’t and I saw his brain working as he frowned then and stomped into the bathroom.

I went to the kitchen and started cooking, trying to shake off his concern, how he wanted to be more than most were to me, how he cared. When he entered the living room and walked over to the table, I set a plate of scrambled eggs and a cappuccino I’d whipped up with a dash of cinnamon on the dining room table for him. “You can stay as long as you’d like—”

“I’m coming with.”

“Um … what?” I asked, but Dominic was already scarfing down his eggs double time, not even taking a second to enjoy the taste. “What for?”

He mumbled around another mouthful, “You ready?”

“Do you always eat like that?” I needed to stop this. He needed to understand flavor if there was at all anything I could teach him.

“When we have somewhere to be, sure.” How did he still look good in yesterday’s suit? He’d lost the jacket and rolled up his sleeves, leaving one button undone, and it made him look disheveled but properly so. The veins of his forearms were on display under his sun-kissed skin with his massive hands that I knew were skilled at everything they did.

I snatched the plate back fast when his fork went to his mouth again. He lifted a brow. “Problem?”

“Can you sit down and just enjoy the food?”

“Am I bothering you by not?” One of his dimples showed up when the side of his mouth curved.

“I think it might be better if you take one extra minute and tell me what you taste in those eggs, Dominic.” I chewed my cheek, suddenly feeling like I shouldn’t have dictated how he ate my food.

“Hm.” He studied me. “You think or you know it would be better, little fighter?”

Combing a hand through my hair, I busied myself with wiping down the counter before turning to grab some lemons and slice them up. Squeezing a few of them in a cup, I filled it with water. I took my time so I could diffuse some of my anxiety at answering. Then, I murmured, “I know.”

“There she is.” He sat down then as I put the cup in front of him. He took a bite slow and held my gaze as if he wanted me to experience it with him. The way his lips closed over the fork and the way he savored the bite now was intentional, and the air freaking crackled with tension. “Tastes divine, Clara. Did you add dill? Probably a couple other things—”

Kicking out the chair across from him, I shrugged. “Yep. With minced garlic and parsley. Does it work together?”

He tsked. “You know it does. Own it.”

“Okay.” I crossed my arms. “I know it does. And you should enjoy your meals, not rush them.”

“I’m fine enjoying a meal all damn day rather than going to meet your future mentor at the market.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, maybe my future mentor, Dominic, if he wants.”

He squinted around another bite and pointed his fork at me. “He’d be lucky to have you, cupcake. He’s mastered main courses, but he’s still yet to nail a dessert menu.”

“His desserts are—”

“Not as good as yours. And I’ve told him so.”

My knees buckled, and I almost fell over onto my worn kitchen tile. “You what? You didn’t.”

“He knows what I like about his restaurant, and he knows what I don’t like. I disclose that to everyone when I bring them on.” He shrugged like it was normal. “Your desserts would be a phenomenal addition to Valentino’s restaurant, and he knows it.”

My mouth dropped. “Was that a compliment about my baking?”

He cleared his plate before answering. “You’re passionate and good at what you do. You’re an asset.”

So casually he said the words. So honest and sure of himself when he said them.

“Thank you,” I murmured before making a grab at his plate, but he nudged my hand away and got up to wash it himself. Then, he took the pot from the stove and did that too. “You don’t have to clean up—”

“Of course I do. You cook, I clean, Clara.” He smirked. “My mother was dead set on that. Equal households whether we’re fake dating or married.”

The HEAT empire and the Hardy brothers who owned it were in the news enough that I knew they came from Greek immigrants, that their parents were still married, and they didn’t like the limelight. His parents didn’t even do interviews and wouldn’t move from their home in the Midwest. “Guess that must be the key to their happy marriage.”

“Probably,” Dominic chuckled. “They’ve got good hearts on their side too.”

“What do you mean by that?” I leaned against the counter and waited for him to answer.

His shoulders tensed and his back straightened enough that I knew there was more to the answer than he gave me. “It just means my father and mother always wanted what was best for the other person. They’re selfless because they’re in love. To love someone more than you love yourself and risk them not feeling the same.”

Talking about love shouldn’t have seemed so intimate, not with a man I’d despised just weeks ago, and yet I wanted to know … “Have you been in that type of love?”

His eyes cut to mine, forest green layers of so much emotion he never shared with anyone. “You read the magazines, Clara. You tell me.”

“I …” Magazines and the media lied. Instead, I coughed a little, clearing a tickle in my throat and shrugged. “I’m never going to get a whole story from the tabloids, right?”

That low rumble he always did when he was lost somewhere in his head came out.

“Anyway, the market shouldn’t take long. You don’t have to come. I don’t think—”

“Are you still wanting to date him?” His pointed question flew at me so direct and out of nowhere that I didn’t know how to respond.

“Well, I …” I hadn’t even thought about it. “That was never my main goal, Dominic. If we …” I stopped myself just in time. What was I going to say? If we don’t work? If this fake relationship doesn’t turn into something more? This wasn’t real. “If I get my five changes to the bakery, that’s all that really matters. Your resort will be saved from Natya, and I’ll get what I need. Valentino maybe would be an added—”

He frowned and cut me off like suddenly he didn’t want to hear the rest. “Let’s go.”


The sun was shining bright and beautiful in the sky when we finally met Valentino, who was already at a vendor sniffing and tasting some mint. He held it out to me, but Dominic snatched it from him and put it near my mouth.

The man kept a firm arm wrapped around me the whole time. Even when a vendor smiled politely my way, Dominic introduced himself and me as a couple, saying we were considering produce for my bakery. Loud and proud. He even snapped a few pictures of me looking at produce, telling me it would be good for the social media pages.

The whole morning, he didn’t say one word about his resort unless it was in reference to my bakery. Or Valentino’s restaurant. He boasted about my bakery instead. He didn’t compliment my design, but suddenly he was adamant that I was the best baker in town and needed all the best produce. He haggled prices, confirmed shipping if I would need it that day, discussed who would be picking produce to make sure it was the very best if he invested.

Gone was my fake boyfriend who was putting on a show and in his place was Dominic Hardy, ruthless businessman that would do right by his resort which now included my bakery. For a second, I felt a part of it all.

And Valentino chimed in a few times, too, even complimenting my truffles while I boasted about his restaurant. After a couple hours of walking around, Valentino told me he was so happy to be working with me. Then, he shook Dominic’s hand respectfully. “I’ll be at the restaurant most of the week if you need me.”

“Have you discussed the lighting changes with Rita?” Dominic asked.

“We’ve agreed upon a few changes. You know Rita’s been accepting of some of my designs considering we both went to school together.”

Dominic nodded but I was shocked. “You did interior design?” I’d never read that about him.

He smiled at me and leaned in. “Guess it helps with how I design a plate.”

“That would have probably helped me with Rita.” I sighed. “She’s very good at keeping her vision but …”

“But she won’t bend at all to yours?” He chuckled and then winked. “Let me know if you’d like me to look anything over. She’s got a bit of a soft spot for me.”

Dominic didn’t add any commentary, but he studied us both. When I turned to him, he lifted a brow and shrugged as if to say, “If that’s what you’re into.” I rolled my eyes and gave Valentino a hug.

It dawned on me right then and there. My heart didn’t flutter, and my stomach didn’t react to Valentino’s touch the way it did Dominic’s.

Ignoring the blatant feelings that grew in me for the man I couldn’t have, I continued to let Dominic skip around the market with me well after Valentino left. He wanted to check every stand, to confirm we’d gotten the produce right, to make sure it was the best.

At one point, a vendor asked for the name of the bakery, and Dominic turned to me. “What’s the name you’re going with, babe?”

I sighed. It’d been a freaking point of contention since I’d gotten there. Rita had asked once or twice and when I’d mentioned a name, she shot it down immediately. “Unknown,” I said loudly with a smile to the vendor before we bought the food.

Dominic frowned. “Name’s got to come faster than where we’re at, Clara.”

“I’m aware, Dominic.” I singsonged. “You and your interior designer have to agree to something first. I’ve considered a few. All of which Rita hated.”

He hummed and smiled. “Rita’s picky. But you’ll get changes. So, let’s hear them.”

I smirked and rattled off different names. All of which he would shake his head to. “No. No. No.”

More and more, I felt the heat boiling in my veins. “You’re kidding right?”

“They don’t work with the resort.”

“If I hear that one more time, I’ll scream.”

“But I like when you scream.”

I rolled my eyes and glanced at the last vendor down the alley of tents as I said, “They’re my changes, Dominic. I’m not giving you a damn say when I choose the name at the end.”

When he didn’t respond, I glanced back at him and saw he was smiling big. At me. At my fighting him.

Before I could point it out, he glanced at his phone and the smile dropped off. Dominic didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve, but right then and there I saw a pain that was almost tangible. When I whispered his name, his green eyes glanced up at me with a castle full of torture in them before he closed the gates, lifted the bridge, and built up walls around his fortress. “Well, news travels fast.”

I narrowed my eyes before sliding my own phone out and reading the headline. “Is She the New Natya?”

What I hated was that I was being compared to her, being thrown into a sort of feeding frenzy the gossip magazines loved. Before the fight at the club, Dominic and I had been a rumor. Now, it was fact, and they wanted blood. I’d been pitted against my own sister before. Who was the prettier sister, who should have been the Milton heiress? They didn’t know that neither of us really won from that.

I wouldn’t win this either. There was no winning in a competition like that. Only pain. “Well, Natya will believe it now, right?” I whispered.

He nodded. “She’s already texted me about it.”

I closed my eyes to hide the knife to my gut at his confession, but I think he caught it.

He must have as he growled, “I’m getting rid of the fucking article.” He started tapping into his phone. I grabbed it from him and held it back.

“It’s for the good of the resort, right?” I lifted a brow. “That was the goal. Your ex will be taken care of, and the resort will prosper. Dex gets his casino deal, huh?”

“Dex told you about his fucking casino deal?”

“Yes, at the club. He’s very excited, Dominic.”

I saw him glance away, probably to hide the softening he felt when we talked about his siblings. That was his weakness as their older brother, I think. He’d do anything for them. “If they start writing bullshit, we’re pulling the articles.”

“Fine. But it’s not bullshit that she was with you before and I’m with you now.” I sighed. “You loved her once. So, it’s good they’re comparing me to her, right?”

Even as he nodded, I knew it wasn’t.

My words shook me back to reality, reminded me that this was all a facade, that we might want her to believe it, but I’d better stop what I was doing because I was starting to believe it too.

Instead of inviting Dominic back over that day, I told him I had work to do. I tried to build up a barrier between us. I tried to be just a fake girlfriend because being a real one wasn’t an option.


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