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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 24


Clara was so worried about the damn resort and what I wanted out of it that she barely worried about herself. She’d basically sold her soul to those tabloids when she’d pushed me to let them continue to be printed. She was doing it over and over again in front of me, putting someone else before her happiness.

She mentioned her mother and sister, and again, I knew there was more to the story, that one day I’d have to pry it out of her. Now, though, I just wanted to shake out the trait of her letting others run over her and then hug her for all she’d done in the past for everyone else.

I knew the paparazzi would be ruthless once they got wind of our living situation, so I took it upon myself to make sure my PR handled some of it. Nothing negative was to be printed about her, I didn’t give a shit if it helped fuel the resort’s opening.

And now? I was so worried about her well-being that I’d pulled every string to get her out of that apartment and into my own house. Was I supposed to care this much about a fake girlfriend? Never had I imagined I’d be worried about her well-being over the resort or over how Natya would lash out, and yet, I went to bed and woke up worrying only about her.

Did her damn cupcakes turn out right today? Did she get the stupid vanilla extract she wanted from the distributor? I should have been worried about the call I’d gotten on another project at a resort an hour away. I had a million things to juggle, to consider, to fill my head. Over the years, I’d been satisfied to let work consume me.

Yet, nothing took over my mind and haunted it in the way Clara’s broken face had. I watched her puffy eyes take in the greenery surrounding my private drive. We wove through the hills and the land, getting farther and farther from LA. I lived outside the city limits to get away from the crowds of people, or maybe I was just trying to preserve a semblance of my soul. I’d bought the home in an auction from a late architect’s estate. Supposedly, he’d built it for his family, but never got to share it with them. The story was morbid but maybe so was mine.

She didn’t say a word one way or the other about the structure as we pulled up and waited for the gate to open. It was all brick—brick driveway, brick stone, gray and melancholy. I’d never livened the place up because my heart didn’t want that.

When she walked in, all I heard her mumble was, “Of course there’s no color,” before she bent down and scooped up the kittens that had already made themselves at home. My personal assistant had got the cats food bowls, set up their beds in the study, and there was no mold anywhere in my home that I knew of.

“Where would you like me to sleep the next few nights?” she said in a clipped tone.

Damn, I’d hurt her by relocating her without asking. I’d have to make it up to her over time.

Taking over that apartment was necessary though. I knew health hazards when I saw them, and too many people were being taken advantage of. High rent made their health take a back seat to housing.

She still had that cough, but it was less now. I swear she didn’t even notice it, but I did. I noticed every damn thing about that girl. The way she looked away when I pushed her on her money situation, the way she hid the hell people put her through to accommodate everyone else.

I just didn’t know how much that apartment had meant to her. Peeling the layers back on Clara’s life suddenly felt like a necessity. The woman was going to be living in my house, and I knew nothing about her except that I wanted to know everything and that she belonged by my side until further notice.

Instead of asking for a tour or acting at all interested in the place I’d redesigned and lived in, she’d demanded to know where she’d be sleeping. That was it. My team had dropped off her belongings into the guest room.

When I pointed down the hall, she called Sugar and Spice and made kissing sounds in hopes they’d follow her. They didn’t. Both cats seemed to have abandoned their owner for me, preferring instead to weave in and out of my legs.

She glared at me, betrayed all over again. “Bring them to my room and then leave.”

I’d take any way of getting time with her that I could right now. I whispered a thank you to both the kittens and stalked down the hall.

When they filed into her room, she glared. “Leave.” I took a step back and gave her the space she rightfully deserved. She shut the door right away, and I murmured, “Good girl.” At least to me, she was learning to stand up for herself.

Her outburst in the bakery told me so. She’d cracked enough that I saw through her facade. She’d been overlooked in more ways than one, but here she wouldn’t be. I’d make sure of it.

That night, I worked out in the fitness center across the house harder than I should have. Punch after punch. Weight after weight. I worked away the stress, the frustration at how I’d handled Clara that day, and the text messages I knew were weighing down my phone.

Natya pursued what she wanted viciously—a lot like me. We’d been a phenomenal team before we were a catastrophic disaster.

Unknown Number: Is she a fling to fuck around with, or do I really have competition?

Unknown Number: You can’t avoid me forever. We have to visit Susie soon.

Those were the only texts I received, and I hadn’t responded. Natya didn’t understand that I didn’t have to be in love with someone else in order to not love her. There was no competition with my heart where she was concerned. Too much pain lived there now that she’d inflicted.

I knew she was right though. I wouldn’t miss my visit with Susie ever, even if it meant Natya would come too.

The text messages hadn’t stopped coming in though. My brothers and sisters weren’t going to let up until I responded. I swiped my phone off the floor and went to shower before making my way to my study where I could answer them.

Dex: So I guess the news is out.

Me: You talked to Clara about the damn casino deal? What did you say?

Dex: That’s what we’re discussing? Who cares? I just told her she’s great. Natya never helped solidify deals the way she will.

Me: Why the fuck are you comparing her to Natya?

Dex: Damn. Calm down. It’s not like the whole nation isn’t doing the same thing.

Izzy: Don’t compare women. It’s rude. We’re not objects.

Dex: It wasn’t like that. Jesus.

Me: I don’t care how it was. We’re not doing it as a family to my girlfriend.

Dimitri: So it’s real?

Lilah: I think it’s real only because Dom never dates anyone but Natya.

Declan: It better be real. Don’t fuck with Clara. You know Evie loves that girl.

Me: Why wouldn’t it be real?

I winced. We normally didn’t lie to each other. But I wasn’t exactly lying. Clara wasn’t only doing it for publicity. We were doing it for the resort, for her bakery. Not for her getting a date with Valentino. Because that shit wasn’t happening now. I was making sure of it.

Izzy: Seems mighty coincidental.

Me: Worry about something else. We’re grown-ass adults.

Declan: How about you worry about not pounding people’s faces in so we don’t have to deal with a PR shitstorm next time.

Izzy: Dex and I handled it mostly. A few people lost some pictures and videos. Big deal. Tell us more about you loving Clara. That’s what I want to know about.

Lilah: Should we talk to Evie about this?

Declan: Fuck no. She’s nursing. She doesn’t need the stress.

Izzy: Seriously? Her breastmilk isn’t going to be affected by stress, you idiot.

Me: Would you all just calm down? I like Clara’s company, she likes mine. Don’t meddle when everything is working out with flying fucking colors.

Dex: Yeah. The casino deal is looking solid.

Me: Exactly. I’ve got shit to do. Bother someone else.

I didn’t check for notifications from them again. I didn’t check the news or the magazines from the reports that were flowing in either. I wore a HEAT watch and knew the technology was sending me updates regarding my own name. The articles had gone from comparing Natya and Clara to “Another Hardy-Milton Merger” because Evie and Declan were the first to have been caught in the tangled mess of Carl’s will.

I knew none of the articles had pictures of the fight at the bar, although some of them claimed an eyewitness saw one or two things. Every article was swooning though. The spin was good. Our PR teams were doing their jobs like I told them to. Yet, I’d somehow fucked up mine as a boyfriend.

A fake one.

I sat in my study for what seemed like days. The minute hand on the clock ticked slower and slower by the second. What was she doing in her damn room? If she was angry, she should have been out here fighting with me about it.

She had to talk to me. She may have been frustrated with me now, but we were bound together for the next few months. Apologizing to her for taking care of her health wasn’t an option, but I made the first effort by texting:

Me: You want to have dinner?

Clara: Not with you.

I growled up at the ceiling, pulling at the back of my neck and then pounding a fist on my oak desk.

Me: Should I deliver food then?

Clara: I’ll take french fries and crab rangoon.

Me: No place serves both of those things.

Clara: Well then. Guess I’ll stay mad.

Clara: And just so we’re clear, food delivery won’t make this better.

Me: What will?

Me: The moving team will have all the furniture and decor that was yours here tomorrow. I’ll try my best to make you feel at home here, babe.

Clara: As you should since you upended my home.

I had to smile at her boldness, at her not being at all accommodating, trying to put me in my place. She was right to do so.

Me: I took control of my girlfriend’s life a little too fast, huh? I’ll apologize for that. I should have moved slower.

There were dots for a minute. On and off, and on, and then off. My move since she wasn’t sending.

Me: I know how I can apologize further if you let me, little fighter.

Clara: How?

I was definitely going to hell for sexting her in hopes of forgiveness. I’d either get her in that big white bed in the guest room with the down comforter fluffed up around her or she’d storm out of that room mad as hell.

Me: I’ll get you the food and make you feel good.

Clara: You don’t know how to make me feel good.

Me: Now we both know you’re lying. Bet your pussy is wet already from the idea.

Clara: Not after you ripped apart my bakery and said you hated everything in it.

Me: Shit, cupcake. I never finished what I had to say. It’s not my taste, but your bakery shouldn’t be. It’s got the flair you do.

Clara: Is that a compliment?

Me: As close as you’re going to get to one.

Clara: How close will I get to an apology for what you did today?

Me: My actions speak louder than words and apologies, Clara.

Clara: Is that so?

Me: Want me to elaborate further?

She knew where this was going. I saw those dots going and then disappearing again. And instead of waiting for her to respond, my hand went to my cock. Rock fucking solid as always when I thought about her. The pre-cum was already dripping down onto the head of my dick, practically weeping to fuck my fake girlfriend, given that I’d passed on the chance over and over again at this point.

I kept telling myself it was because of her needing to be sober and it not being the right time. I’d wanted her sober, wanted her begging, wanted her to remember. Here, in my home, I couldn’t think of a better time. I wanted it to be real.

And that was a problem. Clara and I were fake but somewhere, somehow, my boundaries had blurred. I slept in her bed and wanted her in mine every night after. I upended her life so she could move in with me even though I never wanted a woman in my home.

I’d wanted Natya the same way and she’d made me believe a damn lie.

Keeping my distance was probably best and I’d done that effortlessly with others in the past. I just had to do it again.

Tonight, though, for just one night, I had some making up to do, and I intended to do it just right.

When my phone finally buzzed on my desk as I pumped myself slowly, I snatched it up with one hand to see just one word.

Clara: Yes.

My fake girlfriend wanted to fuck me as much as I did her.


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