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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 27

CLARA

I already got the sign hung that week, worked on clarifying menu changes with Rita and the team, and had to fight tooth and nail for Rita to approve my floral decor.

That morning, I almost gave in and called a health professional about the increased pain that I was experiencing. Baking was becoming more and more difficult, and the medications weren’t working like they should be since my flare-ups were getting worse. It was not too much longer until the opening, then things would get better.

It should be easy enough, I told myself. But even getting out of bed was pretty difficult actually.

Thankfully, Dominic had informed me he was going in to work early but Callihan would be waiting for me when I was ready. I didn’t want to bike to work, so I was happy to take an extra-warm and extra-long shower to help ease all the stiffness. Then, I tried to paste a smile on my face for the day.

I wasn’t expecting to walk out and freeze in the living room to stare at a few pictures Dominic must have hung while I’d been asleep. Some were of his family. Some were of his buildings. And a few were of me at the farmer’s market. One of us at the club dancing together. Just mixed in. Like I was a part of his life. Like it wasn’t a big deal at all.

I tried to tell myself the pictures weren’t a big deal, but I stared for far too long before going to work and trying to shake it from my mind. Instead, I mulled over why he’d hung them up while I tried to muscle through my tasks for the day, telling myself over and over I’d be fine.

Paloma waltzed in later and didn’t believe me for a second. “You’re sick. Go home.”

“I’m not.” I sighed and flexed my fingers before stirring some of the chocolate into her coffee like I knew she enjoyed.

She snatched it away and did it herself. “Be honest with me. Because you’re not honest about half the stuff going on with Dom and you.”

“What?” I whispered and she glared before pulling her phone out and reading me the header of a new article. “Heiress Moves in With Hardy Brother.”

“Well, that’s just not—”

“Clara, I’m sure someone’s told you before that you don’t lie well.”

I sighed and then slumped into the bar stool next to her. “Fine.” I practically face planted into the bar as I groaned. “I moved in with him. And it’s very stressful but my apartment has a mold problem and I’m dating him and it’s gotten very complicated.”

“No shit,” she grumbled as she patted my back. “So, go home to his mansion and take a sick day.”

“I’m not sick,” I admitted but I was so tired of keeping secrets. “I mean … I am. But I always am. Perpetually sick.”

“Explain.” She narrowed her dark eyes at me and tilted her head so that her bone-straight black hair fell away from her face a little.

How did you explain something you didn’t quite believe yet yourself? “So, I was diagnosed with lupus a while ago, and I know it’s not as serious as cancer or—”

“Wait, what?”

“What do you mean what?”

“Not as serious as …” She scoffed. “Who fed you that line of bullshit? This isn’t a competition about who hurts more, Clara.”

“No. I just mean, I don’t want to complain, and I don’t want someone to think I can’t function or anything, but I’m very tired—”

“Obviously.” She frowned at me. “My uncle had lupus, Clara. If you’re having a flare-up you need rest. When were you diagnosed?”

“Over a year ago.”

“Ah. Not that long then.” She said it like that explained everything. “It’s hard to accept.”

“I’ve accepted it,” I balked.

“Have you? Because some days, you need to rest. And some days you can’t be a hundred percent. Even the healthiest people need days off and to monitor—”

“My stress levels. I know. But I also need to get this bakery off the ground.”

Paloma hummed. “How long have you and Dom been dating again?”

“I …” Calculating our fake backstory felt like a lot of work right now. “For a while.”

“Right.” She said it like she didn’t believe me at all. “So, if you guys want people to believe whatever the hell you got going on, you might want to get that story straight.”

I sat up and met her gaze and determined something. I needed a friend and Paloma was one of my very closest ones here. “Fine. You know what? Today isn’t my day, and I need a shoulder to lean on now. So, you’re getting burdened with all my problems.”

With that, I blurted out the whole story to her. I swear her smile grew bigger and bigger as I told her every detail.

“God, I think he’s really falling in love with you,” she said as I finished telling her he put pictures up of me.

“He’s not. He barely agreed to meet me at the floral shop tomorrow. But I don’t know why I’m on his wall. Maybe he’s having guests over?”

She just shook her head and all her dark hair swung back and forth to emphasize her point. “You’ll see. Just you wait.”


Unloading on Paloma gave me a little more optimism. I had a pep in my step and thought I could manage all this still. I went to bed easily and woke up ready for anything.

Dominic was meeting me at the floral shop that morning and, later, he was brainstorming with all of us at the end of the workday. Maybe it was Rita’s idea since she’d sent the brainstorming invite, but the idea still made me smile. He was asking for help, taking into consideration that another person’s opinion might be helpful. That, alone, should have made for a great start to the day.

Except that good days have a tendency to morph very quickly into no good, very bad days. When I had to wait a whole hour at the floral boutique for him, my hope for the day disintegrated. My blood pressure increased, my calm disappeared, and my fury took a front seat, ready to drive me off the overwhelmed cliff.

I knew he kept staff waiting. I’d seen how he’d acted in meetings too. He’d literally gotten up in the middle of them and mumbled, ‘We have to reschedule.” His disregard for people was infuriating.

And I knew we weren’t a couple. I knew he’d slept with me for fun and that was it. It didn’t mean I deserved any special treatment but I did deserve the respect of a trusted colleague. Or even an employee. And he hadn’t even texted me. Or called. For a whole hour.

I’d worked so hard on this and to be left waiting in the middle of a garden center was quite frankly embarrassing.

“I know you said that Mr. Hardy would be here, but maybe he got held up in another meeting? I have other clients to take care of, but I’m happy to help when you’re ready. Feel free to look around.”

Me: Are you coming?

Dominic: I won’t be. Use discretion and get what you need. I’ll let the staff know it should go under my tab.

No apology. No explanation. Just commands. I’d show him discretion all right. I bought what I wanted. And then some. And then some more.

When I got back to my bakery, I was so mad I didn’t consider looking at my phone when I answered.

“Clara Milton, are you ignoring your mother?”

I winced immediately, stumbling over my steps as I went to the back kitchen to grab my bag and laptop. “Hi, Mother.”

“Don’t ‘Hi, Mother’ me. You haven’t called me in weeks, and I know you’ve spoken to Anastasia, so you could have at least given me the courtesy of a phone call considering you’ve been all over the news lately.”

“Right,” I whispered. I didn’t have time for this, didn’t need it right now. I felt my heart beating faster and faster. “It’s a fling with Dominic. New. I’m not sure where it’s going to go and—”

“It’d better not be just a fling. Honestly, if that’s the case, I really should come and make sure you move this relationship in the right direction.” Her voice sounded so beautiful, so nice. I used to believe it as a child. “It’s a great opportunity, Clara.”

I winced. There it was. My mother’s true lifetime goal, to make sure she and her daughters married into wealth and prestige. “I don’t plan to marry anyone, Mom. I’m focused on my bakery. It’s coming along nicely. And this has been good for me.”

“Oh, please.” She sighed. “Don’t tell me you think this is helping you with your fake disease.”

I gnashed my teeth together. “I’ve been diagnosed, the bloodwork—”

“My God, don’t start. And don’t tell Dominic about it or anyone. No one wants to be around someone who’s complaining all the time about something so ridiculous.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m not complaining. I’m in LA to get healthy and actually do something on my own.” For some reason, I had to make her understand, maybe because no one was understanding me today.

“Doing it on your own for what?” she asked in that tone I knew meant she was disgusted. “If that’s what you’re telling him, fine, but—”

“I’m not telling Dominic anything. I just really want to see where this bakery will go here.”

“Your sister would never pursue such foolishness when there’s a wonderful opportunity for a man right in front of her. Although, I will say those Hardy brothers are unforgiving. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s playing you. It’s best for you to come home so I can match you up with someone of financial stability or I’ll just come to meet with Dom—”

“I don’t want you here.”

There was silence on the other line. I could practically hear her turning into that monster I was still so scared of. “Oh, really? What is it that you want then, Clara?” Her voice was almost a hiss as she asked.

Freedom. Success. Independence. Health and happiness. I should have said all those things.

I said nothing.

“You’ll regret my not coming there to help with this situation. And with your ridiculous bakery. You’ve never been able to design a single thing let alone a whole place. I’m warning you of that. I really hope I won’t have to say I told you so but—”

Maybe I’d taken enough from Dominic that day or I’d been too tired or I was just fed up but I did something I never normally would.

I hung up on my mother, and I didn’t feel bad about it one bit.

Then I checked my email, and my blood pressure skyrocketed even more.

From: Rita O’Hara <[email protected]>

To: Clara Milton <[email protected]>

Shipping a new set of dishes for the bakery will incur an exorbitant rush fee and just won’t go with the aesthetic. Have you discussed this with Dominic in detail? I suggest that we stick with the dishes already in place. Please confirm you will approve this with Mrs. Johnson by EOD.

Thank you,

Rita O’Hara

Tired didn’t begin to describe how I felt going back and forth with her at this point. And maybe I made the wrong choice, but I thought about my mother’s words, how she believed my taste wasn’t great. I looked around my bakery, and I sort of panicked.

What if it didn’t work out? What if I needed more help than I thought? Valentino had given me his number for that specific reason. I dialed it and he answered quicker than I expected. I explained that I was having issues with decor and that I needed him to assist me in dealing with Rita.

He chuckled. “Just let everyone know I’m assisting you, Clara. It will work perfectly.”

The man even took his time crafting an email to send her way. I was quite pleased with him taking the reins and handling it.

An hour later, he showed up with a smile on his face and large flower planters being carted in. “Are those for the bakery?”

I couldn’t help but smile. Valentino had picked out beautiful, colorful peonies for the entryway and the white stone matched the lobby enough that I didn’t think Dominic would balk.

And yet it only took a couple of hours for me to receive a text from Dominic.

Dominic: Why is Valentino claiming to be your assistant?

Me: I apologize. I’ll definitely get you up to speed, but he just started.

Dominic: Just started what?

Me: Assisting me with designing the bakery.

Dominic: Rita’s a fucking designer, Clara. So am I.

Me: Right, but he knows what I like and does well with Rita.

Dominic: Oh really?

Me: Honestly, he just brought flowers to the bakery, Dominic. They’re beautiful.

I didn’t hear back. So I started baking while Valentino asked me questions about what dessert I was working on. I was five minutes into stirring the cupcake batter when I turned to see Dominic stalking toward the bakery.

The man didn’t look happy at all.


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