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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 3

CLARA

Paloma: You here? The meeting is in the lobby FYI

I frowned at the text while I listened to my stepsister, Evie, ramble on the phone. “One whole month you’ve been in LA, and the only pictures you’ve sent me are of those kittens you shouldn’t have picked up in the first place.”

I snapped another and sent it to her. Both of those gray-and-white furballs with gold eyes blinked up at me as I shooed them away. I needed to grab my laptop because I had no idea what meeting Paloma was texting me about.

“Oh my God. They’re so small,” she cooed. “They didn’t have a collar or anything when you picked them up the other night?”

“Yeah and no microchip. They’re eating kitten food now, after I took them to the vet, and they love their beds I just bought.” That had been an ordeal considering I had no idea they needed a carrier to get into the cab because I didn’t have a car to drive myself. I’d left mine in Florida.

“Can I see a picture of their kitten beds?” Evie asked innocently.

The girl was desperate to see any part of my place but with the worn furniture and tiny amount of space, I wanted to hold off on showing anyone until I decorated it fully. I sidetracked to the corner of the living room to send her a picture of the cat post and cushioned bed on the ground. “There. Stop complaining now.”

“Oh, hardwood floors and that cute little end table with … is that me with the babies in that frame?” The landlord had been very specific about hanging anything on the walls. Each nail would cost me about a hundred dollars, he said, and so I’d made sure to grab standing picture frames.

“Found it with one of my coworkers, Paloma. Remember, she owns the retail store connected to the resort. She’s been great with introducing me to the area and invited me to go to some yard and garage sales over the weekend.” And somehow finding a maroon rug to place on the scuffed hardwood floor, new blinds to hang over the ripped ones, and a framed mirror to lean on the yellowish walls had been more rewarding than buying red bottom shoes.

“She’s bargain hunting without me, Declan,” Evie whined to her husband, the nice Hardy brother—the one I loved for loving my stepsister in a way no one else could.

“Go to the damn boutique. It’s free for you,” I heard him grumble.

“It’s not the same.” She sighed. She was breastfeeding their first baby boy, and her husband was more than a little overprotective. Still, I heard the love in her voice and knew marriage suited them well in a way it never would for me. “You know, if I would have come there, I would have been able to help you get settled in.”

“The place is furnished, Evie.” I sighed and smoothed a hand over the worn patterned couch before I went to my bedroom to open my laptop. The threading was torn on one cushion, and I couldn’t quite tell if there was a leak in the bathroom or not, but the distinct smell of mold should have probably been a cause for concern. Instead, I opened the windows every night and enjoyed the breeze.

“Whatever. How are you feeling?” It was a question she always asked now.

“There’s been small flare-ups here and there, but much better since I’ve moved honestly.” I sighed, knowing she wanted an update on my symptoms, even if she didn’t directly ask. “Being around Mom and Anastasia was difficult sometimes.”

“Good. If you start to feel anything or get too stressed with opening this bakery, make sure you tell Dom, or I can have Declan talk to him about your diagnosis—”

I stopped clicking on my laptop immediately and almost shouted. “No. Do not have him say a word,” I ground out. I did not want Dominic to hear from his brother anything about me. It was very clear he didn’t care. “Honestly, it’s a beautiful resort, and I’m very excited to have my bakery be a part of it.”

Declan didn’t hold back from shouting in the background. “Clara, don’t lie. Bleed some color into that sterile place.”

Evie chuckled, and I couldn’t stop from smiling. “I know. I know. I just don’t know that my bakery belongs here at all but—”

“Then make it belong there. You were never made to fit in, Clara. Stand the hell out. Honestly, it’s probably why your dad wanted this for you.”

Our dad wanted a lot of things, and he was terrible at voicing them.” She always did that, left herself out when she shouldn’t. Evie had come into our lives a year ago after being estranged from her biological father, Carl, most of her life. She’d bore the brunt of Carl’s “conditional gift” clause in the will, which forced an arranged marriage on her.

Or so I thought.

Dealing with Dominic Hardy proved to be very difficult. I wonder what she would say if I told her I hadn’t seen that pompous disgrace of a man since the day I’d arrived a month ago. He’d written me off, apparently, since he’d never stopped by again.

And as I started scrolling through my emails, I knew dealing with him was about to get worse.

I hopped off the chair fast. “Crap, I have to go. I’m late for a meeting, I think.”

“Oh, is it at your bakery? Send pics of that too!”

“Oh my God. Goodbye.”

I hung up, and proceeded to scurry around like a madwoman, frustrated that I hadn’t checked my email this morning. We were all working around the clock for the reopening, and I knew better than to take a day off. I ripped open my closet door and scanned my options.

I pulled out a flowy dress that was cream colored with coral peonies on it, took out a small Birkin bag that matched to throw just a few pieces of makeup in. I never wore a purse because I just had my phone with my credit cards and ID stuffed into my bra, but today, having the bag would make me feel the part. Then, I texted Paloma back.

Me: Thank you! I didn’t see the email until now and haven’t left yet. Is everyone there?

Paloma: Yes. Rita texted everyone too, but I just checked and you’re not on the text thread. So hurry up.

“Of course she left me off the thread,” I grumbled. I didn’t care what anyone said, Rita hated me. Even still, I avoided thinking about it. My self-esteem didn’t need another person to be wary about. That’s why I moved away from my sister and mother in the first place.

I punched in for an Uber as I pulled on the dress, no time to iron out the wrinkles. I couldn’t bother with curling my hair, so I threaded some cream through it and let my waves hang naturally before I applied concealer to cover my freckles, added red lipstick, and went to work on my eyelashes before I ran down the couple of flights of stairs in my apartment building and waited for the Uber to show.

Me: Well, at least she finally approved my pink seating.

Paloma: Oh really?! That’s fantastic. Tell me about it when you get here. Did you leave yet? Dominic Hardy just showed up, and you know how he is.

Me: It’s fine. There’re a lot of us. He won’t notice.

Paloma: He notices everything. Perfect example, my pink fitting rooms just yesterday.

I sighed. Well, he hadn’t noticed me for the past month, right? So, one could hope.

Me: I’m still jealous of them. They’re the perfect pink that I wanted in my bakery.

Paloma: Yeah. But my store is on the strip. Yours is in the freaking lobby, Clara. And plus, don’t be jealous. I’m still wondering if I should change them just because he stared at it for an eternity.

I knew he stopped by other places to see how things were going too. Paloma was always on edge about it.

Me: He said he liked it though. Don’t you dare change them.

Paloma: Well, right. I can’t because when he hands out a compliment, it’s a win.

As I got into the Uber and told him to take me as fast as possible to the Pacific Coast Resort, I sighed at the traffic. No way was I making it on time unless it parted like the red sea for us. So, I asked the driver about his life, learned a bit about his three kids and tried to make the best of our time. I even memorized a few new turns to take if I decided to bicycle to work in the future, considering I’d found a cute old teal bicycle at a yard sale.

“Traffic is usually okay on the weekends, but this is something,” the driver mumbled as we came to a complete stop in traffic. “Want me to drop you off at the back of the resort? Might be a while otherwise.”

“Would that be faster?” I asked.

“Maybe. You can walk around and avoid all this traffic.”

I nodded, thinking I still had a chance. I’d attempted to navigate the resort a few times but mostly I’d just gotten lost, so I stuck close to the bakery and lobby where I was actually needed.

I realized my mistake as soon as I stepped out of the Uber and he sped off, leaving me feeling small by the magnificent but extremely large white building that practically loomed over the ocean. Every time I saw it, it stole my breath.

Though Dominic Hardy was an asshole, he was also a genius and a brilliant artist. He didn’t ever talk about his accolades, but he didn’t have to. He was by far the most callous, grumpy, infuriating man I’d ever met but everyone respected his opinion. Even me. You couldn’t argue with perfection. His work spoke for itself, and then everyone in the world spoke for him too.

Magazine after magazine.

Award after award.

His engineering of resorts for the HEAT empire was unmatched.

I was on the side of the building and could see that it took up blocks and blocks. The traffic wasn’t moving, but under the hot California sun, I probably wasn’t going to move that quickly either. My ankles were already swollen from being on my feet so much lately and dealing with the fluid retention I had sometimes.

I sighed and hiked my dress up a bit. I’d thought cream, coral, and beige would have been a nice look. Now, I regretted grabbing a maxi dress to wear when, although light, the material billowed everywhere as I hurried along.

Dripping with sweat, I rushed into the lobby, my small Birkin swinging wildly at my side, in hopes they hadn’t moved past introductions. Of course the revolving door didn’t turn quickly enough, and I slammed into it much harder than I would have liked. Everyone’s eyes flew to me even though they were all seated facing the man of the hour.

Dominic Hardy stood tall and confident in the suit I’d become accustomed to seeing him in when he passed by my bakery. The jacket was expertly fitted, showing off his broad shoulders, the lapels framed his chest well enough to draw attention to the fact that he maintained his physique. He looked classic.

And also annoyed.

His green eyes narrowed on me, and I saw his jaw tick under the five-o’clock shadow that added just a bit of ruggedness. My body betrayed me as I stood there and tried not to drool or get weak in the knees.

“Well”—his voice carried through the lobby, deep and in command—“Nice of you to join us, Ms. Milton.”

Now he noticed me? Great. I hurried over to the seat that Paloma saved for me and sat down, grumbling a sorry.

“Let’s hope there won’t be any apologies from you all on the day our restaurants, stores, or bakeries open.” The shot was warranted. So, I nodded without looking up, hoping that a hole might just appear in the ground for me to crawl into.

Thankfully, he moved on. “Keep in mind, coordinating restaurant hours with one another is ideal. Ms. Milton, please work with your staff and Rita to confirm that your menu and hours will complement the other restaurants. We have seventy-five floors of rooms booked in advance with guests, and I want all five of my restaurants available to them. Our beach strip has the go-ahead to open as soon as you’re ready, hopefully in the next month.”

Paloma nudged my arm excitedly.

Someone raised their hand, but Dominic glared at him, and the hand snapped back down quickly. “I’m not taking questions right now. We’re going to have you tour the hotel, and after, all questions will be fielded by Rita.”

It was 3:03 p.m. and already he was turning on his heel for us to follow him. Casual chat, praise, giving out attaboy high fives after a hard day’s work—none of that was his strong suit. Even if seating had been arranged like we were going to be there for a long speech, everyone got up to flock after him like the sheep that we were.

As we all stood, I blinked and stumbled along as Paloma hooked an arm in mine. I guess that was it. No formal introductions were happening. No “let’s all work together.” No pep talk even. “We’re not going to mingle or …?”

Paloma didn’t seem to mind. She bounced up and down by me like a child who’d just been given access to a candy shop. Her hair swayed with the movement, showing off the shine. It was cut razor sharp and black right above her shoulders, making her appear as lethal as a cute five-foot-nothing woman could. “We mostly all know each other. You’re the one hiding out in that bakery of yours. Anyway, we’ll meet everyone tonight on the beach. Supposedly it’s catered. You think it’s Valentino’s food? I’d die if that guy cooked for me, for real.” Valentino was an attractive man. But Paloma wasn’t done. “Or you think Dominic Hardy will stay and hang out with us?”

She said his name like he was a deity. To her, he probably was. He was co-chairman of the board, along with his brothers, and most people looked at the Hardys as a celebrity family. When they’d bought into my stepfather’s empire at just the right time, they turned the brand around quickly and made it their own. Dominic specifically was the mastermind behind most of the large resorts’ architecture and was said to be ruthless in his pursuit of design excellence. To most, being in his presence was an honor.

To me, well, he was truly the one person in the world I despised.

“Don’t make that face, Clara.” She laughed. “We get it, you’ve been around the man and his brothers for years.”

“Not me. My stepdad. Dominic and I don’t know each other well at all.” And we didn’t get along in the least, either. Dominic Hardy hadn’t even texted me after the first meeting we had in LA to say anything nice like ‘Did you find a good place to live?” or “How do you like LA?” Actually, he’d probably been hoping my plane went down in a fiery wreck so he didn’t have to ever speak to me again. And then he’d happily get to nix my atrocious bakery from his blueprints.

Rita droned on in front of us about the five hundred thousand square feet of elegance Dominic designed, how the high lobby ceilings complemented one of the largest chandeliers in the country hanging above us made of all Tiffany crystal, how the east entrance walkway provided a skywalk and breathtaking views. We walked over the lazy river that wove through one restaurant’s patio with foliage and skylights. I appreciated how they would open up to provide an outdoor feel. Following the lazy river past the restaurant, we arrived at the waterpark on the west end that even featured a wave pool.

Every aspect of the resort had been well thought out, and as people oohed and aahed, I glanced back behind all of us to where Dominic lingered. No smile. No outward display of pride in all he’d accomplished. His eyes scanned the perimeter as if he was looking for defects.

When we circled around to the lobby area and hooked a right to see my bakery, the small smile I’d had in anticipation of showing off my space dropped away like someone had smacked it off me. That’s how it felt.

They’d ripped apart my designs time and time again over the last six months. Black and white was everywhere. The pink seating had been my last hope, the one concession I’d thought I’d been granted. And I’d grasped onto it, held it like a lifeline, and in many ways, it was the one small thing keeping me from throwing my hands up and walking away.

But black leather lined my booths and barstools. “Oh, fuck. Clara,” Paloma breathed, sliding her hand into mine like she could take away my pain, “I’m sorry, babe.”

Rita’s lips spread across her too-white teeth as she announced, “Clara’s bakery is coming along perfectly.” She was essentially waving a damn red flag in front of me, hoping I acted like a bull. She started to drone on about the granite countertops, white and beautiful, the exposed piping that was all black.

“Is it bad that I hate her and this whole resort?” I grumbled only to Paloma, because I couldn’t hold in my anger anymore. “It’s like a sterile hospital with no life.”

“What was that?”

I almost jumped seven feet when I felt his breath at the back of my neck, so close, in my personal space, and not at all professional. I whipped around, and there Dominic was, up close and personal, towering over me like a freaking CEO would. He was so tall, I had to peer up at him. Why did he have to look even better up close? I heard Paloma murmur a ‘Jesus” before I stepped back and muttered, “Oh, nothing.”

“You sure, Clara?” He narrowed his gaze on me.

I nodded quickly.

Rita then said loudly, “Clara, we’ll have the menu and hours soon to coordinate with Valentino and Justin, correct?”

Paloma’s lip curled, like she was about to stand up for me, but I laid a hand on her shoulder. I turned and replied to everyone, “I’m finalizing the morning menu for opening day. Hours have been solidified as 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. The staff is prepared.”

That wasn’t exactly the truth. I didn’t really have a staff except for me and Matt right now who I’d given off until a week before opening day. I would get someone to work weekends hopefully soon. I just needed to iron out costs and everything in between. And I’d thrown out the last menu a week ago, furious that nothing felt right. Determined but also petrified, nothing seemed to be the perfect fit. How could it when everything I created here was shot down. My recipes were meant to be bold and vibrant with every bite.

This bakery wasn’t.

“Clara, I need to discuss a few details. Please keep moving, Rita. We’d like to finish this meeting in enough time for everyone to handle priorities before the party tonight,” Dominic commanded from behind the crowd, a lone wolf no one dared walk next to.

The man was an enigma. A larger-than-life loner here in California. In Florida, he was different. Approachable … at least with his family. I’d seen how he smiled at his brothers, at my stepsister, at her baby. He hadn’t smiled once today. Here, he was untouchable, and I didn’t want to be alone in a room with him, not after how many times he’d found a way to cut me down.

Even so, I wrung my hands together, and my heels clicked on the tile of the lobby toward my sleek bakery.

One step and then another.

Dominic was this untouchable god to most of us here.

Click. Click.

To me, though, he was the devil.

Click. Click.

And there I went, walking right into hell with him.


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