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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 32

CLARA

Just a week until the opening, I got the call that the flowers were being installed in the ceiling of the bakery along with the Sugar and Spice Bakery sign.

Standing there and seeing it happen was supposed to be a happy moment. I stood on my own and watched them work since Dominic had a meeting and Paloma was at her store.

Without anyone by my side, I took it in. The sunlight on the bright-white curves of the lettering popped against the black backdrop. They’d woven small red, orange, and pink poppies through the last couple of letters, accenting it perfectly.

As more and more flowers threaded with lace were carted in and a crew stood on ladders to position everything correctly, I tried to hold back the stinging behind my eyes, especially when it was all done and one man came up to me to say he thought it turned out beautifully.

I offered all the workers poppy cupcakes, and they gushed over the unique recipe.

Something about watching the final touches happening to the thing I’d worked so hard to accomplish had tears streaming down my face. Both happy and sad ones. The happiness of completing it warred with the sadness that this part of the journey was over, that the climb to the top had ended. I didn’t want it to end even though I knew it was just beginning. Each first step was a final one and with its finality came a sadness I hadn’t expected.

By the time I walked into my bakery and took in the floral smell mixed with the spices I’d added to a few drink concoctions this morning, I’d cried more than I wanted to admit. I took a couple pictures and sent them to Evie, who’d been begging to see, and then I posted a snapshot of the ceiling to social media.

I sighed as I turned to the wall I still had to tackle. If I finished this, I could rest for the day, or maybe two days, before the reopening. I pulled at my neck and winced as some of the pain traveled through my body.

I’d already bought a white paint can and cracked it open. I took my time lining the blue tape the best I could and even watched an online video on how to keep it nice and straight with a paint brush. I was halfway through and feeling quite proud of myself when Dominic walked in.

“Clara Milton,” he sighed as I turned to him, coughing just a little. His gaze narrowed on me. “You told me you were hiring someone to do this.”

“I can do it myself,” I retorted and turned back to the paint.

“Really?” He walked up and pulled back some of the blue tape. That’s when I saw the white was now bleeding onto the pinks. “You didn’t line the walls correctly and it’s still a skill that—”

“I’ll do it again.” I stood up and shooed him away as I winced.

“Clara,” His voice was low. “You need to quit working and go home. The bakery looks stunning, and we can finish the rest tomorrow.”

“Stunning?” That’s all I heard.

He tsked. “I won’t say it again.”

“Why are you here then if not to keep complimenting it? Don’t you have work to do before we open?”

He nodded. “I came by to give you this.” He pulled a small red box from his trouser pocket and shook it in front of me as I wide-eyed it. Then he grabbed my wrist and set it in my dirty paint-speckled hand.

“What’s this?” I whispered.

“A gift.”

“For what?”

“For perfecting Sugar and Spice. It’s everything you wanted to accomplish and more.”

His compliments never came willingly and were so far and few between that this one meant the world. I also knew he meant it—that he truly was as happy as I was with it.

I think for someone to truly appreciate the highs in their life, they have to experience the lows. I’d graduated from culinary school without my mother in attendance. I’d had birthdays with no cakes, no mentions of it, and no apologies for forgetting.

My mother and sister didn’t call to get an update on the opening of my bakery. Instead, it was to ask about Dominic.

In comparison to those lows, the high with Dominic and his gift was remarkable.

Tears streamed down my face as I opened the box and saw a gold cupcake hanging from a chain.

“Dominic,” I whispered. Smiling through the tears, I said, “Please put it on me.”

He turned me around and undid the chain to lay it over my collarbone where his hands brushed softly against my neck. I held my hair up and he latched the clasp before murmuring into my ear, “Cherry on top because your lips taste like them. And if you don’t let me taste them now, I’ll be pissy the whole rest of the day and not let you fiddle with this stupid wall.”

I jumped up and kissed him hard, squeezing him tight and breathing in the scent that now felt like home. He might have been my fake boyfriend but he was everything I’d ever wanted, what I never knew I needed.

When I pulled away, Paloma was in the doorway with puffy eyes that looked like she’d been crying. “Paloma, what’s wrong?”

“Just a bad review in an article about the name of my store. It doesn’t matter.” She waved it off now and her brows slammed down before she breathed out my name in concern. “Clara, do you have a death wish?”

“What?” I tilted my head confused.

She rushed in and rounded the counter to turn on my back kitchen fan before she closed the paint can and then turned a furious glare on me. “You have lupus. Do you understand? Painting with no ventilation is—”

“What?” Dominic’s question sliced through the air cutting off Paloma halfway into her rant.

I winced and Paloma’s mouth snapped shut. When I turned to look at Dominic, in his face, I saw a flurry of emotions. Disbelief, then anger, then sadness, then something that looked a lot like fear.

He said the question again, softer this time but no less lethal. “What did you just say, Paloma?”

She shook her head fast when she realized what she’d done. “Sorry but you need to wear a mask. Or hire someone! Breathing that paint is bad for anyone and lupus doesn’t have one-size-fits-all triggers.” She started to backtrack out of the bakery and hurried to say, “Talk to you later. Your bakery with the flowers and the sign looks beautiful. Love you, bye.”

Willing myself to start this conversation was like gearing up to face one of my bullies head on. Hiding my condition, which was probably what I should have admitted I was doing, was easier than sharing it, than recognizing it, than accepting it. I’d avoided the sign from my body when I hurt, I told myself I was fine over and over, and I talked myself into believing no one needed to know.

“So, it’s not a big deal but—”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” He bellowed. “Don’t start the conversation with bullshit, Clara Milton.”

“I’m not. This is something I’ve been dealing with and it’s not really something my boss needs to be burdened with.” I looked away, unable to meet his gaze with me obviously attempting to remind him of the barriers between us.

He wasn’t having any of it.

“Your boss?” he repeated in a whisper. Then he barked out a laugh before rubbing his jaw. “You sleep in my fucking bed. We live together. Call me just your boss again, cupcake, and I’ll bend you over this breakfast bar to remind you who I really am. Go ahead, see how it works out for you.”

I sighed and folded my hands together, trying not to get emotional. “Fine. I just didn’t think—”

“I don’t even want to know what you thought, Clara. You have a disease, one that’s hurting you every single day, and you didn’t tell me?” His tone was full of pain, not anger.

I met his gaze finally and saw how every muscle on him was coiled with some sort of grave emotion along with his anger. The room practically shook in fear of his wrath, and I felt his fury deep in my bones as I tried to diffuse the situation. “It’s really actually not that big of a deal. My doctor back home—”

“You’re painting without a mask—with that fucking cough—knowing you have lupus?” He seethed. His eyes grew wider as he glanced around. “Do you have any of your ventilation fans going ever?”

“Okay, Dominic, you need to calm down. Like I said, my doctors back home—”

“Back home?” he cut me off. “Does that mean you haven’t seen one here?”

“Well, okay.” I waved off that question. “We’ve been pretty busy.”

He paced up to me and snatched my hand into his. “We’re going to the doctor right now.”

“Erm, no thank you,” I replied and turned to go back to painting, then stomped my foot when he yanked me back around. “Are you kidding me right now?”

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

“We’re days away from Sugar and Spice opening and—”

“We could be minutes away from it, and I wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t give a flying fuck.”

“Okay, so you’re mad.” I tried a different angle. “But if we finish painting—”

“You’re not finishing shit today, Clara,” he corrected.

“Dominic, this means a lot … to all of us.”

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It means nothing to me without you healthy. We’ll hire someone.”

“I can’t hire someone! I don’t have the—” I wasn’t about to admit I was actually painting because I couldn’t afford painters at this point.

“Don’t have what?” he pointedly asked, enunciating each word, and his jaw ticked up and down as if he was egging me on to finish the sentence.

“Well, you know since you already so rudely dug into my finances that we all don’t have grotesque amounts of—”

“Didn’t I tell you once if you think you need something that you should own it and buy it under my damn tab?”

“Okay, but that was in the heat of a moment.” I blushed at remembering how he ate me out on his island countertop just a few nights ago.

“But I meant it for every moment.” He frowned at me like I should know better. “You’re done for the day, cupcake.”

“No. But I—”

“Actually, you’re done for the whole fucking week.” His voice ricocheted off the walls of the bakery, loud and powerful. “Until the opening. If you want to, you can stand in the lobby, but you’re going to rest and get that cough checked out.”

“It’s not even a real cough!” I tried to reason with him, but he was storming out of the lobby and dragging me with him, and I was actually really pretty tired, so I didn’t fight him too much.

When he got me into the SUV, he turned on me again, his eyes that piercing green, like he was going to search my soul for answers. “How long have you had this?”

“Dominic, it’s not really your concern, and I have it—”

“How long?” he asked, punching a fist into his thigh.

“I was diagnosed on the same day as the will hearing.”

He winced like I’d hit him with a ton of bricks. “And you didn’t tell me?” The lines on his face deepened as he frowned at me and pulled at the collar of his shirt before he unbuttoned the top of it. “I would have—”

“You would have what, Dominic? We hated each other then.”

“Still, I was hard on you and—”

“You’re hard on everyone because you know it produces the best results. A diamond without pressure is just a rock, and you made my damn bakery a diamond with me.”

He shook his head like he was tormented by something, and instead of him consoling me about having lupus, I grabbed his hand and pried open his fist. “What’s really wrong?”

Suddenly, that pain he hid so well was back in his eyes. “Nothing, Clara.”

“You’re a terrible liar, too, Dominic.” I patted his thigh. “Let’s talk over a cupcake when we get home.”

And maybe that night my disease was what we needed. It cracked his fortress enough for him to be vulnerable. First, he made me shower. When I said no, he pulled me in there with him and took it upon himself to wash every part of me. He tsked at some of the rashes he saw on my arms that had popped up today.

“They’re minor,” I told him, and he just shook his head as he toweled me off before he bundled me in a massive robe and told me I needed to see a doctor very soon. Then he carried me to his bed where he laid me out on top of him and started the story of him and Natya.

How he loved her. How he thought she was everything. How he believed they had it all, but then the story curdled into the lies she told, how he couldn’t be enough for her, how he tried to protect her from the fame she kept seeking, how she tried to yank him into it, and ultimately, how she lied about being pregnant to keep him around.

He’d failed her though, he told me. He hadn’t been able to save her from her own ego. And now he wasn’t even doing a good job of being a good fake boyfriend and saving me from working too hard with my disease.

I started to see how Dominic Hardy took every burden from everyone he cared about and made them his own. If he didn’t fix their problems, he felt unworthy.

He was a good man, a man I shouldn’t want but did.


The next morning, he said he’d send a driver to pick me up late in the afternoon but that I would only be able to walk around the resort, not work.

He told me to book a doctor’s appointment.

I ignored that but appreciated the extra time to get ready for work. Under the stress of the reopening, I could feel my body needing more time for everything. Even so, I took my meds and did my best to make it to work.

When I got there, Dominic was in my bakery, hands covered in pink and red and white. The ombré had been accented further, and the corner lines were immaculate. “What’s this?” I whispered.

He stood and hesitated. “We needed more pink and some red, right? Bold and beautiful like you.” He shrugged and then turned me toward the door. “It’s drying. No breathing the paint. Go console your friend and tell her to check the papers today about her store.”

I checked the headlines myself on the way and found most news articles raving positively about the sentiment behind Paloma’s name. When I showed her in her store, she started crying and I cried with her. “You realize he didn’t do this for me, right? He did it for you.”

I shook my head. “No way.”

“Yes way. You balance him and he loves it.”

I shook my head at her and at my heart that was galloping away with her words. “It doesn’t matter. Your store and you deserve this.”

Paloma nodded and looked around. “You know all the reds and greens he helped me pick out? He walked in here the other day and said they’d match your hair and eyes. That’s not coincidental, Clara. You’re on his mind all the time. He wants you for real.”

I told her there wasn’t any way he wanted that. I told myself the same thing all the way home because I felt myself starting to hope for it, to want it more than I had ever wanted a relationship before.

And wanting what I couldn’t have was dangerous.

That night, I asked him about Paloma, accusing him of stuffing the headlines for the good of her store because I couldn’t get it off my mind. “You did that for her. Why?”

He took off his eyeglasses, sitting at his desk and shrugged. “She’s your friend, right?”

“Of course.”

“It made her happy?”

“Of course.”

“And you too?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then why does it matter why I did it? Just be happy.” He went back to working, but I wasn’t done.

“Because you don’t do that.” I tried to reason with myself. This wasn’t the man I knew when I’d first met him. “You were ruthless when I met you. You made us all feel inadequate.”

“And now? Now, we’re ready for the world. And you’re all a part of my world, right?”

“So what? Now, Paloma’s close to you?”

“She sits by me every morning.” He replied matter-of-factly.

“You barely talk to her!”

“So?”

“Is this how you’ve been? Quietly fixing everybody’s problems behind closed doors and then acting like a freaking jerk to our faces? Is this the oldest sibling in you?”

“My siblings know I don’t do anything they don’t deserve.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You think your siblings deserve the world though!”

His smile sliced across his face like he was happy I was starting to finally understand him.

I truly think I was.


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