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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 33


My little fighter had been battling a silent war the whole time I’d known her without ever giving me a heads-up.

She was strong. So strong that I was sure she’d be able to move a mountain if I goaded her into it. And it was brilliantly beautiful to see even if it was infuriating.

She’d kept the biggest secret of all so that I wouldn’t treat her differently not knowing that I treated her differently already.

Didn’t she get that? She was living in my house. I literally was eating sweets to try to curb my addiction to her and her treats.

Me: Did you know Clara has lupus?

Declan: Evie may have mentioned it once or twice.

Me: I’m going to fucking kill you.

Izzy: Cade said if you need help with that, he knows a guy.

Me: That’s not even funny, Izzy.

Declan: Well, it kinda is. It’s also funny that you didn’t know your own girlfriend had lupus.

Dex: That’s because, like I said, pretty sure it’s his fake girlfriend.

Dimitri: If she’s fake, I think they’ve made it pretty believable thus far.

Izzy: I read enough magazines and hacked enough data to know it’s fake, you guys. Dom’s just trying to be the big brother.

Delilah: Except he’s screwing it all up.

Me: So, you were all talking about this shit before I texted?

Izzy: Of course. Half of us are home with kids and bored.

Dex: I’m just trying to make sure my casino deal doesn’t get fucked in the next couple weeks. So keep it together.

Me: You’re all assholes, you know that?

Delilah: In our defense, you lied first.

Declan: Not that it was even a good lie.

Declan: Let us know if Clara needs us to come to town to get her away from you. Pretty sure you’ve probably stressed her out enough.

Dex: If she fake dumps you, can I fake date her next?

Me: You think that’s funny? What if I said I was going to date Keelani?

Dex: Why would I care? I told you at the club, I’m into someone else.

Me: Good. Because that casino company wants singers in some of their casinos. She’d be a great fit.

Dex: You better fucking not, Dom.

I knew my brother wasn’t going to fix his own love life, so I’d have to do it myself soon enough. Keelani and he were meant to be.

We all knew it.

Plus, his ass was goading me so I was going to push back.

Now we all were angry. This was why no one started the day off talking to their five younger siblings. I just knew they were setting the stage for a shit day after that. Case in point: when I got to the lobby of my resort, a large shipment was being hauled in.

“We didn’t order this,” I told the delivery man who frowned down at his tablet.

“It is addressed to Sugar and Spice Bakery.” He squinted and then shrugged. “A Clara Milton.”

I knew damn well who it was addressed to. “No one but me is authorized to have deliveries here.” I cracked my neck before I continued, trying to dissipate the anger flowing through me as I stared at the bubbled wrapped figure behind him. “That will have to be returned.”

“Fuck me,” the guy grumbled as he clicked his tablet off and turned to his friend. “We need a signature for this, or can we just leave it?”

Just what type of delivery service had Clara even hired? “You can’t just leave crap on my property.”

“The address says here, man. We got other shipments. This one is already a pain in my ass.”

I’m sure it was. I knew that Clara had ordered more colorful blown-glass figures to be placed throughout the bakery, but this was too much.

Of course she was hustling down the walkway on her way back from visiting with Paloma right then to sign and then actually hug the delivery drivers.

“Why the hell are you hugging them?” I grumbled.

“Because it was probably hard to carry and not break.” She glanced over at them, and they nodded with large smiles on their faces.

“Get the fuck out of here,” I told both of them.

“Oh, wait.” She waved her hands wildly. “Can you please help us hang them? We need them up today.”

And that’s how the rest of my day got taken up by her bakery. Hanging blown glass from the corners of her painted wall under floral arrangements that cost me half a million dollars.

The only saving grace to my being there was every time she tried to stand up and lift something or start to work, I pointed at her. “Get up and I’m breaking your blown glass. Sit your ass there and rest.”

Of course she didn’t see that as helping. She fought me about it the whole time, going on and on about how I was too overprotective for no reason.

She knew the goddamn reason.

Now that I knew her diagnosis, her smaller symptoms were more noticeable. She took time getting up and down every day, she moved consciously after cooking a while to stretch her joints. And she avoided certain foods. Granted, she didn’t have a doctor and had stressed herself out for months working tirelessly on this bakery, but I couldn’t fault her for that.

I was more than attuned to her late nights to the fridge now, and every time I followed her out there, she sighed and told me to go back to bed. Finally, yesterday she admitted that sometimes pain was worse at night so she got up to get water or move around to keep her mind off it.

I’d also caught her trying to cover up a rash on her face the other morning with concealer and had to snatch the makeup from her hands. She’d looked tired, broken, frustrated, and vulnerable as she curled in on herself, bowing her head to try to hide the redness of her cheeks. I lifted her chin and tsked before telling her to wait. I’d bought specific creams now and she didn’t fight me much when I rubbed them over her butterfly rash.

If she wouldn’t take care of herself, I would. I’d scheduled her acupuncture and massaged her back before bed. Then I fucked her slow or fast dependent on how she wanted it.

Most nights, we wanted it fast and hard, like we were trying to get as much of each other as we could.

Then I held her close. Every single night.

I shouldn’t have. No sleeping together had been my rule and the original plan. Also, no kissing women and staying the night had been my rule too.

Yet, there were no rules with Clara. She wasn’t really my fake girlfriend anymore. She was just mine.

Most people knew that. I’d made it quite clear by being in her bakery every day but that day specifically, Valentino seemed to want to test the waters. He stopped by to “lend a hand” and flirt with her. He complimented her necklace, how the bakery looked, gave updates on assistance emails with Rita, like the guy was actually helping her. He was a damn chef on the top floor of this resort, not her personal helper.

And yet even with my frustration throughout the day, as the work day came to an end, she turned to me with a tired smile on her face. “Let’s go home.”

She said it like that place was ours. I was pissed that I loved hearing the words that way, that I loved seeing her smile, that I loved how she threaded her fingers through mine in the car and whispered, “Thank you for believing me when I told you I had lupus. Thank you for still being the you who’s a complete jerk about your resort but also being the you who cares.”

How could I tell her I wasn’t me anymore? That we weren’t us? We were something more.

I worried about her day in and day out, wanted to spend every second with her. Hell, I researched lupus more than I’d researched angles of a new project that I needed to start working on. And through all that, she still managed to push the limits of my temper and keep me on my toes most days.

We’d finally settled in my study, where we spent most evenings, when I grabbed my phone to take a call. “Clara!” I bellowed loudly and threw my phone down instead of answering. “What in the hell is that?”

“We’ve been in here for like twenty minutes, Dominic. You’re just noticing?” She actually sat there with a pout on her face like she had a right to be irritated.

“Did you rearrange my books?” I shot up from my chair and threw down my eyeglasses before pacing over to the wall-to-wall shelves. I’d had classics printed in black leather binding, their white pages facing out to match the room, literally spent hundreds of thousands to make it all work together and the middle row was a fucking rainbow of colors.

“No. You said I could make myself at home, and I was at a garage sale the other day and this woman was selling a whole collection of romance novels. They’re all color coordinated, and I thought it was literally perfect for making me feel at home here.”

“You knew damn well it would make me furious. Where are my books that belong there?”

“The books you don’t read?” She curled her lip.

“You have no idea if I read them or not.”

“Name one on that shelf.”

“Clara, I swear to God—”

“Fine.” She cut me off and stomped one red-colored sock. The fact she even wore bright red on her feet around the house almost had me smiling. Fuck, I was getting soft. “I’ll put them all back up on your stupid shelf,” she pouted. “Just know though that all the ones I have up there now, I’ve read more than once. They’re amazing, and they deserve a spot.”

Such passion about a book or two for the content rather than the aesthetic. “What’s the book you’re reading now about?”

I held out a hand, but she stepped back fast and held it to her chest. “None of your business.”

“You’re blushing, cupcake.”

“I am not.” She spun and went to sit back on the couch. “Go back to your work.”

Instead, I walked over, tipped her book up so I could read the title and then started typing it into my phone.

“Wh-what are you doing?” she stuttered out.

“Downloading the book to my Kindle.”

“What for?!” She jumped up and tried to snatch it away, but I held it out of reach.

“I want you looking at me like that soon. Means I’ve got to read what’s in that book.”

She groaned and plopped down onto the couch. “Whatever, Dominic. It will be good research for whoever you decide to bother with your time after the reopening.”

“Is that so?” I chuckled to avoid thinking seriously about her leaving. Didn’t she understand she’d changed everything in my life? That I wouldn’t be able to go back to what I was before her? She’d waltzed in quietly, hoping not to be a disruption, but she’d been a beautiful tornado of change.

She was with me most of the day, challenging me, questioning me, conversing with me in a way I never knew I wanted. When life was comfortable, pushing into the unknown was difficult, especially when the unknown had hurt before. I hadn’t wanted a relationship before her, would have sworn my life was fine without it. Now, my heart beat much too fast thinking of her leaving.

“Remember, Clara. I don’t date,” I said it to remind myself too.

She sighed. “Right. Me neither. No dating and no marriage. That’s why these books are nice. I get to have the romance for a bit.”

“I …” I snapped my mouth shut. For some reason, her not wanting to date me didn’t sit well with me. I waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t. “You’re reading romance?” Didn’t I romance her enough?

“Yes.” She shrugged. “Anyway, they also can teach you a thing or two about how to satisfy your partner for once.”

Teach me? My head snapped up from my desk, and I caught her smirking. “Hm, very funny. If you need a reminder of how I satisfy the fuck out of you, keep it up.”

“You’re a very accommodating fake boyfriend.” She laughed, trying to keep the conversation light but her bringing up the fake part of it was a sour reminder for me.

“With the Pacific reopening, we’ll be dealing with a lot of publicity.”

She stared at me. “Safe to assume Natya will be there?”

“Along with my family, potentially yours if you invite them, and most noteworthy reporters.”

“If you’re concerned I won’t be ready—”

“I’m not…” How did I say I didn’t want her to be ready? That I didn’t even fucking want to go? That was the point of our whole charade but it didn’t feel like the point at all anymore. “You don’t have to deal with this publicity if you don’t want to.”

“Why would I not want to?” She frowned at me. “I’m upholding my end of the bargain, Dominic. It won’t be that hard. I’ll open the bakery, get ready, and be on your arm. No problem.”

I took my eyeglasses off and rubbed at my face. “Right. No fucking problem,” I grumbled. I should have pushed her more to see everything that could go wrong but I was focused on something else. “Why don’t you want to be married? And why don’t you really date anyone, Clara?”

“Probably the same reason you don’t.”

“Natya broke my trust. You know that. Did someone break yours?”

She chuckled but the sound was sad. “Maybe my family did. I never really tried hard to date because my mother wanted it so badly for me that I think I avoided it. Why would I want to fall in love the way she did just so that someone can ruin my heart the way hers was?”

“Fair.” I hummed. It made sense. Still, I said, “What if they won’t ruin your heart though?”

“Would you take a chance on someone else after Natya? She hurt you, right? So, tell me. Is it worth it?”

Yes. In my heart, looking at her, the answer was a loud, resounding yes. And that scared me. “No. Natya ruined me.”

“And the idea of ruin has ruined me too.”


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