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Between Love and Loathing: Chapter 34

CLARA

Ruin was coming.

Life wasn’t this good. It couldn’t be.

And the reopening was that very day. We’d planned our schedule, laid out how we’d be there very early in the morning because guests would be arriving. I’d baked the night before, had extra staff to help me, and couldn’t help but be excited.

Dominic brushed a hand over my cheek outside of Sugar and Spice Bakery and murmured, “Own it, Clara. She’s a stunning representation of you, and it will be a hit.”

I nodded once and then again to try to reassure myself. When I squinted at my bakery through the glass, though, I saw a glint of something that wasn’t there the night before.

I rushed to swipe my fob and push open the door.

Inside, on every table and lining the walkway up to the register, were gold roses and gold petals. “What is this?” I whispered.

“A little extra.” He shrugged, his hands in his pockets. And I just spun around in silence until he said softly, “Do you like it?”

His question was hesitant, like suddenly he cared what someone else thought of his addition to the design. Gone was his confidence, and in its place was vulnerability I never expected from him. “If I said I didn’t?”

“I’d expect that. But it’d hurt about as badly as you calling my resort a sterile hospital.” He chuckled but his gaze didn’t meet my eyes.

“You’re not kidding, are you?” I squinted at him trying to figure it out.

“For some reason, I’m not. I care about your opinion much more than others.”

“Because it’s an honest one?”

“Because it’s yours,” he corrected.

I took a breath and glanced around again, trying not to give in to the tears that were forming in my eyes. “No one’s ever helped me accomplish exactly what I wanted in the way I never knew I needed. It’s beautiful, Dominic Hardy.”

He stared at me, didn’t take his eyes off me as he said, “Yeah, it really is.”

It felt like he was saying it to me, and my heart beat faster as my face heated because of it.

I shook my head at him and my perfect red curls that I’d spent extra time on today waved back and forth too. “You shouldn’t be here making me feel better about my bakery. You have a million things to do. Aren’t you nervous?”

“For what?” He smirked. “I’m the artist. I tell them what they want, right?” He kissed me then and when he pulled away, murmured, “Remember, own it. I’ll see you at nine, cupcake. Don’t be late.”

With that, he was gone. He backed away down the lobby, in that three-piece suit looking like perfection under the massive chandelier that now had hints of silver and gold in it. Every fiber of my being still felt him there with me, in the roses, in the paint, in the blown glass he’d hung, in everything. Dominic had helped me achieve my dream, and I think I loved him for it.

Loved him. Not liked. Loved.

I stared out at that lobby, trying to catch the sparkle of the chandelier even though the sun wasn’t in the sky yet. Dominic hadn’t changed much with the lobby because it was his statement to the guests. Clean, luxury, elegance. The new gold accents just enhanced the sparkle of the chandelier. It drew everyone’s attention, much like Dominic intended for it to.

I took a few deep breaths and got to work. When it was time for me to open the doors, I let the crowd outside in the lobby be an indicator that I’d be a success, and then I tried not to cry for the next nine hours of pure chaos.

People ordered everything on the menu and then moaned and whispered sweet nothings to my cupcakes the way I’d always dreamed they would. Declan waltzed in with Evie and their baby, and the tears flowed freely. She’d brought flowers to match the place and cried happy tears as she shooed away her husband so we could have a moment together.

We only had a minute in the back while staff took orders, but she hugged me tight and told me she was proud of me, that I’d bled color all through the resort just like it needed. Dominic’s resort had splashes of color everywhere now, it was true. Just enough that people understood the concept and completely embraced it.

He’d overworked himself—and all of us—to make perfection and I had to try not to cry thinking about it. “He did really great work.”

“Oh no. Don’t cry, or I’ll cry again,” Evie warned.

“I know.” I took a deep breath. “It’s been a lot, but it’s all been worth it.”

“You did it.”

I owned it. “Yeah, I really did.”

She squeezed me again and then whispered, “Now get through tonight and don’t either of you let each other go. Fake dating or not, he’s yours.”

She backed away before I could correct her, before I could ask how she knew. I’m guessing the Hardy family had figured it out, but I was too tired to inquire. The night had to be the beginning of the end for Dominic and me, and it seemed Evie and probably the rest of his family knew it.

When the last customer filed in and grabbed a coffee to go, I let out a sigh and pulled at the cupcake necklace Dominic had given me. Cleaning up with the staff didn’t take much time at all, and as I waved goodbye to them, I saw Valentino hurry over just as I was about to exit the resort.

“Clara.” He pulled me in for a hug. “I don’t have much time, but I wanted to see you and your bakery on the first day.” He stepped back and looked me up and down. “Gorgeous. Sugar and Spice Bakery was a hit, no?”

I smiled softly. “It seems that way.”

“You’ll come to my restaurant soon and have me cook for you then?”

“Oh.” I tilted my head, not sure what he was asking. “I’ll see if Dominic would like to come.”

Why I felt the need to invite him along was silly. Yet, my feelings for Valentino had never grown past simple admiration for his attributes as a chef.

“Yes. Or not.” He shrugged and winked at me. “You decide, huh? Also, I got you a little something to compliment that necklace.”

He held out a box that housed another necklace, this one longer and with one small diamond. It was nice but generic and also felt a bit slimy after he knew Dominic had bought me one.

“Thanks. But I can’t accept this.” I eyed the necklace cautiously. “It’s—”

“Oh, of course you can.” He pulled me in for another hug and told me he would see me at the beach tonight, leaving me there with another necklace, confused. When I turned to leave though, I saw Mrs. Johnson was standing in the lobby smiling at me with Mother and Anastasia alongside her.

Mrs. Johnson patted her gray hair as she stared past me before she walked up in low heel pumps to give me a hug. Then, she handed me an envelope. “Your mother and sister found out I was making a trip here to give you an update on Carl’s will. Of course, I said they could come to congratulate you on the bakery with me. You invited them to the reopening right?”

When I didn’t answer at first, she pulled away to search my eyes. Then, she whispered, “Oh, darling. No need to explain if you didn’t. Do me a favor and don’t open that envelope in front of them, okay?”

Maybe I’d been caught up in my bakery, maybe I’d been caught up in Dominic, maybe I’d been caught up in my fake life, but I’d stopped thinking about them.

Maybe.

Or I’d blocked them out, knowing now that my physical health relied heavily on my mental health.

“Anyway”—she patted my cheek as she stepped back to take in the bakery again—“you did it. Carl and I knew you could. Anastasia and Melinda, isn’t her bakery beautiful?”

“Sure.” They came forward and my mother’s eyes along with Anastasia’s were glued to the envelope as she asked, “Should we catch up at your house?”

“I have to get ready for the party tonight at the resort,” I said softly.

“Then, we should come to that right?” Her tone was expectant.

I should have said no but saying that to a mother felt wrong. “Sure. It’s here tonight. Your names will be on the list.”

A smile snaked across her face as dread snaked through my bones, fast and ready to prove that all my luck had run out. I felt it like a viper, slithering through me, ready to strike.


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