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Love Redesigned: Chapter 21

Julian

Since I officially opened the Lopez Luxury office, I have always been the first person in and the last person out. Tonight’s monthly board meeting for the Dwelling app took longer than usual, thanks to the latest bug discovered after Rafa’s late-night tinkering.

By the time I shut down my computer and exit my office, my energy is sapped, and my stomach is protesting every few minutes for something better than coffee and a protein bar.

I’m surprised by the sound of off-key singing and country music streaming through the hallway. After spending the past few days avoiding Dahlia, it feels counterintuitive to seek her out now, so I don’t bother checking in on her.

My escape route is blocked by a man standing behind the glass front door, holding a takeout bag from Holy Smokes BBQ.

My mouth waters as I unlock the deadbolt and open the door. “Yes?”

“I have a delivery for Dahlia Muñoz.” The delivery man holds out the bag for me.

“Follow the music and terrible singing to the source.”

The man’s phone chimes. “Shit. I wouldn’t ask this normally, but do you mind taking it to her? My next delivery is ready to be picked up, and the guy has been a real pill.” He doesn’t bother waiting for a reply as he places the bag on the sidewalk and takes off, running toward his parked moped.

“No problem,” I grumble to myself as I lean down and pick it up off the ground.

Annoyance bites at my heels as I head toward the office Sam set Dahlia up in. It’s on the opposite side of the building, far from my office and the conference rooms I frequently visit every day.

My loud knock goes unanswered, which only fuels my irritation as I turn the knob and open the door.

Dahlia jumps in place. “God. You scared me!” She reaches for her phone and hits pause.

I completely forget my reason for visiting her as I enter the office, which has been transformed in the short time she has been here. The chrome desk that originally took up half the space has been replaced by a reclaimed wood table covered with wallpaper samples, flooring chips, and ten different doorknobs.

Dahlia covered the plain gray carpet with an accent rug, added floor lamps to replace the bright overhead fluorescents, and installed a large bookshelf to organize the baskets full of supplies. She removed the previous paintings to make space for her design mood boards.

I head toward the six-foot pinboards covering the wall opposite the window. Fabric clippings, raw material samples, paint chip options, furniture printouts, and hand-sketched drawings are pinned to the surface, giving me a sneak peek into Dahlia’s mind.

I knew she had an eye for modern rustic design—that much became obvious during my hours of researching her career—but seeing her in action takes my breath away.

I clear my tight throat. “Settling in okay?”

“Sam said I could do what I wanted with the room.” A hint of defensiveness bleeds into her voice.

“I see that.”

She peeks up at me through her dark lashes. “Do you hate it?”

“I don’t think hate is the right word.” I wince at how the sentence sounds.

Do you ever get anything right?

Reality is, I like her style more than I care to admit. Something about it is warm. Welcoming.

Homey.

“Perfect. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll be taking that…” Dahlia swipes the bag of takeout from my hand.

She searches for the best place to eat before deciding to sit crisscross on the rug and use a cardboard box for a table.

“Thanks for grabbing it for me. I must have missed the guy’s call.” She pops open the first takeout container. The aroma of freshly baked cornbread and pulled pork fills the room, drawing another disturbing grumble from my stomach.

Her gaze snaps toward the source of the noise. “Did you have dinner?”

“Not yet.” I take a step toward the door.

She reaches inside the paper bag for another Styrofoam box and places it beside the first.

I pull out my phone to place an order at Holy Smokes, only to find out the restaurant closed fifteen minutes ago. “Damn.”

“What?” She pops off the top of the barbecue sauce and drizzles some over the pulled pork.

Saliva fills my mouth at an embarrassing rate.

“Do you have a key to lock up?”

“No.”

Great. “Did you expect to leave the front door open?”

She shrugs. “I thought I could sneak out of a window or something.”

I tip my head toward her purple cast. “My liability insurance company is going to go bankrupt because of you.”

Her soft laugh floods me with warmth. “Sam left me his key, so you’re safe. For now.”

First thing tomorrow, I plan on having a chat with Sam about office keys and temporary guests.

“Fine. Be sure to lock up.”

“Got it.” She offers me a half-assed salute before popping open the box containing a whopping amount of brisket, mac and cheese, corn, and some coleslaw.

My stomach growls loud enough to have her looking up.

Her gaze flickers from her food to my stomach. “Do you want to stay and have some?”

I blink twice. “What?”

“I ordered way too much anyway.”

“You’re offering me food?”

“No need to make it a big deal and treat it like the Last Supper or anything. You’re obviously hungry, and I’d hate for good food to go to waste.” She holds out a plastic set of utensils and the container filled with brisket—my personal favorite.

“I’m surprised you’re willing to share.”

“You’re the one who always had a problem with sharing. Plus, it’s the least I can do after you drove me to the hospital and everything the other week.”

I take off my suit jacket and throw it on the table before sitting on the floor opposite to her. “You’re right.” I stab into her pile of pulled pork and grab a forkful.

“Hey!” She smacks my fork away with her own.

“I thought you didn’t have a problem with sharing,” I tease before taking a bite. The burst of flavor nearly makes my eyes roll.

“You like it?”

“I didn’t realize how hungry I was.” I don’t speak again until half the brisket is gone.

“Do you usually work this late?” She swallows a forkful of mac and cheese.

“Yup.” I dig into the street corn since Dahlia would cut my hand off with a plastic knife before letting me have some of her mac and cheese.

“Why?”

“Not like I have much else to do.”

She looks at me with a strange expression. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you could enjoy life a little?”

“I do.”

“Really? Because you’re kind of a workaholic.”

I frown. “So what?”

“It’s not a bad thing, per se.” She looks up at the ceiling.

“You sure make it sound like one.”

“It’s sad to think you made all this money at such a young age to make life easier, yet all you do is work anyway.”

“I like my job.”

“But do you love it?” She stays quiet as she takes a few more bites of her food.

Not anymore.

As if she can read my mind, she makes a confirmatory noise.

“What?” I ask.

“You don’t seem happy.”

Her acknowledgment shocks me.

She shakes her head. “I thought you were here living your best billionaire life, but honestly, everything about it is kind of pathetic.”

“Gee. Thanks.” I steal a scoopful of her mac and cheese in retribution, earning a little hiss from Dahlia.

She pulls the container farther out of my reach. “I’m not trying to be rude.”

“Yet it seems to be your default setting around me.”

My comment earns me a scowl.

“Your life is…” Her voice drifts off.

“What? Sad? Pathetic? Miserable? Take your pick.”

“Not what I expected,” she whispers.

My throat tightens. “What did you expect?”

“For you to be happy at least.”

“Were you happy before you came here?” My tone comes off more accusatory than neutral.

Her shoulders stiffen. “For a time, yeah.”

My napkin crumples in my tight fist.

Her brows furrow. “Julian…”

I rise in a rush and toss my crushed napkin and fork in the trash.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“My house.”

She doesn’t need to stand to make me feel small as she asks, “Do you notice how you never call it your home?”

Fuck. Leave it to Dahlia to call me out on such a thing.

Truth is, I don’t have a home, and I have no one to blame but myself. I spend way too much time living in my head, fearing I’ll never be good enough without ever trying to prove to someone that I can be.


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