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Terms and Conditions: Chapter 20

IRIS

Heavy rain splatters against the deck, obscuring our view of the bush. Dark gray clouds block out any sunlight. My faith about going out on today’s safari dwindles with each drop of water splashing against the ground.

“Do you think they’ll still take us out today?” I ask, unable to stop the hope from seeping into my question.

A lightning bolt cuts through the clouds before a rumble of thunder shakes the glass.

He shakes his head. “We’re not going out in a storm like that, regardless of what they say.”

“But—”

“No.”

I huff. “It’s a summer shower. It’ll be gone before you know it.”

Lightning strikes again, filling the sky with a bright light. He shoots me a look that requires no translation.

“Fine. You’re right.” My bottom lip juts out as I pout.

“You’re giving up already? At least make me work for it.” His eyes rival the blinding light outside. The way he stares at me, with quiet challenge, has me wanting to push back.

“Part of me thinks you like picking fights with me because it’s the only way you know how to keep me around.”

A noise gets trapped in his throat. “Why would I want that?”

“Because I think you like talking to me.”

“Is anyone else aware of what a narcissist you are?”

“I’m surprised you noticed with how obsessed you are with yourself.”

He spoils me with a small smile that gives me the same rush of pride as climbing the tallest mountain. I grin back at him, and his eyes drop to my lips. The warmth in my chest reroutes itself toward a different area of my body.

“Admit it. You like hanging around me.”

Now you’re flirting with him?

His smile only expands. “I don’t exactly hate it.”

“Coming from you, that’s practically a declaration of love.”

He blinks, and I’m hit with the temptation to slap myself.

Ugh. Why did you phrase it like that?

Because you’re too busy flirting to use your common sense.

“Well, this is my sign to go jump in front of the nearest moving vehicle.” I turn away from the sliding door, desperate for some distance.

Run while you still can.

“What do you plan on doing today?” His question shocks me.

I stop and look over my shoulder. “Why are you asking?”

“I’m curious.”

“I doubt you’re interested in whatever I have planned.”

You don’t have a plan.

Then I better think of one quick because the last thing I need is to spend more time with Declan. I’m already weak when it comes to him.

“Try me.”

Fuck.

“I’ll probably watch TV all day until my brain melts.”

“Sounds absolutely riveting.”

The glass door shakes with another rumble of thunder. I take it as my hint to get out of here before Declan asks me any more questions.

“At least you can spend the day catching up on work. I’m sure it kills you to be away from your computer for more than twenty-four hours.” I send him one last smile over my shoulder before I exit the room.

The clapping of his leather shoes against the tile follows me all the way into the living room. I try to ignore him, but he makes it progressively difficult as he parks himself on the couch beside me, leaving only a cushion between us.

“What are you doing?” I frown.

“An experiment.”

“Pardon?” I choke the remote control.

“I want to see just how many hours it takes before your brain melts. Strictly for scientific purposes.”

Oh my God. Does he actually want to spend time with you outside of staged events and social media propaganda?

“You want to join me?”

“I have nothing better to do.”

That has to be the biggest backhanded compliment I’ve ever received, yet it makes me smile nonetheless. Declan has plenty of things to do. He could spend the day catching up on work that is piling up during our vacation, but he would rather watch TV with me.

A fluttering sensation in my stomach makes me antsy. I shouldn’t obsess over something as small as Declan sacrificing his work to spend time with me, but I do anyway. This is a man who will make business deals from his bed with a fever of a hundred and three. Him taking a day off to do nothing but watch TV is huge.

Don’t get used to it.

Easier said than done. Because if Declan keeps doing sweet things like this, I might start craving them. And that can only lead to one thing.

Disappointment.

I turn on the smart TV, sign into my streaming service account, and choose my comfort home renovation show, hoping it can ease the anxiety bubbling inside of me. I tuck my legs under me and get comfortable. It doesn’t take long for the weight pressing against my chest to lessen, and I’m grateful for it.

By the time the credits roll, I expect Declan to rise up and dismiss himself from the rest of my plans. He remains seated as the next episode starts automatically.

“You don’t have to stick around if you don’t want to,” I offer him an out.

He only replies by grabbing the remote from the coffee table and putting the volume louder.

Well, that answers everything.

He wants to spend time with you.

My skin tingles in response, and I can’t help hiding my smile with a throw pillow.


“Another one?” he grumbles before shoving a handful of popcorn into his mouth.

I swear Declan consumes more food than an entire football team. If it weren’t for the fact that I manage his schedule so he can make time for working out, I would be concerned about the way he eats his way through my entire stash of snacks in less than four hours.

I hit the mute button, silencing the TV. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“You’ve watched eight episodes in a row of them doing the same exact thing.”

“And I could watch another eight more without ever getting bored.” I steal back my bowl of popcorn from his lap. There’s something calming about watching my favorite home improvement couple renovate dilapidated homes. The episodes are short and predictable, which makes them an easy choice when I’m feeling out of sorts.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because I’m getting inspired.”

His brows pull together. “Don’t tell me you actually want to do this one day?”

“Of course I do. It looks like so much fun!” Well, at least most of it. I could do without the leaking roofs and sewer issues that seem to pop up out of nowhere.

“They found a family of mice in the last home.” The look of horror on his face makes me crack up.

“Nothing adopting a feral cat can’t fix.”

“I’m allergic to cats.” His nose wrinkles.

“Good thing you don’t have to worry about that then.”

“Why not?” His voice drops.

I laugh and return my attention back to the screen. “Because it’s going to be my house. If I want a pet cat, so be it.”

“Is my house not good enough for you?” His voice comes off flat, but his eyes are anything but.

Where did that question come from and why does his face look like I’m personally attacking him?

“Of course your house is good enough. For now, at least.”

“For now,” he repeats back with a dry voice.

“It’s not like we planned on me living there forever.”

“I know that.”

“You have a very nice house,” I backtrack.

“Not nice enough,” he mutters under his breath.

Is he actually offended by my comments? The idea alone makes my chest clench. Declan isn’t the kind to get offended by anything, but I suppose if I invested twenty million dollars into a home, I wouldn’t want to hear negative comments about it either.

I dance between being honest and polite. “It’s just that…it’s not my style.”

“And what exactly is your style then? A forest?”

My chest shakes as I release a loud laugh. “No.”

“Then what’s the issue?”

“Your place is empty, cold, and devoid of any kind of personality. It might be a house, but it’s the furthest thing from a home.”

He strokes his stubbled cheek. “That makes no sense.”

“Let me try to explain.”

“By all means, please do.”

I take a deep breath, considering how I can explain such a dark part of my life without diving too deep into my emotions. Declan only knows bits and pieces of my past. Revealing too much could open myself up to growing closer to him, and that’s the last thing either of us needs.

“My parents’ divorce wasn’t the most conventional.” I swallow the lump in my throat.

Declan doesn’t so much as breathe as I gather up the courage to continue.

“My father—if you can even call him that—was not a good guy. He was…mean.” That feels like the understatement of the century, but I can’t find it in me to say more than that.

Declan’s hands clench against his lap. “Was he mean to you?”

I sigh. “Yes. But not nearly as bad as he was to my mom.”

His upper lip curls with a look of disgust. “Don’t do that.”

My brows tug together. “Do what?”

“Downplay your experience because someone else had it harder than you.”

I’m touched by his comment. I spent my whole life telling myself how things could have been worse. I’ve seen the stats on domestic violence. The way the vicious cycle continues until someone gets severely hurt, or worse, dies. Dealing with my father’s anger and hateful words seemed like a small price to pay for the future I have now. For the one my mother has too.

Wetness pools at the bottom of my eyes, and I’m quick to blink it away.

Get a hold of yourself.

I muster up a deep breath and carry on, reminding myself of the whole point of this conversation. “Anyway…my mom and I moved out of my childhood house with two suitcases and a thick wad of cash she spent a whole year saving up. She tried her hardest to sell me on the idea of moving into a shoebox apartment with Nana. I spent a whole week crying, telling her I wanted to go home.”

“What happened next?” He seems genuinely interested in hearing more, so it fills me with enough courage to continue.

“She taught me how anyone can buy a house, but not everyone can buy a home. With a house, you can buy it, sell it, renovate it.” I point at the TV. “But a home is more abstract. It’s not a place, but a feeling I can’t describe, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.”

“A feeling,” he repeats back with a monotonous voice.

“You know, those pesky emotions you turned off ages ago?”

He frowns. “That sounds like the biggest bullshit I’ve ever heard.”

I laugh. “I knew you wouldn’t get it.” I have to give him credit for at least listening to my story.

“Only because you’re terrible at describing things.”

I grin. “Like I said, you’ll know it when you feel it.”

At least I would hope so. The idea of Declan never finding a place to call home saddens me more than anything about his past.

What are you going to do about it?

I have an idea, but its risks are nothing short of catastrophic. Still, I can’t find it in me to stop the excitement bubbling inside of me.

You could be the one to help him make his house a home.

Worst idea ever.


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