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Terms and Conditions: Chapter 30

IRIS

The morning after the gala, I wake up in a designer gown, smudged makeup, and a serious case of how did I get here syndrome. I wiggle my sore feet, noting a few blisters that weren’t there yesterday.

I sigh as I grab my phone from my nightstand. “Shit!”

I nearly fall out of bed when I see the time. Curses fly out of my mouth at the unread text message Declan sent hours ago. I unlock my phone with a shaky finger, only to release a breath of relief at the text.

Declan: No work today.

No work today?! I read his message twice to make sure my brain isn’t acting up again and rearranging all the letters.

I clutch my phone to my chest and do a little twirl. The idea of having a Saturday all to myself makes me want to break out into a whole song and dance like a Dreamland princess. I swear I could touch the stars with how high I feel right now.

While I shower, I comb through the memories of last night. Leo and his toast. Declan and I dancing until midnight. Him carrying me around like a sack of potatoes because my feet hurt.

The last one makes me smile to myself like a complete loon.

Oh, Iris. What have you gotten yourself into?

I try to come up with answers as I make my way downstairs for breakfast, yet I can’t seem to find one. I’m not sure what is going on. The marriage I signed up for is nothing compared to the reality. Declan wasn’t supposed to be nice. He sure as hell wasn’t supposed to do all these different things that stir up a longing in my chest I’ve never felt before. Even during my most serious relationship, I didn’t feel anything close to the giddiness that overtakes me when Declan does something completely out of character.

I try to block out the thoughts by blasting music through my earbuds. It seems to work temporarily, and I dance my way into the kitchen while singing along at the top of my lungs.

What I find has me halting my steps. One of my earbuds pops out, the blaring music barely audible over the sound of Declan chopping vegetables.

Excitement is fast replaced by skittishness as Declan glances up at me with eyes full of heat. What did I do to earn that kind of look?

“You’re here,” I reply after what feels like a whole minute of us staring at each other.

“I am.” He turns back to the cutting board and resumes chopping vegetables.

“You’re taking the day off too?”

Chop. Chop. Chop. “Not exactly.”

“Oh.” A heavy sigh escapes me.

“I planned a fake date for us.”

I blink. “I’m sorry. Did you just say you planned a fake date?”

His lips twitch. “I did.”

“Wow. That’s…unexpected.”

“We need to be out the door in the next hour.”

I cock my air gun and pretend to take aim. “Who’s the target?”

His lips press together. “I’ll tell you after.”

“Why not before?”

“I want you to act natural.”

All right… “And you telling me who we’re trying to impress could compromise that?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. They must be pretty important if they inspired you to plan something.”

His hand grasping the knife tightens. “I’m capable of planning a date.”

“Sure, you’re capable, but that doesn’t mean you actually want to.”

“Who says I don’t?” His question is far too loaded for me to handle without coffee.

So, instead of pushing Declan for more info, I help him with breakfast. With the way he keeps touching me while moving around the kitchen, one would think we live in an apartment the size of a shoebox instead of a mansion. I try to ignore the way a thousand sparks shoot off my skin whenever his body brushes against mine. Every time I sharply inhale, his lips seem to curve at the edges. I swear he does it all on purpose.

I can barely concentrate on cooking, which results in a half-burnt omelet. Sure, it might not look like the most appetizing meal, but it should get the job done. Calories are calories, am I right?

“Do you mind?” I snap when his chest brushes against my back.

“Your technique could use some work.” He assesses my breakfast with a scowl.

“Fine, Mr. Food Network. Why don’t you show me how it’s done?”

“Did it hurt to swallow your pride?”

“Ehh. I’ve swallowed worse.”

His nostrils flare.

Iris: 1. Declan: 0.

I smile as I take a step backward and hold out the spatula, expecting him to take it. The breath is knocked out of my lungs as he crowds me against the stove, clutching onto my hand holding the spatula.

“I prefer a more hands-on learning approach.” His hips press against my ass.

“Says the same man who used to tell me to figure it out or find a new job whenever I needed help.”

He replies by nipping at the skin of my neck.

My next sentence comes out ragged. “What are you doing?”

“Helping my wife.”

My throat bobs. “You’re growing a bit too comfortable with that nickname for my liking.”

“I use it to remind you of your place.”

“And what’s that?”

“Mine.”

My cheeks burn, along with the area below my waist. He ignores my sudden shyness as he pours the mixture with his free hand, trapping me in place between both of his arms.

“Your first mistake was pouring too much in the pan at once.” His hot breath hits my neck, eliciting goosebumps across my body.

The eggs sizzle, matching the way my insides feel as his chest brushes against my back. I never thought cooking could be considered an erotic experience—at least not until Declan. The man makes cooking eggs seem like a kind of foreplay.

I swallow past the lump in my throat. “What’s next?”

He carries my hand gripping onto the spatula toward the hot stove. “You let the eggs cook.”

It’s a simple task, yet he holds my hand hostage as we gently push the eggs over and over until the top surface of the eggs has thickened. Each minute feels like an eternity with the way he holds onto me. He seems to be drawn toward the curve of my neck, and he kisses me twice before dictating the next set of directions.

“Now you fill one side with your toppings.”

“Not both?”

His deep chuckle rattles my bones. “Greedy as always.”

“More like famished.”

“That makes two of us,” he replies huskily as he presses his hips into my ass.

That’s definitely not a phone in his pocket this time. I can tell that much.

“I think we’re talking about two different hungers here.” Somehow the words make it past my tight throat.

His thick length presses against the seam of my ass, telling me exactly how he feels about cooking. He pulls away all too quickly, taking his warmth with him as he adds some space between us. I don’t understand his reaction.

Why do you care? It would only complicate things even more.

I care more than I would ever admit.

Because you want him too.

It is a tough fact to admit. I do want him. I want him really freaking badly, yet I don’t know how to go about pursuing something like that. And more specifically, I’m not sure exactly what it is that I want to pursue. Casual sex seems almost as complicated as proposing that we try something more. Either option would blow our whole plan to hell, and I’m not sure I want to do that either. My options seem as hopeless as my ability to hold off on our attraction.

If Declan is aware of my inner panic, he doesn’t reveal it.

“Be ready in thirty,” Declan gives me one last look before he grabs my shitty first attempt at an omelet and walks out of the kitchen.

I grip the counter and take a few deep breaths.

How the hell are you going to survive a fake date today when you feel like this?


Declan grabs a pair of keys hanging on the wall.

“You’re driving?”

He spins the keys on his index finger. “I gave Harrison the day off.”

“I’m not sure what we did to deserve this kind of treatment but I’m here for it.”

Declan doesn’t comment as he walks up to a shiny vintage convertible that looks like something out of a spy movie.

My mouth drops open. “This is our ride?”

“Yup. Get in before we’re late.”

I’m stupefied as he circles around the hood and opens the passenger door for me.

“Wow. This is so cool!” I walk over to my side and drop into the seat, completely speechless as I trace the leather. Declan shuts my door before walking back around to the driver’s side. He puts the keys in the ignition, and the engine revs to life as he puts it in first gear.

I sigh. “The things I would do to get a chance to drive this car.”

He laughs. It’s rough, deep, and steals all my capacity to breathe. “You can get me to do many things, but driving this car isn’t one of them.”

“Let me guess. It’s a man’s car.” I roll my eyes.

His previous smile is wiped clean off his face. “More like a woman’s. My mother’s to be specific.”

I feel like someone stuck me in the chest with a knife and twisted it. “Your mother’s?”

His Adam’s apple throbs. “I thought I’d take it out since I haven’t run it in a month.”

He takes it out every month? My chest aches for the man who keeps the memory of his mother alive through her car. I can tell Declan cares based on how much the car is taken care of, from the polished leather interior to the perfectly waxed exterior.

I can’t think of anything to say, my tongue thick with emotion. The image Declan portrays to everyone is nothing compared to the one he hides from the world. While he isn’t anything close to perfect by any stretch of the word, he is still human. He hurts just like the rest of us.

We take off down the driveway before he stops to open the gate. He rambles, and I smile because I have never seen him stumble on his words.

“She probably loved this car more than she loved my father—which if you knew them before she got sick—was a lot. Not sure what she saw in him, but I suppose he was different with all of us before she died.”

I don’t miss the way he talks about his parents before she got sick. As if her illness changed the dynamics of everyone’s lives, including Seth’s. My lips turn down, and I hate myself for the ounce of sympathy that bubbles to the surface of my heart for the man who is as vile and ruthless as they come. Somehow love seems to humanize the worst souls.

“Will you tell me more about her?” It’s a loaded question. One that I’m not sure is fair to ask in the first place, but I can’t help myself. I want to know more about the man who takes his mother’s car out once a month as if she might return at any minute and ask for it back. I want to know about it all.

He sighs, and I just know deep down in my heart that he is about to turn me down. For some reason I can’t bear the thought, so I do something stupid. Something so incredibly stupid I’m sure I will regret it tomorrow. But I’m too enraptured by his story to care about what might happen.

“What if we make a deal?”

The corners of his lips lift. “I’m open to negotiations.”

“What’s something you want?” I drop the bomb back on his lap. I’ll let him be the one to decide what he wants most and then see if I’m up for the challenge.

“I want an equal exchange…” He pauses, and my breath stalls in my chest.

Another kiss? A real date? A blow job? The options are endless really. A warmth travels from my head to my toes at the thought of what he might choose.

“What do you have in mind?”

“I’ll tell you about my mother if you tell me about your learning differences.”

If my life had a soundtrack, this is the moment the DJ scratches the record, making me feel like a total dud. The air escapes my lungs like a deflated balloon. What the hell kind of deal is that? And more specifically, how the hell did he find out?

I cross my arms and throw up a barrier. “Who told you?”

“No one.”

“Bullshit. Was it Cal?” I’m about to tell Declan to pull over and let me take over, solely so I could go find Cal and rip him a new asshole.

He shakes his head. “I found out on my own.”

How?”

“I knew the signs.”

A bitter laugh escapes me. “You expect me to believe that? Exactly how gullible do you think I am?”

His face softens. “My mom was the same way.”

“Your mom? The same one who was a history major?”

He clutches onto the steering with white-knuckled fists. “Just because she struggled with reading doesn’t mean she hated it.”

I feel like a dick for assuming otherwise. To be fair, I’m struggling to keep up with all this information. There is no way I can process Declan knowing about my dyslexia and his mother struggling with the same disorder all in one conversation.

“I should have known you would figure it out.”

“There was no reason for you to hide it in the first place.”

I clench my fists against my lap. “You don’t get to judge my choices.”

“I only want to understand them.” The softness of his voice tears me up inside.

I stay silent.

Please.”

I release a shaky breath. Declan doesn’t say please ever, so it makes me weak enough to open up about my past.

I stare out the window. “I spent my whole life feeling different than everyone else. First, it started with teasing and being made fun of. Little things like teachers calling me lazy or classmates gossiping about how I was stupid. I was held back a year, which led to more embarrassment because all my friends moved on to the next grade without me. Eventually kids got bolder. Their words became harsher and their actions meaner. It didn’t take long for someone like me to start believing those words, especially when your own father called you a disappointing idiot every day.” My voice cracks.

Declan reaches out and forces my fist open so he can lock our fingers together.

“It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. With my parents’ divorce and all the stress with that, I stopped caring about class despite my mom trying her hardest to get me into tutoring. Nothing was working, and I think she was losing hope too. My shame and anxiety kept growing until I would cry every day before school. I shut down with everyone, so my mom took a chance and found me a therapist so I could open up to someone about what was happening.”

His hand gives me a reassuring squeeze.

“With my therapist’s help, I started building myself back up and found projects I was good at that had nothing to do with school. That’s where my plant obsession started. Turns out I had a calling for bringing my mom’s dead plants back to life.”

“I thought therapy was supposed to fix our problems, not create more of them.”

The tension in my chest eases as I laugh. “It helped. One plant turned into two, and eventually I started building a whole collection. My therapist called it a coping strategy.”

“I suppose it can be considered a better solution than drugs.”

Our eyes connect, his filled with a lightness I wish would remain for long spans of time. “Once I got the emotional stuff down, I was much more open to tutoring. It took a while, but I finally started succeeding in school.”

“And then what?”

“And then I graduated high school with a lot of help. I wasn’t ready to commit to a university yet after all the difficulties I went through in school, so that’s how I ended up at the temp agency you partnered with.”

“And then you drew the short stick and had to come work for me.”

My nose scrunches. “You went through assistants like one would go through underwear.”

“It’s not my fault they didn’t meet my expectations.”

I shake my head. “Whenever you fired someone, the remainder of us were forced to drop our names into a hat. I was lucky up until that point, but then—”

“You were chosen,” he finishes for me.

I nod. “I showed up to your office on Monday knowing I wouldn’t make it to the end of the week. But then…”

“What?” His eyes darken.

“I could just tell in your eyes that you expected me to fail.”

“And?”

“I spent my whole life having people look at me that way. Something snapped in me when you told me to not bother unpacking my stuff since I would be gone by the end of the week. It lit a fire under my ass. I was ready to do whatever it took to prove to myself once and for all that I could achieve anything I wanted, starting with my job.”

“Weren’t you afraid?”

“Of course I was. Your reputation was as terrible as your track record with assistants, but I knew nothing you could have said to me would have topped any of the shit I grew up hearing as a little kid.”

The steering wheel creaks under the pressure of his palms. “If I had known sooner, I would have held back on some of the things I told you—”

My laugh cuts him off. “Please. We both know you would have fired me if you realized my struggles.”

His jaw tightens. “That’s not true.”

“Why not?”

“Because if my mom were alive, she would have been ashamed of me for doing something like that.”

My chest feels as if he cut it open with his words alone. “Is that why you kept me all this time? Despite the errors and typos and slower turnaround times?” My voice sounds so small and unsure—a perfect match to how I feel with Declan stirring up all these emotions.

He draws a slow breath. “I kept you because you’re fantastic at your job. You always rose to whatever challenge I threw your way, whether it was a part of your job description or not. There wasn’t a single time I felt like your differences got in the way. If anything, I think it made you ten times better at your job because you thought differently than me. Just look at the Yakura deal. He would have never accepted the proposal without your additions to my model.”

A swell of emotion lodges itself in my throat. “Oh.”

“I might be cold, rude, and distant, but I’m not blind. My whole job is about evaluating assets and it turns out that you’re my biggest one.”

I never thought someone talking finance to me would be so heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

He gives my hand another squeeze as if to remind me of our connection. “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to keep you by my side.”

“You don’t need to try too hard. I am your wife after all.”

“Even if you weren’t, I won’t give you up.” The little smile on his face does something crazy to my heart rate.

I never thought someone like him could be capable of such sweet words. “Who knew you were such a nice guy underneath your grumpy exterior?”

“Don’t go telling anyone else or they’ll be disappointed to find out it’s only for you.”

Looks like the reporter was right. Declan does have a soft spot for me after all.

“Why?”

Forelsket1.” His raspy whisper makes me feel like he shares a secret I can’t decode.

“Spell it for me.” I pull out my phone.

He shakes his head as if it can erase the tiny smile on his face. “Some words aren’t meant to be translated.”

“That’s such a lie! All your words have translations.”

“Correction. Some words aren’t meant to be translated by you.”

I cross my arms. “Where did you learn all these words anyway? There’s no way you know all these languages.”

He turns his head back toward the road. “It was a game my mom and I played together when I was a little kid.”

My throat gets scratchy at the thought. “How?”

“I was always bad at expressing my feelings, way before my mom ever got sick.”

“You? No. I refuse to believe that,” I say with absolute seriousness.

His glare makes me laugh.

“She taught me how some people need a hundred words to express a single thought, while some people only need one word to share a hundred thoughts.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

His eyes become distant. “It became our secret code. If I was feeling a certain way, she would ask me for my word.”

My bottom lip quivers. “What made you start using them again?”

He turns and looks at me. “Not what but who. We both struggle with words in our own ways. Me with expressing them, and you with reading them.” His explanation makes each word he shares feel even more meaningful.

The burning sensation in my chest intensifies, betraying just how much my heart wants to throw caution to the wind. It scares me more than I care to admit, so I stick to a safer question. “What made you choose non-translatable ones?”

“They started out in English but eventually once my brothers started picking up on it and started copying me, I switched gears. There was no way they could say kyoikumama, let alone spell it.”

“Always against sharing, ever since a young kid, huh?”

“You’re an only child. You can’t even begin to understand what it is like to grow up with siblings always stealing your stuff and copying you.”

“I wish! That seems a whole lot better than spending your entire life alone.”

“The silence must have been nice.”

I laugh. “It got old fast. If everything goes my way, I plan on having enough kids to fill a whole house so they never have to grow up feeling the way I did.”

He shoves the gear stick a bit harder than necessary. “Kids?”

“A whole minivan if I’m lucky.”

“I didn’t know you wanted a big family.” A vein in his neck throbs.

“You never asked, and I didn’t think it mattered.”

“Why not?”

“Because we only agreed to one child.”

“What if that weren’t the case?”

I feel shocked by his question. “What exactly are you suggesting?”

He pauses, clearly thinking of a response before shaking his head. “Nothing.”

Nothing? I want answers, but my fear of his response stops me from asking any questions. And with the way he shuts down, I know that I’m not going to get them today anyway.

Maybe it’s for the best.

1Noun, Norwegian: That overwhelming gut-rush euphoria exclusive to the beginnings of falling in love.


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