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The Love Fixers - bonus story



“So does this mean I’m the harbinger of doom?” my best friend Lainey asks, playing with the label on her beer bottle. “I move in with you and—poof!—you move out?”


It’s around about four-thirty p.m. on a Sunday, and we’re sitting with a couple of drinks on the couch in Dick Ricci’s living room. My living room, I guess, or it has been ever since I showed up in July with no clue about the dozens of ways in which my life was  about change.


Now, it’s late October, the air is crisp, and I’m about to move out of the place that’s been my home—but only because I’m moving in next door with my boyfriend.


Lainey clicks her bottle of Buchanan Brewery beer to mine, and I get a flash of deja-vu from this summer, when we were drinking mid-day beers in our old apartment in Brooklyn. Then, I’d just lost the job I’d had for seven years. It had felt like my whole life was falling apart, crumbling around me like a dry cookie.


No one likes a dry cookie.


But now it feels like my life is exactly what I always secretly wanted it to be—interesting, fun, exhausting…


Okay, obviously no one wants to be exhausted, but running a bakery is the good kind of exhausting. By the end of each day, I feel a swell of satisfaction, because I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, what I’m meant to do—and it makes other people happy. Win-win.


“Maybe that’s not such a bad thing,” I say, nudging Lainey’s shoulder. “In both cases, me moving was a good thing.”


She nods, sucking on her bottom lip, then says something that makes me groan: “I’m pulling out the Tarot.”


She still hasn’t taken any classes on how to read Tarot cards, but that hasn’t prevented her from having plenty of opinions about her results. Last week, she pulled the Empress card for Nicole, which inflated my sister’s already large ego. For two days, Nicole insisted everyone call her Empress Nicole, although the only people who actually followed through were me—because she just gave me the gift of a freaking lifetime, and I’m in a mood to humor her—and her husband Damien, although I suspect he did it for different, sexual reasons that I’d rather not think about too hard.


“No,” I decide. “I’m not doing it, but let’s pull a card for you.”


“You’re not going to do it?” Lainey asks, looking both crestfallen and impressed. I’ve only recently gotten better at saying no.


“Nah,” I say. “But I really do want to pull one for you. We can ask how your next case for the Love Fixers will go.”


While my dream is finally anchored to real, honest-to-God storefront, Lainey’s working on making a go of hers. Although she’s helping Mrs. Rosings parttime, she’s also launching a business with Nicole. The Love Fixers, services for people who’ve had their hearts broken.


When Lainey first suggested the idea to me, I worried about her fixating on other people’s failed relationships rather than working through her issues about Todd, but she’s assured me it’s helpful rather than hurtful. She says helping Mrs. Rosings has been therapeutic too, probably because my former boss is determined to split up her son and her future daughter-in-law and is doing everything in her power to plan a nightmare wedding for them.


There’s a knock on the front door, and I get up to unlock it. Declan’s at the door, already grinning at me as it swings the rest of the way open. It’s a bit chilly today, and he’s wearing a red, long-sleeve thermal shirt that grips his arms like a hug.


When his eyes meet mine, my heart goes gooey in my chest, like the inside of one of my Bronuts.


Yes, my Bronuts.


Nicole bought my bakery for me, and one of her conditions was that I couldn’t rename my signature creation. I’ve only been open for a week, but I’ll be damned if they’re not the most popular thing on the menu. A tourist talked them up in an online video that went viral, and now half the people who show up at the door are there for the Bronuts.


They’re all pretty annoying about it, to be honest, but you can’t argue with success, and I’d probably give my first-born child if she asked nicely.


Thankfully, she never asks for anything nicely, so we’ll never have to find out.


“You can’t take her yet,” Lainey insists, picking her phone up off the coffee table and waving at him. “She’s not moving until tomorrow. It’s on the schedule and everything.”


“Can I just borrow her?” he asks with a grin. “We agreed on shared custody.”


“Don’t forget Nicole wanted in on that,” I say as I lift up and give him a quick kiss. “I feel like a child of divorce.”


Nicole and Damien have halfway moved back to their house in Asheville, but they spend plenty of time going in and out, both from this cabin and the bakery. Thank God, because life’s always more interesting when they’re around, and I’ve decided I like to keep things interesting.


“No one can ever forget Nicole,” Declan tells me. “It’s impossible. I’ve tried from time to time.”


“Where’s Rosie?” Lainey asks from the couch.


He shrugs as he steps inside, and I close the door behind him, marveling that he’s so unconcerned about her whereabouts. For the first month Rosie lived here, he used to keep tabs on her constantly, but he’s gradually settled into the knowledge that no one’s looking for him or his siblings—that they’re safe here. It probably doesn’t hurt that Rosie is working at my bakery and living with him, so he knows where she is the majority of the time.


I still haven’t met their brother Seamus, but he says he’s coming for Christmas, so that’ll be a whole thing.


I rise to my feet to kiss Declan thoroughly, and he lifts me and swings me around in a circle, making me laugh. He captures my laugh in a kiss, and the glow of happiness inside of me burns brighter.


“Oh, lord, here they go again,” Lainey says, shaking her head, but she’s grinning. She may have decided that love is a pox on the face of humanity, but she’s still happy for us. Better, she likes Declan, which I can’t say has been true of some of my exes. I certainly didn’t like her ex-fiancé, Todd, who was much too uptight and well-mannered for her.


“I can’t leave until Lainey pulls a Tarot card,” I tell Declan.


“We’re doing this again?” he asks, because he has not been spared from Lainey’s experimentation.


“She’s doing it,” I insist. “It’s going to be about her next Love Fixers job.”


Her first job was to scrub a woman’s social media account of any sign of her ex, something Nicole helped her do, since they’d been invited to poke around in her private life—and being nosy is Nicole’s kryptonite. Lainey has also been hired to pose as a woman’s fake girlfriend to make her former fiancée jealous, to transport a box of belongings to an ex, and she recently started offering to deliver people’s exes “fuck you” cookies from the bakery.


It seems like a waste of good baked goods to me, since I wouldn’t eat a cookie sent by someone hates me, but they’re surprisingly strong sellers.


“Okay, let me go get them,” Lainey says and heads up to her room, bringing her mostly-empty beer with her.


Declan pulls me closer, his lips a whisper away from mine. I take a second to appreciate him, the bulk of his powerful body, the slight curl of his messy black hair, his short beard framing those perfect lips I love to kiss. It’s still hard to believe he’s mine, really mine. “Alone at last.”


“Don’t. I smell like Bronuts,” I say with a groan. “I desperately need to take a shower.”


His lip ticks up and he gives his head a small shake. “Bronuts and rosemary. I like it.” Then he smooths a hand down my hair. “We can take a shower later. There’s something I need to show you.”


“Where are we going?” I ask against his lips. If it’s wrong that I’m hoping this something he wants to show me involves his dick, then I don’t want to be right.


“It would ruin the surprise if I just told you,” he says, leaning in and kissing beneath my ear.


“Oh, come on,” Lainey says as she starts coming down the stairs. We’re still close to the door, easily within view. “How am I supposed to keep thinking romance is bullshit when you walk around with gooey heart eyes and keep kissing each other? Honestly, it’s enough to make a woman question her deeply held conviction that love is bullshit.”


I lift on my toes to give Declan another quick kiss, then turn to more fully face my friend. He puts an arm around my waist.


“Maybe it’s purposeful,” I tell her as she continues making her way down the stairs. We’ve had them sturdied up, and Dick didn’t fall down these steps accidentally, but it still makes my heart flutter every time I watch someone coming up or down them. It’s one of the reasons that Declan and I decided to live in his house rather than this one—that, and the fact that his place is much better maintained and the view from the deck is better.


Still, people I love live here, and he’s already started working on projects to make this house better and more structurally sound, with Damien as his second-in-command.


When Lainey gets to the bottom of the steps, I experience a second of pure relief before she reaches the couch with the cards.


“Do you want me to hold them so you can pick?” I ask as she settles into its comfort.


She shrugs, obviously not setting much stock on this when it’s her own future on the line. “Sure.”


So she shuffles them, then I step away from the cocoon of Declan’s arms to approach the couch and grab them for her so she can make her selection.


She plucks a card out, then makes a face before turning it over on the palette-wood coffee table.


“The seven of swords,” she says. “That was weird. I felt a static shock when I turned it over.” She lifts her eyebrows. “Huh. It’s supposed to stand for stealing or maybe lying.”


“So maybe let Nicole deal with the next case that comes in?” I joke.


“What if she’s the source of the lying and stealing?” Lainey says, but not without fondness. She and Nicole have become close, but maybe that’s just what happens after you save someone from an armed assailant with a signed baseball bat you stole from your ex-fiancé.


“Then you have nothing to worry about,” I tell her. “She’s on our side.”


She nods, but there’s a thoughtful look on her face as she plays with the card. “This one feels significant. I’m gonna check the business email after you go.”


Then she makes a dismissive gesture, grinning at us. “Away with you, lovebirds. I’d like to steep in my misery and listen to empowering music.”


“There are Bronuts in the kitchen,” I tell her.


“There are always Bronuts in the kitchen. I might actually get sick of them someday.”


I lean down and hug her, because I can tell she needs one, even though she’s about ten times tougher than most people give her credit for. Maybe twenty. Then I follow Declan out of the front of the cabin.


“I’m driving,” he says, snagging my hand.


“I’d hope so, since I still have no idea where we’re going.”


“There are two stops,” he warns me.


I turn to look at him as we pass Dick’s driveaway and approach his. “And do I have to wear a blindfold?”


His mouth hitches up at the corners into a smile that lights me up inside. “That sounds fun, but not right now.”


We get into the car, and he settles his hand on my thigh as he starts driving. It doesn’t take me long to figure out we’re headed to Asheville—or for us to get caught in traffic.


“Where are we going in Asheville?” I ask, raising my eyebrows.


“I see having private investigators in the family has rubbed off on you,” he says with a grin.


“Maybe,” I hedge, not displeased. Being compared to Nicole feels like a compliment, or at least it does about fifty percent of the time.


Declan tries to make small talk to distract me, and it mostly works. He tells me about a woman who wanted to hire him to put in a rock garden even though he’s specifically a plant guy, and I tell him about the elderly couple who came in and ordered two dozen Bronuts because they wanted to embarrass their grandkids.


Then my phone buzzes with a text from Lainey: This shit just got interesting. I got an email from a prospective client who, get this, says her ex stole her heirloom heart necklace. Her grandmother’s necklace! What a tool. I’m gonna make this right for her.


Shaking my head, I write back, Do not commit theft.


Then, I send a follow up: If you commit theft, do it with Nicole’s help.


I’m telling Declan about her note as he slows the car and pulls into the parking lot of a building. “We’re here,” he confirms.


It takes me a beat to realize where “here” is, because of how much the place’s appearance has changed.


It’s the spa where we planted those burning bushes a couple of months back, but the leaves are the deep scarlet he promised me they’d become, and a gasp of pure wonder escapes me.


“They’re beautiful,” I say, my mouth dropping open.


“Come on,” he says, getting out of the car and circling around to open my door. I let him. Even though I’m a person who knows how to operate doors, it’s nice that he enjoys doing little things for me. It feels like all the nurturing I’ve poured into the world has finally come back to me tenfold—I have a sister who insists on doing things for me, even when I’d rather she didn’t, and a man who takes care of me because it brings him joy to make me happy.

We walk over to the bushes, hand in hand. I half expect the owner to pop out and ask us if we want manicures, but no one comes, and I notice a little ‘Closed’ sign flipped over in the window.


We come to a pause a few feet from the entrance, my gaze still caught on the flame-like leaves of those bushes. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful before—such a bright, bure scarlet in every single tiny leaf. But then again, this whole season is stupidly gorgeous here, with a sea of trees with leaves that have started shifting color, like a Crayola box spilled on them. I haven’t gotten tired of it, especially when Declan brings us to one of his favorite spots—the way he sees nature has made me see it differently too. It’s helped me appreciate the beautify of growing things.


I’d like to think I’ve helped him gain a better appreciation for all the possible applications for sugar.


“When we put these bushes in, I told you they reminded me of you,” he says, glancing down at me, his eyes so pretty with their long lashes.


“I remember.” I squeeze his hand. “It feels like more of a compliment now.”


“You’re full of fire, just like these bushes, but you don’t let everyone see it. I like being one of the lucky ones. You’re so beautiful, Claire.”


I smile at him, shaking my head slightly. “You’re more of a poet than you give yourself credit for.”


“Only for you.” He turns me so I’m facing him, putting his hands around my waist. “You know, I talked to your dad the other day…”


“That’s not unusual,” I say, feeling a gush of fondness. He’s made a real effort to get to know my father. After my dad came for a visit last month, he’s taken to sending him photos of different plants he’s growing, photos from his hikes, and even little videos of Rocket doing zoomies like a puppy. My dad loves the attention, of course.


"I thought maybe we could spend Thanksgiving with him, if you'd be okay with that. I don't like the thought of you two being apart, and we can go see Seamus while we're there. I really want you to meet him."

My heart swells, because it's so thoughtful, so him. And also because I know what a big deal it is for him to leave the cabin, his safe place. He's doing it for me, same as he's done so many other things for me.


“I'm going to ask your father for his blessing, Claire,” he continues, his touch making it to my bottom lip, which he traces. “And I want to do it in person. You’ve made me happier than I have any right to be, and God knows that I don’t deserve you, or this, but you’ve made me bold enough to want to take it anyway. I don’t want to spend another day of my life without you, and when I’m old and grey, I want your face to be the last thing I see on this earth.”


He's said that last part before, and it put tears in my eyes then. It does again now. “Declan,” I see feeling my heart swelling so big it’s like my chest is going to burst. “ Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”


"That I'm going to ask you to marry me someday soon? Yes. You’re it for me. You’re everything.”


For a second, I’m too flabbergasted to speak.

“Oh my God, I love you.” I squeal and wrap both of my arms around his neck, and then I kiss him so hard my lips hurt, feeling every bit of my happiness, from my head down to my toes.


“I love you too, which is why I agreed to bring you to a surprise dinner at Nicole and Damien's house. Surprise." 


“Seriously?” I ask, my eyes wide. “Is that where Rosie is too? No wonder you acted so casual about her whereabouts.”

He grins at me. “You know I know how to keep a secret.”


Damn right, he does. Nicole does too.


“But it’s harder keeping them from you,” he continues.


“Yeah, sure.” Then a gasp escapes me. “What about Lainey? I don’t want her to be stuck home alone if we’re all together having fun."

He squeezes me. “Nicole was going to go pick her up. I texted her in the car to let her know we were on our way.”

I shake my head slightly, amused and touched and so damn in love. “I just hope she can find someone like you. I don’t want to be the only one who’s deliriously happy. It seems unfair.”


He runs a hand down my hair, then kisses me again. “I’m sure we can find her another criminal on the run.”


I nudge his arm, grinning. “You know that’s not what I meant.”


“You think Nicole will rest before she finds someone for everyone we know?” he asks, lifting his eyebrows.


He has a point.


“Neither will I,” I warn. “I’m going to help her find someone wonderful.”


“And Damien and I will intimidate him into behaving.”


“Sounds like we have a perfect group effort in the making,” I say, getting on my toes and kissing him again. And again. In the background, I can see the burning bush, lifting those vibrant leaves up to the sky, and I can feel that warm, shivery pulse inside of me again, as if I’ve become a fire inside.


Nicole would definitely laugh at me if I ever said so, but love really the best healing magic in the universe. And I’m going to make sure Lainey finds herself some.


In the meantime, I’m going to soak up this minute and celebrate the life I’ve made for myself, as rich and decadent as a fresh Bronut.

Pre-order Lainey's story The Love Bandits now! 

Available from July 15-17




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Available on July 18th via Amazon and KU

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