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“Look. I didn’t intend for this to happen, but it did. Can we talk about what happens next?”

She didn’t let go of his hand, but she didn’t exactly hold on to it, either.

“I don’t really know what you want me to say. I was happy going along the way we had been going.”

He nodded.

“So was I. I’m happy to keep going along the way we’ve been going, too.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“I think there’s a ‘but’ at the end of that sentence.”

He couldn’t help but laugh at the skeptical look on her face. She always read him so well. That was another reason he loved her.

“Fine, you’re right. I’m happy to keep going along the way we’ve been going, but I’m in love with you. I get if you’re not ready to say it back right now, but I can’t pretend that’s not how I feel.”

She let go of his hand. Fuck.

“Carlos.” She started with his name. That was never a good sign. “I like you so much, and we’ve had a great time together, but this isn’t what I want.” He tried to break in, but she stopped him. “That you say you love me . . . it changes things. It changes everything.”

Why was she acting like this? What was wrong with her?

“Why do you say that it changes everything? It doesn’t have to! And if it changes things, can’t it change them for the better?”

She shook her head.

“No. No, it can’t change things for the better. It never does. It’ll mean you’ll want more from me, things I’m not prepared to give you, and it’ll ruin everything good about what we had.” She put her coffee cup down. “Don’t you think this was just an endorphin high or something from last night? You can say yes. I won’t get mad. I’m pretty sure you’ll be relieved in a day or so that I didn’t take you seriously about this.”

He stood up. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“No, I won’t. I won’t be glad you didn’t take me seriously. This isn’t an endorphin high, and I don’t want to keep fucking doing what we had been doing. I’m in love with you, Nik! We have something special here, and I know you know it, too. In the short time you and I have known each other, we’ve been there for each other in all the ways that count. I’ve told you things about my life and my work and my family that I’ve never told anyone else.”

He looked at her, sitting at the end of his bed staring down into her coffee cup instead of looking at him. He was suddenly furious.

“Does that even matter to you? Or is it just that you’re good at asking questions, so you used me as journalism practice, to get me to spill all of my secrets? Did you think you’d won something when you got me to talk to you about my dad’s death? ‘Stupid Carlos, he doesn’t realize I don’t give a fuck about him. I’m just taking notes on what technique worked this time.’ Was that it?”

She stood up to face him. At least now she was looking at him.

“Or is it just that you get off on getting men to fall in love with you and then rejecting them? Five months for Fisher, what’s it been, six, seven weeks for me? Was I your new record? I bet you’re thrilled now. Are you going to go celebrate tonight? Another guy that the great Nik Paterson couldn’t care less about fell in love with her; where’s the confetti?”

“No, Carlos, what a shitty thing to say. You know that wasn’t it. You know I really do care about you.”

He turned his back on her and grabbed a shirt out of his dresser.

“That’s bullshit. I tell you I love you, and you tell me you care about me.”

He pulled the shirt on as he walked out of his bedroom. He grabbed his keys off of his coffee table.

“Are you seriously going to leave right now while we’re still in the middle of this?” she said from the hallway.

He didn’t look at her as he slid on the shoes next to his front door.

“We’re not in the middle of this anymore. We’re done with this. Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me? I can’t believe you met my family. I wish you hadn’t bothered to come to the hospital last night. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t have wasted my time. Fuck caring about me.”

He saw her flinch right before he slammed the door.

Chapter Nineteen

. . . . . . .

Nik stood in Carlos’s living room and stared at the front door. What the hell had just happened?

Her bag was on the floor by the couch. She dug through it for her phone.

Where are you guys? I think Carlos and I just broke up?

As she waited for Courtney or Dana to text back, she collected her stuff from throughout his house: her oversized Stanford hoodie that she’d left here a few weeks ago in his closet, her bobby pins on the nightstand, a travel-sized bottle of her conditioner in his shower. As she walked around and tossed her things in her bag, she got more and more angry. What the fuck was wrong with him, springing “I love you” on her like that and then getting mad at her for not falling all over herself being thrilled about it?

Trust her to get involved with the kind of guy who was so full of himself he imagined his love was God’s gift to any woman.

Oh shit. At the shop and I can’t leave. Come here? I have bourbon in the back.

Nik put her shoes on and grabbed her keys out of her bag.

Be there in 15 min.

She’d known from the beginning that he was arrogant and thought he knew everything, but she’d let herself ignore that because he was so much fun. She never should have dated him in the first place.

It took more like thirty minutes to get to Cupcake Park, given the vicissitudes of L.A. traffic and parking. Thirty minutes of listening to her most angry music on repeat and fantasizing about hitting cars with baseball bats. So when she walked up to the shop and was faced with a line out the door, she almost pushed herself through the crowd of chattering, happy people like a battering ram.

Luckily, she came to her senses before she ruined her friend’s business. She turned around and went through the alley and in the back door. She couldn’t help but think about when Carlos had rescued them when Courtney had her cupcake crisis . . . and about everything that happened later that night. Damn him.

She went through the kitchen and into the shop.

“Hey,” she said to Courtney, as she popped up behind her. Courtney jumped and spun around.

“Holy shit, you scared me to death. I was wondering if you were stuck in this line.”

Nik shook her head.

“I saw it and came through the back door. But this is amazing, look at all of the people here, and it’s only nine a.m.”

Courtney nodded and loaded half a dozen confetti cupcakes into a box.

“I know, it was like this yesterday, too. The L.A. Times did a piece on the shop this week, and someone on the Food Network came by this week and Instagrammed all the cupcakes she bought, so people are going wild.”

How had she missed all of this? She’d known everything that had happened with Courtney’s shop for the past year, and she’d missed an article in the Times?

“This is so awesome, Courtney!” she said, and hugged her friend. “You’re a hit!”

Courtney hugged her back, but quickly turned back to her cupcakes.

“It’s great for business. I just hope we don’t screw it up. I made triple the cupcakes this morning, with more flavors than we usually have most days because I thought it would be like this today and I wanted to make sure to capitalize on this. Keep your fingers crossed.”

Nik held up her crossed fingers as they walked into the back room.

“Dana texted that she’s on her way,” Courtney said. “Tell her to come through the back. I’m going to take some more cupcakes out front, and I’ll shoot back in here as soon as I can take a break, okay? Don’t say anything until I get here.”

Nik sat down on one of the chairs at Courtney’s worktable. She glared at the tray of spicy chocolate cupcakes and took a lime coconut off of the tray next to it.

Suddenly all of her anger left her, and she just felt sad. Another depressing end to a relationship. And this one felt worse than any ending had since Justin. She had really liked Carlos. Damn it.

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