Page 115 of We Were Once

It makes me realize I was never standing on solid ground when I was holding her accountable. I can twist the truth in my head, but Chloe is a blaring reminder of what I did. Even if she never remembered how the night actually went, I was the one responsible for driving her car. I accepted my role in this catastrophe the day I signed those papers, but it’s funny how sometimes it’s easy to forget.

Am I ready to forgive her for listening to me? For doing what I told her to do—don’t come back?

If she knew that I did everything for her, would she forgive me? Does my sacrifice even matter now?

Nah. She’s doing what she always wanted. Her dreams have come true, but in a weird twist of fate, so have mine. I just wish I could stop thinking of how she felt in my arms—comfort of a long-forgotten home, a good memory that makes you smile, love that never left a heart you thought was vacant. A rush of reminders told me I should have been holding her all along.

Saving her from falling had her gripping my arms that were tight around her waist. She didn’t fight against me to leave. She leaned into the embrace, taking advantage of the moment like I did, her sweet scent taunting me to kiss her.

One more time.

One last time.

Until I can get my head straight, I don’t return the late-night texts from others, and I leave the calls unanswered when they ring. I know it’s the right thing to do, but my ego still has me playing into Todd’s hand. “It’s not for lack of options.” I’m hoping it will get him off my back.

“The answer is no then. You are not getting laid.”

Well, that didn’t work. “How about less talking and more cooking?”

His laughter has me turning back to see what’s so funny. “You used to say that back at the diner.” He’s bent over, arranging the Hasselback potatoes with meticulous attention to detail before sending two plates my way to finish. “A lot has happened since then. I think we’ve aged two decades in the past six years.”

I still dream about the mundane things—walking around campus, mowing the lawn, hanging out at the lake. “It was another life.”

“Have you thought about going back for a visit?”

“I go back.”

“You go straight to your mom’s place or the diner.” As if he can read my mind, he says, “I’m talking about spending time there, drinking beer with Bryant, or maybe go visit the property?”

We’re obviously spending too much time together for him to read my inner thoughts so clearly. But the lake never felt right after I got out of jail. Standing on the shore, all I saw was the way the moon danced across the droplets clinging to Chloe’s skin. I felt the heat of her body against mine and missed kissing her in the moonlight. Being free, young, and careless.

I saw the whole world in her eyes and the same reflected back to me. I remember how my heart beat so fast around her that I thought I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t matter. Only she did.

“Josh, plate the mushrooms.”

Looking up, I realize my mind went for a drive down memory lane and shift into overdrive. Admiring the delectable masterpiece and hoping to get focused, I step back, crossing my arms, and examine the dishes properly. “Now that is a thing of beauty.”

Todd calls out, “Order twenty-four is out the door.”

When Tyler pushes into the kitchen with the same fish dish, I ask, “What?”

“He said it’s too salty, and he’d like the New York strip instead. Cooked well done.”

My eyes bulge. “Well done? Not in my fucking kitchen.”

Stepping back like he’s afraid to be attacked, he delivers the final blow. “Lola had me ring it in already.”

Lola knows how to work around my bad mood. Sometimes, she ignores it altogether, making me more dissatisfied with the arrangement of her not knowing who I am behind this restaurant as time goes on. “Did she taste it?”

“She did,” he replies, nervously.

“And?”

“She said it was perfect, but the customer’s always right.”

“Bullshit.” I stand in my own pomposity for a good few seconds. “Fuck it. This is not the battle I want to fight. Make the steak,” I call out. Seeing Tyler loitering is pissing me off. “Stop hanging around my kitchen.”

He grabs the plates and hurries back out. With my mood overpowering the good smells of the food cooking, everyone is smart enough to leave me alone. Except Todd. “Let me ask you something, Josh. What battle are you wanting to fight? Because it’s clear you’re looking for one if you don’t already have one in mind?”

My team of cooks, dishwashers, and chefs are one in a million. They don’t deserve for me to go Gordan Ramsey on them. I knock the chip off my shoulder and hope confessing gets this burning irritation off my chest. “I saw Chloe.”

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