Page 117 of We Were Once

Holding his water glass up to me, he says, “More water.” Not a question. A demand.

Years later, he’s still treating people like they’re beneath him. It’s no skin off my back. Doesn’t even ruffle a feather. The only thing that bothers me is that Chloe’s with him. Panic rises in her eyes and meets her tone. “You’re being rude to the chef.”

I’d like to reassure her, but that’s not my role to play. To him, I say, “I don’t have a problem getting anyone water, bussing tables, or cooking a meal to someone’s satisfaction. What I do have a problem with is disrespect.”

“Is there a problem?” Lola presses to my side, resting her hand on my shoulder as she looks back and forth between Trevor and me.

Trevor says, “Your cook seems to have an attitude problem. What happened to the customer is always right?”

Lola scans the table, and then says, “You’ll eat on the house, and we’ll get you more wine to go with your meal.”

When she turns to flag down Tyler, Chloe tosses her napkin on the plate and stands. “I don’t need more wine. I’m done here.”

Looking around as if he’s embarrassed, Trevor then leans forward. “Sit down, Chloe.”

The harsh words smack her in the face, and she jolts. She leans forward, her hand gripping her purse, and says, “Don’t you ever tell me what to do, and lose my number forever.”

Standing, he says, “Your dad said you’d be a handful.” The mention of her father has me bristling, and her stopping altogether, her head lowering. He continues, “Keep her happy, he said, but break her spirit. That was his advice to me.”

My hands fist at my sides, rage in her defense getting the best of me. The instinct to fight her battle rages inside me.

She takes an evident breath and then starts walking again. As if he hadn’t hurt her enough, with his arms wide like he’s a fucking catch, he adds, “You walk away, Chloe, and that’s it. This is your last chance.”

Her pace never falters. That’s my girl.

Trevor tosses the napkin on top of the steak, and then looks at me. “That steak sucked. You’re a lousy cook.”

My fist flies up, but then I manage to restrain myself as the coward ducks in fear. “For fuck’s sake. I’m a chef. Get it straight.”

Lola shoves me toward the entrance. “Go,” she says as if she had to tell me. “I’ll handle this mess.”

The door Chloe ran out of is still open, and I take off, weaving to reach her.

I’ll run this city if it means I get two more minutes with her again. Just outside, my eyes narrow on the brunette. “Chloe?” When I catch up, my heart is thudding—not from the short run to the corner, but from her and the close proximity.

If she only realized how I feel her in my bones, her words whispering I love you through my veins. How the memory of holding the world in my arms for such a short time has haunted me for so long. I flex my fingers, unable to control the need to grab onto her like a lifeline once again.

“What is it, Joshua?” I expected to see tears from Trevor’s spiteful words, but that’s not what I get. Her arms being crossed over her chest make me want to untangle them and hold her hands. Sorrow shifts through her eyes and it pains me to witness.

I’ve been lying to myself. And I can’t continue to live in this deception.

“We were real.” Running my hand through my hair, I pace with anxiety coursing through me. I’m never going to be able to express what she meant, what she still means to me, so I continue confessing my darkest secret, “And I can’t stop thinking about you. I never could.”

“No.” She steps away. “You can’t say that!” Shaking her head, she continues to back away from me. “Not now. Not ever.” When I move closer, unable to stop myself any longer, her eyes turn glassy, and she pleads, “Why are you doing this to me?”

I hate the tremble to her voice that jumps from her throat to mine. “Because I should have told years ago. I should have checked in on you. I should have—”

“You have a girlfriend,” she yells, her temper flaring as she points at the restaurant. “Who probably eats grilled cheeses with you and never gains an ounce. So why are you out here telling me you can’t stop thinking about me when you’re not available?”

I stop and look back at the restaurant like that might give me a clue about what she’s referring to. It doesn’t. I’m still confused. “What are you talking about?”

“Her!” She stabs her finger in the air while tears wobble on the edge of her lower lids. “Lola’s in there hanging all over you—”

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