Page 125 of We Were Once

Bigger than the universe. No one could touch us.

Except a father’s need to control his daughter.

There’s so much in the past to regret, but the biggest is telling her to never come back to me. I summoned it from the hell of my soul. That was the only way to convince her to move on . . . to leave me behind. She had to . . .

My dreams were destroyed, but hers didn’t have to be. She always had to leave. Or I would become the albatross around her neck slowly drowning her while I sat in handcuffs.

Not even three years later, I became a free man. I no longer carried hope like a penny in my pocket. Nah, there was no point.

Hope.

Salvation.

I held onto those for the longest time, knowing I couldn’t hold onto her.

Instead, I stood at a crossroad. Neither direction led me here nor prepared me for holding Chloe again. One night has me thinking the impossible. With so much baggage between us, is this something I want to pursue? Could we ever be something real again with everything we’ve been through? The fall has always been greater than the climb.

Is this an obsession, or an opportunity? I know what happened that last night, but I need her to know as well.

I scrub my hand over my face, too tired to think clearly. I loved Chloe and then lost everything. I’ve paid the price, but this penance came with sacrifice. I owe the devil. In a Newport jail cell, I traded one more taste of heaven for an eternity in hell. He came through, so what are my dues?

With her eyes closed, I kiss her cheek and then her temple. With her curled into me, I know it was worth it. All of it. How she changed me. How she made me live braver. She was worth it, even if this is it.

Stuck in my normal routine from the late-night shifts, it’s taken a while to get tired enough to sleep. I close my eyes before the sun starts to rise and drift into the memories we just made.

* * *

“Am I crazy?”

I’m startled awake to find Chloe wide-eyed and staring at me. Am I having a heart attack? Because it sure feels like I might.

“Holy fuck.” I paw at her to push her back, so I can see her more clearly. Sitting up like she is, I try to look around the room. “You scared the shit out of me, Chloe.”

“Sorry,” she says through light laughter.

When I realize we’re not being attacked, a yawn finally takes over as my heart slows down, and I rub my left eye, which is refusing to adjust to darkness. It finally opens, and I look behind me to check the time on the nightstand. 4:47. “What’s wrong?”

“Tell me every girl isn’t tripping over themselves to be with you.”

My eyeballs feel like they’re on fire, my brain struggling to wake up. I lie back down. “I’m not up for solving riddles at four in the morning. Do you mind filling me in on what we’re talking about?”

“You, Joshua. You and me. And this bed.” The words rush from her mouth as if they’ve been locked up all night and need to be freed. “I’ve never done this. I’ve never been with someone where it feels like my heart is going to beat out of my chest when I see you or shatter if I don’t.” She huffs, her hands dropping onto the pillow she dragged onto her lap. “I mean, what the hell? How can only you make me feel like this?”

My eyes have adjusted to the low light of the room, and with a grin, I run my hand over her shoulder, digging my fingers into the hair at the nape of her neck. “Well, I can’t tell you women don’t trip over themselves, your words, not mine, to be with me.” I shrug unapologetically and get promptly hit with a pillow.

Taking the pillow and capturing her, I maneuver her on top of me. “You’re not even kidding.” I double shrug because teasing her is just plain fun.

She adjusts to get comfy, straddling me with her hands on my chest. I rub the length of her arms, loving this view. She has a way of making me feel like I’m important, not just to her, but the world, making me excited to start a new day if I’m starting it with her.

“But if you’re asking me if this is different, if what we have, what we shared is special, the answer is yes. I never felt this with anyone else either.”

Her head tilts, and a soft aww is heard. Calm washes through her, and she slides down to my side again. I can’t see her face as she snuggles to my chest, but with her arm over me, she whispers, “Good. Now we’re even.”

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