Page 136 of We Were Once

“Believe me now. Please believe me.” I go to her, pulling her into my arms.

“You promised to marry me.”

That same promise has plagued me over the years, never thinking I’d have a chance to right that wrong. “I’d marry you right now because nothing that has happened could change how I feel about you—not words or actions. There’s nothing we can’t overcome if we just listen to each other.”

There’s no struggle, though her body is stiff. “I chose you,” she says against my chest. “I lost everything because I chose you.”

“You only lost the things that didn’t matter, the things that came with a price too high to pay. You lost someone who only used you for gain and his own ego.”

“I lost you because you told me to go.”

There are no words left for me to say. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

We’ve stood in the rain long enough, so we move under the awning, not giving a fuck if it offends anyone in this building that we’re hashing out a past and future at the doorstep. I can’t walk away from Chloe until I know we’re together or over for good. God, I hope it’s the former.

Our ravaged hearts beat in sync as she clings to the man she claims to hate. “We’re not over,” I whisper. “If I’ve learned anything, we never will be.” Her chin settles against me when she looks up. Keeping my voice low, I take her hand, holding it to the wreck inside my chest. “You only lost me temporarily. I was there, but you were always with me. Always in here.”

The fight has left her muscles, and when I kiss her fingers, she lets me hold them to my lips. I memorize the softness and the way they gracefully wrap around my hand, remembering our conversation from earlier.

She takes a breath as if surrendering to something unconscionable, and her voice is steady when she asks, “Why did you sign those papers?” These are not the conditions I wanted to tell her, but it’s the only opportunity I’ll get.

“It wasn’t a confession. I signed a contract with your dad.”

When she starts to pull away, I hold her there, refusing to release her hand from mine until she hears my side. “Are you kidding me?”

I hate that she thinks I would betray her, but in light of the years of examination, that’s exactly what I did. I’m guilty as charged. But wasn’t the punishment enough? Do I have to live with this pain forever? I say, “He changed the contract. He had me sign one document, and then he changed the other pages.”

That stills her, curiosity dragging her gaze back to me. Her stance softens. “What did you think you signed?”

Fuck. I swipe my hand over my hair, pushing the water away. “It sounds bad, but I can explain.”

“Just tell me,” she says, her patience hanging by a thread.

“My mom would keep her diner, and I would be allowed to live my life—”

“And the conditions?”

“I’d live this life without you.” Although it felt right at the time, the words have turned bitter over the years along with the logic that made me agree. No matter how I twist and turn it, I signed her away. I knew it then and I feel the pain of it now more than I ever did in the time we were apart.

She turns away from me. Her shoulders shake, her heart aching so much that I can hear the pain she’s trying so hard to hide. But she never takes her hand from mine. I need to get it out, to confess all my sins and make her my judge and jury. “The other option was being arrested . . .”

Disbelief has her returning to me, fisting my shirt, and pleading, “You were arrested.”

“Being arrested and fighting for my freedom. Please understand I couldn’t do that to my mom. She’d lose the diner. She’d lose her home. She would sell everything to fight for me, and I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t put her in that position because she’d do it. I know she would.”

“You signed so she wouldn’t have to help you?”

“I signed because I was losing you either way. So I signed to get you to move on without me, and I signed to help my mom.”

Our hands come apart, and she suddenly moves away from me. “You signed to save everyone but yourself. You think it was virtuous, but all I know is that you signed us away in the process?”

“I’m sorry. I thought it was best.”

“For whom? Not you and not me.” More tears fall, but this time, she wipes them away. “Joshua, I understand what you’re saying about your mom. My mom would do anything for me, but you could have told me. I could have done something. I could have helped you, fought for you more somehow. I could have waited for you . . . I would have. I would have waited a lifetime to be with you again. But you signed us away before you gave me the chance. Now you stand before me wanting the same opportunity you couldn’t even give me.”

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