Page 23 of We Were Once

“You can fall apart. I’ll pick up the pieces.” I’m held protectively, his arms wrapped around my middle like a belt. His words have me resting my head against him.

“My dad and I have similar dreams for me. It’s just the path where we disagree.”

“What does he want for you?”

“For me to follow in his footsteps. He’s a well-known neurosurgeon.”

“What do you want?”

The words strike in the chest, my heart clenching. I turn in his arms, wrapping mine around him. I whisper, “What I really want . . . I want to work in an ER.”

Large hands rub my back, and then he leans back just enough to see my eyes. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It is to him.”

“It’s sounds amazing to me.”

We might not have a long history, but I mentally note the time and date, and the way he holds me as if it’s been years and not days. I’ll remember this moment forever.

After a week of kissing, it’s been nice to slow down, the pace more my usual speed. I rock back, noticing the two plates of food on the coffee table. “We should eat before it gets cold.”

He doesn’t add any burdens or pressure me for more, just accepts me at face value. It’s intoxicating.

Sitting on the couch, we take our plates in hands and start to eat, not desperate for a distraction, but good in the peace.

As he chews, he looks around the apartment. “You live alone. You’re OCD neat, and you’re showered and dressed for bed,” he says, eyeing my laptop with a tomato on the tines of his fork. “You’re a better student than you let on, aren’t you?”

“Everyone at Yale earns good grades. That’s how they got here.” My feeble attempt to appear average . . . normal by college student standards doesn’t fool him. Everyone knows that you have to have over a 4.0 GPA and nearly straight A’s. Perhaps I have a genetic advantage, but I still worked my ass off to get here. But then so did every other student. “True. Let me ask you, Chloe. Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

The question mingling with the way his brown gaze delves deeper than the surface of my skin has my stomach tied up in knots of excitement. I set the plate down and get up to get water. “Guess I haven’t found the right guy.”

“You sure about that?” The comment has me whipping back to look at him. He’s caught up in those eggs like he didn’t just lay a bomb at my feet.

I hand him a bottle of water and sit down slowly, his words still wreaking havoc on my mind. I realize I’m sitting next to a guy who doesn’t know who I am. He doesn’t have expectations based on who my dad is. I’m simply Chloe Fox to him. It’s . . .

It’s . . . it’s awesome. I almost feel as though I should spend more time getting to know him, but it’s been years, okay, one day, since I’ve been kissed, and I’m yearning for that. For him. Is it too forward to attack him on the couch?

He’s not shy to show his interest through the warmth of his caramelly eyes and I’m pretty sure it’s not the food that’s doing that to him.

“Um, no?” I nod, stupidly, unable to look away. I don’t even know what I’m saying. He has my heart beating so hard that Ruby can probably hear it next door.

A deep chuckle vibrates from his chest. Setting his plate down, he moves closer, our fingers bumping into each other on the cushion. Heat zips through me, and he asks, “I’d like to apply for the job.”

“Do you have experience?” I ask, a little breathless and desperate sounding. “I’ll need to see your résumé.”

“How about I show you instead?” His hand covers mine as he leans forward and kisses me.

And there goes my heart again.

8

Joshua

Dragging myself away from Chloe Fox is one of my worst decisions, and I’ve made a lot of bad choices over the years. Still tasting her on my tongue, I grin.

She’s one of the best I’ve made in a long time.

Putting myself on the line isn’t easy, so in the past, I didn’t do it. I like the cards stacked in my favor. Easy. But spending time with her has felt right from the start. Each time, even better. The kissing is great, but we’ve also talked. About school and life. She asked about me and growing up in New Haven. I could get used to how she looks at me. Like I’m good. Like I have something to offer the world. Like I matter instead of being looked down on as a townie, even when sitting next to them in class.

I know it’s not just how she makes me feel. It’s also how she keeps so much locked inside. I want to be the key that unlocks her secrets. I want to be the guy who gets to know who she really is and wants to be, to peel back the layers.

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