Page 29 of We Were Once

Dragging the tips of her fingers along the front quarter, her eyes take in the vehicle. “I like it.” She hoists herself up, and then I climb in behind the wheel. “You never told me where we’re going.”

“Have you ever been to Lucky’s?”

Catching her smiling, I watch as she seems to be right at home next to me. “I haven’t. What’s Lucky’s?”

“I probably shouldn’t take a good girl to Lucky’s.”

“I’m not a good girl.” She sounds offended, like a good girl would.

The rumble of the engine makes me wish I could afford to buy the rest of the parts. I don’t want to miss a word of hers. I glance over to see her watching me. “You carry innocence around like a fancy jacket.”

“What if I’m not that innocent?”

If I could, I’d be staring at her instead of the road. “Is this where you tell me you’re a bad girl who loves to break the rules to get back at her parents?”

Out of the corners of my eyes, I notice her fidgeting with the edges of her jacket. “I don’t break the rules. Nothing good would come of it if I did.”

“Rules are put in place so people can control a situation.”

“Fuck ’em.” I shift gears. “As long as we’re not hurting anyone, who cares?”

“I do,” she replies, angling away from me.

“Why?”

She seems to shake off a thought, smoothing her forehead. “I’m starting to wonder that myself.”

She turns up the music and rolls down her window. With mine down, the wind whips through, keeping us company. Near the edge of town, the crunch of the gravel parking lot competes with the engine.

I park at an angle on the side of the old converted warehouse and cut the engine. “There’s nothing wrong with breaking the rules sometimes, Chloe, but if it makes you feel better, we can start by bending them first.”

I get out and walk around the back of the truck, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans before I help her, hoping she doesn’t notice my nerves kicking in. Being nervous is something I’m not used to, but this meeting matters and the weight of it is felt.

Glancing up at the building, she asks, “Is this a bar?”

“Yeah.” I take her hand, but her feet stay planted.

“But I didn’t bring an ID.”

She doesn’t seem to mind when I tug her a little closer to me, though. “Don’t worry about it. They don’t card here anyway. It’s a locals’ place. Most of the kids at Yale never venture this far from campus.”

The hesitancy disappears, and she says, “Might as well start bending the rules tonight . . .”

“Damn right.”

The music, the billiard balls clanking together, laughter, and conversation fill the air when we step inside the musty building. Smoke permeates the walls from when it was still legal to smoke in here, and the floors are a bit sticky from spilled alcohol.

Keeping an eye on Chloe, I’m interested to see her reaction to the paneled walls and the neon beer signs, the jukebox that plays everything from Patsy Cline to the latest by The Crow Brothers. I say, “This is the kind of place where people know your name.”

“Hey, Josh!” Seth, the bartender, calls while filling a pitcher of draft beer.

She laughs, and then asks, “Did you pay him to do that?”

“I’ll tip him extra.” I spot my friends at the far side of the bar. “Come on. I want to introduce you to my friends.”

For me, it’s weird to have her in my space. I don’t bring girls around to my regular haunts. But Chloe has me wanting to take her everywhere, show her off, and have her meeting the people who shape my life. She’s met my mom, even Barb, so this meeting tonight is long overdue.

Leading her through the bar with familiar eyes on us, I ignore the regulars, not caring what they think. I just hope Todd and Bryant like her. If they don’t, they’ve been good friends because after kissing Chloe, I’m too far gone.

I chuckle, bringing her closer. “Chloe, this is Bryant and the other asshole is Todd.”

“Hi.” She smiles politely. “It’s nice to meet you.” I’d already gathered a dive bar isn’t her regular scene, but I bet she makes great small talk with those manners, impressing parents and the country club crowd.

I bump fists with Todd and move around to shake Bryant’s hand with a flip-off flair ending we’ve been doing for years. He sits on a barstool, leaning his back against the wall. “No wonder Josh has been MIA. It’s good to meet you.”

She sets her purse on the table and shrugs. “You, too.”

Holding a glass with a solid gulp left up, he says, “You’re buying the next round, right, Josh?”

Todd’s never been as boisterous as Bryant, but he values a good game of pool. “Hey,” he greets Chloe, handing her a stick. “Want to play?”

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