Page 3 of We Were Once

He says, “I can wait.” I pull my purse from the hook near the door and dig out my wallet. He fills the doorway, snooping over my shoulder. “Where are you running to?”

Huh? I look up confused by the question. “Nowhere.”

Following his line of sight, I realize what he’s referring to just as he says, “The treadmill. That’s the point. You never get anywhere.”

“It’s good exercise.”

“Yeah,” he says, his tone tipping toward judgmental. “You’re just running in a circle. Stuck in place.”

“I’m not trying to go anywhere. I’m—”

“Sure, you are.”

When I answered the door, I wasn’t expecting to have my life scrutinized under a microscope. “Why do I feel like you’re speaking in metaphors?”

“I don’t know. Why do you feel like I’m speaking in metaphors?” His tongue is slick and his wit dry, which is something I can appreciate, even when it’s at my expense.

Handing him a ten, I say, “Hopefully this covers the therapy.”

He chuckles. “I’m always happy to dole out free advice, but I’ll take the ten. Thanks.” Still looking around, the detective moves his attention elsewhere. “Nice bonsai.”

“Thanks. My mom gave me Frankie.”

“Frankie?”

I tuck my wallet back in my purse and return it to the hook. “The little tree?”

Eyeing the plant, I can tell he wants to get a closer look by how he’s inching in. He says, “Bonsais aren’t miniature trees. They’re just pruned to be that way. It’s actually an art form.”

“You seem to know a lot more about it than I do,” I reply, stepping sideways to cut off his path. “Are you a plant guy?”

“I like to know all kinds of things about plants. Mainly, the ones we eat. I wouldn’t suggest sautéing Frankie, though.”

“Why would I sauté Frankie?” I catch his deadpan expression. “Ah. You’re making a joke. Gotcha.” I laugh under my breath. “You’re referring to food.”

“Yeah.”

I take the door in hand as a not so subtle hint. “I should get back to . . .” I just end it before the lie leaves my lips. I have no plans but to study, and that sounds boring even to me. “Thanks again.” I’m surprised, though, when he doesn’t move. “Don’t let me keep you from those other deliveries.” Hint. Hint. Hint.

Remaining inches from me, I look up when he says, “Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome.”

Shoving the money in his pocket, he rocks back on his heels. “Hope you enjoy the food.”

Pulling the door with me as he passes, I remain with it pressed to my backside. “I’m sure I will.”

“Anytime.” I barely glimpse his grin before he turns abruptly to leave. Then he stops just shy of maneuvering down the stairs and looks back. “You need balance in your life.”

Shock bolts my eyes wide open, and my mouth drops open as offense takes over. Standing in my discomfort, I consider closing the door and ending this conversation. But I step forward instead, leaning halfway out. “Maybe you need balance.”

Through a chuckle, he replies, “The bonsai. You said your mom gave you the plant. She thinks you need balance in your life. Mine gave me calm. Mom knows best. That’s all I’m saying.”

Pulling the door, I take a step back, glancing at him one last time. “Thanks, professor,” I remark.

“Have a good life, Chloe.” His laughter bounces off the walls of the hallway.

I shut the door, bolting the lock and attaching the chain, not needing the last word. “I will,” I say to myself. After a quick peek out of the peephole again to verify he left, I set the bag next to the stack of books and take a second look at the plant. “By the way he was looking at you, I thought he was going to plant-nap you, Frankie.” He sure was all up in this little guy’s business.

Must be a biology major.

I begin to unpack the bag, trying to ignore how his presence and the faint scent of his cologne still linger, but notice how it feels a few degrees warmer. “I wouldn’t blame him,” I tell Frankie. “You’re a beautiful specimen.”

Getting up, I lower the thermostat before trying to figure out who sent the food. Timed perfectly, my phone begins buzzing across the coffee table. I race back to catch a text from my best friend: If you hear from me in ten minutes, call me right back.

Quick to respond, I type: Another bad date?

Ruby Darrow, the heiress to the Darrow Enterprises, and I have been close since we roomed together freshman year. I can’t wait for her to move into her apartment next door. Her return message reads: I’m not sure. If you hear from me, then yes. Yes, it is.

Me: I’m on standby.

Ruby: Because you’re the best.

I take my duties as her friend very seriously, so I set the phone down next to the bag and pop open the plasticware. When my phone buzzes again, I’m fully prepared to make the call, but this time it’s not Ruby.

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