Page 45 of We Were Once

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be back at six.”

Bryant says, “I’m on in the morning. I can open if you want to sleep in, Ms. Russo.”

I hit him with a dirty glare. “Stop flirting with my mom, dude!”

He chuckles, but I don’t. My mom on the other hand, giggles. Giggles! She says, “I appreciate the offer, but Barb is opening for me the next two mornings.” Setting napkins on the counter, she adds, “Just be on time. I need you tomorrow for the brunch crowd.”

“Will do.” He flips me off when she goes to check on customers, and mouths, “Your mom is hot.”

I punch him. “Fucker.”

They’re still laughing when I get back to work in the kitchen, needing to get going on the prep for dinner. I start the hot water just as my phone buzzes in my pocket and tug it out. Doesn’t matter what I felt two seconds prior, I’m smiling the moment I see her face on the screen under the name—Soulmate . . . If the shoe fits, and it’s a perfect fit for Chloe.

Chloe’s face is contorted, but she can’t hide her beauty behind silly faces. The text reads: How do I look?

I type: Frustratingly gorgeous.

She replies: It frustrates you that you find me gorgeous?

Me: It frustrates me that I can’t be with my gorgeous girlfriend.

Chloe: Send me a photo of what you’re doing right now. I want to see my sexy boyfriend.

I hold the phone above me so she gets a good visual of how sexy I can be and take the pic.

Chloe: A man doing dishes—be still my beating heart. I have some things you can wash.

Me: Some things . . . like you?

Chloe: What time do you get off?

Me: That’s up to you.

Chloe: Naughty. Naughty. *ponders the possibilities*

Me: Don’t start without me, baby. I’m leaving here at eleven.

Another pic of her lying on the bed—her hair a mess and swept over the pillow—a strap clinging to her shoulder and the other tipped over. As sexy as she is, my chest tightens just looking at her. I’m at a loss of words that fit how stunning she is.

Me: I . . .

I delete and lick my lips although it’s my throat that’s gone dry staring at her. Me: Thank you.

Chloe: For what?

Swallowing down the lump in my throat, my fingers hover over the screen. I want to tell her so many things, but my heart clenches that I might not get more than this year with her. I hate the seed of doubt the guys planted. I want a future after graduation. A life together. I want to tell her. Me: For the photos. They’ll be all I think about during my shift. I chicken out.

Chloe: My pleasure.

My phone rings. Turning my back to the door for privacy, I whisper, “Hi.”

She says, “The pleasure’s been mine. I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been with you.”

I take a breath, the earlier conversation with Todd and Bryant trying to run its course.

“Joshua, are you there?”

“I’m here. What are we doing?”

“I was studying. You’re working.”

Looking around to make sure no one can hear, I whisper, “I really care about you, Chloe.”

“I care about you, too.” Her laughter comes over the line but then quietens. “Wait, is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. It’s been good.”

Softer laughter returns. “I can’t reason through it myself. I’m as lost as you are, so I’m following my heart instead.”

Dishes clang in the sink, causing me to look up. “It’s getting busy here.”

“If you need to go—”

I sigh, wishing I could spend time with her. “I do, but I want you to know that I’m in this with you.”

“Don’t get too sentimental on me or we’ll both be saps. I need you to be the strong one.”

She’s the strongest person I know, holding her own under a mountain of expectations, and knowing she graduated a year early is incredible. “For you, I’ll be the strong one.” Chuckling, I push off the wall. “I’ll see you after work.”

“Have a good night.”

An idea strikes a second too late. Since we already hung up, I send her a text: You up for an adventure? I know she’ll ask what she should wear, so I add: Casual clothes.

I don’t expect her to say no since I’ve completely annihilated her routine the moment we started dating. Chloe’s text appears on the screen: I need my beauty sleep.

Me: Trust me, you don’t. You’re beautiful inside and out.

Chloe: Fine, ya big charmer. I’ll be ready.

My mom pushes through the door, and I fumble with my phone. Catching it, I tuck it into my back pocket. She so knows I was up to no good. “Do I need to worry?”

“Nope. Nothing to worry about.”

Plugging the order into the ticket clip, she says, “Good. Turkey BLT, light on the toasting.”

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