Page 57 of We Were Once

His hand slides around to my leg, and he says, “I find your intelligence incredibly sexy.”

I think I melt into my chair, becoming a puddle of mush in his hands. “I’ve been told I can be intimidating.”

“Being smart isn’t intimidating. It’s a turn-on.” He always makes me feel special, like the center of his galaxy.

Waving hands grab our attention. “Helloooo,” Ruby sings. “I’m still here.” Happiness bubbles inside me. I’ve never had this before—this feeling of acceptance and that I’ve found my tribe—until now.

Ruby rests back, and continues, “She’s smart and sexy, yada yada. Back to me. I have a ten-thousand-word essay due before the middle of next month. I can barely keep up with my other classes this early into the semester, and then the prof throws this into the mix.” Her eyes fix on Joshua. “Are your professors all assholes, too?”

I’m interested to hear about his school as well. “How are your classes going?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary to report. School. Work. Chloe. It’s not been so bad this year.”

Bumping into his arm, I just coo because I have nothing smart aleck to say about that. “Todd once said that school was always easy for you, and that you never had to study, even back then.”

He side-eyes me. Not upset, but entertained. “Todd doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Intrigued, Ruby rests her arms on the table, and asks, “So he’s wrong?”

I rub the soft, worn-in material shrouding his arm and the hard muscle underneath. “He’s not wrong, but it doesn’t come as easy as he thinks. I study when I have to. Finance isn’t my dream, but I want a good job, so I follow the money. It helps that I have a good memory because it doesn’t interest me.”

Ruby rests her chin on her hand. “You’re lucky. I have the worst.”

Testing the waters, I throw out, “You’d make a great chef.” That seems to be the dream he never admits.

“There’s no money in the restaurant business unless you find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It’s rare.”

“Speaking of no money, I’m hoping to get out and take pictures later.”

“Ruby is an amazing photographer.” When she waves me off for the compliment and then signals me to continue, I giggle.

Joshua asks, “Do you want to do that professionally?”

“I struck a deal with my parents. I’ll get a degree, but then I get one year off after to pursue photography. If it doesn’t work out, I have my backup plan.”

It’s moments like these that I don’t understand why my dad insists on my being just like him. Working the emergency room is still being a doctor.

Joshua asks, “Which is?”

“Marketing. I never did change it.”

Placing his crumpled napkin back in the bag, he nods. “I made a similar deal, but mine doesn’t allow a backup plan. There’s only one plan. Me working in finance after graduation.” He smiles, but it’s not the one I usually see, the one that has happiness built inside. “Sometimes we do what we have to do to survive,” he adds as if he has to justify the previous comment.

“What about your happiness?” I ask.

His gaze is soft when it lands on me, his hand firm when he holds my hand under the table. “Does that matter if what you’re doing gives another person happiness?”

“Yes. You can’t sacrifice everything that matters to you to make someone else happy. That’s a temporary fix—”

“Take your own advice, Clo.” Ruby’s impatient fingers tap up and down as she slings the words in my direction.

Shooting her a hard look, I grit, “Point taken.”

She stands. “I’m going to get another coffee, but know that I said what I did because I care. We all have sacrifices to make, but we also only get one life. We need to live the one that makes us happy.”

I know she means well, but she’s also well aware of the pressure my father puts on me. I don’t need any extra, though I appreciate that she’s willing to defend my dreams. “We do,” I start. “We’re going to take off. I’m already ready for a nap.”

Out on the sidewalk, Joshua says, “It’s good to have friends who support you no matter what.”

“It is.” We cross the street, but I can’t let something go, so I pull him into the doorway of a bank that’s closed.

With his back pressed to the window, the urge to kiss him is too strong to be appropriate. “What are we doing, Chloe?”

“I, uh . . .”

A playful grin sets itself right on his handsome face. Taking me by the hips, he slips his hands around to my backside, holding me right where I want him. My heart races as I stare into his eyes, my breathing shallow and my hands . . . well, I want to touch him, feel him, grab him, and kiss him.

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