Page 71 of We Were Once

I know he can hear the concern in my tone by how he’s searching my eyes for the hidden meaning. Reassurance enters his, and he says, “I love you, too, birthday girl.”

“Bigger than the sky.”

Kissing me again, he whispers, “Bigger than the universe.” My heart starts racing, but I’m not sure why. I hate being the center of attention, but it doesn’t feel like that kind of dread. Walking across the black and white marble, I feel a disconcerting sensation wind through me. “Here goes nothing.”

The room breaks into applause when they see us. I’d like to say I’m surprised that all of Newport appears to be here, but this party is standard fare for the Foxes. I find confidence on Joshua’s arm, allowing me to enjoy the moment instead of hiding from it.

He asks, “Ready for your first drink?” Sarcasm sneaks in as he winks.

“Yes, I’m so curious what this alcohol is you speak of,” I joke but manage a straight face. A waiter has impeccable timing and swoops by with two glasses of champagne. Tapping them together, Joshua says, “Happy Birthday, baby.”

“I’ll drink to that.” I take a sip and look at the pretty flowers adorning the vases around the room and the golden chandeliers dripping with crystals. “It’s so beautiful that I feel like a princess.”

“No expense has been spared.”

“Is it weird that I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for this day?”

“Be careful what you wish for. Being an adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” He pokes me playfully in the ribs, making me laugh.

“It’s supposed to be rainbows and hearts, wild nights and adventure-filled days. Don’t ruin the illusion before the party’s over.” I grab his hand, and we start through the great room toward my parents. “Give me one night to believe that the rest of our lives will be filled with beautiful parties. Me in a pretty dress and you in a suit.”

“I’ll give you everything you ever dreamed of.” When I look into his eyes, I believe him. He’d do that for me. He’d do anything for me like I would for him. He tugs at his lapel. “I didn’t thank you for this.”

All the people in this room could disappear, and I would be content in this man’s arms. He’s a dream come true that I never knew I needed. Now I can’t imagine life without him. “You don’t need to.” When I start to walk again, my hand is stalled, causing me to turn back.

“I know you don’t expect me to, but I want to. Thank you.”

Despite the well-wishers vying for my attention, I return to him. “You’re welcome.” Squeezing his hand, I add, “Now stop messing with your tie, and let’s go have a good time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It’s sexy when you go Southern gentleman on me.” The moment the words leave my mouth, I realize how I set him up. “Don’t say a word.”

With his hands up in surrender, he replies, “I wasn’t.” But then he runs one under my hair, sending goose bumps down my spine, and laughs. “But now I will. I’m more than happy to be on you, Southern or Northern, East or West Coast-wise.”

I roll my eyes even though I won’t admit that my mind is happily remembering our time in bed earlier today. But yeah, this is neither the time nor place for those delicious memories.

Setting our glasses down on a passing tray, we reach my parents. I greet my dad with a kiss on the cheek. The ice in his glass clangs against the crystal walls, the amber liquid mostly gone. “That’s quite a dress,” he says, disapproval still managing to break through the monotone.

I look down, taken back by his blatant disregard for my feelings. Though maybe I shouldn’t be anymore. Joshua takes hold of my hand, giving me strength. I catch my breath and stand my ground. “I love this dress.”

“I think you look beautiful, Chloe,” my mom gushes, her sweet admiration barely restrained. “Happy Birthday.”

“Thank you, Mom.”

My dad finishes his drink, and then says, “You shouldn’t be encouraging her to dress scantily. She’s going to be a doctor, for Christ’s sake.”

“Dad, stop.” He not only planted the seeds of my insecurities, but he watered them daily, encouraging them to grow. God, I’m so over it. I will never win with him. “It’s my birthday. One day a year. Let me enjoy it.”

My mom waves him off and then hugs me. “Ignore Mr. Grumpy and try to have a good time.” Coming around me, she hugs Joshua. “You look very dapper, Josh.” He returns to my side, slipping his arm around my waist while she adds, “You two make such a beautiful couple.”

Joshua says, “Thank you, Cat.”

But my dad cuts in, “Mrs. Fox.”

“Dad,” I caution, surprised by his demanding demeanor. “Joshua is a guest.”

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