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We Were Once / - (by S.L. Scott, 2020) -

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We Were Once / -    (by S.L. Scott, 2020) -

We Were Once / - (by S.L. Scott, 2020) -

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: 685
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We Were Once / - (by S.L. Scott, 2020) -
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2020
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S.L. Scott
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Andi Arndt, Sebastian York
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upper-intermediate
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12:28:44
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

We Were Once / - :

.doc (Word) s_l_scott_-_we_were_once.doc [944.5 Kb] (c: 25) .
.pdf s_l_scott_-_we_were_once.pdf [1.61 Mb] (c: 19) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: We Were Once

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WE WERE ONCE S. L. SCOTT PROLOGUE IVE NEVER DIED BEFORE, but I recognize the feeling. 1 Chloe Fox PROMISE me youll protect Frankie with your life, Chloe. Glancing sideways, its hard to take this seriously. Um . . . My mom hugs Frankie to her chest like the son she never had. Youll give him a good home, feed him, and nurture him? I think this is taking it a little too far. Its a plant, Mom, not a human. Its not just a plant. Its a bonsai tree. Theyre fickle creatures Technically, its not a creature. Its a miniature tree. Creature or not, promise me youll take care of it, Chloe. This isnt just a plant. This little guy can provide harmony and calm to your place. Mom, I got it. I attempt to pry the potted plant from her, but when she resists, I ask, Do you want to keep Frankie? Hed love New York City. You can take him to Central Park or a show on Broadway. A quick trip to MoMA or the Statue of Liberty Very funny. She shoves him toward me. Take him. I bought him for you. We can set up a visitation schedule if youd like? That earns me an eyeroll thats punctuated with laughter. You might think Im being dramatic, but I can already tell this is what your apartment is missing. I wish youd let me decorate it more. So, mock me if you must, but that little guy is going to bring balance to your life. Its a lot of pressure to put on a plant, dont you think? Little tree, she corrects stubbornly as if Ive insulted the thing. Crossing her arms over her chest, she raises a perfectly shaped eyebrow. You want to be a doctor, Chloe. Treat it like a patient. Water, attention, and care. The basics. Holding the plant in front of me, I admire the pretty curve to the trunk and branches. Its easy to see why my mom picked this one. Ill try not to kill it like the plant you gave me last year. I set the plastic pot down on top of a stack of textbooks on the coffee table. But you have to admit that I gave that ivy a great send-off. You did. Right down the trash shoot. She laughs again, but I hear the sadness trickling in. Why are you getting upset? The green of my moms eyes matches the rich color of the leaves when she cries, just like mine. I think the bonsai has had enough water for one day. Dont you think? I ask teasingly to hide how much I hate the impending goodbye. She laughs, caressing my cheek. The support shes always shown me is felt in her touch. Ive had the best time with you over the past few weeks. Im going to miss you, honey. Leaning into it, I say, If everything goes to plan, Ill be in the city next year and we can see each all the time. Youve worked hard. Now its time to enjoy your senior year. Her departure pending, we embrace. I enjoy working hard, and my grades still matter this year if I want to get into med school. A sympathetic smile creases her lips when she steps back. Im sorry you feel you have to be perfect all the time or that you feel medical school is the only option for you. Its not. You can do Its what I want. This subject was the final blow to her marriage to my dad. They disagreed about a lot, but my schooling and future were the sticking points. I dont want to relive it. Moving to the couch, she fluffs a pillow, but I have a feeling its only out of habit. Seeking perfection is the easiest way to find disappointment. She eyes the pillow, satisfaction never reaching her eyes. Standing back, she swings her gaze my way. Happiness is a much nobler mission. After she divorced my father, she put it into practice. After leaving Newport for Manhattan two years ago, shes happier than ever. I know you have big plans, Chloe, but youre only young once. Go out with Ruby. Have fun. Kiss boys. Youre allowed to do what you want instead of what others want for you. Youre allowed to be you. Be me? The words strike me oddly. Who am I? Ah, sweet girl, whoever you want to be. New experiences will allow you to see yourself through a new lens. I sit on the couch, blocking her view of the pillow she just fixed. Is that why you left Newport? Yes, I wanted to discover me again. In Manhattan, Im not Normans wife, or the chair of the preservation society. Im not running an eight-thousand-square-foot house or hosting garden parties. In New York, I get to be Cat Fox and Chloes mother. Those are my favorite roles Ive ever had. Working with my father might have been great for my r?sum?, but back home, Ill always be compared to the great Norman Fox. Ill live in his shadow if I return to Rhode Island and wont ever stand on my own accomplishments. So I understand what she means a little too well. She seems to think she was saved. Is it too late for me? Do you know who you are? Im learning every day. All Im saying is life is happening all around you. Look up from the books every now and then. Turning around, she takes one last glance around the apartment. You need a pop of color in here. I can send sofa pillows. I get what shes saying. Shes the queen of d?cor and has strong opinions regarding my life. Shed love to not only throw some pillows on my couch but also put a man in my life. She never understood that good grades are much more rewarding than spending time with boys who want nothing more than a one-night stand. Dont send pillows, I say, grinning. A sly grin rolls across her face. You can snuggle with them, or a guy You want me to date. I sigh. I get it. College guys arent the same thing as high school boys. She takes her purse from the couch and situates it on her shoulder as she moves to the door. I roll my eyes. Could have fooled me. You just havent met someone who makes your heart flutter. Youre such a romantic. Kissing my cheek, she opens the door, and says, Take care of yourself, honey. I love you. Love you, too. I close the door and rest against the back of it, exhaling. After two months working at my fathers clinic and then staying with her in the city for the past two weeks, Id almost forgotten what it was like to have time to myself, and silence. Pure, unadulteratedKnock. Knock. I jump, startled from the banging against my back. Spinning around, I squint to look through the peephole, and my chin jerks back. A guy holding a bag outside my door says, Food delivery. I didnt order food, I say, palms pressed to the door as I spy on him. A smirk plays on his lips. Yup, he flat out stares into the peephole with a smug grin on his face. Plucking the receipt from the bag, he adds, Chloe? The e is drawn out in his dulcet tone as if its possible to make such a common name sound special. He managed it. I unlock the deadbolt but leave the chain in place. When I open the door, I peek out, keeping my body and weight against it for safety. Met with brown eyes that catch the setting sun streaming in from the window in the hall, theres no hiding the amusement shining in them. Hi, he says, his gaze dipping to my mouth and back up. Chloe? Im Chloe, but as I said, I didnt order food. He glances toward the stairs, tension in his shoulders dropping before his eyes return to mine. I have the right address, the correct apartment, and name. Im pretty sure its for you. He holds it out after a casual shrug. Anyway, its getting cold, and its chicken and dumplings, my moms specialty that she only makes on Sundays. Trust me, its better hot, though Ive had it cold, and it was still good. He makes a solid argument. All the information is correct. I shift, my guard dropping. Im still curious, though. Your mom made it? Thumbing over his shoulder as though the restaurant is behind him, he replies, Only on Sundays. Me and T cook the rest of the time. Whos T? The other cook. He turns the bag around. Pattys Diner is printed on the white paper. Then he points at his worn shirt, the logo barely visible from all the washings. And Patty is your mother? He swivels the bag around and nods. Patty is my mom. My stomach growls from the sound of the bag crinkling in his hands, reminding me that I havent eaten in hours, and chicken and dumplings sound amazing. Only culinary cuisine, as my dad would call it, was acceptable when I was growing up. Comfort food didnt qualify because anything with gravy instead of some kind of reduction was a no-no. Grinning, he pushes the bag closer. As much as Id love to stay here all night and chat about the mystery of this delivery, I have other food getting cold down in the car. Youre hungry. Take the bag and enjoy. He says it like were friends, and Im starting to think weve spent enough time together to consider it. I unchain the door and open it to take the bag from him. Holding up a finger, I ask, Do you mind waiting? Ill get you a tip. As if he won the war, two dimples appear as his grin grows. The cockiness reflected in his eyes doesnt take away from the fact that hes more handsome than I initially gave him credit for. Handsome is a dime a dozen in Newport. Good genes passed down long before the Golden Age run in the prestigious family trees of Rhode Island. So good-looking guys dont do much beyond catch my eye. 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 hes referring to just as he says, The treadmill. Thats the point. You never get anywhere. Its good exercise. Yeah, he says, his tone tipping toward judgmental. Youre just running in a circle. Stuck in place. Im not trying to go anywhere. Im Sure, you are. When I answered the door, I wasnt expecting to have my life scrutinized under a microscope. Why do I feel like youre speaking in metaphors? I dont know. Why do you feel like Im speaking in metaphors? His tongue is slick and his wit dry, which is something I can appreciate, even when its at my expense. Handing him a ten, I say, Hopefully this covers the therapy. He chuckles. Im always happy to dole out free advice, but Ill 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 hes inching in. He says, Bonsais arent miniature trees. Theyre just pruned to be that way. Its 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 wouldnt suggest saut?ing Frankie, though. Why would I saut? Frankie? I catch his deadpan expression. Ah. Youre making a joke. Gotcha. I laugh under my breath. Youre 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. Im surprised, though, when he doesnt move. Dont 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. Youre 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. Im 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. Thats all Im 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 guys 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 wouldnt blame him, I tell Frankie. Youre 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 cant wait for her to move into her apartment next door. Her return message reads: Im not sure. If you hear from me, then yes. Yes, it is. Me: Im on standby. Ruby: Because youre 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, Im fully prepared to make the call, but this time its not Ruby. Mom: I had food delivered for you. Did you get it? Chicken and dumplings. Im in the mood for comfort food and thought you might be, too. I wish I would have known ten minutes ago. Eyeing the bag, I smile. I cant argue with her choice of dish, but Im just not sure if the pain in the ass delivery was worth the trouble. Even a baseball cap flipped backward didnt hinder his appearance because apparently, I just discovered I have a type. Small-town hero with a side of arrogance. Jesus. This is Connecticut, not Texas. Despite his appearance, I wasnt impressed. Dating cute guys has not worked out well for me in the past. The local bad boy doesnt fit into my plans or help with my balance as he points out I evidently need. So rude. I balance just fine. School. Trying to think of more, I get frustrated. Im at Yale for one reason and one reason onlyto get into the medical school of my choice, and to do that, I need to keep my brain in the game. The school game, not the dating game. What does he know anyway, Frankie? Returning my moms text, I type: Got it. Thank you. Mom: Promise me youll live a little, or a lot, if youre so inclined. Shes become a wild woman in the past two years. Im happy for her, but that doesnt mean I have to change my ways to fit her new outlook on life. As I look around my new apartment, the cleanliness brings a sense of calm to me. After living in my parents homes over the summer, it feels good to be back at school and on my own again. Me: Thats a lot of promises. First, caring for Frankie, and now for my own well-being. I laugh at my joke, but I know shell misinterpret it, so Im quick to add: Kidding. I will. Love you. Mom: Hope so. Live fearlessly, dear daughter. Love you. Feeling like I dodged another lecture on youre only young once, I smile like a kid on Christmas when I find a chocolate chip cookie in the bag. With just one bite of the food, I close my eyes, savoring the flavor. Patty sure knows how to cook. I click on a trivia game show and spend the time kicking the other contestants butts as I eat. Soon, Im stuffed but feeling antsy about the dough sitting at the bottom of my stomach, so I get up and slip my sneakers on before hopping on the treadmill. I warm up for a mile with that bag and the red logo staring back at me, so I pick up the pace until Im sprinting. Im not trying to go anywhere. Its good exercise, I grumble, still bothered by what the delivery guy said. A bleacher seat therapist is the last thing I need. I start into a jog and then a faster speed, though my gaze keeps gravitating toward the bag and the red printing on the frontPattys Diner. The food might have been delicious, but I cant make a habit out of eating food that heavy or I wont be able to wear the new clothes my mom and I just spent two weeks shopping for. I barely make four miles before my tired muscles start to ache. Im not surprised after a day of moving, but I still wished I could have hit five. I hit the stop button and give in to the exhaustion. I take a shower and change into my pajamas before going through my nightly routinebrushing teeth, checking locks, turning out the lights, and getting a glass of water. I only take a few sips before I see Frankie in the living room all alone. My moms guilt was well-placed. I dump water in the pot and bring it with me into the bedroom. Dont get too comfortable. Youre not staying here. Returning to the living room to grab my study guide for the MCAT, I hurry back to bed and climb under the covers. But after a while, I set the guide aside, behavioral sciences not able to hold my attention against my moms parting words. Classes. Study. Rest. Routines are good. Theyre the backbone to success. I click off the lamp, not needing my moms wordslive fearlesslyfilling my head. Those thoughts are only a distraction to my grand plan. Like that delivery guy. 2 Chloe SUNSHINE FLOODS THE APARTMENT, waking me. I avoided it temporarily around seven oclock with a pillow over my head, but an hour later, Im wide-awake. Opening my eyes to Frankie greeting me, I smile despite the hour. Your grandmother will kill me if I dont take care of you, so I think were going to have to come to some arrangement. I sit up and then climb out of bed. I may not need the sun this early, but you might like it, little fella. Carrying him into the living room, I decide to set the small black pot on the windowsill. Patting the top, I say, Have a great day, and then get dressed for my errands. When my bag is packed, I lock the door and head downstairs now that the shops are open. Something red grabs my attention on the stairs between the third and second floors. Bending down, I pick it up. The safety pin on the back is bent on the name tag. Joshua. Pattys Diner. My neck jerks back as if the guy from last night is here in person, his words stuck in my head againyou need balance. Still offended, I consider dumping the tag in the nearest trash can, but since Im not near one, I drop it in my bag instead and go about my day. The weather is stuck in summer for a few more weekssunny, blue skies, and a gentle breeze. Its exciting to explore my new neighborhood after living on the other side of campus last year. Ruby found the apartmentsa small building with eight unitsand we were lucky enough to get the two apartments that take up the third floor. I cant wait to spend time with her again. Our relationship is so different from the people I grew up with. My last name gained me entrance to parties back in Newport, but my lack of interest in petty gossip showed me the exit. I traded friends for grades. That paid off for me, but thank God, I found Ruby. Shes the one person, other than my parents, who has become a constant. I dont know how I would have survived college without her. Coming from a similar background, she understands the pressure that is inherited with a well-known last name. I take a breath, keeping my dreams locked safely inside. I dont have to decide now, so I let it be, not wanting the confrontation that lies ahead to ruin today. Closing my eyes, I inhale deeply and smell the last day of freedom, trying to focus on the positive of my good friend returning. I browse five stores unsuccessfully, not finding any curtains I like. Continuing to walk down the street, Ive covered quite a few blocks and begin to feel lethargic. Caffeine wouldnt be bad either. A text from Ruby comes in as if she knew I needed an injection of happy: Miss me? Me: Get here already. I giggle as I wait for her next text. Ruby: If it were up to me, I would. The going away dinner I didnt want is tonight. And being a Darrow means nothing less than fancy and over the top. My mom decided she couldnt do pizza and a movie like I wanted. Nope. All of her friends and their kids must come over. I dont think theyd even notice if I wasnt there. Oh! You should come. Hop on a train and save me, Clo. Me: As delightful as that sounds, not, I dont have anything to wear to a Darrow affair. Also, Im getting a jump on the syllabus and plan for a quiet night of studying. Thank you, though. Ruby: Lucky. Gotta run, but Ill see you soon. Me: Have fun tonight. Ruby: Oh, yeah. Sure. Rub it in. I tuck the phone in my back pocket and continue my search, switching gears from curtains to caffeine. With no sign of a coffee shop on this block, I settle on a diner up ahead. Diner. The name tag . . . Joshua. More importantly, coffee. Yep, according to the red logo on the door, here is the infamous Pattys Diner. Just underneath that, another sign reads come on in, so I do. When the waitress calls from a table in the back, Welcome to Pattys. Sit anywhere. Scanning the place, I see its fairly packed. Since I need my coffee to go, I hustle over to the counter, getting out of the way of the door. I take a seat at the end, hanging my bag on a hook under the counter, and wait. I swivel a few times before pulling out the MCAT guide to make use of the extra minutes for studying. Setting it next to the menu pulling double duty as a placemat, I start eyeing the pictures of food, suddenly hungry. Nope, thats not why Im here. Coffee is good. Ill do my good deed for the day, and then I can grab a sandwich at home. Stick to the plan. A bony finger that has years of life creased into the knuckle points at the right side of the menu. These are the specials, says the waitress who greeted me. When I look up, her dark eyes look tired but still welcoming. Gray and blond strands fall from the clip she has loosely secured at the crown of her head. Despite the other servers wearing jeans and matching T-shirts, she wears her white shirt with a denim skirt instead. What can I get you? Im just here for coffee. To go please. Remembering the name tag, I dig it out of my bag, and add, Oh, and I found this, so I thought Id return it. She takes it from me and a gentle smile comes over her as she strokes the engraved name. Joshuas lost a million of these. She leans against the counter, seeming ready to share more. I think you should try the chili. Oh, um . . . I was just going to have It was very sweet of you to bring this by. Holding the tag up, she says, Chilis on me. No, you dont have to do that. It was the right thing to do. I dont need anything in return. I start to feel bad for almost throwing it away when it means so much to her. Tapping the counter twice with the tag, she sets it down and gets a determined look in her eyes. I insist. Rushing off, she pushes through a swinging silver door. I swivel to look around. This diner is like the ones Ive seen in movies. Its comfortable with a homey feel to it. Warm wood tones in the booths are offset by black and white tiles on the floor in a bold pattern. There are no metal spatulas hitting the grill or orders being shouted, but its noisy from conversation and the music wafting overhead. Sounds like jazz but its hard to hear. The waitress returns with a mug and saucer in one hand and a coffee carafe in the other. She sets it down and starts to fill it. Cream or sugar? Black is fine. Thank you. Its already full before I realize its not in a to-go cup. Im thinking she was serious about the chili. I dont remember the last time I had chili if I have ever. Silverware rolled in a napkin is placed on my mat before she disappears again into the kitchen. Flipping my guide open, I turn to where I left off last night and read the next question. My mind is either rusty or I need a caffeine IV to get me going. A bowl is set next to me, and yep, thats chili with shredded cheddar and a dollop of sour cream on top. Do you like jalape?os? I can get some, she says. I cant eat spicy food. I rub my stomach with psychosomatic symptoms while eyeing her name tag. Thanks, though, Barb. Laughter rings out, and a smile invades her expression. Covering the name tag, she leans in. My names not Barb. The rules state we have to wear a name tag, and I forgot mine at home, so I borrowed Barbs. Shes off on Mondays. Resting her hands on the counter like she intends to spend a little time here, she says, Im Patty. Patty as in Pattys Diner? I ask dumbly. One and the same. Its very nice to meet you. I had your chicken and dumplings yesterday. They were very good. Oh, you did, did you? Dumplings yesterday and back today, but only for coffee? Im not sure if Im doing something right or wrong. Right. My stomach growled when I walked in, and the chili looks really good. I dont mention her annoying son since hes no concern of mine any longer. The badge has been returned to its rightful place. Now, I just get to enjoy the meal. I take a sip of coffee while she fills a mug two stools down. Leaning against the counter with the carafe in hand, she asks, Are you a freshman? I laugh, a lot lighter than hers from a moment ago but entertained all the same. Im actually a senior this year. You are? My sons a senior this year. Whats your name, hun? Chloe. Nice to meet you, Chloe, she says with a kind smile. When a server cuts behind her, she surveys the counter. I should let you eat before it gets cold. Let me go check on that cornbread. The chili will be heavy enough. Now she wants to add bread into the mix? Im stuffed just thinking about it. You dont have to worry. I dont need it. Its the best part. Too late. Shes off again. I spoon a bite of chili and then blow on it, watching the steam dissipate when I hear her say, Perfect timing. I look up. Shes not speaking to me, but to the man with the plate of cornbread heading my way. Patty detours into the dining room, leaving me to plot my own escape. Oh, God, I mumble under my breath as soon our eyes meet. If nothing else is confirmed from seeing this guy a second time, that hes cocky as all get-out is. Well, well. Well. If it isnt Chloe with the bonsai. I huff. He did nothing to you, so kindly leave Frankie out of this. He chuckles. Frankie is feminine. Can you be more offensive? I turn in annoyance, unable to look at him. His laughter picks up. You dont understand. Bonsai plants dont have genders. Their shape determines in generally accepted terms if theyre masculine or feminine. Staring him down, I tilt my head, trying not to let the irritation he brings out in me surface. And mine is feminine? Yes. Thin branches, a curve to the trunk. Im no expert, but Frankie is feminine, in my humble opinion. Why do I get the feeling nothing about you is humble, especially your opinion? I hate that I notice that his hair isnt hidden under a cap, and with an unruly cowlick, his dark hair keeps falling in his face, drawing me back to his eyes. He smirks. I roll my eyes and tap my book. Scrunching my nose, I say, If you dont mind, and then take another bite. I dont at all. Hows the chili? Patty comes around the counter. Not all heroes wear capes. Some have coffee. You met Chloe. She picks up the tag and hands it to him. She was sweet enough to bring this back to you. Oh, she did, did she? Ugh. And here I thought Patty was here to save me, not throw me under the bus. I found it in my building and just happened to be in the area doing some shopping. Shopping, huh? Does everything you say have to be in the form of a question, or is that something you enjoy doing? Patty says, Guess you two know each other. Nope, he replies. Just met last night. Those dimples of his are really annoyingly distracting. Could have fooled me. Turning to me, she says, Your mother placed that order for you. She wanted to send you something comforting. Holding up a finger, she adds, I steered her toward the special. Nothing makes me feel better than home in a bowl. She looks at her son. Right, Josh? His eyes shoot back to mine after dipping lower. Couldnt agree more. Patting the top of my hand, she lowers her voice. Ill let you eat. Enjoy the meal and dont worry about the bill. Its covered. You really dont have Eh, she stops me. Its my pleasure, but make sure to stop in again sometime. Josh, cover the counter. I need to check on my orders. His attention stretches the length of the counter and then follows her. Covered. As soon as she walks away, I say, Dont think I didnt catch you checking me out. He remains leaning against the counter, making himself at home just as he did last night. Figured it was only fair since you did the same to me. Fine, I gave him a once-over. So hes right. Its only fair. Your arrogance is a turn-off. I didnt realize my job was to turn you on. Dont twist my words. And ew, Im trying to eat here. Despite the arguing, he doesnt seem bothered by me. Quite the contrary. He appears intrigued. Twisting the tag around in his hand, he says, Of all the diners in New Haven, you walk into mine. Your moms, actually, and I was returning the name tag that you carelessly dropped. Maybe I wasnt being so careless. Bending down eye-level with me, he says, Maybe I left it on purpose. Well, if thats the best you got . . . I shrug. Your method needs some work. Does it? He holds out his hand, and that damn wry grin reappears. We never did officially meet. Angling my chin up, I reply, I guess its good to get to know your enemies, Joshua. Is that what we are, Chloe? Enemies? And here I was starting to think we were soul mates. 3 Joshua Evans ITS NOT OFTEN that I run into the people I deliver to, but apartment 3B was hard to forget. Good tipper. Stack of medical textbooks. Bonsai tree named Frankie. Id almost forgotten the hard time she gave me. Thats not entirely fair since Im the one who pushed every one of her buttons. Soul mates, she scoffs with the devil in her eyes. Its a different look from last night when she held more of an air of superiority. Either way, shes hot. Those green eyes, like her mouth, make it hard to look away. The girl likes to argue, and theres something about her that pushes me to engage. Standing back up again, I ask, So, tell me something, Chloe. Whyd you really come by? I waggle the name tag in front of her. Because I have a feeling it wasnt to return a cheap name badge. Youre right. She holds her hands up in surrender. You busted me. Reaching for the mug, she adds, What can I say? I came for caffeine and stayed for the chili. I thought youd stroke my ego and tell me you stayed for the company. Shaking her head, she laughs. There will be no stroking of anything between you and I. Me. What? She cocks an eyebrow, and theres something incredibly sexy about the arc of it. Not that Ill tell her. She doesnt seem to want my input. I give it to her anyway. Its you and me. Not you and I. So, the correct way to say it would be: there will be stroking between you and me. She starts laughing. I see what you did there. Shrugging, I begin laughing as well. I tried. I clear dishes from the other end of the counter and then stand around like a fool. My mom looks busy, and Ts covering the kitchen, so I guess Im stuck here. Might as well see what other reactions I can get out of her. Its Chloe or Mike. And Mike only talks about his glory days back in high school. Ive heard every play he ever ran. Chloe, it is. Do you go to Yale? Yes. She takes another bite with her eyes glued to the study guide. If I hadnt seen medical books at your place and the MCAT guide you brought here, I would have guessed poli sci. Why would you think that? You like a good debate. I deadpanned it, but its really the truth. That makes her laugh. I actually dont. Theres just something about you that brings it out in me. Closing the book, she says, Youre not going to let me study, are you? Most think Im pretty good company. Ive made her roll her eyes so much that Im starting to worry about her. She tucks the book in her bag and then sighs. You know what I think? I have a hunch youre about to tell me. She sets her napkin beside the bowl. I think youre used to getting a lot of attention, so when you dont, you crave it. Are you an only child or just had that ego of yours stroked too much? Highly amused by herself, she continues to laugh while I clear the rest of the counter. Bringing a bin of silverware and napkins with me, I make use of the time Im stuck here babysitting my moms new friend. Do you know anything about that? Luckily, Im not that sensitive. Clever, I allow her. Highly amused by herself, she continues to laugh while I clear the rest of the counter. Bringing a bin of silverware and napkins with me, I make use of the time Im stuck here babysitting my moms new friend. Do you know anything about that? Ego stroking? Its never happened to me. I have to earn every accolade. Sitting back, she doesnt cross her arms, surprising me. But were not talking about me. Im still searching for balance, remember? She cracks a smile and picks up the spoon again. Touch?. Hows the chili? It pains me to tell you this . . . but its delicious. I tuck the napkin into the fold. It doesnt pain me to get the compliment. You should try the cornbread. Crumbling a piece into her chili, she takes a bite and savors it. I laugh because I can see the irritation. I know. Its good, too. Theres that humility again. She sips her coffee, and then asks, How about you? Are you in school? I am. I rub chin. May not look like it, but I go to Yale as well. Her expression cant cover the interest Ive piqued. When her shoulders ease, she says, Its very admirable how you balance school and work. Nothing she says comes without thought. Its not by choice, but most things in life arent. Speaking of balance, what else do you know about bonsai? Im worried about caring for Frankie properly. You should mist the leaves regularly. I wrap more silverware while trying to remember more of what I read because she seems genuinely interested. And they can outgrow their pot. Frankie looked like she might need a little more room. I can relate. Rubbing her stomach, she says, Howd I eat the whole bowl? Because it was good. Her guard lowers, and I get a peek at the softer side when she smiles. It really was. She starts digging in her bag and pulls out her wallet. I should go. I like that she holds her own; her confidence is appealing. She seems to know exactly what she wants out of life. It was just getting fun. Flipping through a stack of large bills, she tugs out a twenty. As fun as it is bantering with you, I have a lot to do to prepare for school tomorrow. So do I, but I need to finish my shift first. She pushes the money across the counter just as I was reaching to stop her. When our hands collide, they both stay. My heart picks up, and I swear for a second that I can feel everything. Our eyes latch, and though there was a spark that would normally cause me to pull back, I fight the urge, enjoying the contact. Lowering my voice to a whisper, I say, Like my mom said, its on the house. Before she has a chance, I move away, giving myself much-needed space. With the money between us, she remains seated, staring at me in what appears to be a battle of wills. My eyebrows tug together as I try to figure her out. Like I dont have anything better to do. Josh? I look back at the kitchen door thats propped open. The other cook, T., says, Im drowning back here. I hadnt noticed how the lunch crowd had filed in or how my mom and Trina have been running around. Shit. I nod to him and follow, pushing the door open. I have to go. Id say maybe well see each other around, but it seems were on two different paths. All the hurry she had in her earlier has subsided, and she sighs. Youre probably right, so I guess have a good life still stands. Turning around, I feel the door swing against my ass, making her smile. Seems so. Im not sure why this girl intrigues me, but shes definitely more interesting than ladling chili all day. I want to know what makes her tick. Dont you have to go? she asks with a smile. Yes. Right. Gotta go. This time, I dont wait around. I wash my hands and return to the grill to start on the next ticket. It only takes a few minutes before my mom finds me buried behind a stack of plates that should have gone out already. Im also wise enough to know thats not why shes back here, though when she sees me still plating the food, shes more than happy to wait by that smile on her face. Shes sweet. Who? I play dumb, keeping my eyes leveled on the grill. I knew Id eventually see her snooping around, digging for details. No way can she let the encounter go. At least, she never has before. You know who. Chloe. Dont worry, I didnt do anything out of line. I delivered the food. Thats all. Tell me something. Did you leave that name tag there on purpose? I wouldnt put it past you. Youve been known to raise a little hell. Spinning the spatula in my hand, I tap it twice on the cooktop. Just like my mama. Shes laughing when she comes around to whack to my arm. Dont ruin my reputation, kid. Its taken me years to get a little respect in this town. My mom was a wild child growing up. From what I hear, if there was trouble, shed find it, and then shed get a tattoo to commemorate it. Our laughter dies down as she returns to the other side and grabs the plate T just set down for delivery. Ill keep your secret. With the plate in hand, she looks at me, not in expectation but examination. I hate being under her microscope. That means the conversation isnt over. Shes always been intuitive, and if I forget to set a face of indifference, shell call out that emotion. All Im saying is that must have been some delivery. Yeah, normal. I laugh. As much as I can respect her solid comebacks, the girl keeps a lot hidden inside. Thats not my usual type. Nothing special. Nothing special, huh? Okay. If thats how youre going to play it. It looked like something more than nothing to me. The door swings closed. The next thing I know, Im running out the back door and up the alley to the sidewalk. Ah! I crash into someone who screams, and grab hold so we dont fall. Leaning back, Im pleasantly surprised. Hey. You scared me, Joshua. Pushing off me, she readjusts her bag on her shoulder. Sorry. I was trying to catch up to you. Her hands land on her hips as she glares at me. Well, you caught me. I dont know what it is, but Im so damn tempted to kiss her, to hold her face between my hands and feel her lips against mine. What am I doing? I run my hand through my hair, and say, Uh. You need to submerge Frankies entire pot under water once a week. When the air bubbles stop, you can take it out. They have unique care. Do you know this much about all plants or just bonsai trees? Its a loose knowledge. Like I said, I got one a few years back, and its taken a lot of trial and error and searching online, but mines survived. She shifts, her hands lowering to her sides. Is that why you wanted to find me? No, I also wanted to tell you that tomorrows special is my favorite. She peers down and smiles, but I can tell theres no irritation left in her, not even a little banter. Oh, yeah? Whats tomorrows special? Grilled cheese and homemade tomato-basil soup. That sounds good. She moves her wavy brown hair over her shoulder. We serve it every Tuesday if youre in the neighborhood. Sometimes, we have enough staff for delivery if you prefer to eat at home. Ill keep that mind. I hope you do. Just when she turns to leave, I add, Say hi to Frankie for me. Her feet stop on the pavement, and she looks back with a smile. I will. Bye, Joshua. Bye, Chloe. I dont know what the hell Im doing, but I like the feeling. I try to slip back inside undetected, but I suspect my mom can sense me in the area because shes right back in here. Most of our conversations are interrupted by orders needing to be delivered, and she picks up where she left off earlier. Look, Joshua, I know youre around a lot of rich kids, and you got into an Ivy League school. Our home wasnt expensive, but its ours. Youre not less than anyone, but some people in this town will look down on you because youre my kid, or youre a townie to the upper New Haven folk. Money doesnt make them better. It only makes them richer. I know, Mom. Ive heard this a thousand times. Dont worry, Im sticking to my own kind. I see how unsettled the conversation makes her. She was burned by rich kids attending the university, including the man who donated his sperm to make me. He used to tell me to call him Dad, and although its descriptively close to what he is, the name never feels right. Neither does calling him David, so Im fucked either way. Though I can surmise that the little taste of his good life Ive had also added to my bitterness. I dont want to be in that world anyway. Chicks dont care about my baggage. Most people dont even know. They have issues of their own. But that doesnt mean it hasnt fucked with my head. Its easier to mess around casually than to commit and be abandoned again. Your kind is whoever you want it to be. Just be careful when you start mixing with those who make you feel less, Mom says. Dont worry. She didnt make me feel anything, I lie, feeling more interested than Ive been toward anyone else in a while. I delivered food to a girl. So what? There are a lot of hot girls in this town. Im not marrying her and Im not fuc Zip it. Dont talk like that. Its beneath your intelligence and disrespectful to a girl I can tell you dig. Dig? I roll my eyes. You swear. A grin sidles up one of her cheeks, the lines deeper these days. Do as I say, kid. Not as I do. Saluting her with my spatula, I say, Aye aye, captain. I plate two dishes and hand them to her. Best served hot. She winks, seemingly satisfied with my answers, and walks out of the kitchen. I glance over at T, whos grinning, but I know that smile. Dont even say it, T. My moms bad enough. I dont need your teasing. Doesnt matter how old you get, Josh, youll always be her baby. Times like these, I wish I had siblings to take some of the heat off that mama bear attention. Chloes probably right about me craving it. I just dont want it from my mom anymore. That keeps him laughing, and having a good time while spending hours over this hot grill is the only way to get through a long shift. After putting a pan of cornbread in the oven, I move to the swinging door and peek through the porthole to where Chloe was sitting. Good-looking is an understatement, I finally admit. But judging by that fancy looking bag she had clinging to her shoulder, my moms right. Shes out of my league. Not that she was saying that, but I get the drift of dont mix. The rich college kids like to toy with the townies. Doesnt matter if youre born in New Haven or from the outskirts of the suburbs. Locals will never be considered equal in their eyes. So it might be fun to banter with her but getting closer will only get me burned. Ive seen it happen enough to others not to test the fates. Im just curious why Im suddenly willing to test that theory with her? Pursuing anything with her would be a bad idea because Ill be the one who pays the price. Im not in her league, so what would a girl like her see in me? Anyway, I know damn well that dating from the other side of the tracks isnt my scene. So why am I still thinking about her? 4 Chloe I TOLD HIM IN THE ASS! Ruby giggles, barreling over in laughter on the other side of the couch from me. How was I to know he meant a location like a kitchen or something boring like that when he asked wheres the craziest place Ive had sex? You actually said that? I ask wide-eyed. You should have seen his face, Clo. Priceless. Who said New Yorkers are jaded? I dont think anyones prepared for you, my friend, but Im glad you had a good time, even if it didnt work out. Rubys antics make me think about the past two days. Overanalyzing both exchanges, Ive come to the conclusion that Joshua doesnt know what hes talking about because he doesnt know anything about me. Sure, hes quick to throw in his two cents, but that doesnt mean that opinion should be taken into consideration. I have a feeling he got what he wantedmore of my time. You should not let me drink on a school night, Ruby says. A case of wine was the first thing you moved in, so I dont think I could have stopped you if I tried, I reply, teasing. Im glad you didnt try. She kicks her feet up on the coffee table, her arms going wide. My body hurts from laughing. Its good to hang out again. Im glad youre back, too. All I did was work this summer. Its good to hear that one of us had fun. You could have fun if you wanted, Clo. Fun is for when youre dead, according to The Great Dr. Fox. So it sucked working for your pops? The clinic was good experience and exposure to operations, but nothing between my dad and I has changed. He sees me in one way, and if I try to have fun, Im told my mom is to blame. Im sorry. I was hoping it would get better. I hate admitting it out loud, but my boring life back home makes me feel unwanted. Its Ruby, though, and she already knows most of my secrets. I went to the beach once and ran into Trevor. Trevor League? If there was a family that held more prestige than the Foxes in Newport, the Leagues were it. Trevor has continued the playboy reputation he built back home and developed it in Connecticut. Howd that go? What my father has built as a surgeon, Trevors father has built a bigger fortune in finance. It was only natural, considering our families ties, that one day, Trevor and I would have a relationship. We went to homecoming together freshman and sophomore year. I didnt put out, so he dropped me for a senior who was happy to sacrifice her virginity at the altar of the arrogant sophomore for a shot at League family money. I never felt an obligation to give two damns about him or their standing in the community. My goals were bigger than the Leagues because my goals dont rely on money. They rely on healing and making a difference in peoples lives. He sat next to me like were old friends and told me I was looking good these days. Those were his exact words, Ruby, as he lowered his sunglasses to get a better look at my cleavage. Hell never change. Hes still cocky as ever. Considering how hot he is, he has a right to be. The real question is, how cocky is he? she infers all the dirty with just those few words. Her hands spreading wide wasnt necessary. But since theyre hanging in the air, I push them together and break out in laughter. I wouldnt know, but rumor has it, not cocky enough down there to back that ego. Damnnn. Girls got some bite. Pushing my arm, she adds, I always did like your feisty side. After drinking her wine, she then spins the stem between her fingers. She suddenly sits up and pours more wine into her cup. You need more play to balance all the work. Work. Work. You sound like my mom. Your mom is awesome. Listen to the woman and enjoy life before you get stuck working seventy-two-hour shifts and falling for a dermatologist because medical people are the only ones you interact with. The word stuck has become one of my least favorites as it climbs under my skin from the other daystuck in place. I shake my head, but when I see Ruby watching me, I say, For the record, dermatologists are highly regarded professionals. She fake yawns. Boring. I know what will sell her. They make a ton of money, and I bet the wife of a dermatologist has amazing skin. And they can give you free Botox. Sold. Where can I get one? I thought that might pique her interest. Medical school. A light laugh is followed by her mindlessly scrolling on her phone. I think Im going to change my major from premed to visual arts tomorrow. Really? I spent the summer working on my photography portfolio and just decided I love it enough to pursue it professionally. I can imagine that didnt go over well with the Darlings. They dont know. The original agreement was that I get a degree. I guess they figured I couldnt get creative at Yale. Silly parents. I proved them wrong. Before I can ask more questions, she pivots to food in one quick change of topic. Are you hungry? Im starved. Im good, but you should eat. While she grabs a salad from the fridge, I lie back, looking around her place. Tiny bells are strung across the top of her window, a purple paisley blanket is draped over the couch, and a rug that has every color running through its fibers anchors the living room. The coffee table is scratched by years of use, and she hasnt bothered to unpack any dishes to fill the cabinets. Hence the throwaway cups were using for wine and boxes filling half of the kitchen floor. I imagine the lack of burden to bear conforming to societys expectations must be freeing. Ive worried a few times about a fire starting because of the yellow scarf draped over the top of a lampshade, but this all fits her free spirit ways. It makes me wonder what my place says about me. My path has been set since the day I was born, and my boring apartment is proof of the lack of life Ive explored. The decisions Ive made have never been about what my heart wants. Its all about my head and what looks good on a college application or a r?sum?. Plans give security. Theres nothing wrong with knowing what you want to do with your future. Though, it does beg the question if its worth sacrificing today for tomorrow? You sure are quiet. Whats on your mind? She tucks her toes under my legs. Need more wine? Staring at me long after she stopped talking, I know whats going to happen. Sex talk. This is her foreplay when she wants to get personal. If I had to boil Ruby Darrow down to one philosophy, sex is the answer to everything. Got a broken heart? Heal it with a one-night stand. B on a biology test? Sex with the TA. Car needs a new radiator? Get down and dirty with a mechanic. Its her M.O. and works for her more than not. And although I love her dearly and cherish this friendship, Im not Ruby. Sex isnt something I treat lightly, or at all, since it hasnt happened yet. Those arrogant little dimples populate my head, causing me to shiver. Just no to him. Although . . . he has been helpful when it comes to Frankie when he didnt have to be. Im good on wine, I reply, sipping slowly so it doesnt go to my head. Wiggling her toes, she says, You told me you ran into Trevor, worked too much, and had no social life. Im assuming that means no dates either? Considering the amount of time I spent with a delivery guy is the most time Ive spent with anyone of the opposite sex in months, I dont think I have much to offer on the subject. Dating was nonexistent, per usual. She falls back against the cushion dramatically with her forearm attached to her head. Tell me you at least had a toy to keep you company. I wont be able keep her off the no-sex acts talk for long, so I try to think of a bone I can throw. Nothing comes to mind, though. And here we are, like I knew we would be. Three. Two. One. Sitting up, she asks, Please tell me you have something to help release the tension. I raise my chin and smile. I have books. Romance. History. Textbooks. Classics. Dirty books. I add the last to save some face. Its embarrassing to be a virgin at my age. Yes, Ruby. You were the one who got me the magic bunny for my birthday last year. With a wink, she asks, Its the best, right? Its the only, so by default, its top-notch. Sighing contentedly, she exhales. Good. I always worry about you. No need to worry, Ruby. I know how my vagina works. Youre so technical. I bet youre hot in bed. Crossing her hands over her chest, she dips her head back. Oh yes, touch my vulva, baby. I push her playfully. No ones complained yet. Thats unchartered territory, woman. No explorer has been there before, she says, righting herself. But before you turn even redder, one of my favorite things about you is how sweet and technical you are. Why does that sound like an insult wrapped in sugar? She grabs her food container from the table and starts with a large bite of lettuce. I dont know how you stay so thin. Still running? A lot. Because you need to work out that sexual tension. She shoves another dressing-laden bite in her mouth. Although her attention is on the TV, her comment remains. If I were being honest with myself, shes right about the tensionstress and sexual. I stand. Im going home. We both have a big day tomorrow. Kicking her feet up, she lounges across the couch, hogging the cushion I vacated. I cant believe summer is already over. I open the front door and lean against it, facing her. Not able to stop my smile, I say, Senior year. We have to make the most of it. Definitely. I laugh lightly. Good night. As soon as I shut the door, I stop when I see a small box on my doorstep. Peeking down the stairs, I dont see anyone, and I dont hear footsteps. I approach the box with caution and stand over it, smiling when I realize whats inside. Kneeling, I pick it up and carry it into the apartment. I sit at the far end of the couch, close to Frankie, and say, Seems you got gifts today. Picking up the small misting bottle, I hold it up. Guess whose leaves are getting pampered? A new pot. Look how pretty. The blue ceramic pot is rectangle-shaped and will be a huge improvement over the current little plastic one. I leave the Ziploc bag of soil in the box and pull out the note before setting the rest aside. I unfold it and read: Hope Frankie enjoys the new home. He doesnt sign it, but I know who its from, and I grin while reading it aloud for my tiny roommate. Then I realize Ive been talking to a plant, making me roll my eyes at myself. Im not sure if this is what my mom meant to happen when she put me in charge of Frankies well-being, but taking care of her has started to become fun. Replanting the tree in the pot doesnt take long but taking his advice I dont get to bring her into the bedroom since shell be soaking overnight. I click out the lights after Im done and say, Good night. 5 Chloe IVE NEVER FELT in between. The first day of classes can be overwhelming or a breeze. Fortunately, being prepared made me feel confident starting this year. Thats why when I see Pattys Diner sign two blocks down, I make a detour. My confidence remains out on the sidewalk when I enter the diner. I can turn around and walk back out. No harm. No foul. Saving face before this gets out of hand. Yes, thats what I should do. But that bell ringing overhead draws attention again when I open the door to leave. Chloe? I close my eyes, reprimanding myself for getting into this sticky situation in the first place. It could be worse. It could have been Joshua who caught me trying to sneak out. Turning around, ready to greet Patty, I still on the spot when I see her son standing next to her. Hes grinning . . . smirking really, giving me the cocky one that seems to be his specialty. With a slight lift of his hand, he says, Hi. I tuck the hair thats fallen from my ponytail behind my ears and then straighten the straps of my backpack. Hi. I was just in the area and thought Id try the special. With an extended hand, I add, It comes highly recommended. Patty looks pleased and comes around to greet me. Im glad you came by. Joshua was just about to take a dinner break. Maybe the two of you can eat together . . . in that booth . . . in the back corner. Oh, um. I glance back at the brown eyes tracking my every move. I wouldnt want to intrude. He might have other plans Ill get the food, he says while Patty waves her hand at me like a tattooed fairy. Following Patty to the booth, I mumble, Right. She stands, waiting for me to slide in, so I take my backpack off and dump it on the bench. Thank you. Im glad you came by again. We were just talking about you. Oh, yeah? Leaning against the other side of the booth, she looks around conspiratorially, and then says, Josh mentioned your passion for plants. I tweak my neck when I restrain the surprise from jerking me back. Rubbing the back of it, I ask, He did? Said you have a bonsai tree like his. I smile. Yes. My mom gave it to me as a housewarming gift. Its supposed to help me find balance between school and life. Its pretty adorable thats what he thinks of when he thinks of me. Not that Im a Newport Fox or about to graduate from Yale with honors. To Joshua, Im Frankies mom. I gave Josh his bonsai when he was thirteen. I hoped he could find inner peace and calm through some turbulent times. Im sorry to hear he had struggles. She laughs. Dont we all? But some things happen for a reason. We just have to look for the rainbow after the storm. She glances up when the door opens. What can I get you to drink? Water is good. Thank you. Patting my shoulder when she passes, I cant help but feel her kindness every time I see her. My phone rings, and Im quick to grab it from the front pocket of my bag, and answer, Hi, Dad. Chloe. I wanted to call to see how the first day went. Fine. Its going to be a tough semester, but nothing I cant handle. Thats what I like to hear. Make sure to keep ahead of the syllabus so if questions arise, you have time to get answers. I will. I lower my head, wondering when hell trust me to take care of my own life. Are you still working? I had dinner brought in, and Im catching up on some research. Education never ends in our profession. He still refuses to discuss a different medical path than the one hes taken, and his expectation for perfection weighs heavy on me. Glad to hear youre taking time to eat. Making sure Joshua wont show up with me on the phone, I add, Im about to eat and then head home, so I should Thats good. He pauses before his tone turns serious, not that he has a carefree tone in his arsenal. We havent always gotten along . . . Weve struggled through the divorce because he felt like I was siding with my mom. I wasnt. Being there for her isnt siding with her, but hes never understood that. There were conflicts over my high school courses and the fast track he wanted me to take. He won. I graduated in three years and went to Yale just as he wanted, much to the dismay of my mom. I want you to know how proud I am of you, Chloe. Adjusting the phone in my hand, I close my eyes and angle toward the wall for privacy. I know, Dad, but it means a lot to hear it. He clears his throat, the gruffness returning. Good talk. The lump in my throat is swallowed down, and I reply, Yeah, good talk. Good luck this year. Make me proud. I will. I love The line goes dead. Him never telling me he loves me used to bother me, but he always said words are worthless. Its actions that matter. Miss me? Joshua sets a plate and bowl of soup in front of me before sliding in across from me. Guess our paths arent so different, after all. Dropping my phone back in my bag, I say, Especially when they intersect at the same place. Im not sure when the glasses of water arrived, but I feel a little embarrassed at the thought of Patty overhearing my dysfunctional call with my dad. I take a sip of water to cool my self-consciousness. But seeing Joshua staring at me with a lopsided grin doesnt help. What? You. I tilt my head and raise an eyebrow. Care to elaborate? You couldnt resist, could you? He has the biggest, dumbest, hottest smirk on his face right now. Youre right. Busted me. I love grilled cheese sandwiches. I take a big bite to stuff my mouth enough to justify not talking more. Chuckling, he picks up one of the diagonally cut halves and takes a huge bite. Hes a big guy with an appetite to match, judging by the two sandwiches on his plate. You know what Im talking about, Chloe. So you can hide behind the specials or just fess up and admit you stopped by to see me. Pfft. I didnt even know you were working. Anyway, I let my growling stomach lead the way. Okay, he says, dunking a corner of a sandwich in the soup. He holds it up. Its best when eaten together. Im surprised a girl like you would even eat a grilled cheese, so dunking it might be too much for you. My shoulders drop, and I give him a pointed glare. I may be from Newport, but I can get messy like the best of them. Two things, he starts. Im figuring hes going to talk my ear off at this point. First, youre from Newport? I am. So say what you want to say, and then lets get on with the second thing you feel the need to share. Shrugging, he acts innocent with wide eyes and his attention planted on the bowl of soup. I wasnt going to say anything other than . . . His eyes lift to minebrown warming my greens. Im not surprised. Well, what does that mean? It means Im not shocked. I know what surprised means. I want to know why I fit right into some box that apparently doesnt surprise you? Well, you tell me. Oh, my God. Youre so infuriating. His lips scrunch to one side as if he hates being the bearer of bad news. Im just saying, youre uptight. I am not. Okay. One sandwich has been demolished, and he starts on the next. What does okay mean? Do you want me to define okay for you? I grip the edge of the table to keep from smacking him. Do you give all your dates this hard of a time? His eyes fix on mine, the wry grin sifted away. Leaning closer, he whispers, No. Only the ones I like. I have two things to list myself. 1.Joshua just confessed he likes me. 2.I said were on a date, and I know hes about to have a field day with that slip of the tongue. Now Im holding the table for an entirely new reasonto brace myself for the verbal onslaught heading my way. Not really. I shovel soup in my mouth instead. Leaning back with a self-satisfied grin, he says, Dont worry, Chloe, dragging out that e again with a drawl thats definitely not from around these parts. Whether I like you or not, I always leave my dates happy. The spoon drops from my hand, clanging against the bowl and landing on the placemat. The ruckus earns unwanted attention. Waiting it out, I cross my arms over my chest, trying to level that smirk into smithereens. Do I even want to know what that means? Trust me. You want to know. Theres so much conviction in his tone that Im starting to believe him. Before I get too wrapped up in my imagination, I ask, What exactly does this happy ending consist of? Would you like me to show you? No. Were not on a date. That was a slip on my part. Waving between us, I give in just a little because his ego may be the most dominant part, but I kind of like the other side he shows me every now and again. I wasnt looking for a friend, but for some reason, I find you, when not utterly incorrigible, mildly entertaining. As if he just won the lottery, his whole expression changes as that ego is fed once again. Its probably best if were only friends. Why is that? I dont think you could handle Your ego. Youre so fixated on my ego. But by how you walk around studying like youre above it all I study all the time because I have to. How much do you study? Maybe, I cut him off again, but he knows exactly how to push my buttons. His silence keeps me fixated on him, the way he suddenly appears to want an out, has my curiosity going wild. No shame covers his face, and he doesnt seem to be searching for an excuse. Then it dawns on me. My mouth falls open as I find fault in my own abilities in direct comparison. Oh, my God. Tell me you have to study. That you do it every minute youre not in class or at work. The tilt of his head sends strands falling in his eyes. Thats when I notice hes not wearing a cap like he was when I walked in. I swear his shirt was blue, but now its red. Occasionally, I get a whiff of the clean scent of soap, and considering hes a cook, he almost appears freshly showered. Like, maybe, he was hoping Id come in tonight. Maybe. Stroking my hands over my head, I pull the elastic from my hair and collect all the loose strands. All the while, were looking at each other as though were more than friends. I hadnt noticed my heart beating so heavily in my chest or that my breathing had shalloweduntil nowand the beats so loud that he might hear. In the strangest turnabout, Ive gone from feeling defeat from being outdone collegiately to feeling alive from his proximity. Dipping my hands to my yoga pants, I slide my clammy palms down the tops of my thighs. I wouldnt say I have a photographic memory since I havent been officially tested, but I wouldnt say that I dont either. Why are his lips suddenly the most fascinating thing about today? I dont know if I hate myself for suddenly finding him so attractive or should congratulate myself for sitting through this meal. I take a few more bites of soup to ponder this precarious situation. I have to work for every grade. My memory isnt bad, but I wish it were better. Whatever youre thinking, and it seems like theres a lot by how tight your grip is on that spoon, dont discount me. Discount you? Im envious. Maybe if I didnt have to study so much, I could get the life everyone tells me Im missing out on. It seems you already know what youre missing. Now, its just a matter of doing something about it. Resting his forearms on the table, he asks, What are you going to do about it? I like to think that Im quick on my feet with the correct textbook answer to anything. Short of going to finishing school, I can make small talk with the best of society. But when someone asks about me, Im blank. I dont know, I answer honestly. Thats okay. Were young. We have time to figure it out. We? I distinctly caught a we in there. Said like someone who knows exactly who he is. Said like someone who had no choice but to grow up fast. The lighter, more jovial side has disappeared, and the words of his mother come back to meI hoped he could find inner peace and calm through some turbulent times. Now doesnt seem like the time to ask him deeply personal questions, though I remain curious as to what happened. I wanted to thank you for Frankies housewarming gifts. Fine, I give into this silly mess. She loves them. A smile more genuine than before appears. Im glad to hear. Shed turn tricks with those leaves for a good misting. I laugh. Its his laughter that has the joy reaching my eyes as well. So I guess its official. Im part of the bonsai club. Yale has one. Slow down. Baby steps. He checks his watch, and says, My break is ending soon. How about a lightning round of get-to-know-you questions? Im game. Can I go first? When he nods, I ask, Age? Twenty-two next month. Age? Twenty-one. I dont know why I lie. Hes given me no reason to, other than I dont want him to treat me differently. People always do when they find out I skipped a year or cant go to bars with them like I should be able to. Were the same age Major? I ask, moving past that topic as fast as I can. Economics. Premed for you? Yes. A joy fills my chest. Although I have all kinds of questions about his major, I go easy. Favorite food? Cooking or eating? I giggle. Figures a chef would get that specific. How about both? Im a cook, not a chef. As for food: Eatingfresh caught catfish after a day on the lake. Cooking? Hmm . . . He rubs his chin. Maybe omelets. You can make them a million different ways. Kind of simple, I know, but it matches me, I guess. I dont find you simple at all. The ball sort of drops, and I wish there were takebacks. But since its already out there, I follow up with, I think youre rather interesting, Joshua. Enough to want to share another special someday? Someday. I cant give in that easily. Wheres the challenge in that? Pushing off the table, he stands and begins collecting the dishes. I need to get back to work. The dinner crowd is already piling in. I look around, and despite a bell above the door, I never noticed the restaurant is now full. Of course. I can leave money on the table. Now why would I let you do that? This is a date, remember? He punctuates it with a wink. Looking down when my cheeks feel hot, I smile to myself. I peek up at him under my lashes. I remember. When he takes the dishes, I slip my backpack back on. It gets lighter, so I turn around to find him adjusting it. Dont want to hurt your back carrying all those books around. Not sure if you know . . . His tone drips in sarcasm. But everything you need is online these days. You dont actually have to carry books. And here, I was starting to think I wouldnt get another of your smart-ass comments. Thanks for coming through for me. Snickering, he replies, Youre welcome. I start for the door and notice him behind me. Its okay. I can see myself out. His shoulders hit the bottom of his ears. Yeah, no worries. I was just coming to get fresh air. Ah. Right. I laugh. On the sidewalk, I stop awkwardly, looking down the street, and then turn back to him. So, Im going. Thanks for dinner. I have no idea what Im doing, which seems to be a running theme when Im with him. But I do it anyway. You know how you told me to tell Frankie hi? The laugh rumbles through his chest as he runs his thumb over a plush lower lip. Yeah. I didnt. Why not? I was thinking you could tell her yourself sometime. He tries so hard to restrain his smile and fails. Im fairly certain its the only thing he fails at. I could do that. Id have to check my schedule. Maybe I can give you my number, and you can send me a text sometime. Absolutely. Frankie will love the visit. I pull my phone out and hand it to him. As he types, he says, Anything for Frankie. When he hands my phone back to me, he pulls his from his pocket with my number flashing on the screen. Hope you dont mind me sending a text to myself. Now, I have your number. Text me the specials. I start to back away in the opposite direction, and say, You never did tell me about that happy ending. Like I said, its something I have to show you. Maybe next time. He reaches for the door. You got it. I dont know why my feet feel like theyre full of lead, but every step I take is painful. My phone buzzes in my hand with a message from him: I forgot to tell you something. Me: What? Joshua: The second thing. I turn around to find him standing in the middle of the sidewalk with a grin that makes me weak in the knees because Im the one who put it there. I raise my arms out, and from half a block down, I yell, What? My last name is Evans. Realizing that all the things instilled in me growing up flew out the window the day I met him, I start to wonder if hes whats been missing from my life. Joshua Evans, I say well out of his earshot, just liking the sound of it. But my feet are moving, and although he said I had to trust him on that happy ending one day, its too late for propriety. I feel alive. I want another taste of that happiness today. I run with my backpack bouncing, slipping it off and dropping at his feet as I fly into his arms. Our lips meet in pure passion, pushed to the brink by flirty banter as foreplay. With his arms wrapped around my middle, his body is pressed to mine with no room left for misinterpretation. My arms tighten around him, and all I feel is his heat against my lips, between my legs, and in this kiss. Our lips part, and our tongues meet, embracing like a familiar lover from the past. When all the air is empty from my lungs, I kiss him longer, breathing him in instead. This time when our lips part, he doesnt set me down but looks at me eye-level. Breathless and panting, I say, Chloe Fox. Thats my name. And suddenly that smirk isnt offensive or arrogant. Its infectious, causing me to display one of my own. Its nice to meet you, Chloe Fox. Its nice to meet you too, Joshua Evans. 6 Joshua KISSING CHLOE FOX has become my new favorite pastime. I dont know what happened at the diner earlier in the week, but the moment our lips met, some kind of kiss and attack game began. I didnt take her for spontaneous, considering her type A personality, but on Wednesday, we discovered we both have classes near Kline Biology Tower at two. Lets just say we were almost late to our next classes after making out in an empty lab room for a half hour. If Ive learned anything about her in the past week, its that shes regimented. Pushing her boundaries might be my second favorite thing right now. Thursday, though, I was the one to blame. It killed me to have to stop kissing her in the photography section of the art gallery before racing to work. Everything about her calls to me. Shes smart and soft. Ive been dying to touch her all day, feeling the itch in my palms, so this time when I spy her refilling her bottle at a water fountain, I stand behind her and pretend to wait my turn. This was my first mistake. Turning to dash back down the hallway, she runs right into me, her hair swinging wide around her shoulders as water splashes across my shirt. Oh, no! She gasps in horror. Her gaze glides up my chest and then a little mischievous smile appears. I see when the devious cogs start to turn. Rubbing her hand down my shirt, she says, I am so very sorry about that, not sounding sorry one bit. I just bet you are. My abs start tightening from the cold water pricking my skin, and I take her by the elbow, moving her off to the side. Its funny how we havent seen each other in the three years weve been here together, but now were running into each other everywhere. True, but I wasnt looking before. The space between us is too far, and knowing we both have class soon, I get to whats been on my mind. Ive been thinking you Good thoughts or bad? Why would I have bad thoughts about you? The little scalloped edges of her white top highlight an innocence, matching her face, but then she wears tight black pants with it, keeping me guessing. Thats just it. I cant get a solid read on her. She seems to be good deeds and sin, carefree but measured. Shes become a riddle I want to solve. Her eyes follow the people walking behind me when her shoulders pop up and then drop. Her eyes come back to me, and she says, I dont know. I dont know you well enough to know what you think about me. Thats just it. I want us to get to know each other better. She rocks back, so I take her wrists and move closer. I like making out with you Hey, Josh. Shit. Talk about bad timing. Hey, I mumble, catching Trishs eyes still on me when she passes. One date two years ago didnt lead anywhere, but that never looks good to other women, which usually ends badly for me. But Chloes standing there like we werent interrupted. As much as that fascinates me, were running short on time. You were flattering me with sweet nothings of I like making out with you. Im sensing a but coming. But I want to spend more time with you. Smiling, she moves in even closer. Her lips so close, our height difference the only discrepancy. Thats a good but. Ive been dying to touch her all day, feeling the urge to wrap myself around herfeel her against me. As I take hold of her hip, we both shift our middles closer, and an urge begins to churn deep inside. Fuck me, shes driving me wild. I have to use my head, but my heart is suddenly going crazy in my chestnerves kicking in. What if she says no? What if making out is all she wants from me? What if were only hooking up, and Im reading this all wrong? Her chest rises and falls, each breath seeming to anticipate what I have to say. Fuck. I gulp so embarrassingly loud. Im either doing this, or Im not. Spit it out, Evans. I have to work tonight, but I was wondering if youd like to get together this weekend? Youre asking me out? Or in. Whatever you like. I just want to spend time with you. Im fairly certain I hear her gulp this time as she takes hold of a dry part of my shirt with her free hand, holding me closer. Blood pumps through my veins like a race car. Judging by the lust in her eyes, Im thinking I didnt fuck this up entirely. Id love to spend more time with you, Joshua. We should kiss on it. Stop stealing my lines, lady. Before she tries to control this like the other times she so sexily stole my lips for her own purposescompletely to my benefit, I might addI kiss her. I want her to feel how shes made me feel this weekalive and not shy to show affection to someone Ive started caring about. I want to be the one who kissed her right here for everyone to see, to show her what she means to me. Shes not just another girl; shes the one who has captured my imagination. I kiss her again. And again, as I run my hands over her ribs, touching, exploring, memorizing how much space she takes upnot muchher body slacks against mine. Her lips soften in greeting and then firm when she kisses me, her tongue exploring my mouth as much as I taste the heat of whats in store the next time were alone. Pushing her hair back, I deepen the kiss, making sure that every part of her remembers me. If she deserves anything from this, its to be kissed like were the only two people in the world. The sound of shuffling feet behind me signals that our time is up. She lowers down, flat on her feet, and whispers, I need to go. I have to run to class. I dont want her to go. I want to spend time with her right now, but I know its impossible. Exhaling a deep breath, I put space between us and nod. So do I. Ill see you this weekend? Yes, absolutely. Lifting onto her tiptoes once more, she kisses my cheek, her lips searing my skin so I wont forget how this felt either. Bye, Joshua. Bye, Chloe. I watch her walk away, occasionally glancing back until she turns a corner after a little wave. I go to the fountain and splash my face, needing to cool down. My mind has kicked into overdrive, wondering why everything feels so different with her . . . this year. Somehow, I hadnt noticed how heavy my thoughts had become until the lightness she brings swept through me. But as much fun as it has been kissing Chloe, I kind of want to know everything about her. I want to know what she eats for breakfast. I want to know what she wants out of life. What would she bring to a desert island? This is the shit that fills my head, and I want to know everything. All of it. She goes against everything I figured she would be, yet shes exactly who she says she is. The facts are that I know little about her other than shes a senior from Newport who has a bonsai tree. Having two out of three in common doesnt justify how Im starting to feel about her. I mean, shit, before we kissed outside the diner, I thought the girl hated me. Ive spent more time with her in my head than I have in person, so none of this makes sense to me. Like why does it seem like she just discovered the joys of kissing? Like shes never known what it feels like to lose your body in someone elses. For us, every brush of our lips is a bit or piece of us sharing something more. Or maybe shes wild like a preachers daughterprim and proper on the streets and a vixen in the sheets. My gut tells me thats not the case, but what do I know these days? Ive been skating by on charm and half-assing it for the past year at Yale. I have to get my act together. After I hang up my apron and go to clock out, I find Bryant filling a cup full of soda to go while Todd swivels on a stool at the counter. Todd and Bryant have been my closest friends since kindergarten. If a fight over Becky Norris didnt break us up back in the sixth grade, no ones coming between us now. What else is in that cup? Whiskey, Bryant replies. Did you have a doubt? If there was one kid in school who everyone wanted to be friends with, it was Bryant Eldridge. Not because he was the star football player (that title still belongs to me), or could get any girl he wanted (okay, me as well), but because he was the coolest guy around. Friends with everyone, easily entertained, and the most laid-back person I know. Todd says, Were heading to the lake. You in? Todd Berenger knows his way around this city. Hes sixth generation New Haven and lives on the other side of the proverbial tracks. Im not saying hes from money, but theyre not doing too bad. His parents also cut him off financially a few years back when he decided he wanted to take some time off to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He still doesnt know. They both deliver for the diner part time and the pizza joint around the corner. Which has me thinking about Chloe again. I havent delivered food in well over a year, but when Todds truck broke down, I had to cover. She was my first back in the saddle again. Ive definitely had some deeper thoughts about how that worked out, but Im not giving in to overanalyzing them. No good would come of it since my path was set years ago. Who alls going? I ask, rubbing my hand over the scruff of my face. Mick, Jim, Sanders Dana and those girls, Bryant adds and is promptly elbowed. Now he wont go, ya fucker, Todd reprimands. Were going, Evans. The rest of them dont matter. Seeing Dana is not at the top of my agenda. I really dont want to deal with her tonight. If Im with you guys, shell be all over me. If I bring someone Who would you bring? Bryant asks, hopping up on the counter. Do we know her? Todd chimes in. I chuckle. I said if and Im not going. I have some things to take care of. Todd is a shark whos gotten a taste of blood. Would one of those things be a girl you met? In no mood to lie to them or hide what Im thinking, I lean against the wall and kick my foot up on the side of the counter. I actually met her when I was covering for your ass last Sunday. Damn, for real? Is she hot? I level him with a glare. Of course, shes hot, or why would I bother? I sound like an asshole, even to me. How she caught my eye the first time we met has become secondary to how she makes me think and makes me feel around her. I cant rest on my laurels with her like I do with everyone else. She wont let me, and I like that. Shes holding me to the standard my mom also believes in me. But yeah, I dont need to overthink a good time or have it ruined by these guys. Next, theyll want to see her, and Ill never hear the end of it. She goes to school with me. Its . . . How do I describe what Chloe and I are? New. Bryant is a lot easier to slip stuff by because he doesnt generally care about much, but Todd, on the other hand, is the one who will see through a lie. New isnt hearts and flowers, but its not a lie either. I feign indifference for my own benefit. He asks, Like its becoming a thing? Howd you get there from me calling it new? Because youve never said that before. If youre just hooking up with her, youd say so. I reply with a shrug, striving to maintain a lack of care and failing. I dont know much about her yet. Disinterested, Bryant stands and waves us toward the door. Its getting late. Lets go. We head for the door. See ya, T. Have a good night, Josh, he calls from the kitchen. I lock up and follow the guys to the truck. The drivers side window slides down, and Todd leans his arm over. Dont go falling in love, Josh. I made that mistake for all of us. The grin that works its way across his face is something that took a long time to see after his bad breakup last year. A girl from Yale broke his heart, leaving us to sweep up the pieces. It hits close to home for some reason. Kicking his tire, I then back up onto the sidewalk again. Just having fun, my friend. Have a good night and dont call me for bail money. We wouldnt. You never have any money. I chuckle, walking to my Bronco parked in the back. Between the guys harassing me about not going and my mind dwelling on a certain pair of green eyes, I climb into the cab and sit back. Mulling over the last week, I purposely let Chloe lead. It was her who pulled me into the lab and kissed me like we were about to get caught. She loves to control everything, including our meetups, which makes me think shes gotten away with it for too long. Does no one in her life challenge her? Shes whip-smart and her humor is as dry as a desert and always makes me laugh. She can hold her own, dish it out, and take it. With that killer body, shes basically the perfect woman. So why is she single? Theres so much left to discover about the divine Miss Fox, but Im still left wondering what happens when she loses the upper hand. Guess theres only one way to find out. 7 Chloe SLIPPING ON PAJAMAS, I whip my hair into a towel on my head and brush my teeth before settling on the edge of the bed to slather on lotion. My gaze darts to the clock on the nightstand. You would think I had coffee tonight by how wide-awake I am. Im usually in bed by now. Instead, my mind is wired. After wasting an hour daydreaming about a certain guys lips, tongue, and the way he holds my waist like I might slip away has caused my thoughts to deviate from my routine, so I took a room temperature shower in hopes to cool off without getting too cold. It didnt take my mind off him, though. It only made matters worse. Im starting to sound like Ruby. I need to get my mind off sex and back on my goals. Graduation. Med school. Columbia. Focus, Chloe. But kissing him amongst the photographs at the gallery had me feeling powerful and naughty, something Ive never felt before. And I liked it. I still do. Ive started devising plans, excuses really, to kiss him again. Like a multitude of plots to have those lips against mine as soon as I can. Im starting to wonder what sleeping with him would be like. One wordcombustible. I huff, lying on the bed, utterly frustrated with myself. Ive lost time that I didnt have to spare, and Im pretty sure Ive literally been objectifying him. Im a terrible human. Im glad Frankie cant read my mind. Oh, good God. What have I become? Im not too far gone. I can name at least three other qualities that Ive begun to admire about Joshua Evans. 1. Although it was a box of dirt, the gift for Frankie was one of the most thoughtful Ive ever received. 2. The camaraderie between him and his mom is quite endearing. 3. He doesnt pretend hes something hes not. Though I could argue that you get more than what you see. And for the bonus round, the way he livesfearlesslyis enviable. He makes up his own rules. Does it count for me finding balance if I find someone who balances me? Too tired to deal with drying my hair, I get up and wander into the living room with the towel stacked high on my head. In the kitchen, I could kick myself for not going to the store today. With a carton of eggs, cheese, and olives, I dont have much of a selection. Olives it is. I pull the jar out and try to cram my fingers in when a slew of rapid-fire texts send my phone buzzing across the coffee table. Abandoning the olive jar, I hurry over. My suspicions that its Ruby on another bad date are wrong. There on my phone is the word Soulmate staring back at me above the text messages. Whos Soulmate? The moment I say it, I know who it is. Well, that and the message clued me in: I miss your lips on mine. Grinning ear to ear, I type: Who is this? My phone rings. Acting oblivious to the previous texts, I answer, Hello? What do you mean whos this? How many strapping, six-foot-two guys are you kissing these days? Id laugh but torturing him is more fun, so I hold my reaction steady. Six foot two? Are you sure about that? Positive Ill pack a measuring tape in my backpack for the next time I see you Knock. Knock. I practically jump in giddiness that hes come to see me until I realize that Im in my pajamas without a stitch of makeup and a towel twisted around my wet head. I panic and run around the apartment, but theres nothing to clean. Remembering how Rubys life is seen in her d?cor from the tiny bells above the window to the colorful cushions. I look around mine and it has no life. This is not the apartment of a co-ed who is fun and flirty, doing exciting things, and has stories to share. This place fits me to a Tboring. And Joshua is about to find that out firsthand. Doesnt matter that he was here before. He was in the doorway, not spending enough time to psychoanalyze my neat freak tendencies. I pull the mug from the cabinet and leave it on the counter next to the olives. Inspired, I hurry under the sound of another rap on the door to my closet and pull a red scarf Ive never worn and place it over my bankers lamp in the living room. I dont have time to overthink it, which is probably a good thing. Theres not enough time to continue panicking before he knocks again. Resolved, I straighten my cotton top and tug down my shorts, hoping they cover my ass, and go to the peephole. With him looking down the hall, Im given a porthole view of that great jaw of his. The ticking muscle is a bonus. Who is it? I giggle, slightly out of breath. Hi. I didnt order any food. The whole setup is the gift that keeps giving. He holds up a bag. Thats too bad. I had a special delivery for Chloe Fox. I dont keep him waiting. I open the door and tilt my head sideways under the chain to see him. You play dirty. With one hand pressed to the doorframe, he leans in with a big juicy grin and says, I play to win. God, I want to kiss his face. Or smack the smirk right off, but kissing it is more fun. I undo the chain and step aside. "Entrez-vous?" Oui. Sil vous plait. I do a double take. You know French? Its shoddy at best. I catch his arm and pull him back before he passes, welcoming him with a quick kiss. My lips tingle like little fires ignited beneath my skin. When I free him, I slide my tongue over my bottom lip to dampen the flame. Like he mentioned, I want to get to know him. It may be tough to resist those magnificent lips, but I have no doubt it will be worth the wait. Closing the door, I lock it and lean against the back of it. For someone so cocky, sometimes you can be really self-deprecating. Its pleasantly surprising. Glad you noticed, but more importantly, which side of me do you like best? Your backside. It doesnt talk back. Good to know you noticed my ass. He stands there shamelessly looking me over from head to toe. Well, I wouldnt go that far. I shrug. But there might be some truth to that. Make yourself at home. Moving closer to the couch, he scans the place like it could take all day. Your place is so clean. With his back to me, I shuffle a flip-flop into the walkway to add to the mess. Eh. Peeking back, he asks, You live alone? Yep. Giving himself permission, he glances around the room. Nice building. I like the location. My friend Ruby found it. And then because he doesnt say anything, I keep rambling, I can walk to school, and Im close to shopping. Its a great location. Ruby lives next door. His interest is piqued when he turns back to me. Oh, really? Why dont you live together? Now Im searching the apartment for answers because Im unsure what to say. Never thought about it. Itd save some money. More importantly, I start while picking up my phone and holding my phone screen so he can see it. Can you explain this to me? His whiskey-colored eyes cant hide his inner thoughts. Neither can his smile. I must have missed the part where you labeled yourself as Soulmate in my contacts. Moving toward the window, he peers down one side of the street and then another. Understandable. You were distracted by the potential of a happy ending. I was not. I sound petulant even to me. With a raised brown, he looks back at me. You sure about that? Honestly, no, I say, crossing my arms. Im not. Laughter rumbles through his chest. At least youre honest. Most of the time, I think, thinking about the lie I told about my age. Kneeling, he prods the dirt in the pot. Frankie looks good in her new home. She likes the window. I sit on the couch and watch him stare at this plant like its a patient of his. The sweetness isnt lost on me. Neither is the fact that Mom told me to do the same thing. Shes a diva. Shes been preening for you all week. Standing back up, hes smiling, and I just flat-out like it. Youre funny, you know that? Eh, I say, waving him off. Whats in the bag? It was a ploy to gain entrance because I didnt think youd appreciate me as the special delivery. Slamming his hands together, he bursts the paper bag. Thats disappointing. Concern weaves its way into his expression as he sits on the couch. Why? Are you hungry? No. That youd think I wouldnt appreciate you. Eyeing my bare legs, he says, Cmere, Fox. I push off the wood and go because it benefits me as well. As much as its been fun to make out all over campus these past few days, tonight feels different. Its not about the physical, but the emotional connection. I sit on his lap, and his arms come around me so easily. I rest my hand on his cheek, noticing how my heart skips a beat. Even in the low light, his pupils widen as he takes me in. I give him a hard time about all the teasing, but I swear I can hear his heart beating like mine. The quieter time between us is unique, and I savor the silence as we stare into each others eyes. Two breaths later, I whisper, What do you want, Evans? The pressure of his fingertips on my hip has my body on high alert. My breathing lags as I feel the buildup of those kisses setting in. Nuzzling my ear, his breath warming my neck, he asks, Why do you smell like olives? Like the bag, I burst, laughing and rolling closer against him. I was just digging into a jar before I was rudely interrupted by a thread of texts and a Trojan horse food bag. Ill make you a deal. Since I tricked you into letting me invade your night, how about I make you something? Make me what? Chuckling, he kisses my cheek. Food. Ill cook something, and you dont have to do a thing but lounge here and appreciate the view. Ill be gold medal worthy with this assignment. Get to it. Im hungry. On it. When he flips me onto my back on the couch, my feet fly into the air and the towel unravels, falling to the floor. Looped into a fit of giggles, I flop my legs down and rest back on my hands. The distance between us gives me the breathing room I need. What are you going to cook for me? Opening the fridge, he replies, Depends on what I find in here. He glances back over his shoulder while bent toward the open fridge. You want to cook with me? For your safety and Frankies, its best if I stay here . . . on the couch, appreciating the view. A smile that he doesnt want to give me cant hide from his eyes. I grin, big and free. Your words. Fair game. Anyway, Im a disaster in the kitchen. Ill let you off the hook tonight, but I have a feeling that youre not as bad as you think you are. My dad could argue otherwise, but we dont need to get into my issues. He goes quiet for a moment and then shuffles through the cabinets, eventually returning to the fridge to retrieve the eggs and cheese. I didnt even know I had cherry tomatoes, but the container is set on the counter. I havent shopped in a few days. Its okay, he replies with his back to me. The muscles under the T-shirt raise and lower like the bones of a keyboard as he works through his tasks, focusing on the food. As much fun as it is to watch a hot guy cook for me, I want to know whats going on in his head. I pad across the floor and angle against the counter. My wet hair is a mess, but he hasnt made me feel less than beautiful in his glances and blatant stares. What do you want to do with economics? His eyes remain on the pan in front of him as he scrambles the eggs. Im not sure. Ive been thinking about the restaurant side of business, some aspect of hospitality, but Id rather be cooking than pushing pens across a desk. Why dont you become a chef? This time, he looks my way. Its not on the short list of options my dad will pay for. "Sounds like mine. My stomach drops from the admission, and I turn, holding the cold stone counter behind me. Oh, yeah? Shoving off, I move to the window. I scoff, waving it off like its no big deal. Behind me, I hear the click of the stovetop and the cabinet open again. Like the first time, his presence fills my space and caresses my back. But its not just his presence; his hands caress my shoulders, and he places the gentlest kiss on the side of my neck. Im not sure what the situation is between you and your dad, but you can talk to me, Chloe. You can say anything, and it will stay between us. I dont know why that made me sad. Hes paying my way so I can become a doctor. Theres nothing melancholy about that. When his body presses to the back of mine, I feel the heat from his exchanged. I find myself leaning back, relying on him for the support I lack. Standing there for two beats, I finally say, If I think about it too much, Ill fall apart, and that scares me more than dealing with it. You can fall apart. Ill pick up the pieces. Im held protectively, his arms wrapped around my middle like a belt. His words have me resting my head against him. My dad and I have similar dreams for me. Its just the path where we disagree. What does he want for you? For me to follow in his footsteps. Hes a well-known neurosurgeon. What do you want? The words strike in the chest, my heart clenching. I turn in his arms, wrapping mine around him. I whisper, What I really want . . . I want to work in an ER. Large hands rub my back, and then he leans back just enough to see my eyes. You say that like its a bad thing. It is to him. Its sounds amazing to me. We might not have a long history, but I mentally note the time and date, and the way he holds me as if its been years and not days. Ill remember this moment forever. After a week of kissing, its been nice to slow down, the pace more my usual speed. I rock back, noticing the two plates of food on the coffee table. We should eat before it gets cold. He doesnt add any burdens or pressure me for more, just accepts me at face value. Its intoxicating. Sitting on the couch, we take our plates in hands and start to eat, not desperate for a distraction, but good in the peace. As he chews, he looks around the apartment. You live alone. Youre OCD neat, and youre showered and dressed for bed, he says, eyeing my laptop with a tomato on the tines of his fork. Youre a better student than you let on, arent you? Everyone at Yale earns good grades. Thats how they got here. My feeble attempt to appear average . . . normal by college student standards doesnt fool him. Everyone knows that you have to have over a 4.0 GPA and nearly straight As. Perhaps I have a genetic advantage, but I still worked my ass off to get here. But then so did every other student. True. Let me ask you, Chloe. Why dont you have a boyfriend? The question mingling with the way his brown gaze delves deeper than the surface of my skin has my stomach tied up in knots of excitement. I set the plate down and get up to get water. Guess I havent found the right guy. You sure about that? The comment has me whipping back to look at him. Hes caught up in those eggs like he didnt just lay a bomb at my feet. I hand him a bottle of water and sit down slowly, his words still wreaking havoc on my mind. I realize Im sitting next to a guy who doesnt know who I am. He doesnt have expectations based on who my dad is. Im simply Chloe Fox to him. Its . . . Its . . . its awesome. I almost feel as though I should spend more time getting to know him, but its been years, okay, one day, since Ive been kissed, and Im yearning for that. For him. Is it too forward to attack him on the couch? Hes not shy to show his interest through the warmth of his caramelly eyes and Im pretty sure its not the food thats doing that to him. Um, no? I nod, stupidly, unable to look away. I dont even know what Im saying. He has my heart beating so hard that Ruby can probably hear it next door. A deep chuckle vibrates from his chest. Setting his plate down, he moves closer, our fingers bumping into each other on the cushion. Heat zips through me, and he asks, Id like to apply for the job. Do you have experience? I ask, a little breathless and desperate sounding. Ill need to see your r?sum?. How about I show you instead? His hand covers mine as he leans forward and kisses me. And there goes my heart again. 8 Joshua DRAGGING myself away from Chloe Fox is one of my worst decisions, and Ive made a lot of bad choices over the years. Still tasting her on my tongue, I grin. Shes one of the best Ive made in a long time. Putting myself on the line isnt easy, so in the past, I didnt do it. I like the cards stacked in my favor. Easy. But spending time with her has felt right from the start. Each time, even better. The kissing is great, but weve also talked. About school and life. She asked about me and growing up in New Haven. I could get used to how she looks at me. Like Im good. Like I have something to offer the world. Like I matter instead of being looked down on as a townie, even when sitting next to them in class. I know its not just how she makes me feel. Its also how she keeps so much locked inside. I want to be the key that unlocks her secrets. I want to be the guy who gets to know who she really is and wants to be, to peel back the layers. Shes given me a taste, but greedily, I want more. Sitting in my truck with the engine idling, I look up at the third-floor windows. No fucking curtains hang to protect whats inside, making my stomach twist. The lights are still on, and I cant help but want to see her one more time. I cut the engine and honk the horn twice before getting out of the Blazer. When she doesnt appear, I honk again until her silhouette fills the living room window. I shut the door and stand there in the street with people staring as they pass, but I gave up giving a damn a long time ago. She slides the window up and leans out. What are you doing, Joshua? Waking the neighborhood? No, just you. Keep it down, asshole, some guy yells from one building over. Okay, so yeah, the neighbors, too. I move closer, looking up, and say, I wanted to see you again. Enough light from the streetlamp extends for me to see that sweet smile of hers. Pressing her hands to the sill, shes leaning out enough for me to wonder if I should worry. Here I am, Joshua Evans. Yes, there she is with her hair hanging down, a tangled mess from my hands minutes earlier, and the moon shining down on her. Shes my Juliet. I want to kiss you some more. Resting her hands on the sill, she laughs. Well, what are you waiting for? What am I waiting for? I take the stairs by two and just before I knock, the door swings open. Boxy pajamas still cover her body, but she cant hide that spark in her eyes. Holding the door open, she asks, What took you so long? Wrapping my arms around her waist, I kiss her and then lean back to see those pretty green eyes. I took a few detours in life, but I finally got here. She cups my face and kisses me again. Better late than never. I kick the door closed and back her up to the couch, making out like a bandit. Our lips pressed together. Our tongues exploring. Each of us staking claims with our bodies and hands. Our hearts beating together. I dont know where I end and she begins, but when we settle on the couch, Im quickly reminded. The hem of her shirt is angled up, and my hand finds the soft skin of her middle. She whispers, God, yes. A little moan follows, encouraging me. I want her. I need her so badly. Lying on the couch between her legs has my hips seeking the release I so desperately crave. Her hands roam my back and settle on my ass as she holds me close. Thrusting through jeans is the fucking worst, but Ill do it if it gives me relief in the end. Id fuck her in a heartbeat, but I knew that was a lie as soon as the thought materialized. Ive had sex with girls up and down this town, but shes not like them. Shes not someone who came onto me at Luckys, went to high school with me, or pursued me after eating at the diner. They dont see my test scores or my grades, or ask me about my life in any way. I dont wear designer clothes or drive an expensive sportscar. Thats not what they want from me. They want to fulfill their bad boy fantasy before settling down with a guy named Chet who works on Wall Street and will eventually have a midlife crisis with their assistant whos half their age. Chloe doesnt treat me that way. She doesnt care what Im wearing, be it an apron or a flannel shirt. Im treated equally, if not given more respect than I deserve. She called me out for judging her, for placing my insecurities in her head, when I assumed, she didnt see anything beyond my appearance. That right there tells me this is more than casual flirtations on her part. And the buzz I get when Im around her tells me its not different for me either. There are definitely strings involved, which should scare me, but they dont. Chloe has me wanting to slow down, to hang out, to take her to the lake and watch the sunset. My hips slow, and my hand slips under her shirt to feel the warm skin of her middle. I inch higher until Im holding a breast in my handsoft, supple, and a perfect fit for me. Each knead elicits another moan until shes grinding against me. Her hands slide to my shoulders, hot to the touch even through the thin cotton. I dont want to rush this, I say, but when I reach her eyes, I still. Her anger is readablethe ire flickers. Happiness shapes the corners, tipping them up. Even her curiosity has her engaged with me through touch or by how her eyes latch to mine. Just when I think Im reading her correctly, a new expression appears. Is it . . . trust? Trust in me? There are no doubts in her eyes, and her body is free for me to explore. Chloes trusting me. And for the first time, I see her so clearly, and I see us reflected back at me. Running my thumb gently over her cheek, I rest my forehead on hers, my thundering heart still loud in my ears. You fascinate me, Chloe. Good or bad? The question pulls a light laugh from me. Can she not see how weak I am around her? How shes ten thousand miles out of my league? Good. Always good. Good, she replies. That makes me happy. I kiss her temple just as the feel of her hand slips between us and tucks into the top of my jeans. One button is undone, causing my breath to stagnate. Another and Im breathing double time. The third has me desperate to shed these strangling jeans. Four, and Im rock hard for her, my hips thrusting of their own accord. My gaze slides back to her facepink cheeks and red lips swelling from kisses. Im fast to return my hand under her shirt, wanting to push until we both find relief. Keep going. Harder, she whispers against my ear. So close already. I take pride in my work, but damn, even Im impressed. I bet its all that pent-up energy from studying. I get restless, too, and more so this week from a hunger to see her again, to touch her, to feel that electricity like Ive finally opened my eyes after a long hibernation. Cupping my face, she kisses me again as our bodies find a rhythm thats going to send me over the edge as well. She pushes my jeans down enough to scrape her nails over the fabric of my boxer briefs. The friction feels good, too good for me to focus on anything but chasing down a release. Her head tilts back and her mouth falls open. Yes, she breathes, her body tensing as she squeezes her eyes closed. Watching her fall apart underneath me has my orgasm ripping from my core before I can control it. Fuck, I grit, my forehead dropping against her neck, my body a live wire exposed to air. Losing myself, I devour the darkness that sparks to life. And then exhaustion takes me down. My neck is kissed, over and over again, so I lift on my forearms, not wanting to suffocate her. Her cheeks are rosy red, her lips officially swollen, but its her eyes that drive me wild. As if she caught the sunshine inside, they sparkle like gems. How are you? I ask, my voice husky. Never better. She tries for casual like Im not on top of her. A for effort, but I hear the teasing in her tone. You? I push off and balance precariously on the edge of the couch. Holding her, I kiss her shoulder. A stupid grin crosses my face before I can wrangle it not to look like a fool who just kissed a girl for the first time, much less what we just did. Not to be overly confident or anything, but I think I totally nailed this interview. She bursts out laughing. Scooting to the side to get a better look at me, her arms remain loose and around my neck. You definitely nailed it. When can you start? I think I already did. I kiss her. Tired of being on the verge of falling, I move my legs down and stand. Fucking hell. Seeing the wet spot I left on her . . . this is just plain embarrassing. I yank my jeans up, and ask, Bathroom? In the bedroom. Offering her a hand up, I help her land on her feet and kiss the side of her head. Do you need it? You can go first. I work my way through the one-bedroom apartment, noticing she doesnt have curtains in either room. The bed is messed like she took a nap, but everything else is put away. Shes the neatest girl Ive ever met. When Im done in the bathroom, I walk out to find her wrapped in a robe waiting on the bed. You need window coverings. People can see in. Youre worried about me? Of course, Im worried. I sit next to her. Thats what boyfriends do. Hey, I say. When she looks at me, I wrap my arm around her lower back. She rests her head on my shoulder. I know we were playing around earlier, but what do you think about being my girlfriend? Nerves zip through me, and everything feels so real. Im fucking nervous, so nervous, because what if she says no. What if, even though shes never made me feel otherwise, she doesnt want me want me? Her hair is still wet, though, it didnt bother us a few minutes ago on the couch. The tangles are forming, but I dont think Ive ever seen her look more beautiful. Tilting her head, she takes my hand and doodles on my palm with her nail. The light tickles feel good, the attention to parts of me that never get love. Love? Fuck. Its too soon for that. She says, Id like that. Me too. I bring her hand to my mouth and kiss her palm, hoping I can make her feel the same by giving her similar attention to her palm. We lie back, our hands clasping together between us, and she asks, What do we do now? Make plans together? I could fall asleep right here. Im not pushing my luck by asking to stay, but after the day Ive had, I scrub my face to stay awake. What do you want to do? Surprise me. Her eyes dip closed, and I know thats my cue. I sit up and tug her to her feet. Walking to the door with her tucked under my arm. I checked the schedule and Im closing the next four nights Ill wait up. Just like that, shes folding into my life. Yeah? We stand at the door, wrapped up in each other. Absolutely. And there I am molding to hers. Okay. I can come over after? I kiss her twiceonce for me and once for her before I back into the hallway, looking my girlfriend over. Damn, Im a lucky man. She gives me a solid once-over, leaning on the door with a smirk on her face. Not as lucky as I am. 9 Joshua HOWD YOUR WEEK GO? my mom asks when I clock in. Pretty good, I reply, not elaborating as I slip the apron over my head. She doesnt need to hear how boring my classes are or how Ive been spending every night of the last week at Chloes. She gives me my privacythe perks of having a separate entrance into the basement where I live. She wipes down the counter, and then says, I need you bussing tables tonight. Why? I ask with my hand on the kitchen door. John called in sick. T will cover the kitchen. Trina and I will serve. As much as I want to argue because I never did like bussing, I do it. My mom fought for this restaurant to be a success. Ill never cause her grief. The locals have given her enough over the years. When folks didnt know I was her son, I overheard the rumors. She was called nameswild and recklessfor getting knocked up and having a bastard son. A kid I went to school with repeated his moms term for my mom to my face; he called her trash. I was grounded for being expelled, but she never made me apologize for punching the little shit. His family never returned to the diner, and fortunately, back then, lawsuits werent filed for kids fighting on the playground. Last time I saw him, he was smoking weed before a football game. Became the disappointment of the New Haven Ravens when he missed that catch. Cant say I felt sorry for him or for hooking up with his girlfriend later that night. I get to work, wanting the hours to pass so I can see Chloe again. Some college kids ramble inloud and wanting service faster than Trina can get to themaround eight. She can usually hold her own. Shes worked here long enough to handle rowdies from the campus. Hey, I say, catching her fill up some soda cups. You havent had a break. Ill cover your tables. Rich, college kids, she replies, eyeing them. I need the tip. You got it. Take a break. As if I just made her day, she puts a hand on her hip. Youre too good to me, Josh. Thanks. No worries. She delivers the sodas to another table, and I wipe my hands on the rag tied to my belt loop. I learned a long time ago not to judge a book by its cover. Im a prime example of that clich?. But I can tell by the air of arrogance that surrounds them that these guys take advantage of others who might not have the same privilege. Theyre the future assholes sitting on heads of boards in the city while everyone else does the grunt work. Reminds me of my father. Ive never been bitter about other people having money. Id love the luxury of throwing some cash around like its nothing. Who wouldnt? But Ill never treat others like my mom was once treated. So despite the pastel-colored collars slipping out from under Yale sweatshirts I couldnt afford, I ask, What can I get you? The waitress back, says the second guy on my right in the booth. Shes a lot prettier to look at. No offense. No offense taken. Its true, but youre stuck with me. They have drinks, so I prod, Ready to order? A light-haired guy with slicked-back hair on my left says, You seem to have a chip on your shoulder. Were not here to cause trouble. Were just hungry. Not looking to start a fight either, so I dust off my shoulder, and say, Its just crumbs from cleaning up after our guests. He chuckles. Yeah. Okay. Ill have the burger, no pickles or mayo. Hold the cheese and a salad with whatever your house vinaigrette is. I pull the pad from my apron, not realizing prior to him ordering how complicated it was going to be. I jot it down and then take the other orders. Theres no point in hanging around longer than needed, so I grab some silverware and set it down. Fortunately, they dont stay long after finishing, and Trinas already back. On their way out, the guy who ordered the side salad stops. Moneys on the table. Cool. Thanks. Another guy calls after him, Come on, Trevor. Coming, he says, pushing through the door. I clear the table, dropping the tip off to Trina, and get to cleaning dishes. Just shy of eleven, my mom finds me in the back. Why dont you head out, and well finish up? You sure? Positive. Ive learned not to hang out and question too much, or Ill end up being told to stay. Pushing out the back door in a hurry to get to Chloe, I stop when I see two figures leaning against my Blazer in the shadows. Todd pushes off to toss me an unopened bottle of whiskey. Gift for you. The adrenaline is still coursing through me when I reply, I like gifts like these. Heading over to Todds old Chevy, Bryant says, Were going to Luckys. Time to play some pool and for you to lose some of that hard-earned cash. Im not that kind of guy, usually, who brags about my girl, but Im feeling the need to give them a heads-up. Itll have to be another time. Ive already made plans. Todd asks, Whats her name? It feels good to laugh with my friends. Perceptive. Neither of them feels the need to brush over it, so I say, Chloe. Bryant, whos perched on the door, looks over the top of the truck. You only pushing her petals or getting serious? It feels like a betrayal to what Chloe and I are building to treat it less than what it really is in front of my friends. Its getting serious. He huffs, his hands dropping on the roof of the metal truck. I look around to make sure no ones around or the cops might be called for being disorderly. He adds, Well, whatd ya go and start doing that for? I like her. Popping my door, I set the bottle behind my seat in a bucket to secure it. Then bring her to Luckys, he says, so we can get to know her. You want me to bring her to that shithole? Todd laughs, starting the engine. Let me guess. Yaley? Too good to slum it with us townies? Shes not like that. She likes me just as I am. He says, Sounds like a fucking love song, but a word of warning, Evans. You cant hide your roots. Bring her around anyway. Well play some pool and be on our best behavior. Hes already backing out. Bryants arm goes out the window, his finger flipping me off. I return the favor before tugging my phone from my back pocket So much weighs on me suddenlywhat will they think of her? Yaley? Thats a new one that makes me roll my eyes. Im a fucking Yaley if attendings their criteria. Despite a few misdemeanors, my friends are good guys, loyal to a fault despite being stuck in a town that never wanted them to succeed. The tracks that divide this town might as well have been fifty feet tall. I only got over because of my last name. I would have never stood a chance being Patty Russos kid. But David Evans held weight. Im a little anxioustwo sides coming . . . maybe colliding is a better wordtogether. Im pretty sure the guys will like her because I do, but what will she think of them? I have a feeling by how it never occurred to her to get a roommate, Chloe Fox isnt used to hanging out with a bunch of bums. Do I want to give up the time alone with her, though? Simple answerNo. Seeing the taillights before they take the corner, Im loyal to them as well. If this is going to work with Chloe, tonight will be a good test for us. I text her: Just got off work. Want to go out? When I dont hear back right away, I start to wonder if she doesnt like the change of plans. Too much too soon? Chloe: Yes. Ill get dressed. The thought of her naked has me biting my fist. Were so close to having sex that the thought of detouring tonight becomes painful in my pants. The opportunity to see her in a new place, to hang out with my friends tempers it a bit. It only takes three minutes, so I wait a few extra to give her more time. While parked out front, I look up at the building. The location alone carries a hefty price tag. So its easy to assume from her calling Newport home and that her parents pay for everything, she comes from money. Hell, if being an ER doc isnt good enough for her father, Im pretty sure theyre wealthy. With that knowledge kept in mind, she doesnt have to enjoy pool halls, but I sure hope she likes my friends. I go upstairs. When I knock, it takes her a moment to answer, but when she does, my heart stops. 10 Joshua HOLY FUCK. Id come to expect a certain look from Chloe. Casual clothes or pajamas . . . Okay, so I dont have a long history to pull from, but generally, its no makeup to light, more natural in appearance. She got my attention the night I showed up delivering food. That night, or any other after, did not prepare me for her to make this kind of effort for me. But damn am I glad she did. Dressed in black jeans that hug her hips, she sports black Converse, which seem foreign for her from what Ive witnessed. With her lithe frame those shoes put those gorgeous greens chin height. I like the difference in size. I always have. She fits in my arms, leaving room to protect her. What. The. Fuck? Am I already this far gone? No one Ive ever dated before her has ever stirred these unchartered seas within me. First the lack of curtains, which are still not purchased, and now me protecting her? Yep, Im a goner. Are you all right? she asks, worry wriggling into her expression. Fine. I run my hand through my hair. Why? Youre staring at me like youre mad. Shit. Sorry, Im not mad at you. Fixing my face, I grin. Far from it. I just have a lot on my mind. Thats all. You look incredible. Thank you. Grabbing a leather jacket from the hook next to the door, she slips her arms in and lets it settle over a loose-fitted tank top with thin straps. Im tempted to tug on the hem of the crisp material, kind of wishing we were staying in and making out again. Chloe Fox is stunning in any light and time of day, but damn if she doesnt look sexy dressed in leather. I kiss her because as her boyfriendofficial title that shall be boldly stated on r?sum?I take my job very seriously. I think I prefer us kissing when we see each other. She laughs. Well, Im ready for you. Leaving her breathless, or egging her on for a comeback, seems to be my main goals since we met. She doesnt do anything halfway and manages to leave me breathless as well. Overachiever. I say, Im starting to regret that we decided to go out. It will be fun. She locks the door and then tucks her key and credit card in an inside pocket of the jacket. I almost stop her at the stairs and tell her I want to stay, but she looks so damn happy to be leaving. Watching that sexy ass, I reply, You havent met my friends. You might regret saying yes to me. An eyebrow pushes high, but she cant hide her sly smile before she turns back around. Is that a warning? I want to touch her all over, that familiar itch I have for her needing scratching, but I show some damn restraint. Grabbing hold of a belt loop as she rounds the stairs, I pull her to a halt instead. Theres still time to save you. Angling back, she runs her hands along my middle and under the T-shirt, then yanks me close. What if I dont want to be saved? What if I choose you despite the warning? Leather makes her feisty. And I really like feisty Chloe. I run my hand up the side of the softness of her neck. Exposing it to me, she closes her eyes. Her willing vulnerability is served to me without conditions. So damn tempting to take her back upstairs and fuck the night away. But thats not what I want with her. I want more than tonight. So I press my lips to her skin, inhaling the floral scent, and then exhale slowly. A shiver runs through her, causing her hold to tighten. I whisper, I wont disappoint you. Lifting up, she kisses my cheek. I know. Our eyes lock, keeping us still for seconds that tick by before she starts walking again. Youre nocturnal, so Im trying to adjust to this new schedule of staying up all hours of the night, so lets get going, party animal. And yet shes coming out because I asked her. I smile. Outside, she looks around, making me realize shes never been in my Blazer. Im parked down here. I watch as her chin lifts, and she stares at the stars. Its a nice night. If it werent for the streetlights, wed be able to see more stars. At home, sometimes Id set the alarm for one a.m. just so I could go outside to see the moon and stars at their brightest. We reach my SUV. Sounds like an escape. Probably, but I want to have fun tonight. Is this your truck? I love hearing excitement tinging her tone. It is. I proudly show her off. Shes an 85 Chevy Blazer. I move around to open the door. Looks like a piece of shit with the paint missing in some places, but shes going to be a beauty when shes restored one day. 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 were going. Have you ever been to Luckys? Catching her smiling, I watch as she seems to be right at home next to me. I havent. Whats Luckys? I probably shouldnt take a good girl to Luckys. Im 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 dont 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 Im not that innocent? If I could, Id be staring at her instead of the road. Is this where you tell me youre 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 dont 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 were not hurting anyone, who cares? I do, she replies, angling away from me. Why? She seems to shake off a thought, smoothing her forehead. Im 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. Theres 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 doesnt notice my nerves kicking in. Being nervous is something Im 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 didnt bring an ID. She doesnt seem to mind when I tug her a little closer to me, though. Dont worry about it. They dont card here anyway. Its 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, Im 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? Ill 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, its weird to have her in my space. I dont 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. Shes 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 dont, theyve been good friends because after kissing Chloe, Im too far gone. I chuckle, bringing her closer. Chloe, this is Bryant and the other asshole is Todd. Hi. She smiles politely. Its nice to meet you. Id already gathered a dive bar isnt 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 Bryants hand with a flip-off flair ending weve been doing for years. He sits on a barstool, leaning his back against the wall. No wonder Josh has been MIA. Its 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, Youre buying the next round, right, Josh? Todds 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? Absolutely. She takes the stick and works her way around to the table to chalk the tip. Ill break. Turning slowly toward me, he struts to get another pool cue. Well, damn. Evans doesnt mess around when it comes to bringing the big guns. If youd like, Chloe says, laughing, Ill let you rack. He replies, Ladies first. Next round on me. I back toward the bar and point at her. What are we drinking? Under long lashes, she eyes me while bent over. Her laughter reaches me like music in the busy bar just before she breaks, a loud crack following. Whatever youre having. Gotcha covered. I watch her from across the room, how she hangs with the guys like shes known them a while. Im thinking she just took the lead because Bryant high-fives her. Shes made herself at home at that table, and seeing them get along wipes away any worries I had. I turn to order, not having to keep my eyes on the guys. Theyve been known to get crude. Im usually just as guilty, but they appear to be on their best behavior. When I return, I set everything on the table. A round of whiskey. Ive never done a shot of whiskey before. Id like to say Im surprised, but I think Im getting used to these little bombs she drops. Handing her one, I say, Tell me more about that not being a good girl again? To be honest, I deserved the punch to the arm. Flexing my bicep, though, Im more concerned about her hand. I kiss it to make it all better and then hold up the glass. What should we toast to? It doesnt take long for a wry grin to make an appearance. Breaking the rules. Again, she replies so innocently that Im drawn in to kiss that grin right off her face. I dont. Not yet. But I get close, almost touching mine to hers, and whisper, And here I thought we were just bending them? Whats the fun in that? She taps her glass against mine and tilts it back, closing her eyes and emptying it. A harsh breath is fired off as she grabs her throat. That burns. After emptying my glass, I chuckle and then kiss her. The intoxicating mix of her lips dipped in whiskey makes me wonder if shes ever had sex in a parking lot. Because fuck, she turns me on. Pushing up against me, she drags the bottom of my shirt down, stretching the cotton. How can I care about the shirt, though, when the brush of her fingertips against my skin has my stomach muscles contracting? Every touch a shot of adrenaline heading south. I suck in enough to keep my abs hard before weaving my fingers with hers and kissing the top of her head. Then I settle on a barstool. Bryant passes around four more shots, and says, Another round is due. Cheers. Holding the glass, she says, Ive been known to get a little wild when tipsy. You sure you can handle me? Slipping my hand under her jacket, I dip just under the top of her jeans and hold her close. Dont worry, baby. I can handle you. The secrets held in her eyes begin to unravel as she leans against me. Tapping her glass, I add, Bottoms up. Dirty images come to mind as our eyes stay locked while the liquor slides down. Catching the notes of a song she likes summons a smile right before she sets her glass down and starts swaying her hips. I like watching her move like shes alone, dancing for herself. Its still controlled, but its gaining as she moves between my legs and closes her eyes. Her hands rest on my thighs, grounding her to me, to this earth like shes close to floating away. She slowly opens them and catches me staring. I slide my hands over her hips and then tuck into her back pockets. You called me baby. Ive never been anyones baby before. My gaze dips to her lips, remembering the way they take mine when she leads and how I can feel the passion she puts into every one of our kisses. Dragging my tongue along my bottom lip, I then ask, How do you feel about being my baby? The lift of her eyes and the hope I see inside has me moving to hold her around her lower back. She kisses my chin and then her lids dip closed as she kisses my mouth. With our lips still together, she whispers, Like Im living in a dream. Its real, baby. Just like we are. I could draw a map of her body from memory, but, God, I want to know everything else about this girl. Tell me about you getting tipsy. Laughing as if an entertaining memory returns, she says, Ruby and I get tipsy off wine, but we never drink the hard stuff. This one time she visited me in Newport, she fell into the water trying to get the motor started on this little boat we borrowed from the neighbors. She giggles. Borrowed? I think thats called stealing. Todd yells from across the table, We playing or what? Give her a minute. I want to hear this story. Returning to her, I add, Maybe I misjudged you. I mean, if youre willing to break the law, whats a few little rules? Taking the stick in hand, she walks around it once. Shes a tease, but Im still not sure if she even realizes it. I told you Im not that innocent. If she knew how much Im already into her, she wouldnt have to sell me. Im already buying. I touch her, tug her in quick, and whisper in her ear, And here I thought I was trouble. You are trouble, Joshua Evans. She runs her hand up my arm and around to my back. Youre just the kind of trouble I need. Hes trouble, all right. Fuck me. I should have known Dana would show up. Leave it to her to ruin a good night. 11 Chloe IVE SEEN enough movies to know how this goes. Joshua is a local with a reputation built long before I showed up in this town. Every girl in here has been eyeing him since he walked in and staring daggers at me. So, I think its safe to assume that this woman is one of many who have had their heart broken. By him, still remains to be seen. His hand hasnt left my hip, but his irritation from the intrusion is written across his face. He says, Im not looking for a fight, Dana. With her hands up in surrender, she says, Geez, just stopping by to say hi. If the tight smile didnt do it, the death glare my way contradicts the nonchalance shes trying to portray. It doesnt take a psychologist to figure out she suffers from lingering feelings. Hi, he replies, glancing at her. Havent seen you in a while. Where you been keeping yourself? When she steps closer, I feel oddly possessive and lean against him. The heat of his hand is felt through the denim as he slides it across my lower back and anchors it on my waist. School started, working . . . He eyes me. Spending time with my girlfriend. I notice how polite and steady his voice has remained despite her trying to get a reaction from him. I still dont like being in the middle of this. Girlfriend? Thats new for you. He stands, and says, If youll excuse us . . . We move to the other side of the table, and he leans against a column. I pretend to watch Todd take the shot, but I keep my eyes on the other woman as she tries to hold a conversation with Bryant, who appears disinterested. Annoyance eventually gets the better of her, and she leaves, blond hair swinging. Im glad we moved. Joshuas discomfort was becoming mine. He says, Its your turn. Motherfuck, Todd gripes. I sank the cue ball. My attention returns to the green felt, and I wiggle my shoulders in celebration. Ill take the victory. Joshua laughs, but I know hes still dealing with the aftermath of that confrontation by how it doesnt reach his eyes. One for Fox. Todd asks, Another game? Happy to kick your ass twice. I take the stick and chalk up again while he racks. I come back to Joshua, and ask, Want to play? Im enjoying being a spectator. Youre good. Without the distraction of the other woman, the sweet way he called me baby has me floating on cloud nine. You know it, baby. I wink, serving that sweetness right back. Todd looks at me. Ready to break? Trying not to, I reply offhandedly. He doesnt get it, but Im thinking Joshua does because he pulls me back against him, curled around my backside. Have you been hurt before, Fox? I spin around in his arms. Hurt feelings sure, but not a broken heart. I shake my head ever so slightly. Ive not been lucky enough to experience that kind of emotion. Gently pinching my chin, he stares into my eyes. He inhales, drinking me in with his mocha eyes. I never thought Id be the kind of girl who uses food or weather to describe features of another, but here I am, feeling the steam weaving between us from the embrace. The seriousness dissipates and his eyes narrow as if Im speaking a foreign language. Not getting a broken heart is lucky? No. Ive just never experienced feelings deep enough to damage me when it ends. Realizing, with him, the potential is there, I catch my breath, trying to regulate it. I must sound crazy. You dont. Dipping down to eye level, he says, Ill let you in on a secret. My heart is beating on the edge of each breath when he lowers his hands to my hips, tucking his fingers into my belt loops. He has me right where he wants me, right where I want to be. I havent felt that way about anyone either. You havent? I whisper. What about No one. Ending my curiosity with two words, Im starting to believe were in this together. Check this out, Josh, Bryant says. He doesnt move a muscle as if Ill lose faith if he does. I wont. Im already in too deep. I say, Tell me something. If everyone calls you Josh, why have you never corrected me from calling you Joshua? After a quick sweep around the room, he flattens his hands around my waist, his thumbs touching the skin at the top of my jeans and sending a thrill through me. I like the sound of my name when you say it. The cue chalk bounces off his shoulder. Following the path where it came from leads us to Todd, who shrugs. Let her go, man. Its game on. Im about to take my turn, but Im caught by my wrist and pulled back. Kisses cover my neck. Kick his ass. Again. Will do. I saunter to the other side of the table while Bryant and Joshua start a game of darts. I lean down to line up my shot. I pop the ball, blowing it. Dammit. I stand back so he can take his turn. Glancing up at me, he says, He likes you. Although his honesty is refreshing, I wonder why hes telling me. I like him. He sinks a ball and then sets up his next shot. Todds good at not shining a light too bright on the conversation, keeping it low-key. Bending over the table, he turns back to glance my way. Hes never brought anyone like you around before. Like me? I hold my anger in, giving him the benefit of the doubt. When he misses the next shot, he comes to stand next to me, keeping his eye on the felted table. Josh isnt like the rest of us. No matter how he phrases it, I know Im not a part of the us he means. After a casual game of pool and a few shots, it was easy to pretend I fit in, but I have a feeling its not me who notices the differences, but them. Is this a warning without Joshua hearing? The lump in my chest is growing, but I try to hide the insecurity. Leaning against the edge of the table, I ask, What is he like then? You. Grabbing his beer, he takes a sip, then continues, Hes so fucking smart. Relief washes through me. This is unexpected. But he never acted differently. His mom and him have always struggled to make ends meet. Both work their asses off for whatever they want. They earned every fucking thing they have. A quick scan around us ends on me. Except when it comes to school. That kid never studied. He didnt have to. He even got his acceptance letter to Yale early. Never bragged or made a big deal. Bryant and I knew hed get in, but to a lot of the locals, he was just another hell-raiser. Chuckling to himself, he continues, Dont get me wrong. Hes raised some hell like the rest of us, but I wish he would have left this town. Too many people are waiting for him to fail. The pointed look he gives in Danas direction isnt missed. Ive dealt with a lot of insecurities over the years about my place in Newport. Were people friends with me because Im a Fox or because Im me? But I never felt like anyone wanted me to fail. I felt the opposite. They want me to succeed to hold my coattails. Well, my familys coattails, technically. When I return my gaze to Joshua, everyone Ive seen him interact with likes him, so its hard to understand why anyone would want him to fail. Thats envy, I reply. He says, Sounds like you know the feeling. A waitress sets down two more shots. She says, Seth sent these over. Todd holds his glass up to the bartender. I didnt fit in at home either, I say, taking advantage of the opportunity and drinking it. This one slides right down. Sorry to hear that. Its okay. I fit in with Bryant has no dart skills, Joshua says, dragging a stool over. It wasnt even a challenge. Are you stripes, Chloe? Youre doing good. I caress his cheek, the lightness disappearing as his features soften for me. I fit in with you. You do. We fit together. Nodding, I then kiss him. Why havent you been in love before? The question seems to catch him off guard. Chuckling, he asks, Why havent you? Touch?. Knowing its my turn, I study the table, trying to figure out a calculated move that will lead me to another victory. Squinting an eye, Im tempted to test the wind. Who am I fooling? I just play for fun. Hey, Chloe? Yeah? I reply, lifting my gaze from the table to Joshua. I dont want to land lines with you. I want to know how someone so beautiful and fun hasnt been snatched up by the wrong guy? What makes you think Id fall for the wrong guy? Smirking, he shoves his hands in his pockets. I like that theres confidence with a hint of uncertainty. I feel that, too. He says, Because you said yes to me. Also, you never answered my question. You never answered mine. I hit the ball. Tease. I burst out laughing. Now thats something Ive never been called before. With his eyes on mine, a look that undresses me set in the fire inside, has me thinking Im ready to spend time alone with him. But first, I must win. I take my turn and sink three balls before Todd pockets four. The competition is stiff, but a beer that Joshua brought over keeps me from getting upset. Im quite the opposite, in fact. I scratch, losing to Todd. Shallow victory. He volleys back, It wasnt shallow when you won the same way. Thats because I won. I laugh, and then tell him, Good game. You too, Fox. If you ever want to play, hit me up. Hey. Hey. Joshua steps up with his arms open wide. In case you didnt notice, Im standing right here. He may only be teasing, but I love seeing him jealous over me. Is it bad that it turns me on? Whoa, its definitely time to go. Pressing against him, I whisper, Im ready. His hand plants on my ass, his thumb rubbing along the middle seam of my jeans. Ready for what? The connection has my heart racing and my body tingling. I dont think anyones touched me so intimately, and my body is on high alert, reacting to his electricity. Ready to be alone. Butterflies in my stomach, heart palpitations, and slight lightheadedness. The symptoms lead me to believe Im either giddy or having a heart attack. Im hoping its the former. I giggle, whiskey making my head swim. Youre reading my mind. His tone is filled with innuendo, and Im here for it. How? How is it possible to have blooming feelings for this man I barely know? How? Despite my head, I take his hand, my heart ready to follow him anywhere. 12 Joshua WHAT AM I DOING? Although the hunger to have sex with her is overwhelming, I want to do this right for her. Its been a struggle not to touch herher face, those lips, her hands. I could have mauled her back at Luckys if she would have let me. A smile graces her lipsa perfect day reflected on her beautiful face. She sticks the key in the lock, letting a giggle slip out like shes never had the chance to laugh like that before. Why? I have so many questions for her, a deep-seated desire to know who Chloe Fox is and how Im the one who gets the pleasure to discover this gem. What is she thinking when she purses her lips to the side? She jiggles the lock. The key gets stuck sometimes. Okay, that answers that question, but I want to know the secret behind every one of her smiles. Ambition doesnt motivate her. Its a goodness thats built inside her, one of my favorite of her traits. She makes me feel like a better person just from being near her. Dont get me wrong. Im no angel, but with her Ill try to be on my best behavior. The door down the hall opens, and a girl with dark hair and a long T-shirt crosses her arms as she leans against the frame. Well, well, well, if it isnt the infamous Joshua Evans. You must be Ruby. The side of her mouth rises with a raised eyebrow. Youve heard of me? I glance at Chloe whos beaming, whether from happiness or whiskey, Ill take it. She says, Ruby Darrow, this is Joshua Ruby asks, The infamous Joshua Evans? I ask, So, youve heard of me? and chuckle. With a shrug, she replies, Chloe talks. Tapping her fingers, she pivots her eyes to Chloe. You were right. When her gaze comes back to me, she adds, Ill admit I was starting to think she had given her vibrator the name. Chloe and I havent exactly been quiet the past few weeks, but damn, this chick is not shy. Duly noted. As she laughs with cheeks flaming red, Chloes eyes go wide. Oh my God, Ruby. That is too much information. Well keep it down. Not giving a damn, her friend makes herself at home out here in the hall. Please dont, Ruby replies with a wave of her arm. Its the only action Im getting these days, so carry on so I can live vicariously. The bolt clicks, and Chloe opens the door. Annnnd, on that note, were going in. I say, Good night. Night. Before our door closes, Ruby says, Im going to need every detail, Chloe. Every. Detail. Good night, Chloe calls from inside her apartment, yanking me inside. I want you, Joshua. Her lips are on me, her hands roaming as if shes searching me. Im tempted to resist just to see if Ill get handcuffed. Catching her wrists, I hold them between us. Im not going anywhere. Holding tight to my shirt like shell lose me, she asks. Are we moving too fast? We can slow down Sorry, she says with a light laugh. Im nervous. I dont want you to be a one-night stand. If were numbering our dates, this wont be the first one. She tilts her head, amusement reaching her eyes. How do you figure? Ive been over here at least seven or eight times. Youve been to the diner twice. Theres Luckys tonight. The Art Gallery. Kline building, and the time I caught you by the water fountain. Thats . . . I think thats it. Am I missing anything? With her arms tightening around my neck, she says, Im going with thirteen then. Exactly. Technically, this is a thirteen-night stand. Lucky number thirteen. The luckiest. I dont say thats me because I plan to show her tonight. I lean down to kiss her, missing those frenzied kisses. Pulling back quickly, she presses her finger to my lips. I pretend to bite it, being careful. She says, Its never been about the quantity but the quality, and you give excellent quality. Ill take the compliment. But I want you to remember, this between us may be fast for some, but we set our own pace. So if it feels good and youre happy, Im happy. Just say the word if you ever feel otherwise. You make me happy. Also . . . She kisses my chin. Ive never had thirteen dates with anyone. Their loss. My win. Kiss me, Joshua? I release her hand to caress her cheek. Its all Ive wanted to do all night. It is? I havent stopped thinking about you since I stood outside that door with a delivery. Her lids slowly dip down, and the smallest smile, one that seems to exist for me, appears. When she looks up, long lashes tipping near her brow, she breathes a sigh of relief. Me too. Holding her closer, I lean down, closing my eyes, and pressing my mouth to hers. It takes all my willpower to pull back instead of taking this further, though. This time I groan and rest my head against hers. She whispers, Whats wrong? I need a sheet. Huh? Her eyebrows crease just a little and I just want to kiss it away. The window. I dont want anyone watching us. No ones out there, she says with a laugh, walking toward it, sliding the jacket down her arms. It falls to the floor, and she reaches for the hem of the top. Oh, no, no. I rush over there, blocking the window with my body. The shirt is left on as her shoulders shake with her head tilted back in laughter. I say, Anyway, we cant do anything with Frankie watching. She spies the plant behind my leg, still laughing. She doesnt mind, but if it will make you more comfortable, we can move into the bedroom. It will. I follow her into the dark room. With the lights off, I walk to the window and look down one side of the street and then the other. Its a quiet street, considering how close we are to some of the popular hangouts. She comes to rest against my back, the feel of her chest and her cheek pressed to my skin. I reach an arm around to hold her to me, realizing shes bare. Turning around, I whisper, You started without me. I bend down and lift her up. Our lips meet in fiery passion while her legs wrap around my middle. Her thighs grip, lifting her higher. The scrape of her nails along my scalp feels so good, but I know its not just her nails. Its her. She feels so good. I cant do this to her against a wall. Sliding my hand up her spine, I move to the bed in two big steps and send us toppling over. In a fit of laughter, she says, That was the twist I didnt see coming, and so sexy. Ill show you sexy. I jump up and then pop the top button of her jeans before pulling them off in one swift motion. Oh fuck, you showed me. I rip my jeans down because the sexiest woman Ive ever seen is lying in front of me, summoning me to bed. Vixen. Goddess. Mine. By the back collar, I tug my shirt off over my head and drop it as I work my jeans off as fast as I can. She scrambles up toward the headboard, then tucks her legs under the covers. Once the sheet covers her chest, she rubs the mattress on either side of her, looking proud as a peacock. Come here, baby, she purrs with a mischievous grin. Fuck the jeans. With my ankles still trapped, I dive right the fuck onto that bed and maneuver over her, pinning her to the headboard with a kiss. Kicking at my jeans, I finally free one ankle and shuffle out of the other. Thank fuck. Not that I minded the way she grips my shoulders, urging me for more. Weve done practically everything we can with clothes, even when minimally dressed, to this point. Seeing her shoulders exposed, though, reminds me that we wont be making out. Well be making love. I kiss her neck, a battle raging between instinct to rush forward and taking it slow and romantic. I pull back to stare into her eyes. Is this what you want? I need that yes, that shes where I am with usready to not only share our bodies, but a bed that I can go to sleep and wake up with her next to me. I probably shouldnt want that as much as I do, but I want it with her. We are. I want you. Everything that comes with dating you, I want that. I want you, Chloe. I kiss her deeper than we did at the door before we move down the mattress together, only a blanket and underwear between us. The delicate pulse in her neck has me pressing my lips to it, wanting to feel every part of her. Her fingers slide through my hair, and she whispers, Youre going to be so bad for my plans. Caressing my cheek, she gets my attention. She kisses me, letting her lips linger against mine. But so good for me. Slipping my fingers into her silky locks, I kiss her, and roll her to the mattress beneath me. Ill make sure Im good for both. Dont stop kissing me. I dont. I couldnt. Until she asks, Joshua? I move to the side of her and turn my head. With the moonlight streaming in, I see the sweetest little freckles sprinkled across the apples of her cheeks. My gaze dips to the bow at the tip of her lips and how theyre parted just slightly. Caressing her face, I rub my thumb lightly over her skin. Shes stunning in every light, but the need to have her in my arms takes hold. Her long hair, darker in the soft light, fans across the pillow. She rests her melodic sighs, and soft smile, the weight of her trust bearing down on me. Yeah? She rests her hand on my chest, and whispers, What are we doing? Falling for each other. Maybe I should have hesitated, but it wouldnt feel right to deny my own feelings. This is what it feels like? Yes, I confess, kissing her until a spark reignites the heat between us. But its not my mouth Im worried about. Its the fire she lit in the belly of my soul. 13 Chloe THE WEIGHT OF HIS BODY, the flexing of his muscles when I run my fingers over them, his lips on mine like theyve become oneHeaven is found in Joshua Evanss kiss. Despite the alcohol trying to dull the edges, theres no way I couldnt feel alive in his arms as every nerve in my body sparked to life. This is the magic Ive heard aboutthis sense of abandoning my life for something that feels so right. He feels so right. I sigh, releasing my mind from overthinking and instead focus on feeling. Freedom is found in the falling. Wild abandon for this man courses through me. As if a checkered flag was waved, he moves in to kiss me with an unquenched passion. Our tongues mingle as we explore new territoryour hearts bonding together with each sweet embrace of our tongues. New territory, new world . . . ours. The one we created together when we thought it was just fun. Together. It was always such a foreign concept, lost in days and years. Joshua inspires me to feel every second, to languish his arms and in his touch. I want to talk in bed all night and sleep in with him. I never saw love coming, but I feel it sweeping in like a summer thunderstormthe dewy scent, the change in air. I want to dance in his rain, to become one with this man. Laugh. Love. Everything. Everything. I want everything with him, even the one thing thats felt forbidden. I dont want to hold back. I dont want to hold onto something that feels like it was meant for him all along. This is the man I want to remember for my first time. You feel so good. With a knee, he spreads my legs apart and kisses me as he settles between them. His breath hits the wet trail that he left from my mouth to my ear, sending shivers through my chest and down my arms. I buck against him, wanting the friction. Needing so much more of him. It hurts, is whispered in my ear. Real pain? I ask, my eyes opening. He chuckles. No. I was going to say I want you so much. So, no need to call 911, Doctor. There are natural methods to cure me. My cheeks flame from embarrassment. He doesnt miss a beat, and adds, Youre the cure for my ailments. A wry grin situates itself on his handsome face. Putting my dirty doctor cap on, I continue to role-play. What else ails you? My heart, Doc. It races when I see you. Its heavy in my chest when were close. I hear his gulp, but he doesnt hold back. It feels like its going to beat out of my chest. I suffer from the same condition, the side effects of being with you. Can we be saved? I dont hide my wicked grin. No, Im sorry. Its too late for us. I was afraid of that. Jokes are set aside as he caresses my face, looking at me like I hung the moon. Truth dots his irises like stars blanketing a Newport night, convincing me that I did hang the moon for him. Just as he placed the sun in the blue skies for me. Weve been each others days, but we dont end in sunsets or only exist come sunrise. Weve become the hours in betweentwilight and dawn, the brightest noon, the darkest midnight, the golden hours. Together, were all hours with hearts on fire. Joshua is a silver lining that just appeared out of nowhere in time to throw me a lifeline. I didnt even realize I was drowning. Me too. Holding my face between two hands with no wiggle room, he kisses me and then leans his forehead against mine. I . . . I care about you, Chloe. Eyes open, the pain in his voice is evident, but its heard as if hes given in to something he never saw coming. I understand, swept into a soul mate fate I never expected to find, much less at this age. Soul mate. Maybe he did see us coming. Lifting up, he searches my eyes, needing my words as much as I need his. I care about you, too, I say. As my heart tethers to his, I love you is tacked on silently for only me to hear, but my weakness is revealed as a tear slips down my cheek. The pad of his thumb collects it and brings it to his lips, his tongue dipping out to taste my vulnerability. I promise Ill never hurt you. No more tears. I nod, never feeling safer than I do in his arms. To him, Im Chloenot of the Newport Fox dynasty, not future surgeon, not Yale legacy. Im the one he relaxes with after a long day, prefers kissing to studying, and I dont need a pedigree for him to love me. He laughs at my bad puns and happily plays along with my sexual innuendos. Whether Im a student or his girlfriend, he sees me and who I am on the inside. Thats empowering. I dip below the covers, taking him in my hands first and then my mouth. Deep and slow, just how the videos taught me. He fills my mouth, and I focus on breathing as well as his reaction to guide me. When his hands cover the back of my head, theres no pressure to them but a need to be touching me. It spurs me on, making me want to please him, to give him all he needs. This is not submission. Hes giving me his strength and bowing at my feet. The power is intoxicating. I move quicker, suck harder until his fingers fold into my hair, and the moans are loud. So good. Everything he gives of himselfhis trust, care, and honestyI take and swallow it down. We lie next to each other, still and quiet, recovering. Kissing me once and then again on the chest, he keeps moving lower, making my breath catch from the thought of him down here and the feel of his lips. Taking a deep breath, I run my fingers through his hair. I wont hide from him despite some unexplained shame I keep buried inside. Embracing life means embracing Joshua, and that look in his eyes that tells me how beautiful I am without words gives me insight to who he thinks I am. Why would I hide from that? I butterfly my right thigh, opening up for him, to him. He pushes down the covers, the air-conditioning whipping over me as his eyes trace my breasts, my belly, and my body. Do you know how beautiful you are, Chloe? Im not drunk, but he makes me feel that way. My breasts are exposed, the cool room hardening my nipples. Leaning down, he kisses each of them and then lower to my belly. My inner thigh. My knee. Shin. The top of my foot. Im covered in kisses until Im utterly jelly in his hands. Weve been fast in every other way but slowing down makes sense. I want to feel each part of my body awakened by his lips. He backtracks up the other leg. I had thoughts of this happening, deep down wishing it would when I wore that outfit for him, and now that Im bare before him, I have absolutely no regrets. So sexy, he murmurs as he kisses the mounds of my breasts. Maple syrup eyes hold a sweet appreciation when they peer up at me, watching my reaction. My middle winds tighter, my lips part, my lids heavy with desire. His hands cup me without reserve, squeezing, kneading, lightly flicking my nipples before covering them with his mouth. My back arches, and I gasp when his teeth tease the buds. God, how I want you, I say without hesitation as I lock my hands together at the back of his neck. He feels too good to set free. With him repositioned between my legs and his hardness pressing against me, I rock my hips, pushing against the fear that I have with this being my first time. I welcome him. I want to feel you inside me. My throat is raw like the words, an unsatisfied need making me thirsty for more. Lower, the sound of begging riddles my mind, the words on repeat as need floods my veins. The familiar exhilaration I always feel with him takes over, and as if my body is not my own, I move my hips with his. His mouth is on my shoulder, but I feel the connection on every inch of my skin. Do you have condoms? he whispers. In the drawer, I reply as if Ive said it before. I watch the muscles in his arms on display and reach over to touch. He sets two on the bed without a second thought and moves to hover over me again. I push the hair thats fallen down over his forehead to the side, and then lightly push on his shoulders. As much as I love him looking from above me, I want to try something new. When I move on top of him, he runs his hands over my breasts and cups my shoulders, bringing me to him to kiss. Kiss until were out of breath. Kiss until my body craves more. What do you want, baby? You, I reply. Strong hands slide down my arms, covering me in goose bumps. Im right here. Reading between the lines, he wants me, but he wants me to lead. Ive never been a follower. Shy? Sure. But I know anatomy, and he is a perfect specimen. I move back just enough on his thighs to have his erection in front of me as he takes me in, studying me with the intensity of an artist. I have flaws, but youd never know by the way he gazes upon me. He reaches for me. Cmere. As soon as Im tucked neatly under the blanket and sheet with him, he presses against my side. Do you feel what you do to me? Yes, I reply breathily, reaching my hand down to touch him. Ive made out with him, but this time is different. I should be nervous, but Im not. His full lips press to my mouth once, and then as if he cant decide where to kiss me next, he lands on the corner of my mouth. Moving my hand, I keep a firm grip. My heart beats fast and hard in my chest as he struggles to concentrate. Momentarily losing himself, he rushes his body, pushing against me. Fuck, he utters under his breath. My hip is abandoned. His hand doesnt slip but purposely claims the apex of my legs. Cupping. Teasing, Slipping a finger inside me. Ah, I moan, forgetting everything I was doing. Dont stop, okay? he says. I take the long way to the tip of his erection and back down leisurely again. Okay. But the tip of his finger has me on the edge of burning in ecstasy. Joshua . . . The back of my head digs into the pillow. Scooting higher on the mattress, he kisses my exposed neck and abandons me. My head shoots up to see where hes going. What are you doing? I want to take care of you. You were. I dont mean to snap, but Im wound so tight it makes me anxious. A roguish grin slides in with amusement. With my mouth. Oh! I lie back with no argument, but my eyes are wide open and my body is stiff as a board. It must be obvious because he chuckles. Do you want me down here? I nod, and his palms slowly spread my legs. Relax for me. Okay? Okay, I manage to mutter, releasing the grip I have on the sheets and stretching my fingers. Wedging between my legs, he takes control of my body with a simple kiss between my legs, his mouth firm and determined. Medically speaking, I know how my body works, but I didnt know it could purr until now. His tongue dips inside, and I moan in response, my back arching. Swirling my fingers through his hair elicits his own response. The sounds of his heavy breath and hot heat wafting across my skin send me over the edge. An orgasm hits fast, and I fall hard before sinking to the mattress. Reaching for a condom, he doesnt bother with words, but the pressure of his hand on my stomach keeps me from drifting too far away. Every touch to my body, every kiss, lick, and bite is filled with confidence, building my anticipation. When hes covered, his muscles are tense as he moves over me again. Dragging the tips of my fingers over the dips and peaks of his biceps has me breathing deep, ready, so ready to have him inside me. I close my eyes Look at me, Chloe. I do only to be greeted with an intensity that hes barely holding on. Stay with me, he murmurs. The light in the room drowns in his soulful eyes, and my heart squeezes under the weight. If I couldnt feel every millimeter of where his body touches mine, Id believe he was holding my heart in his hands. Taking ownership, possessing me. He pushes, enough to cause my mouth to fall open and suck in a breath. Kissing me again, his hips push forward, his body one with mine again as he steals my breath like he stole my heart last night. The stretching. The burning. My heart racing toward an imaginary finish line. Ill take it all if I get him in the end. I was worried about pain, but its different than I expected. I welcome the burn, wanting to feel all of him. Strong fingers run along my jaw, followed by kisses. Breathe, Chloe. The soothing tones of his voice calm me, and I find a rhythm with him as our breath mingles and our hearts pound. Everything is felt in the gentle thrust, his whispers coating my skin like a sin being washed away. I tilt into him, letting him claim parts of mebody and soulthat were made for him, waiting for him. Joshua Evans marks every inch of meinside and outwith a tattoo of my choosing that will remain long after tonight. With my arms around him, I lift my hips, meeting his. With one thrust, he steals my breath and heart away. But who cares about those things when I think Ive died and gone to heaven? You feel too good, he whispers against the shell of my ear before kissing my shoulder. I dont know if youre an angel sent to save me or a reckoning for my sins. I only know that it doesnt matter. You do. This between us does. Im so close to giving him every piece of me, the parts that others dont see and the ones that only exist for him. I need this acceptance, to drown in his words, his arms, and be pulled under with this bliss. I need him like he needs me. The headiness has me wanting to feel this way forever. Thrust after thrust has us holding on together until his hand dips between us, and he rubs me so right that I fall under his spell again. Another kiss is placed on my neck as the fullness overwhelms me. The soft light that dips in through the window gives me the gift of him when I open my eyes. A vein in his forehead revealing the intention hes seeking. Tightening my hold around his neck, I press my cheek to his and angle my middle. So good, Chloe, he pants with a jagged breath. With every move, thrust, and kiss, I enjoy his passion for me and revel in mine for him. His moans gather as our bodies push and pull, tease, and pleasure. His groan of completion drags me from my release in time to catch hishis head dipping and the stubble scraping my skin. Our bodies are covered in a sheen of sweat when his weight releases down on me. I hold him, loving the feel and tucking my head into the nook of his neck. Im caught between sleep and the aftermath of giving my whole soul to this man, and my heart confessesI love you. 14 Joshua SHE COULD EASILY BECOME AN ADDICTION . . . she has already. The fading scent of perfume lingers on her skincitrus and flowersmixed with sweat and sex. I take my time to appreciate her lips properlyhow they feel against mine, moving with me, against me, making me crave her in ways that might not be the same as a nice guy. I try to be nice for her. She deserves that, and dont I deserve something good? Someone like her? If Ive done anything right, I hope its gaining her trust. I kiss her until were wrapped up in each other again. But the nights been long, and weve earned some rest as exhaustion sets in. She curls into the nook of my arm. Shes so small in my arms that I have to fight against my Neanderthal urges to protect her because shes capable of taking care of herself. Shes proven that time and again, so I dont understand why Im suddenly wanting to do it for her. Ive never met anyone like you, someone I want to spend every minute of every day with and cant stop thinking about when Im not with you. Laughter wriggles out of her. Im so glad Im not alone. I think Im obsessed with you. Youre just so . . . Dropping her head to my chest, she sighs happily. Everything I could ever dream of. Maybe because its two in the morning and Im exhausted, but I try to see the logic. This is fast. People will call us crazy. Maybe we are, but . . . I rub the back of her head until she looks up. But it doesnt seem theres another way for us. A yawn escapes her, and she says, Well be crazy together. Im quick to dispose of the condom and drop back down next to her. Its been a long day. From school to work to Luckys. Checking the time, I add, Im glad we get to sleep in. She kisses my chest and then puts a little distance between us. Joshua? In the low light, I can see her eyes on me. I need to tell you something. Were already sharing. I kiss her forehead. Lay it on me. This is big. I could counter with the conversation we just had being pretty damn big, but I can tell by her hushed tone its not the same. What is it? I was a virgin, she blurts out. I can pinpoint the exact moment I stopped breathing. It was just after her admission that she was a virgin. Yep, the woman I just had sex with like wed done it a million times before hadnt ever done it at all. As if Ill scare her with any fast movements, I shift my arm down and push up to look at her. Youre a virgin? No, she says, smiling. Not anymore. Thanks to you. Im struggling to rationalize what just happened through her big smile and the giggle that escapes her, but the wink sent it over the top. Why didnt you tell me? I didnt think it was necessary information. Moving up the bed, I rest my back against the headboard. How would it not be necessary information? Biologically speaking, we fit together the same whether Im a virgin or not. Its not like Ive never had an orgasm, as youre well aware of, or clinically speaking, my hymen was intact. No. Were not doing medical speak. Maybe its the early morning hour, the whiskey from earlier, or having sex for the first time, but its the most relaxed Ive ever seen her. She slides up next to me with gentle laughter vibrating through her. We just made love. We did make love. Her voice is effervescent as if shes been waiting for this moment all her life, and it lived up to expectations. Made love, I repeat for myself as much as for her. Already feeling so much for her, if Im not careful, those three little words will slip on my tongue and slide right off. Normally, Id pat myself on the back under the accolade of getting her off, but its different with Chloe. I dont want to gloat about some feeble achievement. She has a right to come just like I do. I shouldnt get a participation award for doing the right thing. But Im not letting her sidetrack me again. It sounds like a but is in there somewhere, she says, searching my eyes for an answer Im not sure I can explain. No but, this time. An epiphany. Shes suddenly very interested, so I confess, I dont think Ive ever made love before. Can she hear the tenuous tone as I step into the unknown? Will she think less of me for it? Delight sparkles in her eyes. Shes shameless, but I dont blame her. Im not ashamed of a damn thing we just did. I just need a minute to not feel like I just took something that wasnt mine to steal. She leans her head on my shoulder. Maybe I should have told you. I didnt know youd mind. Im being fucking ridiculous. I earned her trust, if not through words then through my actions. Hey? Her eyes find mine again, and I say, You dont owe me an apology or an explanation. It was yours to do as you please. But I knew there was a but! She laughs, poking me in the chest. No harsh but coming. I wanted to thank you for choosing me to share that with you. Aww. Thats so sweet. Her hand covers mine as I rest it on the side of her neck. Theres no one else Id rather share my first time with. She smiles, admiring me with the happiness that has laughter shining in her eyes. We should be tired, she says, patting my chest. Should we sleep? We should eat. Im starving. Great minds. She throws the covers off and slips into the bathroom. Not taking long, she comes out tightening the belt of her robe around her waist. We kiss as we pass each other. After slipping on my boxers, I find her standing in the kitchen. Taking two bottles from the neat rows on the counter, she tosses me a bottle of water. I twist the lid and sip, looking aroundbeige couch, blue pillows, and those giant-ass textbooks. Its not a fancy omelet, but I have chips, she says. Chips work. Im so hungry, she replies, pulling a bag of chips from the fridge. It takes a solid second, but my mind finally catches up with the fact that she keeps water on the counter and chips in the fridge. Why do you keep chips in the fridge? They stay fresh longer. She doesnt feel the need to go on although I kind of need her to. Ive never had a bag last long enough to worry. I drink half the water while letting my gaze bounce around the room again. Do you always leave New Haven in the summer? Yes. I catch her eyeing me, but shes quick to turn back around and eat a few chips. Holding the bag out, she offers, Chips? I take the offer, shoving my hand in the bag in search of whole chips. With a few in hand, I say, Thanks. Leaning against the counter, I find the sparsely filled room doesnt tell me anything about her, though it might represent her ambition. Shes amazingattentive, funny, and focused. Guess Im just used to my moms place, which after twenty years of living in it, has tchotchkes and framed photos of our lives. I cross the room to mist Frankie, then press my finger to the soil. Youre taking good care of her. Its a kind of a hassle. Bonsais need a lot of attention. I return, leaning the counter next to her. They do. Its supposed to be a Zen activity. Its stressful. I find myself thinking about her when Im in class, worried Im going to kill her. Rubbing her shoulder, I say, Ill make sure you dont. Its good to have backup. Peanut butter and jelly? Protein and flavor all in one. The perfect food. She pulls the jars and bread out. Dipping into a drawer to get a knife, she says, Glad you approve. So meticulous, she covers every millimeter. Youre going to be a great doctor. Laughing, she says, Hope so. When she finishes, she lifts half over her shoulder, letting me bite most of it before turning to face me and eating some. I finish my sandwich about ten bites before she eats hers. She says, You eat too fast. I got a bit of size on you, baby. If my mom didnt own a diner, shed be broke from feeding me. I like your size. Her hands run over my shoulders, feeling me bef0re wrapping around my neck. A lot. I like you a lot. I dip my head ready to kiss her neck, but then hear her breath catch. Staring at her creamy skin, I can almost see the pulse dancing for me. Closing my eyes, I breathe her in, filling my lungs with her scent before I run the tip of my nose from the curve of her jaw and behind her ear. Her breathing quickens as I wait to kiss her, to taste her the way I want. Sweet teasing torture appears to be the way to her heart. Braver than before, she runs her hands over my ribs and then lower and around to the top of my ass. I attack her neck with kisses and then under her ear. She whispers, You didnt hurt me if youre worried. I was. The night replays how I wanted to protect her earlier. Again, proving she doesnt need that from me. She just wants me. Despite my lack of finances, she has never looked at me less than worthy. My heart clenches, and we head back to bed. Her smile only wavers under a yawn when we drop back in bed, sleep catching up with us. Pulling the covers over her shoulder, she cuddles against me, and asks, Should I be this tired? Yes, I reply, arrogance seeping in. And sore? Now I feel bad. Sorry. Its a good sore. Like a solid workout for muscles that are never used. I yawn, my own muscles begging for rest. Looking on the bright side? Is there any other way to see it when Im happy? Lying next to her, I already know my worlds been rocked onto a new axis, one that aligns with hers. Shes captured more than I thought I had to give, and Ill let her keep it, keep all of me because shes given me a newfound peace I never knew until we met. Kissing her head, I close my eyes and bury my nose into the back of her hair and inhale. Sweet dreams. I start to let fatigue drag me into sleep when I hear her whisper, Sweet dreams. 15 Chloe JOSHUA EVANS IS NO BOY. Theres not one thing about him that isnt all man. Holy moly, he makes my heart spin and my body feel alive. Hes a drug, an addiction. Hes everything I never knew existed. All that goodness and handsome package of sunshine dimples, molten chocolate eyes, and a body that embraces me like the worlds on fire and I am the last drop of water he needs for survival. What is it about him that makes me feel this way? I can think of a million things, but the way hes sweet to me and looks at mereally looks at me and sees beyond my name, beyond my facemakes me feel special. Maybe I shouldnt have fallen so fast or so hard, but he has a way of making me feel like a new version of me. Ive always had a one-track mind for my future profession, but hes shown me I can be more than a career. I can also have a life. My mom and Ruby were right, but until I experienced it firsthand, I didnt understand. Now I do, and Im liking this new me. Delirious and tired after the best weekend of my life, I catch myself smiling in the middle of a lecture. I just cant stop thinking about him. My eyes remain glued to the chalkboard in front of the auditorium, but I hide my mouth behind my hand. I think Im doing a fairly good job of keeping this happiness contained until a giggle gets me shushed. Me? Shushed. The teachers assistant glances my way, and the professor stops reading from the book on the lectern. Yikes. Im pinned to my seat with a glare. What am I doing? I grin. I dont disrupt my classes. I dont step outside the lines. I dont break the rules. At least I didnt used to . . . Ive always done what Im supposed to do. Right now, that means listening to Professor Tracey. But dating Joshua is much more interesting. For him or because of him, Im blurring the line between my old and my new life. My phone screen lights up with just the name invading my day. Soulmate. He makes it easy to believe in such things. I move the phone to my lap to try to read the text covertly: I cant stop thinking about you. I type: Same for me. Best. Weekend. Ever! Joshua: I vote for a repeat. Me: Im in. Joshua: Macroeconomics and finance forecasting dont hold a candle to eating cold chips and drinking warm water with you. Euphoria consumes me, and for the first time, I understand why the Greeks called love the madness of the gods. Is that what Im doing? After one date and a few texts telling me Im better than his major? Am I . . . is this? Sliding down in the chair, I bite my lip, feeling this craziness take over, and I willingly let it. Love isnt a science or something I can dissect. Its an emotion that overwhelms and cant be explained. It can only be felt. And Im feeling something Ive never felt before. Its like my brains been rewired to take direction from my heart. Confidence matches the high. I flirt right back, and type: And here I was thinking about the sex. Joshua: Lol. Its worth a repeat as well, though Im surprised you have the energy. Ninsatiable Nharder Nfaster Nallthedemands Nvixen Laughter bellows from my gut. Oh, crap! Im given the evil eye from pretty much everyone but the guy sleeping two rows down. Seconds later, Im saved by the classs dismissal. As I float down the auditorium stairs, my mood is hijacked when the professor calls me, Chloe? I step to the side. Yes? Outbursts are unacceptable in my class. Please keep the distractions out of this auditorium. Yes, maam. She turns away, moving to raise the screen. I hurry, realizing even getting in trouble for the first time in my life didnt dampen my great mood. Stopping in the sunshine, I tilt my head up to the blue skies. Chloe? Geez, suddenly my name is the most common word in the English language. This time its Ruby, though, so I dont mind. Hey. Heading home? You will not believe what just happened. We start walking together. What? Showing me her cup, she says, So Im standing in line for coffee at Perky Beans, and this hot guy is behind me. Im next to order, and he starts chatting me up about not being able to drop a class but seeing me has his day looking better. Joshua makes my daysand my nightsbetter. I cant imagine anyone dreamier than that man, but she doesnt need to hear me talk about him. Chloe! What? I glance next to me to find her not there. Stopping, I turn back. With her hands on her hips and her brows knitted together, I dont need the glare to tell me shes irritated. Are you even listening? Shes happy to tell me herself. Im listening. Hot guy. Black coffee. Sophisticated. Got it. Huffing, she rejoins me, adjusting her backpack and picking up where she left off. So, I said, hey, we just ordered the same coffee. Caramel macchiato with coconut milk and an extra shot of espresso. Like, how is that even possible? Bumping into me, she giggles. Romantic. Like destiny. Soul mates, for sure. I bump right back and laugh. I dont dare mention my love life, or shell fixate on it, and Im not ready for that. I do, however, find her line of thinking utterly fascinating. Do you believe in fate? she asks. Fate has always had such a negative connotation to me. Destiny sounds more hopeful. She presses the button at the crosswalk, and as we stand there, she says, Theres an argument for both, but lets go with hope. What do you think? Are you asking me if I believe that youll start dating this guy, fall madly in love in a whirlwind romance, jet around the world after graduation fulfilling your tremendously cool dreams, and then one day look at each other and decide to settle down, have two point five kids, a three-car garage, and a little piece of paradise in Connecticut? Yes. I shrug. Maybe. Do you need a three-car garage? That makes her laugh. I was thinking four but thought Id sound pretentious if I voiced it. The pedestrian sign comes on, and we cross the street to our block. Wrapping my arm around her, I say, Never. This has me thinking about my parents marriage. They thought theyd be married forever when they tied the knot. Little doubts start to populate. How will it be different for me? Are we being na?ve by thinking our love is different? No. Ive studied every part of the anatomy. The two most powerful organs are the brain and the heart. No matter which leads you, the other follows. So even though our hearts are leading this charge, I know were thinking rationally. Anyway, a mistake would never feel this good. I open the door to my apartment and stopmy feet, my heart, my breathing. And stare, trying to process how theres a sexy, shirtless guy standing on my windowsill. Hello there. I set my bag at the foot of the couch. Joshua doesnt react, but then I see the earbuds tucked in his ears. Hes quite the sight, and I dont want to miss a second of this. Not making a noise, I curl up on the couch and watch with rapt interest as he hangs a towel over my window. His backside is a thing of beauty. The muscle definition would make a Greek god jealous. The best part? Hes mine. Im pretty sure you werent looking for my eyes, but just in case, he says, pointing at the most heart-stopping beautiful brown eyes. Theyre up here. My gaze selfishly drifts lower again and this time continues to that firm ass. Im good. I giggle. You can continue whatever you were doing. All done. Whend you get home? Home. I grin. Not long enough to appreciate you properly. You stole a towel for privacy? I did, he replies proudly. Tugging lightly, he appears impressed with his handiwork. Should hold until you get blinds. I can also hang those for you. I used a sheet in the bedroom. You dont seem apologetic at all, so youre lucky youre hot or I might be mad. So tell me more about this being a handyman business. Its a whole new side of you. Im handy all right. He comes to the couch and sits next to me. We come together and kiss. Good to see you. Good to be seen by you, especially since no one else can now. I signal toward the window. The right side of my mouth tips up. Feel better? Yes, regarding the windows. No, because I need to go to work. Joshuas eyes are kind as he looks into mine. Wish I could stay. Me, too. He steals another kiss and then pulls his shirt over his head. I kick back with my hands behind my head. Dont get me wrong. Im not complaining. Just curious why you were shirtless hanging the towel? A small shrug hits under the smile on his face. Figured youd be home soon. I chunk a pillow at him. Tease. If you got it, flaunt I pop him with another pillow and then kiss his arm as I go to Frankie. The violence around here is intense, he adds, chuckling. I think you can handle a few pillows. He hooks the corner of the towel on a nail, a nice detail to the makeshift covering. I lean against him, not wanting him to go. Clever. Picking up Frankie, I carry her to the sink for a good soak. What does your bonsai look like? Dwayne Evans? He has a strong trunk and straight, broad branches. Sounds like someone I know. I turn on the water. Look at me nurturing my plant. My mom would be so proud. Like how Joshua is looking at me now. But lets get back to the Dwayne Evans part. I raise an eyebrow, wholly entertained by this name. Hes named after The Rock. That makes a little more sense. I turn off the faucet and return to the couch. Yet not entirely. Im going to need more information. The ridiculousness of our conversation isnt lost on him, but something darkens his expression. When I was twelve, I used to stay up all night on the weekends watching his movies. He seemed like a real-life hero to me. If we want to delve deep, I wished he was my dad but not because of fame or money. He was funny and badass, equally. Just seemed like a good dad to have if I got to choose one. My tree reminded me of himtall and bulky, upstanding, so I named him Dwayne but kept my last name. Theres a lump in my throat, and I didnt realize I was gripping my hands together so tightly. When I release, my fingers are stiff. I get up and hug him. Not sure if he needs it or even wants it, but his arms come around me, and we stand there in the quiet. Im not sure what to say, so I fall back on what made us fall for each other in the first place. So, were going with the double-barrel name? He starts chuckling. Yes. Dwayne Evans is a formal kind of bonsai. I love his laughter. Releasing me, he says, I need to get going. As much as youre gone from your place, maybe you should consider bringing Dwayne Evans over here. He can spend time with Frankie. When I open the door, he leaves his backpack on the floor as he exits. Thats a bit forward. I mean, I can ask him. Another shrug comes with a heaping helping of a wry grin. He taps the tip of my nose. But no guarantees. Hes quite the ladies man. I tap his nose right back. Hes not a man at all, actually. You know what I mean. Im kissednot reflective of any of the joking weve been doinghis lips relishing mine and me returning the favor. The struggle is heard in a heavy sigh when he forces himself to walk away. I feel that sadness corroding my stomach as well. I ask, Hey, howd you get in anyway? I have my ways, Fox. Just before his head is out of sight, his eyes meet mine, and he adds, Ill add another later. Ah. He picked my lock. His skills extend way beyond a college classroom. Keep me posted on Dwayne Evans. His laughter echoes through the stairwell. I will. See you later. Returning inside, I flop back on the couch, needing to reevaluate the path Im choosing versus the course created by others and the life everyone expects of me. Ive had the same goals since I was fifteen, and then I met Joshua Evans. Now Im coloring outside the lines for the first time. Staying up late and experiencing what its like to share my nights. Chloe Evans does have a nice ring to it. Heat sweeps across my cheeks because yes, I just did that, and I like the sound of it. Since Im already chartering a new course, I can play with the title of Mr. and Mrs. in my head. Of course, for me, Dr. Evans has a much better ring to it. My heart pulses with a joy Ive never felt before. Im happier than Ive ever been, and its because of the man who just hung a towel over my window to protect me. A charming devil of a catch and I caught him. I think Im going to love walking on the wild side if Im walking it with him. 16 Joshua JOSH? my mom calls from the front of the diner. The dinner rush hasnt kicked in, so I push through the kitchen door to find her. Shes in the main area, but I see why she called me. Service around here sucks. Bryant smacks his hands on the counter where he and Todd take up space Fuckers. Dont say that. It makes my mom look bad. She returns, giving them that dont-test-me-glare that told me I was in trouble when I was younger. Still works on me. I chuckle, knowing shes giving them shit, though. She cant hold that look for long, always liking my friends. She asks, What are you troublemakers up to today? Todd replies, Checking on our boy. Other than the time he and his lady graced us with their presence at Luckys, hes been MIA for most of September, including his birthday. Were also hungry, Bryant adds, never one to turn down a free meal. But what Todd said, too. First birthday we havent drank down by the lake in years. I cant tell them why I couldnt go but remembering how dirty we got in that shower of hers leaves no room for anything less than a guilty grin. My mom asks, You took Chloe to Luckys? Not the classiest place, Josh. Cheap drinks and pool tables. We dont need much. Anyway, she had a good time. I try to hide my grin as I think about how that night endedsex and snacks. Good times. I dont even want to know why you have that smirk on your face. I get popped with a towel, causing me to laugh. Turning back to the guys, she asks, Burgers? All the way, Ms. Russo. Todd rests his arms on the counter. Ill cover them, Mom. Spinning the spatula in my hand, I cock a brow. I think I know how you like your burgers. Ive made enough over the years to pay for Yale. If Id been paid, that is. We head back to the kitchen because I know my mom would rather us take our foul mouths out of hearing range from paying customers. I slap patties on the grill as they come around from washing their hands. Across from me, they lean against the sink. Todd starts, Lets talk about Chloe Fox. How about we dont? I reply, knowing full well thats not going to satisfy him. Nice try, Bryant slaps back. This conversation is long overdue, and I cant say I blame them for being curious since Ive been spending so much time alone with her. My time with Chloe has been good. Really good. Really good, huh? Bryant laughs, nudging Todd. I think our boys done for. Cooking allows me to avoid their judging stares. I dunk the fries in the fryer. Todd finally cuts to the chase, and asks, Youve been together a while now. Is it more than good? Always the detective. I glance up. Youve hung around her enough to see why I like her. You mean at Luckys like a month ago, and then when you stopped by last week to collect that forty bucks I owed you. If thats the baseline, then sure, she seems cool the two times weve hung out. Do you love her? Is it wrong to admit it out loud to them before I say it to her? Probably. I, uh . . . Returning to the grill, I poke around making a lot of noise for nothing. Were getting there. Laughing, Bryant cups his ear and leans over. Say it louder for the people in the back. Todd shoves him. He doesnt have to. The master of avoidance cant avoid admitting the truth. He loves her. Shit, thats a news flash I didnt see coming. Whatever, man. Can we drop this? Were giving you a hard time, Todd says, grabbing a stool and sitting down. But so you know, if you like her, love her, whatever. Were good. Bryant punches my arm. Shes cool, but man, I never thought Id see the day that you were off the market. Chloe Fox lives up to her name, by the way. Shaking my head, I know theyre not going to let this lie. Go ahead and get it out of your systems. I chuckle until Bryant adds, Did you know that shes Newports medical phenom in the making after her dad. Its next level, brah. I know thats what he wants, I reply defensively, not liking theyve been searching for dirt on her. You know how? I asked her. How do you know? Tossing cheese on the patties, I work on plating the food. The meal may be on the house, but I still care about the presentation. He replies, I was bored the other night. Just in case she didnt tell you this, Daddy Fox is not just filthy rich. Hes fucking wealthy. Her coming from money doesnt scare me. Chuckling, I ask, And the distinguishing factor between those two are? Todd says, Old money. So? I shrug. Thats half of New Haven. But were on the other half, Bryant adds. Except this guy. He thumbs toward Todd, who says, But I got here as fast as they could cut me off. You know what I got? I start, I got the talk from my mom already, so you dont need to worry about me. Todd says, Dont forget shell be leaving after graduation, so dont go running off and getting married anytime soon. After putting fries on their plate, I retrieve the burgers and then add the toppings. Some things I want to keep between me and Chloe for now, like discovering stuff that I learn from her and not the internet. Thanks for the advice, I reply dryly. Bryant always has to get in the last word. For the record, we were disappointed to find so little on her. She is who she says she is. Graduated from high school early and now shes a Yale student. Boring stuff. Shes anything but boring to me. Handing them the plates, I stop. His words playing back. What do you mean graduated early? Yeah, Bryant says, not picking up on my concern. Youre lucky you didnt get busted at Luckys. Grabbing the plate with one hand, he rubs his stomach with the other. Im starved. Yeah, lucky. We return to the front and they sit at the counter as I get their drinks, Chloes age still on my mind. I thought for sure she said she was twenty-one. I was distracted by everything on our first date at the diner. With my mom trying to dote on us to her, Barb, and T doing golf claps where Chloe couldnt see. Thank God. That would have been more embarrassing than it already was. I still dont think I heard Chloe wrong. While the guys eat, I grab the dish tub and start clearing the vacated tables, feeling bothered. I have a pretty good memory . . . How about a lightning round of get-to-know-you questions? Im game. Can I go first? Age? Twenty-two next month. Age? Twenty-one. Were the same age Right. I even noted how we were the same age. Im certain she said twenty-one, but Ill ask her about it anyway. After dumping the dishes in the back, I return to the counter. My mom pats my shoulder. Thank you, son. She reconciles their bill, and asks Todd, Youre delivering for me tonight, right? Yes, maam. Ill be back at six. Bryant says, Im 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 dont. 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. Theyre 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. Doesnt matter what I felt two seconds prior, Im smiling the moment I see her face on the screen under the nameSoulmate . . . If the shoe fits, and its a perfect fit for Chloe. Chloes face is contorted, but she cant 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 cant be with my gorgeous girlfriend. Chloe: Send me a photo of what youre 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 dishesbe still my beating heart. I have some things you can wash. Me: Some things . . . like you? Chloe: What time do you get off? Me: Thats up to you. Chloe: Naughty. Naughty. *ponders the possibilities* Me: Dont start without me, baby. Im leaving here at eleven. Another pic of her lying on the bedher hair a mess and swept over the pillowa strap clinging to her shoulder and the other tipped over. As sexy as she is, my chest tightens just looking at her. Im at a loss of words that fit how stunning she is. Me: I . . . I delete and lick my lips although its my throat thats 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. Theyll 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 pleasures been mine. Ive been the happiest Ive ever been with you. I take a breath, the earlier conversation with Todd and Bryant trying to run its course. Joshua, are you there? Im here. What are we doing? I was studying. Youre 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? Nothings wrong. Thats what Ive been thinking about. Its been good. Softer laughter returns. I cant reason through it myself. Im as lost as you are, so Im following my heart instead. Dishes clang in the sink, causing me to look up. Its 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 Im in this with you. Dont get too sentimental on me or well both be saps. I need you to be the strong one. Shes the strongest person I know, holding her own under a mountain of expectations, and knowing she graduated a year early is incredible. For you, Ill be the strong one. Chuckling, I push off the wall. Ill 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 shell ask what she should wear, so I add: Casual clothes. I dont expect her to say no since Ive completely annihilated her routine the moment we started dating. Chloes text appears on the screen: I need my beauty sleep. Me: Trust me, you dont. Youre beautiful inside and out. Chloe: Fine, ya big charmer. Ill 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. Professor Carroll? Yes. The math professor has crushed on my mom since he got tenure four years ago. He even celebrated at the diner. That soft spot he has for her is good for business, but I think its going to take more than catering a party to get her to cross that line. One day, hes going to get the nerve up to ask you out. What will you say? Ill cross that bridge when I come to it. As for youyoure too young to settle down. Date. Love. Have fun, but dont make the same mistakes I did. Shes not a mistake. Thats not what I said. I adore Chloe. I love seeing you so happy, and I can tell shes the reason for it. And for that Im grateful. She turns with the door pressed to her back. Just dont I know. She takes me in for a long moment and then smiles. Love you. Love you. The door is left swinging behind her. She always did have a way of reading my mind. My mom might know me better than I doseeing my thoughts about Chloe and dragging them into the light. I have a feeling its because shes been here before. I can only hope that Chloe and I have a better ending. Spinning the ticket wheel, I grab the food and get back to work. Turkey BLT, coming up. Working through a long shift is a breeze when Im busy, and Chloes smile is a great distraction from cooking the same special over and over again. Im not sure which smile of hers is my favorite. The soft smile she has when I catch her sleeping, or the tilt of the mischievous one I caught when she beat the guys at poolWait. I know! My favorite still might be the one she had when she ran to kiss me the first time on the sidewalk. Nope. Im partial to her grin after sex. Thats my favorite . . . wait, is it? Fuck, who am I kidding? All of them are perfection. After work, I pop into the corner store to grab a couple of packs of condoms. Chloe and I have chemistry that we cant deny. Doesnt matter the day or time, one or both of us wants sex. I thought Id be the instigator, but I was wrong. She holds her own and slinks around in next to nothing to get me into the bedroom. Dirty tricks, man. She knows I cant resist, even after a long shift. The virgin thing still clouds the edges of mind. I guess if I would have known, I would have done things a bit differently. Been slower, gentler, romanced her more. Is it too late? Better late than never. Tonight is a good night to make things up to her. Tiny yellow flowers border the store parking lot. Theyre pretty, dainty like her. Walking to the side of the building where the grass isnt trampled, I find the perfect patch and pick a bunch. I find an old wire from a ripped out cassette deck behind my seat and wrap it around the stems, then set the flowers on the seat next to me. It takes a few cruises up and down her street before I find a spot down a few from her buildings front door. I double-check all the supplies I got and then head to get her. The door flies open, and she comes rushing toward me with a big smile and open arms. I catch her, spinning under the stars in a passionate embrace. Lips pressed to mine, she holds me around my neck with her legs wrapped around my middle. Heaven in my arms. Miss me? I ask when our lips come apart, not wanting to put her down just yet. So much. When her feet touch the ground, she jumps giddily. Where are you taking me? Its a surprise. I take hold of her hand and lead her to my truck. Top secret location. I hate surprises. She doesnt sound mad, though, which is a good sign. But I love secret spots. I think youll like this one. As soon as I open the door, she gasps. Reaching in, she takes the flowers. Are these for me? They are. A gentle sigh is released as her smile softens. Theyre the prettiest flowers Ive ever received. Lifting up, she kisses me again. Thank you. Youre welcome. Ive never seen someone, other than my mom, so happy to receive handpicked flowers. Most chicks Ive dated want the expensive red roses, the mass-produced ones with no scent. Like its a status thing or something. Im guilty of giving them, but theyre not what I would ever send Chloe. She deserves wildflowers, colors that match spring, pink like her lips, green like her eyes. Yellow like the sun. She deserves something thats outside the norm . . . like me. Those other rich guys can shower her in flowers, but I want to give her something theyd never givesomething for her, not them. My heart is in her hands as she admires them. I love her. God, how I love her. While she climbs in, I say, Chloe? She looks out at me before she buckles in. What am I doing? My heart is in my throat, and talk of the future balances on the tip of my tongue. I have no idea how to do this, never wanting to be this open, this up-front, this honest with anyone. Then I hear my moms words . . . As for youyoure too young to settle down. Date. Love. Have fun, but dont make the same mistakes I did. So, I hold back. I missed you, too. The moon shines in her eyes, stars in her smile. I was wrong before. This. This is my favorite.

  • Revealed /  (by P.C. Cast, Kristin Cast, 2013) -   Revealed / (by P.C.
  • Mulan /  (Disney, 2012)    Mulan / (Disney, 2012)
  • Love Story /   (by Erich Segal, 1996) -    Love Story /
  • 200       .  .. (2014, 336 + mp3) 200 2014,

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