We Were Once - Page 6

“I’m 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 I’d return it.”

She takes it from me and a gentle smile comes over her as she strokes the engraved name.”

“Joshua’s 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, “Chili’s on me.”

“No, you don’t have to do that. It was the right thing to do. I don’t 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 I’ve seen in movies. It’s 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 it’s noisy from conversation and the music wafting overhead. Sounds like jazz but it’s 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.” It’s already full before I realize it’s not in a to-go cup. I’m thinking she was serious about the chili. I don’t 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, that’s chili with shredded cheddar and a dollop of sour cream on top. “Do you like jalapeños? I can get some,” she says.

“I can’t 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 name’s not Barb. The rules state we have to wear a name tag, and I forgot mine at home, so I borrowed Barb’s. She’s off on Mondays.” Resting her hands on the counter like she intends to spend a little time here, she says, “I’m Patty.”

“Patty as in Patty’s Diner?” I ask dumbly.

“One and the same.”

“It’s 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? I’m not sure if I’m doing something right or wrong.”

“Right. My stomach growled when I walked in, and the chili looks really good.” I don’t mention her annoying son since he’s 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. “I’m actually a senior this year.”

“You are? My son’s a senior this year. What’s 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? I’m stuffed just thinking about it. “You don’t have to worry. I don’t need it.”

“It’s the best part.” Too late. She’s 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. She’s 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 he’s cocky as all get-out is.

“Well, well. Well. If it isn’t 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.

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