His words hit me hard. Right in the center of my chest, which constricts in guilt. It’s the same exact feeling I had when I’d learned April and Cassidy died in the automobile accident. I had such tremendous guilt I had lived, and they hadn’t. And here I am, putting everything important to Brandon at risk.

And, in a way, he’s right. I tend to judge everything based on my experiences since that drunk driver, Marcus Pettigrew, crossed the centerline and hit our vehicle head-on.

Taking everything good and beautiful and important to me away in an instant.

Now, every drunk is the same as him. Every person with flaws isn’t worthy of my skills. I have no leniency, and I judge harshly.

It’s all coming down on me now, though.

“I’m sorry,” I say softly… genuinely. “You don’t deserve any of this.”

Brandon blinks in surprise, his mouth falling open. “You never apologize for anything. At least, not since the accident.”

This is true. I’ve pretty much been a withdrawn asshole to my friends and family since the accident. I give a slight shrug. “Well, I am sorry for causing you problems. I’ll handle this with the ethics board. You have my word. And you know my work on that man was solid, and there was nothing I could do to save him. You know it, Brandon. But I promise I’ll make amends. I’ll even apologize to the family for my behavior. This lawsuit won’t go anywhere.”

My friend—former best friend, perhaps, since I haven’t been particularly good to him lately—raises a skeptical brow. “Who are you and what have you done with Benjamin?”

My smile is thin. I know he’s trying to get me to show some spark of positive emotion, but some of my pain is too thick to penetrate all the way. All I can offer him is, “You know I don’t do anything to intentionally hurt anyone.”

Brandon sighs and nods. “I know. Doesn’t mean you haven’t hurt people all the same.”

There is no arguing with that. I’ve pretty much alienated Brandon—my parents and my brother, too. They are the closest people to me in this world. In my fucked-up mind, I won’t suffer when I eventually lose them if I can manage to keep them at arm’s length. They are smart enough to realize that’s why I’ve withdrawn. Even though they’ve been respectful of my needs and given me the space I’ve demanded over the past year, they’ve suffered over it, too.

With a slight cough, Brandon gives me a resolute expression. “I’d like to go over the lawsuit tonight so we can meet with our attorneys tomorrow. Come up with a game plan. Let’s go grab a late dinner to discuss it.”

Overwhelming disappointment floods me. The asshole in me—the one who has become quite dismissive of everyone’s feelings except my own over the past year—wants to tell him to go to hell. I’ve got a hot date with a siren at a sex club. But I’m also warring with the guilt over the trouble my rash actions have caused Brandon.

Rubbing at the nape of my neck in frustration, I finally nod. “Let me grab my things from my office, then I’ll meet you in the parking garage.”

Brandon lifts his chin in acknowledgment before turning to gather files from his desk.

I move toward the door, but he stops me. “Hey, Benjamin?”

Planting my cane into the floor for balance, I twist to look at him.

“Don’t forget the charity benefit for the children’s hospital tomorrow night,” he says pointedly. “Dr. Metzer is chairing it.”

Dr. Metzer.

Head of the ethics committee. The man who will determine my fate over the way I dealt with the Harlan family.

Damn it.

“It would be a tremendous help if you went,” Brandon reasons. “Act sociable. And sane. Show him you were just having a bad moment instead of a bad year.”

A low growl of annoyance and frustration leaves me, particularly because he’s right. And I owe him.

“Okay. I’ll go.”

“Good man,” Brandon says with a grin.

I head to my office, which is just two doors down from Brandon’s. I grab my backpack, which I use to carry my laptop and other electronics. Fishing my cell phone out, I pull up The Wicked Horse fantasy app.

Regretfully, I type out a message to Elena.

I’m sorry, but I need to cancel tonight for work reasons.

After I hit send, another idea occurs to me.

But would you be interested in attending a charity gala with me tomorrow night?

She would at least make the evening more enjoyable. While I’m not keen on conversation these days, I’m genuinely curious about her.

Afterward, we could make the night worth it by hitting the club.

CHAPTER 8

Elena

“That dress looks fabulous on you,” Jorie exclaims as she claps her hands.

Examining myself in the full-length mirror in Jorie’s master bathroom, I have to agree. I look stunning. It’s an off-the-shoulder, A-line cocktail dress in a pinkish-gold with a paint-splatter design in black along the hem. Far more elegant than anything I have ever owned or could afford. Luckily, my bestie is married to a man who needs a fashionably attired woman on his arm, so her wardrobe is brimming with beautiful dresses, and oh… we wear the same size.

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