“So what’s your idea of a good social get-together?” I ask Elena, because the only thing I know about her so far is she’s best friends with Jorie. I don’t know much about her friends otherwise.

“A backyard barbeque,” she answers without hesitation, a grin on her face that looks like she’s even at this moment, perhaps fondly, remembering just such an event. Her voice is a little dreamy. “Ribs, burgers, dogs on the grill. Cold beer. Music blaring. Kids running through the backyard sprinkler to stay cool on a hot day.”

I can see it. Elena wearing cut-off shorts and maybe a bikini top, because I’ll always picture her being sexy. Talking and laughing with family and friends. Running through the sprinkler with the kids because why wouldn’t she? She’s fun, spirited, and isn’t afraid to be silly.

April would have never done that, and I have immediate guilt for comparing them. My mind doesn’t often go there, and that’s mostly because I’ve always had April firmly locked up and tucked away.

But it’s true. April would have been dressed in a pretty summer dress, hair and makeup done perfectly, and she would have been content to watch the kids getting wet and laugh. But she would have never joined in.

“What about you?” she asks, and it breaks me out of my thoughts. I blink, taking a small sip of my bourbon so I can relish the taste and not the effect.

Another memory hits, and I can’t help but smile. “My parents used to have backyard barbecues all the time while I was growing up. But it was always chicken wings. My dad loved them, and my mom was exceptionally good at making them. They were never big affairs—just a few close friends—but I can still smell those wings smoking on the grill.”

“Did kids run through the sprinklers?” she asks, eyes sparkling.

“We had a pool,” I say with a laugh. “We were all swimming.”

“Such an elitist,” she drawls playfully. “But sounds like fun times.”

“They were.” I remember them fondly, and I realize… I haven’t been allowing myself to focus on any of my memories, including childhood. I’ve shut everything from the past off, not just those surrounding April and Cassidy.

A sudden longing for my mother hits me. It’s so intense my injured leg starts to shake a bit in weakness. I grip the handle of my cane, leaning a little heavier on it.

My mother and I were super close prior to the accident. I was the quintessential mama’s boy. So was my older brother for that matter. We both love our dad, but it was our mother we always turned to in hard times.

She was the one who never left my side in the hospital.

She was the one who told me about April and Cassidy.

She handled dealing with my doctors, paying my personal bills for me, and then handling funeral arrangements. She did all of that while I systematically shut down my emotions, which also meant cutting her out as well.

She took care of me while I offered her nothing in return, and the regret is intensely painful.

After I recovered enough to handle things on my own, she returned to Michigan at my insistence. She respected my space, even though she hadn’t liked the way I had pushed her away.

But she’s never given up on me. She’s always called and texted, and if I didn’t answer or respond, she let me be and just tried again the next day. Her persistence never annoyed me as I understood it was beyond her control. It wasn’t fair when I asked her to stop acting like my mother. And if she was annoyed or hurt by my refusal to act like a loving son, she never let me know it.

I should call her. Just out of the blue, for no other reason than just to hear her voice. I can’t remember the last time I did that, and it’s because I’ve been a selfish fuck this past year, only worrying about myself.

I make a mental note that my mom will be next on my priority list tomorrow morning after Elena leaves. It will be a step I can take to start repairing that relationship as well.

“Elena,” an excited female voice cuts through my thoughts. I turn to see Jorie and Walsh approaching.

The women hug hard, rocking slightly back and forth. It’s clear by the expressions on their faces they’re incredibly tight. This past week, Elena had shared a little bit more about their friendship, dating back to childhood. Elena took Jorie in when her first marriage collapsed, and she’s also the one who introduced her to The Wicked Horse.

Looking at Walsh and Jorie now, it’s hard to believe they’re members there. Or were members. Elena had told me they don’t go anymore.

Which I can sort of understand. I originally went to The Wicked Horse to fulfill a specific purpose.

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