It feels good to be out again.

Feels good to be experiencing life.

“Why did you go to the Wicked Horse?” I ask, and she raises her eyebrow. “You’ve never told me why. Only you weren’t interested in a relationship.”

I can’t see her eyes behind those sunglasses, but I get the impression she’s blinking in surprise.

Her hesitancy in answering leads me to believe she might have suffered a terrible loss the way I did, and now I regret asking something she might not be ready to talk about.

But Elena merely gives a dismissive shrug as if it’s not all that interesting of a story. “I had been dating a string of extreme losers.”

Well, that explains exactly nothing. “How so?

“Just got tired of trying to find someone genuine. I used to get taken advantage of quite a bit.”

My protective instincts kick in, and I suppress a growl. I now want the names and addresses of anyone who would dare think they could hurt Elena. She doesn’t notice, though, only leans back on her towel as she continues. “It was always the same. They’d start off cherishing me. Romancing me. Sweeping me off my feet. The next thing I know, I’m doing everything. Caring for them, paying for shit, and being their psychotherapist so they can deal with mommy issues or something.”

“Emotional leeches,” I surmise.

“Pretty much,” she replies softly. “I got tired of needing to always fix them. I had to be responsible for their personal happiness. Which is fine if it’s a two-way street, but it was always all take and no give. Codependency at its finest. It drained the life out of me every time. But to answer your original question, I got tired of feeling like shit about it. Hating them and hating myself for letting it happen. So I heard about The Wicked Horse. As you know, I really like sex. So I thought it would be a suitable alternative to my current life choices.”

“Got it,” I murmur, letting my gaze wander out over the sparkling water.

“I don’t consider you broken, Benjamin,” Elena says, and I snap my head up. She takes her sunglasses off, turning her body to go to one elbow so she can look directly at me. “You’re the least broken person I know.”

“How can you even say that?” I ask, astonished by such a bold proclamation.

“How can I not?” she replies, her brows furrowing in consternation. “You survived a horrible accident. Suffered incredible loss. And yet, you’ve managed to continue giving top-notch medical care in an incredibly specialized field. Sure, you may have been a withdrawn dick to many people over time, but you’ve broken free of that. Taken risks. Given me a chance. Offered me unlimited pleasure. Smiled. Stood up to my Latina mother while naked. Like I said… least broken man I know, Benjamin.”

“Your mother coming in your room was incredibly weird,” I say with a grin, trying to lighten the mood up a bit. I can’t pretend her words of affirmation aren’t packing a pleasurable punch to my gut.

She smiles, but her eyes are still locked on me with serious intent. “Seriously… you’re handling your issues. You’re a strong man. I can tell.”

“Haven’t felt that way in a long time,” I admit. What I don’t admit is she makes me feel strong.

“But I also feel compelled to make sure you understand,” she continues, “that if you ever wanted to talk about things with me, I’m there for you. I really like you, Benjamin, and I wasn’t expecting this to be anything. Yet, it’s turning into everything. You can be strong and still lean on someone. And I can still accept the weight of another’s problems without having to give up everything of myself. I think that’s something I just recently learned.”

Fuck if she’s not saying all the right things. Validating me without pressuring me. Comforting me without making me feel weak. Offering a new layer to our relationship that threatens to put me on the edge of jumping all the way in with her.

Am I ready for that?

Brandon seems to think so.

In addition to reconnecting with my family, Brandon and I have made strides the last two weeks. It started with an apology from me for canceling on a surgery and dropping off the face of the earth for a few days. I had to make sure he knew I was a reliable medical partner and put any doubts to rest.

He accepted the apology stiffly and without any real enthusiasm. And then, without any forethought or planning or even any real understanding until that moment that Brandon needed a different type of apology.

“I’m sorry for abandoning our friendship,” I’d told him, and I could have knocked him over with a feather in that moment. It was obvious by the expression on his face. “I put up walls, pushed those closest to me away, and as my best friend, that meant you. And I’m sorry for the hurt I’ve caused, and I’m thankful you’ve not booted me out on my ass yet.”

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