“Benji… honey,” my mom drawls soothingly. “We’ll never know for sure. Maybe God wasn’t looking out for Elena, but rather the gunman.”

“What?” I rasp, my throat tightening with surprise at her suggestion.

“Maybe God had another purpose for that man or didn’t want him to have the weight of killing someone. Maybe God brought April and Cassidy home where they were meant to be because maybe you’re meant to be with Elena. We just never know. We can’t know. All we can do is have faith He ultimately wants what’s best for us, and he will give us nothing more than what we can handle.”

I’m so tired of this circular argument with people. I know Elena would love to be involved in this right now, as her beliefs align very closely with my mom’s. But none of her words make me feel better. They don’t bring clarity.

They only confuse and exhaust me.

“Look… I’ve got to get going,” I say. “But I’ll be at the airport to get you tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay, honey. I love you.”

“Love you too,” I murmur before disconnecting the phone.

I push up from the couch, then walk over to one of the vending machines. Nothing looks good. I move back to the couch.

Before I can sit down, my phone chimes with a text from Elena. I look down at it. I’m here in the lobby. I know you’re on call, but I’d love if you can spare me a few minutes. I’ll wait for however long I need to.

Shit… she’s here. I’m both elated and terrified. While I had every intention of us talking—breaking up, maybe—I hadn’t expected it to be today. But that’s my Elena… forcing a showdown because she’s not one to sit back and wait to see how life works out.

On my way, I text back, then snag my cane from near the doorway.

It takes me several minutes to make my way to her, mainly due to overcrowded elevators.

She doesn’t see me coming, and it affords me the ability to look her over critically. I see the bruising and stitches. I’d expected them, so it wasn’t a shocker.

What I hate seeing is the misery on her face. She knows.

She knows I’m a bastard and ready to bolt. Without her saying a word, I can read every beautiful nuance on her. It’s obvious she’s going to let me do it, too.

I’m within half-a-dozen paces from her when she sees me and our eyes lock. She doesn’t move toward me, and I come to a stop a few feet from her. “How are you feeling? Headaches? Any dizziness? Double vision?”

Annoyance flashes in her eyes, and she pointedly ignores my questions. “I need to know if we’re over.”

A rush of air pushes out of my lungs as I glance around the immediate vicinity for somewhere private to talk. Too many damn people.

I take Elena’s hand in mine, then lead her out the lobby doors and around the side of the hospital where there’s an outdoor courtyard. There are a few people here, but I find a quiet bench under a tree.

We sit, angling in toward each other, her knees brushing against mine. I reach out, then brush a lock of hair back from her forehead on the opposite side of her wound. She watches me carefully as if reading something into my action. I just wanted to be able to see her entire face.

“I wasn’t completely honest with you in the past,” I begin, and she blinks in surprise. “About when I stood you up for our date at The Wicked Horse just before Father’s Day.”

“You were feeling overwhelmed,” she says, but I shake my head.

“It was far beyond overwhelmed, Elena.” I reach out, take her hand. “You completely stripped away all of my defenses. Laid me bare and think back to then… that’s before we really started opening up about our feelings. That early on, you scared the shit out of me because you made me vulnerable again.”

“I’m sorry,” she mumbles, looking away for a moment before coming back to me. “I don’t even know what to say to that.”

“Don’t apologize,” I chide. “I’m telling you only so you’ll know how powerfully you affected me, even back then. You opened me up in ways I didn’t think possible, nor did I think I was ready for it. So I panicked and totally ghosted you.”

“That’s all well and good,” she replies, stroking a thumb over the back of my hand. “That gives me better insight, but you let me back in, even knowing the risk.”

“I did, because you also made me start forgetting the pain,” I admit, and I can see realization set in. “Here I am, falling for this beautiful, smart, and vivacious woman, and my life was starting to get really good again. Until—”

“Until I just reminded you how fragile it all is,” she says softly, and I can tell this also isn’t news. She’d already figured this all out because her tone is defeated and accepting all at once. “You don’t want to risk that type of loss again.”

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