The Forever Girl (Wildstone #6) by Jill Shalvis


Three years ago

Maze Porter was good at pretending to be fine, but since no one could see her, she dropped all pretense and stopped twenty-five yards short of her goal, unable to so much as swallow past the lump stuck in her throat.

For nine years now, since she’d been sixteen, she’d made this annual pilgrimage, but her legs refused to go another step. As far as her eyes could see, green grass spread out in front of her like a blanket over gently rolling hills, dotted with aged, sweeping oaks.

And myriad gravestones.

Above her, the sky churned moodily. Thunder rumbled, and a part of her heart smiled, because Michael had always loved a good storm.

Buoyed by the idea of her onetime foster sibling sitting on a cloud creating weather to amuse her, she managed to coax herself closer and let the strap of her beach chair slip off her shoulder. She tried to open it, but it was more stubborn than . . . well, her. “Not today, Satan,” she muttered. Not when she’d paid way too much for it at the touristy general store in Wildstone, but finally, after a two-minute battle of the wills, swearing the air blue the whole time, she got the thing open. Feeling righteous, she plopped down—only to have the chair jerk beneath her weight, making her gasp dramatically and throw her hands out, braced to fall on her ass.

She didn’t.

Relieved to have something go her way, she pulled a can of soda from her purse, cracked it open, and toasted to the grave. “Happy birthday. Hope that was entertaining.”

“Oh, hugely,” said an amused female voice behind her. “And you beat us here.”

“Of course she did,” a second female voice said. “Maze’s far too perfect to be late. There’s a reason I always wanted to be her when I grew up.”

Maze snorted. Perfect. Right. Just one of many roles she’d played. She looked up as Caitlin and Heather moved into her view, two of the only people on earth who could both make her laugh and drive her insane—almost as if they were a real family.

It felt like they were, thanks to the year they’d spent together running wild and free at the beach, at the lake, in the hills, having the sort of innocent kid adventures that bonded people for a lifetime . . . But in reality, Caitlin and Michael Walsh had been the only actual blood siblings. Maze and Heather, and a whole bunch of others, had been just the foster kids.

As they’d done for nine years now, Caitlin and Heather began taking things from a big bag: a HAPPY BIRTHDAY streamer, balloons, and a small cake—all superhero themed, of course.

Tradition for Michael’s birthday. Today would’ve been his eighteenth birthday. He’d loved birthdays, but he’d only gotten nine of them. Chest tight with memories and an almost paralyzing sense of loss, Maze stood, pulled a Deadpool action figure from her pocket, and set it on Michael’s headstone. He’d been too young for Deadpool, but she knew it would’ve been his favorite, hands down. He’d been mischievous, sharp as a tack, and had loved to laugh, and just thinking about him made it hard to breathe.

Heather smiled at her through eyes shining with unshed tears and produced a Thor action figure.

Cat was next with—no big surprise—Catwoman, and she took the longest, standing in front of her brother’s grave until, finally, she sniffed, wiped her eyes, and turned back to them with a smile and a nod. She was in charge of her emotions and their world, as always.

Of course she and Heather got their beach chairs open without incident, setting them up in an informal semicircle facing Michael’s grave, leaving space for a fourth chair.

The last member of their ragtag group hadn’t yet arrived. Hell, maybe he’d be a no-show this year. The thought made Maze ache. She’d given a quick thought to not showing up either, but guilt was a huge burden, and no one felt the weight of it more than she did, seeing as she was the one responsible for Michael’s death.

“Stop,” Caitlin said quietly, carefully balancing the cake in her lap as she cut it into three pieces. “I can hear your self-destructive thoughts from here.”

Like Caitlin knew about self-destructive thoughts—she’d never had a moment of doubt in her life. She was the perfect one, the real deal perfect. Two years older than Maze, Cat had her shit together. She’d been born with her shit together. Her hair was a long, shiny blond silk that never frizzed, her smile could draw in even the most hardened soul, and she had the sort of willowy body that looked good in every damn thing, even though her idea of exercise was lifting her Starbucks coffee cup to her lips. Maze could hate her for that alone . . . except Cat was one of the most intensely loyal, fiercely protective, caring people who had ever come into her life.