She gave a slow nod and turned and walked out of his office.
“Hey,” he called after her. “You never said what you wanted.”
“Since you made me spill my tea, I came for some of the coffee Mollie makes you guys every morning.”
Shaking his head, he turned back to the windows but he didn’t see the view. He saw the events of that long-ago night flipping through his brain like a slide show—specifically what had happened after the bust had gone bad. Elle, huddled into herself in torn clothes, bleeding from various scrapes and cuts, eyes flashing with false bravado, body trembling. She’d run further into that run-down park and he’d really had to work at finding her.
She’d been on a swing, sitting very still. Very alone.
He’d told himself he’d done enough just letting her escape the scene, that he needed to walk away, but he couldn’t, even though his own ass had been toast in a very large way. After all, he’d just detonated his entire life and yet there he stood worrying about the girl who’d been the accelerant on the fire he’d bombed his career with.
He’d wanted to take her to a doctor but she’d refused to go anywhere with him. So he’d given her his own pocket knife and told her she could use it to protect herself against him if she felt the need.
Then he’d taken her to an urgent care clinic and had her checked out. She’d needed stitches on her cheek where she’d been hit hard enough to split the skin but that had thankfully been the worst of her injuries. He’d then taken her home and put her to bed on his couch, where she’d slept like the dead.
Or like a girl who’d not been safe in so long she’d forgotten what real sleep felt like.
He’d known this because he watched over her for hours. In the morning he’d made her breakfast and then gone to take a shower. When he’d come out, she’d been gone, the agate stone sitting on top of the folded blankets he’d given her to sleep with.
He’d been suspended from the force, and rightfully so. He’d fucked up big-time on multiple levels and his father had just barely managed to keep him on the force at all.
But Archer had quit. He’d realized he wasn’t cut out for having his hands tied just because his idea of right and wrong didn’t match up with someone else’s.
This hadn’t gone over so well. In fact, his dad had been so furious they hadn’t spoken for several years afterward, not aided by the fact that since his mom had died of cancer ten years ago, they’d never been able to see eye-to-eye. Without the sweet, loving peacemaker of the family around, there’d been no one to mediate.
Eventually they’d managed to be in the same room again without the inevitable fight over Archer’s habit of making bad choices. They even spoke on occasion now. Holidays. Birthdays. That time a few years back when his dad had been shot in the leg on the job that was still the guy’s entire life. And Archer got that. Just as he got that his hardcore cop dad was never going to understand that Archer had done what he’d had to.
And yet he’d just promised Elle he’d go to the retirement party, where he’d likely have to face much of the entire force.
One of these days he was really going to have to figure out this strange hold and power Elle had over him.
But not today.
That weekend Archer and some of the guys went camping. It was something they tried to do every few months when they all had a few days off at the same time. It involved four-wheeling, fishing, and usually some form of stupidity since they were all so competitive. But hey, no one had died yet and they’d only needed an ER trip that one time back when someone had dared Joe to climb a tree and he’d fallen out of it, breaking his collarbone.
Archer drove. Spence rode shotgun with Joe and Finn in the backseat. It was an hour and a half drive to Big Basin Redwoods State Park and they stopped along the way for supplies.
Beer and bait.
When they got there, Archer got out of the truck and inhaled deep. The city was gone. They were in the mountains now, surrounded by ancient three-hundred-foot trees and enough nature to quiet even the busiest of minds.
The reason he came . . .
They spent the day hiking, fishing, and making increasingly ridiculous bets, the latest being that whoever caught the least amount of fish had to take a dip in the river. It was February. The river was an ice bath.
Highly motivated to stay dry, Archer caught three fish. Spence and Joe caught two each.
Finn only managed one and grumbled the entire time he was stripping down to his birthday suit, muttering dire warnings about hypothermia.
The rest of them just grinned, toasting themselves and their brilliance while Finn climbed into and out of the water in record time.
“Maybe you should get better at fishing,” Spence said to a teeth-chattering Finn.
Finn yanked his clothes back on and flipped Spence the bird.
Archer tossed more wood on the fire and shoved Finn close to it. Watching Finn lose had been fun. So was the righteous knowledge that he was the best fisherman out of all of them. But that didn’t mean he wanted Finn to die of hypothermia.
“If you’d lost,” Finn said to Spence. “You wouldn’t have had the stones to go in.”
“Oh I’ve got the stones,” Spence said. “The stones to walk over there and discover an algae on the surface. A skin-eating algae.” He smiled. “One that makes swimming unsafe.”
Finn blinked. “Huh. I didn’t think of that.”
Spence tapped his temple with a finger. “Not just a hat rack.”
The sun went down fast up here. One minute it was daylight and in the next breath, inky black night. They got more serious about the fire, drinking the beer while Archer cooked the fish. As he was doing that, Spence went through their stuff and said “what the ever loving fuck?”
Everyone turned to look at him.
“Where’s the junk food?” he asked.
“In the gray bin,” Finn said. “I personally loaded it up with chocolate, graham crackers, and macro marshmallows because last time I got the minis you guys bitched about it for two days.”
“There’s no gray bin,” Spence said. “Where is the gray bin?”
“Shit,” Finn said. “It must not have gotten in the truck.”