They both watched her walk away.
“You realize that within the hour the entire county will think I’m engaged,” Archer said, not sounding particularly bothered.
“Hey,” Elle said, losing the Southern accent. “You’re the one who started that. You kissed me. Which, by the way, is confusing. You clearly don’t want to be with me but you kiss me like you can’t get enough. I’m over it, Archer. Keep that admittedly great mouth to yourself until you figure your shit out.”
He turned his head and met her gaze.
“I mean it,” she said, not liking the attitude implied in his expression. “I deserve more. I mean I understand, I do. Once you’ve protected someone the way you protected me, you get . . . well, protective. But I’m no longer that sixteen-year-old girl, Archer. I’m a grown woman, and while we’re at it you’re welcome by the way for the save just now. By my calculations, that was the fifteenth job I’ve done for you.”
A whisper of what she thought was surprise crossed his face. “You keep count?” he asked.
“Of course I keep count. And don’t think I don’t know that we’re still not even. I’m working on that. I pay my debts, Archer.” A wind had kicked up and she hugged herself. “All of them.”
“Elle . . .” All traces of humor were gone from his face. “There is no debt.”
“Yes, there is,” she said, earnestly now, needing him to understand. “What you did for me all those years ago, it was everything. We’re still not even, not even close. And actually, I don’t know how I can ever repay you. You took me in and showed me something I didn’t know—that I could walk away from a life I didn’t want. That I could instead create a new life I did want. All I had to do was . . . well, do it.”
He didn’t move. He was maybe not even breathing. “I want you to listen to me very carefully,” he finally said in a very serious voice. “There’s no price on what we do for each other. Ever.”
“But pulling me out of there was at such a huge cost to yourself, then taking me to the doctor, giving me food and shelter, stuffing that two hundred bucks in the sweatshirt you gave me, leaving it for me to find in the pocket—”
“Anyone would have tried to help you, Elle.”
Not where she’d grown up. “Here. Hope it’s good. I’ve gotta go.”
“You never told me why you’re here in the first place,” he said to her back. “Or which one of my guys I have to talk to for giving out my location.”
The wind kicked it up even more, bringing in some fast-moving clouds that matched the impending storm in her gut. She turned to face him. “None of them.”
He gave her a small smile. “Now who’s protecting someone?” He studied her. “My money’s on Spence.”
“How do you figure?”
“Because there’s no way Joe fell victim to your smile again so quickly after last night,” he said. “And Mollie idolizes you but she also loves me. Spence is the only one currently susceptible enough to your charms to cave. So let’s cut to the chase, Elle. Why are you really here?”
No way was she going to admit to being worried about him. It would just go straight to his big, fat head. “I wanted to apologize, but I’m no longer feeling it.”
“For the B&E or for using one of my men?”
She sighed. “Both.”
His gaze never left hers. “There’s more. You were worried about me.”
“Well that would be like worrying about a lion in his own habitat, wouldn’t it? King of his jungle, always in charge, never showing weakness—”
“Yeah,” he said softly. “You were worried about me.”
She blew out a breath. “Maybe. Just this once.” She started to move away again but he caught her.
“I’m done here,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride, but we’re going to eat first.”
He took her to the Marina Green where he made her get out and sit with him on a park bench sheltered from the wind by a thick grove of tall trees. They watched the storm move in on the water, making it shimmer and dance as it ebbed and flowed heavily against the shoreline.
She’d forgotten forks. All they had were chopsticks. Problem was that it was his right arm that had been cut and he was right-handed. Watching him try to use the chopsticks with his left hand was far more entertaining than it should be. Three times he missed his mouth by a mile and when she smiled, he slid her a look.
“I’m starving to death over here and you think it’s funny,” he said.
“What’s funny is seeing you actually suck at something.” She stood, gathered their stuff, and tossed it in a trash can. The wind was rounding the out-of-control mark and the occasional boom of thunder could be heard. Elle’s hair blew around her head as she stalked back to his truck and got in.
He followed, sliding behind the wheel, his hair sexily windblown. “Thanks,” he said, staring straight ahead, out the windshield. “For tonight.”
“For fighting off your client for you or for the food?”
He looked at her. “You know there’s not a lot of people who’d do the things you do for me.”
“You mean yell at you?”
“I mean,” he said patiently, refusing to be drawn into an argument. “Being there for me.”
Stunned, she stared at him while he drove, and then finally she turned to look out into the night as the city went by in slashes of light from the buildings around them.
If she had been there for him, he’d certainly done the same for her. He mocked her. He teased her. He drove her nuts. But she could ask anything of him, anything at all, and she knew he’d find a way to come through, no matter what.
“Where to?” he asked.
“I was supposed to go to the pub and meet up with Willa, Pru, and Haley.”
Her sisters of the heart, and Maya’s words floated around in her head.
Family is family. Family is everything . . .
She thought of her sister standing on her doorstep and the look on Morgan’s face just before Elle had shut the door on it. She’d looked . . . regretful. Sad.
With a sigh, Elle leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes. It’d been haunting her. It wasn’t often she let herself regret a decision she made but she was regretting that one, big-time. Why hadn’t she at least heard Morgan out?