Tonight was his dad’s retirement party and he hadn’t even RSVP’d. He hadn’t called. He hadn’t anything. With guilt and self-loathing rolling over him in waves, he pulled out his phone and accessed his contacts. He scrolled to his dad and stared at the number.
Call or text? No, texting would be the chicken-shit route. He shoved the phone back into his pocket. Then he swore and tugged it out again, called, and . . . got his dad’s voice mail. “Dad,” he said at the beep. “Hey. Look, I know it’s last minute and I should’ve called you long before now and at least RSVP’d to your party tonight.” He ran a hand over his face. “I’m sorry but I’d like to still come by, if that’s okay with you. You can text if you’d rather just . . . Let me know.” Shit. He disconnected and stood there for a long beat, not sure what to do with himself. Finally he swore some more and then looked up at the odd prickling at the base of his neck.
Elle was no longer by the fountain. She’d moved closer and stood right there, watching him.
“Hey,” she said quietly, her expression softer than he was used to seeing when she looked at him. She felt sorry for him.
And if that didn’t suck big-time. “Don’t,” he said.
Pity me. But he couldn’t even say it. “I’ve gotta go,” he said instead and headed to the stairs. He had a damn suit in his damn office closet for the very occasional meetings that required it. He needed to change into it and get to his dad’s retirement party, hoping that late was better than never.
“So we’re back to you being silent and brooding because I overheard your message to your dad?” she asked, hugging herself in the cold night air. “Kinda rude, don’t you think?”
“Go to the pub, Elle.” But he should’ve known better. Telling her what to do never worked out for him but he just shook his head. “It’s warmer in there.” Then he jogged up the stairs and let himself into his office. Five minutes later he’d changed and was back outside.
Elle stood there waiting for him. And something deep inside him tightened. In spite of his being a dick, she cared about him. He’d been doing his damnedest since that insane kiss they’d shared to not give out the wrong signals, but that was hard when he no longer knew wrong from right when it came to her. He was completely upside down. He shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped her up in it. “I told you to go inside, it’s too cold out here for that dress.” Which, just a side note, was hot as hell on her.
“You’re not going to your dad’s retirement party alone,” she said.
“Yes, I am.” It was his penance, and besides that, he didn’t want anyone witnessing what promised to be an incredibly awkward reunion. Archer hated awkward. Hated an audience to it even more.
“I’ve texted Spence,” she said. “He’s on his way.”
Shit. “I’m not bringing Spence. He’ll talk too much.”
“You need to bring someone,” she insisted. “Finn’s working. How about Willa?”
“She talks more than Spence.”
Elle didn’t look particularly moved. “Okay then, one of your guys. Joe or Trev—”
“Read my lips, Elle. No.”
She crossed her arms, the stubborn look on her face said that she wasn’t going to let this go. He blew out a breath. “Fine. If you want someone to come with me so badly, then I vote for you. Get in the damn truck.”
She arched a brow. “Out of all the people you know, you want to take the one person who drives you the most nuts? The one who’s mad at you? Really mad?”
“I want the one person I trust to have my back for this.”
That seemed to shock her. It certainly shut her up. And it had the added benefit of dissolving a whole lot of her resentment and anger too.
But not all. Of course not. It was Elle, after all.
“Fine,” she said, heading to his truck, heels clicking, hips moving in that innately sexy graceful way she had. “But don’t forget—this isn’t a date or a booty call.”
He laughed. Laughed. Only she could do that to him, bring him out of a mood. Make his day. And maybe sometime he’d sit down and analyze that but it wouldn’t be today. “Can we just go?”
“Oh by all means,” she said, “let’s get this over with.”
He shook his head but had to admit that he loved her smartass mouth. In truth, he was crazy to bring her with him. Being around people right now was a bad idea. But being around Elle, the one person on the planet who knew the road map to getting beneath his skin? Insanity. There was a storm brewing big-time, which actually suited his mood. A big gust nearly knocked him on his ass as he opened the passenger door for her and she slid her warm, curvy body in past him, giving him a zing of awareness that rocked him from head to toe. Letting out a long, slow breath, he walked around and slid in behind the wheel. “You ready?”
“I was born ready.”
Yeah. That’s what he was afraid of.
Elle watched Archer drive, his face as dark as the thunderclouds churning overhead. She knew the feeling of having so much going on inside that you felt like the storm was also raging inside your gut.
“I can’t believe I almost forgot,” he said quietly, almost to himself.
This shouldn’t have pierced her Archer-proof shield but it did. Archer spent a lot of his life being as tough and badass as possible. He had to be that way. But it was in moments like these that she realized he was human, just a flesh-and-blood man who made mistakes like everyone else. “Everyone forgets stuff,” she said. “Even important stuff. Like ‘oh, hey, I got you your job, no big.’”
He slid her a look. “I should’ve gone this alone.”
She sighed. “Could have, yes. Should have, no. Trust me, you need backup to deal with family.”
This had his mouth quirking a little at the corners. “You going to keep me safe, Elle?”
“Hey, I’ve got a knife.”
“Yeah, you do.” He paused. “You ever going to tell me why you still have it?”
Well she’d walked right into that one. “Sure. When you tell me why you got me the job.”
“We’re still on that?”
She sent him her best PMS look.