This didn’t surprise him. Elle had been hurt by her family in many, many ways, and that hurt ran deep. Bone deep.
And Elle wasn’t exactly the forgiving sort.
“When I realized you both work in the same building,” Morgan said, “it came to me that you’re still playing the knight in shining armor and protecting Elle.”
She gave a smile that said she didn’t believe him.
“Get to your point, Morgan.”
She let out a breath, her eyes surprisingly free of cynicism and guile. “I’ve been clean for twelve months,” she said. “No drugs. No booze.” She paused and looked at him.
He looked right back at her.
“You don’t believe me?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter what I believe.”
She sank into one of his chairs, leaning forward, hands on his desk, eyes earnest for once. “I’m proud of what I’ve done this year. I got a real job. I rented a room from some old lady. She’s got a lot of rules but”—she lifted a shoulder—“she’s nice. She doesn’t know me from before. She likes me.”
Archer sighed. “You’re likeable, Morgan. You deserve to have people care about you. That was never the problem.”
Her gaze met his. “My point is that I’ve changed. And I thought Elle might be able to help me but she . . . she hasn’t forgotten. Or forgiven.”
“You’re her family,” he said. “She’s forgiven. But yeah, probably not forgotten.” He paused. “She’s been through a lot too.”
“You’re defending her.” She said this with a small smile and a good amount of surprise. “That’s cute.”
When he grimaced, she laughed. “Didn’t mean to threaten your masculinity. Do you need to go lift weights now, or maybe fix your truck?”
He had to laugh. “Still a smartass.”
“It’s a Wheaton genetic trait,” she said. “It’s like our shield against our shit parents. We were born with it. Don’t tell me Elle’s changed her wiseass ways.”
He didn’t answer that and she laughed again. “I guess you two are good for each other, huh?”
She was fishing, but the truth was he and Elle had been better than good, they’d been . . . combustible.
“Guess that was a pretty personal question, huh?” Morgan asked. “I forgot, you don’t do those.”
She was trying for light and casual, and he got that. Put up a good front. Fake it until you make it and all that. But something about her worried him. If she’d been all attitude and bravado, he could have blown her off.
But she was afraid, although of what he had no idea. With her, it could be anything. And if she brought the trouble to Elle . . . “Tell me what’s going on, Morgan.”
Her smile faded. Her mouth trembled, although she put her fingers to her lips quickly as if to hide the weakness. “Oh, you know, just always trying to outrun my stupid past.”
“You know I didn’t stop grifting after that night.”
He nodded and she looked away. “It was harder for me to get out than it was for Elle.”
Bullshit. But he said nothing.
“I was all on my own,” she said.
Elle too, he thought, but again he held his tongue.
“I kept cutting things too close.”
“You actually did cut things too close,” he said. “Twice.”
She met his gaze. “You know?”
“That you went to jail five years ago and again two years later?” he asked. “Yes.”
She stared at him. “I know it’s hard to believe but I really have gotten my life together. I’m sober. I’m taking some general ed classes, working toward my AA degree. I told you my current living situation and I’m cleaning houses for cash.”
“But?” he asked.
“But I want something different, something on the books and legit.” She laughed shortly with little amusement. “I know this sounds ridiculous given who I’ve been, but I want to pay taxes. I want to save money to get my own apartment. But no one’s going to hire an ex-felon. I need a fair shot, and I won’t blow it. Not ever again.” She looked at him, eyes defensive and a little defiant, like she expected him to laugh at her.
“You mean it?” he asked.
“I’ve never meant anything more.”
“So what is it you need?”
“A job reference, for starters,” she said. “The coffee shop downstairs has a sign in the window that says they’re looking for a part-time barista for the early morning shift. There’s also a sign in the pub for a waitress.”
No way in hell would he blindly trust her at one of his friends’ places of business but he’d figure something out for her. If she really meant it. “And that’s all you want from me, a job reference?”
She looked away. “And a co-signer on a lease for that apartment, when I find it.”
“And . . . ?” he asked. “Lay it all out, Morgan.”
She gave a brief smile. “Upfront and brutally honest as ever, I see.”
“Always,” he said.
She looked at him again, right in the eyes. “I don’t want anyone from my past to be able to find me. I know you have ways to make people invisible.”
“You want to be invisible?”
“I want to be safe,” she said. “I want a fresh start. I want to be able to get those things for myself but apparently I’m unable to do that.” She looked very unhappy. “I need help, Archer. I don’t want to but I do.”
He took a deep breath. “Everyone needs help sometimes. There’s no shame in that.”
Some hope came into her eyes. “Does that mean you’ll do it? You’ll help me?”
He’d never been able to turn away from a Wheaton, trouble or not, and he doubted he was going to start now. “I’m not going to keep this from Elle.”
She arched a brow. “Interesting.”
Yeah. Or terrifying.
Elle sat on the counter of Willa’s shop, sipping her morning tea. The pet store was always fun and an adventure. Today there was a huge Siamese cat snoozing near the cash register, a cockatoo perched on a stack of bird feed, and Vinnie the teeny pup sprawled in the sole sunspot near the door, his manly bits on display to the world as he snored away.