Elle patted him on the head. Archer had been listening to something Joe had been saying but his eyes cut to hers and held, making her heart kick hard as the previous Friday night came flooding back to her, the sexy erotic memories doing a number on her temper.
The message in Archer’s eyes said he might be thinking about that night too, which didn’t help.
“Clear the room,” he said.
“Aw, man,” Max said. “Just when it’s going to get good.”
Trev smacked him upside the back of his head.
Joe rolled up the plans on the desk, and as he turned to follow Trev out, he smiled at Elle. “Who ate your bowl of sunshine this morning, thundercloud?”
“Bite me, Joe.”
He winked at her. “I would but boss man would object.”
“Out,” Archer repeated in a voice that had Joe hopping to attention.
Max snapped his fingers at Carl, who’d gone back to snoring on the floor. The dog stretched, farted, and then, his work clearly done, trotted happily to the door.
“Sorry,” Max said, waving the air. “He ate Mollie’s Egg McMuffin and it didn’t agree with him.”
“No shit.” Joe coughed and choked. “Literally.”
Elle wrinkled her nose. “Is he a dog or an elephant?”
Max just grinned and walked out.
This left Archer and Elle alone, which wasn’t going to be good for his health, a fact he seemed blithely unconcerned with. In fact as she moved toward him, he came around his desk and then leaned back on it, legs casually crossed, body language deceptively relaxed and calm.
The leopard at rest.
He wore faded jeans that fit him in all the right places and a soft-looking black T-shirt that stretched across his chest like it was made for him. He stood close enough now that she felt that intangible thing happening again, the old and undeniable pull of his personal force field. It was a combination of the intensity of his personality, the power of his will, and the focus of his attention. And it all added up, binding her by her own attraction to him. She took a step back to try to break the spell before she threw her arms around his neck and it wouldn’t be to strangle him.
“I’m putting a temporary hold on the ‘stay away from me’ thing,” she said, “just for a minute while I yell at you, and then we’re definitely going right back to it.”
“I don’t think so,” he said, eyes glittering with an emotion she couldn’t place. Determination maybe, which gave her pause because that made no sense.
“You saw Morgan?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation, which took some of the wind out of her sails.
“So you admit it.”
“Have I ever lied to you?”
“You’ve omitted and avoided,” she said. “Sure thing.”
His expression said they disagreed there. “She came to me for help,” he said. “And she went to you first, so you can’t be surprised she’s here.”
“But I am surprised. I’m surprised that you would help the one person who destroyed both of our lives.”
He stilled, eyes on her. Then he pushed away from his desk and shifted past her to shut and lock his door before turning to face her. “We need to talk.”
She crossed her arms and hugged herself. A revealing stance, she knew, but she couldn’t help herself. “I told you, there’s nothing to talk about.”
“I think there is.”
“The thing that happened between us didn’t happen,” she said.
“I beg to differ but we’ll circle back to that,” he said. “Morgan didn’t destroy my life, Elle.”
“Fine. Then I did.”
“No,” he said.
“You were a rookie cop, fast-tracked by your captain dad on an undercover sting that should’ve defined your career and set it into motion. I was a stupid teenager on my own fast track—to nowhere. I not only jeopardized the whole operation, I got you fired.”
He stared at her for a very long beat. “I didn’t get fired,” he finally said. “I quit.”
This was so off the rails from what she’d expected from him that she could only gape. “What?”
“You’re right, I was a rookie,” he said. “That night was my first experience on a joint task force. I shouldn’t have even been there in the first place but my dad pulled some strings and cut through all the red tape. He was . . . intent on my career.”
This, she knew. His dad was a lifelong cop. He’d lived and breathed the life, and he’d wanted the same for his son.
“Everything was carefully choreographed that night,” he said, “with no room for error, no room for the unknown. I had explicit directions, I was to observe and stay the fuck out of the way even though everyone was so certain, from the top to the bottom, that it would go smooth, textbook.”
“Except I showed up,” Elle said quietly, remembering the terror of it all, knowing she’d been in so over her head.
“Yeah, there you were, right in the middle of it, young, scared . . . out of your league. I knew you’d get pulled in along with everyone else on that takedown. What I didn’t know was if anyone would care that you were innocent or if they’d consider you collateral damage.” He looked right at her, into her, and she knew he was seeing her as she’d been that night—in a ragged tank top and shorts, hands and knees bleeding from a fall she’d taken, a bruise blooming on her face where Lars had hit her.
She still hated that Archer had seen her like that, hated it to her very core. She’d worked so hard to become the person she was right now, the person who had her shit together, who would always have her shit together.
But the depressing thing was, no matter how far she ran from her past, no matter how much she changed, grew up, matured . . . Archer would always think of her as that girl, a secret humiliation she could hardly bear. “Go back to the part where you weren’t fired.”
“I disobeyed orders,” he said. “I broke protocol and rules. I didn’t respect my dad’s authority.”
“Right,” she said. “Because of me.”
“No,” he said firmly. “I’d have done it for anyone I thought innocent in that situation. And I should’ve been fired. Everyone knew it, but everyone also knew my dad wouldn’t do it. Instead, he suspended me.”