“The only thing I knew how to cook,” he said with a small smile, remembering every minute of that night, how he’d watched over her through the long hours, unable to understand his need to make sure she was safe given that his entire world had imploded.
“After breakfast . . .” She closed her eyes, clearly embarrassed by the memory. “I tried to kiss you and got turned down again.” She shook her head. “You gave me a sweatshirt. There was money in the pocket.”
“I didn’t want you out there with nothing.”
“I thought it was a test at first,” she admitted. “But it wasn’t.”
“No,” he said, remembering how she’d tried to give him back the money.
“You told me to follow my instincts and not let anyone distract me from them,” she said. “You told me that there was right and there was wrong and that there was also a gray area, and that was okay as long as I stayed as close to the right as I could get. And then I left and I never saw you again.”
He nudged the mug of tea to her mouth and watched her sip.
She took her time, taking a few more long swallows before she set the mug aside. “But you were around. Watching over me,” she said. “Weren’t you?”
“Tell me why I didn’t realize that. Why you didn’t just let me know you were there at my back, watching my every move.”
“I wasn’t watching your every move,” he said. “I never did that.”
“Are you suggesting you’ve never invaded my privacy?”
That question wasn’t nearly so easy to answer honestly. Neither was the question she was really getting at—why hadn’t he wanted her?
She looked at him for a long moment. “Okay, let’s see if I’ve got all of this straight. You didn’t want to be with me, not even as friends, and yet you kept tabs on me, even going as far as to direct me into school and a job—”
“The school of your choice,” he pointed out. “And a job you love.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You didn’t want to be with me,” she repeated. “So instead you basically stalked me—”
“Not stalked,” he said. “Kept safe and protected.”
“But I didn’t need that from you. I needed—” She broke off and turned away. “Look,” she said, clearly striving for patience. “I get that you’ve been there for me, more than anyone else . . . ever. But the way you went about it . . .”
“You were underage.”
She turned back. “What?”
Fuck it. “You were sixteen, Elle. I was twenty-two. We couldn’t. I couldn’t.” He drew a deep breath. “And then after you left, you worked hard and got your life together. Seeing me would’ve been a reminder of shit you didn’t want to remember. So I stayed away.”
She stared at him, not looking particularly flattered that he’d tried to do the right thing. “I make my own decisions,” she finally said. “I don’t need anyone making them for me.”
“I’m getting that, but as long as you’re still mad, I need to add one thing to your list of my infractions.”
“I hired your sister as a temp,” he said. “Morgan’s doing some background checks and online searches until Mollie comes back to work.”
Her mouth fell open. “So on top of ruining the only two dates I’ve had in ages and being a part of my life for the past decade without my knowledge, you’ve hired a known grifter who happens to be the sister I asked to leave me alone?”
“Well technically you and I are on a date this very minute, and in spite of the break-in thing, it’s not going so bad, right?”
She stared at him and then laughed.
“And Morgan is . . . well, Morgan,” he said. “But she’s also your sister. Family. And family trumps everything else.”
“Then why haven’t you reconciled with your dad?” she asked.
“I’m working on that one.”
She blew out a breath. “I’d like to say the same,” she admitted. “But I’m not sure Morgan and I can get there. I don’t have many good experiences with family. Or relationships, for that matter. The most important people in my life are my friends. And in spite of everything idiotic you’ve done, and there has been a lot of idiocy”—she hesitated—“you’re one of them.”
Something new slid through him. It was warming and it felt . . . amazing. What didn’t feel as amazing was the fact that she’d just put him in the friend zone.
Because that part sucked.
Elle took a long time in Archer’s shower. At first she’d just stood there letting the hot water beat down on her shoulders, attempting to steam away her troubles, of which there were so many she couldn’t keep them straight.
But then the scent of his soap, a visceral reminder of the man and how he made her feel, just about did her in. Rubbing the suds over her skin awakened every desire for him that she’d worked hard at tamping down. By the time she turned off the water, her body was on high alert, practically quivering with need and hunger.
Stay strong, she ordered herself as she wrapped herself up in one of Archer’s towels.
“You smell like me,” he murmured when she strode out of the bathroom.
She ignored the way her body quivered at that.
He handed her a folded T-shirt. “PJ’s,” he said.
“Thanks.” She turned from him and drew the shirt over her head, letting it cover her body before carefully reaching under it to pull out the towel.
From the careful way he sucked in a breath, she took it that she hadn’t been entirely successful but when she turned to glare at him, his expression was calm.
She had no idea how he did it, how he kept that illusion up in the face of . . . well, anything. But she intended to pretend to do the same.
Fake it until you make it, that was her motto.
“Share my bed, Elle. It’s big and warm.”
Said the Big Bad Wolf to Riding Hood. She shook her head. “I’ll take the couch,” she said.
“Come on, just take half the bed. I can control myself if you can. Friends, right?”
She stared at the huge bed with the invitingly thick bedding and swallowed hard because she knew firsthand that he could indeed control himself. What she didn’t know was if she could say the same.