He stared at her for a long beat and then nodded, surprising her by sliding his hand down her arm to link their fingers, holding her hand as they crossed the courtyard to Tina’s coffee shop.
Tina’s welcoming smile faded at the sight of Elle. “Sit,” she said, pointing to a free table. “You sit right there and don’t move.”
Less than a minute later Tina was back at their small table with an ice pack, a basket of muffins, and a steaming tea.
“I love you,” Elle said fervently.
“Right back at you,” Tina said, and then she turned to Archer. “Whatever you want, on the house, both of you.”
“Coffee will do it for me,” he said. “Thanks.”
Tina didn’t budge. Instead she put her hands on her hips and stared at him. “You got this, right?”
Archer’s gaze slid to Elle’s for a beat and then back to Tina. “I do.”
“You need any help kicking ass and taking names?”
“If I do, I’ll let you know,” Archer said, taking Tina’s request as seriously as she’d uttered it.
Tina nodded curtly, squeezed Elle’s shoulder, and went back to get Archer his coffee, which she brought right away.
Archer thanked her and then reached across the table and peeled the ice pack from Elle’s eye, looking it over before gently pushing it back to her skin.
“Am I going to live?” she asked, trying to lighten the moment.
“Yes, but I might not.” He shook his head, a very small smile curving his grim mouth. “Christ, you actually swung a fucking stapler at a guy twice your size . . . when you told me that, my heart nearly stopped.”
“Heavy-duty stapler,” she said. “Just like you taught me.”
He let out a low laugh.
“I got him pretty good,” she said proudly.
His eyes were just as proud. “That you did, slugger. You didn’t need me, you had it under control on your own.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But boy, was I ever happy to see you. You got my call.”
“I got your call. And now we have more questions than we do answers.”
There was that we again but she nodded. “I know. And Morgan’s not answering her phone.”
“Because I thought this should be done in person.” Morgan had appeared at their table looking pale and shaky. “I need to tell you both something.”
And just like that, Elle knew the men really had been telling the truth. Morgan had been pulling a Morgan—she’d been holding back.
Archer nudged out a chair for Morgan. “I’m thinking you’ve got more than one thing to tell us,” he said evenly.
“Yeah.” Morgan sat like her legs were too weak to hold her and then dropped her face into her hands.
“Stop with the dramatics and just tell us,” Elle said with what she thought was remarkable calm. “Tell us what you’ve neglected to mention. You’re still in Lars’s life. Or he’s in yours.”
“How did you know?” Morgan asked, voice muffled.
“I know everything,” Elle said, wishing that was really true. For instance, she’d like to know if she’d get straight A’s this semester. Or if she had a big enough tax refund coming that she could buy a new pair of boots.
Or if she was really doing as she feared and starting to trust Archer with the one thing she’d always promised to withhold—her heart.
He met her gaze and she tried like hell to hold it, to be cool, but he was scruffy and delicious sitting there all badass and pissed off that she’d gotten hurt, and she wanted to jump his damn bones, so she broke eye contract first. “Talk,” she said to Morgan.
Archer watched as Morgan lifted her pale face and snatched a muffin from Elle, who gathered the basket close to her like it was a pot of gold.
Even he wasn’t dumb enough to take food from Elle. And the most ridiculous thought came to him. If she was pregnant, say with a silky haired, blue-eyed little girl, he was a dead man.
Morgan sighed, took a huge bite, and swallowed. “I told you I’d gone to rehab a couple of times and that was true. What I didn’t tell you was that in between I had a few rough patches where I . . . well, continued on in the family business of grifting to keep myself afloat.”
“Hey,” Elle said. “Not everyone in the family is a grifter.”
“Fine,” Morgan said. “I’m the only screw-up. But I’m serious about that all being so last year. I’ve been working hard at the jobs I could get, but nothing’s paid enough to support myself. I can’t do it on my own. I need a village. I need my village . . .” She looked at Elle.
But Elle shook her head. “You know,” she said. “Yesterday I might’ve believed you. Why are you here, Morgan? What do you really need from me, because clearly it’s not just a job referral.”
Morgan sagged like her lungs were balloons that had just popped. “Lars contacted me and asked for my help, one last time.”
“To which you said, ‘when hell freezes over,’ right?” Elle asked.
Morgan bit her lower lip.
“Right?” Elle repeated.
Morgan blew out a sigh.
“Oh my God, Morgan.” Elle tossed up her hands. “Seriously?”
“Listen, I wasn’t thinking straight, okay? I was having trouble making rent. I don’t have any friends I can trust and you . . .”
“I what?” Elle asked, eyes narrowed.
“You deserted me.”
It wasn’t easy to catch Elle off guard, Archer knew, and given that she probably still had adrenaline overloading her system from what had happened upstairs, he set a hand on her arm. Not that he would stop her from jumping over the table to go for Morgan’s throat—hell, he’d help her hide the body if that’s what she needed from him—but he just wanted her to think it through first.
“I didn’t desert you,” Elle said to Morgan, possibly through her teeth. “You deserted me, remember?”
“I was trying to protect you.” Morgan eyed the muffin basket that Elle was still hugging.
“No muffins until you tell me the rest,” Elle said. “Tell me what you did and I’ll buy you your own damn basket.”
“I just beat a man over the head with my stapler,” Elle warned. “Start talking or I’ll do the same to you.”