A few minutes later, Spence came back into the room. Alone.
“Gone,” Spence said.
Spence didn’t answer and Archer took his first good look at his best friend. His shirt was wrinkled, his hair standing up like he’d used his fingers as a comb, and he had black circles of exhaustion beneath his eyes. “You look like you should be lying in one of these beds.”
“You sure you want to insult me?” Spence asked. “Because I’m the only thing protecting you from the girls, who want to know what the hell you’ve done to Elle. And on that subject, you’re an idiot, by the way.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You told her you loved her at the scene, you know that? The bullet nicked an artery and you went downhill fast. We thought you were going to bleed out and you told her you loved her. Like you were saying goodbye. And then you wake up and tell her you don’t want her here.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Actually,” Spence said, “now that I think about it, you’re not just an idiot, you’re an asshole. An idiot asshole.”
Archer tried like hell to remember telling Elle he loved her but he couldn’t. Still, he knew one thing. “I meant it.”
“So did I.” Spence pointed at him. “Idiot asshole.”
“No, I meant I love her. Shit—give me a phone.”
He must have looked even worse than he felt because Spence actually hit Elle’s number before handing Archer his phone.
He went straight to her voice mail. Fuck. He struggled to sit up and gasped at the pain, vision going all cobwebby. “You need to get me out of here.”
“Yeah, I don’t think you’re ready,” Spence said. Captain Obvious.
He definitely wasn’t ready but Elle was out there somewhere, doubting him. Again. And it was all his own fault. “I’ll sign out AMA.”
“Against medical advice is a dumbass move,” Spence said.
“Okay, Plan B. You go get her for me. Bring her back here.”
“Not against her will,” Spence said. “I value my life more than that. Did I mention that you’re an idiot asshole?”
“Yeah. And thanks, that’s super helpful.” Archer’s eyes drifted closed again. The lids were just too heavy. He felt like shit. He could handle the pain and the drug hangover. What he couldn’t handle was Elle out there thinking . . . he didn’t even know. He was stupid in love with her and that scared him but what scared him even more was living without her. “Go get her.”
Spence just looked at him and Archer narrowed his gaze the best he could while high as a damn kite. “Where is she, Spence?”
“Hard to say. And we both know that if she wants to lie low, she’s got the skills.”
“Did she ask you for time off?”
Again Spence just looked at him.
“Christ. She did.”
“Look,” Spence said on a grimace. “I’m between a rock and a hard spot here, okay? You’re both my best friends and—”
“Yes or no—she asked you for time off, Spence.”
Spence blew out a sigh. “Yes.”
Shit. He was definitely too late.
It was the next day before Archer was finally released from the hospital. He’d spent every second of that time sending his friends to hell and back searching for Elle.
But she was good at hiding.
He found out that Morgan was out on bail, thanks to Elle getting her a solid attorney. She’d be pleading for a reduced sentence and restitution. Lars hadn’t made bail, and thanks to his priors, he probably wouldn’t be seeing daylight anytime soon.
Archer had torn out nearly all of his hair and aged ten years by the time the nurse handed him a stack of prescriptions.
“Take the first on an empty stomach three times a day,” she said.
From one of the chairs near his bed, Pru snorted. “I haven’t had an empty stomach since 2001.”
Archer’s dad smiled. Yeah, his dad was still there. Even in her absence, Elle had managed to put father and son back together. Which meant in the end, she’d saved him and not the other way around.
And if that wasn’t a big, fat pill to swallow. He’d always done the saving, but not this time.
He wanted to thank her. He wanted to grab her and haul her in close and never let go. But since he was in no shape to do that—he wasn’t supposed to use his shoulder or arm until further notice—it would be tricky. Hell, at this point, he’d settle for just getting his eyes on her.
But she still wasn’t answering her phone and if anyone knew where she was, they had a good poker face.
Joe tossed a small duffle bag on the bed. “Clothes, boss. Figured you might like some undies and shoes to go with that pretty hospital gown and sling.”
Archer flipped him off, snatched up the bag, and staggered into the bathroom. When he came back out after changing, he was trembling like a baby. Sweating, he sat heavily on the bed. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a fucking truck.”
“Or a fucking bullet,” Joe said.
“Still nothing from Elle?” he asked casually.
But he didn’t fool anyone. They all looked at each other awkwardly. According to all of them, no one had seen or heard from her, but he wasn’t buying it. They were basically family, close-knit, and they were all connected daily by at the very least an ongoing group text or Snapchat. He suspected that the girls knew where Elle was, which meant that the guys likely knew as well, but at least in the case of Finn and Keane, no one wanted to risk being cut off by the women.
“Look,” he said. “I messed up. We all know that. I messed up big too, on more than one occasion. But I’m trying to fix it. I need to convince her I’m the right man for the job of making her happy, so one of you has got to help me out here.” He paused and sighed. “Please.”
The please boggled everyone in the room. They weren’t used to the please from him. But he wasn’t messing around. “Well?”
Willa came and sat next to him, carefully nudging her shoulder to his good one. “Do you know the most beautiful part about loving a guarded woman? It’s that when she finally decides to trust you and lets you in it’s not because she needs you. We all know Elle stopped needing people a long time ago. Elle let you in because she wants you. She wants to be with you, Archer, just as you are, faults and all. She just needs to know that she can trust you to do the same, to love her as she is, faults and all.”