She hesitated but she did move to the bench. Not within touching distance though. She wouldn’t be able to think if he touched her. She met his gaze. His color was really off and so was his breathing. “You shouldn’t be out here, Archer, you should be resting.”
“I needed to see you.”
She shook her head, throat tight. “You watched over me for eleven years. Your duty is done.”
“This wasn’t about duty. I meant everything I said to you, everything, even when I didn’t know I was saying it. But when I asked you to leave my hospital room, it was because I was embarrassed for you to see me and my dad go at each other. I meant for you to leave the room, not my life.”
“I figured that out,” she said. “But it occurred to me that I was in deep with you, that I wanted to be in even deeper, and that scared me. I’m still not sure what you really want from me.”
“A lot,” he said. “But I’ll start with a promise to stop saying stupid shit to you if you promise to toss out all the stupid shit I’ve already said.”
She stared at him. “That’s a lot of shit.”
He choked out a laugh and then winced. “Yeah, I know. Think you can do it?”
“Did you know that Joe actually bought us tickets to Vegas?” she blurted out.
“Yes,” he said. “I was serious about it.” He cocked his head. “Is that why you ran?”
She looked away and her eyes landed on Archer’s truck at the curb. Pru was holding up a piece of paper with the number five on it. Willa had four fingers up. Spence had used his iPad, showing a big, fat two. “What in the world?”
“I think they’re grading my effort to get you back, and apparently I could do better. So about my promise . . .”
“If I’ve learned anything from life,” she said, “it’s that promises don’t work.”
“They do if they aren’t broken. And I don’t break my promises, Elle. Ever.” He scooted closer, grinding his back teeth as he did, probably from the pain the movement caused. “You asked what I want. In all seriousness, I want to be yours. I want you to be mine. We could fly to Vegas, or go home to my place because I have the better shower. Whatever you want as long as we do it together.”
“But we irritate each other.”
“Yes,” he said, “but I’ve discovered that I want to spend every irritated moment with you.”
Her insides went mushy and she scooted closer.
The back window of his truck rolled down and Kylie stuck her face out. “It’s the fountain,” she called out. “It’s working! The legend is working! You can’t fight the legend!”
Elle shook her head. “The peanut gallery’s crazy.”
“You’re just now figuring that out?” Archer took her hand and tugged her even closer.
“Hey, can we come out yet?” Willa yelled.
“No!” Archer yelled back without looking. He didn’t take his eyes off Elle. “Kylie might be onto something about the fountain and true love thing.”
She blinked. “You’re not serious.”
“I am. I want a life, Elle, with you. I want everything with you, including having a—”
“Whoa,” she said quickly. “You heard I’m not pregnant, right? And I don’t know if I’m ever going to be ready—”
“Dog,” he said. “I want a dog with you, Elle.”
She choked out a low laugh. Okay, so yeah, he got her, all the way got her, and she loved that. “But what if I don’t ever want a big house with a high chair in my kitchen?”
His eyes were warm with affection and honesty. “I can go either way on kids, babe. What I can’t go either way on is you. Did you forget? I love you. You.”
“No, I didn’t forget,” she whispered. “But I thought maybe you did, or that it was just the drugs talking.”
He grimaced. “Yeah, I’m a lightweight on drugs but that doesn’t change anything. I’m ridiculously, deeply in love with you, Elle.”
Oh. Oh, that was good to know, really good. “So you’re not scared of being tied to me?”
“Oh, I’m terrified,” he said. “You should hold me, Elle.”
This got a real laugh out of her. “You’re not terrified of a single thing. Not even nearly dying for me.”
“You’re wrong,” he said seriously. “I’m afraid of plenty. Mostly of being without you.” He gently squeezed her fingers in his. “You’re it for me, Elle. From that long ago night when you looked at me like I was something special to you to when you reamed me out after the squirrels ate the wires to when you so fiercely went to protect your sister, even knowing you could get hurt. You’re it for me, Elle. It’s always been you. Only you.”
She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “I feel things for you that I can’t even name.”
“Glad to hear it.” He pulled her into him, carefully, slowly. “But it’s your turn to say it.”
She hesitated and the smile left his face and he became very serious again. Very serious, very intent, as he withdrew his arm from around her and closed his eyes.
“No, no, you don’t understand,” she whispered, entwining their hands again. “It’s hard because those words . . . I don’t say them lightly.” She paused. “Actually, I’ve never said them at all,” she admitted and watched as he opened his eyes. “But I do love you, Archer. Always have, always will.”
For a long moment they sat there in mutual surprise. After all the time they’d waited, they’d both finally come to the table with their feelings.
Feeling freer and lighter than she had in a long time, Elle smiled up into his serious face and watched his answering smile start at the corner of his lips and spread into his eyes. Then he began to awkwardly and one-handedly fumble through his pockets for something.
“You deserve better,” he said, “but until I got my hands on you, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Shit.” He turned toward her a little, gesturing with his chin to his right front pocket, which he couldn’t get into because of the sling. “Pull it out for me.”
“Are you kidding me? We have an audience.”