He closed his eyes and inhaled deep for calm.
No calm came.
“Fine,” Elle said. “I suck at apologies, but I suppose I could’ve handled last night better.”
“You’re right,” he said. “You suck at apologies.”
He could almost feel her smile. He felt when it faded too as well as her hesitation to open the door. She had good reason for that.
“You know you’re going to pay,” he said softly. “Right?”
“What are you going to do? Cuff me and drag me off to the pub to announce that I was just messing with you?”
He nearly said If I were to cuff you, babe, the pub would be the last place I’d take you . . . but he kept his big trap shut tight. No need to muddy the waters with his own confusing emotions since they weren’t going to ever go there. “You can’t hide forever, Elle. I will find you.”
A small thump sounded and then came a muffled oath. “Dammit, you made me spill my tea!”
For some reason this improved his mood greatly, and with his first smile of the morning, he turned and headed to his office.
“Hey, boss.” Mollie, his receptionist and also Joe’s baby sister, waved cheerfully at him. “Just dumped a bunch of stuff on your desk including yesterday’s mail, which you never opened.”
Archer was good at solving mysteries and rooting out the asshats and the douches of the world. Real good. But he wasn’t all that into the paperwork that went with it.
He strode into his office and eyeballed the pile on his desk like it was a ticking bomb. On top of the stack sat a small, neat envelope with writing he unfortunately recognized. Picking it up, he felt the change in air pressure, like maybe his police captain father was suddenly standing right here in the room watching him.
The urge to stand up straighter and salute irritated the shit out of him.
“It’s an invite to a retirement party,” Mollie said, coming into the office behind him to set some more paperwork on his desk.
He lifted his head and looked at her. “How do you know?”
She shrugged. “It’s your second invite. You must’ve not answered the first and when they sent another, I got curious.”
“You opened my mail?”
“It’s my job,” she said. “He added a note this time. It says ‘get your ass home.’”
Archer tossed the envelope to his desk and strode to his corner windows. He’d chosen this office because from here he could see the courtyard and also the street. He liked to have all angles open. A bonus was that beyond the streets of Cow Hollow down the hill, he could see straight to the bay.
“You want me to RSVP for you?” Mollie asked.
“The phone’s ringing.”
“Oh!” She froze, ear cocked. “Oh shit, you’re right!” And with that, she rushed out of the room.
Archer tossed the invite into the trash can.
When a second set of heels clicked into the room, he craned his neck, watching as Elle walked to the trash can and scooped out the invite, homing in on it like a beacon. Given that she did some side work for him with decent frequency, she wasn’t a stranger to his office. In fact, she made herself at home with a ’tude that spurred on his. “Feeling brave?” he asked.
“Your dad’s retiring next month?” she asked, reading the invite.
He closed his eyes and resisted the urge to bash his head against the window. “Why do you always answer a question with another question?”
“You should go to this,” she said softly, lifting her gaze to his.
Archer was pretty sure that was a very bad idea. He hadn’t been home much. It was easier to stay away. Eleven years ago he’d been a rookie fast-tracked cop on a joint task force. When it’d all gone bad and he’d had the blink of an eye to jeopardize the entire sting to get a girl out safely, he hadn’t hesitated.
This hadn’t been out of character for him. He’d always followed his own inner moral code on what he thought was right and wrong. The problem was that those codes didn’t always line up exactly with the letter of the law.
The girl had been underage, trying to return something her sister had stolen. Not that it mattered. She’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time—which was not to say she’d been unaware of the danger she’d put herself in. She’d known. And she’d done it anyway. And it had been that show of bravery and loyalty and desperation to do the right thing that had gone straight to Archer’s heart.
Yeah. He’d still had one back then.
He’d met Elle’s eyes. They were the same baby blue as they’d been that night. Deep and filled with secrets.
“When was the last time you saw him?” she asked.
“Christmas. We had dinner.”
She nodded. “And the time before that?”
Stubborn as hell to the end, like a terrier on a bone. “The Christmas before that,” he admitted.
She didn’t chastise him. She didn’t judge. She just nodded, her gaze hooded now. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
She shook her head. “It’s sweet of you to try to shield me but I know it’s my fault.”
This caught him completely off guard, something else only she tended to accomplish with any regularity. “Two things,” he said. “One, I’m not sweet. I don’t have a single sweet bone in my body. And two, this is not your fault. It’s mine.”
She just stared at him, holding his gaze prisoner in her own. He knew she believed herself to be a fortress. Locked up tight, never giving herself away.
But he also knew her, maybe better than anyone else, which meant he’d catalogued her tells a long time ago. She was worried about him, which for the record he hated. “Look, just forget about it, okay?”
“If you promise to go to the retirement party,” she said.
Had he just likened her to a terrier? Make it a pit bull.
“Promise me,” she said softly.
He was human. He made mistakes. But he tried very hard to not repeat any of those mistakes. And yet he kept looking right into her eyes and falling into them. Every time.
He knew she wouldn’t give up or shut up until he agreed, so it might as well be on his terms. “Fine. If you promise to not talk about it again, I’ll go.”