When he didn’t say anything, she started to retreat again and nearly fell on her ass when her heels sank into the soft ground. She didn’t even care. “I’m going back to the fire before anyone gets the wrong idea,” she said stiffly. “I’m going to tell them that there is absolutely nothing happening between us. Less than nothing—”
“It’s you,” he said.
“My deepest, darkest regret. It’s you.”
Wait . . . what?
But on that stunning statement, he walked away first, heading back to the fire. She blinked and hesitated, but only for a minute before she hurried to keep up with him because although she might want to kill his sexy ass—which she wasn’t even going to notice, not ever again!—it didn’t mean she had any intention of being left behind as potential bear bait, thank you very much.
The girls didn’t stay overnight. They took a vote and Pru was the only one who wanted to. Kylie and Elle had way more sense.
“I need my pillow,” Kylie said when the three of them had huddled beneath a tree to confer.
“I need to not be on a mountain,” Elle said, but what she really meant was that she needed to be at least a hundred miles from Archer right now.
“I know, I get it.” Pru sighed. “I really do. Just give me a minute to say goodbye to Finn first.”
Kylie watched Pru go and pull Finn aside. “She’s going to need more than a minute.”
“Yeah,” Elle said but her mind wasn’t on Pru and Finn. She was Archer’s biggest regret . . . ? What did that even mean?
“I’m going to have another s’more while we’re waiting,” Kylie said, and she walked back to the fire.
Still reeling while pretending not to be, Elle stayed beneath the tree, looking up through the branches to the night sky, which was clear, crisp, and admittedly stunning.
She felt Archer come up beside her, felt the heat and strength of him, and as always her body stilled although she didn’t take her eyes off the sky. “What did you mean?” she asked.
He didn’t pretend to not understand. “That night,” he said quietly. “I didn’t get you out before you got hurt. That’s my biggest regret.”
The air backed up in her lungs at this unexpected statement and unwelcome memories flooded her. She and Morgan had left home about six months before that night, leaving their grifter mom to her business. The sisters had wanted a better life for themselves, a life free of trouble. Or at least that was what Elle had wanted, but Morgan, eighteen to Elle’s sixteen, had difficulty leaving trouble behind.
Unbeknownst to Elle, Morgan had gone back to working on the side for Lars, her bad-news boyfriend, in the same field as their mom. When one of Lars’s cons had involved a jewelry heist with a load of invaluable Russian antiques, Morgan had gotten scared and come clean to Elle, wanting out but having no idea how to get out.
Elle had told her she’d take care of it. And she’d tried. She’d taken the part of the loot that Morgan had in her possession back to Lars to tell him to leave her sister the hell alone or else. She had no “else” but she’d been willing to wing it in order to get Morgan out.
Unfortunately, two things had gone wrong. One, Lars hadn’t been amenable to what she had to say. In fact, he’d pinned her against the wall, his plan to beat her into submission and she wasn’t sure what else, but it wasn’t going to be good. He’d gotten halfway through that plan when the second problem had hit and hit hard.
A police raid and drug bust. Seemed along with illegal antiques, the boyfriend had also been drug running. And there she’d been, holding evidence no less. She should’ve been caught up with the others and arrested, but she’d had a guardian angel looking over her that night.
He’d been undercover and he’d blown his cover to pull her out. It’d cost him everything. His job. His relationship with his dad.
She had no idea how he’d ever forgiven her. Or maybe he hadn’t, given that so many years had gone by without any contact between them. That had changed last year when she’d landed her job in the same building as Hunt Investigations, but she couldn’t say they’d made much headway, since whenever they ended up in the same place at the same time they either bickered like children or were as silent and awkward as strangers.
And now she could add or kissed like their lives depended on it to the list.
But mostly what she remembered when she thought about that night was how alone she’d been. Alone, scared, and cornered in that old park . . . And Archer had seen her that way. No wonder he didn’t want her. To him, she was nothing but that little girl. All the maturing and growing up she’d done, the success she’d had, none of it could erase that horrifying first impression she’d made.
And as always happened when she thought about it, the bottom fell out of her stomach. She swallowed hard and shook her head. “You weren’t responsible for me, Archer. I was there of my own accord. What happened was my fault. Everything that happened that night was my fault.”
“And yet you’ve never forgiven me for it,” he said.
Her heart squeezed so hard she had to close her eyes and take a long, deep breath and a moment to try to get herself together. She couldn’t believe he thought that. “It wasn’t you I had to forgive. It was myself.”
When he didn’t speak, she opened her eyes.
But just like that long-ago night, she was alone.
Four nights later, after several long days of work and hours and hours of homework in her office, Elle finally followed her stomach downstairs and across the courtyard, the goal being the pub for some of Finn’s famous chicken wings and a tall glass of something with a good kick.
She’d gotten a text from Finn that tonight was country night. Her concession to a costume was switching out her heels for some pretty cowboy boots and adding a cowboy hat and a belt that proclaimed her a Rebel on the silver belt buckle.
She hadn’t spoken to Archer since the Kiss Debacle. And although she hadn’t run into him, he’d made plenty of appearances in her dreams and he hadn’t walked away from her in those. In fact, just thinking about all the things he’d done to her in the deep dark of her fantasy world always made her break out in a sweat.