When he walked off the dance floor and headed toward the bar, she was there, right there, picking up the wrap she’d left. Something fell from it and hit the floor.
They both crouched low at the same time but Archer beat her to it. When he realized what he held, he lifted his head and stared at her in shock.
It was the small pocket knife he’d given her all those years ago.
Which meant she did think about that night.
Elle made a move to snatch the knife from Archer’s fingers but the bastard held firm. She started a tug-of-war with him before remembering that she no longer let anyone see her sweat and forced herself to go still.
Not that Archer let go. “You still have it,” he said, a whisper of surprise in his voice.
The equivalent of a full-on double take from the man who was all but impossible to shock.
And yes, of course she still had the knife. Did he really think she wouldn’t? She didn’t blush very often but she felt heat rush to her face now. Regret, partly.
Mostly full-blown mortification.
She’d very carefully taught herself to be strong and confident and to never look back.
Sentimentality didn’t have a place in her life. Or so she told herself. So why then had she been carrying the small pocket knife Archer had given her the night he’d saved her all those years ago? Especially since the thought of how she’d tried to repay him—and God, the humility of how she’d actually offered him the only thing she’d had, that being her body, which he’d turned down flat—still made her face flame. The worst part had been when he’d vanished like it’d been nothing to him, when to her it’d been everything.
She might not know why he’d done what he had but she still wasn’t leaving here without that knife. It was a badge. A reminder of who she’d been and who she was now.
Neither of them had moved. Around them the night life in the pub went on. Laughter, conversations, more dancing . . . all oblivious to this tight, little cocoon of just the two of them crouched in front of the bar. They might as well have been completely alone for all the attention anyone paid them.
Balanced with apparent ease on the balls of his feet, Archer leaned in even closer if that was possible, close enough that his knees touched hers. Close enough that she could see every single gold spec in his hazel eyes. Every single black-as-ink eyelash framing those eyes. He was hours past a five o’clock shadow and a muscle ticked in his square jaw.
A rare tell from a man who could be a stone when he wanted.
The rest of him was as big and bad and intimidating as ever. His large body blocked out everything behind him and although he could be terrifyingly scary when he wanted to be, he never was with her. With her he was careful. Cautious.
And she hated that most of all.
This time when she tried to tug the knife from his long fingers, he let her. Rising, she stared down at him. “We done here?”
He rose to his feet too. And just looked at her.
“Well?” she asked.
“We’re never done,” he said.
No kidding. But since she had no witty retort for him, she turned on her heel and headed for the doors. She pushed out into the blissfully cool night and strode across the courtyard, which was lit with strings of tiny, beautiful white lights threaded across the shops and small trees that lined the way. San Francisco in February could be just about anything: icy, wet, powder dry, even warm . . . Tonight the sky was a blanket of black velvet, scattered with diamonds. The air was cold and crisp, and it showed in the white puffy clouds she exhaled, hoping for some inner calm.
It didn’t come.
She strode to the fountain in the center of the courtyard and stopped to take a minute. And actually, she probably needed more than one.
In her life she’d very carefully and purposely gone after the things she’d missed out on in her childhood and she’d gone after those things hard. She was carefully put together, tough to the core, and, she liked to think, loyal to a fault. And the fact was, she felt incredibly loyal to Archer. After all, he’d gotten her out of a bad situation and she was grateful to him for that. He’d changed the course of her life. But she could admit to herself that deep down she was also a little pissy that he’d never seemed to want more from her. Not that this was a surprise, not when she’d cost him so much. Such as his first career.
And his family . . .
The water in the fountain fell in soft streams into the copper base, which was lined with coins. The thing had been standing here for fifty years longer than the 1928 building around it, dating back to the days when there’d actually been cows in Cow Hollow. The myth went that if you made a wish with a true heart, true love would find you.
God forbid, Elle thought with a shudder.
But it’d worked enough times over the past century that people believed the legend. And in fact, two of her good friends had found love thanks to this very fountain.
As far as Elle was concerned, only a damn fool would make a wish for love. Love brought nothing but complicated problems and she could do without more complications or problems, thank you very much.
“Aren’t you going to toss some money in and wish for true love to find you?” came a raspy voice. “That’s what everyone else does.”
It was Old Man Eddie, who lived in the alley. By choice, mind you. Several of the building regulars, including herself, had tried to help him more than once, but Eddie said he lived an alternative lifestyle and he wanted to be left alone to do it.
He flashed a smile that went with his shock of white Christopher Lloyd-circa-Back-to-the-Future hair, board shorts, rain boots, and a Cal Berkeley sweatshirt that said Don’t Panic, It’s Organic over an image of a weed leaf. Since he’d actually gone to Cal Berkeley in the seventies after previously frying his brain at Woodstock, she flashed a smile back. “I’m most definitely not going to wish for true love,” she said. A warm deserted island, maybe. World peace, definitely.
But never love.
“Pru found Finn by wishing,” he reminded her. “And Willa found Keane.”
“And I’m happy for them,” she said. “But I’m not wishing.”
“Bummer, dudette, because I was thinking if you were planning on throwing any money away, you might find a better use for it instead.”