“We’re not lost,” Archer said in his usual calm, firm voice.
Elle slid him an annoyed look, which was wasted on him because it was pitch dark, storming, and the only lights were from the dashboard of his truck. She was tired and hangry, and oh yeah, they were in a fight. At the thought, some of her anger turned to anxiety because he was the first and only man who’d ever loved her and she was pretty sure her heart would wither up and die if he stopped.
And given what she’d done, it was a good bet he would stop loving her now. She swallowed back the fear and said, “you could pull over and ask for directions.”
Archer didn’t even bother responding to this, but his disdain at the thought was clear, even in the dark.
“What was I thinking?” she asked dryly, aka pissily. “You’d rather die than have to stop and ask for directions.”
“We’re not lost,” he repeated.
She tossed up her hands and tried to peer out into the night. They were on their way home to San Francisco from Los Angeles, where they’d been on a job together for his company Hunt Investigations. Somewhere around the halfway point, they’d been detoured off Hwy 5 due to a very large fire, rerouted to Hwy 101 along the coast, and if it’d been daylight, they could’ve seen the green rolling hills on their right and the Pacific Ocean on their left.
They’d had to get off the highway at a town called Wildstone for gas and new windshield wipers, and apparently both their GPS and Archer’s usually impeccable sense of direction had failed them because they were on a narrow, windy, two-laned road in the middle of nowhere.
As it was, Elle could barely hear her own thoughts over the storm pelting them, which given the situation was definitely for the best. It was hailing, the golf-ball size bits of ice hitting the truck hard enough to rattle her teeth. The windshield wipers were getting less and less effective. She had no idea how Archer could see because she sure couldn’t. She was gripping her own hands tight in her lap, her heart pounding when the truck’s tires slipped and nearly carried them into a ditch.
Archer swore, managed to control the truck, and pulled off into the first place them came to. He turned to her. “You okay?”
Her heart swelled and her throat tightened as she nodded. His first thought was always for her.
In unison, they peered through the storm and the truck’s headlights to what looked like an old inn. The hanging sign read:
Wild West B&B, only slightly haunted
Archer turned and gave Elle a brow’s up, and for the first time all week, he smiled at her. It was his mischievous ruffian smile too and she reacted with just about every part of her body.
She couldn’t help it. She’d loved this tough and rough and rumble-ready badass since she’d been a teenager. They’d then gone on to pretend the other didn’t exist for a whole bunch of years, but thanks to karma or destiny or fate or whoever was in charge of such things, they’d finally managed to get on the same page. So much so that Archer had asked her to marry him.
But then she’d had a pregnancy scare a week ago and he’d done the shockingly unthinkable and been over the moon about it. She’d freaked and … had reacted badly. She knew it. She’d even known it at the time but had been unable to stop herself.
He reached for her hand and ran the pad of his thumb over her now ringless ring finger. She met his gaze, but his own was once again hooded from her. That weighed every bit as heavily on her mind as the diamond he’d given her weighed down her jeans pocket.
Which is where she’d put it after their fight and her realization that they wanted different things from life. Very different things.
He stared at the slightly paler skin where her ring had been and let out a long exhale. “Let’s go get a room,” he said. “We’ll get up early and make the rest of the trip then.”
There was a kid behind the front desk watching a video on his phone and cracking up. He waited until it ended before looking up. “Dude. Dudette. Welcome to the Wild West B&B. Um … Crap,” he said. “Hang on.” He pulled an index card from his desk and read directly from it. “We’re haunted, but only by friendly ghosts. How can I help you this morning?” He frowned and glanced out the dark window. “I mean this evening.”
Elle turned to Archer, who looked pained. “We need a room,” he said.
“Not two?” Elle asked.
“Not two,” Archer said firmly.
The kid checked them in. “Oh and just ignore any activity from our resident ghost,” he said. “She don’t mean no harm.”
Elle exchanged another look with Archer as they walked down the hallway toward their room. He didn’t look concerned in the least. And why should he, the six foot plus man was made of lean, hard muscle and had faced much worse in his life than a gimmicky B&B. “Are we seriously staying here tonight?” she asked. “Together? In the same room?”
He slid her a look. “Are we no longer sleeping together then?”
“We haven’t, not since—“
Again he looked at her ringless finger and his jaw tightened as they stopped outside their room. “Elle,” he said with a whisper of exasperation. “You spent months encouraging me to get a life and I did. With you. And now you’re running scared because we had a near miss with an even bigger life than either of us had ever dared to imagine or hope for. You can take the bed, I’ll take the floor, but only until you get your head out of your ass.”
Her eyes began to twitch. “I was just about to say that this whole thing is my fault, so I’ll take the damn truck but if my head’s up my ass, I can’t speak, so—“
“No one’s sleeping in the damn truck.” Archer unlocked the room and shoved the door open. “You were going to be my wife, I’m not letting the woman who nearly shared my life sleep out there in this crazy storm.”
“Maybe I want to!” She had no idea why she was pushing the issue. She didn’t want to sleep in the truck. She didn’t want to sleep without him at all, dammit. But his eyes were glittering with temper and they were fuming, nose to nose — or rather, she was nose to his chest because he was taller than her — but the air crackled around them. Her heart felt so tight she could scarcely breath. She’d gotten them to this point, the breaking point, and she had no idea how to get them back to where they belonged — together.
Elle nearly jumped out of her own skin at the soft woman’s voice. Not Archer though. Nothing startled Archer. They both turned to face a young woman sitting cross-legged on the bed eating straight out of an ice cream container. “Why are you in my room?” she asked them.
“Because it’s our room,” Elle said and took the key from Archer’s hand to hold up to show her. “We just rented it for the night.”
At the ‘our’, Archer’s dark frown lifted a little bit and the look he gave her was one she’d missed. Warmth. Affection.
But the wariness lingered. She’d done that, she’d put that there, and her heart hurt. Slipping her hand into her pocket, she played with the gorgeous diamond ring he’d given her. It had been fear that’d had her taking it off. Debilitating fear, and she was deeply ashamed of that, of how her first instinct had been to self destruct her first ever genuine happiness.
The truth was, she loved Archer more than life itself. She knew that. Through thick and thin, through getting lost in storms, through silly arguments and serious arguments. Through a pregnancy scare. She was stronger than this and he deserved more. And so decided, hand still in her pocket, she slipped the ring back on her finger.
The woman sitting on the bed looked a little pale and drawn, and upset. Elle could appreciate the feeling and also the coping mechanism of eating the entire container of ice cream.
She could use a pint right now herself.
“The B&B front desk clerk isn’t all that on top of things,” the woman said. “He clearly made a mistake.” She rose to her feet. “My name is Quinn, by the way. I can go with you back to the front desk to straighten him out and help you get another room. I’d offer you this one, but I …” She hesitated, turning back to give the armoire a glance. “My sister’s here.”
Both Archer and Elle looked around the room and saw nothing but the old, wild west décor including one bed made from what appeared to be pieces of a wagon and a single suitcase.
“Well,” Quinn said. “She’s not here here. She’s …” She once again looked at the armoire. “Mostly just here in spirit. Sort of.”
Elle was confused. “You mean …”
“She passed away two years ago, and I’ve missed her so much. But when I’m in this room, I … feel her.” Quinn grimaced. “Now I sound crazy and I promise I’m not. It’s just that I … sense her telling me how to make my life work. Which I really need because I’ve screwed up pretty good.”
Elle once again looked at Archer. He was clearly skeptical but willing to play along for the crazy lady. “No worries,” he said easily. “We’ll just go back to the front desk—“
“Wait,” Elle heard herself say. She bit her lower lip and looked at Quinn. “Is she good at it? Your sister? Helping you make your life work?”
Quinn nodded. “Well, I mean it’s still to be determined, but yeah. He’s smart. Do you want to ask her for help? Just talk to the armoire. But head’s up, she’s going to tell you what you most likely already know and just don’t want to face.” She pointed to the bathroom. “I’ll just … go do my hair or something and give you some privacy. Her name’s Beth.”
And then she was gone. Elle looked at Archer apologetically. “I know it’s crazy, but—“
“Just don’t ask me to leave,” he said. “Because I’m not leaving you. It’s your choice whether you want to be with me or not, it’s always your choice, but I love you, Elle, and I know you love me too.”
She didn’t deserve him. But God help her, she was going to keep him. Turning to the armoire, she closed her eyes. A moment ago, she’d been desperate enough to try to talk to a ghost, but suddenly she didn’t even need to speak. The question swirling in her mind — which was she doing the right thing loving Archer more than life itself — was answered by the way her heart swelled and warmed her entire chest. Thanks, Beth, she thought. And thanks to Quinn because she’d been right. Elle had indeed known the answer all along.
She slipped her hand out of her pocket and into Archer’s. He squeezed it gently and then stilled before slowly lifting her hand and staring at the diamond once again sparkling on her finger.
“I’m so sorry, Archer,” she whispered. “I panicked.” Her throat clogged at the thought of what she’d almost walked away from and she pressed herself up against him, tilting her head back to meet his dark gaze. “I thought I felt trapped.”
In one move he had his arms around her holding tight. She clung to him and like always, his calm washed over her. He stroked her hair and pulled back slightly. “You will never be trapped, Elle. I’ll love you no matter what. You hear me?”
She nodded and the tears she rarely ever spilled fell over. “I got scared, but not for the reason you think.”
“Then what?” he asked, sliding his hands into her hair.
She let out a shaky breath. “I didn’t think I wanted to ever have kids. And then I saw how badly you did. But then, when the stick didn’t turn blue, I …” She let out a half laugh, half sob. “I disappointed you.”
“No. No, Elle, you didn’t,” he breathed huskily. “You never disappoint.”
She went up on tiptoe to kiss him for that and whispered, “but I was also … sad,” she murmured. “I didn’t expect that, to find myself actually wanting to be pregnant. I wanted it so badly that it terrified me.”
He hugged her tight. “I can live with or without kids, babe. What I can’t live without is you.”
Her entire heart and body and soul released the last of her tension. “Really?” she whispered.
“Yes,” he said, more of a vow than a statement, looking at her with love and more acceptance than she’d ever known. “Don’t ever doubt it. I love you and I’ll always love you.” And then he kissed her to seal the promise.
“Um,” came Quinn’s hesitant voice from the bathroom. “I’ve sort of done everything in here that I can. Think it’s okay if I come out now?”
Elle and Archer broke apart, laughing. “Yes,” she called, and Quinn stepped out, dividing a look between them. “So? Everything okay?”
“Better than okay,” Elle said.
Eyes on hers, Archer lifted her hand with the diamond on it and brushed a kiss over the back of her fingers.
“Oh,” Quinn breathed. “I’m so happy for you both.”
Elle smiled at her. “Thanks for sharing Beth with us.”
“So … you saw her too?”
“Not exactly,” Elle said, sensing that it was very important to Quinn that Beth be here. “But I felt her.”
Quinn looked shocked but gratified, and nodded.
Archer dragged Elle back to the front desk, where he then rushed the clerk through getting them the right room.
“You on a mission?” she teased.
“Yes,” he said. “And as that mission is to spend the rest of the night, and the rest of my life, making you the happiest woman on the planet, you might want to put it in gear.”
So she put it in gear.