CHAPTER 14

Bree

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I woke up and pried my eyes open. I could feel that they were swollen. The room was dim, just a single standing lamp on in the corner next to one of the built-in bookcases. I was lying on a worn, leather couch and an older, wooden coffee table sat in front of me. The curtains on the window were open and I could see that the sun had set completely.

I moved the blanket that was over me to the side. Archer must have done that. My heart squeezed. Archer. He had taken care of me. He had saved me.

I sat up, and despite my sore eyes and the spot on my forehead that was slightly tender to the touch, the rest of me felt pretty good, rested. Surprising since I had turned into a wild animal when that net came down on me. I had realized very distantly what was happening as Archer was removing it from my body. Why there was a trap set on his property, I wasn't sure, but figured it had something to do with his uncle.

God, I had freaked. I was embarrassed now. But somehow I felt relieved too. Somehow I felt… lighter? When I had realized I was being carried and looked up into Archer's concerned eyes, I had felt safe, and so the tears had finally fallen.

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I was interrupted in my thoughts as I heard Archer's footsteps behind me, returning to the room.

I turned around to thank him, an embarrassed smile on my lips, but when he came into sight, I froze. Sweet mother of all that was holy. He had his hair pulled back, and he had shaved his face.

And he was… beautiful.

I gaped.

No, not beautiful. He was just masculine enough to take the edge off what otherwise would be full-on male prettiness. His jaw was not hard, slightly square, but not in an exaggerated way. His lips were wider than they were full, a beautiful light, rosey color.

With his hair pulled back and his facial hair gone, I could see how his eyes and nose fit perfectly in the portrait of his face. Why had he ever hidden it? I had known he had a nice face somewhere under all that shag, but not this. I had never imagined this.

Just as I was about to speak, he moved closer to me, into the light and it was then that I saw the scar at the base of his throat–pink and shiny, the skin raised in locations and flat in others. It stood out harshly against the beauty of the features above it.

"Archer," I breathed out, staring.

He paused in his movement, but didn't say anything. He stood there, uncertainty in the expression on his face and in the way he held himself, rigid and unmoving. And I could do nothing but stare, spellbound at his beauty. Something pulled tightly inside of me. He had no idea. None.

Come here? I said, indicating the couch next to me. I turned around as he walked around it and sat down at my side.

My eyes moved over his face. Why did you do it?

He was silent for a couple beats, looking down, taking his bottom lip between his teeth before he brought his hands up and said, I don't know. His expression turned thoughtful, his eyes meeting mine, and then he continued. When you were in the trap, I couldn't speak to you to reassure you. You can't hear me… I can't help that. He looked down for a second and then back up at me. But I want you to see me. An expression of vulnerability washed over his face. Now you can see me.

My heart squeezed. I got it. I understood. This was his way of making me feel more comfortable about exposing a part of myself to him–by doing the same for me. I brought my hands up and said, Yes, now I can see you. Thank you, Archer. I felt like I could stare at him forever.

After a minute, I breathed out and spoke again. And thank you for… what you did earlier. I shook my head slightly. I'm embarrassed. You rescued me. I was a mess. I looked up at him. I'm sor–

He grabbed my hands in his to stop my words and then pulled his back. No, I'm sorry, he said, his eyes intense. My uncle set traps all over this land. I've tried to find all of them and take them down, but I missed that one. He looked away. That was my fault.

I shook my head. No, Archer. It wasn't your fault. I shook my head again. No. And anyway, as much as I'm sorry that I flipped my lid, I laughed, embarrassed and Archer smiled a small smile at me, maybe I… needed that. I don't know.

His brow furrowed. Do you want to tell me about it?

I fell back on the sofa and breathed out. I hadn't talked about that night with anyone, except the police detectives on the case. Not a single person. Not even my best friends. They only knew that my dad had been shot by a robber and that I had witnessed it, but not the rest, not everything. But for some reason, I felt safe talking about it now. I felt safe with Archer. And there was something about telling the story with my hands that was comforting to me.

We were just about to close that night, I started. The guy who usually worked the front counter at our deli had already left and my dad was there doing some bookkeeping. I was in the back baking bread for the next day. I heard the door chime and it took me a minute to wash my hands and dry them off. Once I did, and I went to the kitchen door, I could see through the small window that there was a man holding a gun on my dad. Tears welled up in my eyes, but I continued.

My dad saw me in his peripheral vision and he kept signing, 'hide.' The man was screaming at him to give him money. My dad couldn't hear him, though, and so he didn't respond. I took a deep breath as Archer watched me with those eyes that never missed a thing, taking in my words, his silent support giving me the strength to continue.

Before I even had time to process what was happening, the gun went off. I paused again, picturing that moment in my mind and then shaking my head slightly, bringing myself back to the present–back to Archer's compassionate eyes.

I found out later that it hit my dad in his heart. He died instantly. Fat tears fell out of my eyes. How could I have more tears? I took another calming breath.

I tried to hide in the kitchen, but I was in shock and I stumbled and fell and he must have heard me. He came in after me and, I shivered at the memory before continuing, his eyes were bloodshot, dilated, he was shaky… He was obviously on something. I paused, biting my lip. But he looked at me in this way and I knew what he was going to do. I knew. I looked up at Archer and he was sitting so still, his eyes boring into mine. I took another deep breath.

He made me undress and he… started tracing my face with his gun, each feature. Then he moved down to my breasts. He told me he was going to… violate me with the gun. I was so terrified. I closed my eyes briefly and looked to the side, away from Archer. I felt his fingers on my chin and he turned my face back to him, and something about that gesture felt so loving that I breathed out a small, choked sob. It felt like he was telling me that I didn't need to be ashamed, didn't need to turn away from him. My eyes met his again.

He almost raped me, but before he did, we both heard the sirens–and they were getting closer. He ran. He ran out the back door into the storm. I closed my eyes for a second and then opened them again. I hate storms now–the thunder, the lightening. It brings me right back there. I took another deep, shaky breath. I had just told all of what happened that night, and I had survived.

Bree, Archer started, but he didn't seem to know how to go on. I didn't need him to though. Just my name held so lovingly in his hands made my heart feel lighter.

Archer's eyes moved over my face before he asked, That's why you left? That's why you drove here?

I shook my head. After my dad was murdered, I found out that he had let his life insurance policy lapse. He had let a lot of things slide while I was away at college. I wasn't really surprised. My dad, he was the salt of the earth, the kindest man you'd ever want to meet, but he was about as disorganized as they come. I let out a small laugh on an exhale.

I looked at Archer and his eyes encouraged me to continue. There was something about the way he was looking at me–an understanding in his eyes that calmed me, strengthened me.

When I found out I would have to sell the deli to pay for all the funeral expenses, and the other bills associated with the business, I just… went numb, I guess. It didn't take long before I got an offer on the business, but it hurt so badly to sign the paperwork, that I could hardly breathe. I shook my head again, not wanting to return to that day, even in my mind. It was like losing another piece of my dad. He had owned that deli all my life–I had practically grown up there.

Archer took my hand in his for a brief second and then let it go, saying, I'm sorry. I had heard those words before, but looking at him in that moment, I knew that they had never held as much weight as they did when Archer spoke them.

Did they arrest the man who killed your father?

I shook my head. No. The police told me that the guy who shot my dad had most likely been a strung-out junkie who didn't even remember his crime the next day. I paused for a minute, thinking. Something had never felt quite right about that… but the police were the experts. Still, I sometimes found myself looking over my shoulder even when I didn't immediately recognize that I was doing it.

Archer nodded, furrowing his brow. I drank him in, feeling lighter, like I had shed something I didn't realize I had been carrying. I smiled a small smile at him. Way to ruin your cooking lesson, huh?

Archer paused and then smiled back at me, his straight teeth flashing. I noticed now that one of his bottom teeth was slightly crooked and something about that made me love his smile even more. I wasn't even sure why–maybe it was just one of those perfect imperfections. He had a crease in each cheek, not dimples exactly, just the way his cheek muscles moved when he smiled. I stared at those creases as if they were twin unicorns that he'd been hiding from me under his beard. Magical. My eyes moved down and lingered on his mouth for a second. When my eyes finally moved to his, his widened slightly before he looked away.

I went and got your bike and your coolers while you were sleeping, he said. I put everything in my refrigerator. I think it's fine. It was on ice.

Thank you, I said. So rain check on the cooking lesson? I laughed, putting my palm on my forehead and groaning slightly. I mean, if you'll let me back on your property again?

He smiled at me, not saying anything for several minutes. Finally, he lifted his hands. I'd like that. And I promise not to string you up from a tree next time.

I laughed. Okay, deal?

He grinned, the beauty of it knocking me on my ass, and then said, Yeah, deal.

I kept grinning at him like a loon. Who the hell knew that this day would turn out with me laughing? Not the girl who had been caught in a trap and strung up in the woods and lost her mind in front of the beautiful (as it turned out), silent man.

I sobered when he swallowed and my eyes moved to the scar at the base of his throat. I reached out to touch it gingerly and Archer shrunk back, but then stilled. I looked up into his eyes and let my fingertips very gently graze the injured skin.

"What happened to you?" I whispered, my hand still at his throat.

He swallowed again, his eyes moving over my face, looking as if he was trying to decide whether he was going to answer me or not. Finally, he lifted his hands and said, I was shot. When I was seven. I was shot.

My eyes widened and I brought one hand up and covered my mouth. After a second, I brought my hand down and croaked out, "Shot? By who, Archer?"

My uncle.

My blood ran cold. Your uncle? I asked, confused. The one who lived here on this land with you?

No, my other uncle. The day I lost my parents, my uncle shot me.

I don't… I don't understand. Why? I asked, knowing that my expression conveyed the horror I felt. On purpose? Why would–

Archer stood up and let his hair down out of whatever had been holding it away from his face. He walked to a small table behind the couch and picked up a small tube of something. When he walked back over to the couch and sat down next to me again, putting the tube on his lap, he said, I'm going to put some of this antibiotic ointment on your scratches so they don't get infected.

I guessed that he was done talking about himself. I wanted to press, but I didn't. I knew better than anyone that if you weren't ready to talk about something, no one should try to force you to.

I looked down at my arms and legs. There were several small scratches and a few larger ones. They stung very slightly, but nothing serious. I nodded okay to Archer.

He opened the ointment and began using one finger to rub a little bit on each abrasion.

As he leaned closer to me, I inhaled his clean, soap scent, something masculine and all Archer right beneath it. His hand stilled and his eyes darted to mine and held my gaze. Time seemed to stop and my heart sped up right before Archer broke our gaze and looked away, putting the top back on the small tube and setting it down in his lap.

That'll help, he said, standing up again. That's when I noticed his feet and gasped. There were cuts all over them, large and small, and they looked red and slightly swollen. Oh my God! What happened to your feet? I asked.

He looked down at them as if he was just noticing that he was injured. I couldn't find my shoes when I heard you screaming, he said. They'll be fine.

Oh, Archer, I said, looking down. I'm so sorry. You should bandage them. If you have some, I'll wrap them for–

No need. I put some ointment on them. They'll be fine in the morning.

I sighed. Surely ointment would help, but it wouldn't heal him overnight. Not with injuries that looked that bad. His feet looked shredded. God, he had run over rocks and sharp branches and thorny ground cover to rescue me.

I stood up. Can I use your bathroom?

He nodded, pointing at a door right off the main room.

I walked past him and into the small bathroom. Everything was clean and tidy in here too–the sink and mirror shiny and a light lemony fragrance in the air. I couldn't fault his housekeeping skills, that was for sure.

Sitting on the vanity was a bar of soap on one side and on the other side, every form of dental cleaning product available–an electric toothbrush, floss, several different bottles of mouthwash, dental piks, and–I picked up a bottle–fluoride tablets. Okay, so the guy was a little overly serious about dental health. Nothing to fault him for there either, I guessed.

I used the restroom and then went back out to join Archer. I smiled at him. So, I see you're pretty serious about your teeth, I said teasingly.

He smiled back and shook his head slightly, bringing one hand to the back of his neck. His hair hung in his face and I wanted to pull it back the way he'd had it so that I could see his beautiful face better again.

My uncle didn't trust doctors or dentists. He said they'd implant tracking devices if given access to your body. I watched him pull a rotten molar with a pair of pliers once. He grimaced. The health of my teeth became a big priority after that.

I grimaced. Oh God! That's awful, I said, about your uncle pulling his own tooth, I mean. Being diligent about dental health, though–it's a good habit. I couldn't help laughing slightly, and he smiled back at me, seeming more relaxed.

After a second, he asked, Are you hungry?

Starving.

He nodded. I don't have a big selection. I could make some soup?

That sounds great, I said. Let me do it. I promised you a big meal and instead had a nervous breakdown. Really bad manners. I bit my lip, but then laughed softly, shrugging my shoulders apologetically.

He looked at me and chuckled, his diaphragm moving under his t-shirt, but no sound coming from his mouth. It was the very first time he'd done something close to laugh in my presence. I drank it in, loving those creases in his cheeks.

We made dinner in his small, not surprisingly clean, kitchen. Chicken noodle soup and rolls. When I looked in his refrigerator, I turned back to him. Peanut butter, jelly, applesauce? Are you six? I grinned at him.

He didn't smile back, though, just looked at me for a few beats as if considering my question. In some ways, yes, Bree. In other ways, no.

The smile disappeared from my face. Oh God, Archer, I'm sorry. That was really inconsiderate–but he grabbed my hands to stop me and we stood that way for a few seconds, both of us just staring at our entwined fingers.

Finally, he let go and said, Bonus for friends of mine, though–I have twirly straws in that cabinet right there. We can blow bubbles in our chocolate milk. He tilted his head, indicating a cabinet over my shoulder.

I turned around slowly and then turned back to him to see him grinning. I tilted my head to the side. You being funny?

He just kept grinning. I laughed. Good work, I said, winking.

Archer showed me where his pots and pans were and I got busy heating up the soup. The appliances were older, but Archer had installed the most beautiful cement countertops. I'd seen something like it on an HGTV show one time, but they were nowhere near as beautiful as the ones he had done. As the soup heated, I ran my hand along them, marveling at his skill.

We ate at his small kitchen table and then cleaned up, mostly in companionable silence. I couldn't help being aware of him as he moved around the kitchen, his tall, lean body skirting around mine. I could see every muscle under his t-shirt, and I watched his arms flex as he washed and dried the dishes we had used, while I pretended to wipe down the already-clean counters.

When he was done, he turned to me, still holding a dishrag. He dried his hands as we looked at each other, something sizzling in the air between us. I swallowed hard, and I saw him swallow too, my eyes lingering on his scar for a portion of a second.

I looked back up at him and said, I should go.

He put the towel down and shook his head saying, I can't let you ride your bike home in the dark, and I can't walk that distance yet. He looked down at his feet, indicating his injuries. I'll be fine in the morning and walk you then.

I nodded, "Um…" I said, then signed, Okay. I can sleep on your couch.

Archer shook his head. No, you can sleep in my bed. When my eyes got wide, his face paled, and he closed his eyes for a couple beats. I mean, I'll sleep on the couch and you can take my bed, he clarified. Spots of color stained his cheekbones and I swear I felt my heart flip over once in my chest.

"I couldn't do that," I whispered.

Yes you can, he said, walking past me, out of the kitchen.

I followed him into the room across from the bathroom and looked around at the sparsely furnished room–just a bed and a dresser and a small chair in the corner. There weren't any knick knacks or photographs or anything.

I just washed the sheets a couple days ago. They're… clean, he said, looking away from me, those same red spots appearing on his upper cheekbones.

I nodded. Okay, I said. Thank you, Archer. For everything. Thank you.

He nodded at me, our eyes lingering, and when our shoulders touched as he was walking out of the room, I felt him jerk slightly. He closed the door behind him.

I looked around the room one more time and noticed that there actually was a small photograph lying down on the top of his dresser. I walked over and picked it up delicately. It was a beautiful girl, her long brown hair flowing over her shoulder, laughing at the person behind the camera. She looked carefree and happy. She looked like she was in love. I realized why her smile looked so familiar–it was Archer's smile. This must be his mother, Alyssa McRae, I thought. I turned the photo over and on the back was written, 'My beautiful Lys, Love forever, C.' C? Connor. Archer's uncle. The man who had shot him. He was such a town hero, though–they must not know that he had shot his nephew. "But how is that possible?" I asked the girl in the photo softly. Her large brown eyes remained smiling, not giving me a clue. I placed the photo back down where it had been.

I undressed quickly, down to my underwear and bra and pulled back the covers and got in Archer's bed. It smelled like him–soap and clean male.

As I lay there in his bed, I thought of him in the other room, his long body probably hanging over the end of the couch. I inhaled the scent of him on his sheets and pictured him shirtless, the moonlight shining in on his smooth, bare chest and I shivered slightly. He was just mere feet from me on the other side of the wall.

Thinking about Archer that way felt just a little dangerous–I didn't know if it was a good idea. Thinking about it now, I realized that there had been a chemistry between us from the very start. It had just been difficult to classify because of all the ways he was so different. And I still felt a little confused. But apparently my body did not feel confused at all as my hormones flash fired through me, my veins filling with heat, my mind unable to let go of the images of he and I tangled together in these very sheets, those beautiful, whiskey colored eyes filled with passion.

I turned over and adjusted the pillow, groaning softly into it and closing my eyes tightly, willing myself to sleep. After a little while, even though I had slept for several hours earlier that evening, I fell into a peaceful sleep and didn't wake up until the sunrise, muted by the trees around the house, was lighting the room.

I sat up and stretched, looking around at Archer's room in the morning sunlight. I pulled on my shorts and tank and peeked my head out his door. He was nowhere in sight and so I headed straight across the hall to his bathroom. I did my business and used my finger to brush my teeth and gargle with his mouthwash. I washed my face and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked okay. My eyes were still very slightly swollen, but other than that, I didn't think my freak-out had left me looking too worse for wear this morning. I smoothed my hair back and leaned against the sink.

Thinking of my freak-out had me thinking of the flashback that was sure to come on any second now. It would be better if I had it alone, out of Archer's sight. He probably already thought I was half nuts. Letting him see my PTSD episode would definitely convince him that I was fully there.

I stood against the sink for a few minutes, closing my eyes and willing the flashback to do its worst while I was locked away behind closed doors. Nothing happened.

I turned on the water and imagined it was the rain falling down around me, just like that night. Nothing happened.

I tried to stamp down the hope that blossomed in my chest–I had been hopeful in the recent past that the flashbacks had stopped, right before being cast into an attack.

I closed my eyes and thought about the night before, what Archer had said to me when I told him my deepest shame, that I had done nothing as my father was gunned down, as I was almost raped. He hadn't looked at me with disgust… but rather with understanding. Relief washed through my body again at the memory alone.

And I had cried more than I knew I could. I had cried a river of tears… for my dad, for the loss I felt everyday at losing my best friend, my person… for losing myself somewhere along the way, for running away…

I opened my eyes, biting my fingernail and worrying my brow. Is that what I had needed? Was that the purpose of the flashbacks all along? To force me to face what I was running from? That felt right. But it was only part of it. Maybe I needed to feel safe and accepted in my pain before I was set free from this daily misery. I had needed someone who would understand and hold me as I cried.

I had needed Archer.

I swung the bathroom door open and walked quickly through the house, calling to him. He wasn't inside. I ran outside and called for him. After a few minutes, he walked from the direction of the lake through the trees and stood there looking questioningly at me.

I didn't think you'd be up this early, he said.

I ran down the slope and stopped right in front of him, grinning broadly, my excitement bubbling out of me. I laughed, looking in his beautiful face. I still wasn't used to seeing all of it. Or most of it at least. He still desperately needed a haircut.

I didn't have a flashback this morning, I said, my hands moving quickly.

He frowned, looking at me confused.

I shook my head, laughing a small laugh. I guess I just can't believe it… I mean, I always have one. Every day. I've had one every single day for six months, I said, my hands moving quickly, my eyes filling with tears.

Archer kept looking at me, understanding coming into his eyes, a flash of compassion moving over his expression.

I have to go let Phoebe out and feed her, I said, swiping quickly at my tears. I took Archer in again, joy washing through my body. He had given me an incredible gift and I was giddy. I wanted to spend the day with him and I didn't care that I was always the one doing the asking. Can I come back later? I blurted out, looking at him expectantly.

His eyes moved over my face for a couple beats and then he nodded his head.

I grinned. "Okay," I breathed out. I stepped forward and his eyes widened slightly, but he didn't move. I wrapped my arms around him and held him tightly. He didn't wrap his arms around me, but he let me hug him.

After a minute, I stepped back and smiled at him again. I'll be back.

Okay.

Okay, I said again, grinning bigger.

A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, but he just nodded at me.

I turned around and ran up the wooded slope to his house and then up his driveway. My bike was leaning against the inside of his fence. I wheeled it through the gate and started for home. Here and there, I coasted down the dirt road with my head tilted up to the sky, feeling happy, feeling alive, feeling free.

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