CHAPTER 33

Bree

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We only left Archer's house twice in the following two days–luckily for us, the two off days I had in a row that week. We went to the grocery store once the morning after he'd gotten home, and picked up Phoebe on the way back. And we went to dinner on the other side of the lake that night. The pride in Archer's eyes as he ordered a glass of wine for me and a coke for himself, made me grin and wink at him. Watching him come into himself was a thing of beauty and I felt privileged to be a witness to it. I wanted to sigh and swoon at his easy charm and beautiful smile, and I could see that the waitress who served us felt the same way as she glanced at his scar and fawned all over him all night. I didn't mind though, in fact, I liked it. I loved it. How could I blame her? Like Natalie had said, he inspired women to want to cuddle him and then lick him. But he was mine. I was the luckiest girl on earth.

We talked a lot more about what he'd done the three months he'd been gone, the people he'd seen, the rooms he'd rented, how the loneliness he'd felt was no less than before, but that it was different this time. The difference, he'd concluded, was that he finally had himself, and he was more able than he'd known or believed.

I need to get my license, he said as we ate dinner.

I nodded. "Yeah, I know, illegal driver," I said, raising a brow.

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He smiled around his food. If Travis catches me, he'll lock me up and throw away the key. He raised both eyebrows. Speaking of Travis, have you seen him at all? Has he tried to talk to you? His face was wary.

I shook my head. "A few times, but I avoided him. I was short and he didn't push it. And it's been radio silence from Victoria Hale."

He studied me for a second and then nodded. I left you shouldering that whole mess and I'm sorry about that. I'm the one Tori hates though, not you. I guess I thought it might be easier on you in that respect as well if I was gone. He looked away for a second and then back at me. I'm going to go talk to Travis and Tori. I was wondering if you'd come and interpret for me?

I blinked at him. "Of course I will, Archer, but what exactly are you going to say to them?"

I'm thinking of taking ownership of the land, Bree… the town. His eyes held mine steadily as he waited for my reaction.

I gaped at him for a few seconds and then closed my mouth. "Are you ready for that?" I whispered.

I don't know, he said, looking thoughtful again. Maybe not… but I feel like I could be. I feel like maybe there might be a few in this town who will help make it a little easier… Maggie, Norm, Anne, Mandy… a few others. And that's what will make the difference. That's what's making me think I should at least try.

He took a bite and then went on. My parents, they made a lot of mistakes, right up to the very end. But they were good people. They were loving people. My uncle Marcus was not a good person–and Travis is mostly questionable too. And Victoria is the worst of them all. They don't deserve to win, here. And maybe I don't either, but maybe I do. And just that possibility makes me want to try.

I reached out and grabbed his hand, pride racing through my blood. "Whatever you need, I'm with you. Whatever that is."

He smiled at me and then we ate in silence for a while, before I remembered the call I'd gotten from the detective the day of the parade and told Archer about it. He looked concerned. Out on bail? Could you be in danger?

I shook my head. "No, no, I don't think so. He has no idea where I am and he's surrounded by lawyers. The police know who he is. It's just… disappointing that the whole process takes so long. I just want the whole thing to be over, and now there's probably going to be a big trial… I'll have to travel back to Ohio." I shook my head again.

Archer reached out and grabbed my hand. He squeezed it and then brought it back and signed, Then I'll go with you. And they'll convict him. It will all be over. And in the meantime, you're safe here with me, right by my side.

I smiled, warmth filling me. "Nowhere else I'd rather be," I whispered.

Me neither.

We finished our dinner and drove back to Archer's house where we spent the rest of that night and most of the next day in bed, re-discovering each other's bodies and just soaking in each other's presence. Happiness surrounded us. The future looked bright and full of hope, and for just that moment, the world was perfect.

The next morning, I got up early, peeled myself off of Archer and kissed him softly goodbye as he slept. His arm snaked out and he pulled me back into him as I laughed out loud, and he grinned a crooked, sleepy grin. My heart lurched at the ridiculous beauty of that early-morning smile and I leaned back in and said, "Stay right here, just like this. I'll be back as soon as possible." He chuckled silently and opened one eye at me and nodded, yes. I laughed again and stood up and headed out the door before I decided to blow off work entirely.

Just as I was leaving his room, I turned once more to gaze at him. He smiled at me again and brought his hands up and signed, You make me so happy, Bree Prescott.

I stopped in the doorway, tilted my head and smiled back at him. Something about the moment seemed very, very important. Something told me to stay right there and soak it in, cherish it. I wasn't sure why that feeling washed over me, but I leaned my head against the door frame and drank him in for a minute. "I'm going to keep making you happy, Archer Hale." Then I grinned and walked out the door.

We had plans for Archer to meet me at the diner for an early lunch right before the crowd started coming in so I knew I'd see him soon. I didn't need to miss him too much.

The diner was extra busy that morning and the hours flew by. At about ten forty five, I served the last breakfast special and started cleaning up from the rush.

"Hey, Norm," I called. "How'd those red velvet cupcakes work out while I was gone?" I had baked a batch New Year's Eve day before I'd left the diner. God, that seemed like a million years ago. I had left this place still longing for Archer, deep in my bones, and I had walked back in after leaving him in bed. My strong, beautiful, silent man. I was so deliriously proud of him.

"People seemed to like 'em," Norm said. "Maybe you should make another batch."

I grinned. That meant they were a hit and he'd appreciate it if I'd make more. I had learned recently that often, love was all about learning to speak a person's language.

"You gonna sit with me over here for a cup of coffee?" Maggie asked as I married two ketchup bottles. "I think you owe me about three hours of update. But I'll take the fifteen minute version." She laughed.

I smiled. "Actually, Maggie, Archer's coming in in about fifteen minutes. How about the thirty minute version right after lunch?"

She huffed out a breath. "Fine. I guess I'll take what I can get." She feigned a look of annoyance, but I laughed because the look on her face earlier that morning and the tears that had rolled down her cheeks, told me all I'd needed to know. She was over the moon for me, and relieved that Archer was back, safe and sound.

The bell over the door rang a few minutes later and the man in question stood in the doorway, smiling at me. I thought back to the day months earlier when he'd first gathered up the courage to walk through the doors of this diner and I took him in now. That same sweet, gentle look was on his face when he caught my eye and smiled, but now he held himself in a way that told me he felt confident in the fact that he'd be welcomed.

I allowed myself to drink him in for a few moments before I rushed out from behind the counter and jumped in his arms. He spun me around as I laughed and then put me down, looking shyly over at Maggie.

Maggie waved her hand. "Don't stop on account of me. Nothing makes me happier than seeing you two together. Welcome home, Archer."

Archer tipped his head and smiled and then looked up as Norm came out of the back. "Why don't you two quit making a spectacle of yourselves and go sit at that table in the back there? Plenty of privacy." He looked at Archer and his face softened ever so slightly. "Archer," he said, "you're looking well."

Archer smiled at him and reached out his hand and shook it, and then smiled at me and I grinned back, my heart singing. "Shall we?" I asked.

We sat down at the table toward the back of the diner and Maggie called over, "What can I get you?"

"It's okay, Maggie," I called. "I'm gonna put in a lunch order in a minute."

"Okay," she called back, taking a seat at the break table again.

I reached across the table and took Archer's hand just as the bell over the door rung again. I looked up and my blood froze in my veins, my skin prickling and a strangled sound coming up my throat. It was him.

No. Oh God. No, no, no. Bells seemed to be clanging loudly in my ears and I was frozen.

His wild eyes found mine almost immediately and a look of pure hatred filled his face.

This isn't real. This isn't real, I chanted in my head as I felt the vomit coming up my throat. I swallowed it down and squeaked again.

Archer's head swiveled back in the direction my eyes were trained and he stood up immediately when he saw the man behind him. I stood up too on legs that were shaking so badly, I didn't know if I'd stay upright, a huge surge of adrenalin rushing through my system.

The man didn't even seem to see Archer just in front of me and to my right, his eyes still focused only on me.

"You ruined my f*cking life, you bitch," he gritted out. "Do you know who I am? My dad was going to hand the company over to me before you pointed your finger. Do you think I'm going to let you walk away while I lose everything?"

My mind was screaming, the loud sound of the blood rushing in my ears not allowing me to make any sense of his words.

His eyes looked bloodshot and overly bright, just like they had the last time. He was on something. Either that, or he was stone cold crazy.

Please, please be calling the police, Maggie. Oh God, Oh God, how is this possible?

And then it all happened in an instant. Something flashed in the man's hand and the room seemed to tilt on its axis as I saw that it was a gun. He brought it up and aimed it straight at me. I saw a brief flash of fire as Archer threw his body in front of mine, slamming back into me as we both went down, me falling on the floor just behind Archer.

And then I heard another gunshot and Travis's voice yelling, "I need assistance!" over the crackle of a radio.

I scuttled backwards, noticing immediately that the man who had fired at me was lying still on the floor, and that Archer wasn't moving either. I let out a strangled sob and lurched forward, reaching for him. He was lying on his side, his face turned toward the floor. I pulled him backwards so that he was on his back and let out an anguished cry when I saw the front of his shirt already soaked in blood.

Oh no, Oh God, no, no, no. Please, no. Please no.

My own sobs mixed with all the noise starting up around me now, footsteps, what I thought were Maggie's soft cries, Norm's gravely voice, and chairs scraping against the floor. But my eyes didn't move from Archer.

I pulled him into me, rocking him, smoothing my hands down his face as I whispered to him over and over, "Hang on, baby, hang on. I love you, Archer, I love you, don't you dare leave me now."

"Bree," I heard Travis say quietly, as the sound of an ambulance grew louder outside the diner. "Bree, let me help you up."

"No!" I screamed, pulling Archer closer to me. "No! No!" I rocked him some more, putting my face right next to his, feeling his rough cheek against my own, and whispering to him again, "Don't you leave me, I need you, don't you leave me."

But Archer didn't hear me, he was already gone.

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