The scents of sawdust and varnish and oils filled the air. She didn’t even realize it was past lunchtime until she forced herself out of her voyeuristic daze and looked at the clock.
He’d never even taken a break.
Rising, she rotated her stiff neck and walked toward him. “You missed lunch.”
He startled at the sound of her voice, blinking. “Huh?”
“Lunch. You haven’t eaten.”
“I’m good. In the zone.”
She shifted on her feet. “Oh. Well, I brought sandwiches for us already. You can join me. To eat. For lunch.”
Pure interest flashed in his gaze. “A lunch date, huh?”
Raven blew out a breath. “It’s a roast beef hero, dude. Don’t get excited.”
“That’s my favorite sandwich ever!”
She rolled her eyes and walked into the kitchen. Retrieving the subs, she took out some potato salad and chips, arranged them on plates, and brought them back out to the table. “Soda or water?”
She grabbed two bottles of Fiji, put them on the bar, and reached for glasses.
When she turned back around, he stared at her with an open look of horror. “What? What happened?”
He lunged for the bottles and tore them off the bar, studying the two wet rings on the surface. Uh-oh. A fine sheen of sweat gleamed on his forehead, and his golden hair was all mussed, looking like he’d just tumbled out of bed. His voice dropped to a sexy growl of sound. “Did you just place water bottles on my bar?”
His bar? She blinked. He’d turned from a relaxed, easy-mannered flirt into a man with a hard expression and buckets of arrogant dominance. Like when he was working on something it belonged to him, and he was deliciously possessive and in charge. Her nipples twisted into hard points under her tank in an instant. “Yeah. Sorry.”
He flicked his gaze from the wet surface back to her. “Forgot to tell you about the number one rule.”
Her mouth went dry. “You have rules?”
“That’s right. When I’m working on a piece, no touching. Only I get to touch.”
His eyes darkened with intensity, as if he was talking about something more than the bar. She struggled to ward off the sparks of sexual chemistry thrown from his figure. Holy Lord, this man was hot when he got all grumpy and OCD. No intelligent answer came to her brain, so she went with the only word she could remember. “Okay.”
“This includes my tools.”
Oh. My. God.
Had her gaze dropped to his crotch? Had he caught it? The flared light in his eye said maybe.
“My tools are sacred, and they can be dangerous if misused. I also have a careful system, and I dislike when things are out of order. I like to know exactly where my tools are at all times so they can be used to benefit everyone involved. Understood?”
Was he playing her? Raven snapped her teeth together and decided she wasn’t brave enough to find out. She took a step back and threw up her hands. “Fine! I won’t touch the bar or your tools, crazy man. Can we take it down a notch and eat now?”
“Yes. As long as we understand each other.”
She fought a shudder and marched back to the table, sliding into her seat. He washed his hands and joined her there. He switched back to his easygoing way again. “This is really nice of you,” he said. “Not many clients offer up lunch. I usually bring my own, but I rushed out this morning and forgot.”
Shame burned. She’d only done it to have an opportunity to grill him, and now he made her feel bad. Dammit. “It’s no big deal, I own a restaurant. You made a lot of progress already.”
He dug into his sandwich, groaning with ecstasy. “Why does food taste so much better when someone else makes it?”
“That’s why I make a profit.”
“Your bar is magnificent.”
She chuckled at the haze of lust in his eyes as he uttered the words. “Bet you say that to all the girls.”
“I don’t fool around with wood.”
“God, there’s so many things I can do with that statement.”
His gaze flashed with humor. “The mahogany is pristine; it’s only the surface that’s stripped, I don’t have to go down too many layers. There’s a solidness and bulk to the piece that’s known with antiques, but this is by far one of the best I’ve ever worked on.”
She watched his face light up with excitement and took a few more bites of her sandwich. “You really love what you do,” she said quietly. “The way you work is quite beautiful.”
“You were watching me?”
Ah, shit. Raven tried not to back off too fast or she’d slide right off the cliff. “I watch every worker I contract,” she retorted. “Especially in my restaurant.”
He could have challenged her, but he chose to retreat. “Fair enough.”
Her breath released. “When did you know woodworking was your career path?”
“My future was Pierce Brothers Construction—there was no getting away from that. My grandfather was well known as a master of woodwork. He carved out a name for himself in Harrington, and I seemed to have picked up his skill. I was always tinkering with stuff, even when I was little. It was kind of funny, actually. Cal would build the house, I would work the wood, and Tristan would decorate the damn thing and try to sell it for a profit.”
“Grandfather on your mother or father’s side?” she asked casually.
“But the business was your father’s, right?”
He reached for his water, taking a few long sips. “No, it was passed down from my great-great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side. When she became pregnant with Cal, she changed the legal name to Pierce Brothers Construction. Guess she had a premonition she’d have more boys.”
Raven tried to ignore her pounding heart. “Sounds like you had a close-knit family. Your parents must have made a great team.”
He shut down. The light in his eyes disappeared, and his face grew tight and expressionless. “Not really,” he said shortly. “I’ve learned not to trust surface images anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
His grin was quick and held a bit of cruelty. “Marriages don’t mean happily ever after, Raven. In my opinion, love has a certain death the moment you put rules on it.”
Startled, she drew back, filing the hint away in her mental computer. His parents hadn’t been happy. Was that why Diane Pierce stalked her father? Got him to fall for her so she didn’t have to deal with her husband? Whatever had happened, Dalton still held a ton of resentment. Was that where he’d gotten all his cynical ideas about love?
Maybe they weren’t so different after all.
She lightened the tone. “You seem to be happy about your brother getting married.”
He scrunched up his face as if thinking hard. “I guess you’re right. Cal seems suited for marriage, though, and Morgan is his other half.”
“Are you doing all the cabinetry for the new house?”
He nodded. “Got some amazing exotic snakewood I want to work with. And wait till I get my hands on the deck. People will be coming from miles away just to see it. It’ll be shaped like an oval rather than square, with a loft-type roof and fitted benches. And the table is my present to them. I’ve got it stashed in the shed, and I spend most of my spare time working on it so it’ll be finished in time. It’s huge.”
She smiled, propping her face up in her palm. “I get like that when I’m trying to create a perfect cocktail. Ingredients are key, but sometimes it takes a while to find the right mix of sweet and tart, or to achieve the subtle lingering effect on the tongue. It’s a lost art nowadays. Everyone seems to want to wine or beer it.”
He scratched his head. “I never considered it, but you’re right. Bars just don’t cater to the cocktail crowd any longer, and other than the standard classics, people don’t seem interested in trying exotic mixed drinks.”
“That’s why I’m going to change things.” Her plan was long term, and she intended to grow the cocktail crowd organically. She aimed to fill a niche no one even knew was empty. “I’m going to implement a cocktail night. I was thinking of combining it with some targeted activities or events.”