She shuddered. “Overdone. I’m thinking more like poker.”
His brow shot up. “You kidding?”
“No. Poker is hugely popular, but many people don’t get to play because games occur in private houses or custom-made groups. I’d set up some casual tables—some mixed, some just men, others just women. Would love to set up a training class for women. I want to get away from the usual pool and darts everyone expects.”
He took another slug of water and studied her. She tried not to squirm under the stinging blue of his gaze. “You keep surprising me.”
“Why? ’Cause I have a big old brain?” She fluttered her lashes in mockery.
“I already knew that the first moment I spoke with you. No, you surprise me because you look at the world differently from anyone I’ve ever met. And I like it.”
Raven stilled. A swirling tension filled the air. His compliment should’ve been dismissed with a laugh or a wave of a hand. He was probably just flirting and trying to get into her pants. Right? But it didn’t feel that way. He meant every word, and the sincerity of his confession hit her exactly where she tried to protect.
Stop being stupid. It’s only a game. He plays his, and I play mine.
The disgusted voice shook her out of the odd trance, and she was able to pull herself up to sit straight in the chair. “Nice play, Slick,” she said deliberately. “So, tell me a bit about California. Did you like it out there?”
A flash of disappointment flickered over his features, but it was gone so quickly she wondered if she’d imagined it. He took his final bite and wiped his hands. “Yep. Kind of difficult not to like sun, surf, and a laid-back attitude. It was good for me to experience, but Harrington must’ve gotten under my skin. Even though the winters suck and the people are still too rushed and way too high maintenance, I belong here. Those years away were key to figure it out.”
“Yeah.” She nodded slowly, thinking of the exotic sights she’d seen, along with sleeping on the ground next to strangers, looking up at the stars. Being back home and having something solid underneath her satisfied her more deeply than she’d imagined. “I get it.”
“Course you do. You’re a wanderer, like me. We’re very alike, you know.”
She let out a laugh. “Trust me, I’m nothing like you.”
“I disagree. Name one quality you have that you don’t think I do.”
He leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms in front of his chest. She refused to stare at the bunched muscles underneath soft cotton. Why hadn’t she ever seen him at the gym? His biceps were delicious. Did he have a lot of hair on his chest or a little? Was it blond or a bit darker? How far down did the line go—what had he asked? “Umm, what?”
His lip ticked up in amusement. “I told you to name me one quality you have that I don’t.”
“I’m a total control freak. I like to do it all by myself, and if someone tries to help, I get all crazy. Very annoying.”
“I’m the same way.”
She tilted her head and snorted. “You seem to be the type to go with the flow. Your brothers are more tightly wound than you.”
“Until you touch my tools.”
She sucked in her breath. He was right. He’d just demonstrated his irritation in pure peacock form. “You got me there. Unless it’s just the bar that got your panties in a tangle?”
His lips twitched. “I’ve always been like that. My brothers know not to interrupt me or move a thing out of place. I have a system, and I’d never be able to work with an assistant. I like being in charge. I like dictating the terms. What I am able to do is balance that obsession with a more easygoing view of other life elements. Next.”
She blinked. The rich tone of his voice washed over her in hypnotic waves. He spoke beautifully, like a highly educated nerd rather than a blue-collar worker. Not that she understood any of that class crap anyway. In her view, it was just society trying to pigeonhole people and personalities so they would be easier to manage.
She tamped down her lust, squeezing her thighs in punishment, and tried to focus. “I have a temper.”
“No. You think?”
He flashed a grin. “So do I. I’m somewhat of a hothead.”
She squinted with suspicion. He’d been nothing but laid-back with his brothers, and charming to everyone else. She couldn’t even imagine him angry. “I don’t believe you.”
He threw back his head and laughed in delight. “Don’t forget to put down suspicious on your list, too. No, really. I’m the youngest. You know the shit I’ve had to take in my life? My brothers know how to yank my chains, so to speak. And I always got into fights at school when I was younger.” He scratched his head again, in deep thought. “Got into fights when I was older, too. Usually regarding a woman.”
“You get jealous?”
“Nah, it was the other men who got jealous of me.” She couldn’t even be mad at his inflated ego because she suspected he was just telling the truth. “Come on, give me one more before I go back to work.”
Raven blew out a breath and considered. It was ridiculous to be enjoying this conversation so much. “Fine. I’m very emotional. I teeter-totter from high to low, and sometimes it’s hard to keep a delicate balance. Drives men crazy, and not in a good way. Bet you’re cool as a cucumber, Slick, with no highs or lows. Now you know all my secrets.”
She’d finished with a joke wrapped in truth. She wanted to end the encounter with a flourish, go back to work, and analyze what she’d learned so far. Instead, that glittering peacock gaze drilled into hers and she was done.
Blistering blue, as hot as flame, shot at her from across the table. Her breath left her lungs, and she tried to pull back, but he wouldn’t let her. No, he kept her locked in a ruthless, intimate embrace, diving into her soul and trying to steal precious artifacts she kept hidden. Her body shook, and the air crackled like the beginning of a storm.
“You’re wrong,” he said simply. “Emotion means passion. It means you’re alive, and you’re not sorry for it. I can take that a hell of a lot more than I can your cold distance, Raven. I can match that type of passion, too. Just try me.”
He slid his hands across the table, stopping just short of touching her fingers. Keeping his promise. Her fingers burned, curling into tight fists, seeking refuge. Fighting the need to touch his skin just once. She didn’t know why the space between them had suddenly become so intimate, but if she didn’t push back, she was lost.
The image of her father’s face floated before her.
As if she’d been dealt an icy slap, she jerked away, her voice chilling. “You know one of my most important secrets already, Dalton,” she said. “I’m looking for real, not a brief fantasy that will go up in smoke once the sun comes up. Remember that. Now, I think it’s time we got back to work.”
Frustration simmered in his aura, but he nodded, accepting the hit. “Thank you for lunch.”
He scooped up the plate and his drink, placed them in the sink, and headed to the bar.
Dalton came home with sore muscles and blue balls.
Striding wearily toward the Pierce mansion’s front porch, he groaned when he saw Fric and Frac hanging out waiting for him.
“So, we’re dying to hear,” Cal rumbled into the darkness. As Dalton got nearer, he saw that his oldest brother clutched a beer in one hand and had his feet propped up on an ancient, torn-up wicker table that was a complete eyesore—and one he refused to get rid of. “Did you sleep with her?”
Tristan held a glass of his expensive red wine, swishing the liquid around as if he held the secrets to the universe. His red-brown hair glinted in the moonlight, and his amber eyes reflected calm, but with a teasing glint reserved for his younger brother. “I bet yes, but Cal said no. The bartender has been your Achilles’ heel and Kryptonite rolled into one, but I said not to underestimate the power of your charm. And the dimples. What is it about dimples anyway?”