The walls were filled with photography, including a bunch of family pics that were his favorites. His maternal grandfather and grandmother on their wedding day, dressed in vintage clothes and staring solemnly at the camera. His mom sitting at a pre-K table during his first Mother’s Day tea, holding up a plastic cup and a lopsided cupcake while he grinned toothlessly beside her. The official family picture every Easter, with his brothers miserable in their stiff new suits.
The en suite bathroom had a spa shower, a TV, and a sauna, and was finished with rich Italian marble. But his true private oasis called to him.
He opened the French doors and stepped outside onto the balcony. The quiet of the night folded around him, and he lifted his head up to the sky with a smile. Since his room was located on the upper level, he felt removed from the rest of the house and closer to the stars. The temperature had dropped, and the air hung ripe and still. The clarity of the night struck him full force, a dark wave of inkiness streaked with hundreds of bright points scattered messily across the sky.
He walked around the two Adirondack chairs toward the telescope. The tension in his shoulders drifted away as he set up the lens and swiveled the scope to do an overview. He’d always had a fascination with stargazing, but his lighthearted hobby had become more serious as he got older. Something connected him to the bigger world when he stared out at the universe, and the idea of so many galaxies looking over him made him feel at peace. Kind of like when he worked with wood on a project he loved. Energy buzzed within him, warming his blood. His Orion SpaceProbe telescope was top-of-the-line, and since it was a perfect late spring evening, he easily found Rigel, the brightest star of Orion, and then traced the Horsehead Nebula, located at the east end of the belt. Dalton got lost for the next half hour, enjoying the clarity of the sky and allowing his thoughts to wander like a shooting star.
Working around Raven was a constant, taunting reminder of how much he wanted her. Oh, sure, he’d always wanted to drag her into his bed, from the moment he first saw her. He recognized lust and figured he’d be able to scratch his itch or he’d move on. But this was becoming more than he’d originally planned. Their conversation was more satisfying than some of his sexual encounters. The way she both challenged and teased him was better than physical foreplay. She made him ache to know more and plumb those secrets that glittered in her eyes.
He respected her limits and her pronouncement that she only wanted a serious relationship. But her body screamed a different song, one he longed to play. He’d never felt so attuned to a woman’s physical and mental presence. Sure, he’d experienced similar feelings on a lighter scale, especially during some more serious affairs, but not on this level.
Not like if he didn’t kiss her, he’d die.
His brothers’ teasing words simmered in his brain again. They were right, of course. He never held back when he wanted a woman. Problem was, nothing ever lasted past a few nights. Maybe a week or two.
Maybe his brothers had been right all along. Maybe he didn’t have the emotional capacity to love like they did. Maybe he’d killed all those feelings after his mother died and he realized she’d been having an affair. Maybe all those awful fights and cold silences between his parents had sunk into his DNA and he was stunted. Who got to his age without falling in love at least once?
Something had broken with his mother’s death. He’d always known his emotions were a bit fragile—like he was born with a vulnerable part he needed to protect at all costs. That was the primary reason he avoided love. His gut screamed that he wasn’t the type to handle it and would eventually either screw it up or blow it up. Why invest everything in an ideal that didn’t last?
The thoughts pounded and caused a slight headache. No, he was just living his life. Why on earth would he want to settle down to eventually get trapped in a hurtful relationship? It could lead to a disaster. His way was easier. No one got hurt because he refused to allow deeper feelings to blossom before it was too late.
But this thing with Raven needed to be explored. She haunted him, and until he delved deeper into the mystery, he wouldn’t be able to move on.
Maybe she just needed more time with him. Maybe if he opened up a bit to her probing, she’d trust him a little more. He’d take it slow and easy, making sure he respected the boundaries of their working relationship. For now. Denying themselves this type of connection due to an imaginary future husband she hadn’t yet met was ridiculous.
He didn’t give up easy, and he wanted Raven. Not only in his bed, but he wanted her laugh, her banter, her passion. Wanted to see those inky eyes fog up when he touched her. When he made her come.
His trained eye settled on the gorgeous curve of the constellation Andromeda, named for the mythical princess caught in chains.
Yeah, he had just the lure he needed to get her on his turf.
Dalton smiled, turned from his telescope, and went inside.
Raven didn’t trust him.
Dalton had been extra sugary sweet to her this morning. Needing some distance after their last intimate conversation, she’d headed back to her house to finish up some work but finally lost the battle around lunchtime. She was too curious about his progress and the possibility of learning more from him.
He was whistling in tune to “What Makes You Beautiful” and varnishing the bar. She was amazed at how different the pub looked already. The old, sad wood was gone, and now the bar was shiny and new, with a gorgeous dark polish and rich undertones. The gold had been ripped off and replaced with bronze rope foot rails and handrails. The scratched glass top was gone, replaced with a smooth finish that complemented the varying shades of brick from the back wall.
He kept up a stream of casual chatter as she made her way around the pub, doing some light cleaning and prepping supplies. It was as if he’d lulled her into a state of relaxation for a reason, and her radar was pinging quite loudly with a warning that he had some master plan ready to reveal.
Or maybe not. She was also paranoid, another element that would make a terrible impression on a future husband. Experience had taught her trust was earned, not given.
Yeah, she was just a real fun package, wasn’t she?
“When are you thinking of doing the party?” he asked, brushing slow, steady strokes with the grain.
“Depends on when all the work will be finished. I’m sure you don’t just whip up customized stuff in twenty-four hours or do ready-made.”
He gave a mock shudder. “I keep telling clients Target is not a store to buy actual furniture as an investment. Then they have that junk place on Marble Street that boasts clearance prices for wood. Last consult I had, the guy showed me his entertainment console he bought there. It had cracked and split in two pieces, and it wasn’t even real wood.”
“Hey, I love Target.”
“So do I, but for soap, socks, or chips. Not furniture.” He shot her a suspicious look. “You don’t have that stuff in your apartment, do you?”
She grinned. “No. I happen to enjoy antiques. And I live in a house. The log cabin down the road.”
He stopped brushing and stared. “No way. The one with the huge front porch on that nice lot? With all the gorgeous maple? I bet the inside is amazing.”
“You don’t give tours, do you?”
His question was all innocence, but his blue eyes were all danger. She kept her tone light. “Hadn’t thought of selling tickets, but if My Place doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll give it a shot.”
“I’ll be first in line.”
“Bet you will.”
His lip twitched in a half smirk. “I’ll be done by the time your interview is scheduled.”
“So I’ll throw the party the week after.”
“Am I invited?”
“You did the work. I’ll be happy to proudly advertise it to all the customers, including Good Food and Fine Spirits magazine. You’ll probably get a ton of extra work from the deal.”
“Sounds good. I’ll need to swing back to finish the polishing. I’ll start working on the stools while the bar dries.”
“Oh, and I need you to come with me someplace later.”