He just wished his brothers would stop shutting him out of the big decisions.
Dalton stored his tools carefully and straightened up his workshop. The large shedlike structure looked plain on the outside, but inside, it was his own personal paradise. Set back by the woods on the family mansion’s property, it was completely private, surrounded by thick brush like a hidden fairy-tale house no one could find. Shelves covered the walls and were filled with various tools and scrap pieces. Each piece told a particular story Dalton treasured. His saw collection was legendary, and if anyone got too close, he actually felt a growl rumble from his chest. He might not be possessive of women, but grubby fingers better stay the hell away from his power tools.
Band saws, circular saws, and panel saws were his livelihood. Over the years, he’d added to his collection of lathes, planers, sanders, jointers, and routers. His machines were top-of-the-line and lovingly cared for. An extension of his fingers, the right tool could make or break a job. A large multifunction worktable sat at the center of the room, with numerous drawers neatly labeled and tagged. He knew exactly how many drill bits lay within each compartment, and their sizes.
Cal had once “borrowed” a bit and forgotten to return it. After Dalton “mistakenly” shipped all the wood for a project to the wrong place in retaliation, his precious shed had never been touched again.
His favorite music was always at hand with his Amazon Echo; its digital voice assistant, Alexa, had lately become his favorite girlfriend of all time.
Dalton finished clearing his work space and glanced at his phone. He thought of his plans for the evening, which included picking up the new varnish for the Ryans and little else. Caleb and Morgan were going out. Tristan was away for a few days on a business trip. Maybe he’d call that pretty little blonde, Avery, and take her to dinner? His lackluster response told him it wouldn’t be a good move. On their last date, he’d noticed she’d gotten that moony look in her blue eyes and had casually mentioned her sister coming to visit. Like she wanted him to meet her.
He fought back a shudder. Meeting any type of family was a danger. Connections were made, and women got false ideas of where a couple of nights out could lead. Dalton hated hurting anyone, so he made sure the rules were laid out plainly for the women he dated so they knew where he stood. Unfortunately, too much time together equaled greater expectations.
That’s when it was time to move on.
His gut burned with a strange hollowness that had never been there before. What he needed was a project all for himself. Too often he was doing cabinetry and decks for the specific houses being built, but they weren’t his choices. Back in California, he’d been able to pick and choose the jobs he was passionate about. He was starting to feel like a factory worker rather than a woodworking artist. Sure, he knew it was part of being in the family business, and he prided himself on delivering pristine work. Though his brothers bitched about him not meeting his clients’ demands, they grudgingly admitted that 99 percent of the time, the clients agreed Dalton was right and loved the outcome.
Yes, that was it. He’d keep his attention cocked for a special project that really meant something to him. That would take care of the itch and soothe the restless beast within.
He grabbed his shirt, took one last look around, and shut the door behind him.
Raven breathed hard, sweat pouring down her back, wet strands of hair falling in her eyes. She pushed it all down and focused, gritting her teeth against the pain of strained muscles and threatening exhaustion.
She bent down to connect with more power, then launched herself through the air.
Her foot hit the target dead center. Without losing her balance, she shifted her weight and delivered the crushing left hook, sending the dummy toppling to the ground.
“Nice work.” The voice was full of respect and the teasing edge that solidified Xavier’s status as her favorite trainer. “For a girl.”
She wiped her stinging eyes and began to unlace her boxing gloves. “Cute. How about you take me on and I show you how to scream like a girl?”
He flashed her a grin. White teeth blinded her, drawing a few more onlookers their way. With his rippling muscles and gorgeous coffee-bean skin, Xavier was not only one of the most sought-after trainers in the state but one of the most eligible bachelors in Harrington. He’d been training her for almost a year now, and they’d formed a solid connection as friends. Sure, they’d flirted with the idea of trying to be more, but it was obvious to both of them they didn’t experience the chemistry needed to take it to the next level. His past was still a bit of a mystery. He’d come on the scene as a contestant for American Ninja Warrior, gone viral by getting close to the end, then dropped out to train clients at the local gym.
Raven could tell there was more to the story, but she never asked. Raven had learned to respect people’s secrets. After all, he never probed for hers.
Xavier retrieved the toppled dummy and shook his head. “No, thanks. I’ve got enough women in my life kicking my ass. I don’t need a new one.”
She laughed and grabbed the water he handed her. “At least you’re smart.”
“Been trying to tell you, sugar. The fight is usually won in the first few moments. Keep your mind clear to see all angles of the situation. Then decide whether to attack or retreat. Neither one is the wrong choice.”
“Yes, my enlightened one.” Her words teased him back, but Raven knew each piece of advice he gave her was crucial. Since she’d started training in boxing and karate, she’d learned to tap into parts of herself that could scare her.
Unconsciously, her fingers touched the tattoo on her shoulder in memory. The sword tipped with blood reminded her every day of her promise. But over the past year, she’d been tugged in a new direction, and she wasn’t sure which would finally win out. She wondered when she’d finally have to make the choice.
“I’ll see you Wednesday?” he asked.
She shook herself out of her trance. “Definitely. Hey, when are you going to swing by for a drink? I’ll mix up a specialty cocktail just for you.”
“They already have one named after me. It’s called the Orgasm.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll make you a better one. It’s called Overrated.”
His laughter followed her down the short hall toward the locker room. It was easy to banter with Xavier. She admired his male beauty but didn’t crave being in his bed. From her past, she’d learned sex could be a dangerous tool that destroyed relationships, even the ones that were the most precious. She had no intention of going down that bumpy road. No, when she was ready, she’d look for a man who was mature, loving, and kind. She was done with all the bad boys and serial bedders who had no interest in a real relationship.
Raven showered and changed into her street clothes. The humidity hit her as she opened the door, wrapping its cloak around her head and trying to smother her. She’d heard people in Arizona called the heat dry, but here in Connecticut, it was a wretched, clogged invasion that drove people indoors to their beloved air conditioners. And it was only June.
Her designer sneakers were black and silver with a high wedge, but they were comfortable enough to accommodate her long legs and rapid pace without a hitch. She jumped into her Jeep and drove the short distance to the demanding lover in her life that greedily took all her time and energy.
Her soul practically sighed with contentment when she pulled into the graveled lot. The restaurant was simple on the outside. Dark wood and a big front porch. The lighted sign was hitched a bit askew and slanted toward the right. Once she unlocked the main doors with the dead bolt, another set of old saloon-style doors came into view, giving the place a fun feel. She left the main doors ajar when the bar was open, but for now, she locked them again behind her and stepped into her pub.
An automatic smile curved her lips. The smells of lemony polish, lingering garlic and grease, and a hint of old wood and must rose to her nostrils in a symphony. Her gaze took in the high raftered ceilings with thick beams, noting the small circle of water damage that would eventually force her to replace the roof. She’d need to invest before winter. Scarred plank floors and large booths with red vinyl seating gave off a comfortable aura. She made sure there was plenty of activity for the regular bar crowd—two large television screens, a pool table, a dartboard, and a working jukebox screamed old school. Shelves held various knickknacks like bobbleheads, sports memorabilia, and the occasional antique mirror. Signs hung on the walls, shouting familiar catchphrases such as RULE NUMBER 1: THE BARTENDER IS ALWAYS RIGHT. RULE NUMBER 2: IF THE BARTENDER IS WRONG, GO BACK TO RULE NUMBER 1. Yosemite Sam held a smoking pistol with a MOST WANTED placard over his head. A vintage Cheers sign—WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME—was one of her favorites.