“I’d eat your cookies any time.”
His naughty wink had the desired effect and lightened the mood. She shook her head in exasperation, but her eyes twinkled. “You’re incorrigible.”
“Back to my original question. Your tat. It’s beautiful.”
She reached up and touched her arm. His nerve endings rippled with the craving to intermingle his fingers with hers, stroke her smooth skin, trace the lines of the ink. “Thanks.”
“But it’s brutal. A bit raw. Not your usual peace sign or rose. A sword reeks of symbolism. Why’d you pick it?”
The grief and flare of anger in her eyes made him pause. For one moment she was unguarded, and he delved deep and found a seething array of secrets. A caveman instinct rose up and strangled him with the need to protect this woman, to tear through each barrier until she was open and vulnerable to him. Shocked to the core at his response, he gripped the neck of his beer bottle in a stranglehold. What the hell was happening to him? It was like he was becoming someone he didn’t recognize when he was around her, yet he wanted more.
“I had it done as a reminder on my twenty-first birthday.”
The truth shimmered around her, but he was still too far away. “A reminder of what?”
A second dragged by. A minute. Two.
“Ma’am, would you like any more cocktails?” The waiter chirped brightly, looking at her half-full glasses. “The bartender was quite impressed with your knowledge and wanted feedback on the champagne cocktail. How did you like it?”
Dalton cursed the man’s appearance as Raven visibly pulled back from the brink of confessing something important. Justice? What could have possibly happened in her past to make her ink her arm with a symbol of justice?
“Thank you, I enjoyed them. Please tell the bartender the cocktail would pop better if he used a higher quality brut champagne and Angostura bitters instead of Peychaud’s. I’ll take the bill now, please.”
She avoided his gaze as she took out her purse and fished for her credit card. Like he’d ever let her pay. “I don’t mean to rush,” she said, “but I think we’d better get going. It’s getting late.”
“Of course. I’ll be right back—bathroom.”
On his way, he grabbed the waiter and paid the bill. The whole time, the same word repeated over and over in his head, leading him toward a mystery he intended to solve.
Stupid. She’d been so stupid to tell him about the tat.
He swung onto a dead-end road, driving past the main office for Pierce Brothers Construction, and kept going. Not only had he paid the dinner bill, he’d snatched a piece of personal information she had never shared before, except with her best friend, Izzy, and Aunt Penny.
Then why had she told him?
Because something deep inside had sprung open, wanting the connection. She was beginning to realize the danger of getting close to Dalton Pierce. She could handle his gorgeous looks and killer charm. She could fight his dimples, and his droolworthy, rock-hard body, and his wicked sense of humor. She could even deal with his intelligence and woodworking skill.
What really demolished her was his vulnerability and the way he had given her his own truth. Those peacock-blue eyes flared with such raw emotion, she ached to put her hand in his and comfort him.
“Our family house is right down the road from the office,” he said.
Massive oak and maple trees lined the roadway, bending forth as if to greet them. Following the winding lane upward, they passed through elaborate gates and the house came into full view.
Raven gasped. She couldn’t help it.
House her ass. This was a mansion.
She sucked at identifying architectural styles, but it didn’t matter. Struck mute by the huge multitiered home, she took in the fat columns, the wraparound porch, and a mix of colored stone, terra-cotta, and blinding white paint. Arched windows and a massive carved door that would rival the White House’s gave off a stuffy dignity that was softened by vivid green trees and bushes and neon yellow and pink flowers hugging the pathways and lining the porch. She caught a hint of turquoise water from the infinity pool. Thick woods circled the structure as if hiding it from the world. “How big is the property?”
“Twenty acres, give or take.” He pulled up and cut the engine. “What do you think?”
Her eyes were still bugging out. Yeah. The Pierces were very, very rich. A tiny spark of resentment flamed within her. Not about the money. Raven didn’t care that her father had been poor, because they’d lived big and been relatively happy. No, it was just that Diane hadn’t wanted for anything, yet she’d pulled Raven’s father into her crazy plans and ruined everything.
They got out of the car and she stared up at the house. “It’s beautiful. Who lives here?”
“My brothers, me, and Morgan. She and Cal will be moving out once their house is built, but the place is so big, I rarely see Tristan. Want a tour?”
Yes. “No, thank you. Can you just show me the item you have for me?”
He studied her face, catching her stiff tone. She forced a polite smile and tried to avoid his gaze. Being here was more challenging than she’d thought. She felt as if she was betraying her father, or on enemy property. “Sure. It’s in the shed down the path. A bit of a walk. We can go this way and—oh, no. Stay still. Just don’t move.”
Raven froze. “What’s the matter?” she whispered. “You’re freaking me out. A bug? I’m not afraid of bugs.”
“Worse.” His voice took on a hard, disciplined tone. “Stay. I mean it, guys. I said stay.”
She swiveled her head slowly around and came face-to-face with two giant dogs.
They were covered in mud. Mottled brown, with perked up ears and chocolate eyes, they watched her and Dalton with a shaking excitement that told her they were about to launch. The tails began to wag furiously in rhythm. Damn, they were almost as tall as Dalton. Large canine teeth flashed in twin doggy smiles, and saliva dripped in small rivers to pool at their feet.
“Balin. Gandalf. Stay. Or I swear I’ll put you back in military doggy school and this time I won’t rescue you.”
His firm tone only increased their shaking. She sensed the battle was already lost.
“I mean it! I am not joking around—stay right there—oh, shit!”
Dalton tried to protect her by stepping in front, but the dogs moved like a flash, flying through the air with abandon and knocking into them so hard they both staggered back. Laughter ripped from her throat as they licked her furiously, bumping hard against her legs and acting as if they were Chihuahuas rather than canine giants. Dalton tugged at their collars to drag them off, but she finally caught her breath and managed to stand straight. Oh, they were adorable, but playtime was over. Time to teach them to obey.
She whipped out the command. “Gandalf, Balin, down!”
Without hesitation, they slammed their asses to the ground. They managed to be still enough that she nodded and smiled. “Good doggies. Good boys,” she crooned. “You just need some discipline, don’t you?” One began to rise again, and she firmed her voice. “I said down.”
He plunked back down.
Dalton’s mouth fell open. He blinked in astonishment. “Wait a minute. How did you do that?”
She patted their heads. They wriggled with pleasure but managed to keep their butts on the ground. “Huh? Oh, they just need to know who the alpha is. They’re still young, right? How old?”
“Oh, they should be listening better by now. Are they yours?”
“Cal’s, but we’ve all claimed them now. What do you mean alpha? Cal has always been firm with them. They flunked out of obedience school twice. We got blacklisted. They never listen.”
“Which one is this?” She pointed to the dog on the right. He had mud in his ears and a slightly bigger snout than the other one.
“Balin, down.” She lifted her hand and made the gesture to drop. “Lay down.”