Balin slid to the ground. Gandalf remained sitting.
“Good dog. Good Balin. Stay.” She turned her attention to Gandalf and made the same gesture and command. The second dog slid down to the ground, panting with happiness. “Good Gandalf. Stay.”
Raven smiled and turned to Dalton. His mouth was still hanging open like a guppy’s. “They want to listen, but it’s hard for them. Cal probably spoiled them as puppies and they never learned,” she said.
“Yeah, he found them chained to a tree in the woods. They almost didn’t survive.”
“Poor little guys. Makes sense.”
“Raven? How the hell did you do that?”
She shrugged. “My father used to call me the dog whisperer. Not sure. Something in my voice, maybe? I’ve just always been able to get them to listen.”
“I am so turned on right now.”
She couldn’t help the laugh that broke out. He was such an intriguing mix of sexy, brainy, and funny as hell. “Then Cesar Millan must be orgasmic to you.”
“He would if I swung that way.”
They stared at each other, smiling. Why did she feel so comfortable with this man? He had the amazing ability to calm her usual tightly wound energy and sharpness. As if he softened her some way.
She cleared her throat and broke the spell. “Do you want them to come with us?”
The dogs gave slight matching whimpers, as if they understood the conversation. “Sure. It’s getting dark and the woods are scary at night.”
“I’m not scared of the bogeyman, Dalton.”
“I’m talking about me.”
She shook her head, released the dogs, and watched them bound happily around her and Dalton. The sun was sinking over the horizon, scattering bursts of orange fire, shadowing the woods. The rich scents of earth and wood rose up to cloak them. Their feet were soundless over the pine-needled ground, other than the occasional crack of a twig or the dogs’ panting.
His fingers brushed hers. Lingered. Their pinkies intertwined. A simmer of heat hummed between them, reminding her that touching him was dangerous and not part of the plan. If he would’ve grasped her hand or made a sudden move, it would’ve been easy to pull away. But this seemed so natural, his touch just a whisper, giving her the option to break contact if she wished as they walked together through the woods.
Raven didn’t pull away.
A large shed came into view. A simple structure, with no fancy windows or trim. Suspicion formed as he tugged open the lock on the red double doors and began slowly opening them.
The large space was filled with stuff. Tables, chairs, mirrors, clocks, cushions, artwork, rugs, and headboards. It was garage sale and antique heaven. She let out a breath as she stood in the doorway, taking in the glorious clutter that would happily fill hours of adventurous exploring.
When she’d lived with her father, they’d go up to the attic together and rummage through her mother’s things. She still remembered the musty scent of her dresses and scarves, the thrill of trying on the shoes and piling herself with jewelry. They’d flip through photo albums and she’d read while her father painted, the creaky floorboards and dusty windows an enchanted palace to her younger self. She’d felt sorry for girls who dreamed about being trapped in towers and rescued by princes, because her father was already her prince, and her tower was an old attic full of wonderful memories and magic where she wanted to live forever.
Raven swallowed back the raw emotion. Their fingers drifted apart.
“What is all this stuff?”
He cocked out a hip and studied the space. “Everything. When we do a project, there’s always a mishmash that doesn’t get used, so we put it in here. We just call it the shed. Morgan snagged a lot of pieces from here when she was designing the Rosenthals’ home, and Tristan loves to pillage it when he’s flipping houses. I like to grab pieces of wood or restore an antique I know will fit a certain person.”
“It’s amazing. This place is like a treasure trove.”
“I found something specifically for My Place. After you talked about instituting a poker night, I remembered we had something I know you’ll want.”
The dogs seemed to know the shed well enough that they didn’t need another foray. They bounded off on their own adventure, the sound of their paws fading away.
Dalton took a few steps inside, maneuvering down a path he’d walked before, and dug out two large game tables. Propping them up against the wall, he wiped off the dust and a few cobwebs and stepped back. “What do you think?” he asked.
She sank to her knees, examining the worn wood. The tables had six sides, with torn, faded red leather in the center. Built-in ashtrays and chip holders were carved into the surfaces. Elegant curved legs held each table with the ageless grace of an aristocrat who stubbornly held her dignity. Pockmarks were scattered throughout the finish, but the wood was magnificent.
“What type of wood?” she asked.
“Oak. I’d keep the original wood, but bring back its glory. A light varnish, I think, and nothing to hide the grain. I could replace the leather, too. Tell me you don’t want that cheap green felt.”
“I don’t want the cheap green felt.”
He practically shimmered with joy. “Good. The legs are solid, just need a bit of sanding. What do you think?”
Excitement nipped at her nerves. She tried to be casual. “I’ll take them.”
He chuckled and propped his arm against the door. “Thought you’d want them.”
She straightened up and studied him. The lure of a good old-fashioned barter sang in her blood. “What do you want?”
His lips twitched with delight. He scratched his head, pretending to consider. “Hmm, that’s hard to say. How bad you want them?”
“Not that bad.”
“Ouch.” His blue eyes sparkled. “What do you want to give me?”
She tapped her foot and considered. “A hundred each.”
“Fifty each, and I restore them. Shouldn’t take long to get them into shape.”
Raven hated owing people favors, and being pitied. Didn’t he know the rules of a deal? Dammit, she could hold her own. Her jaw tightened. “That’s not enough money. I can pay.”
His face softened, but he didn’t look like he was humoring her. “Oh, you’ll pay. That’s just for the ownership, darlin’. We didn’t decide on the price for the work of refinishing them.”
Crap, she’d lost her temper too soon and tipped her hand. Worse, he looked completely delighted at throwing her off. She backed up and regrouped. “Oh, well then you’re already asking for too much,” she said coolly. “I could get Jack the Stripper to do it for practically nothing.”
He narrowed his gaze. “That guy is an insult to my profession. Not only his name but the cheap way he restores. Don’t belittle me or yourself by mentioning him.”
Now she was the one delighted by his irritation. Raven shrugged. “Fine. I’m just making my point not to think you can highball me. I have options.”
“Not if you want my tables,” he said.
Her lips pursed in a fake pout. “Fine. How much?”
He stroked his jaw with deliberate provocation. “It’ll take three more days of work to get them perfectly in shape. I can work weekends, which’ll cost you extra.”
She tried not to fume.
“Two hundred for the restoration.”
“Ridiculous. Highway robbery. Maybe I’ll call Jack and see if he can get his hands on some other game tables.”
He emitted a low growl in warning. “One seventy-five.”
“One twenty-five and I get them before the interview.”
“One thirty,” she shot back.
Her breath came in short bursts from the high of their banter. The warm air spun around her like wispy cotton, lending to the intimate atmosphere. God, why did she feel on the verge of some sexual, delicious combustion? The man was dangerous as hell. She needed to stay away from him.
He nodded. “Good. I can load them in my truck tomorrow and bring them over before you open.”