“Yep. Raven’s happy.”
“She said that?”
“Did she talk about the bar? Or the stools? Or me?”
“Want me to pass her a note? She can check a box: ‘I like you’ or ‘I don’t like you.’ ”
A flush crept up his cheeks. “Forget it.”
A hearty laugh, then a cough. “Just fucking with ya, man. I know you have the hots for her. Funny thing is, she seems to like you, too, but you piss her off. Not sure what that’s about.”
“Me either. Maybe you can put in a good word?”
Al snorted. “Nope. Don’t know you well enough, buddy.”
Al read the paper and Dalton worked in silence. After a few minutes he asked, “You work for Raven long?”
“Almost two years now. You know she hired me out of prison?”
Dalton looked up. His respect for Raven hitched up a notch. “No, I didn’t.”
“Yeah, she gave me a chance right away. Especially when she heard I’d attended the CIA.”
“In for something bad?”
“Losing my temper and trying to protect someone I once loved.”
Dalton concentrated on the sanding. “Sounds square to me.”
“Yeah, it was square. Raven’s good people. She took a chance on me, and I’ll never forget it.”
“Only reason you’re still here is you’re good at your job and she respects you. Raven strikes me as rewarding people who are worthy.”
Al grunted. “Maybe.”
Dalton hid a smile. Yeah, Al was a softy underneath all that girth and muscle. “Doesn’t hurt to have some protection around here, too.”
Al squinted in confusion. “Protection?”
“Yeah. You’re the only male in the restaurant. Figured you watch out for the women if there’s trouble. Right?”
The man gave a deep laugh. Dalton frowned. “You have no idea, do you? I’m not needed. Trust me, I’ll kick anyone’s ass that calls for it, but Raven handles everything herself.”
A touch of annoyance hit him. The guy let Raven deal with trouble on her own? Dalton had been in his fair share of bar fights, and none of them were pretty. The idea of her getting hurt made him step forward, glaring at the cook. “I thought you were a decent guy. She’s here alone at night and early mornings. Probably deals with a number of assholes who figure she comes with their orders. And you don’t even help her out?”
Al’s laugh got louder. “I’ve seen that woman almost break a guy’s wrist who tried to grab her ass. She hauls out the drunkards with her own hands and keeps a clean house.”
“How? I mean, she told me she does some boxing and karate, and works out with a personal trainer, but she never claimed to be an expert.”
“She trains at the gym with some guy, Xavier, three times a week. That’s where she was going today. Raven is fierce. I’ve seen her take down men twice her size with one damn punch, and they don’t even see her coming. Trust me, she can take care of herself, and she likes doing it.”
“Xavier from American Ninja Warrior trains her? Holy shit.”
Al nodded. “Yep. Holy shit is right. Let me give you a golden piece of advice if you’re still trying to date her. She’s not the type of woman you protect, or coddle, or smother. If you want that, go get a dog instead, or some pretty, pampered Southern princess.”
He made a mental note to introduce Al to Morgan. She’d wipe away any of his preconceptions of Southern hothouse flowers, and Dalton would enjoy watching it. But for now, he was still reeling from another punch.
The list of Raven’s awe-inspiring traits kept growing. She was the most fascinating woman he’d ever met, and he kept craving more. More knowledge. More time. More . . . touch.
The problem was trying to convince her to want the same.
“Thanks for the tip, Al.”
The chef raised his hand in acknowledgment and went back to reading.
Dalton liked to frequent the gym now and then for weight training, but he preferred outdoor activities. Running, hiking, swimming, anything that put his feet on the ground and offered fresh rather than recycled air. His architect, Brady, was a real gym rat and had mentioned his friendship with Xavier. Brady had even attended the filming of American Ninja Warrior to root him on. Xavier didn’t take on just any client, and he was picky as hell about who he trained.
Another fascinating piece of the woman fell into place.
She might not talk to him at her bar, but maybe she’d talk to him somewhere else.
Maybe it was time to tweak his schedule.
Raven retied her Nike sneakers, grabbed her water bottle, and headed toward the second-floor workout room. She was looking forward to beating the punching bag and dreamed of a sparring partner she could take down hard. It had been a while since her emotions had teetered on such a razor-sharp edge between civil and primitive, but that damn kiss was beginning to piss her off.
She kept thinking about it. Before she fell asleep. When she woke up in the morning. Driving in the Jeep. Serving cocktails.
Why couldn’t she just forget?
Because it was the best kiss she’d ever had, and she hated to admit it. She wasn’t a hormonal teenager, yet she was acting like one. In her dreams, they hadn’t stopped at a kiss. Each night, behind her closed lids, she ripped off his clothes and feasted on his golden skin, sank her teeth into his muscles, climbed on top of him and rode him with a searing intensity that tumbled her into orgasm in a matter of seconds. In her dreams, he held her and stroked back her hair, combining a primitive sexual ferocity with a shattering tenderness that destroyed her.
She’d been brutal these past few days about keeping her distance. Of course, he’d almost charmed his way past her defenses the other day, before Al had saved her. Being in the same space as him was too challenging, and she didn’t trust her ever-weakening body.
So she’d changed her plan of attack. Instead of her usual snarky, teasing behavior, she’d been polite. Formal. She stayed in the kitchen when he was working, and made sure to schedule back-to-back meetings so they were never alone. After the work was finished and she did her interview, she wouldn’t have to deal with her confused emotions any longer. Sure, she’d serve him drinks, but she wouldn’t have to interact with him or his brothers. She’d scrap the entire stupid plan of learning about their shared past and move on with her life.
Xavier waited for her with a welcoming smile. “You have that look in your eyes, sweet pea.”
“Like you’re pissed off and ready to make someone pay.”
She grinned back and set her water bottle down on the bench. The punching bag made her practically drool with anticipation. A good workout always cleaned out her head and drained her of all the negative emotions. It was the best form of therapy she’d ever invested in. “Maybe I am. Whatcha got for me?”
“We’re doing drills.”
She couldn’t help the groan. “I hate drills! I’d rather work on my uppercuts and kicks.”
“Tough shit. We’re doing drills, and you’re gonna smile through every set or I’ll give you extra.”
Oh, she despised Xavier when he was in beast mode. Her body trembled slightly at the thought of what lay ahead. Raven gritted her teeth and forced a grisly smile. “Good enough for you?”
His laughter rang out as he shook his head. “You’re such a brat. We have company today. He’s at your level of fitness, so I’ve decided to combine the sessions. You cool with that?”
“As long as he holds his own.”
“Here he is. Hey, man, good to see you again.”
“I appreciate you fitting me in last minute.”
Raven froze. No. No, no, no, no.
She turned around slowly. Then almost swallowed her tongue.
It was him. Dalton. And he was dressed in clothes that should be illegal, even if it was the gym. The gray tank with large cutouts barely covered him, showing off the corded lengths of gleaming muscles. He stretched, lifting the tank, and revealed the ultimate eight-pack. He actually towered over Xavier, but his thighs and calves were still thick and powerful, dusted with golden hair. He wore his lion mane in a man bun that showed off his sharp cheekbones and scruff-covered jaw and highlighted his dimples, which were currently flashing at her in an innocent gesture that reeked of duplicity.