He wanted to try.
“I don’t want us to hurt each other,” she said softly.
He jerked back. Emotion poured through him. He ached to reach out and take her hand, pull her into his embrace just for a few minutes. But he hadn’t earned the right, and she needed to feel she could trust his intention for friendship.
“I don’t, either. So let’s not.”
She ducked her head. He waited as she struggled with something he didn’t understand. Finally she met his gaze and nodded. “Okay. Let’s try.”
Joy flooded through him. He clinked his cup to hers. “To trying. To friendship. And to kicking Xavier’s ass.”
She laughed. “You wanna continue training with me?”
“Maybe. As much as I hated him, I’ve never been pushed like that. It made me reach a higher level.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel. I carried around a lot of anger before. Most of us do; I’m not special. I tried plenty of ways to get rid of it, but most of them were pretty negative. These past few years, I feel like I’ve really grown up. Almost as if I needed to self-destruct in order to get here. Does that sound stupid?”
Her admission humbled him. It took him a while before he could smother his emotions about how well she had spoken to his own faults. The crap with his brothers. Kissing Cal’s fiancée in an effort to prove his brother was marrying the wrong woman. The endless affairs with women he didn’t care about, and fights with his father, and the way he’d run off with a big fuck-you, determined to never lose his pride, though he’d lost his brothers along the way.
“Not stupid at all. Sounds like my own life. I thought I was happy before, you know? But I wasn’t even close.”
He pondered the question. “I wanted to open my own business and prove my father was wrong for denying me my voice. See, we all had certain roles in the business back when my mom was alive. I wanted to expand the woodworking separately and target customized clients, but my dad always believed I was a fuckup. Sometimes I think he enjoyed making me feel useless. He was closest to Cal, who was the most like him. I was closest to my mother. When she died, I got lost, and everything at home fell apart. I made some mistakes and broke away from my brothers.”
She didn’t try to jump in with a soothing comment or pretend to know how he felt. She just nodded. Listened. Waited.
“When I bolted to California, I thought I was the man. I ran my own business, did what I wanted, and was finally away from my family. But looking back, I realize it was empty. I was trying to prove myself to everybody, but there was no one there. I had left it all back home. Then my father passed, and I came back here. My brothers and I began rebuilding something that was important once, and I realized this was where I belonged. And I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone but myself. Suddenly I wasn’t empty anymore.”
Her gaze was transfixed on his, as if he held the answers to all the questions she had. “You said you weren’t happy before.” She paused. “Are you now?”
He smiled, enjoying the softer way she looked at him. “I’m getting closer.”
A current of understanding passed between them. He rarely opened up to women, choosing to keep his private life and past to himself. But with Raven, the words spilled from his lips in a natural manner that didn’t seem to spook him.
At least not yet.
She finished her smoothie and rose. “I gotta go.”
“Will you talk to me tomorrow?”
She rolled her eyes, but her attitude had lost the edge and distance he’d hated. “Yes, I’ll talk to you. You have my stools hostage.”
“Good to know. If I keep to the schedule, I’ll be able to tear out the booths this weekend, and you can reopen My Place. I can do the rest after hours or work on the back deck.”
“Sounds good.” She paused. “See ya.”
He grinned like an idiot and didn’t even care. He headed out shortly after, whistling while he drove home. At least they’d reached a compromise. It was going to be hell keeping his hands off her, but he wanted her company. Besides, friendship could lead to something more down the road, when she’d worked out her issues. He just prayed Mr. Right didn’t walk into the bar and claim her first.
The light on the porch was on, and both his brothers’ vehicles were parked in the drive. He walked inside and found them in the kitchen, platters of cold turkey, bread, and a bunch of condiments spilled over the counter. Suddenly the shake didn’t seem enough.
He tried to grab a platter. “Hey, where’d you get the turkey?”
Cal slapped his hand back. “Me first. Morgan picked it up for us. She’s out with Sydney.”
Tristan finished stacking the meat on his bread, adding the perfect measured amount of mayo. He’d set aside his potato salad on a separate plate. The guy was a bit OCD when it came to his food. Mom had told them that as a toddler, Tristan used to scream when different foods touched on his plate. He denied it, of course.
“Haven’t seen you in a bit. How are things going?” Tristan asked.
The leftover turkey was finally passed to him. He’d always gotten screwed at dinner because he was the youngest. By the time it was his turn, most of the food was gone.
The memory of his mother hiding pieces of garlic bread and whipping them out just for him made him smile. It was still a pang, but he liked to think of the good things, rather than the ending.
Anything but the ending.
“Been busy working on the job at My Place. I’ll be able to do the cabinetry you need for the Cummingses’ place. Did they decide on the materials?”
Cal shoved his sandwich in his mouth and chewed with joy. “Walnut. They decided to make the cabinets larger, though, which threw off all our figures. Brady was pissed, but not as much as me.”
Dalton shook his head. “They signed off on the final contract.”
Tristan gave a snort. Even rude noises sounded elegant coming from the middle Pierce brother. He still wore his three-piece suit and sharp red tie, and smelled like he’d just showered and shaved instead of spending the day in the office or running around to sites. Unbelievable. “Problem is we want them to be completely satisfied. As long as they know it’ll cost more, we’re smart to accommodate the additions or changes.”
“Spoken like a true company man.” Dalton took a seat on a bar stool and stretched his legs out. “I like to give them as few choices as possible because I always know best.”
“Spoken like a true egotist,” Tristan said.
“Don’t forget to get Sydney the invoices for the job at My Place—that’s a nice profit.”
“Sure. I told Raven she could pay in installments, though.”
Tristan and Cal stared at him. Ah, crap, here we go. “You allowed her to finance?” Tristan asked in astonishment.
Cal raised his voice. “First off, you know that’s the number one rule we rarely break. Once we deliver the product, we get the money. Lesser companies have gone bankrupt. I swear, Dalton, keep your fucking love life out of Pierce Brothers.”
Dalton half rose from the stool and choked on his temper. “Don’t treat me like some lackey rather than a full partner,” he shot back. “Think I’d offer that if I thought for one second she wouldn’t pay? I pushed her for more work, knowing I could get both the money and the marketing from her bar. She’s too damn proud to miss a payment, and already said she’d pay it off early.”
Slamming his ass back on the stool, he glared at both of them. “Now, don’t piss me off any more than you have.”
Silence descended. He brooded, ate his turkey, and the tension finally calmed.
“Fine. I’m sorry,” Cal offered. Tristan nodded in agreement.
“Let’s forget it,” Dalton said. He fought fiercely with his brothers, but in the past year there had been one unwritten rule they all abided by: no more grudges. Their tempers might burn hot, but they forgave easily. It worked for all of them.
“How’s Raven?” Cal asked. “Morgan really wants her to come to dinner. I think she has a girl crush. She’s always saying Raven this or Raven that. It may be the cocktails. Or the tat.”