Raven dragged in a lungful of air. “The Pierce brothers. Their mother was Diane Pierce—the woman who ran off with Papa and got him killed.”

Her aunt jerked back with shock. “No, that’s impossible,” she murmured. “He’s one of the sons?”

“Yes, the youngest. There’s Cal, the oldest, and Tristan, and Dalton. They came into my bar on the anniversary of Papa’s death. I had no idea, they were in pain and got drunk on JD, and when I heard their last name, everything finally fell into place. I told them to get out—I never wanted to see them again.”

“Oh, my darling girl, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you call me?”

“I needed to process it. I was doing so well. I’d gotten through the anger and revenge fantasies, and suddenly my past was sitting in my damn bar. Then Dalton ended up doing restoration on my restaurant so I could get ready for the feature in Good Food and Fine Spirits I told you about. For those few weeks, we ended up getting closer, which only got more confusing. I started having the nightmare again. I decided it was an opportunity to find out more about the Pierce brothers. About the mother.”

Her aunt’s eyes filled with sympathy. “You can’t go back there, Raven,” she said quietly. “It almost destroyed you. What do you expect to find by using Dalton?”

“I don’t know! I thought I’d prove Diane Pierce was using Papa, and that he never planned to run away with her. I figured I’d end up disliking Dalton and the rest of them and confirm what I’ve been feeling about them for years—that their mother was a spoiled, rich, manipulative woman who cared nothing about her children.”

“Is that what you found?”

Raven glared. “No. No! So far, from the stories Dalton’s told me, she sounds—nice. Like she cared about her boys. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t use Papa to get away from her husband. Dalton said his father was brutal. Maybe he hit her? Abused her? Maybe she needed Papa to help her escape?”

Aunt Penny rose and sat beside her, taking her hands. “Raven, do you see what you’re doing? Torturing yourself about things we won’t ever know. Are you sleeping with Dalton?”

She nodded, miserable. “Yes. I tried to fight it, but I was weak. But how can I do this, Aunt Penny? I’m betraying Papa, and I have these feelings I’ve never experienced before, which is ridiculous because he’s a womanizer who will probably get bored in record time and leave me behind. Then I won’t even have the truth!”

Her aunt gave a long sigh. “You need to tell Dalton the truth, especially now that you slept together. It’s not fair to him.”

“What about the way his family treated Papa?” she asked. “They said horrible things. About how he just wanted money and tricked her into running away. Stores stopped selling his paintings because they ruined his reputation with no regard for the truth. I had no power back then, and I let them smear our name. I stood at his graveside and vowed revenge. Don’t I deserve my turn at justice?”

“To do what, child? Hurt back? Justice doesn’t bring back your father. Those boys were just like you—vulnerable and feeling betrayed. They were young and their beloved mother was killed. They struck out, but they were probably led by Christian Pierce. Listen to me, Raven. What happened to your father is a tragedy, but there were . . . things you didn’t know about him. Things you didn’t need to hear back then.”

“What things?”

Her aunt ducked her head for a minute, considering. “He was completely devoted to you, like no other father I’d ever seen. He seemed to have no interest in bringing any female into his life after your mother passed, and was completely content. Of course, I was traveling a lot back then, but I remember when he called me in London. He said he’d met someone. Someone important. He said this woman had the capacity to change his existence, but he had to move carefully. He never talked like that before. There was a depth of emotion in his voice he only used for two people. You and your mother.”

“You think it was her? Diane Pierce?”

“Yes, I do. I suspected then that this woman was married, but he wouldn’t answer any of my questions.”

The bitterness still brewed heavy in her gut. “He left me, Aunt Penny. He left me for this woman I didn’t even know. I came home from school and he was gone forever. I thought we had something special, but he proved I wasn’t even important enough to say good-bye to.”

Her aunt snapped her voice like a whip. “Now, you listen to me, young lady. I’ve told you this over and over. Your father called me to stay with you for a few days. He wouldn’t tell me why, but I know in my heart and soul that man would’ve never left you. You were his whole life. He was coming back for you, and it’s time you finally believe this, because it’s the only truth that makes sense.”

Her mind spun. She didn’t know what to believe any longer. Her aunt had never told her Diane Pierce might have been mentioned by her father. What was she going to do?

Aunt Penny’s words flared inside her like a small flame, gaining heat. Maybe she hadn’t been ready to hope he’d been coming back. Maybe it had been easier, in a way, to feel betrayed and blame Diane Pierce for everything falling apart. For his death. For his leaving her alone.

Her aunt softened her voice. “How do you feel about Dalton as a man? Not as a Pierce brother?”

She met her aunt’s steady gaze. “There’s this power between us. A connection I always feel when he’s in my space. Like I’m drawn to him, no matter how much I try to fight it or ignore it.”

Her face grew serious. “Destiny.”

“I don’t believe in destiny. Neither do you!”

Aunt Penny tapped her finger against her red lips. Her giant amethyst cocktail ring flashed in the light. “Of course I do. Your father did—he was a big believer in love and fate. It never happened to me, so it was something I couldn’t personally confirm.”

As if she heard Raven’s thoughts, Aunt Penny stared at her with a touch of fierceness. “You’re going to tell Dalton the truth. You’re going to talk it through. Then see what there is between the two of you. Love is rarer than you think, Raven, and I believe there are different levels. This connection you speak of is too important to just throw away. You need to figure out what it is, or you’ll regret letting it go.”

The realization hit her full force. She was falling for Dalton, even within this short period of time. Her aunt was right—she owed them both a fresh start and the truth. Would their pasts shatter any type of hope for a future? Or was a future even possible between two people who blamed each other for their pain?

Raven didn’t know anymore. But instead of playing endless games, it was time to find out.

“I’ll tell him.”

“Good. Now, I was hoping I could pull you away for a night. There’s a production in previews on Broadway starring a close friend. I’d love to take you into the city. Can you close the bar tonight?”

Normally, nothing was important enough to close for a night, but since it was midweek, and she was still a bit shaken, she agreed. Besides, she hadn’t seen her aunt in way too long. “Let me make some calls. I’ll post on Facebook and I may need to go into the police station today for follow-up. I could use a night off.”

Aunt Penny broke into a smile. “Excellent. You need to pack an overnight bag. We’ll eat at Carmine’s tonight. You need pasta. It’s comforting.”

Raven hugged her aunt, deciding to focus on the evening ahead.

Chapter nineteen

Dalton headed into the Pierce Brothers headquarters and shoved his phone back in his pocket. He had no right to be disappointed. He was glad Raven was going to spend time with her aunt. Even happier she’d decided to close My Place and take off for a fun evening in Manhattan. She needed some time to process the break-in and ease back into her schedule. One night away was perfect.

What bothered him was he wasn’t the one with her.

He dragged his palms over his face, groaning. What was up with him? He was terrified she was going to announce that the experiment was over, thank him for the sex, and move on her way toward finding a husband. Yes, he wanted her back in his bed. But last night, just holding her with the stars overhead, he’d been at peace. Happier than he’d been for a long time.