Raven nodded. “Okay, maybe you’ll have better luck. I’m worried about him.”
“Us men are complicated creatures. Sometimes we need some space to work things out.”
He winked, then strode out to the back, tight denim cupping his perfect ass.
Amanda gave a dreamy sigh. “He’s so hot.”
Raven sighed with her. “Yeah, I know.”
“So is he, like, your boyfriend?”
The question was simple coming from Amanda’s lips. Of course, she was a college student, boy crazy, and looked at the world with a touch of shiny-eyed optimism. Raven wished for one moment she could just say yes. Dalton would be her boyfriend, and they’d go on dates together, sleep together, and head toward something beautiful and maybe permanent.
But it wasn’t that simple. And even if they managed to get past their family history, he didn’t want anything longer than a few beautiful weeks or months.
“No,” she said with a touch of regret.
“Too bad. You guys seem to fit together.”
Amanda disappeared, leaving Raven in surprised silence.
Dalton followed the trail of smoke outside. Al leaned against the back wall in his usual spot, puffing away. His white uniform was splattered with grease, one of his sneakers had a hole in the side, and his clean-shaven head shone in the trickle of moonlight. He stared into the darkness like he was planning to kick someone’s ass.
Dalton thanked God that someone wasn’t him.
“Hey, Al. What’s up?”
The cook didn’t answer. His fingers tightened around the cigarette.
Dalton kept talking as if they were having a two-way conversation. “Amanda’s worried about you. So is Raven. Seems you’re not your usual sunny, chatty self.”
That got him a grunt.
“Funny, this attitude started after Raven tangled with the gunman. Would’ve thought you’d be a bit more protective instead of shutting her out. Would’ve thought you’d be threatening to kill that asshole if you ever laid eyes on him.”
That did it.
Al spun around, temper glinting in his eyes. With a low growl, he practically spit out the words. “She doesn’t need me around here to protect her! She proved that to all of us, didn’t she? You know, I asked her if she wanted me to stay and work the kitchen on poker night, but she insisted she didn’t need me. And she was right. Stupid to think an ex-con could do anything around here to help.”
Whoa. The rage shaking Al’s body was mixed with a frustration Dalton recognized well. Al hadn’t been there to help Raven. In his own code of chivalry, he’d failed her, and he couldn’t stand living with it.
“Yeah, you’re right.” Dalton leaned back against the wall and shook his head. “That’s why I’m not going to see her anymore.”
Al narrowed his gaze with suspicion. “What are you talking about?”
“You know how crazy I’ve been about her, right? She was finally giving me a chance, but then after she proved she didn’t need me, I realized I wasn’t good for her. Let’s be honest. It’s humiliating for me to admit she kicked some jacked-up criminal around with her bare hands. What if I had been there? Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to save her as well as she did herself.”
“That’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard!” Al yelled. “I told you she’s not looking for some guy to take care of her or fight her battles. She can do that on her own! She needs someone to stand beside her. Support her.”
“Huh. You’re saying just because she takes care of herself doesn’t mean she has no need for me in her life? Or you? Right?”
Al jerked back, shock on his face. The psychological twist seemed to hit him like an uppercut, and he looked disgusted with himself for not catching on. “Son of a bitch. I’m embarrassed for falling for that crap. My situation is not the same. I look out for my crew, and I let them down. Pisses me off.” Al threw down his cigarette. The butt glowed bright in the dark.
Dalton nodded. Oh, yeah, he got it. Being a guy who wanted to protect the women he cared about was hard today. Al had probably seen a lot in prison. If the gunman had hurt Raven, he wouldn’t have forgiven himself.
Neither would Dalton.
But he’d learned the hard way there were no guarantees when you loved someone. One day they just got in a car and never came back. One day they just went to work and confronted an asshole with a gun.
A shudder wracked his body. He understood Al better than he’d thought. And that was why it was so much better not to get involved forever. He couldn’t imagine not being able to take care of a wife, or a child. Caleb was the bravest in the crew, choosing to let Morgan into his life when the future was unknown.
Yet Raven proved she walked her own path, on her own terms. Al was right when he said she couldn’t be with a man who coddled or tried to shield her. She just wanted a man to accompany her on the journey.
The idea that it wouldn’t be him burned through his gut like acid, rotting it away.
“Pissed me off, too,” Dalton offered. “I came in after the police were here. Felt helpless, and that’s not an emotion I do well with.” He shook his head, trapped in his own thoughts. “I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is, those women inside care about you, and if you happened to be there, you would’ve given your life for her. I think she knows that already. No need to punish her for our own insecurities. Right?”
Al rubbed his head and shot him a look. “What are you, anyway? A woodworker who moonlights as a shrink? Or a wannabe talk show host?”
“Just a guy who wants to go back in and drink my Raging Bitch in peace, Al.”
The cook laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re all right.”
“I’m glad you didn’t take no for an answer. You two just fit together.”
Uneasiness trickled down his spine, but he ignored it, walking back in with Al. He headed to the bar, took his place on the stool to the far left, and lifted a finger. “Can I have a beer, please?”
She had the bottle in front of him, uncapped and frosty cold, in a matter of seconds. Damn, she was amazing. “How’d it go?”
Al took that moment to pop his head out of the kitchen. “Raven! I need more sweet potatoes, rosemary, bacon, and olive oil. And I want the hickory-smoked bacon this time, none of that fancy crap they try to sell you. Understand?”
She grinned. “Understood, Al.”
He disappeared again, and she practically clapped her hands with happiness. “He’s yelling at me again! You fixed it!”
Dalton laughed. What the hell was he going to do with her? He was certifiably nuts about this woman. “Yeah, I told you, he just needed some space.”
“He’s still smoking, though.”
“Give him time, sweetheart.”
“Can we go back to your place tonight?”
Her eyes widened. It was a bold proposition, dragging their intense sex sessions from the bar to her house. It meant they were consciously making a choice to sleep with each other, rather than chalking it up to one impulsive encounter. His palms sweat, and his gut lurched with nausea. She could say no. Then he’d try to persuade her, but he wanted her to want him as crazily as he did her. He wanted to stretch her out on the mattress where she slept, strip her, worship her, and make her fall apart. He wanted his head next to hers on the pillow. He wanted to wake up in the morning and drink her godawful coffee and see her with the morning light shining on her skin.
He tried not to break into a happy, sloppy, joyous grin. “Cool.”
He drank his beer, content.
She was nervous.
The door closed behind her, and Raven wished she had two dogs bounding out to greet her, distracting them both from the outcome of their decision.
To sleep together. In her bed. Deliberately.
She should’ve said no. She should’ve grabbed the opportunity to tell him about their parents and stop this before it got too messy. One time on the bar was impulse. Bringing him to her home was planning.