“I need to prep and do a bunch of paperwork. Around nine. What about you?”

His phone beeped as if in answer. He grabbed it from the table and read the text. “Have to head to the office, then work on the deck. Listen, Morgan wants you to come to dinner tomorrow night. And so do I.”

She hesitated, her gaze jerking away. He pushed down the sliver of pain, sensing she didn’t want to be with his family. Usually he was the one dodging offers of parental dinners and sibling meet-ups. He didn’t like the uncertainty and hope twisting inside him. “I’m not sure I can make it.”

Dalton turned his back on her. Damn, it hurt. Maybe she just wanted him for sex. “I understand. I don’t want to push. I know you may not feel the same way I do, so—”

“Dalton, I want to go.” She grabbed his arm and made him face her. Misery etched the features on her face. “I just—I just need to talk to you about a few things. Important things.”

He sensed the breakup speech hovering in the air. For the very first time in his life, he gave in to panic. “No, you’re right, we should talk. I want to talk. But I have to get going, and I’d like to continue this later.”

She chewed on her lip, seemingly hesitant about his quick escape. “Okay. Tonight?”

“Yes, tonight. Will you think about coming to dinner, though? Morgan’s been worried about you since the break-in, and she considers you a friend.”

“Okay,” she said again. “I’ll come to dinner. But we’ll talk tonight?”

“Absolutely.” In record time, he threw on his shirt and shoes, took one last sip of coffee, and kissed her. “I’ll call you later.”

He headed out the door, running away from the shattering truth: the woman he was falling in love with just wasn’t in love with him.

Raven watched him flee out the front door and slumped into a kitchen chair.

What was she going to do?

He’d wrung orgasm after orgasm from her body last night. She’d cried his name in the dark hours, but it had become so much more than physical. Her heart sang in ecstasy, and a deep peace seeped into her blood when he held her. It was as if every dark road she’d explored, every journey she’d embarked on in an effort to erase the pain of her loss had finally led her to the answer she sought.

Dalton Pierce.

She sipped her coffee, still reeling from his confession. Diane Pierce didn’t seem like a selfish woman who had wanted to hurt her father. Unless Dalton was blind to the true characteristics of his mother. Would Raven be betraying her father’s memory by falling in love with Dalton Pierce?

Tears stung her eyes. She looked over at the covered paintings and envisioned her father sitting with his art brushes, looking at something she couldn’t see yet, a peaceful smile on his face. A conversation from long ago drifted in her memory like puffs of smoke, half-real, half-imaginary.

“Papa, I want to play.”

“Not yet, Bella. I’m working now.”

Frustrated at his lack of attention, she couldn’t understand the other world he seemed caught in, someplace over the rainbow where she wasn’t allowed to go. “But there’s nothing there. What are you staring at?”

He turned to her, his dark eyes full of a creative zeal and joy he always exuded when he was around his easel. She loved art and enjoyed painting with her father, but she never experienced the drive and consistent need to create. “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. Believe in things you may not see, but sense.”

She looked hard at the white canvas, but nothing came but blankness. “I still don’t see anything,” she muttered. “And I don’t sense anything, either.”

He laughed, pulling her into his arms for a quick hug. “That’s because you’re not looking hard enough. If you’re very quiet inside your mind, inside your heart, answers will come. You need to be brave enough to follow them, though. Others may tell you it’s impossible, but if you believe in yourself, you’ll get the help you need, from this world or the next.”

Papa liked to talk about mystical things like angels and heaven, faith and hope. She enjoyed hearing his quiet, soothing voice, but now she just wanted to see a picture like he did. “Maybe I don’t have what you do, Papa.”

“You’re not supposed to. I see it through art and color and pictures. You may see it a different way. There is no right or wrong way, just what makes you happy.”

She scrunched up her face and thought real hard. “Maybe I’m meant to be a rock star?”

He never mocked her. Another reason why she loved him so fiercely. “Maybe. If music is your expression, you’ll find answers through song.”

“What happens when you find your way?”

He turned back to the easel, already slipping away again into that magic place he loved to visit. This time she swore not to get jealous, because it made him happy. “You treasure it. You protect it. Whether it’s love or art or song. Don’t ever be afraid, Bella. It may scare you, or not make sense. It may seem ridiculous or impossible or wrong. But if it’s your road to follow, take it.”

That was the end of his lecture. He smiled again, patted her head, and picked up his brush, listening only to his muse.

Raven walked over to the covered paintings. She stared at the canvas for a while, then slowly pulled it off. Propping up the paintings side by side, she gazed at the visual feast before her.

The first was of her as a child. Hair flying, head flung back, she was running through a mystical field of high grass. The blast of blue sky and streaks of yellow-gold caught the light. The expression on her face was one of pure joy, capturing the natural thirst for freedom and adventure contained within an innocent heart. A heart not yet broken by the world. Somehow he’d possessed the skill to show it all in her face.

The second was a starry night. Matching chairs faced away from the onlooker, and two people sat side by side, pinkies touching, staring up at the stars. Not seeing their faces made it more powerful. She caught the memory of the night Dalton first kissed her, their fingers just touching, the stars streaking overhead as if daring them to take a chance. Raven studied the painting, seeing what her father saw, and then moved to the last one.

A woman. Turned to the side, staring out a window, shrouded in partial shadow. The graceful arc of nose and slanted jaw; the fall of her golden hair over her shoulders; the clasped hands in front, as if she was trying to make an important decision. Grief and sadness touched her face with such delicacy, Raven moved closer, as if wanting to run her fingers over the woman’s profile and catch her hidden tears.

This one had a title. Sometimes if an image spoke to her father, he’d name it, saying it was an impulse that he committed to once the painting was finished. The scrawl of words stopped her heart.

The Road Not Taken . . .

She took her time, letting her father’s art wash over her. She never had found the talent she always craved, but she believed her father would say mixing cocktails was its own art. She wondered what he’d think about Dalton the man—not the son of Diane Pierce, but of his own standing.

Her father had been right. Dalton had carved his way inside her heart, and she needed to follow the path put in front of her. It didn’t make logical sense. He terrified her on many levels. Yet he fulfilled her in ways that should be fictional—a romantic love story of film or book only a lucky few were able to experience.

But if it’s your road to follow, take it.

She had no other choice.

Raven went back to the kitchen and fished out the hammer and nails from the junk drawer.

Then she hung up her father’s paintings.

Chapter twenty-three

Raven stood before the massive carved door, feeling like she was going to be sick.

The plan had been simple: tell Dalton about their shared past and try to work things out. Instead, he’d texted her about some building emergency with Cal and Morgan’s house and said he’d pick her up for dinner with his family.

She didn’t want to tell him over the phone, so she’d insisted she’d drive over and meet him there. Raven came up with over a dozen excuses to cancel, but the thought of Dalton’s pained face stopped her each time. This was important to him, and somehow it had become important to her, too. It was time to get to know the Pierce brothers on a deeper basis and see the place where Diane had made her home. She intended to invite him back to her house after dinner and confess the whole story then.