But her feet were still glued to the porch, unable to gather the courage to ring the bell.
“Is the bell not working? Sometimes that happens, you can just walk right in,” a strange voice said behind her, with a touch of a Latin accent.
She spun around. A dark-haired man grinned at her. He held a bottle of wine and a white box tied with string, which looked like it was from the bakery. He was average height, with large, soot-colored eyes and gorgeous brown skin. “Oh, I’m sorry, I just got here. Didn’t try the bell yet. I’m Raven.”
“Nice to meet you, Raven. I’m Brady. I’m the architect at Pierce Brothers.”
She shook his hand, liking his firm grip, and hoisted up her case of Raging Bitch. “Guess we should go in.”
He gave a deep laugh and pushed the door open. “I better go first. Don’t want the crazy mutts to topple you over with their enthusiasm. You’re okay with dogs, right?”
“Yes, I love them.”
“Good, don’t be worried, they should—Balin, Gandalf, down!”
Raven tried not to laugh at the elegant man ahead of her flailing his arms to stave off the licking tongues and scrabbling paws. Shifting her weight, she stepped from behind Brady and snapped her voice.
“Balin. Gandalf. Sit.”
Joy flitting over their faces, they stopped midflight and slammed their asses to the floor, wriggling madly but staying put.
Brady’s mouth dropped open. “You did not just do that. Oh, my God, are you from the Animal Planet channel? Did you come to finally train these goofballs?”
Dalton strode into the room, dressed in khaki shorts and a hunter-green T-shirt with the Pierce Brothers logo, with freshly damp hair and bare feet. Those delicious biceps flexed, as if tempting her to take a bite. Dear Lord, Magic Mike strippers had nothing on the man, who had the finest arms in the land. “Raven is a dog whisperer,” he said, stopping in front of her to press a firm kiss to her lips. He greeted Brady and took the case of beer from her arms, his blue eyes twinkling with pleasure. “She’s the only one they seem to listen to.”
Raven dropped to her knees, watching the dogs shake with the exertion of being good. “Good boys,” she crooned, rubbing their heads and bellies. “Such good, good boys.”
“Does it work for men, too?” Morgan asked, trailing behind Dalton.
Brady groaned. “Men are easy. It’s women who have so many layers they make onions seem one-dimensional.”
“Kind of like Shrek, huh?” Raven tossed out.
Morgan burst into laughter at Brady’s look. “Watch out, Mr. Dominant. You may have finally met the woman to put you in your place.”
Brady scoffed. “Since Raven is definitely not my woman, she’s completely safe. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take care of my lover, and I can do that much better if I set the rules. Women don’t seem to know what they want anymore. Is it wrong to want a relationship with no stress, complications, or dishonesty?”
Raven shared a look with Morgan. Fascinating. Though his name didn’t fit his obvious Latino heritage, Brady seemed quite focused on a submissive type of woman. She rose to her feet. “Well, since I’m nobody’s woman but my own, I’d have to wish you luck on your hunt for the snipe.”
Brady frowned. “What’s a snipe?”
“The mysterious fictional creature from the movie Up.”
Morgan giggled. “I love Up! I watched it with Sydney’s daughter, Becca. I cried.”
Cal strode into the room with Tristan. “She did. Also cried at The Lion King, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur. We don’t allow Disney movies in this house any longer if anyone dies.”
Brady shook his head. “See, I’m confused already by this change of topic. I think it’s time for a beer.”
“I think you’re right,” Cal agreed, linking his fingers with Morgan’s.
“Make that wine and I agree,” Tristan piped up.
“Let’s head out to the deck. I set it up for cocktails and apps,” Morgan said, leading the way past the massive kitchen and out the back. Raven tried not to gape. The foyer was impressive enough, with a magnificent circular staircase and vaulted ceilings. But when her gaze registered the rich teak deck with a view of the infinity pool, white latticed gazebo, gardens, and sprawl of woods, she kind of lost her voice.
The blinding colors of sky, grass, woods, and pool enwrapped guests in another world. A partial roof shielded the deck from any odd weather, but the open portion was huge, containing a hand-painted mosaic table to fit at least twenty people, with apple-green cushioned chairs. Carved benches in teak matched the deck, while brightly colored geraniums, poppies, and tulips burst from planters. She felt wrapped up in an old-world fantasy of elegance and glamour. Music played softly in the background. A fire pit, grill, and smoker lay to the right. A full bar made of mixed stones took up one corner, and she watched Tristan stride over to pour himself a glass of red.
“How are you, Raven?” Tristan asked. “Do you prefer red or white? Or can I make you a cocktail?”
She smiled. “White wine is perfect. And I’m doing well.”
Morgan handed Tristan a bottle. “Here, let’s try the Chardonnay. I just got it from the cellar.”
Raven soaked up the view, enjoying the warm breeze scented sweetly with flowers. “Thank you so much for inviting me to dinner.”
“We’ve been wanting to have you here for a long time,” Morgan said. “But since we heard about the break-in, I’ve been sick with worry. How are you handling it?”
Raven had been asked about the encounter numerous times, occasionally with a touch of concern, but most people seemed greedy for details only to gossip. Not Morgan. Other than Dalton, Raven hadn’t really told anyone how the scene affected her. “I got spooked a bit,” she admitted. “Especially during closing, but damned if I was going to let him take my safe haven from me. Dalton was nice enough to stay with me a couple of nights. It helped.”
Dalton grabbed her hand and squeezed. She noticed the deliberate looks and nudges from his brothers, as if they’d never seen him with a woman before. “You were really brave,” Morgan said. “I think I would’ve frozen up. When I first met Gandalf and Balin and thought they were Cujos about to tear me to pieces, I couldn’t even scream.”
Cal laughed. “Trust me, I think you sensed those two beasts would love you to death. I’ve never known you to back off from fear. You tackled me head-on, didn’t you, princess?”
She rolled her eyes and handed Raven a floral-painted wineglass. “I was never afraid of you, Charming. Just irritated.”
He kissed her, and Tristan groaned. “Dudes, can’t you keep your hands off each other for a minute?”
“No,” Cal said.
“I saw the way you played poker,” Raven commented. “She played like a badass. If you have balls in poker, you would’ve definitely taken that guy down.”
Morgan puffed up with pride, and Cal grinned.
Brady grabbed a Raging Bitch and settled into one of the Adirondack chairs near the fire pit. “I heard you took him out with two kicks.”
“Two kicks and a punch,” she said.
“I talked to Xavier this week. He said he’s never seen such a talented student. When he heard what you did, the man couldn’t speak for a while. I think he was actually tearing up. Ever think about training for American Ninja Warrior?”
Raven laughed and took a sip of wine. Nice. Crisp and dry with a touch of peach and lemon. Long finish. “God, no. I just want to run my bar without assholes bothering me.”
“Then what are you doing here with Dalton?” Tristan asked, deadpan.
Dalton glowered. “Funny. As always.”
Raven tried not to smile at the sibling jabs. She’d always wished for a sister or brother, and enjoyed watching them interact. Morgan seemed a core part of the family, as if she’d been with Cal longer than a year. A pang surprised her. She’d never craved belonging somewhere after her father died, because she hadn’t believed it was possible to replace what she had.