“I’m a thirsty man, darlin’. Got a tall, cool one for me?”
She already knew the man attached to the voice but couldn’t believe the punch of heat between them when she turned. Raven had dated a lot of men. Slept with a lot, too. She knew about dating, flirting, and teasing and wasn’t scared of anything. She knew about dirty, delicious, mind-blowing sex. She knew about mornings after and speedy Batman disappearances in the ugly dawn light. But this man wiped all her expertise away with one bat of those dark lashes or a tug of those full lips.
A man she’d vowed to hate and the one man she was crazy attracted to.
A man who held the key to a past she didn’t want to unlock.
Raven turned and studied him. Cocky, as always. Charming, as usual. He was a visual feast for the female sex and knew it. Tawny, gold-streaked strands, worn long, framed his face. He liked to tie them back or put them in a man bun, which should look ridiculous but only made him that much hotter ’cause he didn’t care. Peacock-blue eyes so bright and so deep, if she stared too long she’d never come back up for air. Square jaw with sexy scruff to keep him from looking too pretty, and actual dimples when he smiled. The sun had turned his skin tan and a bit rough. His hands were calloused, and he always smelled like varnish, lemon, and a faint hint of Hershey’s chocolate. Sawdust clung to his black T-shirt, and his jeans had holes in the knees.
Dalton was the ultimate Achilles’ heel for any walking, breathing female who’d sworn off men. Thank goodness he’d never be able to bust through her barriers. They were so thick and tall, he’d get bashed in the head each and every time he tried.
Yet the oddest shimmer of connection always sparked to life when they were close. As if the universe was playing the ultimate joke, forcing her to be attracted to the one man she could never be with.
The past surged up like a tsunami and dragged her under.
Eight months ago, on the anniversary of her father’s death, Dalton had walked into her bar to join his brothers. She’d served him a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and watched them all get trashed. She’d been in a shit mood, trying to wrestle the bad memories. His deprecating charm, even when drunk off his ass, had made her smile. He’d hit on her all evening, and though she gave him a hard time, she kept sneaking glances at him. There’d been an odd pull from her gut, almost as if her body or subconscious mind recognized him. She’d even played with the idea of giving in that night, desperate to bury her own memories in earth-shattering sex and the comfort of a man’s arms.
Then she’d heard his last name. Pierce. Shocked to the core, frozen in ice, Raven realized his mother was the woman who’d taken her father away. The woman who had gotten him killed in a freak car accident. The woman from her nightmare.
It all happened so fast; she’d told him to get the hell out of her bar, and then he was gone. The pieces suddenly fit together in a lightbulb moment. The brothers were getting drunk because it was the day Diane Pierce was killed. God, she’d felt dirty realizing she’d served them in her bar as they commemorated that fateful day. She swore she’d never allow them back into My Place. Her tat had burned her skin, reminding her of the vow for revenge at her father’s funeral. She hated all the brothers for ruining her father’s reputation and spinning the story to protect their deceitful mother. The Pierces were a powerful family, with the biggest construction firm in the Northeast, and she’d been . . . nothing. An artist’s daughter. Poor but happy. Until they yanked it all away from her without a thought.
Suddenly her father’s displays of artwork in the local shops were stripped down and returned to her because they were unsellable. His reputation as a visionary faded under the sting of terms such as con artist and homewrecker. Gazes were suddenly trained on her with harsh judgment, and whispers rose to her ears in a sickening wave. The place she had once called home turned into a prison, even though Aunt Penny tried hard to comfort and help. Dropping out of the community college, Raven had fled to leave the pain behind, searching desperately for some type of comfort in the expanse of the world beyond.
How many times had she wanted to confront Dalton about the truth? Her father had called her Bella, and she doubted Dalton paid any attention to the remnants of destruction his family had wreaked on a young girl left behind. But each time she opened her mouth to tell him the truth, she stopped. She liked having the secret to herself. She liked being able to study him and his brothers as if they were a key to a puzzle she’d been trying to solve for years. The question still haunted her, no matter how hard she tried to forget.
Why had her father left with Diane Pierce?
Maybe the Pierce brothers knew the truth. If they did, she doubted Dalton would just tell her. No, they wanted to protect their mother, so they’d lie. It’d be easier to find out more if she got closer to them and encouraged them to trust her. Like any good bartender.
So she’d let them back into her bar. She paid attention to their conversations and kept her ears sharp in regard to any mention of their parents or the accident. Raven knew Dalton was her best shot at getting most of the information. He was constantly flirting, and she could easily lead him down the road she needed.
If only she weren’t attracted to him.
Dalton had been pushing harder these past few months, demanding more attention. He was flirty, charming, and regularly asked her out. In response, she’d been mean, rude, and regularly said no.
The real problem lay in the treacherous weakness of her body.
Somehow, some way, he lit her up from the inside out. She became more alive around him, whether she was insulting him, teasing him, or serving him drinks. She made up stupid excuses to check on him or hang near his seat. Over the past months, he’d begun to erode her stubbornness with an infinite charm and patience, until it became harder and harder to truly dislike him.
Raven really, really wanted to dislike him.
“I’m flattered to be the target of your attention, but I’m still waiting for my drink.”
His teasing, wicked words launched her out of her reverie and made her realize she’d been staring at him this whole time. Fighting a blush, she cocked her hip, narrowed her gaze, and studied him. Deliberately. He looked delighted to have her attention, whether or not it was negative.
“Tall and cool, huh?” She treated him to a dazzling smile, which made his mouth drop open a bit in pure surprise. It was rare that she was nice to him, and a smile was almost an extinct gesture from her. Satisfaction flashed at her ability to throw him off balance, but it was chased with a feminine breathiness she hated. Why did he have to be so damn good-looking? She was twenty-seven, for God’s sake. Way past weak-kneed ridiculousness, yet this man got her each time. “I have a better proposition for you. Something I just whipped up that’ll rock your world.”
“Sounds great. I’d love to try it.”
“You got it.” She grabbed a glass and went to the mini refrigerator where she kept samples of batches she’d been experimenting with. The giggling group of females taking up the far end of the bar was celebrating an engagement. She’d given them her latest creation and they’d already ordered a second round. Raven bet it would be perfect for the man across from her who was wreaking havoc on her concentration.
She quickly ground some mint, then added it along with simple syrup, a touch of aromatic bitters, and the bright pink mixture to a shaker filled with ice. After a few hard shakes, she strained the liquid into a glass, stuck a froufrou paper umbrella in it, and slid the drink across the bar.
He blinked. “Looks a bit feminine, doesn’t it?”
She knew he preferred IPAs, especially Raging Bitch, but she waited him out to see if he’d take the challenge. Already the large, obnoxious pink drink had snagged the attention of some college students, who grinned and snickered under their breath. Raven knew that what a man drank at a bar was sacred. A woman looked for a man who knew how to hold his whiskey, appreciate a good draft beer, and enjoy a cocktail now and then.
As long as it wasn’t pink.
“You’re secure in your manhood, right?”
She waited for a blustery agreement, but he was smarter than she’d originally thought. His lip twitched and he leaned over, snagging her with that wicked blue gaze, refusing to let go. She fought the urge to fidget under his hot stare, figuring he’d only last a second or two. Instead, he took his time, not afraid to find what he sought, holding his gaze in a patient way that gave her tummy a tug of arousal.