She refocused on the conversation. “Looks like Sydney’s running late,” Tristan said, swiping a cocktail shrimp from the iced platter. A bucket of oysters sat among mouthwatering treasures like crusty French bread with brie and figs, mini spinach quiches, and a tray of meatballs that looked perfectly browned. Raven loaded up a plate of food and fell into culinary heaven.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. She can’t come,” Morgan said.
He frowned. “Why? Is Becca okay?”
“Yes, but Sydney came down with the flu. Poor thing sounded terrible. I told her I’d run over there after dinner, but she insisted she was fine. Said she’d put Becca to bed early and just sleep it off.”
In seconds, Tristan’s easygoing features grew hard. His voice came out clipped. “And you believed her? Sydney is stubborn, she never wants to bother anyone. She’s not going to be able to take care of a five-year-old if she can’t even move. I’m going over there.”
Morgan’s mouth dropped open. “Tristan, I don’t think that’s a good idea, she probably wants to just stay in bed and sleep. We can check on her later.”
Tristan ignored her. He put his glass on the bar and shot his cuffs. Even relaxing before dinner, he looked like he could easily attend a society function in his fitted charcoal suit. “I’ll stop at Marty’s Deli and get her some chicken soup.”
Cal shook his head. “Dude, I don’t think it’s a good idea to surprise a woman when she’s sick.”
“I don’t care. She needs someone to take care of her. God knows, she’s not good at taking care of herself. Good to see you, Raven. Don’t bother saving me dinner, Morgan, I’ll grab something on the way.”
He strode out.
Silence fell. Cal threw up his hands. “Let him go. He’s just as stubborn as Sydney.”
“Umm, are they friends or something?” Raven asked.
“Or something,” Dalton answered. “They dated years back, but it ended badly. Not sure why.”
Brady popped a meatball into his mouth. “He’s still got it bad for her,” he announced. “I hate being in the office with those two. Tension is so thick, you wish they’d just jump each other.”
Morgan gasped. “Seriously? I always suspected there was something between them.”
Dalton groaned. “Can we not talk about Tristan and Sydney banging, please? It hurts my head.”
Raven laughed. “Why? Did you have a crush on her when you were young?”
Cal waved his hand in the air. “Hell no. Tristan was always possessive of Sydney. Besides, sleeping with my fiancée was bad enough—Dalton didn’t need another problem on his head. We ready to eat?”
Raven choked on her wine. “What did you say?”
“I didn’t sleep with her, man! I’ve told you over and over!”
“Sorry, I know. Habit.”
Morgan patted Dalton’s shoulder. “He knows you were doing it for his own good, Dalton, don’t listen to him. He’s just teasing. Okay, everyone, let’s head to the dining room.”
Raven turned her watering gaze to the man beside her. “You slept with your brother’s fiancée?” she practically shrieked.
Dalton sighed. “No. It’s a long story. I promise to tell you later. Let’s go eat.”
He grabbed her glass of wine and her hand and led her inside.
Hours later, Raven had to admit Southern cooking was her new favorite thing. Morgan had made biscuits with gravy, shrimp with vegetables, grits, and some sausage dish Raven kept scooping up portions of. Conversation flowed along with wine, and she relaxed into the easygoing atmosphere in the Pierce household.
The dining room reminded her of the foyer—elegant, aristocratic, and formal. A dripping crystal chandelier set off a mahogany table with high-backed chairs, and an array of expensive, antique furniture in various sizes and wood finishes. Even the wall hangings held a flavor of class, with scenic watercolors, tapestries, and beveled mirrors. The details were extraordinary, like the crystal knobs on the doors, the floor-to-ceiling windows, the hand-carved moldings, and the lush velvet drapes.
Raven clearly saw the value in each carefully picked detail, especially since the mansion was probably the spec house used to retain clients. She wished she had more information about Christian Pierce and the type of man he was. Dalton had said many times he was hard, brutal, and held to his own vision of the company. Had he been a controlling husband? Had he made Diane so unhappy she’d clung to Matthew Hawthorne to save her?
There were no answers, just more questions. She hoped later tonight, when she shared the information with Dalton, they’d be able to talk and maybe figure more things out.
With dinner finished, they all pitched in and began clearing the table.
The kitchen felt so different from the rest of the house. The cabinetry was warm, and the room seemed set up for comfort, from the marble islands and high countertops to the cushioned chairs and brightly colored accents that brought a joyful zest to the classic surroundings. There was a distinct feminine touch to the kitchen that was lacking in the foyer and the living room she’d glimpsed. Had this been Diane’s haven? The men chattered easily, loading the dishwasher without fuss and pouring a final round of cocktails.
She finally said yes to a limited line of apricot brandy, enjoying the feel of the snifter as she warmed it in her hands. Morgan suddenly appeared before her, a worried glint in her blue eyes. “Can I talk to you?”
Raven stilled. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, but I have to ask you something and you have to promise to tell me the truth. It’s serious.”
Raven tried to look cool, but her heart hammered against her chest and her palms sweat. Did Morgan know her secret somehow? Would she tell Dalton before Raven got the chance? “Sure,” she said with fake calm. “What is it?”
“Not here. Let’s go in the living room. Guys, give me and Raven a minute alone, please.”
Dalton, Cal, and Tristan stilled. Then slowly turned. Cal was the one who finally spoke. Why did they look a touch panicked? “Umm, princess. Maybe you can talk to Raven tomorrow about girl stuff. I need some help putting out the pie.”
“You know how to put out pie, Cal. I won’t be long.”
Her stony glare halted the words on his lips. He finally nodded, looking a bit miserable, and turned back to the dishes. What the hell was going on?
She followed Morgan, noting the vaulted ceilings and the intricate marble sculpture in the foyer. Like the dining room, the formal living room boasted a French vintage-style decor, with lots of glass, antiques, and uncomfortable, stiff furniture she was afraid to sit on. My goodness, how did three boys manage to not trash the place?
The majority of the house was decorated with expert precision to show off expensive furniture, rich tapestries, and striking patterns all meant to impress and woo visitors. Yet the kitchen was pure warmth and simplicity, as if a different decorator had stepped in and claimed it as someone else’s space. What type of woman had she been, really? Raven’s father never would have felt comfortable in this stuffy living room, but would have sought out the kitchen and claimed his spot right at the marble kitchen island. Maybe even the deck.
Morgan picked up a thick, fabric-covered book that resembled a wedding album on crack. She sat down on the blinding-white claw-footed velvet couch and faced Raven. “Are you ready?”
Oh, God, what was in there? Proof about Raven’s father? A biography of her? She couldn’t stand it any longer. “Yes, please, Morgan, just show me.”
Morgan dragged in a breath and slowly opened the book.
An array of fabrics fell from the pages. Raven blinked.
“I can’t decide on the curtains for the master bedroom. They need to have an intimate, quiet feel, with a touch of femininity, but not so feminine Cal won’t want to sleep there.” Her voice was strained, and a frown creased her brow. “I’ve lost my touch, Raven. It’s gone. I’m a high-priced, custom design artist and I can’t make a decision about my own curtains. Cal refuses to listen to me and said the house and the wedding have begun to make me a bit bitchy. But he’s not helping me at all. No one is. I need help.”