But he dreamed.
The familiar nightmare took hold, but this time it was different.
It began the same. His mother chased him playfully down the road, her yellow dress flapping in the breeze. Suddenly she stopped, gazing at the strange car parked before her. The man got out and held out his hand. She took it. Climbed into the car. And drove off.
Dalton chased her down the road, calling her name, and the car burst into flames. Screaming and crying, her familiar face pressed against the window amid the fire. Dalton waited for her to mouth the words in her final moments, caught halfway to wakefulness, forced to watch the last, devastating scene.
Suddenly, his mother faded away.
Raven was in the car.
Her beautiful, inky hair surrounded her face in messy waves. Those huge dark eyes begged him from behind the barrier of the glass, her palms pressed to the window in one last plea.
I’m sorry . . .
The car exploded.
Dalton woke up, gut twisted with nausea. He ran to the bathroom, vomited violently, then crawled back into bed.
He didn’t go back to sleep.
The nightmare came to Raven that night.
This time, when the car exploded and she tried to run, the woman’s face was no longer there with her father, trapping him in a fiery death.
This time, Dalton blocked her from rescuing her father, a cold, distant look on his face while he watched him burn. Her screams ripped from her throat, echoing in the air, but he never turned or acknowledged her presence.
Raven woke up drenched in sweat, her cheeks wet.
She didn’t go back to sleep.
Dalton turned off the band saw and examined the piece of wood. The grain had a deep color that would go well with Morgan’s choice of cabinetry. He made some adjustments, sinking into the familiar rhythm of work, the scent of sawdust thick in the air, soothing his senses.
His workshop seemed the only place he felt at peace lately. Between the repeated nightmares wrecking his sleep and the constant memories of Raven during the day, he was poised on the edge of some strange breakdown. Two weeks had passed. He’d kept away from the bar, distanced himself from his family, and tried to bear down and deal with the fallout.
Problem was, he didn’t seem able to move on. He was stuck, still unable to pry her from his mind and his heart. A wrenching emptiness sat in his gut, messing with his appetite. He got through the day, but nothing held a glimmer of happiness or satisfaction any longer. It was as if a piece of himself was now missing—a piece he’d never known existed before Raven.
He peeled off his glasses and gloves. Swigging some water, he wiped his forehead and went to change the song on his iPhone when a text came in. His breath caught, then held as he waited to see who it was from.
Busy tonight? Thinking of grabbing dinner—wanna join me?
His shoulders slumped. Charlie. After he’d finished the Sullivans’ deck, they’d spoken a few times, but they hadn’t gotten any further since he’d broken up with Raven. He stared at the phone for a while. Maybe it was time to force the issue. Get past these feelings that had no place in his life and move on with another woman. He’d never had trouble before. He’d been out of the game too long, and Charlie intrigued him. They had a more friendly vibe, but it wouldn’t take much to cross over.
He quickly texted back. Sure. Seven? Where?
The phone shook. Great. My Place?
He stilled. Pain clawed at his gut, but he fought it back, pissed off and frustrated. Morgan and Sydney still went there for drinks and poker night. Cal and Tristan never mentioned it, but he was sure they frequented the bar also. He couldn’t avoid Raven forever. If he showed up with another woman, it might be the catalyst needed to prove he could move on, and confirm to her it was over.
Even though he’d driven that point home their last time together.
The memory of her ravaged face hit him like a sucker punch. The raw pain in her eyes as she realized he was walking away, treating her like some cheap whore. He regretted the cruelty of his actions, yet at the same time, Dalton had been convinced it was the best way to break it off. Brutal, yes. But final.
He tapped out his answer. Ok.
A smiley face popped up.
He kept himself busy all day, stopping only at the last minute to shower and change. When he pulled into the parking lot, he almost decided to turn around. Sheer stubbornness pushed him forward on legs that seemed a bit shaky.
He opened the saloon doors and stepped inside. The crowd had been steadily growing since the refurbishment of the bar and the initiation of poker night, so it was packed. The article in Good Food & Fine Spirits would hit next month, and he anticipated even more growth. His gaze went immediately to the bar, but Raven wasn’t there. Swallowing back the lump in his throat, he caught sight of Charlie in one of the booths. She waved him over.
He slid in opposite her and forced a smile. “Hey. Good to see you.”
“You too. I figured I wouldn’t bug you till the deck was finished. It looks amazing, by the way. My aunt and uncle are really happy.”
Pleasure cut through him. Knowing his work was enjoyed and appreciated always reminded him he was lucky to have found his calling. Glancing again at the bar, he admired the gorgeous lines and polished bronze. Remembered how she’d brought him lunch and they’d talked while he worked. He couldn’t look at the poker tables, because all he thought about was their first kiss by the shed, under the stars.
“Dalton? You okay?”
“Sorry. Had a long day. You look great.”
She did look great. Her looks were all natural, from the streaky straight strands of hair that fell to her shoulders to her wide hazel eyes. Her lips were pale pink and perfectly formed. She wore a cropped purple top with ANGEL scrolled across her breasts, and ragged denim shorts that seemed extra short. On another woman, he’d say she was trying too hard, but there was something down-to-earth about Charlie he immediately liked. As she chattered animatedly, he began to relax and enjoy her conversation, realizing she seemed to know a lot about architecture and photography, along with renovating houses.
Amanda stopped by their table. “Hey, Dalton. How are you?”
Her gaze was full of curiosity but not hate. Had Raven told her what happened? Or did he not mean as much as he’d originally thought, so she hadn’t even mentioned him to her staff? “Good. How about you? Al?”
“Same. We’re getting busier, though. Must be your work on the bar.”
Charlie swung her head around to study the bar. “I didn’t know you renovated the bar! My God, it’s an antique. I’m drooling.”
Amanda looked at Charlie with a reserved expression. Her voice was clipped and not her usual friendly tone. “What can I get you?”
“Sweet potato fries and a veggie wrap, please,” Charlie said. “Is Raven making those key lime martinis?”
“One of those, please.”
Amanda turned to him. His stomach flipped, and he forced the words out. “Umm, just a beer with some chips and salsa.”
“Raging Bitch, right?”
He winced. “Yeah.”
She turned and walked away.
“So you know Raven? You did the matching stools for the bar, also?”
“Nice. Her cocktails are a work of art.”
He cleared his throat. “Yeah. So have you found a place yet?”
“I have. Renting a studio close to the harbor. It’s a bit pricey but worth it. I can walk everywhere and get to know the residents. I think it’s key to building a reputation in a community. Word of mouth is the best way to gain referrals.”
“I also have an interview set up with Pierce Brothers next week, along with one for Stanton Builders.”
“Stanton doesn’t like their employees working on the side. If you like rehab, you’ll want to be able to pick up jobs you’re passionate about. Just a heads-up.”
“Good to know.”
Amanda came back with their drinks and food. A loud shout echoed from the bar, then a round of enthusiastic clapping. He froze, then slowly turned.
She was there.
Leaning over the bar, elbows propped up, she delivered a stinging rejection to the guy trying to hit on her. The men surrounding her went wild, and in her usual move, she offered him a shot of whiskey for having the guts to try to pick her up.