Dalton stared greedily, devouring her whole with his eyes. Her hair was clipped back—she must be serving tonight. The black tank emphasized the small curves of her breasts, and her jeans fell under her hips an inch lower than usual. Had she lost weight? She was smiling, but there were lines etched around her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept in a while. The diamond nose ring caught the light as she turned her head. Her tat flashed past his vision—the droplets of blood from the sword reminding him of how his tongue would trace each individual dot, as if his kisses could ease the pain it symbolized. Her fingers flew in an elegant dance he knew so well as she poured and mixed and joked with her customers. The earthy sensuality was so much a part of her, she didn’t notice the lustful, longing glances from every man seated at her bar.
But he did.
God, what was he doing here? This wasn’t going to help him. Seeing her again just brought it all back, until he had to fight down his instinct to cross the room and go to her. Tell her it was a mistake. That he wanted her back.
But it was too late.
“You look like you got whacked in the head with a blunt object,” Charlie interrupted. “Are you all right?”
Numbing loss crashed through him. “Yes. Sorry. Tell me about your new place.”
She chattered through dinner. He listened with half an ear. Snuck glances at the bar. Raven never saw him, usually keeping her attention focused on the bar and letting her servers take care of the booths. By the time he paid the check, the emotional hurricane inside him had risen to a fury, confusing his brain.
Why was he being punished for falling in love with a woman who lied and betrayed him?
They walked to the door, but Dalton paused, his gaze locked on the woman behind the bar, who still held his heart.
She turned. Saw him. Stilled.
The connection surged, pumping through the air and distance to squeeze in a merciless vise. He lost his breath, and in moments he was hard and aching and empty. Shock and hunger swirled in her soot-colored eyes. Her fingers curled into fists. Her mouth made a tiny O.
He looked at her, digested the aching pain on her face, in her eyes. The room fell away, and it was only them, in a final, heartbreaking moment.
Then Dalton turned his back and pulled Charlie outside. Dragging in a breath, he fought for composure, trying to focus on his current companion. Suddenly Charlie lifted herself up on tiptoes and jabbed a finger hard in his chest. “Listen, dude, I don’t like game playing. It’s obvious you and Raven have something, and I don’t appreciate being paraded around in an effort to piss her off or get her jealous.”
He shook his head, trying to clear it. “We broke up.”
“You still want her, she still wants you. Just leave me out of a love triangle—it’s icky. Plus, I deserve a hell of a lot more than being used.”
His eyes widened. The good-natured, sweet woman had turned into a tigress. Temper looked good on her, giving her a bit of an edge he hadn’t seen before.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Dalton dragged his palms over his face and told her the truth. “I’m a fucking wreck lately. I didn’t mean to use you like that. I genuinely wanted to see you as a friend.”
She crossed her arms in front of her chest and glared. But her voice softened a tad. “Okay. Are you trying to get back together with her?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I think I made a mistake, but I’m confused.”
“Love always makes us confused.” Her face took on a faraway look of longing. She sighed, shaking her head. “Can you fix it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve never been in love, so I’m not one to give advice. But I’d say if you know she’s the one, do anything possible to fix it.”
“This is more complicated.”
She shot him a grin. “Isn’t it always?” He managed to smile back. “See ya. And next time, just warn me if you have an ex-girlfriend at the place I suggest to eat. You’re hot, but I’m just not that into you.”
Dalton laughed. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
She winked. “Later.”
He watched her walk away, in her too-short shorts and crop top, wondering at the hidden layers beneath. It would be nice to be friends with Charlie. There was no mess, or heartbreak, or deep emotion.
There was only one woman who had the power to touch his soul.
The one he’d crushed and sent away.
Raven smiled, poured drinks, and slowly died inside.
He’d brought another woman into her bar. Deliberately.
The gaping wound that had just begun to scab broke open and bled freely. The pain was excruciating, pounding in her bones and stomach and heart. She swore she’d never do this again. Love was too agonizing and ended badly too many times.
Dalton had been right all along.
She double-checked on all her customers, told Al she needed a quick break, and headed out the back. Gulping in deep breaths, she put her hands on her knees and let the hurt wash through her.
Two weeks. Not a word since that agonizing night when he’d walked out after making love to her, making her feel cheap. Somehow she still realized his intention to hurt her came from a twisted place inside he hadn’t been able to deal with. The man who’d stolen her heart had turned to cruelty like a wolf caught in a trap, ready to gnaw off his own leg to escape.
But his reasons didn’t make it any easier to accept. There’d been many roads to choose from, but Dalton had chosen to turn away from the precious seed beginning to grow between them. No amount of force or begging or even sex changed the result of a person’s decision.
But why had he come back? Why throw another woman in her face? Was he still so enraged he needed to strike out? Prove a point? Was there nothing left of them he wanted to remember that was good?
Raven stood up, wiping the last tear from her cheek. She couldn’t do this to herself any longer. She’d been holding on to a false hope that with more time, he’d come see her. Tonight proved there was nothing left between them.
She owed it to herself to truly move on. Seeing Morgan and Dalton’s brothers was hard, but they were kind to her, and she’d forged a friendship with Morgan and Sydney that was important. She wouldn’t let him take that from her, too.
Reaching down for inner strength, she said a silent good-bye to the man she loved, knowing they both had to choose each other or there could never be a chance for either of them.
She wasn’t going to be a martyr any longer. If he wanted to go back to his usual ways of seducing women, he could do it someplace else, not in her safe haven. She had a right to peace here, at least, until she healed.
Raven went back inside with a new determination.
The door banged open.
Dalton blinked and burrowed deeper under the covers. “Get out,” he mumbled, smashing his face into the pillow.
“Fuck, man. It smells in here.”
The clatter of a bottle hit his ears. Shuffling feet echoed. What time was it? Why was someone here in the middle of the night? He lifted his head a fraction, squinting, then retreated from the piercing sunlight streaming through his balcony doors. Hard hands shook him.
“Dalton, get up.” Cal stood over him on the right, Tristan on the left. “We’ve left you alone for two days, but now you’re freaking us out.”
His mouth felt like a dirty cotton swab. His head pounded. “Fuck you. How’d you get in my room?”
“The skeleton key over the door. Ah, shit, he went through two bottles of your whiskey, Cal.”
“I’m gonna kick his ass when he’s better, I swear.”
Dalton ignored them both, trying to remember what had happened. He’d gone to bed and drank a lot. Stumbled around the balcony. Had he cried looking at the stars? Why?
The image of her face hit him, and the bed whirled. She was gone. He’d fucked it all up, like he did everything in his life, and he needed to stay in bed.
“Leave me alone.” His voice was barely a whisper. “Just go away.”
Cal sighed. “Gonna have to do this the hard way; he’s in bad shape.”
“Like the old days, right?”