He thought she’d agree, but a flare of anger lit her eyes and she stepped back. Her voice stabbed at him like icicles, sharp and frozen. “I said no. I don’t need your help or your brothers’. With me or my bar.”
She walked away with a withering look, and Dalton wondered again what the hell he was missing.
Raven had the dream again.
She was walking down a road, sun drenching her body, a bunch of wildflowers fisted in her hands. Contentment stirred within as she followed the familiar path, listening to the calls of birds and enjoying the light tug of wind in her hair. She was part of her father’s paintings, in a still, serene place she liked to visit when life got stressful or she needed clarity.
A squeal of brakes echoed in the air, along with twisting metal crashing into metal. The flowers dropped from her hand and she began running, faster and faster, sensing with every step that she was nearing a terrible truth that would destroy her.
But she couldn’t stop. She ran until the breath tore from her lungs in painful gasps, and she skidded to a halt in front of the horrifying scene unfolding before her.
Fire burning bright and melting metal. The explosion of glass and the stench of burnt rubber and oil rising in a fury of smoke. Her father’s beloved face appeared through the broken window, screaming her name as the flames ravaged him alive. Raven sobbed and tried to run to him, but her feet were stuck to the ground and she was unable to move. His hands reached out, clawing frantically, and finally she was free and rushing toward him.
Seconds before she reached the car, a woman’s face appeared beside her father’s, her mouth twisted into a terrible smile. She grabbed Raven’s father and dragged him back, screeching like a demon, her words echoing over and over in a terrible mantra that Raven would never forget.
“He belongs to me, not you! He belongs to me! Me, me, me, me . . .”
Then the car exploded, and Raven watched her father burn.
She woke up with her pajamas stuck to her damp skin and her heart beating erratically. Gulping in breaths, she tore off the sheets and jumped out of bed, trying to calm herself. Crap. The nightmare had haunted her after the funeral, until she’d been forced to see a grief counselor by Aunt Penny and given a range of pills to cut her anxiety and help her sleep. She’d literally felt on the brink of a nervous breakdown, unable to process the sudden loss of the one man in the world she loved and trusted. After two years of doctors and burying herself in her room, she’d turned to a different type of distraction to stop the nightmares. A wild ride of destruction that had built like a snowball and morphed into an avalanche. There’d been boys and sex. Drugs and alcohol. She’d dropped out of college, telling Aunt Penny she wanted to see the world, but most of her journeys included bunking with strangers, getting high, and waking up with men she didn’t remember.
Until she realized life was whizzing by and she’d done nothing to claim her space.
Her father’s words haunted her from beyond the grave.
“Baby girl, always remember we’re given a responsibility in this life to claim our space. You can decide to fill the world with beauty and kindness, or laziness and self-destruction. Choose well.”
In a matter of weeks, she’d decided to get her shit together. She came home, got a job in a restaurant, rented a studio apartment, and registered for online classes. She mended her relationship with her aunt and swore to beat the demons. She made peace with the past and forgot about solving the endless mystery of why her father ran off with a stranger. And finally, the nightmares stopped.
Until Dalton Pierce appeared.
Raven pushed her hair back and made her way into the kitchen. She wouldn’t be going back to sleep for a while, so she might as well make coffee. The silence of night closed around her until each clink of the coffeepot and bang of the cabinet hurt her ears. Maybe she should get a cat. She was used to solitude and usually enjoyed it, but lately she’d gotten itchy. In the past, itchy meant danger, and a downward spiral in the search for an adrenaline rush. Now she had a business of her own and responsibilities. Maybe in the past year, she’d shut herself out of too many possibilities. Like a real relationship, not a quick tumble in the sheets and a wave good-bye in the morning. She was finished with bad boys and charming Peter Pans. She wanted a man who was a fellow business owner, or someone who was getting tired of chasing tail and felt ready to settle down. The idea of doing Match.com made her wince, but she might need to force herself to explore all options. She certainly hadn’t met anyone worthy in her bar, since most of her customers treated her like a sex object or a buddy they could confide in. There’d been no time in the past year to think about a relationship, because My Place was an obsessive, jealous lover. Now maybe it was time to widen her scope. Do more than work twenty-four hours per day or collapse on the couch bingeing on Netflix on a day off. Meet someone who could make her laugh, challenge her intellect, and not be a total jerk.
The image of Dalton’s bright blue eyes and slow, sexy smile flashed in her mind.
Raven sighed and poured herself a cup of coffee, then sat at the small kitchen nook to watch the sun rise. How long had she been obsessed with the idea of revenge after the funeral? She’d burned with the need to prove that Diane Pierce had seduced her father with wicked lies and sex. That he would have discovered the truth and come back to his daughter, begging her forgiveness, but the crash had occurred before he’d been able. That he’d never have gotten on that plane to Paris and left her.
Over the years, her thirst for vengeance had faded under the need to bury the past and move on. But with Dalton and his brothers visiting her bar on a regular basis, the memories no longer stayed buried. And if she didn’t do something about it, maybe the nightmare would keep continuing until she went insane again.
Raven took another sip, enjoying the nip of caffeine in her veins and the slight burn on her tongue. Yeah, that was a problem. She wanted to be able to keep her distance and hopefully gather more information about the brothers, but Dalton threw her off balance. Her body snapped to attention when he walked in the room, and though she was used to dealing with hot men who were bad for her, he made her . . . uneasy. When he’d offered to renovate the bar, she’d been overcome with a surge of pure rage and a sense of shame. Yes, she planned to restore the bar and update the restaurant this upcoming year. She had big plans for My Place. But she refused to allow Dalton to barge into her space. Wasn’t she betraying her father’s memory just by speaking to him? Her constant seesaw of emotion around Dalton was unnerving. One moment she buckled under the sting of his eyes, and the next she was throwing him the hell out of her bar.
She hadn’t changed much.
Her mercurial moods weren’t easy to live with, but she accepted them as part of who she was. No wonder she had no long-term relationships to speak of. She doubted any man would be able to handle her past a few weeks, when they learned she was sometimes bitchy, sometimes ridiculously emotional, and always a control freak.
Yeah. A perfect Match.com profile with a high level of desirability.
She groaned into her mug and feasted her gaze on the slope of fields outside her window. She was lucky to own two acres of land, with a perfect view of endless green that spilled out until it disappeared over the horizon. The wraparound porch was ideal for watching sunsets and sunrises, her favorite thing to do since she rarely slept more than five hours. Poised on the outside edge of Harrington, the small log cabin was right down the road from My Place, and she’d bought and renovated them both. She had a taste for simple, earthy, and strong. The polished wood gave off a rustic appeal, and the decorations reflected a comfortable living environment. The open area between the living room and kitchen boasted leather couches, braided rugs, a stone fireplace, large windows, and little clutter. Large, comfy blankets were scattered about.
She had little patience for big novels, and sought out an array of eclectic magazines with glossy pictures. She also preferred paper to digital. Raven believed in touching and feeling solid items that could give comfort. Her home and bar were reflections of that belief.
She lacked the typical feminine or girly qualities. Maybe from being raised by her dad. Another reason she didn’t have many female friends, feeling more comfortable in the company of men.