Raven Bella Hawthorne watched the casket drop into the ground. The rain caused the hole to look slippery, almost like a mud hill. When she was younger, she probably would’ve looked at the slope as a great adventure, letting out a big war-type chant while she hurled herself down over the edge as if it were a giant Slip ’N Slide. She’d climb out with a big grin, mud crusted on every part of her body, and her father would shake his head and try to scold her. Meanwhile, his dark eyes would glint with laughter, and Raven would know she wasn’t really in trouble.
But now, her father was in the hole. She’d never see that sparkling humor, or hear his deep belly laugh, or listen to one of his lectures in that gravelly voice that reminded her of a big papa bear.
Because her father was dead.
Aunt Penny squeezed her hand, but Raven hardly felt it. The cold chill of rainwater seeped into her skin and her soul, burrowing deep inside and making a permanent home to rest. The crew of men in black suits with bowed heads recited a prayer as the casket disappeared for good.
People threw roses in the hole. One weeping woman clutched her rosary. The priest concluded the prayer service, telling Raven and everyone else not to grieve, because Matthew Albert Hawthorne was in heaven with the angels and was finally, mercifully at peace.
Raven stared at the priest. At the mishmash of distant relatives she barely knew and friends who seemed more focused on the scandal surrounding her father’s death than on her. No, other than Aunt Penny, she was truly alone. And she didn’t feel grateful, or happy, or humbled her father was with God.
Instead, Raven was filled with rage.
Her beloved father, who had been her entire world, was a liar and a cheat. The man who dragged her to church on Sundays and lectured her on saving her body for love and being kind to others and always believing she’d accomplish great things in this world had abandoned his only daughter to run away with another woman. A stranger.
If it hadn’t been for the red light, her father and that woman would be in Paris, building a new life away from their children. Instead, they were both dead, lying in the cold, damp ground while she dealt with the stinging slap of betrayal. For the first time, Raven knew what it was to hate.
She hated her father. She hated the woman who had stolen him away. She hated the three sons the woman had left behind, sons who spread evil words about Matthew luring their innocent mother away, painting him as a charming manipulator who cared nothing about the bonds of family.
Her father’s once spotless reputation now lay in tatters around her. People gossiped and stared and whispered behind raised hands about the single father who’d ruined two families by seducing the matriarch of Pierce Brothers Construction. Somehow, some way, Diane Pierce had become a martyr. Which made Matthew Hawthorne the only villain of the story.
So Raven hated and burned for revenge while she stood in the rain, nodding at well-wishers. She listened to Aunt Penny thank the endless line of people for offerings of food, prayers, and help in their effort to feel validated during someone else’s tragedy. Finally Raven walked to the limousine and slid onto the smooth leather seat. As they pulled away toward her new life, Raven had only one thought:
Payback was going to be a bitch.
Dalton looked at the table in front of him and frowned.
It was all wrong.
Frustration nipped at his nerves. Sweat dripped down his chest, and the familiar scents of varnish and sawdust rose to his nostrils. He rubbed his head, staring at the sharp curves and clawed feet of the dining room table he was restoring for the Ryans. The lines were right. His hands trailed lightly and lovingly over the top and down each leg, sensing the quality wasn’t the problem. Dropping to his knees, he crawled underneath to check further, but there were no skips and the grains were full and smooth. The shape was perfect. Then what was niggling at his gut that something was completely off?
He rolled to his feet, backed up, and looked at the table in the light.
Too dark. The Brazilian walnut finish blended into blackish tones.
The voice whispered from within, and as usual, he didn’t question where the answers came from. He just followed where they led. His clients had insisted on the darkest finish possible for their new antique find, and if he rebelled against those instructions he’d be taking some heat.
From both the Ryans and his brothers.
And as usual, he ignored the warning, choosing to follow his gut.
It needed a softer finish. Brazilian chestnut would work. The color was fuller, which would round out the angles to illuminate the gorgeous curves and elegant dignity of the antique. They’d chosen wrong, but if he did it the right way, they’d agree.
He pushed away the doubt, grabbing the towel to wipe his stained hands and guzzle some water. The low hum of the central air wrapped him in the perfect temperature. He didn’t mind the cloying humidity outside, since he was used to some sticky Northeast summers. But his precious wood needed care, and it did best under steady conditions. Humidity was known to warp grains. Sometimes he needed to protect the raw materials from Mother Nature’s occasional temper, and he had no problem embracing artificial environments.
His brothers would make fun of him for that thought, so he’d never shared it. Just like he’d be taking their shit when he called the Ryans to tack on an extra day to deliver the table. Too often they perceived him as flighty and irresponsible. The three of them might co-own Pierce Brothers Construction, but it was obvious Caleb and Tristan still didn’t believe Dalton could handle his part in the business. The past year had been rough, and they’d all grown much closer, yet Dalton noticed Cal and Tristan still treated him like an annoying younger brother. Sure, they respected his talent with woodworking, but they still refused to acknowledge his contribution to the bottom line.
They drove him batshit crazy.
He shook his head and trudged over to the workbench. He began cleaning up his tools, kicking up another cloud of sawdust. Dalton thought over the past year and how far they’d all come. When he’d first learned of his father’s death and the will that forced him to move back to Harrington, Connecticut, to run the family business with his two older brothers, he’d been pissed off and betrayed. He’d been happy in California, starting up his own business and free from his father’s brutal ways. Christian Pierce had ruled his family like an old Roman king—his way or no way at all. He’d refused to allow any changes in the business, and the only softness in the boys’ lives had been their beloved mother, who’d kept the family together.