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The Last Boyfriend, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “You know and Beck knows and I know there’s less than two weeks’ work left here. You’ll be done before Christmas. If we start the load-in this week, we’ll be done by the first, and there’s no reason we won’t get the Use and Occupancy right after the holidays. That gives two weeks to fiddle and fuss, work out any kinks, with Hope living here.”

  “I’m with Owen on this. We’re sliding downhill now, Ry.”

  Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Ryder shrugged. “It’s weird, maybe, just weird thinking about actually being done.”

  “Cheer up,” Owen told him. “A place like this? We’re never going to be done.”

  On his nod, Ryder heard the back door open, shut, the sound of heavy boots on tile. “We’ve got crew. Get your tools.”

  * * *

  OWEN KEPT BUSY, and happy, running crown molding. He didn’t mind the regular interruptions to answer a call, return a text, read an email. His phone served as a tool to him as much as his nail gun. The building buzzed with activity, echoed with voices and Ryder’s job radio. It smelled of paint and fresh-cut wood, strong coffee. The combination said Montgomery Family Contractors to him, and never failed to remind him of his father.

  Everything he’d learned about carpentry and the building trade he’d learned from his dad. Now, stepping off the ladder to study the work, he knew his father would be proud.

  They’d taken the old building with its sagging porches and broken windows, its scarred walls and broken floors and had transformed it into a jewel on the town square.

  Beckett’s vision, he thought, their mother’s imagination and canny eye, Ryder’s sweat and skill, and his own focus on detail, combined with a solid crew, had transformed what had been an idea batted around the kitchen table into reality.

  He set down his nail gun, rolled his shoulder as he turned around the room.

  Yeah, his mother’s canny eye, he thought again. He could admit he’d balked at her scheme of pale aqua walls and chocolate brown ceiling—until he’d seen it finished. Glamour was the word of the day for Nick and Nora, and it reached its pinnacle in the bath. That same color scheme, including a wall of blue glass tiles, contrasting with brown on brown, all sparkling under crystal lights. Chandelier in the john, he thought, with a shake of his head. It sure as hell worked.

  Nothing ordinary or hotel-like about it, he mused—not when Justine Montgomery took charge. He thought this room with its Deco flair might be his favorite.

  His phone alarm told him it was time to start making some calls of his own.

  He went out, then headed toward the back door for the porch as Luther worked on the rails leading down. Gritting his teeth, he jogged through the cold and bitter wind across the covered porch, down to ground level, then ducked in through Reception.

  “Fucking A it’s cold.” The radio blasted; nail guns thumped. And no way, he decided, would he try to do business with all this noise. He grabbed his jacket, his briefcase.

  He ducked into The Lounge, where Beckett sat on the floor running trim.

  “I’m heading over to Vesta.”

  “It’s shy of ten. They’re not open.”


  Outside, Owen hunched against the cold at the light, cursed the fact that traffic, such as it was, paced and spaced itself so he couldn’t make the dash across Main. He waited it out, his breath blowing icy clouds until the walk light flashed. He jogged diagonally, ignored the Closed sign on the glass front door of the restaurant, and pounded.

  He saw lights on, but no movement. Once again he took out his phone, punched Avery’s number from memory.

  “Damn it, Owen, now I’ve got dough on my phone.”

  “So you are in there. Open up before I get frostbite.”

  “Damn it,” she repeated, then cut him off. But seconds later he saw her, white bib apron over jeans and a black sweater with sleeves shoved to her elbows. Her hair—what the hell color was it now? It struck him as very close to the bright new-penny copper of the inn’s roof.

  She’d started changing it a few months back, going with most everything but her natural Scot warrior-queen red. She’d hacked it short, too, he recalled, though it had grown long enough again for her to yank it back in a tiny stub when she worked.

  Her eyes, as bright a blue as her hair was copper, glared at him as she turned the locks.

  “What do you want?” she demanded. “I’m in the middle of prep.”

  “I just want the room and the quiet. You won’t even know I’m here.” He sidled in, just in case she tried to shut the door on him. “I can’t talk on the phone with all the noise across the street and I have to make some calls.”

  She narrowed those blue eyes at his briefcase.

  So he tried a winning smile. “Okay, maybe I have a little paperwork. I’ll sit at the counter. I’ll be very, very quiet.”

  “Oh, all right. But don’t bother me.”

  “Um, just before you go back? You wouldn’t happen to have any coffee?”

  “No, I wouldn’t happen to have. I’m prepping dough, which is now on my new phone. I worked closing last night, and Franny called in sick at eight this morning. She sounded like somebody ran her larynx through a meat grinder. I had two waitstaff out with the same thing last night, which means I’ll probably be on from now to closing. Dave can’t work tonight because he’s getting a root canal at four, and I’ve got a bus tour coming in at twelve thirty.”

  Because she’d snapped the words out in little whiplashes, Owen just nodded. “Okay.”

  “Just . . .” She gestured toward the long counter. “Do whatever.”

  She rushed back to the kitchen on bright green Nikes.

  He’d have offered to help, but he could tell she wasn’t in the mood. He knew her moods—he’d known her forever—and recognized harried, impatient, and stressed.

  She’d roll with it, he thought. She always did. The sassy little redhead from his childhood, the former Boonsboro High cheerleader—co-captain with Beckett’s Clare—had become a hardworking restaurateur. Who made exceptional pizza.

  She’d left a light, lemony scent behind her, along with a frisson of energy. He heard the faint thump and rattle of her work as he took a stool at the counter. He found it soothing and somewhat rhythmic.

  He opened his briefcase, took out his iPad, his clipboard, unclipped his phone from his belt.

  He made his calls, sent emails, texts, reworked his calendar, calculated.

  He steeped himself in the details, surfacing when a coffee mug slid under his nose.

  He looked up into Avery’s pretty face.

  “Thanks. You didn’t have to bother. I won’t be long.”

  “Owen, you’ve already been here forty minutes.”

  “Really? Lost track. You want me to go?”

  “Doesn’t matter.” Though she pressed a fist into the small of her back, she spoke easily now. “I’ve got it under control.”

  He caught another scent, and glancing to the big stove saw she’d put her sauces on.

  The red hair, milk-white skin, and dash of freckles might declare her Scot heritage, but her marinara was as gloriously Italian as an Armani suit.

  He’d often wondered where she’d gotten the knack, and the drive, but both seemed as innate a part of her as her big, bold blue eyes.

  Crouching, she opened the cooler under the counter for tubs, and began filling the topping containers.

  “Sorry about Franny.”

  “Me, too. She’s really sick. And Dave’s miserable. He’s only coming in for a couple hours this afternoon because I’m so shorthanded. I hate asking him.”

  He studied her face as she worked. Now that he really looked, he noted the pale purple shadows under her eyes.

  “You look tired.”

  She shot him a disgusted look over the tub of black olives. “Thanks. That’s what every girl loves to hear.” Then she shrugged. “I am tired. I thought I’d sleep in this morning. Franny would open, I’d come in about eleven thirty. Not
much of a commute since I moved right upstairs. So I watched some Jimmy Fallon, finished a book I’ve been trying to squeeze out time to read all week. I didn’t go down until nearly two. Then Franny calls at eight. Six hours isn’t bad, unless you worked a double and you’re going to work another.”

  “Bright side? Business is good.”

  “I’ll think about bright side after the bus tour. Anyway, enough. How’s it going at the inn?”

  “So good we’re going to start loading in the third floor tomorrow.”

  “Loading in what?”

  “Furniture, Avery.”

  She set down the tub, goggled at him. “Seriously? Seriously?”

  “The inspector’s going to take a look this afternoon, give us the go or no. I’m saying go because there’s no reason for no. I just talked to Hope. She’s going to start cleaning up there. My mother and my aunt are coming in—maybe are in already since it’s going on eleven now—to pitch in.”

  “I wanted to do that. I can’t.”

  “Don’t worry about that. We’ve got plenty of hands.”

  “I wanted mine to be two of them. Maybe tomorrow, depending on sickness and root canals. Jeez, Owen, this is major.” She did a little heel-toe dance on her green high-tops. “And you wait almost an hour to spill it?”

  “You were too busy bitching at me.”

  “If you’d spilled, I’d’ve been too excited to bitch. Your own fault.”

  She smiled at him, pretty Avery MacTavish with the tired eyes.

  “Why don’t you sit down for a few minutes?”

  “I’ve got to keep moving today, like a shark.” She snapped the lid on the tub, replaced it, then went over to check her sauces.

  He watched her work. She always seemed to be doing half a dozen things at once, like a constant juggling act with balls hanging in the air, others bouncing madly until she managed to grab and toss them again.

  It amazed his organized mind.

  “I’d better get back. Thanks for the coffee.”

  “No problem. If any of the crew’s thinking about lunch here today, tell them to wait until one thirty. The rush’ll be over.”

  “Okay.” He gathered his things, then paused at the door. “Avery? What color is that? The hair.”

  “This? Copper Penny.”

  He grinned, shook his head. “I knew it. See you later.”


  OWEN STRAPPED HIS tool belt on, checked his punch-out list against Ryder’s.

  “The third floor’s full of women,” Ryder told him, with an edge of bitterness.

  “Are they naked?”

  “Mom’s one of them.”

  “Okay, scratch the naked.”

  “Mom, Carolee, the innkeeper. Clare might still be up there. Dude, they’re a swarm. One of them keeps buzzing down here, asking questions.” Ryder grabbed his Gatorade off the kitchen island where he’d spread out plans and lists since Hope had booted him out of her projected office space. “Since you’re the one who opened the gates there, you’re the one who’s going to answer all the damn questions. And where the hell were you?”

  “I left word. I went over to Avery’s so I could make some calls. Inspector’s going to take a look at the third floor to clear the load-in there. He’ll check out the rest while he’s here. Furniture for up there’s set, and they’ll start hauling it in, setting it up in the morning. Window-blind install’s set. They’ll start upstairs this afternoon. You want the rest?”

  “You’re giving me a headache.”

  “That’s why I make the calls. I can start running trim on two.”

  “Third floor.” Ryder drilled a finger into Owen’s chest. “Women. All yours, brother.”

  “Fine, fine.”

  He wanted to work, to slide into the rhythm of nail guns, hammers, drills. Men. But he went back outside, cursed the cold as he rounded back and jogged up the stairs.

  And entered the world of women.

  He smelled perfume and lotion and lemon-scented cleanser. And heard women’s voices over the din echoing up from below. He found his mother on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of the shower stall in The Penthouse.

  She’d bundled her dark hair up, shoved up the sleeves of a baggy gray sweatshirt. Her jeans-clad butt swayed side-to-side to whatever played on her headphones.

  Owen walked around the glass, hunkered down. She didn’t jolt; he’d always believed her claim of having eyes in the back of her head. Justine just lifted her head, smiled at him as she sat back on her heels and took off the headset.

  She said, “Hot damn.”

  “You ready for this, Mom?”

  “I’ve been ready. We’ll get her shined up, though I’d forgotten just how grimy construction dirt is. We split up. Carolee’s back in Westley and Buttercup, and Hope’s dealing with her apartment. Clare’s going to give us some time this afternoon.”

  “I was just over at Vesta. Avery’s got a bus tour coming in, and Franny’s out sick. She wanted to be in on this.” Owen studied the bucket of soapy water. “God knows why.”

  “It’s satisfying work, in its way. Look at this place, Owen.” Shoving a couple of loose pins back in her hair, she glanced around. “Look at what you and your brothers did here.”

  “What we and our mom did,” he corrected, and made her smile again.

  “You’re so damn right about that. Since you’re here, take the shelves out of that box. One’s going right up there, the other right over there.”

  She pointed.

  “There’re shelves in here?”

  “There will be when you put them up. Then you might get one of the crew to give you a hand, hang the mirror in the bedroom. When you’re ready I’ll show you how I want it.”

  “Wait, let me write this down.”

  “Just do the little shelves, and I’ll walk you through the rest.”

  He got to use his tools after all. Maybe not the way he preferred—with a list, items in prioritized order waiting to be checked off—but he used his tools.

  When he’d installed the decorative shelves, he drafted one of the crew to help him carry in the big wall mirror with its ornate gilded frame.

  Justine stood, hands on hips, adjusting its position with “a little to the left, a little higher—no, lower.” Owen marked, measured, drilled while she went back to her scrubbing.

  “It’s up,” he called out.

  “Hold on a sec.”

  He heard the whoosh of water as she emptied her bucket. When she stepped out again, she once more fisted her hands on her hips. “I love it!”

  Walking to him, she stood so the mirror reflected both of them. With a grin, she put her arm around his waist. “It’s perfect. Thanks, Owen. Go on over and get Hope, would you? She knows what needs to go up downstairs. I’ve got another acre of tile to clean.”

  “I can hire a cleaning service.”

  She shook her head. “This stage is for family.”

  He supposed that made Hope Beaumont family. She and his mother had hit it off, Owen thought as he crossed the hall. Right from the first beat.

  The former beauty queen stood on a step stool in the apartment kitchen polishing the cabinet doors. She’d tied a bandana around her dark hair, had a rag hanging out of the back pocket of jeans flecked with white paint and nearly worn through on the right knee.

  She glanced around at him, blew out a breath that fluttered her spiky bangs. “It didn’t look as dirty as it was.”

  “Construction dirt gets into everything.” He wondered if he should tell her she’d be sucking and mopping it up for days. Maybe weeks.

  She’d find out for herself, he decided.

  “Making progress,” he said instead.

  “We really are.” She sat on the stool a moment, took a bottle of water from the countertop, and twisted off the top. “Are we really going to have furniture up here tomorrow?”

  “It’s looking good for it.”

  She sipped, smiled.

  She had a smoky voi
ce that suited the sultry looks, all big dark eyes, full, shapely mouth.

  It didn’t hurt, he supposed, to have a looker as innkeeper, but more to the point, much more important to him, her level of organization and efficiency marched along with his own.

  “If you’ve got a minute, Mom said there were some things you wanted put up on the second floor.”

  “And the first if we can squeeze it in. The more shipping boxes we empty, the easier it’ll be to clean, and the smoother the load-in should go.”

  “That’s a good point.” The woman, he thought, spoke his language. “I’m your man. Anything you need done in here?”

  “I’ve got some shelves I need to hang.”

  Oh well, he thought. It was the Day of the Shelves. “I’ll hang them for you.”

  “I’d appreciate it. They’re over at the other apartment. I can get them later.”

  “I can send somebody over for them.”

  “Sure, if you can spare someone. But we can deal with what’s on-site first. I’ve got everything Justine wants hung back in J&R.”

  His language, he thought again.

  “Want a coat?” he asked as she got off the stool.

  “I’ll be fine. It’s a quick trip.” But she pulled the sleeves of her sweatshirt down to her wrists. “I talked to Avery this morning,” she continued as they walked toward the back of the building. “She’s frazzled with so many of her crew out. I’d hoped to go over, give her a hand tonight, but it looks like we’re going to be in here most of the evening.”

  When they went out, she slapped a hand on her bandana before the wind whipped it off. “As cold as it is I’ll bet she’s slammed with deliveries tonight. Who wants to go out in this?”

  She nipped into Jane and Rochester, rubbed her hands together. “So we can hit W&B first. Or since we’re right here, we could work back to front on the second floor. Starting here, with the bathroom shelves and mirror.” She tapped the carefully labeled boxes. “Bathroom mirror.”

  She ran through the items for each room, working down to the first floor.

  “That ought to keep me busy. Let’s save steps, start where we are.”

  “Good. Why don’t I show you where everything goes, then get out of your way. You can send someone up for me if you have any questions.” Taking a folding knife out of her pocket, she slit open a resealed shipping box.

  “I like a woman who carries her own knife.”

  “I’ve filled out my tools since I moved here. I nearly bought my own nail gun, then realized I’d gone too far.” She took out two curved copper shelves. “So I compensated with more office supplies. What is it about new file folders and color-coordinated Post-its?”

  “Preaching to the choir.”

  They chatted amiably as she directed the height, the space, as he measured, leveled, and drilled.