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The Last Boyfriend, Page 3

Nora Roberts

  “It’s perfect. Look how the antique gold of the mirror frame plays off the tiles, and the copper of the tub, the shelves. Wait until Justine sees this.” Turning a circle, she aimed for the bedroom again. “I can’t wait to dress this room. All the rooms. With the fireplace and that amazing bed going in here, I think it’s going to be one of our most popular.”

  She pulled a notebook out of her pocket, checked off items, made notes.

  He grinned when she tucked it away again. “It’s nice to have somebody on my team for a change.”

  “Writing things down saves time in the long run.”

  “Again, preaching to the choir.”

  Together they gathered boxes, carried them to the porch door and through.

  Hope started into Eve and Roarke, and nearly walked straight into Ryder.

  “Mom wants the ceiling light up. Where the hell is it?”

  “I’m carrying it,” Owen told him.

  “Then you install it.”

  “That’s the plan. Hope’s got some things over at her apartment for her place upstairs. Why don’t you go over and get them?”

  “I can get them later,” Hope began.

  “What are they? Where are they?”

  “Shelves, wall shelves. Bath and living room. They’re in marked boxes in my storeroom. In the second bedroom,” she amended. “I’m using it as a storeroom.”

  “I’ll take care of it.”

  “You need the key,” she said when he started to walk away. She reached into her front pocket, offered it.

  He stuffed it in his own pocket. “Have you got those door rack hook things in those boxes?”

  “Some of them,” Owen answered.

  “Get them up, for God’s sake. I don’t want to hear about them anymore. Where’s the one for the ADA room?”

  Because her arms were starting to ache, Hope set down her boxes. “In Jane and Rochester, on the wall facing St. Paul, in a box clearly marked ‘M&P, clothes bar.’ If you’re getting that, you might want to take down the two boxes in the same area, marked ‘M&P bathroom wall shelves.’ But don’t put them up unless either I’m there, or your mother. And we want a small corner shelf beside the sink in M&P.”

  She took out her notebook, flipped pages. “These are the dimensions, the basic concept.”

  Ryder narrowed his eyes at it, then at her. “Why?”

  “Because due to the ADA codes, the layout of the room, we don’t really have a surface for something as basic as a toothbrush. Now we will.”

  “Give me the damn paper.”

  Hope tore it off. “I’m sure Owen or Beckett or one of the crew could take care of it if you’re too busy.”

  He just stuffed the paper into his pocket and walked away.

  “Are you sure he’s your brother?” Hope muttered.

  “Pretty sure. He’s a little stressed with punching out here so we can make the deadline, riding the work on Beck’s house, getting the demo finished next door for the bakery.”

  “It’s a lot,” Hope conceded. “Why aren’t you stressed? You’ve got the same meal on your plate.”

  “Different categories, I guess. I don’t have to boss. I get to negotiate.” He set the shipping box on the floor of the bathroom.

  Considering, Hope unboxed the little glass shelf. “Just a small thing, the kind of detail no one will really notice.”

  “Unless it wasn’t there.”

  “Like a place for your toothbrush.” She smiled, then tapped the wall. “Right here. If you don’t need me, I’ll go back up until you do.”

  Hope slipped into Westley and Buttercup on her way, found Carolee busily mopping the bedroom floor.

  “Carolee, the bathroom looks great. It sparkles.”

  Justine’s sister, her cheeks pink with effort, pushed at her blond hair. “I swear I haven’t cleaned that hard in years. But it’s worth it. I keep thinking, I’m going to work here! I’m going to come into this room all the time. You need me for anything? Boss?”

  Hope laughed. “You’re outpacing me. I stopped to get Owen going on the shelves and so on. I’m just going to see how Justine’s doing, then I’ll be in my apartment. My innkeeper’s apartment. Oh, I nearly forgot. If you’ve got any time over the next couple days, I want to go over the reservation program with you one more time. Because we’re going to start taking reservations.”

  “Oh boy.” Carolee waved her hands in the air in triumph. “Oh boy, oh boy.”

  She felt the same way, Hope thought as she hustled back inside. She hadn’t been so excited over a job since she’d first started at the Wickham Hotel in Georgetown. Not a good comparison, she reminded herself, considering how that had turned out.

  And yet the debacle with Jonathan Wickham, and her decision to resign as manager, had opened the door for her to Inn BoonsBoro.

  A beautiful building, beautifully appointed in a charming town with her two closest friends nearby. No, she’d never been quite this excited over a job.

  She peeked into The Penthouse, saw Justine sitting on the wide windowsill of the parlor, looking out at Main Street.

  “Taking a break,” Justine told her. “That bathroom is huge—and I’ve got no one to blame but myself for that.”

  “I’ll finish it up.”

  “It’s done, but I think we’ll give it one more going-over before the grand-opening party. I was just sitting here thinking how this place looked when I first dragged the boys in to look it over. My God. And I’m thinking, too, how pleased and proud Tommy would be. And how he’s probably a little pissed off he didn’t get to hammer in a few nails.”

  “He taught his sons how to hammer them, so he’s had as much a part in creating this as they have.”

  Justine’s eyes softened. “That’s a good thing to say. Just the right thing.” She held out a hand, giving Hope’s a tug when they joined. “I wish it would snow. I want to see how it looks in the snow, then in the spring and the summer, on into the fall. I want to see it shine here, in every season.”

  “I’ll keep it beautiful for you.”

  “I know you will. You’ll be happy here, Hope. I want you to be happy here, to have everyone who comes to stay happy here.”

  “I’m already happy here.”

  * * *

  HAPPIER THAN SHE’D been in a long time, Hope thought as she went back to polishing her kitchen cabinets. She had an opportunity to do good work for good people.

  She tipped her head as she studied the cabinets. And to reward herself, she’d pop over to the gift store before closing and buy those gorgeous bowls she’d had her eye on. A little personal housewarming gift.

  Ryder carted in boxes. “What is it with women and shelves?” he demanded. “How many linear feet of flat surface does one person need?”

  “That would depend,” she said coolly, “on how many things that person chooses to display.”

  “Dust catchers.”

  “Dust catchers to some, mementos and personal style to others.”

  “Where the hell do you want your flat surfaces for your mementos and personal style? I haven’t got all day.”

  “Just leave them. I’ll deal with them later.”


  He set them on the floor, turned.

  His mother stood in the doorway, arms folded, giving him a look that still made his shoulders hunch and his balls shrink up a little.

  “I apologize for my son, Hope. He’s obviously misplaced his manners inside his crappy mood.”

  “It’s nothing. Ryder’s busy. Everyone’s busy today.”

  “Busy doesn’t serve as an excuse for rude. Does it, Ryder?”

  “No, ma’am. I’d be happy to hang your shelves,” he said to Hope, “if you’ll show me where you want them.”

  “That’s better.” Justine gave him one last hard look before she went back across the hall.

  “Well?” Ryder demanded. “Where am I putting them?”

  “The suggestion I have at the moment wouldn’t be the walls

  His grin came fast and bright, surprising her. “Since I don’t have any mementos I’d like to stick up my ass, how about a second choice?”

  “Just leave them there, and you?” She pointed toward the door.

  Gauging her, he hooked his thumbs in his tool belt. “I’m not afraid of you, but I’m afraid of her. I don’t hang these, she’ll make me pay for it. So I’m not leaving until you pick your spots.”

  “They’re already marked.”

  “What’s marked?”

  “I measured the shelves, I measured the space. I marked the areas.” She gestured to the space between her front windows, then toward the bathroom. “I think you can take it from there.”

  Tossing down her polishing rag, she sailed out. She’d help Owen until his bad-tempered brother finished.

  * * *

  AVERY KEPT UP with the progress across Main by texts, and a quick drop-in from Clare. With the bus tour finished and the rush quieted, she took a short break in the back dining room to scarf down some pasta.

  For now, the video machines stayed silent. She calculated another hour or two before kids slid in after school to set them beeping and banging.

  The quarters added up, she reminded herself.

  “I really wanted to get over, just for a minute, to see.” She gulped down Gatorade. Energy, she thought. She needed all she could get to finish it out till closing. “Hope sent me some pictures over the phone.”

  “I couldn’t give them any real time, either. The bus tour swarmed us, too. God bless them, every one.” Clare smiled, picked at her own salad. “Beckett told me the inspector gave the thumbs-up on the load-in. All of it.”

  “All of it?”

  “It’s nothing but details now, and he’ll be back, but he said they could start bringing everything in. Hope can’t move in, of course, but we can really start setting things up.”

  Sulking, Avery stabbed at pasta. “I’m not going to be left out of this!”

  “Avery, it’ll take days. Weeks, really.”

  “I want to play now.” Then she blew out a breath. “Okay, not now because my feet are already killing me. But tomorrow. Maybe.” She stuffed in more pasta. “Look at you. You look so happy.”

  “I’m happier every day. Yoda threw up in Murphy’s bed this morning.”

  “That’s reason to celebrate, all right.”

  “Definitely not, but Murphy came running for Beckett. It was wonderful.”

  “Yeah, I’d be happy not to be on dog-puke detail.”

  “It’s a factor.” Clare’s eyes danced. “But what really makes me happy is how the boys love Beckett, how they trust him. How he’s part of us now. I’m getting married, Avery. I’m so lucky to love and marry two incredible men in one lifetime.”

  “I think you got my share. You should really give me Beck.”

  “Nope, I’m keeping him.” Her sunny ponytail danced when she shook her head. “Pick one of the others.”

  “Maybe I should get both of them. I could use two sets of hands tonight. And I still have Christmas shopping. Why do I always think I’ll have more time?”

  “Because you always manage to find a way to make the time. Have you said anything to the Montgomerys about the space across the street?”

  “Not yet. Still mulling. You didn’t tell Beckett?”

  “I said I wouldn’t. But it’s hard. I’m getting used to telling him everything.”

  “Love, love, sappy love.” Avery sighed, wiggled her tired toes. “At times like this it seems like a crazy idea anyway. But . . .”

  “You could do it, and do it right.”

  “You’re just saying that because I could.” Avery laughed, and some of the fatigue fell away from her face. “And you love me. I’ve got to get back to work. Are you going over to the inn?”

  “Laurie and Charlene have the store covered. I thought I’d give them an hour or so. Then I have to pick up the boys.”

  “Send me more pictures.”

  “I will.” Clare rose, pulled a wool cap over her sleek blond hair, shrugged a coat over her willowy frame. “Get some sleep, sweetie.”

  “Won’t be a problem. The minute we’re closed I’m going upstairs and falling flat on my face for eight straight. See you tomorrow. I’ve got it,” Avery said when Clare reached for the dishes. “I’m heading back to the kitchen anyway.”

  She waved Clare off, rolled her aching shoulders, then went back to work.

  By seven she was in the zone, sliding pizzas into the oven and out again, boxing them for delivery, passing them to waitstaff for table service.

  Her place buzzed with activity—and that was a good thing, she reminded herself. She dished up pasta, plated burgers and fries, glanced at the boy who sat at the counter playing the Megatouch as if it comprised his world.

  She hustled back to the closed kitchen for more supplies just as Owen walked in.

  He took one look around, frowned when he didn’t see her behind the counter.

  “Where’s Avery?” he asked a waitress.

  “She’s around. The high school chorus decided to come in for pizza after practice. We’re slammed. She must be in the back.”

  “Okay.” He didn’t think about it, just went over to the cash register, grabbed one of the order pads, and headed for the back dining room.

  When he came out, she stood at the counter, cheeks flushed from the heat, ladling sauce on dough. “Orders from the back,” he told her, slapping the slips in place. “I’ll get the drinks.”

  She spread mozzarella, added toppings, watched him.

  You could count on Owen, she thought, through the paper thin to the brick thick, you could count on him.

  For the next three hours she did whatever came next. Baked spaghetti, Warrior’s pizza, eggplant parm, calzone, gyro. By ten it was like being in a trance, cashing out, cleaning counters, shutting down the ovens.

  “Get a beer,” she told Owen. “You earned it.”

  “Why don’t you sit down?”

  “I will, when we finish closing.”

  When the last of her crew left, when she’d locked the door, she turned. A glass of red sat on the counter beside a slice of pepperoni pizza. Owen sat on a stool, with a glass and slice of his own.

  God, yes, you could always count on Owen.

  “Now sit down,” he ordered.

  “Now I will. Thanks. Really, Owen, thanks.”

  “It’s kind of fun, when you don’t have to do it every day.”

  “It’s kind of fun even then, mostly.” She sat, took her first sip of wine. “Oh man, that’s good.” She bit into the pizza. “So’s that.”

  “Nobody makes better.”

  “You’d think I’d get tired of pizza, but it’s still my favorite thing.” Floating on exhaustion, she sighed her way through another bite. “Clare said you’re clear to load in. How’d the cleaning brigade do?”

  “Good, really good. Still some to go, but we’re heading down to the wire.”

  “I’d walk over if I could walk that far.”

  “It’ll be there tomorrow.”

  “Everybody who came in here today, tonight, from town or nearby talked about it. You must be so proud. I know how I felt when I was on the wire here, hanging the art, unpacking kitchen equipment. Proud and excited and a little scared. Here’s my place. I’m really doing it. I still feel that way sometimes. Not tonight,” she said with a weak laugh. “But sometimes.”

  “You’ve got a lot to be proud of here. It’s a good place.”

  “I know a lot of people thought your mom was crazy renting the space to me. How was I going to run a restaurant?”

  He shook his head, thought her skin was pale enough to pass his hand through. The absence of her usual crackling energy made her fatigue seem only more extreme.

  He’d talk her through the slice of pizza, he decided, so she had some food in her. Then he’d get her upstairs so she could get some sleep.

  “I never thought she was crazy. You can do anyt
hing you set your mind to. You always could.”

  “I couldn’t be a rock star. I’d set my mind on that.”

  He remembered her blasting away on a guitar. More enthusiasm than skill, as he recalled. “What were you, fourteen?”

  “Fifteen. I thought my dad was going to faint when I dyed my hair black and got those tattoos.”

  “It’s a good thing they were fake ones.”

  She smiled, sipped more wine. “Not all of them.”

  “Oh yeah? Where— Hold that thought,” he said when his phone rang. “What’s up, Ry?”

  He slid off the stool, listening, answering, looking out the glass door at the lights beaming on the inn.

  When he clipped the phone to his belt again, turned, he saw Avery sound asleep, her head pillowed on the arms she’d laid on the counter.

  She’d managed about half the slice of pizza, about half the wine, he noted. He cleaned off the counter, shut down the lights in the closed kitchen, walked back to shut off all but the security lights throughout.

  Then he considered her.

  He could carry her upstairs—she didn’t weigh much—but he wasn’t sure how he could carry her and lock up at the same time. Take her up, he thought, come back and lock up.

  But when he started to lift her, she jerked up and nearly bashed his face with her shoulder. “What? What is it?”

  “Bedtime. Come on, I’ll get you upstairs.”

  “Did I lock up?”

  “Front’s locked. I’ll get the back.”

  “I’m okay. I’ve got it.”

  When she pulled the keys out, he took them. But carrying her now just seemed weird. Instead, he put an arm around her waist, let her sleepwalk beside him.

  “I just closed my eyes for a minute.”

  “You should keep doing that, for the next eight or nine hours.” He supported her at his side, locked the door behind them. “Heading up,” he said and pulled her up the stairs to her apartment.

  “I’m a little foggy. Thanks for all and whatever.”

  “You’re welcome for all and whatever.”

  He unlocked her apartment door, tried not to wince when he saw she’d yet to completely unpack from the move—fully a month before. He set her keys on the table by the door. “You need to lock up behind me.”