The Last Boyfriend by Nora Roberts
To Dan and Charlotte. For the trust that let you reach for one another. For the generosity and inclusiveness of that embrace. For the humor that brings light to your lives. And for the love, so rich and bright, binding it all together.
Love sought is good,
but given unsought is better.
The heart has its reasons
which reason cannot know.
A FAT WINTER moon poured light over the old stone and brick of the inn on the square. In its beams, the new porches and pickets glowed, and the bright-penny copper of the roof glinted. The old and new merged there—the past and the now—in a strong and happy marriage.
Its windows stayed dark on this December night, prizing its secrets in shadows. But in a matter of weeks they would shine like others along Boonsboro’s Main Street.
As he sat in his truck at the light on The Square, Owen Montgomery looked up Main at the shops and apartments draped in their holiday cheer. Lights winked and danced. To his right, a pretty tree graced the big front window of the second-floor apartment. Their future innkeeper’s temporary residence reflected her style. Precise elegance.
Next Christmas, he thought, they’d have Inn BoonsBoro covered with white lights and greenery. And Hope Beaumont would center her pretty little tree in the window of the innkeeper’s apartment on the third floor.
He glanced to his left where Avery MacTavish, owner of Vesta Pizzeria and Family Restaurant, had the restaurant’s front porch decked out in lights.
Her apartment above—formerly his brother Beckett’s—also showed a tree in the window. Otherwise the windows were as dark as the inn’s. She’d be working tonight, he thought, noting the movement in the restaurant. He shifted, but couldn’t see her behind the work counter.
When the light changed, he turned right onto St. Paul Street, then left into the parking lot behind the inn. Then sat in his truck a moment, considering. He could walk over to Vesta, he thought, have a slice and a beer, hang out until closing. Afterward he could do his walk-through of the inn.
He didn’t actually need to walk through, he reminded himself. But he hadn’t been on-site all day as he’d been busy with other meetings, other details on other Montgomery Family Contractors’ business. He didn’t want to wait until morning to see what his brothers and the crew had accomplished that day.
Besides, Vesta looked busy, and had barely thirty minutes till closing. Not that Avery would kick him out at closing—probably. More than likely, she’d sit down and have a beer with him.
Tempting, he thought, but he really should do that quick walk-through and get home. He needed to be on-site, with his tools, by seven.
He climbed out of the truck and into the frigid air, already pulling out his keys. Tall like his brothers, with a build leaning toward rangy, he hunched in his jacket as he walked around the stone courtyard wall toward the doors of The Lobby.
His keys were color-coded, something his brothers called anal, and he deemed efficient. In seconds he was out of the cold and into the building.
He hit the lights, then just stood there, grinning like a moron.
The decorative tile rug highlighted the span of the floor and added another note of charm to the softly painted walls with their custom, creamy wainscoting. Beckett had been right on target about leaving the side wall exposed brick. And their mother had been dead-on about the chandelier.
Not fancy, not traditional, but somehow organic with its bronzy branches and narrow, flowing globes centered over that tile rug. He glanced right, noted The Lobby restrooms with their fancy tiles and green-veined stone sinks had been painted.
He pulled out his notebook, jotted down the need for a few touch-ups before he walked through the stone arch to the left.
More exposed brick—yeah, Beckett had a knack. The laundry room shelves showed ruthless organization—that would be Hope’s hand; her iron will had booted his brother Ryder out of his on-site office so she could start organizing.
He paused at what would be Hope’s office, saw his brother’s mark there: the sawhorses and a sheet of plywood forming his rough desk, the fat white binder—the job bible—some tools, cans of paint.
Wouldn’t be much longer, Owen calculated, before Hope kicked Ryder out again.
He continued on, stopped to bask at the open kitchen.
They’d installed the lights. The big iron fixture over the island, the smaller versions at each window. Warm wood cabinets, creamy accent pieces, smooth granite paid complement to gleaming stainless steel appliances.
He opened the fridge, started to reach for a beer. He’d be driving shortly, he reminded himself, and took a can of Pepsi instead before he made a note to call about installation of the blinds and window treatments.
They were nearly ready for them.
He moved on to Reception, took another scan, grinned again.
The mantel Ryder had created out of a thick old plank of barn wood suited the old brick and the deep open fireplace. At the moment, tarps, more paint cans, more tools crowded the space. He made a few more notes, wandering back, moving through the first arch, then paused on his way across The Lobby to what would be The Lounge, when he heard footsteps on the second floor.
He walked through the next arch leading down the short hallway toward the stairs. He saw Luther had been hard at work on the iron rails, and ran a hand over it as he started the climb.
“Okay, pretty damn gorgeous. Ry? You up here?”
A door shut smartly, made him jump a little. His quiet blue eyes narrowed as he finished the climb. His brothers weren’t against screwing with him, and damned if he’d give either of them an excuse to snicker.
“Ooooh,” he said in mock fear. “It must be the ghost. I’m so scared!”
He made the turn toward the front of the building, saw that the door to Elizabeth and Darcy was indeed closed, unlike that of Titania and Oberon across from it.
Very funny, he thought sourly.
He crept toward the door, intending to shove it open, jump in, and possibly give whichever one of his brothers was playing games a jolt. He closed his hand on the curved handle, pulled it down smoothly, pushed.
The door didn’t budge.
“Cut it out, asshole.” But he laughed a little in spite of himself. At least until the door flew open, and both porch doors did the same.
He smelled honeysuckle, sweet as summer, on the rush of icy air.
He’d mostly accepted they had a ghost, mostly believed it. After all, there’d been incidents, and Beckett was adamant. Adamant enough he’d named her Elizabeth in honor of the room she preferred.
But this was Owen’s first personal, up-close, and unarguable experience.
He stood, slack-jawed, as the bathroom door slammed, then flew open, then slammed again.
“Okay. Wow, okay. Um, sorry to intrude. I was just—” The door slammed in his face—or would have if he hadn’t jumped back in time to avoid the bust to his nose.
“Hey, come on. You’ve got to know me by now. I’m here almost every day. Owen, Beck’s brother. I, ah, come in peace and all that.”
The bathroom door slammed again, and the sound made him wince. “Easy on the material, okay? What’s the problem? I was just . . . Oh. I get it.”
Clearing his throat, he pulled off his wool cap, raked his hands through his thick, bark brown hair. “Listen, I wasn’t calling you an asshole. I thought it was Ry. You know my other brother. Ryder? He can be an asshole, you have to admit. And I’m standing in the hallway explaining myself to a ghost.”
The door opened a crack. Cautiously, Owen eased it open. “I’m just going to close the porch doors. We really have to keep them closed.”
He could admit, to himself, the sound of his own voice echoing in the empty room gave him the jitters, but he shoved the cap into his coat pocket as he moved to the far door, shut it, locked it. But when he got to the second door, he saw the lights shining in Avery’s apartment over the restaurant.
He saw her, or a flash of her, move by the window.
The rush of air stilled; the scent of honeysuckle sweetened.
“I’ve smelled you before,” he murmured, still looking out at Avery’s windows. “Beckett says you warned him the night that fucker—sorry for the language—Sam Freemont went after Clare. So thanks for that. They’re getting married—Beck and Clare. You probably know that. He’s been stuck on her most of his life.”
He shut the door now, turned around. “So thanks again.”
The bathroom door stood open now, so he caught his own reflection in the mirror with its curvy iron frame over the vanity.
He had to admit, he looked a little wild-eyed, and the hair sticking up in tufts from the rake of his fingers added to the spooked image.
Automatically, he shoved his fingers through again to try to calm it down.
“I’m just going through the place, making notes. We’re down to punch-out work essentially. Not in here, though. This is done. I think the crew wanted to finish this room up. Some of them get a little spooked. No offense. So . . . I’m going to finish up and go. See you—or not see you, but . . .”
Whatever, he decided, and backed out of the room.
He spent more than thirty minutes, moving from room to room, floor to floor, adding to his notes. A few times, the scent of honeysuckle returned, or a door opened.
Her presence—and he couldn’t deny it—seemed benign enough now. But he couldn’t deny the faint sense of relief either as he locked up for the night.
* * *
FROST CRUNCHED LIGHTLY under Owen’s boots as he juggled coffee and donuts. A half hour before sunrise, he let himself back into the inn, headed straight to the kitchen to set down the box of donuts, the tray of take-out coffee, and his briefcase. To brighten the mood, and because it was there, he moved to Reception, switched on the gas logs. Pleased by the heat and light, he stripped off his gloves, folded them into the pockets of his jacket.
Back in the kitchen, he opened his briefcase, took out his clipboard, and began to review—again—the agenda for the day. The phone on his belt beeped, signaling the time for the morning meeting.
He’d finished half a glazed donut by the time he heard Ryder’s truck pull in.
His brother wore a Montgomery Family Contractors cap, a thick, scarred work jacket, and his need-more-coffee scowl. Dumbass, Ryder’s dog, padded in, sniffed the air, then looked longingly at the second half of Owen’s donut.
Ryder grunted, reached for a cup.
“That’s Beck’s,” Owen told him with barely a glance. “As is clear by the B I wrote on the side.”
Ryder grunted again, took the cup marked R. After one long gulp he eyed the donuts, opted for a jelly-filled.
At the thump of D.A.’s tail, Ryder tossed him a chunk.
“Beck’s late,” Owen commented.
“You’re the one who decided we needed to meet up before dawn.” Ryder took a huge bite of donut, washed it down with coffee. He hadn’t shaved, so a dark stubble covered the hard planes of his face. But his gold-flecked green eyes lost some of their sleepy scowl thanks to the caffeine and sugar.
“Too many interruptions once the crew’s here. I looked around some on my way home last night. You had a good day.”
“Damn straight. We’ll finish punch-out on the third floor this morning. Some trim and crown molding, some lights and those damn heated towel racks still to go in a couple rooms on two. Luther’s moving on the rails and banisters.”
“So I saw. I’ve got some notes.”
“I’ll have more, I expect, when I finish going over two, and head up to three.”
“Why wait?” Ryder grabbed a second donut, started out. He tossed another chunk without bothering to glance at the dog, who trotted with him.
Dumbass fielded it with Golden Gloves precision.
“Beckett’s not here.”
“Dude’s got a woman,” Ryder pointed out, “and three kids. School morning. He’ll be here when he is, and can catch up.”
“There’s some paint needs touching up down here,” Owen began.
“I got eyes, too.”
“I’m going to have them come in, install the blinds throughout. If three gets punched out today, I can have them start on the window treatments by early next week.”
“The men cleaned up, but it’s construction clean. It needs a real cleaning, a polish. You need to get the innkeeper on that.”
“I’ll be talking to Hope this morning. I’m going to talk County into letting us start load-in.”
Ryder slanted a look at his brother. “We’ve got another two weeks, easy, and that’s not counting the holidays.”
But Owen, as usual, had a plan. “We can get three done, Ry, start working our way down. You think Mom and Carolee—not to mention Hope—aren’t going to be running around buying more stuff once we get things in place?”
“I do figure it. We don’t need them underfoot any more than they already are.”
They heard a door open from below as they rounded up to the third floor.
“On three,” Owen called down. “Coffee’s in the kitchen.”
“Thank you, Jesus.”
“Jesus didn’t buy the coffee.” Owen brushed his fingers over the oil-rubbed bronzed oval plaque engraved Innkeeper. “Classy touch.”
“The place is full of them.” Ryder gulped more coffee as they stepped inside.
“It looks good.” Owen nodded as he toured through, into and out of the little kitchen, the bath, circling the two bedrooms. “It’s a nice, comfortable space. Pretty and efficient, like our innkeeper.”
“She’s damn near as pain-in-the-ass fussy as you are.”
“Remember who keeps you in donuts, bro.”
At the word donuts, D.A. wagged his entire body. “You’re done, pal,” Ryder told him, and with a doggie sigh, D.A. sprawled on the floor.
Owen glanced over as Beckett came up the steps.
He’d shaved, Owen noted, and looked bright-eyed. Maybe a little wild-eyed, as he imagined most men did with three kids under the age of ten and the school-morning chaos that created.
He remembered his own school mornings well enough, and wondered how his parents had resisted doing major drugs.
“One of the dogs puked in Murphy’s bed,” Beckett announced. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Works for me. Owen’s talking about window treatments and loading in.”
Beckett paused as he gave Dumbass a quick head rub. “We’ve still got trim to run, painting, punch-out.”
“Not up here.” Owen crossed to the first of their two suites, The Penthouse. “We could outfit this suite. Hope could move her stuff in across the hall. How about Westley and Buttercup?”
“It’s done. We hung the bathroom mirror and lights yesterday.”
“Then I’ll tell Hope to break out the mop, get this level shined up.” Though he trusted Ryder, he’d check the room himself. “She’s got the list of what goes where, so she can run down to Bast, tell them what to deliver up here.”
He made notes on his clipboard—shipment of towels and linens, purchase of lightbulbs and so on. Behind his back Beckett and Ryder exchanged looks.
“I guess we’re loading in.”
“I don’t know who ‘we’ is,” Ryder corrected. “It’s not me or the crew. We’ve got to finish the damn place.”
“Don’t bitch at me.” Beckett held up his hands. “I’ve got to make the changes to the bakery project next door if we’re going to shift the crew from here to there without much of a lag.”
“I could use a lag,” Ryder muttered but headed down behind Owen.
Owen paused at Elizabeth and Darcy, gave the propped-open door a study. “Beckett, you might want to talk to your pal, Lizzy. Make sure she keeps this door open, and the terrace doors shut.”
“It is open. They are shut.”
“Now they are. She got a little peeved last night.”
Intrigued, Beckett lifted his brows. “Is that so?”
“I guess I had my personal close encounter. I did a walk-through last night, heard somebody up here. I figured it for one of you, messing with me. She thought I called her an asshole, and let me know she didn’t care for it.”
Beckett’s grin spread wide and quick. “She’s got a temper.”
“Tell me. We made up, I think. But in case she holds a grudge.”
“We’re done in here, too,” Ryder told him. “And in T&O. We’ve got to run the crown molding and baseboard in N&N, and there’s some touch-up in E&R, and the bathroom ceiling light in there. It came in, finally, yesterday. J&R in the back’s full of boxes. Lamps, lamps, more lamps, shelves, and God knows. But it’s punched out.
“I’ve got a list, too.” Ryder tapped his head while the dog walked over to sit at his side. “I just don’t have to write every freaking thing down in ten places.”
“Robe hooks, towel racks, TP dispensers,” Owen began.
“On the slate for today.”
“Mirrors, flat screens, switch plates and outlet covers, door bumpers.”
“On the slate, Owen.”
“You’ve got the list of what goes where?”
“Nobody likes a nag, Sally.”
“Exit signs need to go up.” Owen continued working down his list as he walked to The Dining Room. “Wall sconces in here. The boxes we built for the fire extinguishers need to be painted and installed.”
“Once you shut up, I can get started.”
“Brochures, website, advertising, finalizing room rates, packages, room folders.”
“Not my job.”
“Exactly. Count your frigging blessings. How much longer for the revised plans on the bakery project?” Owen asked Beckett.
“I’ll have them to the permit office tomorrow morning.”
“Good deal.” He took out his phone, switched it to calendar. “Let’s nail it down. I’m going to tell Hope to open reservations for January fifteenth. We can have the grand-opening deal on the thirteenth, give us a day for putting it all back together. Then we’re up.”
“That’s less than a month,” Ryder complained.