His mother was driving him crazy. If she popped up with another project before he finished one of the half dozen currently on his plate, he might just take his dog and move to Barbados.
He could build himself a nice little beach house. Maybe a lanai. He had the skills.
Ryder pulled his truck into the lot behind the inn, major project, finished – thank God – but never really done because there was always something. The inn shared that lot with what would be, according to the ever-plotting Justine Montgomery, a pretty, clever, state-of-the-art fitness center.
Right now it was an ugly, green, flat-roofed, leaky lump. And that was just the outside. Inside cur-rently boasted a rabbit warren of rooms, a basement full of water, staircases out of a horror movie, and falling-down ceilings. Not to mention the abysmal state of the wiring and plumbing, which he wouldn’t since they’d just gut the whole fucking mess.
Part of him wanted to sneak in some night on a giant machine and bulldoze the whole fugly building. But he knew better, and could admit he enjoyed a challenge.
He had one.
Still, as the always reliable Owen had texted him the demo permit was in, at least they could start tearing in.
Ryder sat a moment with his homely and sweet-natured dog, Dumbass, beside him while Lady Gaga seduced the edge of glory. Chick was pretty weird, Ryder thought, but she sure had the pipes.
Together Ryder and his dog studied the ugly green lump. He liked demo. Beating the shit out of walls never failed to satisfy. So that was something. And the work, transforming the ugly bastard, would be interesting.
A fitness center. He didn’t understand people who plugged themselves into a machine and went nowhere. Why not do something constructive that made you sweat? A gym, yeah, he could see a gym with speed bags, a sparring ring, some serious weights. But fitness center said girly to him. Yoga and that Pilates stuff.
And women in those snug little outfits, he reminded himself. Yeah, there was that. Like demo, who wouldn’t enjoy that?
No point brooding about it anyway, he decided. It was a done deal.
He got out of the truck, and D.A. hopped out faithfully beside him.
He couldn’t figure out why he was in such a broody mood anyway. The bakery project was down to punch-out and paint, Avery’s MacT’s was coming right along – and he looked forward to sitting down on a bar stool in her new pub and having a beer.
He had a kitchen remodel all but wrapped, and Owen was handling some built-ins for another client. A lot of work was better than no work. He could build a beach house in Barbados when he was old.
Still, he felt edgy and annoyed, and couldn’t quite figure out why. Until he glanced over at the inn.
Hope Beaumont. Yeah, that might account for some edgy.
She did a good job, no question about that. The fact that she was anal, obsessively organized, and a chewer of details didn’t bother him especially. He’d lived and worked with that type all his life, in the form of his brother Owen.
Just something about her got under his skin, and tended to burn there from time to time since they’d locked lips on New Year’s Eve.
It had been an accident, he told himself. An impulse. An accidental impulse. He didn’t intend to repeat it.
But he could wish she was a plump, homely, middle-aged woman with a couple of grandkids and a knitting hobby.
“One day she could be,” he muttered to D.A., who obligingly thumped his tail.
With a shrug, he walked down, crossed over, and opened the door of the future MacT’s Restau-rant and Tap House for the crew.
He liked the space, liked it particularly now that they’d rejoined the two buildings, opening the wall between with a wide doorway so the restaurant and bar patrons, and the staff, could move from one side to the other.
Avery knew what she wanted, and how to make it happen, so he knew MacT’s would be a good place to eat and drink, to socialize if socializing was your thing. Good dining for grown-ups she called it, as opposed to the casual family style of Vesta.
He had a soft spot for Vesta – and a softer one for their Warrior’s Pizza, but as Avery had been trying out recipes on them for months, he figured he’d be able to choke down a meal or two in her new place.
He crossed over to the opening, studied the bar space. A lot of work yet, he judged, but he could envision it finished, with the long bar he and his brothers were building in place. Dark woods, strong colors, some brick on the walls. And all those beers on tap.
Yeah, it wouldn’t hurt his feelings to spend some time there, and hoist a beer in satisfaction of a job well done.
When it was done.
He heard voices, crossed back over.
Once he got the crew going, he walked down to the bakery to check on the men there. If he’d had a choice, he’d have strapped on his tool belt, gotten to the real work.
But he had a morning meeting scheduled back at the new job site, and he was already running late.
He started back around, saw both of his brothers’ trucks in the lot. He assumed Owen had picked up coffee and donuts as well as the demo permit. You could count on Owen in the everyday and in a nuclear holocaust.
He thought of Beckett, married to Clare the Fair, instant father of three, and now the expectant father of twins.
But maybe the thrill of upcoming twins would distract their mother from thinking up a new pro-ject.
He went through the open doors on St. Paul, smelled the coffee.
Yeah, you could count on Owen.
He plucked out the single go-cup left, the one with an R written with a Sharpie by his anal brother. Glugged even as he flipped up the lid on the donuts.
His dog’s tail immediately sent out a tattoo on the floor.
He heard his brothers’ voices, somewhere in the rabbit warren, but took his coffee and, after toss-ing D.A. a chunk of his jelly-filled donut, walked over to the plans spread out on the plywood and sawhorses.
He’d seen them before, of course, but they knocked him out. Beckett’s concept gave their mother everything she wanted, and more. Yeah, he thought, better than bulldozing it. Better to gut what needed gutting and build on what could be built on.
It didn’t look like a gym to Ryder – at least not the speed-bag, sweat-soaked locker room–type he might frequent, but it was a beauty.
And enough work, enough complications to make him curse Beckett’s name for weeks, months. Possibly years.
And still . . .
Lifting and pitching the roof was practical as well as aesthetically pleasing. Taking the flat-roofed jut off the parking lot side and making it into a deck, also smart. Plenty of glass for plenty of light with new windows and doors. God knew the place needed them, even if it meant cutting into the cinder-block walls.
Fancy locker rooms with steam rooms and saunas. His keep-it-basic mind balked at that, but he had to admit, he liked a good, long steam.
He ate his donut, tossing bits to the tail-thumping D.A., while he studied the first floor, the sec-ond floor, the mechanicals.
Beautiful work, he thought. Beckett had the talent and the vision, even if invariably some of the vision was a pain in the ass on a practical work level.
He washed down the donut with coffee as his brothers walked out of the maze.
“Check,” Owen said. “Good morning to you, too.” His sunglasses hung from the neck of his spotless white T-shirt. Since Beckett intended for him to join in the demo, the spotless wouldn’t last long.
“You press those jeans, Sally?”
“No.” Owen’s quiet blue eyes flicked toward the donuts before he broke a cruller in half. “They’re just clean. I have a couple meetings later.”
“Uh-huh. Hey, Big Daddy.”
Beckett grinned, raked fingers through his mop of chestnut brown hair. “The boys want to name them Logan and Luke.”
“Wolverine and Skywalker.” Amused, Ryder considered. “Melding X-Men and Star Wars. Inter-esting choice.”
“I like it. Clare laughed it off at first, then the idea got a hook in. They’re good names.”
“Good enough for Wolverine and Skywalker.”
“I think we’re going with them, which is cool. My ears keep ringing though. You know, like they do after an explosion.”
“Two’s just one more than one,” Owen pointed out. “It’s about planning and scheduling.”
“Because you have so much experience with rug rats,” Ryder said with a snort.
“Everything’s about planning and scheduling,” Owen countered. “Speaking of which, let’s check the plans and schedules.” He pulled his phone off his belt.
Ryder decided on another donut, let the sugar and fat soothe him through the volley of details. Inspections, permits, material orders and deliveries, rough-ins, finals, shop work, site work.
Ryder kept it all in his head as well, just maybe not as precisely columned and tallied as Owen. But he knew what had to be done and when, which men to assign to which job, and how long the steps should take. On the inside, and – given the vagaries of construction – the outside.
“Mom’s looking at equipment,” Beckett put in when Owen paused. “You know, treadmills and cross-trainers and all that happy shit.”
“I’m not going to think about that.” Ryder looked around. Crap walls, he thought, crap floors. Just crap. Cross-trainers and dumbbells and freaking yoga mats were a hell of a long way off.
“We may want to think about the parking lot.”
Now Ryder’s eyes narrowed on Owen. “What about the parking lot?”
“Now that we’ve got it all, instead of patching we should tear the bitch up, level it, add drains, resurface.”
“Hell.” He wanted to object, just on general principles, but they needed the damn drainage. “Fine. But I’m not thinking about that now either.”
“What are you thinking about?”
Rather than answer, Ryder just walked out.
“Is he bitchier than usual?” Owen wondered.
“Hard to tell.” Beckett looked down at the drawings again. “It’s going to be a pain in the ass – and mostly in his – but it’s going to work.”
“Ugliest building in town.”
“Yeah, it wins that prize. The good news is anything we do’s an improvement. As soon as the Dumpster gets here, we can – ”
He broke off as Ryder came in with a sledgehammer and a crowbar.
“Get your own,” Ryder told them and, setting the crowbar aside, chose a wall at random. Swung away. The hard, undeniably satisfying thwack send drywall chips flying.
“The Dumpster . . . ” Owen began.
“It’s on its way isn’t it?” Putting his back into it, Ryder swung again. “According to the holy word of your sacred schedule.”
“We should bring in some of the crew,” Beckett considered.
“Why should they have all the fun?” When the sledgehammer arced again, D.A. crawled under the sawhorses for a nap.
“He’s got a point.” Beckett glanced at Owen, got a shrug and grin. “We ought to start on the second floor.”
“This one’s not load-bearing.” Another couple swings and Ryder had the flimsy interior wall in rubble. “But yeah.” He leaned on the hammer, grinned back at his brothers. “Let’s gut this bitch.”
After a few days of listening to bangs and crashes, Hope’s curiosity won. With Carolee on duty – the honeymooners were now into their fourth day of their wedding-night stay – she crossed the lot toward the newest Montgomery family project. She had a legitimate reason for seeking them out, but could admit her primary motive was curiosity.
She’d heard plenty of banging throughout the day, and every glance out the window showed her some grubby guy hauling debris out, and into a huge green Dumpster.
A text from Avery netted her the intel that demolition had begun on the projected fitness center.
She wanted to see for herself.
The banging booms increased as she approached, and she heard a burst of manic male laughter through the open windows. Grinding, guitar-heavy rock rolled out with it.
She walked up to the side entrance – what was left of it – peeked in.
Her eyes widened.
She’d never been in the building, but she’d looked in the windows, and she was pretty sure there’d been walls, and ceilings.
Now barely a skeleton remained, along with the tangled wire intestines and massive amounts of gray dust.
Cautious now as the thuds, thumps, and bangs seemed to shake the entire structure, she went around to the front.
The door stood open. To air it out? she wondered. Who knew?
Another door, one that led up to what had been second-level apartments, stood open as well. Music, men, bangs echoed down.
She considered the narrow stairs, the grimy stairwell, the noise. Not that curious, she decided, and backed away.
As she circled back around, two men – coated with gray dust, all but anonymous in their safety goggles, work gloves, and grimy faces, hauled out another load of what must have once been a wall. It landed in the Dumpster with a muffled thump.
“Excuse me,” she began.
She recognized Ryder by the way he turned his head, angled his body.
He shoved up his goggles, aimed one of his mildly annoyed stares with those impatient green eyes. “You’re going to want to stay back.”
“I can see that. It looks like you’re taking the building down to the shell.”
“That’s about it. You need to stay clear.”
“Yes, so you said.”
“Actually, yes. I’m having a problem with some of the lights – the wall sconces. I thought if your electrician was here, he could – ”
“He left.” Ryder gave his helper a head jerk to send him back inside, then dragged off his safety goggles.
Now he looked a little like a reverse raccoon, Hope thought, and couldn’t quite hold back the smile. “It’s dirty work.”
“And a lot of it,” Ryder replied. “What kind of problem?”
“They won’t stay on. They – ”
“Have you changed the bulbs?”
She just stared at him. “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”
“Okay. Somebody will come check it out. Is that it?”
“For the moment.”
He gave her a nod, boosted himself back through the opening, and disappeared.
“Thanks so much,” Hope muttered to empty air, and walked back to the inn.
It usually lifted her mood, just walking inside. The way it looked, the way it smelled – especially now as Carolee’s chocolate chip cookies sweetened the air. But she strode straight into the kitchen, irked everywhere.
“What is that man’s problem?”
Carolee, face flushed from baking, slid a batch of cookies in the wall oven. “Which man, honey?”
“Ryder Montgomery. Is rudeness his religion?”
“He can be a little abrupt, especially when he’s working. Which is, I guess, almost always. What did he do?”
“Nothing. He was just himself. You know how we’ve had those sconces keep burning out, or not coming on? I went over to tell him – or one of them, and drew him. He actually asked if I’d changed the bulbs. Do I look like a moron?”
With a smile, Carolee held out a cookie. “No, but they did actually have a tenant once that re-ported a problem, and Ry went all the way over to find out the problem with the light was a burned-out bulb. The woman, and I guess she was a moron, was stunned to realize she had to change the lightbulb.”
“Hmm.” Hope bit into the cookie. “Still.”
“So what’s going on over there?”
“Banging and crashing and a lot of crazed laughing.”
“Demo. It’s fun.”
“I suppose. I didn’t realize they were taking the whole place down to the bones. No great loss, but I didn’t realize.” And she fretted a little how the noise factor would affect her guests.
“You should see the plans. I got a peek at them. It’s going to be wonderful.”
“I don’t doubt it. They do good work.”
“Justine’s already started looking at light fixtures and sinks.”
The cookie, and Carolee, shifted Hope’s mood. “She’s in heaven.”
“She’s going all modern and sleek and shiny. Lots of chrome, she said. It’s one look, you know, rather than a lot of them like here, but it’s still a lot to figure out. It’ll be fun to watch it all come together.”
“It will.” Yes, it would, she realized. She hadn’t been in on the renovations here from the start. Now she’d see another building done from beginning to end. “I’m going to get some work done be-fore check-in.”
“I’m going to run to the market when the cookies are done. Anything you want to add to the list?”
“I think we covered it. Thanks, Carolee.”
“I love my job.”
So did she, Hope thought as she settled into her office. One difficult Montgomery couldn’t spoil it.
She checked her email, smiled at the thank-you note from a previous guest, wrote a memo to ful-fill an upcoming guest’s request for a bottle of champagne to surprise his parents on their visit.
She checked reservations – a full house for the weekend – reviewed her own personal calendar.
When the florist arrived, she took the fresh arrangements upstairs to Titania and Oberon. Though she’d already done so, she did a last check of the room to make certain everything was perfect for the new guests.
Following habit and routine, she went into The Library, checked the lights – her daily list in-cluded checking all lights and lamps for burned-out bulbs, thank you, Ryder Montgomery. Using her phone, she emailed herself when she found one, added a directive to bring up more coffee disks for The Library’s machine.
She continued downstairs to run the same check on The Lounge, The Lobby, The Dining Room. Then she turned into the kitchen, and had to bite back a yelp when she spotted Ryder in the kitchen helping himself to the cookies.
“I didn’t hear you come in.” How did he move that quietly in those big, clunky boots?
“I just got here. Good cookies.”
“Carolee just baked them. She must still be at the market.”
He just stood, eating his cookie, staring at her with his dog at his feet, grinning. The doggie grin led her to conclude he’d also enjoyed a cookie.
The man had cleaned up – mostly. At least he hadn’t tracked demolition dust in with him.
“Well. There’s one on two, and another on three.” She turned away, assuming he’d follow.
“Anybody in the place?”
“We have guests in W&B, but they’re out, and we have guests coming in for T&O. See, now it’s on.” She gestured toward the second wall sconce when they topped the stairs. “I was just up here, and it wasn’t.”
“Look, you can ask Carolee if you don’t believe me.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t believe you.”
“You act like you don’t.” Fuming a little, she walked up to three. “There! It’s off, as you can see for yourself.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” He went over, lifted off the globe, unscrewed the bulb. “Got a fresh one?”
“I keep some in my apartment, but it’s not the bulb.”
She pulled out a key, unlocked her apartment door.
Ryder put a hand on it before it could close in his face. He stayed out of her space, but hey, he was right here. So he pushed the door all the way open, took a look inside.
Neat and tidy, like the rest of the place. Smelled good, too – like the rest of the place. No clutter. Not a lot of girly fuss either, and he’d expected that. A lot of pillows on the sofa, but he knew few women who wouldn’t load a couch and bed with pillows. Strong colors, a couple of plants in pots, fat candles.
She swung out of her kitchen, stopped short so he knew he’d given her another jolt. Then she held out the new bulb.
He strolled down, screwed it in. It burned bright.
“It’s not the bulb,” Hope insisted. “I put the other in this morning.”
D.A. sat by Ryder’s feet, eyes on The Penthouse door. His tail wagged.
“Don’t okay me. I’m telling you, it’s – There!” Her voice held a note of triumph as the bulb went dark. “It did it again. There has to be a short, or something wrong with the wiring.”
“What do you mean, no? You just saw for yourself.” As she spoke, the door to The Penthouse eased open.
Hope barely glanced back. Then it hit her. She smelled the honeysuckle, of course, but she’d gotten so used to it. “Why would she play with the lights?”
“How would I know?” His shoulders lifted as his thumbs hooked in his front pockets. “Maybe she’s bored. She’s been dead awhile. Or maybe she’s pissed at you.”
“She is not. There’s no reason.” Hope started to close The Penthouse door, pushed it open in-stead. “There’s water running.”
She clipped down the short hall into the big elaborate bathroom. Water ran into the double vessel sinks on the counter, in the generous jet tub, from the shower and body jets.
“Oh, for God’s sake.”
“Does this happen often?”
“It’s a first. Come on, Lizzy,” she muttered, turning off the sink faucets. “I have guests coming.”
Ryder opened the glass door, turned off the showerhead, the body jets.
“I’m doing the research.” Impatient now, Hope turned off the tub. “I know Owen is, too, but it’s not exactly a snap to find someone named Billy who lived, we assume, during the nineteenth cen-tury.”
“If your ghost is acting up, I can’t do anything about it.” Ryder swiped his wet hand on his jeans.
“She’s not my ghost. It’s your building.”
“She’s your ancestor.” With his habitual shrug, he went out, walked to the parlor door. He tried the knob, glanced back. “How about telling your great-great-whatever to cut it out.”
“Cut what out?”
He jiggled the knob again.
“That’s just – ” She nudged him aside, tried the knob herself. “This is ridiculous.” Out of patience entirely, Hope continued to rattle the knob. Then she threw up her hands, jabbed a finger at it. “Do something.”
“Take off the knob, or the whole door.”
She frowned, glanced down. “You don’t have your tools? Why don’t you have your tools? You always have your tools.”
“It was a lightbulb.”
Temper merged with just a touch of panic. “It wasn’t a lightbulb. I told you it wasn’t a lightbulb. What are you doing?”
“I’m going to sit down a minute.”
At her near-shout, D.A. moseyed to a corner and curled into it. Out of the line of fire.
“Don’t you dare sit on that chair. You’re not clean.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” But he went around the chair, opened the window. And considered the logistics of the roof.
“Don’t go out there! What am I supposed to do when you fall?”
“No. Seriously, Ryder. Call one of your brothers, or the fire department, or – ”
“I’m not calling the fire department because the damn door won’t open.”
She held up her hands, took a breath. Then sat down herself. “I’m just going to calm down.”
“There’s no call to be snotty with me.” She pushed at her hair – and yes, the in-between length definitely annoyed. “I didn’t jam the door.”
“Snotty?” It might’ve been a smirk, might’ve been a sneer, but it hit just between the two. “I’m being snotty?”
“You take snotty to a new level. You don’t have to like me, and I keep out of your way as much as possible. But I run this inn, and damn well. Our paths have to cross occasionally. You could at least pretend to be polite.”
Now he leaned back against the door. “I don’t pretend to be anything, and who says I don’t like you?”
“You do. Every time you’re snotty.”
“Maybe that’s my response to snooty.”
“Snooty!” Sincerely insulted, she goggled at him. “I’m not snooty.”
“You’ve got it down to a science. But that’s your deal.” He moved over, looked out the window again.
“You’ve been rude to me since the first minute I met you. Right in this room, before it was a room.”
She remembered the moment perfectly, the dizziness, the powerful surge inside her body, the way the light had seemed to burst around him.
She didn’t want to think about it.
Irritated, he turned around. “Maybe it had something to do with you looking at me like I’d punched you in the face.”
“I did not. I just had a momentary . . . I don’t know.”
“Maybe because you charge around on stilts.”
“Seriously? Now you’re criticizing my shoes?”
She made a sound in her throat that struck him as feral, leaped up, and banged a fist on the door. “Open this damn door!”
“She’ll open it when she’s ready. You’re just going to hurt yourself.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” She couldn’t say why his matter-of-fact reaction increased her own temper, and that hint of panic. “You – you don’t even use my name. It’s like you don’t know it.”
“I know your name. Stop banging on the door. Hope. See, I know your name. Stop it.”
He reached up, covered her fisted hand with his.
And she felt it again, that surge, that strange dizziness. Cautiously, she braced against the door, turned her head to look at him.
Close again, as they’d been on New Year’s. Close enough to see those gold flecks scattered across the green of his eyes. Close enough to see the heat, and the consideration in them.
She didn’t think about leaning in, but her body did. To stop it, she pressed a hand on his chest. Was his heart a little unsteady? She thought it might be. Maybe she only hoped it, so she wouldn’t be alone.
“She trapped Owen and Avery in E&D,” Hope remembered. “She wanted them to . . .” Kiss. To discover each other. “She’s a romantic.”
Ryder stepped back, and the moment broke like glass. “Right now she’s a nuisance.”
The window he’d opened closed quietly on its own.
“I’d say she’s making a statement.” Calmer now, steadier as he seemed less so, Hope pushed at her hair. “Oh for God’s sake, Ryder, just kiss me. It won’t kill you, and then she’ll let us out of here.”
“Maybe I don’t like having women – dead ones or live ones – maneuver me.”
“Believe me, kissing you isn’t going to be the highlight of my day, but I have guests arriving any minute. Or.” She pulled out her phone. “I’m calling Owen.”
“You’re not calling Owen.”
She got him now. Having one of his brothers come over to let them out? Mortifying. Kissing her, she calculated, was the lesser of two evils. Amused, she smiled at him. “You can close your eyes and think of England.”
“Funny.” He stepped over, braced a hand on either side of her head. “This is because I’ve wasted enough time, and I want a cold beer.”
He leaned down, hovered a moment, a breath from her lips.
Don’t think, she ordered herself. Don’t react. It’s nothing.
It was heat and light, and oh, that surge again from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head. He didn’t touch her, but for that mouth against mouth, and she had to curl her hands at her sides to stop herself from reaching out. Grabbing on, dragging him in.
She let herself slide, couldn’t resist it, as the kiss spun out.
He’d meant to do no more than brush his lips to hers. As he might to a friend, an aunt, a plump middle-aged woman with a couple of grandkids.
But he sank into it, too deep. The taste of her, the scent, the feel of her lips yielding to his.
Not sweet, not sharp, but something mysteriously between. Something uniquely Hope.
It – she – stirred him more than it should. More than he wanted.
Stepping back from her cost brutal effort.
He stared back at her for a beat, for two. Then she let out a breath, uncurled her hand, tried the knob.
“There.” She opened the door. “It worked.”
“Get moving before she changes her mind.”
The minute they were in the hall, he walked straight to the now cheerfully burning light, lifted the globe from the floor, fixed it on.
“Done.” He stood where he was, gave her another long look.
She started to speak, and the doorbell pealed.
“My guests are here. I need to – ”
“I’ll go out the back.”
She nodded, hurried downstairs.
He listened to the clip of her heels on wood, let himself take a breath.
“Don’t pull that crap again,” he said. With his dog faithfully at his heels, Ryder walked away, out of the scent of honeysuckle and Hope.
The Perfect Hope
by Nora Roberts
Available from November 8th.