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The Next Always: Book One of the Inn BoonsBoro Trilogy



The stone walls stood as they had for more than two centuries‚ simple‚ sturdy‚ and strong. Mined from the hills and the valleys‚ they rose in testament to man’s inherent desire to leave his mark‚ to build and create. Over those two centuries man married the stone with brick‚ with wood and glass‚ enlarging‚ transforming‚ enhancing to suit the needs‚ the times‚ the whims. Throughout‚ the building on the crossroads watched as the settlement became a town‚ as more buildings sprang up. The dirt road became asphalt; horse and carriage gave way to cars. Fashions flickered by in the blink of an eye. Still it stood‚ rising on its corner of The Square‚ an enduring landmark in the cycle of change. It knew war‚ heard the echo of gunfire‚ the cries of the wounded‚ the prayers of the fearful. It knew blood and tears‚ joy and fury. Birth and death. It thrived in good times‚ endured the hard times. It changed hands and purpose‚ yet the stone walls stood.

In time‚ the wood of its graceful double porches began to sag. Glass broke; mortar cracked and crumbled. Some who stopped at the light on the town square might glance over to see pigeons flutter in and out of broken windows and wonder what the old building had been in its day. Then the light turned green‚ and they drove on.

Beckett knew.

He stood on the opposite corner of The Square‚ thumbs tucked into the pockets of his jeans. Thick with summer‚ the air held still. With the road empty‚ he could have crossed Main Street against the light‚ but he continued to wait. Opaque blue tarps draped the build¬ing from roof to street level‚ curtaining the front of the building. Over the winter it had served to hold the heat in for the crew. Now it helped block the beat of the sun—and the view.

But he knew—how it looked at that moment‚ and how it would look when the rehab was complete. After all‚ he’d designed it—he‚ his two brothers‚ his mother. But the blueprints bore his name as architect‚ his primary function as a partner in Montgomery Family Contractors.

He crossed over‚ his tennis shoes nearly silent on the road in the breathless hush of three a.m. He walked under the scaffolding‚ along the side of the building‚ down St. Paul‚ pleased to see in the glow of the streetlight how well the stone and brick had cleaned up.

It looked old—it was old‚ he thought‚ and that was part of its beauty and appeal. But now‚ for the first time in his memory‚ it looked tended.

He rounded the back‚ walked over the sunbaked dirt‚ through the construction rubble scattered over what would be a courtyard. Here the porches that spanned both the second and third stories ran straight and true. Custom-made pickets—designed to replicate those from old photographs of the building‚ and the remnants found during excavation—hung freshly primed and drying on a length of wire.

He knew his eldest brother‚ Ryder‚ in his role as head contractor‚ had the rails and pickets scheduled for install.

He knew because Owen‚ the middle of the three Montgomery brothers‚ plagued them all over schedules‚ calendars‚ projections‚ and ledgers—and kept Beckett informed of every nail hammered.

Whether he wanted to be or not.

In this case‚ he supposed as he dug out his key‚ he wanted to be— usually. The old hotel had become a family obsession.

It had him by the throat‚ he admitted as he opened the unfinished and temporary door to what would be The Lobby. And by the heart— and hell‚ it had him by the balls. No other project they’d ever worked on had ever gotten its hooks in him‚ in all of them‚ like this. He sus¬pected none ever would again.

He hit the switch‚ and the work light dangling from the ceiling flashed on to illuminate bare concrete floors‚ roughed-in walls‚ tools‚ tarps‚ material.

It smelled of wood and concrete dust and‚ faintly‚ of the grilled onions someone must have ordered for lunch.

He’d do a more thorough inspection of the first and second floors in the morning when he had better light. Stupid to have come over at this hour anyway‚ when he couldn’t really see crap‚ and was dog tired. But he couldn’t resist it.

By the balls‚ he thought again‚ passing under a wide archway‚ its edges of stone still rough and exposed. Then‚ flipping on his flashlight‚ he headed toward the front and the work steps that led up.

There was something about the place in the middle of the night‚ when the noise of nail guns‚ saws‚ radios‚ and voices ended‚ and the shadows took over. Something not altogether quiet‚ not altogether still. Something that brushed fingers over the back of his neck.

Something else he couldn’t resist.

He swept his light around the second floor‚ noted the brown-bag backing on the walls. As always‚ Owen’s report had been accurate. Ry and his crew had the insulation completed on this level.

Though he’d intended to go straight up‚ he roamed here with a grin spreading over his sharply boned face‚ the pleasure of it lighting eyes the color of blue shadows.

“Coming along‚” he said into the silence in a voice gravelly from lack of sleep.

He moved through the dark‚ following his beam of light‚ a tall man with narrow hips‚ the long Montgomery legs‚ and the waving mass of brown hair with hints of chestnut that came down from the Riley— his maternal side.

He had to remind himself that if he kept poking around he’d have to get up before he got to bed‚ so he climbed up to the third floor.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about.” Pure delight scattered thoughts of sleep as he traced a finger down the taped seam of freshly hung drywall.

He played his light over the holes cut out for electric‚ moved into what would be the innkeeper’s apartment‚ and noted the same for plumbing in the kitchen and bath. He spent more time wandering through what would be their most elaborate suite‚ nodding approval at the floating wall dividing the generous space in the bath.

“You’re a frigging genius‚ Beck. Now‚ for God’s sake‚ go home.”

But giddy with fatigue and anticipation‚ he took one more good look before he made his way down the steps.

He heard it as he reached the second floor. A kind of humming— and distinctly female. As the sound reached him‚ so did the scent. Honeysuckle‚ sweet and wild and ripe with summer.

His belly did a little dance‚ but he held the flashlight steady as he swept it down the hall into unfinished guest rooms. He shook his head as both sound and scent drifted away.

“I know you’re here.” He spoke clearly‚ and his voice echoed back to him. “And I guess you’ve been here for a while. We’re bringing her back‚ and then some. She deserves it. I hope to hell you like it when she’s done because‚ well‚ that’s the way it’s going to be.”

He waited a minute or two‚ fanciful enough—or tired enough— to imagine whoever‚ or whatever‚ inhabited the place settled on a wait-and-see mode.

“Anyway.” He shrugged. “We’re giving her the best we’ve got‚ and we’re pretty damn good.”

He walked down‚ noted the work light no longer shone. Beckett turned it on again‚ switched it back off with another shrug. It wouldn’t be the first time the current resident had messed with one of them.

“Good night‚” he called out‚ then locked up.

This time he didn’t wait for the light‚ but crossed diagonally. Vesta Pizzeria and Family Restaurant spread over another corner of The Square‚ with his apartment and office above. He walked down the sloping sidewalk to the back parking lot‚ grabbed his bag from the cab of his truck. Deciding he’d murder anyone who called him before eight a.m.‚ Beckett unlocked the stairwell‚ then climbed past the restaurant level to his door.

He didn’t bother with the light‚ but moved by memory and the backwash of streetlights through the apartment. He stripped by the bed‚ letting the clothes drop.

He flopped facedown on the mattress‚ and fell asleep thinking of honeysuckle.

The cell phone he’d left in his jeans pocket went off at six fifty-five.

“Son of a bitch.”

He crawled out of bed‚ over the floor‚ dug his phone out of the pocket. Realized he was holding his wallet up to his ear when nobody answered.


Dropped the wallet‚ fumbled out the phone.

“What the hell do you want?”

“Good morning to you‚ too‚” Owen responded. “I’m walking out of Sheetz‚ with coffee and donuts. They’ve got a new clerk on the morning shift. She’s pretty hot.”

“I’ll kill you with a hammer.”

“Then you won’t get any coffee and donuts. I’m on my way to the site. Ry should be there already. Morning meeting.”

“That’s at ten.”

“Didn’t you read the text I sent you?”

“Which one? I’m gone two days and you sent me a million freaking texts.”

“The one that told you we rescheduled for seven fifteen. Put some pants on‚” Owen suggested and hung up.


He grabbed a two-minute shower‚ and put some pants on.

The clouds that rolled in overnight had managed to lock the heat in‚ so stepping outside was like swimming fully dressed through a warm river.

He heard the thump of nail guns‚ the jingle of music‚ the whine of saws as he crossed the street. From inside‚ somebody laughed like a lunatic.

He turned the corner of the building as Owen pulled his truck into the parking lot behind the projected courtyard. The truck gleamed from a recent wash‚ and the silver toolboxes on the sides of the bed sparkled.

Owen stepped out. Jeans‚ a white T-shirt tucked into his belt—and on the belt the damn phone that did everything but kiss him good night (and Beckett wasn’t taking bets against that)—marginally scuffed work boots. His bark brown hair sat tidily on his head. He’d obviously had time to shave his pretty face‚ Beckett thought resentfully.

He shot Beckett a grin‚ and Beckett imagined the eyes behind those bronze lenses were cheerful and alert.

“Give me the damn coffee.”

Owen took a tall go-cup‚ marked with a B‚ from its slot in the tray.

“I didn’t get in till three.” Beckett took the first‚ deep‚ lifesaving gulp.


“I didn’t get out of Richmond until close to ten‚ then I hit a parking lot on 95. And don’t‚ just do not tell me I should’ve checked the traffic report before getting on. Give me a fucking donut.”

Owen opened the enormous box‚ and the smell of yeast‚ sugar‚ and fat oozed into the thick air. Beckett grabbed a jelly‚ wolfed half of it‚ washed it down with more coffee.

“Pickets are going to look good‚” Owen said in his easy way. “They’re going to be worth the time and money.” He cocked his head toward the truck on the other side of his. “Drywall’s up on the third floor. They’re going to get the second coat of mud on today. Roofers ran out of copper‚ so they’re going to fall a little behind schedule on that‚ but they’re working on the slate until the material comes in.”

“I can hear that‚” Beckett commented as the stone saws shrilled.

Owen continued the updates as they crossed to the lobby door‚ and the coffee woke up Beckett’s brain.

The noise level spiked‚ but now that Beckett had some sugar and caffeine in his system‚ it sounded like music. He exchanged greetings with a couple of the crew hanging insulation‚ then followed Owen through the side arch and into what would be the laundry‚ and currently served as an on-site office.

Ryder stood scowling down at blueprints spread over a table of plywood on sawhorses. Dumbass‚ his homely and purehearted mutt—and constant companion—sprawled snoring at his feet.

Until a whiff of donut had his eyes popping open‚ his scruffy tail thumping. Beckett broke off a bite of donut‚ tossed it‚ and the dog nipped it neatly out of the air.

D.A. saw no logical purpose in the fetching of sticks or balls. He concentrated his skills on fielding food of any kind. “If you’re going to ask for another change‚ I’ll kill you instead of Owen.”

Ryder only grunted‚ held out a hand for coffee. “We need to move this panel box‚ then we can box in this space here‚ use it for second-floor utility.”

Beckett took another donut‚ considered as Ryder ran through a handful of other changes.

Little tweaks‚ Beckett thought‚ that wouldn’t hurt and would probably improve. Ryder was‚ after all‚ the one of them who lived most intimately with the building. But when Ryder moved to eliminating the coffered dining room ceiling—a thin bone of contention between them—Beckett dug in.

“It goes in‚ just as on the plans. It makes a statement.”

“It doesn’t need to make a statement.”

“Every room in this place is going to make a statement. The dining room makes one with—among other things‚ a coffered ceiling. It suits the room‚ plays off the panels we’re making for the side of the windows. The depth of the windows‚ the ceiling‚ the arch of stone on the back wall.”

“Pain in the ass.” Ryder scanned the donuts‚ opted for a cinnamon twist. He didn’t so much as glance toward the madly thumping tail as he tore off the end‚ flipped it into the air.

D.A.’s teeth snapped together as he caught it.

“How’d it go down in Richmond?”

“The next time I volunteer to design and help build a covered deck for a friend‚ knock me unconscious.”

“Always a pleasure.” Ryder grinned around the donut. His hair‚ a deep dense brown that edged toward black‚ sprang out from under his paint-stained MFC gimme cap. His eyebrows lifted over eyes of gold- flecked green. “I thought you were mostly doing it to get into Drew’s sister’s pants.”

“It was part of the motivation.”

“How’d that go for you?”

“She hooked up with somebody a couple weeks ago‚ a detail nobody bothered to pass on to me. I never even saw her. So I’m bunked down in Drew’s spare room trying to pretend I can’t hear him and Jen fighting every damn night‚ and listening to him complain how she’s making his life hell every damn day.”

He drained the coffee. “The deck looks good though.”

“Now that you’re back I could use some help on the built-ins for The Library‚” Owen told him.

“I’ve got some catching up to do‚ but I can give you some time after noon.”

“That’ll work.” Owen handed him a file. “Mom’s been down to Bast’s‚” he said‚ speaking of the furniture store down the street. “Copies of what she’s after—with dimensions‚ and the room they’re for. She wants you to draw it up.”

“I just did the last batch before I went to Drew’s. How fast can she shop?”

“She’s meeting Aunt Carolee there tomorrow. They’re talking fabrics‚ so she wants to see if and how what she’s got going fits ASAP. You’re the one who took off a couple days hoping to get laid‚” Owen reminded him.

“Struck out‚ too.”

“Shut up‚ Ry.” Beckett tucked the file under his arm. “I’d better get started.”

“Don’t you want to go up‚ take a look?”

“I did a walk-through last night.”

“At three in the morning?” Owen asked.

“Yeah‚ at three in the morning. It’s looking good.”

One of the crew stuck his head in. “Hey‚ Beck. Ry‚ the drywaller’s got a question up in five.”

“Be there in a minute.” Ryder pulled a handwritten list off his clipboard‚ passed it to Owen. “Materials. Go on and order. I want to get the front porch framed in.”

“I’ll take care of it. Do you need me around here this morning?”

“We’ve got a few million pickets to prime‚ a mile or two of insulation to hang‚ and we’re decking the second- story porch‚ front. What do you think?”

“I think I’ll get my tool belt after I order this material.”

“I’ll swing back through before I head out to the shop this afternoon‚” Beckett told them‚ then got out before he ended up with a nail gun in his hand.

At home‚ he stuck a mug under his coffee machine‚ checked the level of the water and beans. While it chomped the beans‚ he went through the mail Owen had stacked on the kitchen counter. Owen had also left sticky notes‚ Beckett thought with a shake of his head‚ listing the times he’d watered the plants. Though he hadn’t asked Owen—or anyone—to deal with those little chores while he’d been gone‚ it didn’t surprise him to find them done.

If you were dealing with a flat tire or a nuclear holocaust‚ you could depend on Owen.

Beckett dumped the junk mail in the recycle bin‚ took what mail needed attention and the coffee through to his office.

He liked the space‚ which he’d designed himself when the Montgomery family bought the building a few years before. He had the old desk—a flea market find he’d refinished—facing Main Street. Sitting there‚ he could study the inn.

He had land just outside of town‚ and plans for a house he’d designed‚ barely started‚ and kept fiddling with. But other projects always bumped it down the line. He couldn’t see the hurry‚ in any case. He was happy enough with his Main Street perch over Vesta. Plus it added the convenience of calling down if he wanted a slice while he worked‚ or just going downstairs if he wanted food and company.

He could walk to the bank‚ the barber‚ to Crawford’s if he wanted a hot breakfast or a burger‚ to the bookstore‚ the post office. He knew his neighbors‚ the merchants‚ the rhythm in Boonsboro. No‚ no reason to hurry.

He glanced at the file Owen had given him. It was tempting to start right there‚ see what his mother and aunt had come up with. But he had other work to clear up first.

He spent the next hour paying bills‚ updating other projects‚ answering emails he’d neglected when in Richmond.

He checked Ryder’s job schedule. Owen insisted they each have an updated copy every week‚ even though they saw or spoke to each other all the damn time. Mostly on schedule‚ which‚ considering the scope of the project‚ equaled a not-so-minor miracle.

He glanced at his thick white binder‚ filled with cut sheets‚ computer copies‚ schematics—all arranged by room—of the heating and air-conditioning system‚ the sprinkler system‚ every tub‚ toilet‚ sink‚ faucet‚ the lighting‚ tile patterns‚ appliances—and the furniture and accessories already selected and approved.

It would be thicker before they were done‚ so he’d better see what his mother had her eye on. He opened the file‚ spread out the cut sheets. On each‚ his mother listed the room the piece was intended for by initials. He knew Ryder and the crew still worked by the numbers they’d assigned to the guest rooms and suites‚ but he knew J&R— second floor‚ rear‚ and one of the two with private entrances and fireplaces—stood for Jane and Rochester.

His mother’s concept‚ and one he liked a lot‚ had been to name the rooms for romantic couples in literature—with happy endings.

She’d done so for all but the front-facing suite she’d decided to dub The Penthouse.

He studied the bed she wanted‚ and decided the wooden canopy style would’ve fit nicely into Thornfield Hall. Then he grinned at the curvy sofa‚ the fainting couch she’d noted should stand at the foot of the bed.

She’d picked out a dresser‚ but had listed the alternative of a secretary with drawers. More unique‚ he decided‚ more interesting.

And she apparently had her mind made up about a bed for Westley and Buttercup—their second suite‚ rear—as she’d written THIS IS IT!! in all caps on the sheet.

He scanned the other sheets; she’d been busy. Then turned to his computer.

He spent the next two hours with CAD‚ arranging‚ adjusting‚ angling. From time to time‚ he opened the binder‚ refreshed himself on the feel and layout of the baths‚ or took another look at the electrical‚ the cable for the flatscreens in each bedroom.

When he was satisfied‚ he sent his mother the file‚ with copies to his brothers‚ and gave her the maximum dimensions for any night tables‚ occasional chairs.

He wanted a break‚ and more coffee. Iced coffee‚ he decided. Iced cappuccino‚ even better. No reason not to walk down to Turn The Page and get one. They had good coffee at the bookstore‚ and he’d stretch his legs a little on the short walk down Main.

He ignored the fact that the coffee machine he’d indulged himself in could make cappuccino—and that he had ice. And he told himself he took the time to shave because it was too damn hot for the scruff.

He went out‚ headed down Main‚ stopped outside of Sherry’s Beauty Salon to talk to Dick while the barber took a break.

“How’s it coming?”

“We’ve got drywall going in‚” Beckett told him.

“Yeah‚ I helped them unload some.”

“We’re going to have to put you on the payroll.”

Dick grinned‚ jerked a chin at the inn. “I like watching it come back.”

“Me‚ too. See you later.”

He walked on‚ and up the short steps to the covered porch of the bookstore‚ and through the door to a jangle of bells. He lifted a hand in salute to Laurie as the bookseller rang up a sale for a customer. While he waited he wandered to the front-facing stand of bestsellers and new arrivals. He took down the latest John Sandford in paperback—how had he missed that one?—scanned the write-up inside‚ kept it as he strolled around the stacks.

The shop had an easy‚ relaxed walk- around feel with its rooms flowing into one another‚ with the curve of the creaky steps to the second floor office and storerooms. Trinkets‚ cards‚ a few local crafts‚ some of this‚ a little of that—and‚ most of all‚ books and more books filled shelves‚ tables‚ cases in a way that encouraged just browsing around.

Another old building‚ it had seen war‚ change‚ the lean and the fat. Now with its soft colors and old wood floors‚ it managed to hold on to the sense of the town house it had once been.

It always smelled‚ to him‚ of books and women‚ which made sense since the owner had a fully female staff of full-and part-timers.

He found a just-released Walter Mosley and picked that up as well. Then glancing toward the stairs to the second- floor office‚ Beckett strolled through the open doorway to the back section of the store. He heard voices‚ but realized quickly they came from a little girl and a woman she called Mommy.

Clare had boys—three boys now‚ he thought. Maybe she wasn’t even in today‚ or not coming in until later. Besides‚ he’d come for coffee‚ not to see Clare Murphy. Clare Brewster‚ he reminded himself. She’d been Clare Brewster for ten years‚ so he ought to be used to it.

Clare Murphy Brewster‚ he mused‚ mother of three‚ bookstore proprietor. Just an old high school friend who’d come home after an Iraqi sniper shattered her life and left her a widow.

He hadn’t come to see her‚ except in passing if she happened to be around. He’d have no business making apoint to see the widow of a boy he’d gone to school with‚ had liked‚ had envied.

“Sorry for the wait. How’s it going‚ Beck?”

“What?” He tuned back in‚ turned to Laurie as the door jingled behind the customers. “Oh‚ no problem. Found some books.”

“Imagine that‚” she said‚ and smiled at him.

“I know‚ what are the odds? I hope they’re as good for me getting an iced cappuccino.”

“I can hook you up. Iced everything’s the order of the day this summer.” Her honey brown hair scooped up with a clip against the heat‚ she gestured to the cups. “Large?”

“You bet.”

“How’s the inn coming along?”

“It’s moving.” He walked to the counter as she turned to the espresso machine.

Pretty little thing‚ Beckett mused. She’d worked for Clare since the beginning‚ shuffling work and school. Five years‚ maybe six? Could it be that long already?

“People ask us all the time‚” she told him as she worked. “When‚ when‚ when‚ what‚ how. And especially when you’re going to take down that tarp so we can all see for ourselves.”

“And spoil the big reveal?”

“It’s killing me.”

With the conversation‚ the noise of the machine‚ he didn’t hear her‚ but sensed her. He looked over as she came down the curve of the steps‚ one hand trailing along the banister.

When his heart jumped‚ he thought‚ Oh well. But then‚ Clare had been making his heart jump since he’d been sixteen.

“Hi‚ Beck. I thought I heard you down here.”

She smiled‚ and his heart stopped jumping to fall flat.




He handled it. He smiled back at her‚ quick and casual‚ as she walked down the stairs with her long‚ sunny ponytail swaying. She always reminded him of a sunflower‚ tall and bright and cheerful. Her gray eyes held hints of green that gave them a sparkle whenever her mouth‚ with its deep center dip‚ curved up. “Haven’t seen you in a couple days‚” she commented. “I was down in Richmond.” She’d gotten some sun‚ he thought‚ giving her skin just a hint of gold. “Did I miss anything?” “Let’s see. Somebody stole the garden gnome out of Carol Tecker’s yard.” “Jeez. A crime spree.” “She’s offering a ten-dollar reward.” “I’ll keep my eye out for it.” “Anything new at the inn?” “We started drywall.”

“Old news.” She flicked that away. “I got that from Avery yesterday‚ who got it from Ry when he stopped in for pizza.”

“My mother’s putting another furniture order together‚ and she’s moving on to fabrics.”

“Now that’s a bulletin.” Green sparkled in the gray; it just killed him. “I’d love to see what she’s picking out. I know it’s going to be beautiful. And I heard a rumor there’s going to be a copper tub.”

Beckett held up three fingers.

Her eyes widened; the green deepened in the smoky gray. He’d need oxygen any minute.

“Three? Where do you find these things?”

“We have our ways.”

She glanced toward Laurie with a long‚ female sigh. “Imagine lounging in a copper bathtub. It sounds so romantic.”

Unfortunately he instantly imagined her slipping out of the pretty summer dress with red poppies over a field of blue—and into a copper bathtub.

And that‚ he reminded himself‚ wasn’t handling it.

“How are the kids?” he asked‚ and took out his wallet.

“They’re great. We’re starting to gear up for full back-to-school mode‚ so they’re excited. Harry’s pretending not to be‚ playing Mr. Old Hat since he’s going into third grade. But he and Liam are giving Murphy the benefit of their vast experience. I can’t believe my baby’s starting kindergarten.”

Thinking of the kids always leveled him off‚ helped him slide her into the do- not- imagine-naked column of MOTHER.

“Oh.” She tapped the Mosley book before Laurie bagged it. “I haven’t had a chance to read that yet. You’ll have to let me know what you think.”

“Sure. Ah‚ you should come over‚ walk through sometime.”

Her mouth bowed up. “We peek in the side windows.”

“Just go on around the back.”

“Really? I’d like to‚ but I figured you didn’t want people getting in the way.”

“As a rule‚ but—”He broke off as the bells jangled‚ and two couples came in. “Anyway‚ I’d better get going.”

“Enjoy the book‚” she told him‚ then turned to her customers. “Can I help you find anything?”

“We’re touring the area‚” one of the men told her. “Got any books on Antietam?”

“We do. Let me show you.” She led him away as the rest of the group started to browse.

Beckett watched her go down the little flight of steps into what they called the annex.

“Well. See you later‚ Laurie.”


He stopped‚ one hand on the doorknob.

“Books? Coffee?” She held the bag in one hand‚ the go-cup in the other.

“Oh yeah.” He laughed‚ shook his head. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” She sighed a little when he left‚ and wondered if her boyfriend ever watched her walk away.

Clare carted a tub of books packaged for shipping down to the post office. She breathed in deep a moment as she went out the back and across the gravel parking lot as an actual breeze fluttered over her face.

She thought—hoped—it looked like rain. Maybe a nice‚ solid soaker that would spare her the time it took to water her garden and pots. If it didn’t come with lightning‚ she could let the boys run around in the wet after dinner‚ burn off some energy.

Scrub them up afterward‚ then‚ since it was movie night‚ fix some popcorn. She’d have to check the chart‚ see whose turn it was to pick the flick.

Charts‚ she’d learned‚ helped cut down on arguing‚ complaining‚ and bickering when three little boys had to decide whether to spend some time with SpongeBob‚ the Power Rangers‚ or the Star Wars gang. It didn’t eliminatethe arguing‚ complaining‚ and bickering‚ but it usually kept it at a more manageable level.

She dropped off the shipments‚ spent a few moments chatting with the postmistress. Because the traffic on Route 34 ran a bit thick‚ she walked back to The Square‚ pressed the button for the Walk light. And waited.

Every once in a while it struck her that she was‚ geographically at least‚ back where she’d started. Everything else had changed‚ she mused‚ glancing over at the big blue tarp.

And was still changing.

She’d left Boonsboro as a brand-new bride of nineteen. So young! she thought now. So full of excitement and confidence‚ so much in love. She’d thought nothing of driving off to North Carolina to start her life with Clint‚ as an army wife.

She’d done a decent job of it‚ too‚ she decided. Setting up house‚ playing house‚ working part-time in a bookstore—and hurrying home to fix dinner. She’d learned she was pregnant only days before Clint had been deployed for his first tour to Iraq.

She’d known fear then‚ she remembered as she crossed toward Vesta. But it had been offset by the wide-eyed optimism of youth‚ and the joy of carrying a child—one she’d borne back home‚ at barely twenty.

Then Clint came home‚ and they were off to Kansas. They’d had nearly a year. Liam had been born during Clint’s second tour of duty. When he’d come home again‚ he’d been a great father to their two little boys‚ but war had stolen his easy cheer‚ his quick‚ rolling laugh.

She hadn’t known she was pregnant when she’d kissed him good- bye that last time.

The day they’d handed her the flag from Clint’s casket‚ Murphy quickened for the first time inside her.

And now‚ she thought as she opened the glass door‚ she was back home. For good.

She’d timed the visit postlunch‚ predinner prep. A scatter of people sat at the dark‚ glossy wood tables‚ and a family—not locals‚ she noted—piled into the booth in the far corner. Their curly-headed toddler sprawled over the red cushions‚ sound asleep.

She lifted her hand in salute to Avery as her friend ladled sauce on dough behind the service counter. At home‚ Clare walked over to pull herself a glass of lemonade and brought it back to the counter with her.

“I think it’s going to rain.”

“You said that yesterday.”

“Today I mean it.”

“Oh‚ well then. I’ll get my umbrella.” Avery covered the sauce with shredded mozzarella‚ layered that with pepperoni‚ sliced mushrooms‚ and black olives. Her movements quick and practiced‚ she opened one of the big ovens behind her and shoved in the pie. She shoveled out another‚ sliced it.

One of the waitresses swung out of the closed kitchen area‚ sang out a “Hi‚ Clare‚” then carried the pizza and plates to one of the tables.

Avery said‚ “Whew.”

“Busy day?”

“We were slammed from eleven thirty until about a half hour ago.”

“Are you on tonight?” Clare asked.

“Wendy called in sick‚ again‚ so it looks like I’m pulling a double.”

“Sick meaning she made up with her boyfriend again.”

“I’d be sick too if I was hooked up with that loser. She makes a damn good pizza.” Avery took a bottle of water from under the counter‚ gestured with it. “But I’m probably going to have to let her go. Kids today?” She rolled her bright blue eyes. “No work ethic.”

“I’m trying to remember the name of the guy you were tight with when you got caught hooking school.”

“Lance Poffinberger—a momentary lapse. And boy‚ did I pay for it. Screw up once‚ just once‚ and Dad grounded me for a month. Lance works down at Canfield’s as a mechanic.” Avery wiggled her eyebrows as she took a slug of water. “Mechanics are hot.”


“With Lance the exception that proves the rule.”

She answered the phone‚ took an order‚ pulled out the pizza‚ sliced it so her waitress could carry the still-bubbling pie to the table.

Clare enjoyed her lemonade and watched Avery work.

They’d been friendly in high school‚ cocaptains on the cheerleading squad. A bit competitive‚ but friendly. Then they’d lost touch when Avery went off to college‚ and Clare had headed shortly after to Fort Bragg with Clint.

They’d reconnected when Clare‚ pregnant with Murphy and with two boys in tow‚ had moved back. And Avery‚ with the red hair and milk white skin of her Scot forebears had just opened her Italian family restaurant.

“Beckett was by earlier.”

“Alert the media!”

Clare met sarcasm with a smug smile. “He said I could take a look inside the inn.”

“Yeah? Let me finish putting this order together‚ and we’ll go.”

“I can’t‚ not now. I have to pick up the kids in . . .” She checked her watch. “An hour. And I’ve still got some work. Tomorrow? Maybe before things get busy here or at TTP?”

“That’s a date. I’ll be in around nine to start the ovens and so on. I could slip out about ten.”

“Ten it is. I’ve gotta go. Work‚ kid pickup‚ fix dinner‚ baths‚ then it’s movie night.”

“We have some excellent spinach ravioli if you want to cross off the fix-dinner portion.”

Clare started to decline‚ then decided it would be an excellent delivery method of spinach‚ and save her about forty-five minutes in the kitchen. “Deal. Listen‚ my parents want the boys for a sleepover on Saturday. How about I fix something that isn’t pizza‚ open a bottle of wine‚ and we have an adult‚ female evening.”

“I can do that. We could also put on sexy dresses and go out‚ perhaps find adult males to share the evening.”

“We could‚ but since I’ll be spending the bulk of the day at the mall and the outlets browbeating three boys into trying on back-to-school clothes‚ I’d probably just shoot the first male who spoke to me.”

“Girls’ night in it is.”


Avery boxed up the takeout herself‚ put it on Clare’s tab.

“Thanks. See you tomorrow.”

“Clare‚” Avery said as Clare walked to the door. “Saturday‚ I’ll bring a second bottle of wine‚ something gooey for dessert. And my pj’s.”

“Even better. Who needs a man when you’ve got a best girl pal?”

Clare laughed as Avery shot a hand in the air.

She stepped out and nearly bumped into Ryder.

“Two out of three‚” she said. “I saw Beck earlier. Now I just need Owen for the hat trick.”

“Heading over to Mom’s. He and Beck are working in the shop. I’ll give you a ride‚” he said with a grin. “I just took a dinner order‚ since Mom says it’s too hot to cook.”

Clare lifted her bag. “I’m with her. Say hi for me.”

“Will do. Looking good‚ Clare the Fair. Wanna go dancing?”

She shot him grin for grin as she pushed the Walk button on the post. “Sure. Pick me and the boys up at eight.”

She got lucky with the timing‚ and headed across with a wave. She tried to remember the last time a man had asked her to go dancing and meant it.

She just couldn’t.

The Montgomery workshop was big as a house and designed to look like one. It boasted a long covered porch—often crowded with projects in various stages— including a couple of battered Adirondack chairs waiting for repair and paint‚ for two years and counting.

Doors‚ windows‚ a couple of sinks‚ boxes of tile‚ shingles‚ plywood‚ and various and sundry items salvaged from or left over from other jobs mixed together in a rear jut they’d added on when they’d run out of room.

Because the hodgepodge drove him crazy‚ Owen organized it every few months‚ then Ryder or Beckett would haul something else in‚ and dump it wherever.

He knew damn well they did it on purpose.

The main area held table tools‚ work counters‚ shelving for supplies‚ a couple of massive rolling tool chests‚ stacks of lumber‚ old mason jars and coffee cans (labeled by Owen) for screws‚ nails‚ bolts.

Here‚ though it would never fully meet Owen’s high standards‚ the men kept at least a semblance of organization.

They worked together well‚ with music from the ancient stereo recycled from the family home banging out rock‚ a couple of floor fans blowing the heat around‚ the table saw buzzing as Beckett fed the next piece of chestnut to the blade.

He liked getting his hands on wood‚ enjoyed the feel of it‚ the smell of it. His mother’s Lab-retriever mix Cus—short for Atticus—stretched his massive bulk under the table saw for a nap. Cus’s brother‚ Finch‚ dropped a baseball squeaky toy at Beckett’s feet about every ten seconds.

Dumbass lay on his back in a pile of sawdust‚ feet in the air.

When Beckett turned off the saw‚ he looked down into Finch’s wildly excited eyes. “Do I look like I’m in play mode?”

Finch picked up the ball in his mouth again‚ spat it on Beckett’s boot. Though he knew it only encouraged the endless routine‚ Beckett snagged the ball‚ then heaved it out the open front door of the shop.

Finch’s chase was a study in mad joy.

“Do you jerk off with that hand?” Ryder asked him.

Beckett wiped the dog slobber on his jeans. “I’m ambidextrous.”

He took the next length of chestnut Ryder had measured and marked. And Finch charged back with the ball‚ dropped it at his feet.

The process continued‚ Ryder measuring and marking‚ Beckett cutting‚ Owen putting the pieces together with wood glue and clamps according to the designs tacked on sheets of plywood.

One set of the two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that would flank The Library’s fireplace stood waiting for sanding‚ staining‚ for the lower cabinet doors. Once they’d finished the second‚ and the fireplace surround‚ they’d probably tag Owen for the fancy work.

They all had the skills‚ Beckett thought‚ but no one would deny Owen was the most meticulous of the three.

He turned off the saw‚ tossed the ball for the delirious Finch‚ and noticed it had gone dark outside. Cus rose with a yawn and stretch‚ leaned against Beckett’s leg for a rub before wandering out.

Time to call it‚ Beckett decided‚ and got three beers out of the old shop refrigerator. “It’s oh- beer-thirty‚” he announced and walked over to hand bottles off to his brothers.

“I hear that.” Ry kicked the ball the dog dropped at his feet out the open window with the same accuracy he’d kicked a football through the goalposts in high school.

With a running leap‚ Finch soared through after it. Something crashed on the porch.

“Did you see that?” Beckett demanded over his brothers’ laughter. “That dog’s crazy.”

“Damn good jump.” Ryder wet his thumb‚ rubbed it on the side of the bookcase. “That’s pretty wood. The chestnut was a good call‚ Beck.”

“It’s going to work well with the flooring. The sofa in there needs to be leather‚” he decided. “Dark‚ but rich‚ with lighter leather on the chairs for contrast.”

“Whatever. The ceiling lights Mom ordered came in today.” Ryder took a pull of his beer.

Owen took out his phone to make a note. “Did you inspect them?”

“I was a little busy.”

Owen made another note. “Mark the boxes? Put them in storage?”

“Yeah‚ yeah. Marked and in the basement at Vesta. The dining room lights—ceiling and sconces—came in‚ too. Same deal.”

“I need the packing slips.”

“They’re on-site‚ Nancy.”

“We’ve got to keep the paperwork organized‚ Jethro.”

Finch trotted back in‚ dropped the ball‚ banged his tail like a hammer.

“See if he’ll do it again‚” Beckett suggested.

Obliging‚ Ryder kicked it out the window. The dog sailed after it. Something crashed. Intrigued‚ Dumbass wandered over‚ put his paws on the sill. After a moment he tried crawling out.

“I’ve got to get a dog.” Owen sipped his beer as they watched D.A.’s back legs kicking and scrabbling. “I’m getting a dog as soon as we get this job finished.”

They closed up‚ and taking the beer outside‚ spent another fifteen minutes talking shop‚ throwing the ball for the indefatigable Finch.

The cicadas and lightning bugs filled the strip of lawn and surrounding woods with sound and sparkles. Now and again‚ an owl worked up the energy to hoot mournfully. It made Beckett think of other sultry summer nights‚ with the three of them running around as tirelessly as Finch. With the lights on in the house on the rise as they were now.

when the lights flicked on and off‚ on and off‚ it was time to come in—and always too soon.

He’d wondered—and worried a little—about his mother‚ alone up here in the big house tucked in the woods. When his father had died—and that had been hard—the three of them had basically moved back home. Until she’d booted them out again after a couple months.

Still‚ for probably another year‚ at least one of them would find an excuse to spend the night once a week or so. But the simple fact was‚ she did fine. She had her work‚ her sister‚ her friends‚ her dogs. Justine Montgomery didn’t rattle around in the big house. She lived in it.

Ryder nodded toward the house where the porch and kitchen lights—in case they came back in—and their mother’s office light shone.

“She’s up there‚ hunting on the Internet for more stuff.”

“She’s good at it‚” Beckett said. “And if she didn’t spend the time‚ and have a damn good eye‚ we’d be chained down doing it.”

“You do anyway‚” Ryder pointed out. “Mister Dark but Rich with Contrast.”

“All part of the design work‚ bro.”

“Speaking of which‚” Owen put in‚ “we still need the safety lights and exit signs for code.”

“I’m looking. We’re not putting up ugly.” Beckett stuck his hands in his pockets‚ dug in on the point. “I’ll find something that works. I’m going to head out. I can give you most of tomorrow‚” he told Ryder.

“Bring your tool belt.”

He drove home with the wind blowing through the truck’s open windows. Since the station he had on reached back to his high school days with the Goo Goo Dolls‚ he thought of Clare.

He took the long way around‚ driving the back roads in a wide circle. Because he wanted the drive‚ he told himself‚ not because that route would take him by Clare’s house.

He wasn’t a stalker.

He slowed a bit‚ scanning the little house just inside the town limits‚ and saw that‚ like his family home‚ her kitchen lights were on—front porch and living room‚ too‚ he noted.

He couldn’t think of an excuse to stop in‚ not that he would have‚ but . . .

He imagined her relaxing after a full day‚ maybe reading a book‚ watching a little TV. Grabbing a little downtime with the kids tucked in for the night.

He could go knock on her door. Hey‚ just in the neighborhood‚ saw your lights on. I’ve got my tools in the truck if you need anything fixed.


He drove on. In his entire history with the female species‚ Clare Murphy Brewster was the single one of her kind who flustered and fl ummoxed him.

He was good with women‚ he reminded himself. Probably because he just liked them—the way they looked‚ sounded‚ smelled—the strange way their minds worked. Toddler to great-granny‚ he enjoyed the female for who and what she was.

He’d never been at a loss for what to say around a woman‚ unless it was Clare. Never second-guessed what he should say‚ or had said. Unless it was Clare. Never had the hots for without at least making an opening move. Unless it was Clare.

Really‚ he was better off with somebody like Drew’s sister. A woman he found attractive‚ who liked to flirt‚ and who didn’t make him think or want too much.

Time to put Clare and her appealing boys out of his brain‚ once and for all.

He pulled into the lot behind his building‚ looked up at his dark windows.

He should go up‚ do a little work‚ then make an early night of it and catch up on some sleep.

Instead‚ he walked across the street. He’d just do a walk-through‚ check out what Ry‚ the crew‚ and the subs had gotten done that day. He wasn’t ready for his own company‚ he admitted‚ and the current resident of the inn was better than nothing.

In Clare’s house‚ the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers waged war against the evil forces. Bombs exploded; Rangers flew‚ flipped‚ rolled‚ and charged. Clare had seen this particular DVD and countless others in the series so often she could time the blasts with her eyes closed.

It did give her the advantage of pretending she was riveted to the action while she worked on her mental checklist. Liam sprawled with his head in her lap. When she peeked over‚ she saw his eyes were open‚ but glassy.

Not long now.

Harry lay on the floor‚ a Red Ranger in his hand. His stillness told her he’d already passed out. But Murphy‚ her night owl‚ sat beside her—as alert and as fascinated by the movie as he’d been the first time he’d watched it.

He could‚ and would‚ remain up and revved until midnight if she allowed it. She knew damn well when the movie ended‚ he’d beg for another.

She really needed to pay her personal bills‚ finish folding the laundry‚ and throw in another load of towels while she was at it. She needed to start the new book she’d brought home—not just for pleasure‚ though it was‚ but because she considered reading an essential part of her job.

Thinking of what she’d yet to check off that mental list made her realize she’d be the one up until midnight.

Her own fault‚ she reminded herself‚ for letting the boys talk her into a double feature.

Still‚ it made them so happy‚ and gave her the joy of spending an evening snuggled up with her little men.

Laundry would always be there‚ she thought‚ but her guys wouldn’t always be thrilled to spend the evening with Mom watching a movie at home.

As predicted‚ the minute good vanquished evil‚ Murphy sent her an imploring look out of big brown eyes. How odd‚ she thought‚ he’d been the only one to inherit Clint’s color‚ and genetics had mixed it with her blond hair.

“Please‚ Mom! I’m not tired.”

“You got two‚ that’s all for you.” On the rhyme‚ she flicked his nose with her finger.

His pretty face with its pug nose and dusting of freckles crumpled into abject misery. “Please! Just one episode.”

He sounded like a starving man begging for just one stale crust of bread.

“Murphy‚ it’s already way past bedtime.” Now she held up a finger when he opened his mouth. “And if that’s a whine about to come out‚ I’ll remember it next movie night. Come on‚ go up and pee.”

“I don’t gotta pee.”

“Go pee anyway.”

He trudged off like a man walking to the hangman’s noose while she shifted Liam. She got him up‚ his head on her shoulder‚ his body boneless.

And his hair‚ she thought‚ the thick golden brown waves she loved‚ smelling of shampoo. She carried him to the steps‚ and up‚ and into the bathroom where I-don’t-gotta-pee Murphy sang to himself as he emptied his bladder.

“Leave the seat up‚ and don’t flush it.”

“I’m s’posed to. You said.”

“Yes‚ but Liam has to go. Go ahead and get into bed‚ my baby. I’ll be right in.”

With the dexterity of experience‚ Clare stood Liam on his feet‚ held him upright with one hand‚ lowered his pj shorts with the other.

“Let’s pee‚ my man.”

“’Kay.” He swayed‚ and when he aimed‚ she had to guide his hand to avoid the prospect of scrubbing down the walls.

She hitched his pants back up‚ would have guided him to bed‚ but he turned‚ held his arms up.

She carried him to the bedroom—the one intended as the master‚ then laid him on the bottom of one of the two sets of bunks. Murphy lay in the other bottom bunk‚ curled up with his stuffed Optimus Prime.

“Be right back‚” she whispered. “I’m going to get Harry.”

She repeated the routine with Harry‚ as far as the bathroom. He’d recently decided Mom was a girl‚ and girls weren’t allowed to be in the bathroom when he peed.

She made sure he was awake enough to stand upright‚ stepped out. She winced a little as the toilet seat slammed down‚ waited while it flushed.

He wandered out. “There’s blue frogs in the car.”

“Hmm.” Knowing he dreamed vividly and often‚ she guided him to bed. “I like blue. Up you go.”

“The red one’s driving.”

“He’s probably the oldest.”

She kissed his cheek—he was already asleep again—walked over to kiss Liam‚ then turned and bent down to Murphy. “Close your eyes.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Close them anyway. Maybe you’ll catch up with Harry and the blue frogs. The red one’s driving.”

“Are there dogs?”

“If you want there to be. Good night.”

“ ’Night. Can we get a dog?”

“Why don’t you just dream about one for now.”

She gave her boys‚ her world‚ a last glance as they lay in the glow of their Spider-Man night-light.

Then she went downstairs to start work on her mental checklist.

Just after midnight‚ she fell asleep with the book in her hands and the light on. She dreamed of blue frogs and their red driver‚ purple and green dogs. And oddly‚ she realized when she woke enough to shut off the light‚ of Beckett Montgomery smiling at her as she walked down the stairs at her bookstore.

The Next Always: Book One of the Inn BoonsBoro Trilogy
by by Nora Roberts

  • Genres: Fiction, Romance
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0425243214
  • ISBN-13: 9780425243213