The Last Boyfriend(6)

By: Nora Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She narrowed those blue eyes at his briefcase.

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

“Oh, all right. But don’t bother me.”

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

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

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

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

She rushed back to the kitchen on bright green Nikes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked up into Avery’s pretty face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry about Franny.”

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

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