The Last Boyfriend(8)

By: Nora Roberts

And entered the world of women.

He smelled perfume and lotion and lemon-scented cleanser. And heard women’s voices over the din echoing up from below. He found his mother on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of the shower stall in The Penthouse.

She’d bundled her dark hair up, shoved up the sleeves of a baggy gray sweatshirt. Her jeans-clad butt swayed side-to-side to whatever played on her headphones.

Owen walked around the glass, hunkered down. She didn’t jolt; he’d always believed her claim of having eyes in the back of her head. Justine just lifted her head, smiled at him as she sat back on her heels and took off the headset.

She said, “Hot damn.”

“You ready for this, Mom?”

“I’ve been ready. We’ll get her shined up, though I’d forgotten just how grimy construction dirt is. We split up. Carolee’s back in Westley and Buttercup, and Hope’s dealing with her apartment. Clare’s going to give us some time this afternoon.”

“I was just over at Vesta. Avery’s got a bus tour coming in, and Franny’s out sick. She wanted to be in on this.” Owen studied the bucket of soapy water. “God knows why.”

“It’s satisfying work, in its way. Look at this place, Owen.” Shoving a couple of loose pins back in her hair, she glanced around. “Look at what you and your brothers did here.”

“What we and our mom did,” he corrected, and made her smile again.

“You’re so damn right about that. Since you’re here, take the shelves out of that box. One’s going right up there, the other right over there.”

She pointed.

“There’re shelves in here?”

“There will be when you put them up. Then you might get one of the crew to give you a hand, hang the mirror in the bedroom. When you’re ready I’ll show you how I want it.”

“Wait, let me write this down.”

“Just do the little shelves, and I’ll walk you through the rest.”

He got to use his tools after all. Maybe not the way he preferred—with a list, items in prioritized order waiting to be checked off—but he used his tools.

When he’d installed the decorative shelves, he drafted one of the crew to help him carry in the big wall mirror with its ornate gilded frame.

Justine stood, hands on hips, adjusting its position with “a little to the left, a little higher—no, lower.” Owen marked, measured, drilled while she went back to her scrubbing.

“It’s up,” he called out.

“Hold on a sec.”

He heard the whoosh of water as she emptied her bucket. When she stepped out again, she once more fisted her hands on her hips. “I love it!”

Walking to him, she stood so the mirror reflected both of them. With a grin, she put her arm around his waist. “It’s perfect. Thanks, Owen. Go on over and get Hope, would you? She knows what needs to go up downstairs. I’ve got another acre of tile to clean.”

“I can hire a cleaning service.”

She shook her head. “This stage is for family.”

He supposed that made Hope Beaumont family. She and his mother had hit it off, Owen thought as he crossed the hall. Right from the first beat.

The former beauty queen stood on a step stool in the apartment kitchen polishing the cabinet doors. She’d tied a bandana around her dark hair, had a rag hanging out of the back pocket of jeans flecked with white paint and nearly worn through on the right knee.

She glanced around at him, blew out a breath that fluttered her spiky bangs. “It didn’t look as dirty as it was.”

“Construction dirt gets into everything.” He wondered if he should tell her she’d be sucking and mopping it up for days. Maybe weeks.

She’d find out for herself, he decided.

“Making progress,” he said instead.

“We really are.” She sat on the stool a moment, took a bottle of water from the countertop, and twisted off the top. “Are we really going to have furniture up here tomorrow?”

“It’s looking good for it.”

She sipped, smiled.

She had a smoky voice that suited the sultry looks, all big dark eyes, full, shapely mouth.

It didn’t hurt, he supposed, to have a looker as innkeeper, but more to the point, much more important to him, her level of organization and efficiency marched along with his own.