the perfect innkeeper
To improve is to change;
To be perfect is to change often.
WITH A FEW GROANS AND SIGHS, THE OLD BUILDING settled down for the night. Under the star-washed sky its stone walls glowed, rising up over Boonsboro’s Square as they had for more than two centuries. Even the crossroads held quiet now, stretching out in pools of shadows and light. All the windows and storefronts along Main Street seemed to sleep, content to doze away in the balm of the summer night.
She should do the same, Hope thought. Settle down, stretch out. Sleep.
That would be the sensible thing to do, and she considered herself a sensible woman. But the long day had left her restless, and—she reminded herself—Carolee would arrive bright and early to start breakfast.
The innkeeper could sleep in.
In any case, it was barely midnight. When she’d lived and worked in Georgetown, she’d rarely managed to settle in for the night this early. Of course, then she’d been managing the Wickham, and if she hadn’t been dealing with some small crisis or handling a guest request, she’d been enjoying the nightlife.
The town of Boonsboro, tucked into the foothills of Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains, might have a rich and storied history, it certainly had its charms—among which she counted the revitalized inn she now managed—but it wasn’t famed for its nightlife.
That would change a bit when her friend Avery opened her restaurant and tap house. And wouldn’t it be fun to see what the energetic Avery MacTavish did with her new enterprise right next door—and just across The Square from Avery’s pizzeria.
Before summer ended, Avery would juggle the running of two restaurants, Hope thought.
And people called her an overachiever.
She looked around the kitchen—clean, shiny, warm, and welcoming. She’d already sliced fruit, checked the supplies, restocked the refrigerator. So everything sat ready for Carolee to prepare breakfast for the guests currently tucked in their rooms.
She’d finished her paperwork, checked all the doors, and made her rounds checking for dishes—or anything else out of place. Duties done, she told herself, and still she wasn’t ready to tuck her own self in her third-floor apartment.
Instead, she poured an indulgent glass of wine and did a last circle through The Lobby, switching off the chandelier over the central table with its showy summer flowers.
She moved through the arch, gave the front door one last check before she turned toward the stairs. Her fingers trailed lightly over the iron banister.
She’d already checked The Library, but she checked again. It wasn’t anal, she told herself. A guest might have slipped in for a glass of Irish or a book. But the room was quiet, settled like the rest.
She glanced back. She had guests on this floor. Mr. and Mrs. Vargas—Donna and Max—married twenty-seven years. The night at the inn, in Nick and Nora, had been a birthday gift for Donna from their daughter. And wasn’t that sweet?
Her other guests, a floor up in Westley and Buttercup, chose the inn for their wedding night. She liked to think the newlyweds, April and Troy, would take lovely, lasting memories with them.
She checked the door to the second-level porch, then on impulse unlocked it and stepped out into the night.
With her wine, she crossed the wide wood deck, leaned on the rail. Across The Square, the apartment above Vesta sat dark—and empty now that Avery had moved in with Owen Montgomery. She could admit—to herself anyway—she missed looking over and knowing her friend was right there, just across Main.
But Avery was exactly where she belonged, Hope decided, with Owen—her first and, as it turned out, her last boyfriend.
Talk about sweet.
And she’d help plan a wedding—May bride, May flowers—right there in The Courtyard, just as Clare’s had been this past spring.
Thinking of it, Hope looked down Main toward the bookstore. Clare’s Turn The Page had been a risk for a young widow with two children and another on the way. But she’d made it work. Clare had a knack for making things work. Now she was Clare Montgomery, Beckett’s wife. And when winter came again, they’d welcome a new baby to the mix.
Odd, wasn’t it, that her two friends had lived right in Boonsboro for so long, and she’d relocated only the year—not even a full year yet—before. The new kid in town.
Now, of the three of them, she was the only one still right here, right in the heart of town.
Silly to miss them when she saw them nearly every day, but on restless nights she could wish, just a little, they were still close.
So much had changed, for all of them, in this past year.
She’d been perfectly content in Georgetown, with her home, her work, her routine. With Jonathan, the cheating bastard.
She’d had good, solid plans, no rush, no hurry, but solid plans. The Wickham had been her place. She’d known its rhythm, its tones, its needs. And she’d done a hell of a job for the Wickhams, and their cheating bastard son, Jonathan.
She’d planned to marry him. No, there’d been no formal engagement, no concrete promises, but marriage and future had been on the table.
She wasn’t a moron.
And all the time—or at least in the last several months—they’d been together, with him sharing her bed, or her sharing his, he’d been seeing someone else. Someone of his more elevated social strata you could say, she mused, with lingering bitterness. Someone who wouldn’t work ten-and twelve-hour days, and often more—to manage the exclusive hotel, but who’d stay there, in its most elaborate suite, of course.
No, she wasn’t a moron, but she’d been far too trusting and humiliatingly shocked when Jonathan told her he would be announcing his engagement—to someone else—the next day.
Humiliatingly shocked, she thought again, particularly as they’d been naked and in her bed at the time.
Then again, he’d been shocked, too, when she’d ordered him to get the hell out. He genuinely hadn’t understood why anything between them should change.
That single moment ushered in a lot of change.
Now she was Inn BoonsBoro’s innkeeper, living in a small town in Western Maryland, a good clip from the bright lights of the big city.
She didn’t spend what free time she had planning clever little dinner parties, or shopping in the boutiques for the perfect shoes for the perfect dress for the next event.
Did she miss all that? Her go-to boutique, her favorite lunch spot, the lovely high ceilings and flower-framed little patio of her own town house? Or the pressure and excitement of preparing the hotel for visits from dignitaries, celebrities, business moguls?
Sometimes, she admitted. But not as often as she’d expected to, and not as much as she’d assumed she would.
Because she had been content in her personal life, challenged in her professional one, and the Wickham had been her place. But she’d discovered something in the last few months. Here, she wasn’t just content, but happy. The inn wasn’t just her place, it was home.
She had her friends to thank for that, and the Montgomery brothers along with their mother. Justine Montgomery had hired her on the spot. At the time Hope hadn’t known Justine well enough to be surprised by her quick offer. But she did know herself, and continued to be surprised at her own fast, impulsive acceptance.
Zero to sixty? More like zero to ninety and still going.
She didn’t regret the impulse, the decision, the move.
Fresh starts hadn’t been in the plan, but she was good at adjusting plans. Thanks to the Montgomerys, the lovingly—and effortfully—restored inn was her home and her career.
She wandered the porch, checking the hanging planters, adjusting—minutely—the angle of a bistro chair.
“And I love every square inch of it,” she murmured.
One of the porch doors leading out from Elizabeth and Darcy opened. The scent of honeysuckle drifted on the night air.
Someone else was restless, Hope thought. Then again, she didn’t know if ghosts slept. She doubted if the spirit Beckett had named Elizabeth for the room she favored would tell her if she asked. Thus far, Lizzy hadn’t deigned to speak to her inn-mate.
Hope smiled at the term, sipped her wine.
“Lovely night. I was just thinking how different my life is now, and all things considered, how glad I am it is.” She spoke in an easy, friendly way. After all, the research she and Owen had done so far on their permanent guest had proven Lizzy—or Eliza Ford when she’d lived—was one of Hope’s ancestors.
Family, to Hope’s mind, ought to be easy and friendly.
“We have newlyweds in W&B. They look so happy, so fresh and new somehow. The couple in N&N are here celebrating her fifty-eighth birthday. They don’t look new, but they do look happy, and so nice and comfortable. I like giving them a special place to stay, a special experience. It’s what I’m good at.”
Silence held, but Hope could feel the presence. Companionable, she realized. Oddly companionable. Just a couple of women up late, looking out at the night.
“Carolee will be here early. She’s doing breakfast tomorrow, and I have the morning off. So.” She lifted her glass. “Some wine, some introspection, some feeling sorry for myself circling around to realizing I have nothing to feel sorry for myself for.” With a smile, Hope sipped again. “So, a good glass of wine.
“Now that I’ve accomplished all that, I should get to bed.”
Still she lingered a little longer in the quiet summer night, with the scent of honeysuckle drifting around her.
WHEN HOPE CAME down in the morning, the scent was fresh coffee, grilled bacon—and, if her nose didn’t deceive her, Carolee’s apple-cinnamon pancakes. She heard easy conversation in The Dining Room. Donna and Max, talking about poking around town before driving home.
Hope went down the hall, circled to the kitchen to see if Carolee needed a hand. Justine’s sister had her bright blond hair clipped short for summer, with the addition of flirty bangs over her cheerful hazel eyes. They beamed at Hope even as she wagged a finger.
“What are you doing down here, young lady?”
“It’s nearly ten.”
“And your morning off.”
“Which I spent—so far—sleeping until eight, doing yoga, and putzing.” She helped herself to a mug of coffee, closed her own deep brown eyes as she sipped. “My first cup of the day. Why is it always the best?”
“I wish I knew. I’m still trying to switch to tea. My Darla’s on a health kick and doing her best to drag me along.” Carolee spoke of her daughter with affection laced with exasperation. “I really like our Titania and Oberon blend. But … it’s not coffee.”
“Nothing is but coffee.”
“You said it. She can’t wait for the new gym to open. She says if I don’t sign up for yoga classes, she’s signing me up and carting me over there.”
“You’ll love yoga.” Hope laughed at the doubt—and anxiety—on Carolee’s face. “Honest.”
“Hmm.” Carolee lifted the dishcloth again, went back to polishing the granite countertop. “The Vargases loved the room, and as usual the bathroom—starring the magic toilet—got raves. I haven’t heard a peep out of the newlyweds yet.”
“I’d be disappointed in them if you had.” Hope brushed at her hair. Unlike Carolee, she was experimenting with letting it grow out of the short, sharp wedge she’d sported the last two years. The dark, glossy ends hit her jaw now, just in between enough to be annoying.
“I’m going to go check on Donna and Max, see if they want anything.”
“Let me do it,” Hope said. “I want to say good morning anyway, and I think I’ll run down to TTP, say hi to Clare while it’s still my morning off.”
“I saw her last night at the book club. She’s got the cutest baby bump. Oh, I’ve got plenty of batter if the newlyweds want more pancakes.”
“I’ll let them know.”
She slipped into The Dining Room, chatted with the guests while she subtly checked to be sure there was still plenty of fresh summer berries, coffee, juice.
Once she’d satisfied herself her guests were happy, she started back upstairs to grab her purse—and ran into the newlyweds as they entered from the rear porch.
“Oh, good morning.” The new bride carried the afterglow of a honeymoon morning well spent. “That’s the most beautiful room. I love everything about it. I felt like a princess bride.”
“As you wish,” Hope said and made them both laugh.
“It’s so clever the way each room’s named and decorated for romantic couples.”
“Couples with happy endings,” Troy reminded her, and got a slow, dreamy smile from his bride.
“Like us. We want to thank you so much for making our wedding night so special. It was everything I wanted. Just perfect.”
“That’s what we do here.”
“But … we wondered. We know we’re supposed to check out soon. …”
“If you’d like a later checkout, I can arrange it …” Hope began.
“Well, actually …”
“We’re hoping we can stay another night.” Troy slid his arm around April’s shoulders, drew her close. “We really love it here. We were going to drive down into Virginia, just pick our spots as we went, but … we really like it right here. We’ll take any room that’s available, if there is one.”
“We’d love to have you, and your room’s open tonight.”
“Really?” April bounced on her toes. “Oh, this is better than perfect. Thank you.”
“It’s our pleasure. I’m glad you’re enjoying your stay.”
Happy guests made for happy innkeepers, Hope thought as she dashed upstairs for her bag. She dashed back down again, into her office to change the reservation, and with the scents and voices behind her, hurried out the back through Reception.
She skirted the side of the building, glancing across the street at Vesta. She knew Avery’s and Clare’s schedules nearly as well as her own. Avery would be prepping for opening this morning, and Clare should be back from her early doctor’s appointment.
The sonogram. With luck, they’d know by now if Clare was carrying the girl she hoped for.
As she waited for the walk light at the corner, she looked down Main Street. There Ryder Montgomery stood in front of the building Montgomery Family Contractors was currently rehabbing. Nearly done, she thought, and soon the town would have a bakery again.
He wore jeans torn at the left knee and splattered with drips of paint or drywall compound or whatever else splattered on job sites. His tool belt hung low, like an old-time sheriff’s gun belt—at least to her eye. Dark hair curled shaggily from under his ball cap. Sunglasses covered eyes she knew to be a gold-flecked green.
He consulted with a couple of his crew, pointed up, circling a finger, shaking his head, all while he stood in that hip-shot way of his.
Since a dull wash of primer currently covered the front of the building, she assumed they discussed the finish colors.
One of the crew let out a bray of laughter, and Ryder responded with a flash of grin and a shrug.
The shrug, like the stance, was another habit of his, she mused.
The Montgomery brothers were an attractive breed, but in her opinion, her two friends had plucked the pick of the crop. She found Ryder a little surly, marginally unsociable.
And, okay, sexy—in a primitive, rough-edged sort of way.
Not her type, not remotely.
As she started across the street, a long, exaggerated wolf whistle shrilled out. Knowing it to be a joke, she tipped her face back toward the bakery, added a smoldering smile—then a wave to Jake, one of the painters. He and the laborer beside him waved back.
But not Ryder Montgomery, of course, she thought. He simply hooked his thumb in his pocket, watched her. Unsociable, she thought again. He couldn’t even stir himself for a casual wave.
She accepted the slow kindling in her belly as the natural reaction of a healthy woman to a long, shaded stare delivered by a sexy—if surly—man.
Particularly a woman who hadn’t had any serious male contact in—God—a year. A little more than a year. But who’s counting?
Her own fault, her own choice, so why think about it?
She reached the other side of Main Street, turned right toward the bookstore just as Clare stepped out onto its pretty covered porch.
She waved again as Clare stood a moment, one hand on the baby bump under her breezy summer dress. Clare had her long sunny hair pulled back in a tail, with blue-framed sunglasses softening the glare of the bold morning sun.
“I was just coming over to check on you,” Hope called out.
Clare held up her phone. “I was just texting you.” She slipped the phone back in her pocket, left her hand there a moment as she came down the steps to the sidewalk.
“Well?” Hope scanned her friend’s face. “Everything good?”
“Yeah. Good. We got back just a few minutes ago. Beckett …” She glanced over her shoulder. “He’s driving around to the back of the bakery. He’s got his tools.”
“Okay.” Mildly concerned, Hope laid a hand on Clare’s arm. “Honey, you had the sonogram, right?”
“Oh. Let’s walk up to Vesta. I’ll tell you and Avery at the same time. Beckett’s going to call his mother, tell his brothers. I need to call my parents.”
“The baby’s all right?”
“Absolutely.” She patted her purse as they walked. “I have pictures.”
“I have to see!”
“I’ll be showing them off for days. Weeks. It’s amazing.”
Avery popped out the front door of the restaurant, a white bib apron covering capris and a T-shirt. She bounced on purple Crocs. The sun speared into her Scot’s warrior-queen hair, sent the short ends to glimmering.
“Are we thinking pink?”
“Are you opening alone?” Clare countered.
“Yeah, it’s just me. Fran’s not due in for twenty. Are you okay? Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s absolutely perfectly wonderfully okay. But I want to sit down.”
With her friends exchanging looks behind her back, Clare walked in and went straight to the counter, then dropped onto a stool. Sighed. “It’s the first time I’ve been pregnant with three boys fresh out of school for the summer. It’s challenging.”
“You’re a little pale,” Avery commented.
“Want something cold?”
“With my entire being.”