The Next Always
The song and the silence in the heart,
That in part are prophecies, and in part
Are longings wild and vain.
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.
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 building 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 suspected 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.”