A Mischief Bay Novel, Book No. 3
March 2017/Paperback reissue December 2017
From the bestselling author of The Girls of Mischief Bay and The Friends We Keep comes a twisty tale of family dynamics that explores what can go terribly, hysterically wrong when the line between friendship and family blurs…
Zoe Saldivar is more than just single—she's ALONE. She recently broke up with her longtime boyfriend, she works from home and her best friend Jen is so obsessed with her baby that she has practically abandoned their friendship. The day Zoe accidentally traps herself in her attic with her hungry-looking cat, she realizes that it's up to her to stop living in isolation.
Her seemingly empty life takes a sudden turn for the complicated—her first new friend is Jen's widowed mom, Pam. The only guy to give her butterflies in a very long time is Jen's brother. And meanwhile, Pam is being very deliberately seduced by Zoe's own smooth-as-tequila father. Pam's flustered, Jen's annoyed and Zoe is beginning to think "alone" doesn't sound so bad, after all.
Book 3 Mischief Bay Series
"My name is Zoe Saldivar and I just had stupid sex with my ex-boyfriend."
As Zoe spoke, she carefully pulled on the rope dangling from the attic door in her ceiling. The mechanism was very stiff and if it snapped back in place too hard, the door would be stuck forever. Or so the building inspector had told her when she’d been in escrow for her house.
"Not that the sex was stupid," she continued. "It was okay. I want to say I was drunk, but I wasn’t. I even knew better. And I do know better. I was weak. There. I’ve said it. I had stupid ex-boyfriend sex in a moment of weakness."
The ladder lowered into place in the small hallway of her house. Zoe put her foot on the first step and then looked at Mason, her oversize marmalade cat.
"Nothing?" she asked. "You don’t want to offer any advice at all?"
"Is that disinterest or are you giving me a pass?"
"I can’t decide which is worse," Zoe admitted. "The stupid sex or the fact that you’re the only one I have to talk to about it."
She climbed the narrow, rickety steps up to the surprisingly spacious attic. So far she hadn’t put much up there—mostly because hauling anything large or heavy on those stairs was nearly impossible. But she had found a home for her luggage and the new seasonal flag collection she’d bought at a recent beach craft fair. Her mom had always loved celebrating every holiday and season. Now that Zoe had her own house, she wanted to follow suit.
She turned on the light and ignored the innate creepiness of being in an attic. This one was open and didn’t smell too musty. But hello, it was still an attic.
She moved the four-foot flagpole to the attic opening, then returned to pick out the "spring" flag she would hang. She held it up and smiled at the beautiful woven bouquet of brightly colored flowers.
Zoe turned in time to see Mason heading up the stairs.
The last thing she needed was to have her cat disappear into some dusty corner for several hours while she tried to coax him out.
Mason gave her his best green-eyed "who me?" stare before jumping into the attic.
He was a big boy. Eighteen pounds of muscle, and okay, maybe too many cat treats. Regardless, when he bounced, the stairs bounced, too. Then they rose with astonishing speed before snapping into place. The final thunk of the attic stairs coming to rest shook the house. Silence followed.
Zoe and Mason stared at each other before the cat strolled off to begin exploring, his tail held high. As if everything was fine. But she knew better.
Don’t close the attic door hard. It’s warped from age and humidity and needs to be replaced. If you let it snap shut, it’s going to get stuck.
The inspector’s words came back to her. Words she’d duly noted but hadn’t done anything about. She’d had her mind on things like painting and new window coverings. I mean seriously, it was attic stairs. How much could they matter?
Only they mattered now. A lot.
Zoe let the seasonal flag slip from her fingers. She crossed to the attic door and gave a little push. Nothing happened. She pushed harder, with the same result.
She was not a mechanical person. She could change a lightbulb and tell her computer to update with the best of them, but anything more complicated was challenging. She understood the concept of the attic stairs. She pulled a rope and the trap door opened. Stairs unfolded. When she was done, she pushed the stairs back into their folded position and they gracefully closed.
What she didn’t know was how to make that happen from the inside of the attic rather than the hallway. If she stood on the stairs and they opened, she would find herself tumbling down to the hallway below. That was unlikely to have a happy ending.
She knelt in front of the opening and put her hands on both sides of the stairs, then pushed down as hard as she could. There wasn’t even a hint of movement. She was well and truly stuck.
She shifted until she was sitting on the attic floor and tried to figure out what to do. Calling out for help was pretty useless. There was no one home—mostly because she lived alone. Sure she had friends, but they wouldn’t miss her for days. The same with her father. Her cell was downstairs and flagging down a neighbor would be challenging, what with the attic not having any windows.
She swallowed and told herself it wasn’t getting any hotter up here. That she was fine, and yes, she could breathe. Everything was okay. Something moved in the corner and she jumped, then pressed her hand against her suddenly thundering heart. Mason appeared. Was it just her or was he eyeing her in a somewhat predatory way?
"You are so not eating my liver," she told him.
Zoe forced herself to her feet. If there was a problem, there was also a solution. She would find it. If worse came to worst, she would simply throw herself on the attic door and take her chances with the fall. Better that than dying a slow, painful death alone up here.
As she prowled the large space, she tried to think positively. She would be fine. This would be a great anecdote for later. But her brain kept supplying her with awful stories she’d read about people dying and not being found until they were mummified. Because no one noticed they were missing.
Which could very well happen to her, she thought, horrified at the realization. She lived alone. She worked from home. Her best friend was obsessed with her eighteen-month-old son and rarely called. Zoe could very easily end up liverless and mummified. She’d seen the pictures in science class. Mummified was not a good look on anyone.
Twenty minutes later she had collected her luggage, the flagpole, two old musty blankets and oddly enough, a metal bow rake. The latter items had been left by the house’s previous owner. If James Bond could kill someone with a fountain pen, she could MacGyver her way out of the attic.
She placed the pole right by the opening and her smallest suitcase next to it. The blankets were being held in reserve in case she really did have to throw herself on the stairs and hope she didn’t kill herself when she landed. She would wrap herself in them to help break the fall. But first, a more sensible approach.
She stood with the rake head pressed flat against the opening. She pressed down as hard as she could. The door shifted slightly, then snapped closed. She rested for a second, then pressed down again, this time using her body weight for leverage. She felt the door give a hair, then half an inch, then a little more. She managed to kick the flagpole into the opening to hold it.
She straightened and shook out her arms. If she made it out of here, she was so going to have a serious talk with Mason. And maybe start working out. And get more friends. And one of those old lady alert thingies.
When her arms felt less shaky, she went back to work. This time she got the door open enough to slide the small suitcase in the resulting space. The pressure dented the plastic, but allowed her to widen the opening.
Two suitcases and much swearing later, the attic door dropped to the open position and the stairs oh so gracefully unfurled. Mason trotted past her and made his way to the main floor, then looked up as if asking what was taking her so long.
"We are so having a talk about your attitude," Zoe muttered as she followed him down the stairs. "And tonight, there’s going to be wine."
Four days after the attic incident, as Zoe thought of it, she stopped by Let’s Do Tea for scones on her way to her friend Jen’s place. One of the advantages of working from home was that her time was pretty much her own. If she wanted to get her work done at two in the morning, no one cared. The downside, of course, was the fact that no one would know if she was mummifying in her attic.
No matter how many times she reminded herself that she’d figured out a way to escape and now was fine, she couldn’t shake the feeling of having stared down her own mortality—and blinked. Or maybe her general unease had nothing to do with attic near death. Maybe it was more about feeling so incredibly isolated.
All her old work friends had either relocated with the company to San Jose or found other work. Her dad was a great guy and local, but still, her dad. It wasn’t as if they were going to go shopping together. She worked at home and rarely had a reason to leave. Somehow in the past few months, she’d kind of lost the concept of having a life.
Breaking up with Chad was a big part of that, she told herself as she walked to the bakery counter to choose her scones. Not that it hadn’t been the right thing to do. But now she was left at loose ends.
She picked out a dozen scones—buttermilk, blueberry and white chocolate chip—before returning to her car and driving the handful of blocks to Jen’s house.
The mid-March air was cool, the sky clear. The Pacific Ocean less than a half mile away kept the beach community of Mischief Bay regulated, temperature-wise. Even in winter, it rarely got below sixty, although it could be damp.
She turned onto Jen’s street, then pulled into the circular drive. The big, one-level ranch-style house sprawled across an oversize lot. The landscaping was mature, the roof on the newer side. In the land of escalating home prices, especially in this neighborhood, Jen and her husband, Kirk, had hit the housing jackpot.
Zoe wrinkled her nose as she remembered that good fortune had come at a terrible price. Almost two years ago, Jen’s father had suddenly passed away. Jen’s mother, Pam, had given the house to her daughter and moved into a condo. Zoe would guess, given the choice, Jen would rather be back in her small apartment and have her dad around. Zoe knew she would give anything to have her mother with her again.
"That whole attic thing has pushed me into morbid land," she murmured as she got out of the car. "Time for a mood shift."
She walked to the front door and knocked softly. A bright yellow hand-painted sign above the doorbell warned My Baby Is Sleeping.
A few seconds later, Jen Beldon opened the door. "Zoe," she said, sounding surprised. "Was I expecting you?" Jen, a pretty brunette with hazel eyes, groaned. "It’s Thursday. I’m sorry. I’m a horrible friend. Come in."
Zoe hugged Jen, then held up the box. "I bring terrible food that neither of us should be eating, so that makes me a bad friend, too."
"Thank God. Lately all I want is carbs. The more, the better."
Jen led the way into the big, open kitchen. She put water in a kettle, then set it on the stove. After collecting a teapot from a cupboard, she scooped loose tea into a strainer.
"The days go by so fast," she said. "I can’t seem to keep track of where I am, timewise. There are always a thousand things to do."
Jen wore a baggy T-shirt over black yoga pants. She had on white socks but no shoes. There were dark shadows under her eyes, as if she hadn’t been sleeping and the extra weight she’d gained carrying her eighteen-month-old son, Jack, was firmly in place.
"Kirk’s so busy at work. I know he’s happy, but his hours are erratic. And don’t get me started on his partner."
"Still making you nervous?" Zoe asked sympathetically.
"Every single day. The man is a walking, breathing cowboy. He has no regard for the rules. I don’t know why he hasn’t been disciplined or fired."
Six months ago Kirk had left the relative safety of the Mischief Bay Police Department for a detective position at the LAPD. His partner was a reckless old-timer named Lucas. Jen lived in fear that Lucas was going to lead Kirk into dangerous situations.
Zoe put the scones on a plate and set them on the table. She collected butter from the refrigerator, along with milk for the tea.
She glanced at her friend. "Should I ask about Jack?"
Tears immediately filled Jen’s eyes. Her friend looked away, then back at her. "He’s the same. Bright, happy, loving. I just wish…"
The kettle began to whistle. Jen turned and snapped off the heat, then poured the boiling water into the teapot.
Zoe took her place at the table and held in a sigh. Jack was a sweet baby who had reached every milestone exactly when he was supposed to. Rolling over, sitting up, crawling, reaching for objects. The only thing he hadn’t done was talk. He rarely vocalized, instead getting his point across in other ways.
Jen had grown increasingly worried over the past few months, convinced something was wrong. Zoe didn’t have enough experience to offer an opinion, but as every specialist Jen had been to had said Jack would talk when he was ready, she thought maybe her friend was making herself crazy over something that might not be a problem.
Jen poured the tea, then brought the baby monitor from the counter to the table and took her seat. "I’m still doing a lot of home testing with Jack," she said. "He does so well on nearly everything. I think he’s bright. He’s not regressing, at least not that I can see. I have another specialist I’m going to take him to next week." She sighed and reached for a scone. "Maybe it’s nutritional." She waved the scone. "I’d never let him have this. I’m so careful with his diet." She sighed heavily. "I just wish I could sleep. But it’s hard. I worry."
"Of course you do. You have a lot going on."
"Tell me about it. I had to let the cleaning service go. They were using a spray cleaner. Can you believe it? I told them they could only use steam and those special cloths I bought. What if the fumes from the chemicals are affecting Jack’s development? What if it’s the paint on the walls or the varnish on the floors?"
"What if he’s fine?"
Zoe spoke without thinking, then wanted to call the words back. Jen’s gaze turned accusing and her mouth pulled into a straight line.
"Now you sound like my mother," she snapped. "Look, I know it’s not a big deal to you, but Jack is my child and I’m his only advocate, okay? I know there’s something wrong. I just know it. If you had children of your own, you’d understand."
Zoe had been looking forward to her chocolate chip scone. Now she found herself unable to take a bite.
"I’m sorry," she said. "I only meant to help."
She waited, wondering if Jen was going to apologize for her snipey remarks, but her friend only continued to glare at her.
"Then I should go," Zoe said quietly. She rose and started for the door.
Jen followed her. Before Zoe walked out of the house, Jen touched her arm.
"Look, I’m sorry. I just don’t want to hear that Jack’s okay from one more person. He’s not and I seem to be the only one who sees that. I’m drowning and no one sees it. Please understand."
"I’m trying," Zoe told her. "Do you want me to come back next week?"
"What?" Jen’s eyes filled with tears again. "No, don’t say that. You’re my best friend. I need you. Please come back. We’ll do better next time. It’ll be great. Promise?"
Zoe nodded slowly. The words were there, but they weren’t best friends anymore. They hadn’t been in a while.
"I’ll see you then," she said and made her way to her car. When she was driving away she realized that she’d never had the chance to tell Jen about what had happened to her in the attic or anything else that was going on.
Everything was different now, she thought. There was no Chad. Jen was slipping away. Zoe felt as if she was living in total isolation. If she didn’t want to die alone, then she was going to have to make some changes in her life. Step one, she told herself, find a handyman to fix her attic stairs. Step two, get her butt out of the house and make new friends.
COPYRIGHT © 2018 BY SUSAN MALLERY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. WEBSITE DESIGN & MAINTENANCE BY WEB CRAFTERS.
SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.