February 11, 2020
Blackberry Island, Book No. 4
Cousins by chance, sisters by choice…
After her cat toy empire goes up in flames, Sophie Lane returns to Blackberry Island, determined to rebuild. Until small-town life reveals a big problem: she can't grow unless she learns to let go. If Sophie relaxes her grip even a little, she might lose everything. Or she might finally be free to reach for the happiness and love that have eluded her for so long.
Kristine has become defined by her relationship to others. She's a wife, a mom. As much as she adores her husband and sons, she wants something for herself—a sweet little bakery just off the waterfront. She knew changing the rules wouldn't be easy, but she never imagined she might have to choose between her marriage and her dreams.
Like the mainland on the horizon, Heather's goals seem beyond her grasp. Every time she manages to save for college, her mother has another crisis. Can she break free, or will she be trapped in this tiny life forever?
Told with Mallery’s trademark humor and charm, Sisters by Choice is a heartfelt tale of love, family, and the friendships that see us through.
Eight years after her divorce, Sophie Lane still wasn’t very good at dating. She supposed she only had herself to blame—if she really “put herself out there,” as her cousin Kristine was always saying, she could find someone.
From Sophie’s point of view, there were multiple problems with that statement. First, Kristine had married her high school sweetheart after graduation and had been happily married for the past sixteen years. She wasn’t exactly someone who should be giving dating advice. Second, Sophie didn’t have a lot of time to “put herself out there.” She was busy—she owned a company and she loved her company and all the hard work that went into keeping it successful. To be honest, her business was way more interesting than any man, which might be a big part of the dating problem. That and well, the actual dating.
Getting dressed up, meeting for dinner, listening to a man talk about himself for three hours, wasn’t exactly how she wanted to spend a lone evening when she wasn’t dealing with some crisis at the office. Plus, she never quite understood all the rules.
She was pretty sure it was supposed to be sex after three dates, but that didn’t work for her. If she liked a guy and wanted to have sex with him, why did she have to wait? She was busy. If she had the interest and the time on the first date, then her feeling was, why not just do it, clear her head, so to speak, and happily get on with her life? Because if she didn’t want to do it on date one, there was no way she was interested on date three. By then the guy had probably annoyed her fifty-seven ways to Bakersfield.
Which explained why, on date two with Bradley Kaspersky, she was one hundred percent convinced saying yes had been a massive mistake. Not that his sixty-minute explanation of how laser sightings worked hadn’t been fascinating their first evening together. Under normal circumstances she would have ended things when the check—split at her request—came, explaining he wasn’t for her, and while she appreciated meeting him, there was no moving forward. And no, he shouldn’t bother calling, texting or emailing.
She would have except… She was lonely. CK was gone and three months after the fact, she still couldn’t believe it. Going home to her empty condo was physically painful. She’d taken to sleeping on the sofa in her office to avoid all the memories, but then she had to go home to shower and the second she walked in the door, she wanted to cry.
Because of all that, she hadn’t given Bradley the brush-off and now here she was, at dinner two, listening to the practical applications for calibrated laser sighting. Or was it sightings? Regardless, she was stuck and to be honest, maybe she should just suck it up and go back to her place and let the pain wash over her. Because CK deserved to be mourned and she had a feeling her therapist would tell her she’d been putting off those feelings for a little too long. Assuming she had a therapist. Which she didn’t. Although more than one person had told her she needed one. Usually an employee she’d fired, or who had quit. As they walked out, the parting shot, often yelled across the company’s open foyer, was something along the lines of, “You’re impossible. You think you can do everything. Well, you can’t. You’re not superhuman. You only think you’re better than everyone else. You have a serious problem, Sophie, and you should get help.” About half the time, the B word was tossed around.
“Your phone is ringing.”
“Oh. Sorry. I forgot to turn off the sound.”
She looked down at the phone she’d placed next to her wineglass and realized it was indeed ringing and buzzing and dancing on the table. She was about to send the call to her voice mail when she read the caller ID info.
“It’s my alarm company,” she said. “I just need to take this.”
She grabbed her phone and her handbag and started for the front of the restaurant.
“Sophie Lane,” she said crisply. “Do you need my authentication code?”
She gave the code, then asked, “What’s the problem?”
“We have notified the local fire department that several fire alarms have gone off at the location. Our sensors indicated that there is a fire, Ms. Lane. This is not a false alarm. CK Industries is on fire.”
Twenty minutes later, while waiting impatiently at a stupid light that wouldn’t ever turn green, Sophie remembered that she’d been on a date when she’d bolted for her car. She activated her hands-free calling and said, “Call Bradley Kaspersky.”
“Bradley Kaspersky. Cell phone. Dialing.”
Seconds later she heard ringing, followed by, “You left.”
“Bradley, I’m sorry. My office building is on fire. I’m driving there right now to meet the fire department.”
“How do I know that’s true? How do I know you didn’t just run out on me?”
“Because I didn’t. Because… I don’t know, Bradley. If that’s what you really think then this isn’t going to work. I have to go.”
She disconnected the call and tried to ignore the sense of fear and dread growing in her chest. If there was a fire, she could lose everything. Her inventory, her records, her pictures of CK that she kept on her desk.
Maybe it wasn’t so bad, she thought. Maybe it was—
She nearly rear-ended the car in front of her. Sophie jumped on the brakes at the last second and stopped inches from the pickup’s rear bumper. Up ahead, on her right, dark smoke rose in the sky. No—rose was the wrong word. It shot up, like out of a cannon, spreading maliciously, portending disaster.
She turned at the corner, made a left and three more rights before being forced to a stop by a barricade manned by two members of the Santa Clarita Police Department. She pulled over and jumped out of her car, grabbing her company ID and showing it to the officers.
“That’s my company,” she said. “I own it. What happened? Was anyone inside? Oh, God, the cleaners. Did they get out?”
The officers waved her past the barricade and pointed toward one of the firefighters. He looked more management and less like a climb-a-ladder-to-make-a-hole-in-the-roof guy.
At first she couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but stare at what had once been a large warehouse with offices. Now there was only fire and smoke and heat.
Go, she told herself. She had to get going!
She rushed to the guy and identified herself again.
He nodded. “From what we can tell, the cleaning team discovered the fire. They all got out safely. We did a search, as best we could, and didn’t find anyone else. Do you know of any employees who work late?”
Sophie tried to focus on what he was saying, but it was impossible. She’d never seen a real fire before—not outside of the movies or TV. There was no way that two-dimensional image had prepared her for the real thing. The heat was incredible. Even from a hundred feet away, she wanted to step back, to get away from the climbing temperature.
Even more stunning was the sound. Fire really was alive. It breathed and roared and screamed. Her building put up a fight, but it was no match for the beast that consumed it. As she watched, the fire cried out in victory as a wall collapsed.
“Ma’am, is anyone working late?”
The question was screamed in her face. She tore her attention away from the flames.
“No. No one works late. Only me. I don’t like anyone in my building when I’m not there.” The cleaners were the exception. She trusted them. Plus, anything important was locked up.
The man’s expression turned sympathetic. “I’m sorry. The building is going to be a total loss.”
She nodded because speaking was impossible. Her throat hurt, and not just from the smoke and ash in the air. Her throat hurt because she was doing her best to keep it all inside.
Everything she’d worked for, everything she’d dreamed of, built, sweated over and fought for was gone. Just gone. Her mom had always warned her that if she wasn’t careful, people would break her heart, but no one had warned her that a building could do the same.
She turned away and started for her car. The left side of her brain said she needed to call her insurance agent, and maybe some of her employees. Thank God her accounting records and orders were all backed up externally, but CK Industries wasn’t going to open its doors anytime soon.
That was the left side. The right side of her brain only felt pain. First CK and now this. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t lose them both.
She fumbled with her phone and scrolled through her contacts until she found a familiar number. She pushed it.
“Hey, you,” her cousin Kristine said. “This is a surprise. I thought you had a date. Oh, Sophie, it’s barely eight. You didn’t dump him already, did you? I swear, you’re impossible. What was wrong with this guy? Too tall? Not tall enough? Did he breathe funny? Hang on a sec—”
Kristine’s voice became muffled. “Yes, JJ, you really do have to do your European history homework. The First World War isn’t stupid or boring and you will need the information later in life.”
Kristine’s voice normalized. “You know he’s going to come back to me when he’s thirty and tell me I was completely wrong about the everyday relevance of World War I.”
Sophie managed to find her voice. “Kristine, it’s gone.”
“What? Sophie, what happened? Where are you? Are you okay? Did your date do something? Do you need me to call the police?”
“No. It’s not me.” At first Sophie thought she was shaking, but then she realized she was crying so hard she could barely stand or breathe.
“There’s a fire. Right now the whole place is on fire. There’s not going to be anything left. It’s gone, Kristine. It’s just gone.”
“Are you okay? Was anyone hurt?”
“No one works late and the cleaning crew found the fire, so they’re all okay. I don’t know what to do. I can’t handle this.”
“Of course you can. If anyone can, it’s you, sweetie. We both know that. You’re in shock. Look, I’m going to get myself on the first flight out in the morning. I’ll text you the information. We’ll figure it out. We can do this together.”
Sophie stared at the hungry flames and knew she’d been bested. She’d been prepared for a hostile buy-out or an all-employee mutiny, but not total annihilation.
“This is all I have and now there’s nothing,” she whispered.
“That’s not true. You have your family and, knowing you the way I do, you have more insurance than you need. This could actually work out for the best. You’ve been talking about moving your business back to the island for years. Now you can. It’ll be like it was back in high school. You’ll see.”
“I hate it when you’re perky.”
“I know. That’s mostly why I act that way. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Sophie nodded and hung up, then she opened the driver’s door of her car and sank onto the seat. There were a thousand things she should be doing but right now all she could do was watch her entire world literally go up in flames.
The distance between Valencia, California, and Blackberry Island, Washington, was about 1130 miles, give or take, and Sophie could make the drive in two days.
She filled her car with clothes, her laptop, two boxes of records she would need as she continued to deal with the aftermath of the fire, along with a large tote bag overflowing with pictures, blankets, a pet bed and a few treasured catnip mice and toys. The movers would pack up everything else and deliver it in a week or so. She’d sold her condo furnished, so she would only have to deal with twenty or thirty boxes of personal things. In the meantime, she would get by with what she had. It was, in fact, her new mantra.
Temporarily shutting down CK Industries had been unexpectedly easy. She’d hired an order fulfillment company to manage customer notification. Those who wanted to wait for replacement orders could do so, those who wanted their money back received a prompt refund. She’d offered to move key personnel with her to Blackberry Island and had received exactly zero takers. Still too numb to be hurt by that, she’d written letters of recommendation and offered generous severance packages, all the while prepaying four months of health insurance for everyone.
Her only friends in the area had been work-related and with no more work, they’d quickly faded away. In the end, there’d been no one to see her off, so six weeks after the fire, at seven on Friday morning, she fought her way to the freeway, then merged onto I5 north.
Around ten, Kristine called.
“Where are you?” her cousin asked.
“North of the Grapevine.”
“You should have let me fly down and drive up with you.”
“I’ll be fine. You have eight kids to deal with. They would die without you.”
Kristine laughed. “It’s three kids.”
“When I visit, it feels like more.”
“That’s because they’re loud.” Her humor faded. “You okay?”
“Never better.” Especially if she didn’t count her broken heart and ragged spirit.
“I am, but that’s okay.”
Kristine sighed. “I’m glad you’re coming home. I’m worried about you.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I think the warehouse is still for lease. I want you to see it the second you get here. This is Blackberry Island. It’s not as if we have more than one warehouse. If you don’t grab this one, you’re going to have to have your offices on the mainland, and driving there every day would be a drag.”
Sophie felt her sense of dazed sadness ease a little. “Already done.”
“I signed the lease last week.”
“Seriously?” Kristine’s voice was a shriek. “But you haven’t seen it.”
“I know, but you said it was great. Besides, you’re right. It’s not as if there are six warehouses to choose from.”
“I said it was available, but I don’t know what you need. Sophie, you signed a lease? What if you hate it?”
“Then I’ll be mad at you.” She smiled. “It’s fine. I’ll make it work. Really. Right now I just want to be home.”
“You leased a warehouse you’ve never seen. Sheesh. Next you’re going to tell me you rented a house, sight unseen.”
“Technically, I saw pictures online.”
“It’s just for a few months, while I figure things out.”
“That’s insane,” Kristine told her. “I will never understand you. Okay, focus on your driving. I can’t wait for you to get here tomorrow. The boys are very excited to see you.”
“I’m excited to see them. You have six, right?”
“Love you, too.”
“Think of it as a rite of passage,” Kristine Fielding said cheerfully. “You’re twelve now. You deserve to take on more responsibilities.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing,” her twelve-year-old son Tommy grumbled. “I’m a really good kid, Mom. Maybe I deserve not to do laundry.”
“You’d rather I did it for you?”
“Well, yeah. Of course. Nobody wants to do chores.”
They were in Tommy’s bedroom, facing a massive pile of laundry. Kristine had been doing her best to convince her middle son it was time for him to learn a few life skills. As his older brother had before him, Tommy resisted. In the end, she’d had to threaten JJ with the loss of Xbox privileges before he was willing to take on the task. She was hoping she wouldn’t have to resort to anything that dire with Tommy.
“So it’s okay for me to take care of this entire house, cook the meals and do your laundry, while you do nothing?”
Tommy grinned. “It’s your job, Mom. My job is school. Remember how I got an A on my last math test? Being a great student takes a lot of time.” His expression turned sly. “Which would you rather have? Me doing my own laundry or a super-intelligent kid who gets straight A’s?”
“It’s not an either-or proposition. You’re twelve now. It’s time to start doing your own laundry.”
“But I already help Dad out with the yard.”
“We all do that. Look at my face. Is there anything about my expression that makes you think I’m going to change my mind on this? Let us remember the sad summer from two years ago when JJ refused to do his laundry. Think about the layer of dust on his Xbox controller and how he cried and pouted and stomped his feet.”
“It was embarrassing for all of us.”
“Yes, it was. Now, you can either be an example to your little brother, or you can provide me with a very humorous story to tell everyone who’s ever met you, but at the end of the day, you will still be doing laundry. Which is it to be?”
“Maybe I should ask Dad what he thinks.”
Kristine knew that Jaxsen would take Tommy’s side—not out of malice, but because when it came to his kids, he was the softest touch around.
“You could and then you would still have to face me.” She kept her tone cheerful. “Am I wrong?”
“No.” Tommy sighed heavily. “I surrender to the inevitable.”
“That’s my boy. I’m proud of you. Now, collect your dirty clothes and meet me in the laundry room. You’re going to learn how to work the washer and dryer. I have a schedule posted. You’ll have certain days and times when you will have the privilege of using the washer and dryer. If you use them at other times, when they’re scheduled for JJ or when I want them, you will not enjoy the consequences.”
“Mom! Not my skateboard.”
Kristine smiled. Both her mother and mother-in-law had taught her that the key to getting kids to do what you wanted was to find out what they wanted and use that as leverage. For JJ it was his Xbox, for Tommy it was his skateboard and for Grant it was being outside. She tried to use her power for good, but she did absolutely use it.
“And on Saturday, you’ll change your sheets and wash those,” she said happily. “It’s going to be great.”
“It’s not fair.”
“I know. Isn’t it fabulous?”