January 23, 2018
There wasn’t a holiday on the calendar that Harper Szymanski couldn’t celebrate, cook for, decorate, decoupage, create a greeting card about or wrap in raffia. There were the biggies: birthdays, New Years, Fourth of July. But also the lesser celebrated: American Diabetes Association Alert Day, Auntie’s Day, National Massage Therapy Awareness Week. Why weren’t there greeting cards to honor that? Didn’t everyone need a good massage?
Despite a skill set that made Martha Stewart look like a slacker, Harper had never figured out a way to monetize her gift for setting a table to commemorate anything. She’d tried catering about ten years ago, but had quickly discovered that her need to overbuy and overdeliver had meant losing money on every single job. Which left her in the awkward position of trying to make a living the hard way—with two semesters of community college and sixteen years of being a stay-at-home mom.
Retail jobs and the pay that went with them hadn’t been close to enough to support herself and her daughter postdivorce. Three online aptitude tests had left her even more confused—while getting her degree in biochemistry and going on to medical school sounded great, it wasn’t actually a practical solution for an over-forty single mom with no money in the bank. Then an article in the local paper had provided an interesting and almost-viable idea. Harper had become a virtual assistant.
If there was one thing she knew it was how to take care of the details. You didn’t get good at a basket weave Fourth of July cake without paying attention. One year after filing her business permit, Harper had five main clients, nearly a dozen more who used her services intermittently and almost enough income to pay her bills. She also had her mother living in the apartment over the garage, an ex-husband dating a gorgeous blonde who was—wait for it—exactly fourteen years younger than Harper because they shared a birthday—a sixteen-year-old daughter who had stopped speaking to her and a client who was desperately unclear on the concept of virtual in the world of virtual assistants.
“You don’t have to drop off your bills every month,” Harper said as she set out coffee, a plate of chocolate chip scones that she’d gotten up at five-thirty that morning to bake fresh, a bowl of sugar-glazed almonds and sliced pears.
“And miss this?” Lucas Wheeler asked, pouring himself a mug of coffee. “If you’re trying to convince me coming by isn’t a good idea, then stop feeding me.”
He was right, of course. There was an easy, logical solution. Stop taking care of people and they would go away. Or at least be around less often. There was just one problem—when someone stopped by your home, you were supposed to take care of them.
“I can’t help it,” she admitted, wishing it weren’t the truth. “It’s a disease. I’m a people pleaser. I blame my mother.”
“I’d blame her, too, if I were you.”
She supposed she could take offense at Lucas’s words, but he was only stating the obvious.
In some ways Harper felt as if she was part of the wrong generation. According to celebrity magazines, fifty was the new twenty-five, which meant almost forty-two should be the new what? Eleven? Everyone else her age seemed so young and carefree, with modern attitudes and a far better grasp of what was in style and popular.
Harper was just now getting around to listening to the soundtrack from Hamilton and her idea of fashionable had a lot more to do with how she dressed her dining room table than herself. She was like a 1950s throwback, which might sound charming but in real life kind of sucked. On the bright side, it really was her mother’s fault.
“Speaking of your mother, where is she?” Lucas asked.
“At the senior center, preparing Easter baskets for the homeless.” Because that was what women were supposed to do. Take care of people—not have actual careers that could support them and their families.
“I, on the other hand, will be paying your bills, designing T-shirts for Misty, working on the layout of a sales brochure and making bunny butt cookies for my daughter.”
Lucas raised an eyebrow. “You do realize that bunny butt is just a polite way of saying rabbit ass.”
Harper laughed. “Yes, but they’re an Easter tradition. Becca loves them. Her father is dropping her off tomorrow afternoon and I want the cookies waiting.”
Because maybe if there were bunny butt cookies, her daughter would smile and talk to her the way she used to. In actual sentences that shared bits of her life.
“You sorry you didn’t go?” Lucas asked.
“To the memorial? Yes.” She thought for a second, then added, “No. I mean I would have liked to pay my respects and all, but Great-Aunt Cheryl is gone, so it’s not like she would miss me showing up.”
The drive from Mischief Bay to Grass Valley would take practically the whole day. Harper couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than being trapped in a car with her ex, his girlfriend and her daughter. Okay, the Becca part would be great, but the other two?
The worst of it was that while Great-Aunt Cheryl was actually Terence’s relative, Harper had been the one who had stayed in touch, right up until her death two months ago.
“Terence is forty-four. What is he thinking, dating a twenty-eight-year-old?” She glared at Lucas. “Never mind. You’re the wrong person to be having this particular conversation with.”
Because while her client was a handsome, single, fifty-year-old man, he also dated women in their twenties. In his case, their early twenties.
“What is wrong with you?” she demanded. “Is it all men or just you and my ex? Oh, dear God, the one thing you have in common with Terence is me. Did I do something to make you all date twenty-somethings?”
“Calm down,” Lucas said mildly. “I was dating younger women long before we met. It’s not you, it’s me.”
“Where have I heard that before?” She glanced pointedly at the clock on her microwave. “Don’t you have crimes to solve?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going.”
He rose and carried his dishes to the sink. Lucas was about five-ten, nicely muscled with a belly way flatter than hers. He wore jeans, cowboy boots and a long-sleeved shirt. He was a detective with the LAPD, and from what she’d learned about him in the nine months she’d been working for him, he’d always been a cop.
He returned to the table and slipped on his shoulder holster, then grabbed his blazer. “How do you make bunny butt cookies?”
She laughed. “It’s easy. You take a round sugar cookie frosted in pink icing, add two small oval sugar cookies decorated with pink candy for feet, use a miniature marshmallow for the tail and viola—bunny butt cookies.”
“Save me a couple.”
“I promise.” She would put them in a little box that she would decorate for the holiday. Because she simply couldn’t hand someone cookies on a plain paper plate. If she tried, the heavens would open and release a plague of locusts at the very least.
Oh, to be able to buy packaged cookies from the grocery store. Or prepared spaghetti sauce. Or a frozen entrée. But that would never happen because it wasn’t what Harper was supposed to do.
She carried the rest of the dishes over to the sink, packed up the uneaten food, then retreated to her large craft room with its built-in shelves and giant tables and cupboards. After finding a nice bunny-butt-cookie-sized box, she studied her ribbon collection before selecting one that would coordinate. While her glue gun heated, she sorted through her fabric remnants to find one that was Easter appropriate and wondered what other women did with the time they saved by not making every stupid thing by hand.
But Harper was her mother’s daughter and had never been very good at bucking tradition. Her sister, Stacey, was the rebel while Harper did what she was told. It wasn’t that she didn’t like making bunny butt cookies or decoupaging gift boxes, it was that she wanted just a little more in her life. More challenges, more money, more communication with her daughter. And while it was fun to blame all her problems on her mother, Harper couldn’t help thinking that in reality, everything she wanted but didn’t have was very likely her own damn fault.
A Mischief Bay Novel, Book No. 4
January 23, 2018
Divorce left Harper Szymanski with a name no one can spell, a house she can't afford, and a teenage daughter who's pulling away. With her fledgling virtual assistant business, she's scrambling to maintain her overbearing mother’s ridiculous Susie Homemaker standards and still pay the bills, thanks to clients like Lucas, the annoying playboy cop who claims he hangs around for Harper's fresh-baked cookies.
Spending half her life in school hasn't prepared Dr. Stacey Bloom for her most daunting challenge—motherhood. She didn't inherit the nurturing gene like Harper and is in deep denial that a baby is coming. Worse, her mother will be horrified to learn that Stacey's husband plans to be a stay-at-home dad. . . assuming she can find the courage first to tell Mom she's already six months pregnant.
Separately they may be a mess, but together Harper and Stacey can survive anything—their indomitable mother, overwhelming maternity stores and ex’s weddings. Sisters Like Us is a delightful look at sisters, mothers, and daughters in today's fast-paced world, told with Susan Mallery's trademark warmth and humor.
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SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.