June 20, 2023
Blackberry Island, Book No. 5
Three women search for joy in #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery’s new novel of hope, heartache, and the power of friendship.
Heather is happy . . . ish. She has a successful business, a cute but contemptuous cat, and best friends Daphne and Tori who know where she’s broken and love her anyway. So why does she feel crushed when her ex gets serious about someone new? No problem, she has a plan. More connections will hold her together while her world falls apart, so she finally reaches out to the stranger who might be her dad.
Daphne isn’t having an emotional affair, despite what her husband believes. He started the rift in their marriage when he said they weren’t ready for a baby. They used to be the closest couple she knew. Can they find their way back to one another before it’s too late?
When Tori forms an inconvenient crush on Daphne’s brother-in-law, she suppresses her feelings. Until her apartment floods, and she moves in with the dog-loving doctor. If things go wrong, she could lose her friends. . . but if they go right, she could lose her heart.
“Is it possible you’re overcommitting in your personal life because you don’t want to feel your emotions?” Tori Rocha asked, her tone more concerned than judgy. “Kittens? Really? Because you needed one more thing?”
Heather Sitterly glanced down at the three sleeping two-week-old kittens she’d just agreed to foster, thought about the client she’d signed that morning and the kitchen remodel she was considering.
“Possible?” she repeated, grinning as she spoke. “No. Not possible. I think we can agree it’s likely. Very likely.”
Tori’s mouth twitched, as if trying not to smile. “Admitting you have a problem is half the battle. How can I help?”
Heather shifted her wrist so her friend and the head graphic designer at 206 Marketing Group could see her smart watch.
“In forty-two minutes these little guys will need feeding.”
“The conference room in forty-two minutes. I’ll be there.”
So would the rest of the senior staff, Heather thought, because forty-two minutes from now was the weekly update meeting.
Heather walked to her large corner office where she had an oversize executive desk, a small conference table and a seating area. The traditional furniture contrasted with the soft-sided playpen in the back corner.
She set the box of kittens on the coffee table and pulled a couple of soft blankets from the closet, along with a large heating pad. She set the heating pad on the lowest setting and covered it with one of the blankets, then used the second one to make a little nest. Carefully, she transferred the sleeping kittens to the playpen where they mewed for a few seconds before falling back to sleep.
“I’ll take good care of you,” she whispered. “In a few weeks you’ll be old enough to go to your forever homes. You’ll have a great life.”
Between now and adoption day, Heather would be their surrogate mother. While time consuming, the task wasn’t a stretch. She fostered on a regular basis. Once she got the kittens back to her place, she would be aided by her crabby, mistrustful cat, LC, who loathed her but was an amazing foster dad to all the kittens she brought home.
Heather crossed to her desk and uploaded the signed contracts from Mountain Goat Northwest, their newest client. She’d been courting them for eighteen months, so having them sign on the dotted line was a sweet victory. MGNW specialized in outerwear for various sports but emphasized sustainable fabrics and bright colors, often decorated with faux fur. Many of their jackets and pants could be custom ordered with personalized details such as patterns and trim.
She’d sold MGNW on an experiential marketing campaign—one that would help form a relationship with their customers to create brand loyalty for a lifetime.
Once she’d sent the contracts to accounting, she answered her email briefly, fingers flying over the keyboard. She’d nearly finished when a new email appeared with a familiar subject line.
More detailed DNA results. See who else might be related to you.
“I already know who’s related to me,” Heather murmured, clicking on the link. She logged in to her Ancestry account and stared at the familiar information.
Potential blood relatives included a few distant cousins, some old lady in Belarus and a married man with two daughters living about forty-five minutes north of Seattle. Her gaze lingered on the last entry.
Fletcher Causey, age fifty-two. From what she’d learned in a cursory online search, he was a high school history teacher, had never been in prison and according to his Facebook page, which for reasons not clear to her wasn’t private, was a devoted dad to two girls. He liked sports, grew his own vegetables and had been married to his wife for fifteen years. More compelling than all that was the fact that according to Ancestry, there was a 97.5 percent chance he was also Heather’s father. The result of a one-night stand when he and her mother had been eighteen.
She’d learned about the possible DNA match six months ago but had yet to reach out. Her mother was enough of a pain—Heather wasn’t interested in another clingy relative. Only Fletcher seemed like a good guy and she’d always wondered about her father and…
“Is it true? Are there kittens?”
She looked up and smiled at Sam, her head of market research. Sam was a genius when it came to understanding demographics and trends, often creating his own algorithms to dig down into the numbers. Heather didn’t understand the how of what he did, but she appreciated the results.
“Three of them and you’re the first one here.”
“I washed my hands,” he said as he crossed to the playpen. He slowly removed one kitten, getting a mew of protest as he carefully turned it over before putting it back.
There were two black-and-white kittens and one gray one. The second kitten barely stirred as he lifted it. Once he’d determined the gender, he sat down on the sofa and carefully put a tiny blue collar around its neck.
“Let me guess,” she said drily. “Russell Wilson?”
“You know he’s no longer a Seahawk. He left the team and our beautiful city.”
Sam shook his head. “Don’t care. Ten years after he’s retired, he’ll still be my man.”
Heather’s watch beeped a five-minute warning for the meeting.
“Time to heat the formula,” she said.
“I’ll bring these guys.” Sam put Russell Wilson into the box and collected the other two kittens.
Heather walked to the break room where she found Tori collecting towels, feeding syringes and cotton balls. A can of formula was on the counter along with a cup of water.
“I warmed the water already,” Tori told her. “But check the temperature.”
“Thanks. Sam’s already claimed his kitten. Did you want to name one?”
Her friend grinned. “Unlike Sam, I’m not comfortable giving kittens the same name over and over again and I’ve run out of creative options. I’ll let someone else give it a shot.”
The house rule was the first to help with a kitten got to name it—at least until its adoption.
Heather mixed the formula and tested the temperature before carrying it into the conference room. Her director of digital marketing had already claimed the gray girl. Tori passed out supplies while Heather filled each syringe.
“I hear we’re due for a celebration,” Elliot Young, her mentor and business partner, said as he walked into the conference room. “Someone signed Mountain Goat Northwest this morning.”
He was followed by one of the marketing staff pushing a cart piled high with cupcakes, sparkling water and coffee.
Elliot sat next to her and reached for the kitten she held. “You worked hard for that account. You deserve to celebrate.”
Everyone not holding a kitten applauded. Heather felt a flush of pride and gratitude.
“It was a team effort,” she told them. “We’re going to be good for them and they’re going to be good for us.”
Elliot set the kitten on the towel and picked up the syringe filled with formula. Like everyone at 206 Marketing Group, he was well practiced in feeding and caring for motherless kittens. It came with the job. During the interview process, all prospective employees were warned that there were nearly always cats in the building, along with Tori’s dog. Those with a severe pet allergy might want to think about working elsewhere.
Once everyone had their cupcakes and drinks, Heather took control of the meeting.
“We’ll start with experiential marketing,” she said, glancing to her left.
As she listened to the update, Heather thought about how fortunate she was in her work life. With Elliot’s wise counsel, she’d avoided many of the pitfalls that came with starting a new business. She’d been well funded and had been able to lure away top talent and clients. Four years after opening its doors, the company was thriving and so was she. At least professionally. The rest of her life was a disaster.
Well, not all of it—just the romantic part, driven by her inability to commit. Or say the L word. Okay, and she had trust issues. There was also the confusion of equally wanting and not wanting to meet her birth father. Plus, her mother. Other than that, she was the picture of mental health.
And while most of those problems could be solved—with the exception of her mother—dealing with them made her uncomfortable. Which was why she had a new batch of foster kittens with which to distract herself.
Better kittens than emotional self-exploration, she thought. Maybe, at the end of the day, business success was enough and the relationship stuff wasn’t necessary. A lie, of course, but one she thought she could embrace fully. At least for now.
“Is she asleep? Dad said not to bug her if she’s asleep.”
“She’s not asleep. She can hear us.”
“We’re going to get in big trouble if we wake her. She worked really late last night.”
Daphne Brown stayed perfectly still, doing her best not to smile as she listened to her stepkids loudly whispering from just outside the master bedroom. Usually, the three of them slept in on weekends, but they were excited to go hiking with their dad and uncles, so they’d bounced out of bed at six. She’d ignored the pounding of their steps as they raced downstairs, but there was no way to sleep through their talking.
“I want to say good morning,” Alexa, the youngest of the three, said more loudly.
Daphne rolled onto her back, bumping into Albert and Vanessa. Albert, a Siamese mix, raised his head and stared disdainfully at the children in the doorway. He was very much a one-person cat and Brody’s three were not his people. In contrast, Vanessa, a beautiful calico, loved the world and expected it to love her back. She stood with an obvious expectation of cuddles and pets.
She was not disappointed. The kids threw themselves onto the bed, wrestling with each other to see who could snuggle closest, Alexa dragging Vanessa with her.
“You’re awake! You’re awake!”
Elijah, ten and the oldest, spoke for the siblings. He was a natural-born leader and Daphne thought he had the potential to be president. “We already had breakfast. Dad made pancakes. But don’t worry. We cleaned up the mess.”
She sat up and shoved the pillows behind her back. Elijah settled on her left while Cadin and Alexa shared her right side. Vanessa climbed on her lap and Albert moved away to a safe distance where he could observe and judge.
“You cleaned up?” Daphne asked with a grin. “On purpose?”
They all laughed. Alexa proudly explained, “I started it. I cleared my plate and put it on the counter. I got an extra disk.”
“You did? That’s amazing!”
In their house, good behavior was rewarded with a small plastic disk. Elijah’s were green and Cadin’s were blue—the Seattle Seahawks colors—while Alexa’s were bright purple for the University of Washington Huskies. Disks were collected in a box and every few weeks, one was drawn. The kid whose disk was drawn got to be king or queen for the day, choosing dinner and the evening’s entertainment.
“How were the pancakes?” Daphne asked, putting her arms around her brood. “Excellent?”
“Superior,” Cadin said.
“Outstanding!” Elijah told her.
Alexa looked up at her and grinned. “They were very, very good.”
“Did you leave any for me?”
Smiles faded as the kids stared at her in confusion.
“Dad said you didn’t want any,” Elijah told her.
Her good mood drained away, leaving the exhaustion that came from only five hours of sleep. Just as unpleasant was the proof that Brody was still pissed at her and showing it in every passive-aggressive way possible.
Aware of the three watching her, she faked a huge smile as she said, “But I do want my coffee.”
They scrambled off the bed.
“I’ll pour,” Elijah said, beating the others to the top of the landing.
“I’ll get the milk.”
“I’ll get the mug.”
“No running on the stairs,” she called, then turned to her cats and softened her voice. “I didn’t want his pancakes, anyway. Maybe I’ll go out to breakfast. Because men are stupid poopieheads.”
Albert rubbed her face with his in agreement.
Daphne pulled her robe over the T-shirt and yoga pants that she slept in when the kids were with them. Sexy nightgowns only happened on alternate weeks. Since the change in the parenting plan three months ago—with every other weekend replaced by shared custody and the children here alternating weeks—she’d been living a strange half-life. Half the time she and Brody could do what they wanted without worrying about soccer or summer programs. The other half they were harried working parents and she had to deal with meals for five and doctors’ appointments, not to mention homework, playdates, shopping and activities, while maintaining her seventy-to eighty-hour workweek. She loved having the kids around and looked forward to spending time with them, but she was exhausted. Making partner within a month of the custody change had been exciting but had added to her stress level. And now she and Brody were fighting.
She went downstairs to the kitchen. The scent of pancakes and bacon lingered, but there was no evidence of the meal. Brody hadn’t even saved her a couple of pieces of bacon. The kids had her coffee ready. She smiled and thanked them, then took a sip.
“Heaven,” she told them.
“What time are you leaving?” she asked Elijah.
“Nine,” he told her. “Grant and Campbell are coming here and we’re going to the deli for sandwiches. Dad said it’s a two-hour drive to the trailhead, so we won’t be back until four or five.”
Daphne did the math. Two hours there and back, so four hours in total. Say a half hour for a lunch break, which left three and a half hours for hiking. Not her idea of a fun day, and she wasn’t sure Alexa was going to be up for that much, either.
“You going to be okay with all those men?” she asked the six-year-old, careful to keep her voice teasing.
“I’ll be in charge.” Alexa batted her eyelashes.
Daphne grinned. “You go, girl.” Her humor faded. “You’ll tell your dad if you get tired.”
“She’ll be fine.”
Brody had entered the kitchen. Most days the sight of his dark hair and broad shoulders still made her swoon a little. He was a handsome man with an easy charm that had caught her attention immediately. Their courtship had been fast, intense and everything she’d dreamed of. She’d fallen for his kids, too, adored his brothers, got along with his ex-wife and until two weeks ago, had thought they had a solid marriage.