Beloved author Molly Harper launches a brand-new contemporary romance series, Southern Eclectic, with this story of a big-city party planner who finds true love in a small Georgia town. Nestled on the shore of Lake Sackett, Georgia, is the McCready Family Funeral Home and Bait Shop. (What, you have a problem with one-stop shopping?) Two McCready brothers started two separate businesses in the same building back in 1928, and now it's become one big family affair. And, true to form in small Southern towns, family business becomes everybody's business. Margot Cary has spent her life immersed in everything Lake Sackett is not. As an elite event planner, Margot's rubbed elbows with the cream of Chicago society and made elegance and glamour her business. She's riding high until one event goes tragically, spectacularly wrong. Now she's blackballed by the gala set and in dire need of a fresh start - and apparently the McCreadys are in need of an event planner with a tarnished reputation. As Margot finds her footing in a town where everybody knows not only your name but what you had for dinner last Saturday night and what you'll wear to church on Sunday morning, she grudgingly has to admit that there are some things Lake Sackett does better than Chicago - including the dating prospects. Elementary school principal Kyle Archer is a fellow fish out of water who volunteers to show Margot the picture-postcard side of Southern living. The two of them hit it off, but not everybody is happy to see an outsider snapping up one of the town's most eligible gentleman. Will Margot reel in her handsome fish, or will she have to release her latest catch?
Publisher: Gallery Books
Print pages: 320
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Sweet Tea and Sympathy
MARGOT CARY LEANED her forehead against the warm truck window as it bounced along the pitted Georgia highway. She closed her eyes against the picturesque landscape as it rolled by. Green, green, green. Everything was so effing green here.
GREEN WAS NOT her lucky color. It certainly hadn’t blessed the opening of the botanical garden’s newly completed Wesmoreland Tropical Greenhouse. Maybe it had been a mistake to carry the green theme so far. Green table linens, green lanterns strung through the trees, down to emerald-green bow ties for the catering staff. Weeks later, she still remembered the terrified expression on one waiter’s face when she caught him by the arm before he carried his tray of crudités into the party space.
Despite her glacial blond beauty, the younger man practically flinched away from her touch as she adjusted his tie. Margot would admit that she’d been a bit . . . demanding in organizing this event. She had taken every precaution to make sure that this evening’s black-tie opening was as smooth as Rosaline Hewitt’s recently Botoxed brow. She’d commissioned a silk-leaf embroidered canopy stretching from the valet station to the entrance to prevent the guests’ hairstyles and gowns from being ruined by the summer rain. She’d researched each invitee meticulously to find out who was gluten-free or vegan and adjusted the menu accordingly. She’d arranged for two dozen species of exotic South American parrots to be humanely displayed among orchids and pitcher plants and a flock of flamingos to wade through the manufactured waterfall’s rocky lagoon.
She was not about to have all of that preparation undone by a cater waiter who didn’t know how to keep a bow tie on straight.
“Go,” Margot said, nodding toward the warm, humid air of the false tropical jungle. He moved silently away from her, into the opulently lit space.
Margot turned and tried to survey the greenhouse as it would appear to the guests, the earliest of which were already filtering into the garden, oohing and aahing. Calling it a greenhouse seemed like an understatement. The glass-paneled dome reached four stories into the sky, allowing the tropical plant specimens inside plenty of space to stretch. Carefully plotted stone paths wound through the flower beds, giving the visitor the impression of wandering through paradise. But knowing how much Chicago’s riche-est of the riche enjoyed a nice soiree, the conservators had been smart enough to add a nice open space in the middle of the greenhouse to allow for a dance floor. She’d arranged elbow-high tables around the perimeter, covered in jewel-tone silk cloths. Gold LED lights cast a hazy sunset glow over the room, occasionally projecting animated fireflies against the foliage. And since society’s ladies would never do something so inelegant as visit a buffet, the waiters had been informed to constantly circulate with their trays of canapés in a nonobvious, serpentine pattern around the enormous shrimp tower in the middle of—
“No,” Margot murmured, shaking her head. “No, no, no.”
She snagged the next waiter to walk through the entrance and took his tray. The sweet-faced college kid seemed startled and alarmed to have the chief planner for this event grabbing him by the arm. “You, get two of your coworkers and very quickly, very quietly, very discreetly get that shrimp tower out of here. If anyone asks, just tell them that you’re taking it back to the kitchen to be refilled.”
The poor boy blanched at the brisk clip to her tone and said, “But—but Chef Jean was very specific about—”
“I don’t care what Chef Jean was specific about,” she said. “Get it out of here now.”
The waiter nodded and pulled away from her into the gathering crowd.
Margot stepped forward into the fragrant warmth of the greenhouse, careful to keep her expression and body language relaxed. She was aware that, while professionally dressed in her black power suit, she was not nearly as festive as the guests in their tuxedos and haute couture gowns, but she was perfectly comfortable. She’d attended hundreds of events like this growing up. She would not be intimidated by some plants and a pretentious wannabe Frenchman. She pressed the button of her earbud-size Bluetooth and whispered, “This is Margot. I need to speak to Jean.”
She could tell by the way her words were echoing in her own ear that the head chef of Fete Portable had taken his earpiece out—despite Margot’s repeated requests to keep a line of communication open with her—and set it on the stainless steel counter in the makeshift kitchen. She blew out a frustrated breath. Jean LeDille was not her preferred caterer for high-profile events, but the de facto hostess of tonight’s opening—Melissa Sutter, first lady of Chicago and head of the botanical garden conservators’ board—had insisted on using him. So far he’d been temperamental, resistant to the most basic instruction, and a pain in Margot’s Calvin Klein–clad ass. And when she was done with this event and had secured her partnership at Elite Elegance, she would have Jean blacklisted from every Chicago party planner’s contact list. Theirs was a close-knit and gossip-driven circle.
Someone in the kitchen picked up the earbud and said, “Ms. Cary, he says to tell you he’s unavailable.”
Margot gritted her perfect white teeth but managed a polite smile to the head of the opera board and his wife as they passed. Jean wouldn’t be able to get a job making a clown-shaped birthday cake by the time she was done with him.
“So I guess I’ll just have to make myself available to him, then.”
Margot’s assistant, Mandy, a sleek brunette who reminded Margot of a Russian wolfhound in four-inch heels, fell in step behind her. “Make sure that tower is gone. You have two minutes.”
“On it,” Mandy snapped, and peeled off after the hapless waiters.
Margot pushed through the heavy plastic curtain that separated the greenhouse from the kitchen tent. Far from the muted music and golden-green light of the greenhouse, the tent was ruthlessly lit with fluorescents and heating lamps. Jean’s shouts filled the air, demanding that the canapé trays be restocked tout de suite.
Jean was a stocky, balding man with thick, dark eyebrows and an unfortunate mustache. His chef whites were splattered with various sauces and he sneered—actually sneered—at Margot as she walked into his kitchen.
“What are you doing in ma’ kitchen?” he demanded in an exaggerated French accent. “I tell you before. No outside staff when I am creating.”
“Jean, would you explain to me why there is a shrimp tower in the middle of my venue?”
“I was overcome by the muse this morning. I decide to build you a shrimp tower. Only four hundred dollars extra. I do you favor, eh?”
“Wait. Is that shrimp salad on the crostini?” Margot asked, stopping a waiter before he left with his tray of appetizers. “Because we agreed on poached quail eggs. Mrs. Sutter, the hostess of tonight’s event, whom you’ve cooked for on several occasions, is allergic to shrimp. As in, she can’t even be around people who are eating shrimp because she might come into contact with the proteins. I wrote it on everything. Everything.”
Margot motioned to the field refrigeration unit where she had taped a neon-green sign that read PLEASE REMEMBER THAT MRS. SUTTER IS HIGHLY ALLERGIC TO SHRIMP.
Jean waved her off. “I do not read the cards. My sous chef reads the cards.”
“Jean. Drop the French accent that we both know is about as real as that ridiculous hairpiece and tell me what you are feeding the mayor’s wife.”
The chef, whose real name was John Dill, shrugged and in his natural, Midwestern voice said, “The market didn’t have enough quail eggs, so I took the shrimp. It’s not a big deal. If she’s allergic, she’ll know not to touch it. People make too much of their food allergies anyway.”
“It’s just lovely to know that someone with that attitude is making food for innocent bystanders,” Margot snapped. She called out loud enough for the entire kitchen staff to hear, “Eighty-six the shrimp crostini. Throw them out and take the bags out of the tent. All of you wash your hands—twice—and any utensils that have touched the shrimp—also twice. I need one uncontaminated staff member to make a special shrimp-free plate of food for Mrs. Sutter so we can feed her tonight without poisoning her. Get it done, now.”
Jean was seething, but Margot didn’t give a single damn. Mandy popped through the plastic curtain, a stricken expression on her angular face.
“There’s a problem with the tower,” she said. “It’s too heavy to move. But they’re working on disassembling the shrimp trays to bring them back in before people notice.”
“I don’t care if it’s made of concrete. I need it—” Margot’s response was cut short by a strange honking ruckus from the greenhouse, followed by screams and crashing . . . and running?
One of Margot’s golden eyebrows rose. “What is that?”
Mandy grimaced. “Don’t flamingos eat shrimp?”
Margot dropped her clipboard and her headset to the ground and scrambled through the plastic curtain. “Oh, no.”
The flamingos were making a run at the shrimp tower, pink wings flapping, pecking at the waiters who were attempting to remove the shellfish. The guests were falling all over one another trying to get away from the shrimp-frenzied birds and in the process had knocked over several cocktail tables and the votive candles on top. Those candles had set fire to the tablecloths, which set off the greenhouse’s sprinklers and alarms. The parrots did not appreciate the clanging alarms or the sudden scramble of people. They broke free from their perches and were flying around the greenhouse, leaving “deposits” on the guests in protest. Oh, and Mrs. Sutter was purple and covered in hives.
Margot gave herself ten seconds to surrender to the panic. She let her stomach churn. She let her ice-cold hands shake. She allowed herself to hear everything and nothing all at once. In her head, she saw her career going up in flames with the tablecloths. The promotion and partnership she’d worked for were disappearing before her eyes in puffs of smoke. Everything she’d planned, everything she wanted in life, was slipping out of her fingers because of some misplaced shellfish.
And then Margot put a lid on her anxiety and did what she did best. She put out fires metaphorical and literal. She called an ambulance and the fire department, grabbed the EpiPen from Mrs. Sutter’s purse, and jabbed her in the thigh. Hell, she even took off her pumps and wrangled the shrimp-seeking flamingos back into the lagoon.
But the damage was done. The news photographers who’d prepared themselves for a boring evening shooting glamour poses gleefully snapped photos of society matrons in soaked designer gowns and runny makeup dashing for shelter from the sprinklers. A guest who happened to be a member of PETA started screaming at Margot for mistreating the flamingos while trying to herd them away from (attacking) the guests. And a conservators’ board member handed her an invoice for the thousands of dollars in rare orchid species that had been trampled in the melee.
The next morning, an exhausted Margot sat slumped in the offices of Elite Elegance as her boss, Carrington Carter-Shaw, slapped newspapers with headlines like FLORAL FIASCO and REAL-LIFE ANGRY BIRDS! on her desk. One particularly cheeky tabloid had printed a picture of Margot beating the smoldering remains of a matron’s hairpiece with a wet napkin under the headline FLOWER POWER F***-UP!
“How could you let this happen?” Carrington cried, her carefully blown-out dark hair dancing around her heart-shaped face. “We’re the laughingstock of the Chicago social scene. Guests from last night are trying to stick us with dry-cleaning bills, medical bills—Michelle Biederman claims a parrot flew off with her two-karat diamond earring! The mayor’s office has contacted us—twice—to call our business license into question. I had to move three guys from the mail room just to handle the incoming phone calls. Margot, you’re my star! My rock! You can make a backyard potluck birthday party look like a black-tie gala. You’re the planner I call when it’s clear in the first meeting that the client is absolutely batshit insane. What happened?”
Margot wanted to blame the untested Chef Jean and his “inspired” impromptu shrimp, but ultimately the fault rested with her. She’d lost control of the party. She’d lost control of the food. She’d lost control of two dozen species of birds.
“I don’t know,” Margot mumbled, shaking her head. She took a prepackaged stain wipe out of her Prada clutch and dabbed at a questionable blotch on her lapel. “It all happened so quickly. I—I know, at this point, the partnership is off the table—”
“Partnership?” Carrington scoffed. “Honey, I can’t even keep you on staff. You’re professional poison. I’m going to have to fire you and do it in a very public manner—I mean, picture the polite urban equivalent of putting you in stocks in the town square and pelting you with rotten fruit—so people know that our company is safe to use again.”
Margot let loose a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. She nodded. In some way, she’d been expecting this. She knew it would be rough for a while and she would have to put off some bullet points in her five-year plan, but she could handle this. She had contingency funds and a secret contact list of important people who owed her favors.
Margot cleared her throat and tried to straighten her rumpled suit jacket. “And what, you’ll shuffle me out to one of the branch offices in the suburbs and I’ll organize bar mitzvahs until this all blows over?”
Carrington frowned. “No, Margot. Fired. As in employment permanently terminated. The partners are willing to give you a three-week severance in recognition of the work you’ve done for us. And I’ll write you a positive recommendation letter. But that’s it.”
“But I’ve worked here for almost ten years. I’ve put in eighty-hour weeks. Ninety during the holiday party season. I don’t have a social life because I’m always here. I haven’t been on a date in more than eight months.”
“Yes, I know. That’s why you get the third week of severance pay. Really, Margot, I think we’re being more than generous here, considering the fallout from this fiasco.”
As Margot walked out of Elite Elegance’s plush offices with a banker’s box full of her belongings and a severance check in hand, she told herself that it would be okay, that this was what backup plans were for, that this situation couldn’t possibly get worse.
It got worse.
Stage one of Margot’s plan had been to retreat to her apartment to regroup, polish up her résumé, and compose a list of companies she could apply to, but her unit’s new tenants kept stopping by to measure for new flooring and curtains. Just a week before the “Floral Fiasco,” she’d given up her lease in preparation to move to a newly purchased condo in Wicker Park. Between the down payment she’d saved and the raise she was supposed to get with her promotion, she would have been able to afford it. But the day after she was fired, she’d gotten a call from the mortgage officer handling her condo loan. Mrs. Meade had seen the news about the greenhouse incident and her firing, and informed Margot that without a job, the mortgage company could not guarantee her loan. The only good news was that the mortgage company was willing to return 70 percent of her down payment. So now, with her lease running out and her condo being sold to someone else, Margot was effectively homeless.
And still, it got worse.
Without a job, she couldn’t get an apartment in a decent building. And the buildings where she could get an apartment were not places where she wanted to live. And she could not find a job. Anywhere. Receptionists laughed and hung up when she called the best event-planning companies in Chicago. Receptionists from second- and third-tier event-planning companies in Chicago also laughed at her. She couldn’t get the companies in New York or Los Angeles to call back. Hell, she couldn’t get companies in St. Louis to return her calls. She still had her savings, but thanks to Mastercard and her monthly expenses, they were dwindling quickly.
Her friends weren’t returning her calls or messages, either. And she couldn’t turn to her adoptive father for help. Gerald hadn’t spoken to her since her mother’s funeral three years before. And she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t take a dime after her parents made their last tuition payment. She still had the shreds of her pride.
The shreds were costing her. She was three days away from living in the storage unit where she’d moved her stuff, sitting at her breakfast bar—because it was the only table space she had left—actually filling in a JobLink profile, when a Skype notification popped up on her laptop. The message said it was from “hotsy-totsy45.”
Margot frowned. She used this account for after-hours and long-distance consultations with clients. She definitely would have remembered a client nicknamed hotsy-totsy45. Leaning back from the screen, she clicked decline.
Blowing a long breath out through her nose, Margot continued to fill out the JobLink form. Another notification from hotsy-totsy popped up.
“Still a ‘no,’ creep,” she muttered, clicking decline again.
But hotsy-totsy would not be denied. And given the amount of chardonnay Margot had consumed just for the sake of not having to move it out of her apartment, it wasn’t surprising that her hand slipped a bit and she clicked accept.
“Damn it!” she grunted, trying to close the chat window before it opened. She did not want to witness the latest in creative junk shots currently being embraced by the Internet’s weirdos. But instead of the expected random nudity, Margot’s screen was filled with the face of an adorable little granny lady with a cloud of snow-white hair and Dalmatian-print reading glasses balanced on the tip of her nose.
A brilliant smile lit up the granny lady’s face, showing teeth too white and too even to be original parts. “Well, hello there! It took me a little while to track you down, but here you are!” the lady crowed in a Southern drawl so pronounced that Margot had trouble processing what she was saying at first. “You look just like I thought you would. A lot like your mama, mind, but you got a bit of your daddy in there, too. Of course, I thought you’d be a little more polished up, but I’m guessing you haven’t left your house in a while.”
Margot caught sight of her appearance in the little preview window in the corner of the screen and winced. She looked like someone who was unemployed. She was wearing a grubby Northwestern sweatshirt. Her carefully highlighted blond hair was piled into a haphazard topknot. She was wearing her thick-rimmed black glasses, making her hazel eyes look owlish and too big for her face. She hadn’t worn makeup in days, so her skin had taken on a cheesy appearance in the blue light of the computer screen.
“I’m sorry, do you know my parents?” she asked. As friendly as this lady might be, she didn’t exactly look to be Linda and Gerald’s speed. Linda McCready, a nobody from nowhere with traces of a Low Country accent and a toddler daughter in tow, had managed to snag Gerald Cary, MD, while she was working as the records clerk in the hospital where the handsome British expat practiced surgery. She had spent considerable time and energy clawing her way into the upper middle circles of Chicago society. Linda Cary would have gone blind before she wore Dalmatian reading glasses.
“Well, your mama and I were never close, but your daddy is my nephew, so I guess you could say I know that sad-sack face of his pretty well,” the woman said with a chuckle.
Margot’s jaw dropped. Her stepfather had adopted her when she was four years old. But considering that he was from just outside London, it was unlikely he had relatives in Georgia. “You know Gerald?”
“No, honey, your daddy. What do you young people call it—your ‘biological father.’ Stan McCready. I’m your great-aunt Tootie.”
“Beg pardon?” Even Margot couldn’t be sure which part she was questioning—the “biological” bit or the ridiculous nickname. Even in the South, people knew better than to name their children Tootie, right?
“I’m Stanley McCready’s aunt, honey.”
Stanley McCready. Margot slumped on her bar stool. She’d never met her father’s family. Linda had made no secret of her “unfortunate” first marriage to a man named McCready, but she’d referred to it as a youthful mistake she’d corrected when Margot was barely three years old. Stanley was a heavy drinker, Linda had insisted, a train wreck of a man who couldn’t provide for them. After Linda left, he’d almost immediately given up his rights to his daughter without so much as a court motion.
Margot didn’t know where he lived. She couldn’t remember what he looked like. Her mother had never even shown her a picture, insisting that it would be disloyal to Gerald. Neither Mr. McCready nor his family tried to contact her in thirty years, which was fine with Margot. She didn’t have room in her life for an irresponsible drunk who couldn’t be bothered to send so much as a birthday card. And frankly, she resented the idea that her father’s family only reached out now, when she was at her lowest.
And it wasn’t even her father, just some wacky great-aunt with a ridiculous name.
“You know, I thought you’d have that nasal-sounding Chicago accent, but you sound like you should be having tea with the queen. So proper and prim. I suppose that’s your mama in ya. Did she make you take those diction lessons?”
“No, I just like using all the letter sounds.”
The woman snorted a bit and said, “My point is, honey, I’ve been looking for you for weeks now, after I saw the video of your party on YouTube. I spotted you and knew you had to be Linda’s daughter.”
“YouTube?” Margot winced. “How many hits did it get?”
“Hundreds of thousands! Honey, you’re your own meme!” Tootie exclaimed. Suddenly, a window popped up in the corner of Margot’s screen, showing one of the press photos of Margot herding the flamingos away from the shrimp tower with giant print reading NO CAN HAZ SHRIMP, FLAMINGOZ! NO CAN HAZ!
Margot buried her face in her hands. She’d spent most of her twenties carefully policing her own social media posts so as not to damage her professional reputation. And now this. Also, her great-aunt seemed to be awfully tech savvy for a woman who looked to be in her eighties.
“Well, thanks for contacting me and mocking me with age-appropriate Internet humor . . . and dredging up a bunch of unresolved emotional issues,” Margot muttered. “But I’m going to have to sign off now.”
“Oh, sure, honey, I’m sure you’re busy with your job search. How’s that going?”
“I’ve submitted quite a lot of résumés,” Margot said, trying to sound casual.
“Any interviews yet?” Tootie pressed.
Margot floundered a bit while searching for an answer. “It’s still early. You don’t want people to think you’re too eager.”
“Not one callback, huh?”
Margot pursed her lips. “Not one.”
“Well, that’s just fine, because I have a proposition for you.”
Margot’s instinct to say no right that second was quelled when the bank paperwork that showed her checking account balance caught her eye. “What sort of proposition?”
“We need an event planner here at the family business. We’d be willing to provide room, board, and a generous salary.”
“Well, now, you’ve got to remember that the cost of living is much lower here as opposed to the big city,” Tootie cautioned.
“How generous?” Margot asked again, and Tootie’s blue eyes sparkled behind those reading glasses.
“Here, I’ll send you the compensation package the family put together.”
Another box popped up on Margot’s screen. She clicked on the file and grimaced at the salary, which was about one-quarter of what she’d made at Elite Elegance. “How much lower is the cost of living there? Also, where is ‘there’?”
“Did you notice that the package includes health insurance?” Tootie asked. “When does your coverage run out?”
“Soon,” Margot grumbled. “Also, I noticed you didn’t answer the question about location.”
“And I’m guessin’ from the packing boxes in the background that your lease runs out pretty soon, too. So really, I could see why you would want to stay where you would be homeless and at risk of huge medical bills, in a city where you could be mugged or run down by a taxi or have a windowpane fall on you from twenty stories up. That’s far preferable to coming down to Georgia, to a town where the crime rate is next to zero.”
Margot had never passed the Mason-Dixon Line, not even to Florida. Her mother had always insisted on family vacations to Lake Geneva, to New York, to France. Anyone could go to Disney World, she’d told Margot; Linda was trying to give Margot the world. Margot didn’t know how well she would function in a rural environment, much less a place where she would constantly hear the banjo music from Deliverance in the back of her head.
“But my life is here. My friends are here. I need to stay where the jobs are. And right now, that’s in Chicago.”
“So you lay low for a few months in God’s country, get to know your kinfolk, get that city air out of your lungs, and then relaunch yourself at people who will have forgotten your foul-up once someone else messes up worse. It will be good for you,” Tootie told her.
Margot stared at the offer. Tootie had thought of everything: financial compensation, meals covered, a clothing allowance, and health insurance. She’d even attached a picture of a small cabin on the edge of a lake, labeled housing. And another photo of a huge family posed in front of a lakeside dock. Tootie stood with an older man, holding his hand. Two couples in their fifties stood behind them next to a man with deep frown furrows barely touched by his lopsided smirk. His arm was thrown around a twentyish girl with purple-streaked hair in pigtails wearing a black T-shirt with a pink radiation symbol on it. Another couple stood on the far left, a man in his thirties with curly reddish-blond hair hugging a laughing blonde. The sun was setting behind the family and they looked so happy together, so at ease with one another. And it felt like a punch to the chest. These people didn’t miss her at all. They didn’t feel a Margot-shaped hole in their family, they’d just moved on without her. It shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did. She’d spent a lot of time on visualization exercises so it wouldn’t hurt. And yet . . .
She cleared her throat. “The whole family put this together? Even my . . . even Stan?”
“Everybody,” Tootie said emphatically
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