The Next Best Thing

The Next Best Thing

4.1 641
by Kristan Higgins

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Lucy Lang isn't looking for fireworks… 

She's looking for a nice, decent man. Someone who'll mow the lawn, flip chicken on the barbecue, teach their future children to play soccer. But most important: someone who won't inspire the slightest stirring in her heart…or anywhere else. A young widow, Lucy can't risk that kind of loss again. But

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Lucy Lang isn't looking for fireworks… 

She's looking for a nice, decent man. Someone who'll mow the lawn, flip chicken on the barbecue, teach their future children to play soccer. But most important: someone who won't inspire the slightest stirring in her heart…or anywhere else. A young widow, Lucy can't risk that kind of loss again. But sharing her life with a cat named Fat Mikey and the Black Widows at the family bakery isn't enough either. So it's goodbye to Ethan, her hot but entirely inappropriate "friend with privileges," and hello to a man she can marry. 

Too bad Ethan Mirabelli isn't going anywhere. As far as he's concerned, what she needs might be right under her nose. But can he convince her that the next best thing can really be forever?

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Kristan Higgins is a rising superstar, thanks to...sweet plots with a deliciously tart edge."

—USA TODAY on My One and Only

"Both gut-wrenchingly emotional and hysterically funny at the same time...Kristan Higgins writes the books you don't want to end."

—#1 New York Times bestsellingauthor Robyn Carr

"Romance fans and lovers of women's fiction will devour this witty and tender novel. Highly recommended." -Library Journal, starred review on Somebody to Love

"A funny, poignant romance."
-Publishers Weekly, starred review, on My One and Only

"Higgins has a special talent
for creating characters readers love."
-RT Book Reviews, 4½ stars on All I Ever Wanted

"A heartwarming, multi-generational tale of lost love,
broken hearts and second chances."
-BookPage on The Next Best Thing

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"You have a whisker."

Though I hear the loudly whispered comment, it doesn't quite register, as I am rapt with adoration, staring at the wonder that is my hour-old niece. Her face still glows red from the effort of being born, her dark blue eyes are as wide and calm as a tortoise's. I probably shouldn't tell my sister that her baby reminds me of a reptile. Well. The baby is astonishingly beautiful. Miraculous.

"She's amazing," I murmur. Corinne beams, then shifts the baby the slightest bit away from me. "Can I hold her, Cory?" My two aunts mutter darkly—only Mom has held the baby so far, and clearly, I'm breaking rank.

My sister hesitates. "Um…well…"

"Let her, Cory," Chris encourages, and my sister reluctantly hands over the little bundle.

She's warm and precious, and my eyes fill with tears. "Hi there," I whisper. "I'm your auntie." I can't believe how much I love this baby…she's fifty-five minutes old, and I'm ready to throw myself in front of a bus for her, should the need arise.

"Pssst. Lucy." It's Iris's voice again. "Lucy. You have a whisker." My seventy-six-year-old aunt taps her upper lip. "Right there. Plus, you're holding her wrong. Give her to me."

"Oh, gee, I don't know about that," Corinne protests, but Iris deftly takes the baby from me. My arms feel lonely without the sweet weight of my niece. "Whisker," Iris says, jerking her chin at me.

Almost against my will, my finger goes to my upper lip…gah! Something thick and almost sharp, like a piece of barbed wire, is embedded in my skin. A whisker! Iris is right. I have a whisker.

My tiny aunt Rose sidles up to me. "Let's take a look here," she says in her little-girl voice, studying my lip. Then, before I know it, she seizes the offending hair and yanks.

"Youch! Rose! That hurt!" I press a finger against the now smarting hair follicle.

"Don't worry, honey, I got it. You must be coming into the Change." She gives me a conspiratorial smile, then holds my whisker up to the light.

"I'm thirty years old, Rose," I protest weakly. "And come on, stop looking at it." I brush the whisker from her fingers. The whisker was a fluke. I'm not menopausal. I can't be. Could I? Granted, I'm feeling a bit…mature today, given that my younger sister has had a baby before I did…

Rose scrutinizes my face for another hair. "It can happen. Your second cousin Ilona was thirty-five. I don't think you're too young. A mustache is usually the first sign."

"Electrolysis," my mother recommends as she tucks the blankets around Corinne's feet. "Grinelda does it. I'll have her look at you next time she comes in for a reading."

"Your psychic also does electrolysis?" Christopher asks.

"She's a medium. And yes, Grinelda is a very talented woman," Iris says, smiling down at Emma.

"Don't I get a turn to hold that child? I seem to remember I'm also her great-aunt," Rose peeps. "And personally, I bleach. Once I shaved, and three days later, I looked like Uncle Zoltan after a bender." She accepts my niece from Iris and her wrinkled, sweet face morphs into a smile. "Oh, shaving. Never shave, Lucy," Iris says. "You get stubbly."

"Um…okay," I say, shooting a glance at my sister. Surely this is not normal conversation in a labor and delivery room. "So how are you feeling now, Corinne?"

"I'm wonderful," she says. "Can I please hold my daughter again?"

"I just got her!" Rose protests.

"Hand her over," Christopher orders. With a martyred sigh, Rose obeys.

My sister gazes down at the baby, then looks up at her husband. "Do you think we should put some Purell on her?" she asks, her brow wrinkling in worry.

"Nah," Chris answers. "You girls scrubbed in, right?"

"Absolutely. Don't want Emma to catch the polio," Iris says, not a trace of sarcasm in her voice. I suppress a smile.

"Chris, honey, how are you feeling, sweetie?" Corinne asks her husband.

"A lot better than you, honey. I didn't just give birth, after all."

Corinne waves away his protest. "Lucy, he was so wonderful. Really. You should've seen him! So calm, so helpful. He was amazing."

"I didn't do a thing, Lucy," my brother-in-law assures me. He reaches out to touch the baby's cheek. "Your sister…she's incredible." The new parents gaze at each other with sappy adoration, and I feel the familiar, wistful lump in my throat.

Jimmy and I might've looked at each other like that.

"Hello! I'm Tania, your lactation coach!" A booming voice makes us all jump. "Well, well! Quite a turnout, I see! Do you want an audience, Mother?"

"Corinne, we'll go," I say, though it's quite possible that my mother and aunts would like to stay and offer a running commentary. "We'll see you later. I'm so proud of you." I kiss my sister, touch the baby's cheek once more and try not to notice as Corinne wipes her baby's face. "Bye, Emma," I whisper, my eyes filling yet again. "I love you, honey." My niece. I have a niece! Visions of tea parties and jump rope fill my head.

My sister smiles at me. "See you later, Lucy. Love you." She risks a pat to my arm with one hand, already instinctively adept at handling the baby.

"Let's take a look at those nipples," Tania the lactation coach barks. "Husband, take the baby, won't you? I need to see your wife's breasts."

Like a well-trained border collie, I herd Mom, Rose and Iris out of the room. In the hallway, I notice something. My mother, aunts and I all seem to be wearing black today. My step falters. Mom is clad in a chic black wraparound sweater, something that wouldn't look out of place on Audrey Hepburn; Iris wears a shapeless black turtleneck and Rose a black cardigan over a white shirt. My T-shirt of the day happens to be black—I get up at 4:00 a.m. and don't spend a lot of time on clothing choices…this one just happened to be on the top of the pile.

By an ironic and unfortunate twist of fate, my mother, Iris and Rose bear the maiden name Black, translated from Fekete when my grandfather immigrated from Hungary. By an even more ironic and unfortunate twist of fate, all three were widowed before the age of fifty, so it's only natural that they're called the Black Widows. And on this happiest of days, somehow we're all wearing black. It dawns on me that today I, also widowed young, am more like a Black Widow than like my radiant sister. That today I found my first whisker and was advised on facial hair management.

That I'm a long way off from having a baby of my own, a thought that's been on my mind more and more recently. It's been five years since Jimmy died, after all. Five and a half. Five years, four months, two weeks and three days, to be precise.

These thoughts override the chatter of my aunts and mother as we drive over the short bridge to Mackerly, back to the bakery where the four of us work.

"We're going to the cemetery," Mom announces as they pile out of the car, first Iris, then Rose, then my mother. "I have to tell your father about the baby."

"Okay," I say, forcing a smile. "See you in a while, then."

"You sure you don't want to come?" Rose asks. All three of them tilt their heads looking at me. "Oh, gosh, I don't think so."

"You know she's got a thing about that," Mom says patiently. "Let's go. See you later, hon."

"Yup. Have fun." They will, I know. I watch as they walk down the street toward the cemetery where their husbands—and mine—are buried.

The sun shines, the birds sing, my niece is healthy. It's a happy, happy day, whisker or no whisker. Widowed or not. "A happy day," I say aloud, heading inside.

The warm, timeless smell of Bunny's Hungarian Bakery wraps around me like a security blanket, sugar and yeast and steam, and I inhale deeply. Jorge is cleaning up in back. He looks up as I come in. "She's gorgeous," I say. He nods, smiles, then goes back to scraping dough from the counters.

Jorge doesn't speak. He's worked at Bunny's for years. Somewhere between fifty and seventy, bald, with beautiful light brown skin and a tattoo on his arm depicting Jesus' agony on the cross, Jorge helps with cleanup and bread delivery, as Bunny's supplies bread—my bread, the best bread in the state—to several Rhode Island restaurants.

"I'll deliver to Gianni's tonight, Jorge," I say as he starts loading up the bread. He nods, heads for the back door and stands for a second, his way of saying goodbye. "Have a great afternoon," I say. He smiles, flashing his gold tooth, then leaves.

The freezer hums, the malfunctioning fluorescent light over the work area buzzes, the cooling ovens tick. Otherwise, there's just the sound of my own breathing.

Bunny's has been in my family for fifty-seven years. Founded by my grandmother just after my grandfather died at the age of forty-eight, it has been run by women ever since. Men don't tend to fare that well in my family, as you might have noticed. After my own father died when I was eight, Mom started working at Bunny's, too, alongside Iris and Rose. And after Jimmy's car accident, I came on board as well.

I love the bakery, and the bread I create is proof of a beneficent God, but it's fair to say that if circumstances were different, I wouldn't work here. Bread, while deeply rewarding, is not my true passion. I was trained to be a pastry chef at the great Johnson & Wales Culinary Institute in Providence, just about a half hour from Mackerly, a tiny island south of Newport. Upon graduation, I snagged a job at one of the posher hotels in the area. But after Jimmy died, I couldn't keep it up. The pressure, the noise, the hours…the people. And so I joined the Black Widows at Bunny's. Unfortunately for me, the division of labor had been decided years ago—Rose on cakes and cookies, Iris on danishes and doughnuts, Mom on management. That left bread.

Bread-baking is a Zenlike art, not fully grasped by much of the world, and an art that I've come to love. I arrive at four-thirty each day to mix the dough, measure it out, let it rise and get it in the oven, head home for a nap around ten, then return in the afternoon to bake the loaves we supply to the restaurants. Most days, I'm home by four. It's a schedule suited to the erratic sleep patterns that came home to roost when my husband died.

I find that I'm feeling for another whisker. If there was one, after all, there might be others. Nope. I seem to be smooth, but I check the mirror in the bathroom just in case. No more whiskers, thank God. I look normal enough…strawberry-blond hair pulled into a po-nytail, light brown eyes—whiskey eyes, Jimmy used to call them—a few freckles. It's a friendly face. I think I'd make someone a very cute mom.

I've always wanted a family, a few kids. Despite one errant whisker, most of the evidence still indicates that I'm still young. Or not. What if Aunt Rose is right, and menopause is lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce? One whisker today—a few months from now, I may need to start shaving. My voice may change. I'll dry up like a loaf of bread left to rise too long in a warm oven; that which was once light and full of promise, left alone too long, now a hard, tasteless lump. That whisker was a warning. Crikey! A whisker!

I risk a quick squeeze to my breasts. Phew. The girls seem to be in good shape, no drooping or sagging yet. I'm still young. Fairly ripe. But yes, perhaps my shelf life isn't as long as I like to pretend it is. Dang whisker.

Jimmy would want me to move on, to be happy. Of course he would. "What do you think, Jimmy?" I say out loud, my voice echoing off the industrial-size Ho-bart mixer, the walk-in oven. "I think it's time for me to start dating. Okay with you, honey?"

I wait for an answer. Since his death, there have been signs. At least I think so. In the first year or so after his death, dimes would turn up in odd places, for example. Sometimes I'd catch a whiff of his smell—garlic, red wine and rosemary…he was head chef at Gianni's, the restaurant owned by his parents. Once in a while, I dream about him. But today, on the issue of my love life, there's nothing.

The back door opens, and my aunts and mom come in. "The cemetery was beautiful!" Iris announces. "Beautiful! Although if I catch those mowers cutting it so close to my Pete's grave, I will strangle them with my bare hands."

"I know it. I told the committee the same thing," Rose cheeps. "Last year, they mowed right over the geraniums I planted for Larry. I thought I'd cry!"

"You did cry," Iris reminds her.

Mom comes over to me in a cloud of Chanel No. 5. "That baby sure is beautiful, isn't she?" she says, smiling.

I grin up at her. "She sure is. Congratulations, Grammy."

"Mmm. Grammy. I like the sound of that," she says smugly.

Iris nods in agreement—she's already a grandmother, courtesy of the two kids her son, Neddy, and his ex-wife produced. Rose, meanwhile, pouts.

It's not fair," she says. "You're so much younger, Daisy. I should've been a grandmother first." Rose and Iris are well into their seventies; my mother is sixty-five, and Rose's only son has failed to reproduce (which is probably a good thing, given Stevie's propensity for stupid acts).

"Oh, Stevie will get some girl pregnant, don't worry," my mom says mildly. "I wonder, though, if he manages to find someone who'd marry him, if she'd die young, too." Then, aware perhaps that this is a sensitive subject, the Black Widows turn as one to look at me.

You see, in my generation, the Black Widow curse has only struck me (so far). My sister lives in constant fear that Chris will die young, but so far, so good. Iris's daughter, Anne, is gay, and for some reason, the Black Widows are confident that Laura, Anne's partner of fifteen years, will be spared due to sexual orientation. Neddy's ex-wife is also deemed safe. Both Ned and Stevie are healthy, though Stevie's on the dim side. (He once ate poison ivy on a dare. When he was twenty-two.) The biological men in our family are spared…it's just the husbands who seem to meet an early death. My grandfather, my great-uncles, my own dad, my aunts' husbands…all died young.

Also, no Black Widow has ever remarried. The late husbands became saints, the wives became proud widows. The idea of finding another man is traditionally scoffed at, as in, "Bah! What do I need a man for? I already had my Larry/Pete/Robbie. He was the Love of My Life."

Back before I was a widow, I thought that maybe the Black Widows almost liked being alone. That they were independent women, proud of how they'd coped. Maybe their disdain of remarrying was more a statement about their own security, independence, power, even. When I became a widow myself, I understood. It's fairly impossible to imagine falling in love again when your husband's life ends decades before you expect it.

The back door opens again. "Friday night happy hour has arrived!" calls a familiar voice.

"Ethan!" the Black Widows chorus, flattered and feigning surprise over his arrival.

"I hear from my sources that it's a girl," he says. "Congratulations, ladies."

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