After five years as a stay-at-home mom, Gabby Schaefer can't wait to return to work. Oh, to use the bathroom in peace! No twins clamoring at the door, no husband barging in, no stepdaughter throwing a tantrum. But when her plans are derailed by some shocking news and her husband's crushing expectations, Gabby must fight for the right to have a life of her own.
Getting pregnant is easy for Hayley Batchelor. Staying pregnant is the hard part. Her husband is worried about the expensive fertility treatments and frantic about the threat to her health. But to Hayley, a woman who was born to be a mom should risk everything to fulfill her destinyno matter how high the cost.
Nicole Lord is still shell-shocked by a divorce that wasn't as painful as it should've been. Other than the son they share, her ex-husband left barely a ripple in her life. A great new guy tempts her to believe maybe the second time's the charm but how can she trust herself to recognize true love?
As their bonds of friendship deepen against the beautiful backdrop of Mischief Bay, Gabby, Hayley and Nicole will rely on good food, good wine and especially each other to navigate life's toughest changes.Look for another compelling story in the Mischief Bay series, The Girls of Mischief Bay by Susan Mallery. Order your copy today!
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Was it wrong to want to pee alone? Gabriella Schaefer considered the question for maybe the four hundredth time in the past couple of months. In truth, she loved everything about her life. Her husband, her five-year-old twin daughters, her pets, her house. All of it was an amazing gift. She got that. She'd been blessed. But every now and then
okay, at least once a day, she desperately wanted to be able to go to the bathroom, like a normal person. To sit down and pee. Undisturbed.
Not with someone pushing open the door to complain that she was hungry or that Kenzie had taken her doll. Not with Andrew wandering in, a pair of socks in each hand, to ask her which one was the better choice. Not with a pink-toed cat paw stretching under the door or a basset hound moaning softly on the other side, begging to be let in. Alone. Oh, to be alone for those thirty or forty seconds. To actually be able to finish and flush and wash her hands by herself.
Gabby signaled as she got into the left lane, then slowed to wait for her turn. Fifty-seven days, she reminded herself. She had fifty-seven days until the twins started kindergarten and she went back to work. Sure, it was only going to be part-time, but still. It would be magical. And what she would never share with anyone was that she was most excited about being able to pee by herself.
"What's so funny?" Kenzie asked from the backseat. "Why are you smiling?"
"Are you telling a joke?" Kennedy asked. "Can I know?"
Because at their age, they were all about the questions, Gabby thought, keeping her gaze firmly on the road. When there was a break in the oncoming traffic, she turned into the parking lot and drove toward the end of the strip mall. There were still a couple of spots directly in front of Supper's in the Bag. She pulled into one and turned off her SUV's engine.
"I'm thinking funny thoughts," she told her girls. "I don't have any jokes."
Kennedy wrinkled her nose. "Okay."
Her voice was laced with disappointment. Both girls knew that what grown-ups thought was funny and what was really funny were usually two different things.
Gabby grabbed her handbaga small cross-body with an extra-long strapand got out of the car. She walked to the rear driver's-side door and opened it.
"Ready?" she asked.
Both girls nodded. They were already undoing the safety straps on their car seats.
Getting them out of their seats was never the problem. Getting them into them was another matter. Despite the fact that the seats were rated for kids up to sixty pounds, both girls wanted booster seats rather than their car seats. Car seats were for babies, she'd been informed several times already. The fact that car seats were safer didn't seem to be making an impact on the discussion.
She and Andrew were going to have to figure out a better strategy, she thought as she helped Kennedy jump to the ground. Kenzie followed. Gabby couldn't keep having the same fight every day. Plus the arguments were taking longer and she was having to build an extra five or ten minutes into her routine just to get to appointments on time.
The problem was both girls took after their father, she thought humorously. He was a highly skilled sales executive with the gift of verbal charm. Even at five, the twins were starting to try to talk themselves out of being in trouble.
"Is Tyler going to be here?" Kennedy asked.
Gabby brushed the girl's hair out of her eyes. Her blond bangs needed trimming. Again. "He is."
The girls cheered. Tyler, her friend Nicole's son, was six and soon to be in the first grade. In the eyes of two girls who were excited and a little nervous about kindergarten, Tyler was very much a man of the world. He knew things and they both adored him.
Gabby reached past the troublemaking car seats for the empty tote bags that came with her membership. The bright green bags were covered with the Supper's in the Bag logo. Every two weeks she joined a couple of her friends for a three-hour session at Supper's in the Bag and when she left, she would have six meals for her family. Meals that could be thrown in the oven or grilled on the barbecue. They were seasoned, portioned and ready to be prepared.
The premise of Supper's in the Bag was simple. Each session took about three hours. In the large, industrial kitchenlike space were eight stations, each dedicated to a different entrée. By following the clearly marked instructions, you portioned meat, added spices and vegetables into recyclable containers, basically doing whatever was needed to get the meal ready for cooking.
At first Gabby had felt guilty about signing up for the service. She was a stay-at-home mom. Surely she could get her act together enough to cook for her family. And yet, she thought, handing the empty bags to her daughters and then guiding them to the store. The days slipped away from her. Fortunately for her, the owner of Supper's in the Bag was the sister of a close friend. Telling herself that she was supporting a local business helped with the guilt.
Because Andrew was one of the good guys, he encouraged her to use the service. They went out to dinner at least once a week, so with the six meals she prepped here, that meant she only had to come up with six meals on her own.
The store was big and open, with the kitchen stations set up on the perimeter of the room. Industrial racks filled with pantry items stood in the center area. There was a cash register by the door and shelves for purses and the bags they all brought. The counters were stainless steel, as were the sinks.
To the left was a small seating area where clients could linger and talk, if they wanted. To the right was a small partitioned area that had been painted bright colors and set up with kid-sized tables and chairs. There were a few toys, lots of boxes of crayons and plenty of coloring books. Cecelia, the resident sitter, was already there. The petite, curly-haired college student grinned when she saw the twins.
"I was hoping you two would be by today," she said, waving at them. "We're going to have so much fun."
The twins dropped their tote bags and ran to greet the teen. There were hugs all around.
"Is Tyler coming?" Kenzie asked anxiously.
"He is. I'm sure he and his mom are running late." Cecelia guided the girls toward a table. "Let's start on a picture, while your mom gets going on her meals," she said.
Gabby used the distraction to head for the aprons by the check-in area. She picked up her sheet, telling her which stations she would be using, and in what order.
Supper's in the Bag wasn't a unique idea. There were several businesses like it around the country. While Gabby had never been a fan of Morgan, the woman who owned the place, she had to give her kudos for wringing every dollar out of her clients.
Children were welcome for the price of five dollars per child per hour. For Gabby, that meant an extra thirty bucks, but it beat having to find a sitter herself. There were wine selections offered with each entrée, available for an extra charge. Gabby guessed the mark-up was a restaurant quality 100 percent. After-prep wine and appetizers were available, again for a cost.
Morgan's sister, Gabby's friend Hayley, came in early several days a week to prep the food. She did much of the dicing and slicing, the opening of spice bottles and tomato cans. Gabby happened to know that Hayley worked in exchange for meals.
While Hayley said she was getting the better end of the deal, Gabby had her doubts. No matter the situation, Morgan always seemed to come out ahead. Gabby doubted the arrangement with Hayley was any different.
Several more women walked into the store. Each session could handle thirty-two customers, although the daytime sessions generally had more like twenty-five. Supper's in the Bag was also open Thursday through Sunday evenings, from four until eight-thirty. She spotted Hayley, Nicole and Nicole's son Tyler. Nicole dropped her son off with Cecelia and they all met by the hand-washing sink.
"Hi," Gabby said as she hugged her friends.
Nicole was tall, blonde and enviably willowy. Gabby wasn't sure how much of her fit body was genetic and how much of it came from the fact that she taught exercise classes for a living. Gabby kept promising herself she was going to sign up for one. She was still carrying around an extra twenty-five pounds from her pregnancy, but given that the twins were starting kindergarten, she needed to either do something about the extra weight or stop blaming her daughters.
Hayley was also thin but in a way that made Gabby worry. As usual, her friend was pale with dark circles under her eyes, but for once she seemed filled with energy.
"I'm excited about the meals tonight," Hayley said. "The veggies were extra fresh and I think the new enchilada recipe is going to be a winner."
"You seem happy," Gabby said as she put on a green Supper's in the Bag apron. "What's going on?"
Gabby wondered if that was true. Hayley's life was a physical and emotional roller coaster as she tried desperately to carry a pregnancy to term. Her last miscarriage had only been a few months before and she was taking a breakon doctor's orders.
Nicole pulled her long hair back into a ponytail. "You sure?" she asked. "You're very bouncy."
Hayley laughed. "I don't think that's a flattering description."
The three friends stopped at their first station. Directions were written on laminated cards. The ingredients for layering the casserole were stored in bowls and bags. Spices were clearly labeled.
Each of them took a foil pan. "I can't believe it's already the middle ofJuly," Nicole said as she layered corn tortillas on the bottom of the pan. "I was hoping to take Tyler away for a few days, but I don't see that happening. Between work and taking care of him, I'm constantly running."
"You own a business," Gabby said, ignoring yet another stab of guilt. She should own a business, she thought. Or be going back to work more than twenty hours a week. And cooking all her dinners from scratch. Honestly, she had no idea where her day went. The twins were in a summer program from eight until one every day. Makayla, her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, was in a different camp that went from eight until four. Surely she could get her errands run, laundry finished, meals prepped and cooked, and do something to help the world. But it didn't seem to happen.
"There's always Disneyland," Hayley offered as she scooped chunks of chicken into her casserole. Rather than using a single nine-by-thirteen pan, Hayley used two eight-by-eights. Which doubled her number of meals. Of course it was just her and Rob.
"Tyler loves Disneyland," Nicole said. "It just seems like cheating."
"Be grateful it's close," Gabby told her.
The massive amusement park was only about thirty miles away from Mischief Bay. Less than an hour by car, if the traffic gods were on your side.
Gabby put her arm around Nicole. "It could be worse. There could be Brad the Dragon Land. Then you'd be totally screwed."
Nicole grinned. "I'd be tempted to set it on fire."
Hayley and Gabby laughed.
Brad the Dragon was a popular children's book series. Many young boys, Tyler included, loved B the D, as he was known by intimates. For reasons Gabby had never understood, Nicole disliked the character and had a serious loathing for the author. She claimed that she'd read an article once that said Jairus Sterenberg was only in it for the money, that he was evil and most likely responsible for any coming zombie apocalypse headed their way. Gabby was less sure about those claims. Of course there were plenty of parents who were desperately tired of all things Frozen or Minion.
"Was Hawaii amazing?" Nicole asked.
Gabby nodded as she remembered the ten days she, Andrew and the twins had spent in a condo on Maui last month. It had just been the four of them. Makayla had stayed with her mother.
"It was gorgeous! Beautiful weather and plenty to do. The girls had a fantastic time."
"How did Makayla do at her mom's while you were gone?" Hayley asked.
Gabby sighed. "Okay. Her mom doesn't love having her around more than a weekend at a time, so that makes things difficult. I don't get it. Makayla's fifteen. Sure, she can be a bit mouthy, but she's her kid. You're supposed to love your kid."
"She's back with you?" Nicole asked.
"Her mom dropped her off the first night we were home."
"Too bad you couldn't take her with you," Hayley said.
"Uh-huh," Gabby murmured neutrally, sprinkling cheese on her finished casserole before securing the plastic lid. Because while she probably should have wished Makayla could have gone with them, in truth she'd been grateful for the break from her stepdaughter.
Their first meal finished, they took their pans over to the wall of refrigerators and placed their entrées on their assigned shelves, then moved on to the next station. Hayley began pulling down spice bottles while Gabby and Nicole scanned the directions.
"Stew is interesting," Nicole said, her tone doubtful. "The Crock-Pot information is good."
"You don't sound convinced," Gabby murmured, her voice low.
"It's summer. I don't want to have to use the Crock-Pot in the summer." Nicole shook her head. "A classic first-world problem, right? But Tyler loves stew, which means a dinner that's easy and he'll eat. I'm in."
"Excellent attitude," Gabby told her, with a wink. "You get a gold star today."
"I live for gold stars."
Hayley pointed to the spice jars she'd lined up. "This is going to be delicious," she promised. "You'll love it. And the next station is all about grilling over fire."
"You are in a happy mood," Nicole said. "What's up? Your boss give you a raise?"
"No, and that's okay." Hayley opened one of the gallon plastic bags and began measuring the spices. "Gabby mentioned my mood, too. Am I usually crabby all the time?"
"Not at all," Gabby said quickly, not sure how to explain that for once, Hayley seemed happy and relaxed. If she hadn't known the other woman was on hiatus from trying to conceive, she would have wondered if her friend was expecting. Before she could figure out if she should ask anyway, Hayley picked up the bottle of red wine on the table, measured out a half cup and poured it into her bag.
Nope, Gabby told herself. Not pregnant. But there was something.
They worked through the rest of the stations, then loaded their meals into their totes. Gabby packed up the car before going back to get her girls.
"You ready?" she asked.
Kenzie and Kennedy looked at each other before nodding at her.
"They were great," Cecelia told her. "We were very good," Kenzie added. "I'm sure you were."
The twins were at that age where they were angelic with everyone but her. She'd read dozens of books on child rearing and from what the experts said, the need to be more independent battled with the need for Mom. So while everyone else got smiles and good behavior, she got push-back and tears.
She waited while her girls hugged Cecelia goodbye. They were growing fast, she thought with contentment. They were bright, inquisitive and loving. Given how right everything was in her life, she could deal with a little push-back now and then.
They left the child-care area and headed toward the front door. Today they'd chosen matching clothes. Blue shorts and blue-and-white T-shirts with little kittens on them. They'd lost that toddler chubbiness and were now looking like little girls.
They were fraternal twins, but so close in appearance that most people thought they were identical. They both had big hazel eyes and strawberry blond hair. They sounded alike and were both energetic.
But there were also differences. The shape of their chins. Kennedy had thicker, slightly curlier hair. Kenzie was a bit taller. School was going to be interesting, Gabby mused. Kennedy was more outgoing, but Kenzie had a level of patience her sister didn't. She wasn't sure which characteristics would mean success.
They reached her SUV and she opened the rear door on the driver's side.
"In you go."
The girls didn't budge.