Today we’re celebrating a book birthday–SWEET TEA AND SYMPATHY marks the launch of Molly Harper’s new Southern Eclectic series of romantic women’s fiction. Set in sleepy Lake Sackett, Georgia, the series follows the eccentric but lovable McCready family through a variety of misadventures that could only happen in a Molly Harper novel! In ST&S, big-city event planner Margot Cary has lost her job after a disastrous party (let’s just say flamingos and seafood towers probably shouldn’t be at the same event), and is running out of options when she gets an unusual offer. Read on for a taste of all the love and laughter that ensues…

“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. She 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.

But 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.

“Hello?”

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 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 her bank statement–featuring her meager 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.”

“How generous?”

“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 crossed 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. 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.

Margot skimmed the top of the document and caught sight of the letterhead, which read McCready Family Funeral Home
and Bait Shop.

“Funeral home? Wait, you run a funeral home? And a bait shop?”

“Well, it’s more of a full-service marina, but yes! For four generations now! You’re part of a Lake Sackett institution, hon.”

“Why would a funeral home-slash-bait shop need an event planner?”

“Well, the baby boomer generation is dropping like flies around here, so we’ve got more business than we can handle. We’ve needed to add another planning consultant for a while now, and when I saw your video and looked up your background, I knew you’d be perfect.”

“I’m an event planner. For major society parties, galas, charity balls, that sort of thing.”

“Well, a funeral is a kind of event. And some of the considerations are the same—timing, speeches, music, food, and such.”

“Oh, I just don’t think I could—”

Suddenly, the lights flickered out and her refrigerator died with a whine. Because she’d shut off utilities in preparation for the move to the condo that was supposed to have taken place the week before. But she had nowhere to go. No prospects. And no health insurance.

She pursed her lips. “When can I start?”