Harper Grey is fed up with over-bearing men. Her father wants to sell the family hamburger joint to her brother because a woman could never make it successful.
Harper knows she has the same flair for business as her mother, and sexy Navy SEAL Patrick O’Brien dares her to prove it to the world.
When duty calls and Patrick must leave her side, will Harper be strong enough to make her dream a reality?
Aunt Adelina’s dining room hasn’t changed in years. The same flower embroidered tablecloth adorns the long, low kitchen table. The material is only slightly yellow with age and protected by a heavy plastic covering. The hard, low-backed captain chairs have me squirming in my seat. Across the table from me, Tony and Dad shovel Aunt Adelina’s spinach lasagna into their mouths as if this were their last meal.
“So how’s the job hunt going?” Tony smirks. “I sent you that link for the secretarial position at my company didn’t I?”
I am here only for Aunt Adelina and her free food, I remind myself even as I twist the bread on my plate into tiny pieces onto my plate. “Was that the email I deleted?” I reply in a voice as sweet as maple syrup. I also blocked your fool-ass account.
“Now Slugger,” Dad says with a heavy frown. “I know Tony meant well. He tells me things have been rough since you quit Just Burgers.”
That is so not how I remember it. “My life isn’t rough. It’s gotten considerably better, and I didn’t quit, you fired me so you could shut down Just Burgers instead of letting your daughter run it remember?” I drawl out the ‘r.’
Uncomfortable silence reigns at the table, only broken by the crunching of a dinner roll by Aunt Adelina. In contrast, Uncle Ed’s hand is extended in the air with a roll clutched tight in his fist.
Dad clears his throat but not before shooting a dagger-filled look at me. “Harper, about that. I counted on you to help me with the cleaning of the store. You know my arthritis acts up in the winter and—”
I leap to my feet. “Yes, and I expected to be treated as part of the family and not just a helper when it’s convenient.”
“Who wants another garlic roll? Here, pass this around.” Aunt Adelina thrusts the basket into my hands. The basket has traveled the table so many times tonight I’m amazed it doesn’t have its own airline miles.
“It’s a good thing you closed the store, Dad.” Tony shoots a sly glance in my direction. “It was more than time for you to get out of that money pit. Wintering in Florida will be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
Tony shovels another piece of lasagna onto his plate, and I fist my hands at my side.
“Tony, are you sure you want that big of a piece?” The words erupt from my lips before I can stop them. “You’re getting kinda chunky, especially around the middle.”
“What?” Tony’s head jerks up. He straightens and sucks in his breath as if it will make his beer gut disappear.
“That’s one thing I admire about Patrick. He works out every day. My boyfriend picked an active job.” I glance at Tony’s midsection. “And you. You picked a job where you will get progressively fatter. By the time you’re forty-five, we’ll be picking out your coffin.”
Aunt Adelina coughs into her napkin.
“Listen, Harper, just because I finally got Dad to see reason, doesn’t mean that you need to take it out on us. Dad closing down shop and not selling to you was for your own good, you know,” Tony says. “We thought about it carefully, weighed the pros and cons.”
“My own good! You are a sneaky toad of a brother. You have no clue what’s for my own good because you take the safe road, always! I’ve got half a mind to—”
“Enough arguing.” Aunt Adelina’s thundering voice has the entire table turning toward her. “It’s time for pie.” She grabs my arm and tugs me toward the kitchen. “Young lady, you will help me.”
“I’m not serving Tony. He’s fat enough,” I say over my shoulder loud enough that the sneaky toad will hear me.
“Harper Elizabeth Gray! Enough squabbling with your brother.” Auntie releases my arm and grabs up a pie knife, pointing its blunt end at me. “You will pretend to be nice if it kills you. We are a family and we will act like it.” She slices into the lemon meringue while I continue to stew. “Now give this to Tony.” Aunt Adelina slaps a full plate of pie into my hand and pushes me toward the dining room.
“Fine.” I hesitate, turn and grab another plate she’s dished up, and slide that pie on top of Tony’s. Grinning, I scoop up an extra spoon of whipped cream, smothering both pieces. Ooo… With my free hand, I locate auntie’s secret stash of chocolate chips and sprinkle some on top just for the hell of it. What is it about Tony that makes me feel like a ten-year-old again?
Aunt Adelina groans. “Child, you’ll be the death of me.”
Tony accepts his piece, but not after giving me a pointed sneer. I pat my much slimmer stomach and smile as wide as I can.
I no sooner reach the kitchen than another slice of pie is shoved into my hand. Dutifully, I begin passing plates around the table again. When everyone has been served, I clear the table of dishes and escape to the quiet of the kitchen. The silence of the small room is a pointed relief. Twenty more minutes to the gift opening. Five minutes of Dad and Tony glaring at me over matching pink bow ties. Fifteen more minutes to clean up the living room and say my goodbyes. One hour to the subway and I’ll be home by midnight.
I can do this!
Filled with irrational anger, I begin scrubbing away at the plates. Stupid men and their inability to do any amount of dishes.
“Well, now, little girl. It’s not like you to slam things and run away.” Aunt Adelina drops an empty pie plate on the counter. “You want to tell me what’s going on? You didn’t break up with that nice young soldier of yours did you?”
The bitterness I’ve been keeping inside, the many days of stomping the pavement looking for a backer, the many nights of trying to come up with just the right words to convince bankers to loan me cash crashes down on me. “How come you’re not mad because they let Just Burgers go instead of helping me buy it?”
“Oh, honey.” She picks up a dish towel and dries off the plate I hand her. “Why should we be mad? It’s just the way the world is.”
“Chauvinistic you mean?”
“This whole thing reminds me of when your mom and dad started that damned money pit of a restaurant. Elizabeth had her heart set on some name and your father just wouldn’t give in. He was like that over the salad bar she wanted so bad. She would have been so ahead of her time.” Aunt Adelina pats me on the shoulder. “Your father loves you, baby girl, don’t ever forget that. It’s not his fault that he could never see the forest for the trees. Some men are like that. So damn fool stubborn they just can’t admit when they are wrong.” She dumps the empty ham platter into the soapy water. “So are you still committed to this dream of yours?”
I lift my chin. “I need time to regroup. I know what you’re thinking, that I’m wasting my time at the corner station, but it’s money coming in. I’ve been turning in resumes on my days off. I was told I needed experience, a backer, and capital.” Thank you, Mrs. Anderson. “I plan on working on one thing at a time.”
Can she hear the desperation in my voice?
Aunt Adelina sighs as she puts a plate into the cupboard over her head. “Well, the gas station is good honest work. That reminds me, I found something of your grandmother’s that I wanted you to have.” She peers around the corner, lifting up piles of mail off the counter. “Now where did I put my handbag?” She leaves the room and comes back a few moments later, her large black purse swinging from her arm. “I have to remember to clean this out. Do you remember that house Grandma Alicia lived in? That big rambling structure?”
“Yes.” Mom hated having to sell the house after Grandma died. She and Aunt Adelina split the profits in half. And Dad and Mom used her share to start Just Burgers. Aunt Adelina used hers to buy her home.
Aunt Adelina pulls out a photograph and hands it to me. It’s the three of them standing in front of that old house. Aunt Adelina, Mom, and Grandma, three of the toughest, hardest working women I know.
“Put that on the mantle.” She pats me on the shoulder. “Then you look at it every day. That’s a picture of women who know what good, hard drudgery is. You work at your gas station if you have to, to make ends meet, but don’t you dare ever give up.”
I finger the photograph. These women would never give up, but this is so hard. “I’m scared I’ll never get a loan.”
“You’ll get it, Harper. You just need faith. Mountains aren’t moved in a day. You just keep trying and I’ll just keep being proud of you.”
The photo bends in my hand and I carefully smooth it out. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll fail? What if no one ever believes in me the way you do, what if—”
The palm of her hand shushes me with one movement. She pulls me in by the shoulders with a gentle squeeze. “Enough. You are Harper Gray. The strongest, smartest kid I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. You come from a long line of strong women. Now hand me that dish. We’ve got to get these done or we’ll never get to opening those presents.”
Breathe Harper, remember you are a professional. You meet hot guys every day.
I never set out to be an author. Only a storyteller. Some days I succeed better than others.