Life is over for Allyn Teague, or so she thinks when her wife leaves Seattle for another woman. Facing unrelenting heartbreak, she learns to embrace it, oblivious to the toll her grief is taking on her body and spirit. Her only hope is for Melody to realize her mistake and come home.
Bea Lawson notices Allyn’s decline because she too once suffered a shattering loss and struggled to put her sorrow to rest. While neither is yet the woman she wants to be, it soon becomes clear their lives are better together…until their budding love is threatened by choices they never expected to face.
Life After Love is now available for pre-order from Bella Books. Ships on October 13. Here’s Chapter One.
“UPS Ground gets this to Denver by Wednesday, Edgar.” Bea Lawson slapped the last ribbon of packing tape to the oversized package and counted out the elderly man’s change for a fifty-dollar bill. “Thanks a lot for stopping in.”
She appreciated customers like Edgar who spent their dollars locally instead of online. It was great for her business, Pak & Ship, the postal services franchise she’d opened six years ago in Ballard, one of Seattle’s most eclectic neighborhoods. Now coming off her busiest holiday season yet, she felt great about her investment of cash and sweat equity.
Bea enjoyed her work. There was just enough physical labor to guarantee a good workout every day, and the record-keeping provided a constant intellectual challenge. She also enjoyed the interaction with customers—most of them, anyway—plus she could bring her rescue dog Dexter, a pit bull-Labrador mix, to the shop. Best of all, she owned her franchise outright, having paid off the last of her small business loan four months ago.
With the holiday season behind them, her assistant manager and oldest friend, Kit Hurlocke, was coming in at eleven instead of eight thirty like Bea, but she too worked six days a week. They needed another employee, someone who would stick. Her two most recent hires had lasted only a few weeks before sliding into sloppy habits that forced Bea to let them go.
Kit was due any minute and would take over the counter, giving Bea a chance to catch up on paperwork and take Dexter for a walk. She was preparing her bank deposit when a familiar face arrived.
Allyn Teague shook her straight blond hair from her knit cap and pulled off her gloves so she could wriggle the key into her mailbox. Allyn worked from home but used Pak & Ship as her business address, as did many home-based workers who wanted someone around to sign for packages. She stopped in three or four times a week to pick up her mail.
“Looks cold out there,” Bea said.
“Already feels like snow. They say we’re in for seven inches between now and Sunday.”
Dexter came trotting out of the back office at the sound of Allyn’s voice, his tail thumping loudly against a stack of cardboard boxes. Sixty pounds of solid muscle, he was mostly chocolate brown with patches of white on his chest, legs and face. His amber eyes remained riveted to Allyn because she usually brought him a treat.
“He’s been asleep under my desk all morning, but he hopped up the second he heard you. I’d say you’re his favorite customer.”
“He’s my favorite dog.” Allyn was tall and a few pounds on the heavy side, but it was the color of her eyes that made her stand out—turquoise so bright Bea had mistaken them for contact lenses until Allyn assured her they were her very own.
She’d gotten a peek at Allyn’s driver’s license when she rented the box several years ago and knew she was three years younger, turning thirty-two in July. She also knew she was married to Melody Rankin, and sometimes got mail addressed to Allyn Rankin-Teague. They lived nearby in Redwood Heights, a newly built cluster of faux Victorian homes on lots the size of postage stamps.
Allyn allowed Dexter to lick the treat from her outstretched hand. “Most days his is the happiest face I see.”
“I’m going to take him for a walk as soon as Kit gets here. Want to come along?” Though they were only acquaintances, Allyn was the kind of person Bea liked having around. She was always cheerful and quick to flash a friendly smile, even when she had to wait in line longer than usual for service.
“Wish I could, but Fridays are my busiest day. I still have a half-dozen calls to make before close of business, and I always try to have dinner ready by the time Melody gets home.”
Melody sometimes came into the shop with Allyn on Saturdays, but rarely on her own. She was pear-shaped—large hips with a thin torso—with wavy brown hair cut above her collar, and even taller than Allyn, though her round shoulders suggested she’d spent years trying to disguise her height. Always businesslike, sometimes impatient.
Bea had reached out several times, inviting them to basketball games, parties or Pride events. Allyn always promised to run it by Melody but they never followed up. Some people were just homebodies, Bea thought.
“I’ll see you Monday, Dexxie. Be a good boy.”
“Hey, a bunch of us are going to the Huskies game tomorrow night. They’re playing Stanford.” She was getting a blank look. “Women’s basketball. It starts at seven if you’re interested.”
“Oh, thanks. I’ll see if Melody’s up for it.”
In other words, no.
Kit sidled up behind Bea as Allyn walked out. “I sure hope I’m around when that woman realizes you’re flirting with her.”
“Geez! You scared the crap out of me. And I wasn’t flirting with her.”
“Whatever you say.” Kit was, in the words of her bulging bicep tattoo, a Big Ol’ Dyke, sixty-one years old with a silver crew cut and a face weathered by years of tromping through the elements to deliver the US Mail. She wore a set of rainbow triangles around her neck like dog tags, and had more friends than a kid with a bag of Skittles.
Bea straightened the collar on Kit’s polo shirt, dark green just like hers with a Pak & Ship logo on the chest. “Come on, I was just being friendly. Besides, she’s married, and you know I’m not the kind to mess with that.”
“All I know is your face lights up like a kid at Christmas whenever she walks in.”
“Maybe you’re just comparing it to the look on my face when you walk in. I tend to smile at most other people.”
Kit sneered. “Watch it. I was once a postal worker, you know.”
Bea clipped Dexter’s leash in place. “She’s threatening us, boy. We’d better get out of here now.”
With shaking hands, Allyn set the carving knife on the block and took a step back. “If this is your idea of a joke or something, it’s not funny.”
“It isn’t a joke.” Melody looked at her grimly across the granite-topped island in their designer kitchen. Most days she went straight to their bedroom to change into sweatpants and a T-shirt, but not today. She’d retreated to the bedroom but emerged still wearing the thick gold scarf over her pantsuit as if ready to walk back out the door at any moment.
“I’m so sorry, Allyn. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Sorry?” Allyn had felt an undercurrent of tension for several weeks but chalked it up to stress at work. Never once had she imagined Melody would walk through the door and announce she was leaving. That couldn’t happen. They were married. Everyone they knew held them out as the perfect couple.
Melody overreacted to everything. That’s all this was. Anyone would feel like running away after laboring the way she had over a critical grant application. She’d been chained to her desk upstairs every night for the last seven months, on top of having to travel back and forth to Tucson. “You just need a break, sweetheart. It’s not fair how they’ve piled all this work on you, but once you get it finished, you’ll have your life back. We’ll have our life back.”
“I don’t want it back, Allyn. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Everything has fallen out from under me this year. It’s nothing you’ve done, I swear. I’ve changed.”
Allyn couldn’t comprehend her stony-faced expression, much less her bizarre declaration. “What do you mean you’ve changed? We love each other. That’s all that matters.”
“I still love you. I swear. But the way I feel about everything is different. I’ve been trying for weeks to figure out what to do about it, and the only solution is for me to leave.”
Panic and confusion knotted the muscles in her abdomen. This was the woman she loved with all her heart. The only woman she’d ever loved. The woman she expected to grow old with. “You want to leave your job? Fine, I don’t blame you. You want to leave Seattle? That’s fine too. We can sell the house and move to Peoria if you want. But you don’t get to leave me. Whatever this is, we’ll work it out together. That’s what being married means. I’m always going to be there for you, and I go where you go.”
“You know I love you. That’ll be true until the day I die.”
Allyn drew in a deep, shaky breath and still couldn’t get enough air.
“I’m so sorry. None of this is your fault, Allyn. I just…” Her voice trailed off as she turned away.
“All this time I’ve been asking if something was bothering you. You kept saying no, it was just work. I knew it was more than that. Why are you throwing all this at me now? You should have been talking to me.”
“I wanted to but I didn’t know how. I knew you’d want answers and I don’t have them. All I can tell you is nothing feels right anymore.” Melody drifted into the living room where she perched on the arm of the couch and folded her arms, halfway between settling in for a talk and dashing out of the room.
It was surreal to watch her lick her fingers and rub at a scuff on her ankle boot. Did she seriously think her fucking boot was important at a time like this? Of course not. This was her typical behavior when she wanted to avoid conflict. Ignore. Deflect. Downplay.
“I turned in my notice at the provost’s office two weeks ago. Today was my last day.”
“And you’re only telling me this now?” Hearing herself shriek, Allyn closed her eyes and mentally counted to five. Melody always shut down when confronted. If she wanted answers, it was crucial to remain calm. “Never mind, that doesn’t matter. My business is going pretty well. We’ve got some savings. We can always move into something smaller and rent out the house for a couple of years. You want to go back to school or something? Fine, whatever you need. Life’s too short for you to be miserable at work every day.”
Melody hissed as she inhaled through gritted teeth, a gesture Allyn recognized as a sign she was feeling boxed in and would disengage completely if the conversation persisted. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said.”
“I heard every word. I’m just having a hard time believing you’re ready to throw your whole life away. Where is this even coming from? You’ve been out of it ever since you started on this grant. That’s been what?” She counted on her fingers back to July. “Six months? Seven? And it hasn’t been easy. In case you didn’t notice, I took care of everything around here…and I stayed out of your way so you could finish. Then out of the blue you tell me you’re not happy anymore and now you want to take your life in another direction.” Despite her intention to stay calm, her last words came out heavy with sarcasm.
Melody began pacing the rug in their family room in small, deliberate steps as though trying not to step on the lines in the pattern. Only when her back was turned did she finally answer. “We turned in the grant application last October.”
“Then what…” A wave of incredulity ripped through her as she realized Melody had been pretending to work for the last three months. “What the hell is going on with you?”
“What’s going on is I met somebody!” she barked, spinning around to face her. “A woman who lives in Tucson. We fell in love, and I’m leaving because I got a job in the provost’s office at the University of Arizona. So there. Now you know all there is to know. Are you happy? I didn’t want to tell you because I knew how much it would hurt.”
“Oh, my God.” With that, all the pieces suddenly fell into place, forming the ugliest picture Allyn could have imagined. “What an idiot I’ve been! All those nights I felt sorry for you having to work so late at your desk. You were up there pouring your heart out to some other woman. ‘Poor, poor Melody! They’re even making her travel on the weekends now.’ You disgust me!”
Melody’s bright red face was proof the accusations were hitting their mark. “This wasn’t something I planned, Allyn.”
“The hell you didn’t! How does somebody have an affair without planning it? How do they quit their job and get another one without planning it? It looks to me like you planned it all the way down to the last detail.”
“That’s not what I meant. I’m just saying it happened all of a sudden. I wasn’t looking for it. Honest. But then I couldn’t get back to where we were no matter what I did.”
“It happened? Now you’re making it sound like you’re the innocent victim here. Just last summer we were talking about having a baby.”
“I guess that scared me more than I realized. That’s about when it all started.”
Allyn clenched her fists, fighting a rage that made her want to hurl the nearest ceramic vase into the fireplace—or at Melody’s head. “Don’t you dare try to rationalize any of this. I’m your wife, goddamn it. If you have doubts about something, you’re supposed to work through them with me, not another woman. I can’t believe you just strung me along till you got all your little pieces in place, and all this time you knew you were leaving. If I hadn’t dragged it out of you, you’d have walked out of here without telling me a thing and left me wondering for the rest of my life what I’d done wrong.”
Melody shook her head vehemently, but she wouldn’t meet Allyn’s eye. “It wasn’t like that. I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure. I’ve been trying all this time to get those feelings back, but I couldn’t.”
“And how did you try? Did you talk to me about it? Did you turn off your fucking computer and come downstairs to spend time with me? What about when you were off on your romantic weekends? Did it ever cross your mind to take me somewhere instead? No, you didn’t think about anyone but yourself. And now you expect me to be understanding because this just happened to you?”
“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” Melody stormed past her to the master bedroom, the heels of her boots pounding the wooden floor like hammers.
Several seconds passed before Allyn followed to find her retrieving a bulging suitcase from underneath the bed. “Fucking hell! You fucking came in here and packed while I was cooking your dinner.” She almost never swore but adrenaline had taken over.
“I was honestly hoping we might be able to talk like mature adults and I wouldn’t need to go tonight, but I should have known you couldn’t do that. You’re too emotional. I’m afraid if I stay here much longer, we’ll both end up saying hurtful things we can’t take back. It’s best if I go stay with Jillian and Tiffany till you calm down.”
“Calm down? Seriously? You just dumped a world of shit on me and now you think I should calm down?”
Again Melody’s face burned bright. This whole confrontation had obviously been staged to end without any sort of negotiation, including her escape to Jillian and Tiffany’s. She’d made her decision already, and apparently expected Allyn to accept it.
Allyn’s mind raced frantically. This couldn’t be happening. “We’re legally married, for God’s sake. You made a commitment to be with me forever and I’m going to fight for you. You do not get to just leave.”
“Would you really want me to stay if you knew I wasn’t happy?” Despite her flustered look, Melody showed no signs of giving in. Her forehead was wrenched in a steely frown. “We were different people when we got married, Allyn. People change a lot in eleven years.”
That was bullshit. It was only two years ago they’d gotten married in the eyes of the law. Why would Melody have gone through with that if she’d harbored doubts about their future?
“I don’t want to hurt you, Allyn. But I can’t just manufacture feelings that aren’t there anymore.”
The nightmare was getting worse with every callous word out of her mouth. Allyn couldn’t let this happen, couldn’t give up, couldn’t lose the one person she loved more than life. She had to get control of herself and talk Melody out of leaving. “I can’t let you throw away our life. What do you want from me? You want me to calm down? You want me to sit quietly and keep my mouth shut so we can talk it out? Fine, I can do that. Just tell me whatever it is I need to do to fix this.”
Melody sighed and slumped on the edge of the bed, intent again on staring only at her boots. Her dark brown pinstriped pantsuit was the nicest she owned, and she’d probably worn it today because her co-workers had thrown a going-away party for her.
“I hate it when you quit listening. You get fixated on what you want and you tune out everything else that doesn’t fit. There’s nothing for you to fix. I didn’t decide all this today. It’s been coming for a long time. Talking about it isn’t going to help.”
“You mean it isn’t going to help you. You’re walking out of here with all the answers and leaving me to wonder what the fuck happened.”
“What more could you possibly want to know?” “Everything, starting with who she is.”
Again Melody shook her head. “You don’t need to know her name. I know how you are. You’ll go online and download every little piece of data you can find. That’s what you do with everybody. Her life isn’t any of your business.”
“That happens to be my job, and you know damn good and well I don’t do it with everyone.”
Her business, which she ran out of their home, was recruiting top-level employees for the tech security industry. That gave her access to dozens of databases from which she could produce a work history for almost anyone in the country with only a few keystrokes. The only time she’d ever used her work skills for personal reasons was to check out a woman their friend was dating—and she realized with fury she’d done that at Melody’s request. Now Melody had the nerve to throw it back in her face.
“All I’m going to tell you is she’s a grant writer like me. She posted something in a forum and I thought she sounded really smart, so I messaged her with a couple of questions. That was last July.”
Had this really been going on under her nose that long? She searched her memories for the last time they’d made love. At least a couple of months ago, before Thanksgiving.
“After that we started emailing back and forth. It was all professional. Then we had a chance to meet in September when we were both in DC.”
Allyn’s anger at Melody’s feigned innocence gave way to a palpable hurt. The weekend trips to Tucson had started soon after that, and though she dreaded the answer, she forced herself to ask, “Is that when you slept with her?”
The silence was louder than if Melody had screamed her reply.
“How could you do that? Didn’t you tell her you already had a wife? Does she even know I exist?”
Of course, and they probably laughed at her for stupidly cooking all of Melody’s meals and doing her laundry while they screwed around behind her back. Melody deserved to be tossed out of the house with everything she owned, but Allyn couldn’t bear the thought of losing her. “You took vows with me. You made promises to be with me forever—only me.”
Melody was both stubborn and proud. Also slow to admit when she was wrong. For all Allyn knew, she was leaving because she knew she’d screwed up and couldn’t bring herself to ask for forgiveness.
That was it. Allyn had to forgive her right now…convince her they could put it behind them, no matter how difficult it would be. All of this might even blow over in a few days—as soon as the consequences kicked in and Melody realized how serious it was.
“I forgive you, Melody. For everything. You don’t need to leave. Not tonight. Not ever. If you don’t want to talk about it anymore right now, we don’t have to say another word. Just like it never happened. I’ll stay out of your way for as long as you need. I’ll even sleep in the guest room upstairs so you won’t feel any pressure.”
Time would heal this.
Melody stood and gave her a patronizing pat on the shoulder. “I don’t mind talking as long as you’re not flying off the handle. We’re both smart…rational. Let’s go sit down and have dinner. After this long we ought to be able to have a conversation without fighting. I care about your feelings, Allyn. The last thing I want is to see you hurt more than you have to be.”
More than she had to be. Why did Melody think it was necessary to hurt her at all?
Allyn mindlessly went through the motions of putting dinner on the table, but didn’t set a place for herself. As calmly as she could manage, she said, “I’m too upset to eat right now, but I’ll sit with you because I want to hear how this happened.”
“So I’m supposed to eat by myself while you sit there and stare at me? What’s the point of that?” Melody instantly switched from conciliatory to combative. “I’m trying to do what you want and answer your questions, but you don’t really want to talk. All you care about is making me feel guilty. Dinner’s just a big charade.”
“No, acting like nothing’s wrong would be a charade. Lying to me about how hard you were working on that grant and why you were going to Tucson was a charade. Sleeping in our bed and letting me feel like your wife was a charade.” With every sin she ticked off, her pride and sense of righteousness swelled, and she rebelled against the notion of remaining calm for Melody’s sake. “But the biggest charade of all is you pretending to care how I feel. It’s clear you don’t give a fat fuck about anyone but yourself.”
“I knew you couldn’t be mature about this.” Melody slammed her linen napkin on the table. “I should have packed everything while you weren’t here and left you a note. The only reason I didn’t is because you never leave the goddamn house.”
“Right, since I work ten hours a day and still find time to be your personal maid. When was the last time you lifted a finger around here to help with anything?”
Melody lunged for her suitcase but Allyn grabbed it first and shoved it toward the door.
“Thanks a lot, Allyn. At least now I don’t have to question whether or not I’m doing the right thing.”
“Yeah, well…don’t give it another thought. Now get the hell out of here.”
Allyn slammed the kitchen door so hard behind her that it rattled dishes in the cabinets. Burning with fury, she watched through the window as Melody whipped out of the garage in her Honda Accord, barely missing a parked car before she peeled down the street.
It was only when the taillights disappeared that the enormity of Melody’s betrayal hit her, and she began to cry from anger, humiliation and heartbreak. She had no idea what to do next.
Order now from Bella Books.