As I finish up the final proofs, submit the documents I need to, and generally get anxious about the upcoming launch of Without Benefits, I’m starting to lose sight of why I did this to begin with. So today I’m taking time to remember. I’m taking time to enjoy this process. And I want you to enjoy it, too.
So I’m sharing the first chapter of Without Benefits with you today. Don’t forget that it’s up for pre-order!
Happy reading. ❤
The photocopied piece of music mocked her as it sat on top of the kitchen table. Emma thought she’d have the original, had been hoping she had the original of the whole song instead of just the first page. The song in its entirety was a not-too-distant memory in her head, the melody what she hummed to herself as she walked through Whole Foods or through the sacred halls of Benaroya Hall.
“Emma, you should stop cleaning,” Connor, her sweet boyfriend, called softly over the gentleness of Ophelie Gaillard playing Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1. “You’ve done enough, you’re going to wear yourself out.”
She looked up at him, the blue glow of his laptop setting ugly shadows on his classically handsome face. Evening was beginning to settle into the city, even though the days were still getting longer. The bright gold of the setting sun barely touched the white of the carpet, of the couch, of the picture frames on the gray walls. The living room had fallen into the shadows of the buildings outside their windows. It made the electronic glow of the laptop more harsh than normal. Still, she could see the kindness in his eyes that she found a decade ago, the kindness and understanding that made this life — this non-musical life — worth it.
“I know, but I’m really almost done,” Emma called back, “and it’ll be good to get rid of all of this.”
Getting rid of this included years and years of forgotten paperwork, of things from her dorm, of essays on musical theory, and of sheet music filled with songs that she had written but was too afraid to play for anyone.
This was her past, sorted and ready to go to the recycling bin.
It was a useless gesture more than an actual act of purging, and Emma knew it. Even if she set their whole overpriced apartment on fire it wouldn’t purge the memory of Owen out of her.
The ghosts of the things that she used to love were taking up too much space here. They nestled in the curtains that hung around the large windows that looked out at the Puget Sound. They curled up in bed with her, stealing her dreams, especially on those nights that Connor worked late. The music, piano, New York City, Owen — they haunted her, always. Recalling the memory of one caused a landslide and the rest followed: standing in Times Square while the skyline changed forever, the song that was playing in her head, the song that she wrote with Owen, Owen’s hands as they touched her face, her hair, her lips that night.
“Are you okay?”
Emma jerked her head up from the pile of music, eyes wide with the panic that comes from getting too lost in those particular thoughts. Connor set aside his laptop and was here now, not touching her, but making his presence known. Making sure that she was okay, that she was safe.
“Yeah. . . yes, I think so.”
“You’re okay. You’re safe.” It was a decade-old mantra, one that he repeated over and over again whenever she felt this way. “What can I do?”
Shaking her head, she cleared out the smoldering ashes of the memories. Getting back to work, getting back to doing something other than wondering if she should e-mail Owen back, was best.
“I’ll just finish with these and then I’ll be done.”
Connor smiled, weak and nervous, and returned back to his normal spot on the couch. Their after work routine was always the same. He would pour a small glass of red wine and go over e-mails that had been sent since he left the Microsoft campus. She’d consider what to make them for dinner. With the amount of lunches and dinners and drink invites she had to accept as part of her job, there was something comforting about coming home and cooking. On nights that she didn’t want to, or was too tired, Connor took up the task, his skills limited to comfort food.
“Am I cooking tonight or are you?” Emma asked as she put all of the papers — the songs, the memories — back into a neat pile and placed them back into the box that she’d taken them out of. She’d throw them out another night.
“Actually, I just got a text from Rachel. Is it okay if I go and meet her?”
Rachel. She, like Owen, was a recently manifested ghost of their collective past. She was Connor’s ex, one who had broken his heart when she moved away, but had recently come back and was also working in the same department Connor was. Emma wanted to believe that it was all pure coincidence but knew it was a naive conclusion to come to. A hot flare of jealousy shot through her chest. As much as she was okay with Connor getting meals or drinks with his female co-workers, Rachel was in a different territory than the others. Emma didn’t trust her.
“Ah, so we’re not catching up on House of Cards tonight?”
“If you’d like, I can reschedule. It’s not a big deal.”
“No, no.” Emma looked over at him, unnerved by how he was watching her with such intensity. He was sincere in what he was saying; she could feel it in her gut. “Netflix will be there when you get home.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to leave you all alone for dinner.”
Emma shook her head. “I actually got an invitation I’ve been sitting on for awhile now. I’ll have to see if he’s available.”
As the red of the same jealous flair Emma had felt only moments ago flashed across Connor’s cheeks, she could only feel satisfied that she could draw out the same emotions in him as he did to her.
“With Tara’s engagement party on Friday, he thought that it might be a good idea to rip off the band-aid now. You know, since it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other.”
Connor nodded but the red was still there. “No, it makes sense. And I shouldn’t feel jealous, but I do.”
“Maybe I like that you still get jealous,” Emma teased.
“And it’s not like I’m not going to dinner with my own ex.”
“Yes, but Owen wasn’t an ex.”
“He might as well been.”
Even though Connor was smiling, the chill in his voice betrayed his true emotions. Emma knew the old argument was right beneath the surface. The argument where Connor thought Emma was more in love with Owen than she was with Connor, the argument where Connor thought that Emma was cheating on him with Owen. They were insecurities that Rachel had planted during their time together and ones that, if Emma looked back now, knew that she hadn’t done much to help stunt the growth of.
“It’s just going to be weird, with him being the best man at the wedding. But I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable,” Emma admitted. She looked away from him, focusing on the laptop, on the sheets of music. A longing she hadn’t felt in a decade was beginning to surface. “If it’s a problem — ”
Connor pulled her in for a hug. Cheek pressed to his shirt, she could hear his heart beating the steady lullaby that she calmed her down in the middle of the night.
“It’s not a problem.” The words were a rumble in his chest. “It’s not. We’ll come back here later and we’ll watch some shows, just like normal. Just like always.”
Emma nodded, breathing a sigh of relief. Pulling away, she sat down at the table where her laptop sat hidden behind boxes and piles of paper.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to go to dinner. He sent this e-mail a week ago and I haven’t answered. What should I say to him?”
“Just send a ‘yes’ back, that you’re free tonight. If not, then we’ll see him on Friday.”
“When did you become so reasonable?” Emma grinned, raising an eyebrow. The Connor she first started dating wouldn’t have been like this, wouldn’t have let go of his jealousy so quickly. He would’ve been angry, irrational — not the understanding man that stood before her now. She didn’t know if she should trust it or not.
“Since I started actually listening to you.” He came over and kissed the top of her head. “But I should head out. We’re just going to a bar a few streets over. If you need anything, just call. Okay?”
“I love you,” Connor said, not meeting her eyes.
“I love you too.”
She meant it, meant it every time she said it, and knew he meant it when he said it. But expressing how they feel didn’t help ease the pain of the shift in their routine. It wasn’t like either of them never went out with other people. It was just these people, the ones that came with history and pain, that made everything seem off key.
Hearing the door click, Emma re-opened the blank draft of the reply that was meant for Owen. Even though he wasn’t there, that she hadn’t seen him in years, it was as if he was sitting across from her, staring, waiting to see if she’d rise to this challenge.
“I don’t even know what to say to you,” she said out loud, fingers tapping the edge of the keyboard. On one hand, yes, she could just send a simple yes as Connor suggested and see if he was free now. On the other, she could just ignore it and go back to cleaning or lining up more calls with potential donors, or start to plan the next fundraiser and wait for Connor to get home.
I’m available now if you are. If not, I’ll see you at the engagement party. Cheers.
She typed the message out quickly and hit send before she had time to talk herself out of it. It was done; the ball was in his court now.
Maybe it had always been in his court.
She’d seen him in passing so much: at the Market, at the Symphony where she handled the fundraising. They’d catch each other’s eye, she’d smile, but he didn’t approach her even when she was alone. It stung, his ignoring her. It was a clear signal to her of how he wanted the past handled. So they kept moving forward, occupying the same space, breathing the same air, but never getting close.
Emma knew that getting close, close enough to smell his cologne, to see how he’d aged, would’ve been dangerous. But she still wanted to. It would’ve brought back the memories and the feelings that she knew still lingered in the loneliness that came when she went to a fundraising event without Connor. In the loneliness that came with walking through the halls of Benaroya and knowing she’d never grace any of its stages. She didn’t need to relapse into a life where she pined after another man, where she entertained the idea that being a musician was somehow going to bring her the financial stability and lifestyle she had now. Especially not when it’d taken years to convince herself that things were better off this way.
The e-mail alert went off on her laptop and her phone. Expecting it to be work, she glanced over, but instead saw Owen’s name.
Purple Cafe. Eight. See you there.
Emma looked at the numbers in the corner of her screen. Six-forty-five. Not enough time to go shopping, to buy a new wardrobe, to buy a new, Owen-approved life.
Walking into her bedroom, phone in hand, she tried to find something mature, sophisticated, and sexy. She needed to find something in the color-ordered designer silk and cotton tucked away in her closet that showed her life was even close to the one he, Seattle Symphony concert master and notorious bachelor, was living. She shot off a quick text to her sister, Leah, not wanting to make this decision on her own.
Thankfully, Leah’s response came quickly:
Emma sighed, and sent back: Casual dinner. Just catching up between old friends.
Conservative, casual. Remember that this isn’t a date. Call me tomorrow.
Leah’s suggestion lacked any sort of direction. Jeans were too casual and the dresses she normally wore for work functions was too formal. Finally, she took a dress out of the lineup and held it up against her hourglass shape. The dress was simple, A-line, gray with a white hem. It wasn’t a dress she normally wore to dinners, but it was comfortable. It felt more like the Emma Owen might expect. More like who she was in college than who she presented herself as now. Flats, a scarf, a trench — the outfit came together in two seconds in her mind.
But did college-era Emma outfits say what she needed them to say?
Did it make her look the part of the trendy Seattleite crowd that’d rather not drive into Bellevue to go to the other Purple Cafe location? Or, did it show her as what she was now: a woman who was part philanthropist, a woman who spent free time with women whose sole responsibility was to take care of husband and houses. These were her friends now. They were mostly well-kept women whose discussions centered around weddings and engagements, on childcare, on the stresses of aging, and of balancing careers and children. It wasn’t the long, late-night conversations she shared with her roommates in undergrad, or the debates she got into over the merits of modern music. But, it helped her stay on track; content with the life she was living now. They’d approve of this dress.
But the way her neighbors saw her and the way Owen saw her were two different things. They saw the quiet, put-together future Mrs. Connor Dolan. Owen saw her as the pianist who ensured his salutatorian spot, who got helped him get YouTube views. Who helped him get where he was today.
Without Benefits is out June 7th!