CHAPTER ONE

The Secret Rules of Romance

by Leah Heart

I always assumed love just sort of happened—as if the love of my life would fall from the sky like a freaking raindrop and land right at my feet when I least expected it.

Soon after, I would go on to have the wedding of my dreams and create beautiful, well-behaved children who didn’t hate my guts or steal my credit cards once they hit puberty. With each passing year, I would force my kids to wear matching outfits as they cried in protest, hoping to capture their youth with a wholesome family portrait before they grew a little older.

The endless scrapbooks and photo albums would be impossible to manage—after all, each memory would be too precious to trash—so I would wind up hoarding boxes full of old photos, locks of hair, baby teeth, and dreadful art projects. The contents would resemble voodoo starter kits rather than irreplaceable keepsakes. Yet those boxes would linger on as my most valuable possessions—unless I owned a Ferrari, of course.

My spouse would remain my rock and best friend, the only one who could confirm all our joyous memories throughout the years. Even the most awful moments, which seemed like downright disasters at the time, would fade into fond, hilarious anecdotes. Then, once all the kids flew the nest—perhaps to start families of their own—I would stare into my husband’s aging eyes and give a satisfied nod, as if to say, We did a good job. Perched on our porch swing, we would gaze at the sunset, hand in hand, and everyone would live happily ever after, basking in a never-ending ray of warm, fuzzy love.

Yeah, right. What a load of horseshit.

Funny enough, when I was young, not a drop of doubt entered my mind that this scenario would happen to me someday. “When I get married…” I chanted with my girlfriends as we painted on thick eyeliner and blasted ear-splitting music, my adolescent mind filled with fantasies about my future husband. But after several lonely years, a string of bad relationships, and not one decent man on the horizon, the when suddenly changed to if.

Then, like a cruel plot twist, I reached the age when glitter makeup became a thing of the past and a crazy night out ended long before midnight, and a new possibility set in. What if I don’t get married? What if I don’t meet The One? What if—gasp—I end up all alone…?

“Allison Harper!” Megan waved a hand in my face. “What are you mumbling about? Snap out of it, and tell us what happened!”

I broke out of my daze, focusing on Megan’s clear hazel eyes—a sharp contrast to my swollen brown ones, which were sore from crying. As reality emerged, I found myself hunched over the kitchen table, next to my two best friends—twin bottles of Barefoot wine that I’d purchased on sale. Oh, and Sarah and Megan were there too.

“Someone help me open this!” I groaned as I gripped the bottle’s neck and clumsily struggled to insert the corkscrew.

“Ally.” Megan sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “It’s a screw cap, not a cork.”

“Oh. I knew that.” I quickly poured myself a glass, pretending the last five seconds never happened.

Sarah scooped up a pile of used Kleenex and presented it to me as evidence of my misery. Shredded remnants slipped through her fingers and fell like snowflakes, joining the graveyard of tissues that had battled my tears and lost.

“You’ve been drinking—and crying—nonstop,” she said, recapping the past hour, concerned. “Can you please tell us what’s going on already?”

“I wirr terl ewe affer dees,” I said while guzzling wine at the same time, rather impressed with myself. Who knew I could multitask so well? Maybe I’d created a new art form, like synchronized swimming. And my eighth-grade music teacher said I didn’t have talent—ha!

“We’re not impressed.” Megan rolled her eyes. “Talking while drinking is not an art. And in case you were wondering, that sounded like pure gibberish.”

I froze midgulp. Can she read minds? Now she would know her favorite gold spandex dress did make her look fat.

“And no, I can’t read minds,” Megan added. “I just know the kind of thoughts that go through your ridiculous head. Now”—she sounded like she was speaking to a toddler—“keep the wineglass away from your mouth long enough to tell us what happened.”

“Fine.” I plunked the glass down and blew my nose, killing off another tissue. “What happened? I’ll tell you what happened.” My voice raised a notch between each sniffle. “This is bullshit. Love is bullshit. All of this”—my arms stretched in a sweeping half circle—“is just bullshit! I don’t care that I got a degree in economics. Why didn’t they teach us something useful, like how to have a successful love life? Where was that class, huh? Overpriced, good-for-nothing college!”

Megan and Sarah swapped troubled looks before shouting, “Refill!”  in perfect harmony, and Sarah quickly filled my glass to the brim. Red wine sloshed over the sides, staining the table with a vivid burgundy ring.

I gulped the entire glass in one shot.

“Okay. Now”—Sarah gently rubbed my shoulder and poured a refill—“calm down and continue.”

I buried my face in my palms. “Brody…” I hiccupped, unable to choke out the words. “He… he broke up with me.”

“What?” they chimed in unison, but it was hard to tell how surprised they were after all the Botox.

“You really need to go to my doctor.” I pointed to their oddly smooth foreheads. “She does a more natural job.”

“Who cares about that right now?” Megan waved her hand as if shooing a fly. “Brody broke up with you?”

I nodded, dabbing my eyes with a tissue. A glob of mascara rubbed off, staining the delicate sheet with a smudge of black ink. Waterproof, my ass.

“Yup. Eight years down the drain,” I said weakly. “Also, my plans for getting married are deader than my bleached hair!” My pouty whimper matured into a full-blown wail as I twirled my artificial, frizzy blond locks.

“I’m so sorry, babe.” Megan curled her arms around me, but I shrugged her off, suddenly belligerent.

“Everyone is married! You’re married!” I jabbed my finger at Sarah. “You’re married!” I motioned toward Megan, accidentally smacking her face with the back of my hand.

“Ow!” Megan clapped a palm over her eye. “That hurt!”

“Megan, this is code red! And we said during code red—”

“No apologies needed,” she grumbled.

“I swear, even the homeless guy off the freeway exit is married,” I continued. “I saw a ring on his finger. It’s made from a paperclip, but still…” I pouted, puffing out air. “It counts.”

“Really? That guy with the Will Eat for Food sign?” Sarah chewed thoughtfully on the ends of her long auburn hair. “Actually, I’m not surprised. I always thought if he showered and cleaned up a little, he’d be pretty hot.”

I glared at her. “You’re not helping.”

“Sorry.” She mustered a sheepish shrug.

“I thought this would be the year we got engaged,” I said softly and traced the wood grain pattern on the kitchen table, my fingertips lost in a maze of endless loops. “I mean, we’ve been living together for five years. Our lives were, like, merged. We had a joint bank account. We shared one computer, not one desktop and a laptop or one laptop and a tablet. Just one computer!” I slammed my fist down with an angry thrust.

Megan jumped, nearly tipping over her chair, while Sarah unleashed a loud squeal. The table wobbled in sync with the wine in my glass, which sloshed around like its own tiny red sea.

I stared into Sarah’s warm eyes, defeated. “Is anything more merged in this day and age than sharing a single computer?”

They shook their heads, quiet. An uncomfortable stillness settled in the room.

Megan finally broke the silence. “We thought this was the year too.”

I took another swig, emptying my wine glass. “I knew he was distant and we had problems, but I didn’t think he would just break up with me.” Tears sprang in my eyes again. “I even took that trip to Napa for a week. I thought he’d miss me. I thought he’d realize how much I meant to him while I was gone, but instead…”

Then I lost it. The sobs I could no longer hold back sputtered rapidly into the room, echoing harshly off the tile floor—the kind of pure, unhinged crying people only did in grade school. Thick, clear snot oozed from my nose, dribbling down my face, leaving a salty taste on my lips.

“It’s past code red. We’ve gotta move to code clear!” Megan snapped her fingers. “Stat!”

Sarah promptly grabbed the vodka bottle. Flinging the freezer door open, she fumbled with the ice tray, scattering several cubes across the kitchen floor.

“Forget the ice. Now’s not the time to be classy.” I yanked the vodka from Sarah’s grasp and chugged it straight from the bottle. My throat burned as the alcohol crept into my belly, tasting like watered-down acetone—anything to numb the pain. “Ahhh.” I exhaled like a drunken sailor and wiped my mouth with the back of my sleeve. The warm rush of alcohol calmed me, if only for a moment.

Sarah proceeded cautiously. “Now, give us the details. Let it all out.”

“He didn’t say, ‘It’s not you. It’s me,’ did he?” Megan asked with disdain.

“No.” I shook my head, tearful and wimpy. “He was much more original.”

“Tell us everything,” Sarah said.

“Okay…” I sniffed, took another sip of vodka, and started from the beginning.