Read the first three chapters of ‘The Next Life’ by Lise Gold and Madeleine Taylor.

Chapter 1

This house has been like an empty shell since I moved in permanently. I’m constantly aware of my own breathing and register every footstep I take on the hardwood floors. The weight of my soul thuds heavily, reminding me I’m the only person left in this big, modern mansion. All the work, all the love I poured into it. The open-plan kitchen fitted out with the latest appliances. The glass staircase that spirals so beautifully around its own spine-like axis. The spacious terrace with the long, narrow pool overlooking the ocean. The interior designer I hired to make every detail just perfect, so my life would be perfect. So our life would be perfect. And then she stole my husband. Nothing about this is right, and I realize that each time I look around, staring at this endless perfection. All it does is remind me of everything that’s broken. Everything I’ve lost.

Villa Reina, named after me, used to be our summer home, the place where we spent quality family time on weekends and during the holidays. It was a place of happiness and fun, and wanting to hold onto memories of those halcyon days, I insisted on keeping it after the divorce. I don’t know what I was thinking; perhaps it would have been better to stay in New York, where I had more friends all-year round. Apart from my friend Sasha, no one but my daughter has visited over winter and the space that used to be filled with laughter, music and lively debate is now a hibernating carcass, still, as if waiting for something that will never return.

I open the kitchen cupboard, grab a mug and put it under the state-of-the-art coffee maker. The thought of barista-standard coffee at home seemed like a good idea at the time but now the sound of the grinding beans is killing me, and I wince. Too much wine last night. Everything here is polished to perfection, and when I see I’ve left a fingerprint on the stainless-steel grinder, I wipe it off with the silk sleeve of my equally spotless robe. Nola, my housekeeper is nothing but efficient and although I could easily take care of the cleaning myself now, I like having her around. She works for my ex-husband too, and we gossip about him. Out of the friends I’ve made here in the Hamptons over the course of twelve summers, Nola is one of the few who has always been on my side.

In Aubrey, our interior designer—or ‘Bree’ as she likes to be known—my husband found a younger, blonder, and prettier version of me; fresh-faced and trim, with supermodel legs and a smile to die for. She also happens to be successful and super creative, and with Sandeep being a celebrated architect, they found a lot in common. He moved straight out of our house into the blonde bombshell’s dreamy, bohemian palace down the road. I can’t blame our mutual friends for preferring to spend time with the happy couple. It’s certainly bound to be more fun than hanging out with a depressed woman who doesn’t know who she is anymore. I’m no longer Sandeep’s wife, and I’m no longer Reina, the always cheery crowd-pleaser and wife.

My daughter Nicole moved here with me until she started at NYU last fall and ever since, I’ve been painfully aware of her absence. I suppose every mother has to go through this, and I’m no different. She still comes home on weekends, and that’s when the house comes back to life, and that’s when I feel a tiny sparkle of happiness, see a glimpse of my old self again. When our joint voices ring through the corridors, and her music blasts from her room. When I smell bacon frying in the morning. Her meaty cooking used to make me nauseous but now it makes me happy and excited for the day ahead. I luxuriate in her company when she’s here.

Nicole is my everything. She’s witty, intelligent and very pretty, with her long dark hair, sharp brows, big, brown eyes and full, plump lips. She’s not tall but has this enormous presence—her confidence and friendly demeanor dazzling everyone when she walks into a room. I used to be like that, and some people say she looks like me, but I don’t quite see it. With Sandeep being Indian and myself of Persian descent, she’s just a beautiful concoction of cultures, blessed with the best of both worlds.

Our son, Eddie, is amazing too, but he’s more of a daddy’s boy. Sandeep and I were young when we had him, and the father-and-son relationship has morphed into a friendship. They hang out and play golf together and now that Sandeep isn’t here anymore, I don’t see that much of Eddie. Anyway, he’s gone backpacking with his girlfriend, and I don’t expect him back anytime soon. He’s somewhere in Goa at the moment, kite surfing and sleeping in hammocks on the beach while he looks for items to sell on his website. He runs an online business that allows him to travel, have fun and still make an impressive living. I keep track of his social media posts and send him messages every day to see what he’s up to, but it’s only once a week that I get a reply back, and it’s never much more than ‘All good. Miss you, Mom.’ He doesn’t really miss me; I know that, and that’s fine. But Nicole does miss me, I think. Or maybe she just feels sorry for me. No job, no purpose… Poor Mom.

She’d be right to think that, because I have no purpose. Not since I don’t have a family to take care of. I’m not a homemaker anymore, and my life has become nothing more than a string of predictable events and a lot of waiting. I wait for my cleaner, hoping she’s in a chatty mood, I wait for my daughter to come home on the weekends, and I wait for the day to be over. Nicole left last night, and I have to wait for another five long days before I see her and feel whole again.

Mondays are the hardest. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t sit around and do nothing all day; I just feel flat. I go to yoga at eleven am, and after that, I usually grab a green juice with Sasha. Sasha is the wife of a real estate mogul, and they practically live next door. We used to be very close, but now we’re in a weird space. We don’t socialize like we used to; it was always the four of us. Our Thursday cookouts in our backyard have been cancelled but our Saturday morning tennis games at their estate are still on track, only it’s not me making up the doubles anymore. My ex-husband brings his new flame nowadays, and I know it puts Sasha in a difficult position.

Crossing the open living area with coffee in hand, I grab my phone, open the sliding doors onto the terrace and sit down in my usual chair by the pool. Our poolside is a slick space; a spacious slate terrace with white designer furniture. It’s early May and soon, New Yorkers will start flooding the Hamptons, and the traffic will make it difficult for Nicole to drive down every weekend. Perhaps I’ll plan a couple of trips to New York instead, so I open a booking website and scroll through available hotels. As much as I’m looking forward to summer and having more people around, it will also be the first summer I’ve spent on my own, the first summer I’ll be attending parties and events solo, and I feel the need to get out of here for a while, to get as far away as I can from that toxic, happy home down the road, where I suspect they’re currently fucking each other’s brains out before starting their day—no doubt one that will be filled with inspirational projects and interesting meetings.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kumar.”

I startle and look up to find a woman in a white tank top and denim shorts standing by the pool with a toolbox in hand. “Hi. Who are you?” Shading my eyes from the sun, I narrow them as I study her. “And how did you get in here?”

The woman holds up a key fob that opens our gates and simultaneously taps the logo on her red baseball cap. “Barry broke his arm; he won’t be coming in anytime soon, so Pool Masters sent me instead. I’m Belle.”

“Oh. Is Barry going to be okay?” I ask. Truth be told, I don’t know Barry very well, and I actually thought his name was Larry. Although he’s been servicing the pool three times a week, he’s not much of a talker. When he first started, I offered him coffee and refreshments, but he always declined, so, eventually, I gave up.

“Yeah, he’ll be fine. Just had a nasty fall.” The woman’s eyes shift from me to the pool, then to the wooden hatch that breaks up the poolside tiles and leads into the underground machine room. “He told me where everything is, so no need to get up,” she adds when I’m about to.

“Okay. Well, let me know if you need anything.” I give her a smile. “Oh, and Belle?”

“Yes?” She bends down, opens up the hatch and straightens herself again, turning to me.

“It’s Miss Amari. I’m not a Kumar anymore.”

“Oh, sorry about that.” The way she says it sounds like she’s referring to my divorce rather than her using the wrong name. “I’ll change it in the system.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that. Can I get you a coffee?” I ask, for some reason not wanting the conversation to end. “Or something cold instead?”

Belle shakes her head and smiles back. “I’m okay for now. The pool looks in good shape, so I’m sure I won’t be long.”

Watching Belle descend into the machine room, I note she doesn’t look like a ‘Belle’. Belle sounds Southern, and everything about her screams New York; her accent and her appearance. But Belle is also a very feminine name, and this woman is… a little rough around the edges, perhaps? She’s lean and muscular, and her hair is short and choppy. I don’t usually stereotype but the way she moves and talks makes me think she might be gay. Women like her used to give me a pleasant physical reaction in college, and I suppose I still feel somewhat of an attraction to her type. I just haven’t been around women like her since I met Sandeep.

A message from Sasha lights up on my phone, pulling me out of my thoughts. ‘Hey hun, do you mind picking me up on the way to yoga? The housekeeper borrowed my car.’

‘Sure. I’ll see you in half an hour’, I reply, then get up and grab a bottle of cold water from the fridge and make another coffee, just in case Belle wants one later.

“Belle?” I yell, glancing down the steep concrete stairs that I’ve actually never seen before.

“Yeah?” She squints against the bright sunlight as she looks up at me.

“I have to go soon, so I’ll put this here for you in case you want it, okay?” I place the beverages on the edge of the pool, then quickly close my robe when I realize Belle is staring at my cleavage as I’m bending over her.

“Sure.” Belle quickly averts her gaze and looks into my eyes instead but this too, is making me nervous for some reason. Her eyes are intense, her expression curious as if she’s sizing me up. “Thank you very much, Miss Amari. Have a good day, I’ll be back on Wednesday.”

Chapter 2

Belle – Monday

The first house I’m visiting today is absolutely stunning and so is the woman who lives here. She puts down a coffee and a water for me, chats for a moment, then turns to leave but not before I catch another glimpse of her cleavage. Once again, I try very hard not to stare. She’s so pretty; long, dark hair, flint like eyes and perfectly arched brows. She’s petite with a child-like, almost shy smile but there’s also a certain sadness to her. I’ve seen it before many times. The Hamptons is often the last-chance saloon, a place where couples buy a house with the idea of spending more quality time together in order to save their marriage but more often than not, they fail to repair what’s broken.

I know she lives here permanently. My records tell me this pool is one of the few that’s been serviced over winter. Normally we shock the water by adding unstabilized chlorine, then a winterizing product to keep the pool free of algae before the winter cover goes on but instead, it’s been heated twice. It must have been lonely here in the cold months. Very few people who own a second home in Southampton come here between October and March and the rental prices are so extortionate that no one considers renting in winter as it’s simply not worth it. However, the beach is beautiful and quiet when it’s cold, so maybe she likes that.

As I check the temperature of the water, which is supposed to be an exact twenty degrees Celsius in this particular pool, I see Miss Amari has changed into figure-hugging sportswear and she’s talking to what I assume is her housekeeper on the terrace. Yoga perhaps? Women are all into yoga around here, always striving to look their best. If that was her aim, she’s certainly succeeded. The black knee-length tights and tank top show off her curves and amazing breasts that may or may not be real. She’s toned and when she stretches, I catch a glimpse of her honey-colored midriff. Eyes on the pool, Belle, I remind myself.

My job is fascinating in many ways. I get to see a glimpse of lives very different to mine, a sneak peek into another world. Miss Amari’s world is rich, polished and designed to perfection, but my guess is that she lives here alone and spends her days wondering what she could have done differently to stop her husband from straying, beating herself up about something that isn’t her fault. I wouldn’t trade my life with hers for the world. Her kitchen is the size of my whole apartment and even though she drives a reasonably understated car, her Mercedes hybrid still costs more than Pool Masters pays me in a year.

Just as I close the hatch to the machine room my phone rings, and I grab my coffee and take the call while I walk to the end of the yard. Through the wrought iron gate in the secure fence, I see a stilt bridge that stretches over the dunes, down to the beach. It’s a stunning location; the house is so close to the ocean that I can hear the gentle pulsing of the waves. “Hey, Jules.” I smile, happy to hear my friend’s voice. She’s also the booking manager for an agency I work for part-time and she’s calling from her work number.

“Hey, babe. A booking just came in for tonight. I know it’s a little last-minute. Are you available?”

“Yes, no problem. Where am I going?”

“West End Road, Mrs. Ashworth. She asked if you could come earlier as she wants to have dinner with you first. She’s offering seven-hundred dollars extra.”

“Sorry, I can’t do that,” I say. “I want to put Suki to bed before I leave. The usual time is fine for me, though.” It’s totally ridiculous that someone is willing to pay seven-hundred dollars just to have dinner with me, and as tempting as it may be, I have to draw the line somewhere, especially with a four-year old. Besides, my clients tend to get carried away if we spend too much time outside the bedroom, confusing reality with a fantasy they’ve paid a lot of money for. Mrs. Ashworth is one of those clients and I don’t want her to get the wrong idea about us.

“Okay, I’ll let her know you’ll be there at eight-thirty.”

“Great.” I glance at the house and lower my voice, but Miss Amari has disappeared from my line of sight. “Any special requests?”

Juliette is silent for a moment, possibly scrolling through her notes. “No. Just bring your extension.” She chuckles. “Same as always.”

“Okay.” I give a conspiratorial laugh too and roll my eyes skyward. “I’ll be ready for pick-up at eight.” Mrs. Ashworth has a dirty mind, but her vocabulary is sparkling clean, and she’s even managed to come up with a word that makes a strap-on sound innocent.

“Perfect, have fun. And on a personal note, I’ll see you on the weekend,” Juliette chimes before she hangs up.

Sliding my phone back into my pocket, I take another moment to enjoy the view before I head to my next job. The beach looks inviting today, with the ocean lying peacefully behind the sand that sparkles in the golden sunlight. It’s a priceless view, one that undoubtedly looks even more spectacular from the top floor of the house. A man is strolling along the shore, throwing a ball for his dog. The Labrador enthusiastically tears into the white foam to catch it, then comes running back, its ears flapping as it shakes out its coat right in front of the owner, making the man laugh out loud. I smile as I watch them and think of Suki, who’s been begging me to get her a dog for months. We don’t have the space in our small apartment, and I can’t expect her sitter to be responsible for both a child and a dog when I’m at work, so I’ve told her she’ll have to wait a couple of years.

Behind me, I hear gates open, the rattling sound pulling me out of my thoughts. Turning to grab my toolbox, I watch Miss Amari get in her car and drive off.

Chapter 3

Reina – Monday

“Are you okay, honey?” Sasha looks at me intently. It must be the dark circles under my eyes that make her worry; I’ve had trouble sleeping lately.

I’m about to mumble my usual ‘I’m fine’, but something about the way she asks makes me want to open up. “Not great, to be honest with you,” I say, a little uncomfortable as I haven’t had a serious conversation in months. Sasha and I don’t talk like we used to, that intimacy has gone. The nights when the four of us—her, me, Sandeep and her husband Igor—used to get tipsy on cocktails followed by deep conversations around the firepit have been replaced by yoga and green juice, and this crammed hipsteresque coffee and juice bar is not a place one would naturally open up. “I just feel flat and…” I pause and shrug, poking a straw through the lid of my cup before I drink from my kale juice. “I just feel really fucking purposeless and I don’t know what to do with myself. I thought it would get better eventually but it’s only getting worse.”

“Hmm… I’m so sorry to hear that.” Sasha stares at me while she slurps from her own carrot-apple-ginger concoction. “Isn’t it nice to have the house to yourself, though? Your own little paradise where you decide what happens?”

“No, I don’t like being there alone. It feels hollow.” I arch a brow at her, a little irritated that she seems surprised by my confession. “What did you expect? That I’d be ecstatic that my husband left me out of the blue?”

“Of course not. I just thought…” Sasha clears her throat. “Well, it’s been almost a year since you split up, and I thought you’d appreciate your freedom eventually. That you’d enjoy your new life once you’d gotten used to being on your own, you know?”

“You’re right,” I say, reminding myself that I’m essentially very lucky. “I shouldn’t complain. I have enough money to live comfortably, I have a beautiful home, two wonderful children, my health…”

Sasha pushes my hand down as I raise it. “I didn’t mean it like that. You have every right to be hurt, sad and depressed; you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. But you can do anything you want now, Reina. Anything. And you’re doing nothing.” She’s silent for a moment, chewing on her straw. “Honestly, sometimes I envy you.”

“How can you say that?” I pause and return her stare. “I thought you were happy.”

Sasha shrugs and reluctantly shakes her head from side to side. “I am… We are, but it’s not what it was when we first met and we’re long past the phase of being in love. Igor and I are more like a well-oiled machine, I suppose. We work seamlessly but our marriage has become mechanical.” She sits back, then lets out a long sigh. “Have you never dreamed of starting over? Even when you were with Sandeep?”

“No. My current situation is my worst nightmare. I’d never leave my family.”

“I know that. But have you never fantasized about being with someone else?”

“That’s not the same thing,” I say resolutely. This is not where I expected our conversation to go. Frankly, I don’t know what I expected. A little pity, maybe? Some reassuring words, her telling me everything will be fine? But instead, she seems jealous of my freedom.

“But you have?” Sasha presses on.

“Everyone fantasizes, but that doesn’t mean I wanted out, or that I’d act on it. It doesn’t mean I wanted my heart shattered and our family broken apart. Sandeep made his fantasy a reality, I didn’t. That’s the difference.”

Sasha nods and gazes out of the window, following a jogger who’s passing by. He’s a good ten years younger than us. Handsome with a great body. “Can you keep a secret?” she asks.

“Of course.”

“It could ruin my life if what I’m about to tell you gets out,” she continues, turning back to me with a warning stare to let me know she’s never been more serious.

“I promise I won’t tell a soul.” I’m relieved she feels secure enough to confide in me. It means our close friendship has survived the past year, and that she still needs me in her life even if she hangs out with Sandeep’s new girlfriend way more than me nowadays.

“I cheated on Igor,” she says, her big, blue eyes widening as if she immediately regrets her confession.

“You didn’t…” Leaning in, I continue in a whisper. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah.” Sasha leans in too and lowers her voice. “Lately I’ve been wondering what it would be like to sleep with someone else after twenty years with the same man. To be honest, I’ve thought of little else.” She pauses. “And so I did.”

“Okay.” I try not to sound too shocked because I want her to feel comfortable talking to me. Sasha, my friend, a loving mother and loyal wife has cheated on her rich, handsome, likeable and successful husband. “How did it happen? Did you just meet someone you felt attracted to?”

“No, I hired someone I was attracted to.” She glances at the door, making sure no one from our yoga class has entered the premises.

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, Reina. You know exactly what I mean.” Sasha pulls a business card out of her purse that says Hamptons’ Escorts’ and hands it to me. “I found this in the restroom at a beach bar. As soon as I got home, I checked out their website and last week, when Igor was away for work and the kids were with friends in New York, I booked a sexy, young man to give me the night of my life.”

“Noo…” My jaw falls wide open.

“Uh-huh. Ben was twenty-nine, tall, blond and ripped, and he cost me twenty-five hundred dollars plus travel expenses. It was so worth it.” She licks her lips and gives me a wicked smile. “He came to our house and I was super nervous, but he was amazing at putting me at ease. We had a drink together, he gave me a massage and after that, we had hours of amazing, animalistic sex like I’ve never experienced before.”

“Fuck… So, it was good?”

Sasha chuckles and plays with a lock of her bleach blonde hair. “Yes, it was out of this world good. It was so good that I can’t stop thinking about it. The upside is that I won’t have to worry about him calling me, and I don’t feel guilty because there are no feelings involved. I don’t know Ben’s real name, I’m not in love with him, he’s not in love with me and so my marriage will survive this weird phase I’m going through. In fact, it might even make my marriage stronger because I won’t look for distraction elsewhere and it’s made me appreciate what I have a whole lot more, if that makes sense.”

To me, it makes no sense at all, but I don’t say that. Finishing my juice, I contemplate what she’s just told me. “Are you planning on doing it again?”

“I might, if another opportunity arises. It’s kind of addictive.” Sasha crosses her arms in front of her and purses her enhanced lips. She’s the typical Hamptons mom. Always dressed to look her best, her nails and hair pristine. “Look, I was eighteen when I met Igor— one year older than you were when you met Sandeep—and Ben’s only the third man I’ve had sex with.”

“Sandeep’s the only man I’ve ever slept with,” I say, putting down my cup that is as empty as my life. “The only one.” It’s a sad fact to admit but also true.

Sasha gasps. “God, I thought I was a saint. How have we never had this conversation?” She whistles through her teeth. “Was it even good with him?”

“What? The sex?” I pause for a moment to think about that. “It was okay, I suppose. I have nothing to compare it to. But sex was never that important to me. Mostly, it was about love and connection and trust.”

About to reply, Sasha opens her mouth, but a message comes in on her phone and she groans in frustration. “Damn it. Igor wants me to pick up his dry-cleaning. Our housekeeper had an emergency—that’s why she borrowed my car—and I thought it could wait but he needs his favorite white shirt for a meeting this afternoon or he won’t survive the day.”

“Can’t he pick it up himself?”

“Apparently not.” Sasha rolls her eyes. “Do you mind if we stop off there on the way back?”

“No, that’s fine. I’m ready to go if you are.” I slide the card back to her but she shakes her head.

“You keep it; I should have gotten rid of it, but I felt this strange urge to keep it as a reminder. Have a look at their website; it might inspire you.” She slings her purse over her shoulder and gets up. “This conversation isn’t over though, I have so much to tell you. Want to talk over a glass of wine later in the week?”

“Yeah, absolutely,” I say, my answer a little more eager than I meant it to be. Relieved that Sasha and I seem to be back to where we were before my life fell apart, I grab my purse and my yoga mat. It’s the first time since my divorce that I actually feel as if I’ve had a meaningful conversation, and I can’t wait for us to continue what we started. “How about tomorrow?”

“Can’t. We’ve got a dinner party. But I can do Thursday.”

“Thursday works for me.” I don’t even need to check my diary; it’s been close to empty lately. Aside from the fact that the summer season hasn’t started yet, singles are generally not invited to lunches or dinners. Parties, sure. They want us to make up the numbers. But sit-down events where people actually talk to each other seem to be reserved for couples only.

“Great.” Sasha lingers for a beat, then steps forward to give me a hug. “I miss you, Reina.”

“I miss you too,” I say, swallowing down the lump in my throat. I contemplate throwing the business card into the trash can by the door as we walk out but change my mind and slip it into my gym bag instead. It’s not for me but I’m still curious…

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