For a moment, I briefly consider telling her the truth and then decide evasion is easier. “That’s a long story.”
“We’ve got,” she starts, looking down at her phone, “eleven minutes until our Lyft is here.”
“It’s also a depressing story.”
“I live for other people’s drama.” Depositing the bar inside her bag for later, she grins up at me.
I blink away, looking across the lobby to the reception desk, where one employee is on her phone and her male counterpart is asleep in his chair. I don’t relish the idea of telling Carey about all of this. It’s not that I worry it makes me look bad, but I worry it will make her pity me, and few things are more emasculating than pity. “My last job—the only job I’d had in the four years since I finished my master’s—was at Rooney, Lipton, and Squire.”
Carey’s eyes narrow and then go wide in recognition. Blue-green. Neither blue nor green, but a pretty blend of the two. “Wait. What? Seriously?”
Thankfully, her expression isn’t pity, it’s fire. “Isn’t that the firm that funneled all that money into—”
“The very one.” I reach up, scratch my chin, feeling uneasy in that nauseated way I always do when I remember that the four years of endless workdays and stress-induced sleepless nights were essentially supporting a completely corrupt company. “So, I really need to build my experience and contacts here. I can’t just bolt.” I reconsider. “Or, I suppose I could, but then I might have a hard time finding something else. Rusty promised me an engineering role. Ted promised me an engineering role. I’ve been Rusty’s de facto assistant so far, but if I can just hold on until season two starts shooting, I think I might actually like what we’re doing here. Plus, I admit I’m thrilled that no one here seems to be breaking the law.”
She whistles. “Wowza.”
Yeah, wowza. There’s also the fact that my plan only works if Rusty and Melissa can keep it together. Wanting to change the subject, I ask, “If you don’t mind my asking, why do you still work for them?”
Her answer is immediate. “Melly needs me.”
I believe that’s true, though from what I’ve seen Melissa also doesn’t treat Carey particularly well, so it seems awfully generous of Carey to prioritize Melissa’s needs over her own.
But surely she wants my pity even less than I wanted hers. “You don’t think she would manage, after a while?”
Carey turns her eyes up to me, and given the freedom to look directly at her, I’m struck by the awareness that not only is she a warm-blooded woman, she’s disarmingly pretty. More than pretty—she’s beautiful. Her skin is flawless, cheeks always flushed. I like her mouth, the way it curls up on one side before the other when she’s amused. The strong angle of her jaw, the hint of dimples in both of her cheeks.
Danger, James. I look away, trying not to stare. It’s part of Carey’s job to blend into the background, but now that I’ve seen her—really seen her—something heated turns over in me that I’m not sure I can turn back.
“What else would I do?” she asks. “I feel like I’ve given everything to the Tripps. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I’ve helped them build all of this.”
“Oh, I’m sure you have.”
“I don’t really want to start over.”
I want to say You’re only twenty-six, but she takes a deep inhale over her Styrofoam cup, seeming to refocus and possibly even relish the smell of what can’t possibly be good coffee. The moment has passed.
“At least they weren’t terrible last night,” she says, a subtle subject change.
It’s true. Melissa and Rusty weren’t terrible at the meet-and-greet. They charmed the crowd, joked with each other, and generally left me with the hope that this might not be the worst week of my life.
“That was my first book signing, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but … they were great. Maybe we’ve been worried about nothing,” I say, trying optimism on for size.
“Yeah …” Carey starts, and then offers a thoughtful pause.
“They were great last night, but that could have just been the adrenaline of a first event. I’ve never traveled with them across the country mere days after adultery in their twenty-five-year marriage. We’re in open water here. Anything can happen.”
This is the opposite of what I wanted her to say. “Did you have any idea their marriage was so bad?” I ask. “I certainly didn’t.”
She drains the cup and takes a couple of steps to refill it, lifting it as if offering me one. I decline with a small shake of my head. “I knew things weren’t perfect,” she admits. “But whose marriage is?” She adds in some nauseating powdered creamer and three packets of sugar. “Believe it or not, they used to be really cute together. I actually miss seeing them like that.”
I groan. “Do you ever just wish everyone would do what they’re supposed to do?”
“Think about what they’ve built, how lucky they are. Rusty needs to keep it in his pants. Melissa needs to calm down a little. I could help do some of the engineering work and …” I hesitate, awkwardly. “You’d hopefully have fewer messes to clean up.”
“Of course.” Carey gives me a knowing little wink and drains this second cup of coffee. “But think of all the fun you’d be missing if you were just an engineer! I mean, with all you know about LA hotels, you should have booked the rooms!”
We help Joe get everything reloaded onto the bus while the Tripps sign autographs for a crowd that has gathered outside the Ritz. I’m constantly vigilant, waiting for the Tripps to explode at each other any minute, but they’re both wearing steady, easy smiles.
Likewise, the seven-hour drive to Palo Alto is mostly uneventful: Carey is on her iPad again. Rusty stays pretty much in the back. The two of them used to talk more, but I’ve noticed a distinct strain on whatever father-daughter vibe they had going on. The sounds of ESPN float through the closed lounge partition door, and Melissa parks herself next to the driver, where her motion sickness is the mildest and she can wait for the Dramamine to kick in. I get the distinct impression that that is usually Joe’s seat, so he’s awkwardly hanging out near the back.
“Joe,” I say, and he looks up from where he’s shuffling a bunch of papers around. I motion to the couch across from me.
I watch as he passes Carey, and notice him noticing her. A weird beat of satisfaction hits me when she’s so focused on whatever she’s doing that she doesn’t even look up. She’s using the iPad stylus with her right hand—and I know she’s left-handed. Even so, her fingers move in small, precise strokes. I’m pretty sure she isn’t playing Minecraft; not even my nephews give it that much focus. It looks like she’s drawing.
She tilts her head, bites her lip, and the gesture sends a shock of heat through me.
My view of her is blocked by Joe as he sits next to me, startling me back into focus.
“Tired of sports?” I ask. For the day and a half we’ve been on the road, with Melissa up front, Joe has spent most of his time in the back; as likable as Rusty generally is, I’m sure the prospect of all-day beers and sports on TV has quickly lost some of its appeal.
Joe looks nervously over to where Melissa has dozed off, and then to Carey, who still doesn’t seem to register that we’re looking at her.
“They’re different than they seem on TV,” he says confidentially.
Mild dread feels like a tiny weight in my abdomen, sinking. Of course I know what he means, but—as much as I hate the role I’ve been given, I should probably chase down his meaning a little. “How so?”
Joe shifts, hesitating. “Nothing specific. They’re just not as … happy as I imagined.”
I close my book and set it on the couch. “It’s the travel,” I explain, leaning back and draping an arm over the back of the seat, going for unconcerned. “The stress of the road. They miss their kids.”
“How old are their kids?”
“Twenty and twenty-four.” I clear my throat when his brow lifts in surprise. I’m sure he was imagining toddlers or—at most—middle-school-aged children. “But they’re all very close.”
This … may or may not be true. In the short time I’ve been working for the Tripps, I’ve heard Rusty talking to TJ once.
“Plus,” I say, “everything is happening so fast for them, I think they’re both a little overwhelmed.”
“Right.” Joe’s smile looks a little forced. The Tripps have been megastars for a few years now, but he kindly leaves this unsaid. “Sometimes it takes a few days to adjust to the tour. It can make anyone a little tense.”
“They’ll get into a groove.” I pause. “They were great last night.”
I’m trying to get a better read on him. He doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about last night’s event. “Nothing they did last night set off alarm bells, right?”
He shrugs, distracted by a small spot on the couch that bears a striking resemblance to the color of Melissa’s trademark pink lipstick. “No, they were fine.”
“Seemed to really charm the crowd,” I press.
But Joe is oblivious. Motioning to the spot like he wants to get something to fix it, he stands and moves to crouch in front of one of the utility cabinets up front.
When I look up, I realize Carey is gazing with amusement at me.
She leans in, whispering, “Bravo, Jim, brav-o. That was a study in espionage.”
“What are you talking about?”
She stands, moving to sit where Joe had been, and, looking around first, quietly asks, “Were you trained in the CIA?” She glances over my shoulder and then back to me. “It’s okay. You can tell me.”