I give her a lingering, flat look, but inside, I’m fighting a smile. I like her playful like this. “I was just trying to get a read on what he thought about the blogger event.”
Carey leans back, pulling her phone out and swiping her screen open. “Everything I’ve seen has been pretty positive so far.” She smiles, turning her phone screen to face me. “In addition to Joe, various social sites on the interweb provide a great window into the impression the Tripps give at events.”
“Okay, Duncan.” I look back down to my notebook, hoping she hears my deep breath as exasperation and not that I’m taking a deeper hit of her. “I’m happy to leave all sleuthing to you.”
Carey laughs, and then startles a little when Melissa stirs awake up front. It’s an immediate shift in mood, like a tiger has just entered the arena.
“Where’s my phone?” Melissa asks, voice groggy.
“I plugged it in, hold on.” Carey jumps up, running to grab the phone from the small kitchen counter. Before she hands it to Melissa, she says, “Just no reviews.”
“I’m not going to read reviews,” Melissa snaps.
Carey walks back toward me with a roll of her eyes. She does not look convinced.
As expected, Melissa spends the three hours leading up to our arrival into the Bay Area reading reviews. From what I’ve seen, most have been good, but a few are downright nasty. No matter how much Joe tries to lighten the mood and explain that every author he’s ever taken on tour finds bad reviews, and how much Carey pipes in that books are subjective and not everyone will love them all, Melissa isn’t hearing it. By the time we’re pulling into the parking lot of the Palo Alto bookstore, Melissa is in a mood.
She’s tiny, but her energy isn’t. The bus door opens, and she sweeps past us, barely stopping long enough for the smiling event coordinator to lead her into the greenroom.
Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but almost from the getgo I’m worried that the event is doomed. I wonder if, in three hours when we’re all done, I’ll find that it was just nerves making me feel this way or whether the tension seems as thick as the San Francisco fog to anyone else. Last night seems Smurfs’ Village–level utopia compared to this.
Although Rusty walks in right behind her, they head in opposite directions: Rusty to the snack-laden table on one side, and Melissa to a cooler of water on the other. While Rusty—oblivious to or intentionally avoiding his wife’s worsening mood—makes small talk with one of the bookstore staff, the event coordinator for the bookstore, Amy, goes over the schedule for the night to no one in particular: fifteen-minute talk, book signing, VIP photos and meet-and-greet to follow. Melissa aggressively opens a bottle of water, nods with tight smiles, and paces the room. She pointedly does not look at her husband.
Carey comes in loaded down with Melissa’s purse, a box of T-shirts for giveaway, Melissa’s lunch bag with her fresh squeezed juice, and about five other bags. Her skirt hem hits several inches above her knees and her tank top reveals smooth, tanned shoulders that make me think of biting. But her expression reads: I’m about to drop something. I rush over to help but once the load is in my arms, I give her a helpless apologetic look.
“Where should I put this?”
Carey laughs. “Do I get to have an assistant now?”
My first instinct is to tell her I have no problem with that at all, and then my brain snags on the echo of it, how desperate it would sound, and I’m quiet long enough that I just leave her comment without reply.
With a wink, she leads me to a table, standing close as she unloads things from my arms. She put her hair up into some kind of twist, but a few strands have come loose and fall prettily along her neck.
“I’ll take this.” She unhooks Melissa’s lunch bag from my finger.
Our eyes catch for a few loaded seconds. I’m thinking about how the first few times I hear a new song—even one from a band I love—I don’t like it. I resist the idea that something new could ever be as good as something old, but then slowly the new song works its way into my brain and I forget what it ever felt like to dislike it. Right now I’m looking at Carey’s face, thinking it’s like a song I’ve heard a few times now, and every time I hear it again I like it more.
“What?” Her eyes widen in horror and she reaches up to wipe her mouth. “Do I have crumbs on my face?”
“No, I just—” I pause, putting myself together. I’m developing a crush and I’m not sure what to do about it. “Let me know how I can be helpful tonight.”
Gratitude washes over her expression. “Oh. I will.” She glances across the room. “We need to get her to relax. She looks like a bomb right now.”
I follow her eyes across the room and we both take a deep, steadying breath. This is what we’re here for, right? Joe may be impossible to keep in the dark because he’s going to be with them unguarded on the bus for days on end, but here we have some control.
But I don’t know how to fix the tense mood in the room. Let me wrestle with the constantly changing world of city and municipal building codes. Let me navigate the complexities of engineering licensure or give me an impossible element to make possible in a final design. But handling emotions like this? Between two people I hardly know and who, quite frankly, probably shouldn’t be married anymore, let alone telling other people how to do it? I feel as useful as a leaf blower in a kitchen.
Thankfully, though, Carey knows how to manage Melissa’s proximity to combustion. She carefully makes her way over to the other side of the room. Beside Melissa, Carey looks so tall, but she bends, making herself smaller, speaking in a low, soothing voice.
Jesus, how many times has she had to play this role? For a beat, I’m mad about it—mad that Carey is only in her midtwenties and already having to be an assistant, usher, peacekeeper, travel agent, and who knows what else.
I feel intensely useless. Having no training in this sort of mediation, I am simply a body standing in the middle of a room. Trying to think like Carey, I walk over to Amy and make a show of looking at the schedule. She’s more than happy to explain everything again, and I’m able to keep an eye on Melissa and Carey. They’re not close enough for me to catch everything they’re saying, so I get only a bit of Carey’s murmured, “… okay? … great crowd out there.” And then Melissa’s soft, “… but the reviews. How am I supposed to … blood, sweat, and tears and—”
“Does that all make sense?” Amy asks hopefully.
I turn my attention back to her. I have no idea what she’s said. “Perfect. Thank you for all your hard work putting everything together.” I glance across the room, horrified to see Rusty chatting up a pretty young clerk. “Um, if you’ll excuse me for a second.” I gesture to my boss. “I’m going to just …”
“Oh, of course!”
He doesn’t look at me, still smiling winningly at the twentysomething brunette, but is aware of my presence because he reaches out to pat my shoulder and offers a lighthearted “Hey, Jimmy Jams.”
I let this one slide and smile at the woman. “Could you excuse us for a second, please?”
Her cheeks warm to a bright pink, and she nods before rushing off. I lean against a stack of shelves.
This earns me an innocent blink. “What?”
“You know what.”
“She’s a nice kid,” he says, waving a hand. “A big fan. I was just indulging her.”
Does he do this to drive Melly crazy, or is he genuinely unaware that flirting in front of his wife is always a terrible idea but especially now?
“Well, let’s focus our attention elsewhere.” I lift my chin. “Looks like Melly is having kind of a rough day.”
He gives me an easy shrug and pulls out his phone to check messages. “You get used to it.”
“Rusty.” I wait until he looks up at me again. “This is where you need to get involved. Her feelings are hurt, and she’s having some insecurities. She’s upset. You need to go help calm her down.”
“I doubt I’d be very useful here.”
“But at least appear to be engaged with your wife?” I tilt my head over to where Joe has just walked in and is introducing himself to Amy. “For this week, appearances matter. To anyone else in the room, you come off as totally uninterested in whatever’s going on with her.”
“What do you expect me to do, Jimmy? Pretend like everything is fine and we’re”—he has the nerve to motion between us—“not both here completely against our will?”
Against our will? I take a deep breath. Rusty is here so he can continue to live the sweet life and drive around the lake on his custom Jet Ski. I’m here so I can keep my job and not get evicted.
“Do you want people to figure out that you two are in trouble?” I ask him, growing desperate the longer Melissa is panicking by the window and Rusty appears completely unconcerned. Amy and Joe are still here, but another woman has entered the room and is watching Melissa pace and vent to Carey about bad reviews.
“She should know not to look at those!” Rusty hisses to me. “Reviews always get her back up, and they aren’t even that bad! She knows better.”
“Not helping,” I growl.
With an irritated exhale, he makes his way over to his wife. She looks initially like she’s going to blow up at him, but a glance over his shoulder clues her in that they’ve got an audience, which seems to be the one thing that pulls Melissa Tripp back into the right state of mind. She allows herself to be coaxed into the sturdy comfort of Rusty’s hug.
Carey looks at me. I look at her. It feels like we both finally let out a long, slow breath. But the calm is shattered by the sound none of us wanted to hear today.
“Hello to my two favorites!” Stephanie Flores has that husky sexpot voice, and when the former Miss America sashays into the room, completely oblivious, a chill swallows us all. Rusty closes his eyes and lets out a groan that seems to lament the inconvenience rather than the depth of his regret. Is it really possible that Rusty didn’t bother to give Stephanie the heads-up that Melissa knows about their affair?