He laughs, and it’s this scratchy, honeyed sound. Has he always laughed like that? Have I been in a Melly-induced stress haze this entire time, not noticing laughs and forearms, unaware of lashes, lips, and fingers?
“Jenn could be like that, too,” he says. “We’d go to this amusement park in Albuquerque—”
“Wait. You’re from New Mexico?” When he nods, I joke, “No one is actually from New Mexico.”
He laughs this off. “I am, I promise. We moved there when I was three, from Wisconsin. My mom grew up in New Mexico, and after she finished her residency in Madison, she set up her family practice in Albuquerque.”
“Sounds like a witness protection cover,” I tease.
“I wish my life was that exciting.” James’s grin is my new addiction. “Listen: My dad is in finance. I was the drum major in high school, and president of the chess club—I’m sure you have no problem believing that. We had a house and a dog and everything.”
I squint at him. “Sounds believable. I’ll allow it. You may continue to tell me about this amusement park.”
“It’s a big deal in our family,” he says, with adorable gravity. “My mom went there when she was growing up, so it’s like a rite of passage. It was my favorite place. There were rides and a water park and games—they even did a Food on a Stick Festival every year. I’d beg my parents to take us, and then when my sister was old enough to go with her friends, they’d make her take me with them.”
I remember my brothers’ whining whenever my mom sent them to drag me home or made them pick me up from school. They were never afraid to remind me how much I cramped their style. “I’m sure she loved that.”
“Yeah, I was a pain because I always wanted to go but I was terrified of the roller coasters.”
“Then what did you do there?”
“Watch everything, mostly,” he says. “Get as close as I could to the rides so I could try to figure out how they worked. I was fascinated by the idea that you could be flying down this track at sixty, seventy, maybe a hundred miles an hour in some cases, and there was no engine powering the car. You’re pulled to the top of the hill, but then it’s the conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy that gets you through the ride.”
“That is the most James McCann thing I think I’ve ever heard you say, and I’ve heard you talk for an hour about the principles behind seismic loading.” I pop another Funyun into my mouth. “I guess I look at a roller coaster and just see the potential for vomit. Or death. I never thought about how they work. But I can see how it’d be fascinating if you were a super nerd.” Pausing, I add, “I mean that as a compliment, by the way. Your brain is pretty great.”
James ducks his head and pretends to be interested in a chip in the cement. I take the opportunity to study the sharp line of his jaw. His face is so angular, made up of such extremes of soft lashes and hard features: cheekbones, jaw, the straight line of his nose.
“But wait,” I say, suddenly remembering what he was actually going to be doing this week before we were roped into babysitting the Tripps. “What about Florida? You were going to ride Everest with your nephews.”
“I’m not afraid of rides anymore. I started figuring out how it all worked, how each part had a specific purpose. Some wheels keep the ride smooth, some keep the coaster on the track, some help with lateral motion, and so on. Once I understood how it all came together, they didn’t seem as scary.”
“I’d think it’d be even scarier knowing how many things can go wrong.” I laugh. “I guess that explains why you’re the engineer and I’m the assistant. You think of things in such mechanical terms. I basically just book us at inconvenient hotels.”
He’s quiet for a few long breaths. “But that’s not actually right, either, is it?”
This catches me off guard, and I glance over at him. “What?”
“Despite what you might think about me, I know how hard your job is. Few people appreciate what it takes to be a great assistant.” He tilts his head, grimacing sweetly. “But I know that’s not the only thing you’re doing here.”
For a second, I’m completely lost. “What?”
“Rusty told me,” he says quietly.
His meaning slowly sinks in, and it feels like a weight is tied to all the air in my chest, pulling it down inside my lungs. “Rusty told you what?”
“That the designs have been yours. That the whole brand grew out of the work you did early on.” He pauses, watching me carefully. “And now.”
I’m afraid to try to breathe. “Rusty said that?”
I turn back to where the kids are packing up to head inside. “I don’t know why he’d say that.”
“Carey, come on. The concepts and the furniture? The entire brand? That was all you? It’s a miracle you’re doing literally everything and not falling down right now.”
My parents weren’t perfect, but they valued hard work. My dad routinely put in sixteen-hour days. My mom is a schoolteacher and she’s always worked long hours with too little pay and even less appreciation. They taught me that you work until the job is done, and you give it your all. Every time. They also taught me to be humble about it, but right now, hearing those words and the recognition I’ve secretly craved, a tiny beast flutters to life in my chest, clawing and scratching for more. But it’s also terrifying. James has only been here a few months. He isn’t as invested in the company’s survival. He doesn’t have as much to lose if it all comes tumbling down.
“It’s not really like that,” I say, my heart racing. What the fuck is Rusty thinking?
“Isn’t it? Because Rusty seemed pretty sure of himself. And that program you were working on? It wasn’t Mine-craft. You were configuring a layout, weren’t you?”
“Just playing around with some floor plan ideas.”
“Melissa’s reaction at the signing when Rusty asked you about the display … and the way you seem to know how all the furniture goes together and how to fix it …” He pauses. “I would never tell anyone, if that’s why you’re not telling me what’s going on.”
Panic wells up inside me like a tide rolling in. I’m not sure what to say. Do I deny it completely? Explain it away?
“Carey—” he starts.
I cut him off. “I mean, yes, the original window displays were mine.” I say this quietly, like Melly is standing over us, ready to pounce at any moment. “I did most of them. But I did it all under the Comb+Honey name. If I were a scientist and came up with a new chemical compound, would the formula belong to me or the company I work for?”
“I don’t know if that’s how something like this works.”
“I’ve worked for them since I was sixteen, James,” I say, desperate now. “I make good money, especially for someone with my experience—which is none. This is all I’ve done. I never went to college; I have no training, no degree. I’ve never had a promotion or a title change because I’ve never needed a title. I can’t go somewhere else and do what I do here, and even if I did it would be because I’ve worked in her store and on her jobs and on her show.”
“You could show someone what you can do, and tell them it’s been yours all along.”
The sad truth settles over me, and I glance out at the water. “She’d say she taught me everything I know. It would be her word against mine.” I look at him. “At least here I get to do what I love. How valuable am I to anyone if I can’t even claim what I do as my own?”
He frowns down at the pool, and I can tell he’s trying to come up with an argument, but after a few quiet moments, his shoulders fall. “God. That sucks.”
I bump his shoulder with mine. “Must be rough for an engineer. So many emotions.”
“You called me an engineer, not assistant. Twice, actually.”
“What’s the difference between an introverted engineer and an extroverted engineer?” he asks.
I look up, and his excitement at getting to tell me this joke makes my heart feel like a wild animal inside me. “What?”
“When the introverted engineer speaks to you,” James says, “he looks down at his shoes. When the extroverted engineer speaks to you, he looks down at your shoes.”
I burst out laughing, and he grins, so sweet and proud that I imagine myself melting on the pool deck.
“What are you doing here?” I gesture around us. “Take that show on the road. There’s your escape.”
“Yeah, see,” he says, sobering. “Not that I want to complain to you, but my work situation isn’t much better. Either I put Rooney, Lipton, and Squire down on my résumé and get everything that comes along with it, or I don’t and leave a four-year hole in my work history. I have an amazing portfolio, and projects with my name on them, but now all of it is tarnished under this cloud of scandal—me included. I thought this was my way out.”
“I’m sorry, James.”
Sometime while we’ve been talking the rowdy boys left, and now the entire patio is empty. Colored LEDs shimmer beneath the water’s surface and throw ripples of light on the trees overhead, on the sides of the hotel, even on our skin. I wonder if we could just stay out here all night. Maybe—oops—we could miss the bus in the morning.
“Can I ask you a question?” he says, and I turn at the change in his tone. Serious, almost nervous. “But you don’t have to answer.”
“Both you and Rusty have mentioned insurance.” My breath halts, and he’s quick to clarify. “He didn’t tell me anything, just mentioned that even though Melissa can be awful, sometimes she helps you with your appointments.” He waits for me to pick it up, but I don’t, so he adds, “What appointments?”