He’s forty-five now, and while viewers still swoon over the strong jaw and quarterback build, they love even more the way he looks at his wife. Rusty looks at Melly like they’re celebrating their first anniversary this year, not their twenty-sixth. It’s the way she rolls her eyes at his jokes but then blushes, totally endearing. When they’re like this, it’s easy to see why their on-screen chemistry made them instant favorites on New Spaces. They were relatively unknown when the show started, but they—and their infectious love—immediately eclipsed the popularity of their costars, including the show’s former-Miss-America host, Stephanie, and the expert, Dan—a younger, hipper home remodeling icon who’d had his own show for years.
The Tripps’ outwardly enviable marriage is why Ford Motor Company used Melly and Rusty in a truck commercial. It’s why they have merchandise lines at Target and Walmart, emblazoned with their bright, blissful smiles; why their two home design books have both been longtime bestsellers, and why their soon-to-be-published book on marriage is already at the top of the sales charts and hasn’t even been released yet.
And, of course, Melly is an enormous stress case over the upcoming announcement of their new solo show, Home Sweet Home. We’re all overwhelmed, trying to strike while the iron’s hot, but what else can we do but work our hardest?
“Some people might say what we do is just decorating.” Melly is apparently not finished addressing the crowd, because she pulls attention back to where she stands at the front of the room. The table behind her is filled with empty champagne bottles and the remnants of a stunning six-tier petal-pink cake.
“They say it’s just home remodel,” she continues. “Just design.” Her high, sugary voice works well for TV because it matches her bubbly personality, white-blond hair, and animated expressions. But off set—and especially when she’s displeased and on a tear—that voice becomes cartoonish and piercingly loud. “But it’s always been our motto that the home reflects the person. Build the home you want, be flexible, and life will be a Tripp! Thank you for helping us share our philosophy! We love you all. Here’s to the next chapter!”
A chorus of cheers echoes through the group. Everyone drains their glasses and disperses to offer congratulations. Now the toast is over—never mind that the cast of New Spaces is composed of four independently famous individuals, and Melly has just monopolized the moment and ended with her own personal slogan, making it clear that no one else is going to speak in acknowledgment of what they’ve all accomplished together.
I glance over to gauge the reaction of Stephanie Flores, the aforementioned former Miss America, social media darling, and host of New Spaces. She seems to be keeping her eyes from rolling with great effort. Renovation god Dan Eiler is huddled with a producer, speaking in hushed, angry tones and jutting his chin toward the front of the room, where Melly just stood. Publicly, the show is ending so that everyone can pursue other new adventures—like the Tripps starting Home Sweet Home—but honestly I think it’s ending because no one can stand in Melly’s ever-growing shadow anymore. She may wear a size two and need sky-high heels to reach the top shelf in her own stockroom, but she is the alpha dog, and she will never let you forget it.
I see Rusty tug at Melly’s hand and nod toward the door. I don’t need to be a lip reader to know that she’s reminding him that this is their party—they have guests. Never mind that this entire room full of people essentially works for the Tripps, and a party with your boss isn’t really a party. I don’t think anyone would be all that disappointed if Melly and Rusty called it a night.
Setting my drink on the tray of a passing waiter, I check my watch and wince when I see that it’s almost eleven. Melly catches my eye across the room and looks around us in commiserating horror. What a mess, her expression groans. I scream through a smile; this mess is not her problem. Whether or not Rusty and Melly decide to stay, I am nowhere close to getting out of here. Sure, we have waiters circulating food, but in a half hour they’ll get to toss their aprons into the back of a catering van and head home. I’ll be left cleaning up.
I do the mental math. If I can get the place cleaned by one, I might be able to catch a few hours of sleep before our nine o’clock meeting. Netflix execs are actually flying to Jackson freaking Hole first thing tomorrow for a face-to-face, and the day after that, the Tripps leave for their book launch in Los Angeles and I get an entire week of living in my pajamas and not answering text messages in the middle of the night. I have to remind myself that this is mile twenty-five of the marathon; if I can just make it two more days, I can crash. But I’m running on tired legs: Before even prepping the wrap party today, we shot the remaining scenes for the two final New Spaces episodes—one with a family remodeling their craftsman home to welcome their first baby, and a five-season retrospective to close out the show. A normal day with Melissa Tripp is exhausting. Today was completely debilitating, and it’s not over yet.
I exhale slowly, calmly, surveying the damage to the room, and decide one way to let people know they should start heading home is to begin cleaning up.
A few minutes later, a shadow appears at my side. I can sense by its tense, annoyed presence exactly who it is. “Did you see where Rusty went?”
I look up at James McCann: tall, lanky, always exuding superiority.
“I’m not in charge of Rusty,” I say. “He’s yours.”
He stares for an annoyed beat, but I know it’s only partially meant for me. I’m an assistant and have been for the entirety of my adult life. By contrast, James—a nerdy engineering type—wasn’t hired to work as Rusty’s right-hand man, but that’s exactly how his job has panned out. Midnight beer runs, dry-cleaning duty, sports ticket procurement, and daily coffee retrieval. Not what he bargained for at all.
“We have an early meeting with the Netflix folks tomorrow,” he tells me, as if it hasn’t been a topic of conversation—the date all but branded onto my brain—for weeks. As if we aren’t all sweating bullets about how the new show is going to fare with audiences and what that will mean for the company.
“I remember, James.” I slide a cluster of empty beer cans into a recycling bin.
“In fairness, you never write anything down or log in to the shared calendar. I thought I’d check in.” Unfortunately he misses my eye roll when he blinks down to his watch and then out over the room, tense again. “Don’t you think we should be wrapping this up?”
This question could only come from someone who works for Rusty, a boss who is used to being bossed around. Anyone who works for Melissa Tripp would know that trying to shepherd her out of a party in her honor is like trying to get a cat to tap-dance.
“Probably,” I say.
I carefully drop a few empty champagne bottles into the recycling bin before shaking out my hands. It’s been a long day, and the left one is starting to act up. At this point, massage doesn’t really help, but I try to casually rub out my fingers before moving on.
“I don’t know why you’re following me when he’s over there,” I say, and motion toward the front of the room, where Melly gave their speech.
I groan in frustration and turn to show him. But my irritated smugness dissipates when I find only Melly near the remains of the frilly pink cake. I don’t see Rusty anywhere. “Have you texted him?”
James gives me a blank stare through the perfectly unsmudged lenses of his glasses. From this close, it’s impossible to miss that he has really pretty eyes. But, like many men, he ruins the effect by speaking. “Don’t you think I’d do that before asking you?”
“Just checking,” I say.
His brows come together in irritation, which makes his glasses slide down his nose. “I texted him. He’s not answering.”
“Maybe he’s in the bathroom.” I step around him, tired of being in charge of everyone every second of the day.
“He’d definitely answer if he was in the bathroom,” James says, following close behind. “He takes his phone everywhere so he can check sports scores.”
James is obviously a smart man—Lord knows he reminds me all the time—but like my dad used to say, sometimes I wonder if he’s only got one oar in the water. Is he incapable of walking around a set and finding a six-foot-four grown man by himself? I’m about to blow up and ask him, but when I look up I’m surprised by the desperation in his eyes. The dread and suspicion there make my stomach sink.
I pass my gaze around the room—to the back corner where some of the set designers are opening fresh beers, to the small seating area where Dan is now pretending to enjoy chatting with Melly. In the crowd of nearly seventy people, I don’t see Rusty, either.
“You don’t want to go searching, do you?” I ask quietly, on instinct.
James shakes his head slowly, and we share an extended beat of eye contact. It’s not that I immediately suspect anything, but like I said, Rusty can be impulsive. Who knows what kind of trouble he could be getting into?
“Maybe he’s out getting high with some of the camera guys,” I say.
Another shake of his head. “He doesn’t like to smoke, and he tried edibles a few weeks ago and said he’d never do that again.”
“Maybe he left?” I say.
“Without telling us?”
I exhale a shaky breath, growing a little uneasy myself. “I swear to God, if he’s cheating on his diet …” On Rusty’s current honey-do list is Melly’s instruction that he lose a few pounds before the new show is announced. According to her, he looks puffy on-screen. If he’s hiding somewhere with cake in his lap I’ll never hear the end of it.
For the most part James and I have kept to our own schedules since he joined Comb+Honey two months ago. It’s not that I dislike him, exactly, but the way he writes off my job as disposable and frivolous and treats me like I’m only intelligent enough for remedial assistant activities—unless he needs help performing one himself, of course—really pisses me off. But I don’t want to pretend the Tripps’ world would be an easy one to walk into and immediately comprehend, either. Even I sometimes have no idea what’s going on with them. Rusty and Melly pay well and make it possible for me to keep the health coverage I need, but their relationship is obviously complicated.