We stand there for a few awkward beats, and I have to assume we’re equally unsure what to say to get the conversation rolling. For the life of me, the only thing that seems to flash across my thoughts is the final second before we kissed last night, that moment of intense anticipation followed by the powerful relief.
“So,” she says, wincing sweetly.
“So,” I say back, biting down on my grin. Every time I did that last night she’d look at my mouth. Maybe the weight between us is still there today.
Carey tilts her head to the side, brows raised. “So is that our car?” She gestures to the curb, to the white sedan that’s pulled up, window down, driver leaning impatiently toward us. “James?” he asks.
With a mumbled confirmation, I open the car door for Carey and watch her slide across the seat, giving myself exactly the time it takes for her to adjust her skirt over her legs to appreciate the flash of bare skin.
We pull away from the curb and again, my mind goes blank. “How—um—are you?” I ask.
“I’m glad to get out of the hotel for the day, I’ll tell you that.” She glances behind us as if to somehow reassure herself that Melissa is well and truly not around.
But is being alone together any more relaxing? I have no idea. It’s certainly not relaxing for me. I can close my eyes and remember how intense it was just unbuttoning her jacket, or the way her tank and skirt were soaking wet and clinging to her, or the way she blinked the water out of her eyes and her gaze kept sinking to my mouth as if pulled there by a weight.
“Did you sleep okay?” she asks.
I swallow a laugh. “Not really.”
When I look over at her, the blush is back. “Yeah. Me either.”
This seems like a fantastic opportunity for us to talk about why we both slept like crap, but of course our phones buzz in unison.
Today is the day the Tripps become the most popular home renovation experts in the world!
This is a huge day for all of us.
The window to talk about the us in the car together closes as the other, bigger Us takes over again. Carey pulls in a deep breath and rubs her face, groaning. This event is probably the most important of the tour. Although the party is small, there will be hugely influential journalists and industry people in the room—from the Chronicle, Goodreads, Apple Books, and, of course, Netflix. The Tripps need to be at their very best. So it’s probably good if I’m not distracted by the idea of kissing Carey again anyway.
“Tell me how I can help you today,” I say quietly.
“I think everything should be ready to go.” She opens her notebook. “I have the menu confirmed, seating chart, florist …” Trailing off, she drags a finger down the page. “I don’t even know that I’ll have much to do except make sure things go smoothly.”
“Did you and Melissa talk about last night?”
“Um.” She closes the notebook in her lap. “Briefly, yeah.”
I can tell the abrupt subject change caught her off guard, but I’m invested now in her being more assertive and valued in this job. I don’t want her to sweep this under the rug. “I assume she apologized?”
“That’s a dangerous assumption to make,” she says, laughing a little, “but sort of. She said she was sorry my feelings were hurt, which … isn’t really an apology, but it’s about as good as I’ll get, and things are fine now.”
She keeps her face forward, and I try to read her expression. Is she nervous? Angry? Or is this type of situation—where Melly blows her lid at Carey and everything moves on as usual the next day—totally normal? Unfortunately, I’m guessing it’s the latter. How completely toxic.
For better or for worse, my desire to keep from saying this aloud means I end up addressing the other elephant in the room: “It was fun hanging out in the pool last night.” I falter a little, adding, “Despite the circumstances.”
Carey turns in my direction, and warmth bleeds inside me at the way her eyes light up before her smile appears. “It was. Thanks for getting me out of a bad mood.”
Is that all it was? Gentle sarcasm is my instinct: “It’s my go-to move whenever a female coworker is having a rough day. Get them in the pool for some kissing, I guess?”
To my relief, Carey bursts out laughing. “Well, whatever it was, it worked.” She looks genuinely grateful. “I know it sucks, but I’m so glad you’re here on this crazy trip, Jimbo.”
My grin feels too big for the moment … where I’m pretty sure we’re tacitly agreeing last night was just a way to blow off some steam and nothing more. “I definitely wouldn’t want you to have to do this alone.”
The quiet returns, but my thoughts are rolling at a wild clip. The kiss didn’t feel like it was only about escaping a bad day. But maybe it did to Carey.
We stare out our respective windows, watching the city pass in fits and starts as we wind our way through traffic. There’s a small coffee shop, a little hole-in-the-wall bagel place, a bakery. At every one, I want to turn to Carey and suggest that we have time to grab a bite, go sit somewhere anonymous together and pretend we don’t have a job to do, don’t have to be the young unmarried people propping up one of the country’s most beloved marriages.
But I don’t. By the time we reach the Embarcadero, I’m amazed how gloomy the sky over the water looks; the city wears the foggy haze like a summertime cloak.
Boulevard is a San Francisco institution, and when we step inside, even I admit the style looks familiar. I watch Carey take it in—the rich wood décor, the whimsical vintage European prints, the warm, muted lighting. In Home Sweet Home parlance, the place has “a distinct point of view,” and as I follow Carey around the room, looking at the wine storage, the table settings, the open kitchen, the lamp-shades and art, I know without having to ask that Carey chose this location herself.
“It’s beautiful in here,” I say.
Carey turns to beam at me. “It’s amazing, right? I know minimalism is such a huge thing these days—with midcentury modern, clean lines, simplicity being the trend—but I sometimes wish we could go back to something like this: simple, but ornate.” She points overhead. “The ceiling is brick, but with the lighting, the entire space feels warmer. Cozier. We have a lake cabin we’re renovating in season two, and something like this would be amazing for it.”
I’m supposed to be looking at the ceiling, but I love watching her when she’s talking like this. It’s fascinating. She’s completely in her element right now, and I hope it’s a sign of her comfort with me that she’s sharing aloud.
I tip my head back and study the way the bricks are arranged in an arc that expands from the corners toward the center. From an engineering standpoint, securing such a heavy material to the ceiling would be fairly straightforward, but from an artisan standpoint, the possibilities for intricate construction are pretty cool.
Carey points to a framed print on the wall. “Like this: The frame is so intricate, but the print isn’t. Usually it’s the other way around, where the print is the vibrant focus, but here, the frame is the art. I like that.” She tilts her head again, studying it before writing something down in a small notebook.
Everything appears to be ready for the lunch—the menu is finalized, the private room has been arranged for our party. There really isn’t much for us to do. Or, more accurately, there isn’t much for me to do. I shuffle around uselessly while Carey confirms that Robyn and Ted have each been picked up at the airport, that the contact at Variety is still set to post the announcement at the right time, that we have a gluten-free option for one of the executives, a vegan option for another, and a wheelchair-accessible spot at the table for one of the journalists. Carey ticks things off in her notebook, and when she reaches the bottom, she blows her bangs out of her eyes and then looks up at me with a smile that is so easy and unburdened that I’m suddenly unable to remember why I’m not supposed to be fascinated by her. I know she doesn’t need me here to help, but in her expression I see that she likes that I’m with her right now, and it makes me feel godlike.
“You do everything,” I say, trying to wrap my head around it.
“I do not.” She flushes and makes a screwball that’s preposterous face.
“You do.” A strand of hair is stuck to her cheek, and I pull it free. “Don’t lie.”
Carey bites back a smile. “Well. Thanks.”
“I don’t mean this as bad as it’s going to sound”—I quickly take a glance around to make sure we’re alone—“but what does Melissa actually contribute?”
Carey squints at me, her smile flattening. “She’s the head designer,” she says. “The lead on the redesigns.”
Laughing, I say, “Okay, Carey—”
But she shakes her head. “It’s not really as bad as it sounded last night. I was just frustrated.”
I give myself a second to identify the best response to this. Who knows what Carey needs to tell herself to do this job? There has to be a certain level of self-deception on her end, and I’m not sure I want to dig too deep there.
“Well, I’m glad,” I finally say.
“Melly said she had a surprise for me today.” Carey shrugs. “So that’s nice, I guess?”
I echo her hopeful smile. Guests begin to arrive at the restaurant, and so far it seems like everyone is pretty thrilled for the show—though it’s hard to gauge what the external reaction is, since literally everyone in the lunch party already knew about the upcoming announcement, with many of them standing to make a lot of money if the show does well. Still, Melissa and Rusty seem to be in good shape, and it feels like one more situation where things could have gone so much worse.
Neither Carey nor I get a chance to sit, let alone eat, but the lunch goes by fast. She’d probably murder me if she knew how protective I feel. I try to keep an open eye, watching to see if she seems tired or needs anything. But like always, she’s got it under control and makes it look effortless, even though I know now that it isn’t. Carey ensures meals get to the right people, that drinks are always filled, that a dropped napkin is replaced, that everyone knows where the bathroom is and where to exit the restaurant if they need to make a call. She is moving a mile a minute, but smiling the entire time even when I think she might be screaming inside. I try to keep up, to make myself useful to her however I can. Funny that I resent being Rusty’s assistant but am relishing helping Carey.