“Mom is Mom.” His voice is a deep, raspy growl. “I talked to her for a few minutes, but Ellen down the street had a knee replacement so she was taking them over a casserole. She pitched a fit that I took one the last time I was over, but she still had three disasteroles in the damn garage freezer!”
Carey giggles and it’s a sound I’ve rarely heard. The easy delight does something wild to my pulse.
“How’s your truck? Still hassling you?”
Kurt groans and takes his cap off again, uses the bill to scratch the top of his head. “Don’t get me started.”
I try to turn away from their conversation, but that is also the moment that Carey chooses to cross her legs. The white fabric of her robe parts to reveal the smooth expanse of her calf, thigh … and higher.
“I just replaced the injectors,” he says, “but I don’t think that was it. I think it’s the motor. If that’s the case I’ll probably have to take out a loan to have the whole damn thing rebuilt.” Kurt’s voice slices through my dirty thoughts, and I immediately immerse myself in a chicken pot pie recipe. The last thing I need in this day is to have him look over her shoulder and catch me ogling his little sister.
“It has over three hundred thousand miles on it,” Carey reminds him. “I don’t know why you don’t just replace it. It’s nickel-and-diming you to death.”
“Because a new truck would cost more, and by the time I’m done it’ll practically be brand-new,” he tells her.
I envy him the ability to fix his own car. I learned from my parents, whose motto seemed to be Why do it yourself when you can hire someone to do it for you? My dad still leases a new BMW every three years; I’m not sure he or Mom has ever changed a tire.
Sometime in my mental meandering, they finish their call, ending it with promises to drag their other brother, Rand, out with them soon.
“Sorry about that,” she says, standing from the desk and closing the laptop.
“I’m sorry I interrupted.” She waves me off, and in an effort to keep my attention on her face and not her legs, I add, “He seems nice.”
“He’s a grumpy old shit, but he’s all right.” She laughs. “We hardly ever see each other, so this is generally how we keep in touch. You might have guessed he’s not much of a texter.” She motions to her robe and points to the bathroom. “Just a second.”
I give the room another once-over, noticing the row of bras and underwear swinging in the breeze of the air conditioner from where they hang over the headboards of both queen beds.
“Have you been doing laundry in here?”
The door opens, and she steps out in a pair of jeans and her Dolly shirt, her hair tied up in a hasty bun. “Yeah, sorry,” she says, crossing the room to retrieve them.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s resourceful.” I recognize the blue bra and it makes my mouth go dry.
“I’m almost out of clothes,” she admits, giggling again as she pulls them down one by one. “I’m sure this explains why I’m always wrinkled. Let me just …”
She jogs back to the bathroom, so she misses my quiet “You’re perfect.”
When she returns, she sits at the edge of the bed. She’s stripped off the comforter, and I’m reminded of the last time we were in a hotel room together. The memory echoes across my skin in a heated, frantic pulse.
I give myself a few breaths to look at her. I wonder if, when she’s watching a show, she mimics every expression the actors make on-screen: happy, sad, confused, delighted. Right now I feel like she’s mimicking me, with wide, exploring eyes.
If memory serves, we decided in San Francisco that we aren’t kissing anymore, but for the life of me I can’t remember why. In fact, I can barely remember why I came up here in the first place, but now that I’m here, I really just want to press her back into the mattress and let her have her way with me again.
She looks away, breaking the tension. “I was impressed today,” she says.
I blink back into awareness. “Oh, on the bus?”
“Yes, Señor Bossypants.”
This makes me laugh. “There were a few seconds there when I thought Melissa might walk over and punch me in the dick.”
Carey falls back on the bed in laugher. “I thought the same thing,” she says, pushing up onto her elbows. “But no. It was good. I think we need to be bossier with her. Otherwise she’ll get away with everything.”
The reason for my visit comes back to me, and it occurs to me now that it might be a terrible idea. Obviously I can barely be around Carey without wanting to be touching—how will I do over candlelight? But Ted’s napkin promise looms large in my memory.
“Well, relatedly,” I say, “I was thinking that it might be a good idea for us to have dinner at a table near the Tripps tonight. Just to keep an eye on things.”
Her eyes gleam with playfulness. “You don’t trust them?”
“Not for a second.”
When she wrinkles her nose, teasing, my stomach takes a lovesick dive. “So you’re asking me out on a fake date?”
“If you’re up for it.”
Carey chews her lip, eyes narrowed as she takes me in. “Yeah. I think that’s probably a good idea.”
My skin flushes, and now I am sure that this was a terrible suggestion. She just threw a T-shirt on; she clearly isn’t wearing a bra. A drop of water rolls down her long, smooth neck, and I want to lick it off and then fuck her into next week.
But I suppose if the Tripps can spend this meal pretending to be infatuated, I should be able to spend it with Carey, pretending not to be.
At exactly 6:35 p.m. a waiter at El Gaucho is pouring me a glass of zinfandel while a smiling and camera-ready Melissa and Rusty Tripp sit just a few tables away. The restaurant is perfect: it’s connected to the hotel and filled with the kind of Melissa-approved soft-focus candlelight that makes everyone look great. They’re even seated next to a window, and if one of the photographers outside just happens to snap a few photos of the intimate dinner? Well, that’s even better.
I’ve eaten plenty of meals with James, but it’s rarely just the two of us, and never in a dimly lit restaurant with fancy alcohol, leather-bound menus, and innocuous classical music playing from hidden speakers. I know this isn’t a date—I know, we made that very clear upstairs—but it feels like it anyway. I’m in the best dress I own—the blue one I save to follow Melly to morning shows and big interviews—and James is sitting across from me, wearing a navy blazer over a crisp white shirt and a smile that makes me wonder if he thinks this is a real date, too.
He picks up a giant shrimp and dunks it in a dish of cocktail sauce. “This is a really nice hotel. Almost a whole star up from the Motel 6 in Hollywood. Good job.”
I kick him under the table.
He coughs as he chews, laughing into his napkin. “I’m being sincere,” he says, once he’s come up for air, “it’s great. I’m not much of a tub guy, but the one in my bathroom is making me question myself.”
Not even going to imagine him sinking naked into a giant tub of bubbles. Definitely not going to imagine sinking into a tub with him, leaning back against his chest and feeling his arms come around my waist, his hand sliding—
New topic. “Did you know it’s supposed to be haunted?”
His eyes widen playfully. “My tub?”
I narrow my eyes at him, fighting a smile. “The hotel. I walked downstairs to get some toothpaste because I’ve lost yet another tube, and there was some kind of tour happening.”
“Like a ghost tour?”
I pick up a roll and butter it. “The concierge told me the first owner supposedly haunts the hotel. There’s a mirror in the lobby where you can see the reflection of a woman in a turquoise dress. Oh!” I point my buttery knife at him. “And someone claimed they sat up in bed one night and there was a little boy playing peekaboo at the foot of her bed.” I laugh at his horrified expression. “The front desk will even bring you a companion fish to keep you company. Pretty cute, right?”
When I glance up again, James is still staring at me, second shrimp paused midway to his mouth.
I lift a brow. “You’re not scared, are you?”
He sets the shrimp back down on his plate. “I definitely don’t want a ghost child playing peekaboo in my bed.”
“I know. I would pee my pants, no question. But don’t worry, the guide said the twelfth, ninth, and seventh floors are the only ones ever reported for any activity. And the lobby, of course.”
He blinks. “I’m on the ninth floor, Carey.”
“Oh.” I laugh. “Do you want me to order you an emotional support fish?”
Straightening, James waves the waiter over and orders us both another glass of wine. “Yes to the fish,” he says, and grins at me over the top of his glass. “But enough of this will help, too.”
I smile back at him across the table and ignore the gnawing worry slowly rising in my chest. This feels so good. How am I supposed to be platonic with this guy? The more time I spend with him, the more I genuinely like everything about him. More than like. Tonight, after dinner, I want to take him by the hand and walk him upstairs to bed.
The idea of sleeping with his bare, lanky body pressed all along mine makes me shiver.
“So, Kurt,” he asks, and my sexy thoughts trip and fall over the Incompatible Topics Cliff. “What does he do for a living?”
“He frames houses. Started working with my dad when he was fifteen, and then Dad died and Kurt took over. He was twenty-two and has been doing it nearly every day since. I gave it a try before the dystonia started, but even then I complained so much he actually gave me twenty dollars to go away.”
James choke-laughs on a sip of wine, and I kick him again. “So when I called Melly to tell them what time we made the reservations for, she said Rusty was up in your room?”