He nods and looks at me like he broke a rule.
The expression is so hilarious, I burst out laughing. “I don’t care if he’s in your room, James.”
“Honestly, I think he was lonely. Well, mostly I think he wanted to watch the game, and since he and Melissa had to share a room on this leg, and she wouldn’t let him use the TV, he came down to me. I’d feel bad for him, but he’s just as much to blame for their problems as she is.”
I pull back, brows furrowed. “Some would even say he’s more to blame, seeing as how he decided to stick his penis in a woman who isn’t his wife.”
James holds up his hands, immediately clarifying, “I don’t mean the affair. I mean the terrible marriage.” He leans in, lowering his voice. “You’ve read the most recent book, I take it?”
I groan. “About a thousand times to hunt for typos, yes.”
“It’s actually pretty good, right?” He sips his wine, and the way his throat looks when he swallows is very distracting. “If they actually followed their own advice, they’d have an amazing relationship.”
“I’m hoping for your sake he’s not planning a sleepover.”
James starts to laugh, and then his smile falters. “God no.” He pauses, sipping his wine again and watching me. “I don’t share my bed with just anyone, you know.”
The air between us vibrates, warm and charged.
I finally manage a lame “Well, I’m glad to hear that.”
He continues to study me the way he always does, but for once the weight of his focus makes me feel awkward and overwhelmed, and I turn back to my plate. “Just a few days more and the show airs.”
“I feel like I’ve been working for the Tripps for a decade. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Right? And how have I done it for so long?” I agree, glancing over to their table.
From here, their fondness looks real enough. She’s talking and he’s listening in that way he has, like she’s his sun and moon and the only woman in the world. They look like the couple you see on TV. It almost makes me wonder if they have a chance. Would counseling help?
“Do you think there’s a way they could ever make it work?” I ask.
He lifts a brow.
“They used to love each other so much.”
“I think …” He trails off. “I think sometimes we see what we want to see.” There’s an edge of sadness in his voice that catches my attention.
“This sounds … personal.” I lean in, way more interested in hearing about James than I am in talking about the Tripps over candlelight.
“My parents divorced when I was fifteen,” he says. “They sat us down one day and said that just because they didn’t love each other anymore, it didn’t mean they didn’t love us. I was totally blindsided. They’d never stopped being friendly and warm to each other, so I had no idea they were even talking about divorce. It was like being hit by a truck. They said Dad had already rented an apartment but he’d still come by. Nothing would change.”
I reach across the table, squeezing his hand. “I’m sorry.”
For a beat, the conversation at the table near us—Melly and Rusty’s—goes quiet. I don’t have to look over to know that Melly is watching us. And apparently neither does James. He carefully pulls his hand out of mine.
“Not to spoil the story,” he says, “but everything changed. I remember asking Jenn if she had seen it coming, and she seemed surprised that I hadn’t. I told her they seemed so nice and gentle with each other. She said they fought almost every night after we went to bed.”
“You were a fifteen-year-old boy,” I say. “I bet if I asked my brother what color my eyes are, he’d have a fifty percent chance of getting it right.” Blinking, I add with a grin, “And we have the same color eyes.”
James laughs at this.
“But I get what you mean,” I continue. “I remember when I first told my mom something was going on with my hand, and she was shocked like it was the first she was hearing of it. My handwriting was getting worse, and she’d say it looked the same as it always had. I’d be doing this,” I say, and hold up my arm in front of me, “my entire hand visibly shaking, and she’d say I needed more protein in my diet or more sleep. My dad was having some health issues, too, so she had a lot going on, but it wasn’t until my doctors sat her down and told her it was real and not going away that she really got it.”
“When did you first notice it?”
“I was nineteen. I’d always been able to draw, but around then my hand would get tired and crampy really soon after I’d start a sketch. I didn’t think much of it until I had to do something that required both hands—like helping Rusty put together a table or pin some upholstery to a chair—and that’s when I realized it wasn’t just fatigue from drawing all the time; there was something wrong. I started hiding my hands because they would spasm or clench up, waiting until I was alone to do anything that required small movements. Melly’s the one who noticed and insisted I see someone.”
James listens intently. “Melissa did?”
I nod. “I was pretty good at hiding it, but she noticed that I wasn’t eating in front of her.” At his confused expression I explain, “I drop pencils all the time—and that’s with regular Botox treatments. Imagine me holding a fork, at my worst.”
“They’ve been great about it. I like to think no one else notices, really, because I’m not out in front of that many people. Then you came along and—”
“You didn’t want me to see.”
I feel my cheeks heat.
He sits back in his chair, going pale. “I teased you about your job.”
“We both teased each other,” I remind him.
“The first time I saw you in the studio,” he says, “I didn’t know what to think.” He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “I’m used to always knowing where I fit in, but it was pretty clear early on that the job wasn’t what I expected and I … I was embarrassed. And trapped,” he adds. “Resentful. I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t think either of us was very nice,” I admit. “I liked rubbing it in. A lot.”
I can tell that he’s miserable, can practically hear him going over every one of our early interactions in his head. I’m about to tell him we have plenty of time to work out how he’s going to make it up to me and be my grateful servant for life when there’s a crash a few tables away. I know who it is without even looking over, and dread settles over me in a chill.
Rusty is pushed back from the table, the front of his clothes soaked from what I can only assume is a full glass of Melly’s sparkling water.
“Our son is a good kid,” Rusty says loudly. “You’ve just babied him so much he doesn’t know how to stand on his own two feet.”
She’s looking down at her nails, bored. A few other diners have turned around to see what all the commotion is about, and I’m out of my chair so fast it nearly topples over.
“Hi, friends!” I gush. “How are you?”
I reach for the napkin at Rusty’s feet and attempt to clean him up, groaning when I realize I’m aggressively dabbing at his crotch. “Did we have a little spill?”
Straightening, I put my flattened palm on his chest and push him back into his seat, handing him the napkin to sop up more of the water. “Let’s remember that there are eyes and ears everywhere,” I whisper through a clenched smile.
Melly ignores me to glare at her husband. “Our son can barely string two sentences together and has been in college for six years,” she whisper-shouts.
“He’s got ambition,” Rusty says, chin out. “Just like his dad.”
“He’s also got a beer belly,” she says with icy calm. “Just like his dad.”
A half-empty bottle of Perrier sits near the edge of the table, and on impulse I knock it over, the bubbly liquid rushing across the tablecloth and into Melly’s lap. James is here now, too, leading a furious Rusty away from the table before he can reply.
“Oops! Butterfingers,” I sing, pulling out Melly’s chair and dragging her toward the door. I stop a passing waiter. “Can you put those two tables on our bill? Room 649, guest Carey Duncan. I swear I’ll be down to sign it all and leave you a giant tip. Sorry! Thank you!”
He nods dumbly, rightfully confused, and I push Melly out of the restaurant and into the lobby bathroom.
Once inside, I don’t even have to peek in the mirror to know that my cheeks are red-hot with anger. I check under all the stalls before turning on her. “What the hell were you thinking?”
She’s already pacing. “I can’t believe him! He thinks this family got its squeaky image without me running along cleaning up everyone’s mess? Including his?”
“What good will getting vocal credit for everything do when there are photos and tweets and videos of you two arguing?” I ask. “Weren’t you the one who insisted we keep this whole thing going?”
She waves this away like my point is frivolous. “It’s fine.”
“Melly, those photographers outside were here specifically to catch you and Rusty fighting, you know that.”
She pauses, then shrugs it off. “Come on. Not everyone is on Twitter, Carey.”
“Maybe not, but tonight you were eating dinner in a dining room full of people with phones and various other recording devices. Even if two people there posted about what they saw, you know how many people that could reach? These are people who otherwise might want to buy your book. You know, the one on marriage that you’re supposed to be signing tonight with the man you want everyone to think you’re happily married to?”
My phone vibrates in my hand, and I wish I had a pillow to scream into. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and count to five before I look. Thankfully, it’s a text from James. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make me feel any better.