But my plan could only work for so long. Eventually I had to relent so we could plug in and collectively stress over the premiere of Home Sweet Home together.
On the night of the premiere, the tension in the house feels like a low electrical hum. I’m on my way to make sure Melly and Rusty are both mentally prepared for tonight but am instead lured to the kitchen by the smell of garlic and onion sautéing in butter, of something chocolate baking in the oven. I find an aproned James at the stove, a kitchen towel over his shoulder and a wooden spoon in his hand.
The sight catches me beneath my heart, near my lungs, sending me into a tight, breathless spiral of imagining this moment in a different context, somewhere far away from this cabin. I stare at the broad line of his shoulders, the way his T-shirt stretches across his back and tapers down to a trim waist, a fantastic ass—
Wait. I lean against the counter, and he glances over at me, raises a questioning brow.
“Are you actually wearing a T-shirt, James McCann?”
“Always so obsessed with my clothes.” He grins and turns back to his cooking.
“There’s definitely a joke in there about being more obsessed with you out of them.” Uneasily, I look around the kitchen and out into the living room. “Where are the prisoners?”
He reaches for a pair of tongs. “They were driving me nuts, so I told them to find something to do.”
I gape at him. “And they listened?”
“I think they can only be obstinate for the sake of being obstinate for so long before even they have to find some way to fill their time.”
“Do I ask or want plausible deniability here … ?”
James smiles down at the stove, sliding some chopped tomatoes from a cutting board into the pan. He adds some browned ground turkey to the mix. It smells incredible. “They’re outside. Rusty found some woodworking stuff in one of the sheds and needed help dragging it out. I told him I could help or I could make dinner—wisely, he chose dinner. And since he didn’t dare ask you—”
“No,” I say. “You mean—?”
Amused, he lifts his chin toward the window, and I follow his gaze. Rusty and Melly are arguing over the top of a dirty old table saw they must have brought outside, a serpent of extension cords coiled on the ground at their feet. Melly is in one of her velvet sweat suits, her bright blond hair piled in a bun on top of her head. Instead of heels, she’s in a rare pair of sneakers and looks almost comically small next to her giant of a husband.
“Should we be concerned?” I ask, watching as Melly throws something across the table. “Aren’t there like, power tools and rusty nails out there? Aren’t you worried someone might use an ax?”
He considers this before pulling down plates from the cupboard. “Worst-case scenario: Someone dies. Easiest to explain is that they were maimed during a tragic woodworking accident that cut short some quality couple time. As far as I’m concerned, either of those options can only improve their image at this point. At least there aren’t any witnesses here to tweet it.”
With Melly and Rusty occupied, I do what I’ve wanted to since walking into the kitchen. Pushing off the counter, I step up behind him, resting my cheek between his shoulders and wrapping my arms around his waist. He makes a low, vibrating sound of contentment, and places his hand over mine to keep me there.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” he says, and I nod against him, breathing him in and letting myself enjoy every second. I’ve never really let myself want someone this way. Never let them know the parts of me that I spend so much time hating or trying to hide. It’s nice to just be me. Everything lately feels so hard, but being with James isn’t.
When he laughs, I feel it move through him in a deep rumble. “They look like a couple of actors in a really weird silent movie.”
I hook my chin over his shoulder to look outside again. It’s really just an excuse to get closer. He’s right. We can see them shouting but can’t hear anything they say. It’s oddly relieving.
Rusty has a set of safety goggles sitting atop his head. Melly is holding a giant hammer, waving it in the air. I’m not sure if I’m more worried she’ll hurt herself or him with it, but I find I have very little energy to go out there and intervene.
With a click of the stove, James shuts off a burner and lifts a pot from the back, full of noodles, transferring it to a colander in the sink. My grip around his waist is clearly making it harder for him to maneuver around the kitchen, but I don’t want to let go until I have to.
“Dinner’s ready.” With one hand keeping me close, he smiles at me over his shoulder. “Should we tell them they’re allowed to come back inside?”
I groan into his shirt. “Do we have to?”
“We don’t have to do anything,” he says, and turns in my arms. “They don’t know it, but that door is locked, so …”
I only mean to kiss him once, but the crazy thing about not being able to kiss when and where you want is that you never get used to it. Each kiss feels like something we’re stealing.
I’ve been naked with James, had sex half-clothed with James, but the feeling of his hands on my hips and his fingers grazing that tiny slice of skin at my waist sends electricity from my chest to my toes and everywhere in between. I don’t want this to end, I think. I feel like I don’t know what to do with my job or anything else in my life, but I know he’s the most sarcastic, funny, thoughtful man I’ve ever met, and I want him. I know that much.
He moves to kiss my cheek and my jaw, then sucks at the spot just below my ear. It sends another jolt of awareness up my spine and tingles along my scalp.
“As much as I want to keep doing this,” he says, the backs of his fingers sliding along my skin to my ribs and just below my breasts, “the show is going live in fifteen minutes. Once we get through this, we’ll get numbers from Ted and know if season two is a go. After that, we can head home, and I can take you to my bed without anyone walking in to say a single fucking thing.”
My heart pounds in my chest as I consider my options: a quickie in the kitchen pantry, or being thoroughly ravaged in James’s bed. “Okay. I’ll try to be patient.”
He grins, kissing me once more. “Is everything ready to go?”
It takes a moment for my brain to come completely back online, but I eventually get there. The show. “Yeah,” I say, taking a step away for a little breathing room. “I’ve got the router booted up and the big TV connected, and my phone is logged in to Skype so I can hear Ted and Robyn yell at me rather than just read it.”
I watch as he walks over to the refrigerator and pulls out a green salad.
“Can I say how much I love that you made dinner and I hooked up the electronics?” I ask.
“Sometimes we have to play to our strengths.” He sets the bowl on the counter. “Do you want to call the kids and tell them dinner is ready or should I?”
I grin at him as I move to open the door. “Do you want the real answer or the nice one?”
But I never get that far. Rusty and Melly are already walking toward the house, sweaty and grumpy and elbowing each other off the path as they walk. My first instinct is to tell them to knock it off, but then Melly meets my eyes and I don’t have to say anything; she knows. It’s show time.
It turns out that James would make one hell of a stay-at-home spouse. I say that with only the utmost respect because 1) I would not, and 2) a single bite of the dinner he made and I’m ready to marry him.
By six o’clock the food is out, Melly hasn’t looked away from her phone since I gave her the Wi-Fi password, and the Netflix logo fills the screen.
With Rusty already two beers deep in the La-Z-Boy, and Melly sitting ramrod straight at the edge of the sofa, James and I hover toward the back of the room. A vibrating, anticipatory silence fills the space and then their new upbeat theme music bursts free, opening credits run, and glossy, bright images of Rusty and Melly flutter happily across the seventy-five-inch TV.
We all hold our breaths.
But the editing is brilliant. It’s so surreal to see this thing that we worked so hard for come to life. The premiere episode is with the Larsen family, and even knowing what was going on behind the scenes, I’m still genuinely impressed. The camera follows Melly and Erin Larsen into the Larsens’ former dining room, and over cups of tea Melly asks all the right questions and listens attentively to the answers. Erin grew up an army brat who never lived in the same place for more than a few years. Now an adult with children of her own, Erin knows they’ve outgrown the small two-bedroom house but doesn’t want to leave. From there, we watch Melly present a design plan (which I drew up), and Rusty and the crew begin putting it all together.
And then the renovations start. This is exactly what Melly and Rusty do best: Melly appears to hunt for one-of-a-kind antiques that can be repurposed for unique design in the home. Rusty appears to dive into the carpentry and cuts himself within the first five minutes. Suddenly, Melly is there with the Band-Aids and a long-suffering sigh that dissolves into laughter, and you can’t help but like them.
“I really loved the way you did the girls’ rooms,” James whispers.
“Thanks,” I say with a smile. “I’d have liked a little more time, but I’m really happy with the way it came out.” He lifts a brow, and I explain, “Most of the furniture was built custom to fit the space, so I had to sketch it all. Takes me a little longer some days.”
“I was thinking about that. What if I could come up with something to help? Something you’d wear, with a place for your fingers to slip through like a glove, and a mechanism for the pencil? That way you can focus on the movements themselves, rather than having to think so much about the grip.” He pulls a folded piece of paper from his wallet, opens it, and lays it flat for me to see.
It’s a rough sketch of what he’s just described, with all sorts of equations and notes written to the side. “It would be more complicated than this,” he adds, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck. “I’d need to account for different weights—like whether it’s a stylus you’re using or a piece of charcoal, or whatever, and be able to make adjustments—but it’s doable.”