I follow, calling for her, but the house is filling with smoke and soon all I can hear is Carey shouting Melly’s name. Through the fog, I see their two figures come together, and behind them, the fire seems to barrel closer in a wave. Without thinking, I run back to the kitchen, grabbing the fire extinguisher and returning to spray with minimal efficacy at the wall of fire closing in on the foyer and climbing the log walls. But it’s enough to give us time to break free from the heavy fog. Carey grabs Melissa and pulls the front door open, letting in a burst of cold fresh air that is immediately swallowed by the smoke. Ducking, I follow them out into the clear, darkening sky.
The lawn is wet and chilly; it’s such a stark contrast to the inferno inside that for a minute, it seems impossible that I haven’t imagined all of it: the fight, the crash of a glass, the explosion of flames. But we turn and look: the living room burns brightly, lighting up the house in a display of sparks and fire now greedily lapping at the connected garage, the huge covered porch, the second story. Against the backdrop of stars, the blaze is strangely beautiful.
The four of us stand, not touching, staring at the disaster of it. I imagine after escaping a fire, some people might huddle together, might hold each other for comfort. I feel the distance between the four of us in the cold air against my arms. We all feel like strangers to each other in the sharp, quiet tension.
When I look at Carey, she doesn’t look back at me, even though I know she can feel the heat of my attention. I love you, I think. I’m sorry. But I’m sure the only thing she’s thinking is: What happens next? The growing flames are reflected in her eyes, and when she looks over at the Tripps, they fill with tears.
Melissa nearly killed Rusty but instead, she set what has to be at least a ten-million-dollar house on fire. Their careers are ruined, their marriage is over, but the only person I care about is Carey. I don’t want her career to be over before it’s even started. It wasn’t just Melissa and Rusty who built this empire, it was Carey, too, and I know what it’s like to be attached to a scandal like this. She’s watching her life’s work vanish, the Comb+Honey reputation going up in flames, and—after tonight—probably feeling like there’s truly never been anyone in her corner. Regret is a tight, aching ball in my chest. I fucked up. We all fucked up so big, and I’m in love with her. The weight of guilt presses down so heavily that I find it hard to breathe.
PEOPLE MAGAZINE EXCLUSIVE
Melissa Tripp Is Ready to
Pass the Torch
Melissa Tripp knew that her life was becoming overloaded, but she never expected to find herself standing in front of a burning house on the night of her show premiere, with very little memory of what happened.
The 44-year-old New Spaces star and bestselling author opens up to PEOPLE about getting sober after the fire, finding a new place for herself outside of the home renovation world, and realizing she “had to take responsibility for where I was, and what my life had become.”
“Rusty has made mistakes—and he owns those,” the petite blonde says, looking even smaller where she is engulfed in the pillows of a white couch in the Jackson Hole home she shares with her husband of more than 25 years, Russell Tripp, 45. “But my mistakes, although maybe harder to see with the naked eye, are just as numerous—if not more so.
“Our business took off, and I got real intense,” she says, laughing, and her native Tennessee accent curls around her words. “Anyone who knows me can easily imagine it. Russ isn’t an intense guy. He wants a simple life, with a solid marriage. He never wanted this wife in stilettos, dragging fancy suitcases around on a book tour. He wants a hammer in his hand, a Rockies cap on his head, and a wife teasing him and loving him in equal measure. I lost track of the girl he fell in love with somewhere. I need to remember who she is.”
Tripp acknowledges that the marriage, once believed from the outside to be perfect, is as real and flawed as any other. “We’re working through a lot, but I hope we’ll make it out the other side intact.”
These real flaws, she insists, are why she and Russell were the perfect people to write their recent #1 New York Times bestseller, an ironically timed book on marital advice entitled New Life, Old Love. “You don’t want to hear advice from someone who’s never been through it. Russ and I have been through it, and through it … and through it,” she says with a laugh. “We don’t get to choose when things fall apart. If we did, we sure would have chosen a different week.”
The home décor guru, recently out of a three-week hospital stay for what her publicist describes as “debilitating stress,” says she sees life with much clearer eyes now. “When you work so hard to get to the top, the only thing that starts to matter is staying there. You stop seeing your loved ones as loved ones. They become either leverage or barriers, and to me there stopped being anything in between.”
Tripp plans to detail what she calls her “total breakdown” in an upcoming memoir. Writing, she tells PEOPLE, “has become my safe space. Putting words down—my words, just mine—has become the only creative place inside my head I can still trust myself to go.”
To fans of her signature décor, the idea that Melissa Tripp is throwing in the towel on the home renovation game may come as a shock. But Tripp encourages everyone to rest easy, saying, “There will always be brilliant, creative women rising to the top in this world. There will be the next Melly Tripp any day now. It just can’t be me anymore. Trying to be that person every day was eating me alive.”
In fact, the next creative genius rising to the top may very well be someone close to the Tripps. In a jaw-dropping revelation, Melissa admitted recently to Entertainment Weekly that the Comb+Honey creative inspiration these past few years came more and more from her gifted assistant, Carey Duncan, 26, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes of New Spaces as well as the single-season ratings darling Home Sweet Home.
“Carey has been with Russ and me since the beginning,” Tripp tells PEOPLE. “She only ever worked for us. When things got busier, I didn’t have as much time for the designing aspect of the business, and Carey easily stepped in. But because [Duncan] is a beautiful artist and designer in her own right, her aesthetic became a huge part of the brand, and it grew more and more difficult to figure out where her ideas ended and mine began. That worked fine for a while, but at some point we all registered that Carey wasn’t getting creative credit for the work she was doing.”
Melissa becomes emotional when she discusses her relationship with Duncan, who Tripp says is “more daughter than employee,” and admits the two “talk almost every day, trying to work through what happened, who we are, and what her future can and should be. She needs to get out into the world and find herself, and I want to be the loudest voice in the stands, cheering her on.
“Life went from calm to chaos so fast. I think none of us fully realized what her contribution had become.” Melissa Tripp wipes a tear away and nods, resolute. “I had my turn. Now I want the entire world for Carey.”
“She didn’t come out and say it was all you from the start,” Kurt says, reading over my shoulder.
I close the magazine and tuck it under a stack of papers on the kitchen counter so that Melly’s photo—soft makeup, contrite smile, down-home plaid flannel—doesn’t just sit there, making me wonder how much of that was real and how much was Melly being a brilliant, calculating business-woman. My throat feels tight, like something is lodged there high up, making it hard to breathe or swallow.
I realize the situation was totally messed up, but even after everything, I didn’t think I would take Melly’s disgrace quite this hard.
“This is enough,” I tell him. Frankly, she gave me more credit than I ever let myself imagine. “This is good.”
Now I want the entire world for Carey.
Whether she means it or not, the words are there in stark black and white. The baton, being so cleanly passed, makes me feel both empowered and overwhelmed. On the one hand, I could call Ted, send him some of my sketches, and see if he knows anyone who wants to see this particular phoenix rising from these ashes. But on the other hand, although I love designing, I don’t want to be the next Melissa Tripp. Of all of us, Melly was the only one who ever wanted the world. The rest of us just want our small share of contentment.
And I’m slowly working on mine. It’s been six weeks since the fire, and my life doesn’t look anything like it did that night.
For one, I got the hell out of Wyoming for a while: the first thing I did when the police dismissed me was take my own trip to Hawaii … the following day. I left the police station, took a cab to a hotel in Laramie, booked my trip, and then slept for almost fifteen hours straight. When I woke up, I had four missed calls from James, two from Melly, and one from Rusty. I sent Melly a text letting her know I would send a formal resignation soon, and then left for the airport.
Five days and four nights in Kauai, and after arriving and sleeping for ten solid hours, I had no idea what to do with myself. I only read half a book. I took a lot of naps. I went for long walks, and then came back to the resort and was generally bored out of my mind. I realized I have no idea how to unwind because I hadn’t had two consecutive days off in a decade.
You’d think with all that time on my hands, I’d spend some of it thinking about Melly and Rusty. You’d assume I’d take some time to process everything that happened with James. But it was like a brick wall went up, and every time I tried to bring forward the chaos of the previous week, some protective instinct would kick in and I’d literally fall asleep. On the chaise by the pool. In the chair on my balcony. Once even at the table in the hotel restaurant.
When I got home, I immediately wanted to turn around and head back to the airport. I didn’t know if I was stressed about returning to Jackson, stressed because the emotional untangling was still ahead of me, or stressed about facing the blank page of my professional future, but all of those thoughts made me want to vomit. I upped my therapy schedule to twice a week.