Robyn’s voice wavers. “I’m going to call Ted.”
Ted Cox, producer of Home Sweet Home, is not going to appreciate this call from Robyn at—I glance again at the clock—1:30 a.m.
Robyn puts the phone on speaker so we can all hear it ring. Melissa stands and paces the room, looking very much like she would like to pick up one of the football trophies Rusty insists on keeping and throw it at his head.
An incredibly groggy Ted comes on the phone. “Ted Cox.”
I close my eyes, wincing against the disgust I feel toward anyone who answers their phone with their own name.
“Ted,” Robyn says, “it’s Robyn Matsuka. Listen, I have Melissa and Rusty here in a bit of a crisis. I think we need a little pep talk to get us back on track.”
“We don’t need a fucking pep talk, Ted,” Melissa cries out. “We need someone to throttle this idiot.” She turns on Rusty, eyes wild. “I don’t care who you screw, how much beer you drink, or how many fucking times a day you check your stupid fantasy football team lineup. What pisses me off, Russell, is you got messy. You think the press would ignore a story like this?”
“Sorry,” Ted sleepily cuts in. “What’s going on?”
Melissa ignores him. “Who paid off the reporter that got wind of TJ trashing a hotel room in Vegas?” She waits for Russell to answer this, and the only sound is Ted, across the line, groaning at what he now realizes he’s been dragged into. When the kids get weaponized, the conversation is going nowhere good.
“You did,” Rusty concedes, finally.
“That’s right,” Melissa says, on a roll now. “And who made sure to bury the story of Kelsey getting her stomach pumped after her first frat party?” She doesn’t even wait for him to answer this time. “That’s right. Me. Because both times, you were watching TV, or playing with your tools, and didn’t bother to answer the calls. Do you think if word gets out that you’re sleeping around—that our perfect marriage is a mess—that reporters will hesitate to dig those stories up and throw our kids’ lives into the mix? Can you imagine the glee the media will have breaking the story that, not only are we terrible at being married, we’re terrible parents?” She stares at him, chin wobbling. “You think if we stop now, you can keep your airplane and your Super Bowl tickets? You think we’ll get to keep our four houses and your ridiculous collection of trucks? You think your kids will weather this fine, and we’ll live happily ever after, rolling in cash?”
When she shakes her head, her hair comes loose from its bun, the wild strands sticking to her cheeks where tears have tracked. “No, Rusty. We’ll lose everything. So, I’m sorry that you got busted sleeping with a washed-up beauty queen who can’t even spell ‘asbestos,’ but this is bigger than anything else you’ve got going on. We’re in too deep. You can just suck it up and keep making millions of dollars by being an idiot on television.”
That was brutal, but masterful. I have to actively resist the impulse to let out a low, impressed whistle.
Silence falls, slowly covering the lingering echo of Melissa’s tirade.
“That seems to cover it,” Ted says groggily over the line. Before he hangs up, he asks, “When does the book tour begin?”
Robyn lets out an incongruously chipper “The day after tomorrow!”
“Robyn,” Ted says, “I assume you’re traveling with them?”
“Yes,” she answers, just as Melissa counters with an emphatic “No.”
“No?” Robyn eyes her. “Melly, the plan has always been that I’d—”
“Carey will come with us,” Melissa interrupts.
My stomach drops because I have become clairvoyant. I know what’s coming next. Melissa’s eyes swing to me, and the two words stretch out in slow motion. “And James.”
Robyn gives her a tight smile. “I’m your publicist. You’ll need me out there.”
“No, I need you here with a reliable signal where you can monitor what’s happening and put out fires as they arise. I need Carey with me, and Rusty needs James to help keep his dick in his pants.”
“Uh.” I’m afraid to correct her, but I’m less willing to let this ship go down without a fight. “I don’t think—we shouldn’t plan, uh, that I go anywhere near Rusty’s—He doesn’t need me for this.”
“Yeah, I do.” It’s the first thing Rusty has said since Melissa’s tirade. He looks at me, oddly determined, like he’s scoring a win against his wife by strongly agreeing with her. “I’m not going without James.”
Carey and I glance at each other, and I’m sure her pulse skyrockets, too.
I am immediately scrambling. “It was my understanding that, in addition to Robyn, the tour company has a handler in place to coordinate everything, so you’ll have a staffer on hand.”
Ted sighs, reminding us that he’s still there being deeply inconvenienced. “I’m going to ask that you two join the tour. We need you to help manage the public-facing aspect of this, and Robyn can handle things backstage. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that all our best interests lie in keeping this ship sailing true. Get some rest, and I’ll see everyone in the morning.”
When the silence feels infinite, I know Ted has already hung up.
Robyn turns her face from her phone screen up to the room. I can see the moment she realizes this is the only way and, to salvage her dignity, she needs to appear Completely On Board with this plan. “Yes,” she says, gaining steam. “Yes. Absolutely. Ted is right.”
I’m already shaking my head. I negotiated this week off when I was hired; it was meant to be my first true vacation in four years. The workload at my previous job in New York at Rooney, Lipton, and Squire was so overwhelming I didn’t take a single day off while I was there. And then I was so desperate to find another job after the FBI raided the firm’s offices that I applied for fifteen positions the next morning—including director of engineering for Comb+Honey—and was offered the job at the interview a few weeks later. They were the only ones who called me for an interview at all.
Although I’ve yet to do any actual engineering, I do work nearly fourteen hours a day managing Rusty’s schedule, meetings, paperwork, contracts, blueprints, and general poky-puppy bullshit. I haven’t had a second to breathe.
“Actually,” I say into a room that is so tense the air feels wavy, “I’m headed to Florida to see my sister and her kids.” I pause. “We negotiated this when you hired me. I can’t go.”
Carey meets my eyes, and I think it’s fair to say she would bare-hand strangle me if I were closer.
“And I had plans, too,” she says, her voice thin.
“I write both your checks,” Melissa reminds us, “and if you want to be around to cash the next one, you’ll start packing.” Striding angrily to the door, she opens it, walks out, and slams it shut.
“Sorry, Jimbo. If I’m stuck, so are you.” With an infuriating little Oops, my bad shrug, Rusty stands, too, and leaves.
“Robyn,” Carey starts with similar desperation in her voice, “we don’t need to go. I know them. They’ll get it together in the morning. They always do.”
“We can’t risk it, Carey.” Robyn shakes her head, resolute and unsympathetic. “Everything is riding on this, including your jobs. Change your plans and pack up for a weeklong trip. Your only job for the next ten days is to keep the Tripps from falling apart.” She attempts a smile, but it is a sad, sad approximation as she glances at her watch. “See you for Netflix in seven and a half hours.”
She leaves, and when the door closes, Carey grabs a pillow, bends, and releases a scream into it that is surprisingly primal.
I, too, want to let out an unholy string of curse words. I want to scream to the room, Why can’t I find a job that is somehow both legal and relevant to my graduate degree? Is that too much to ask? Am I being transitioned into Rusty’s full-time errand boy?
If I quit now, the only other position on my résumé is the black stain of RL&S; my former firm is still on the front page of national newspapers for its shocking accounting scandal that, so far, has resulted in fourteen arrests, job loss for nearly two thousand employees, and apparent loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in company retirement benefits. A few brief months at Comb+Honey won’t make my résumé look better. I’m backed into a corner, and the Tripps know it.
“This is bullshit,” Carey says. “And one hundred percent your fault.”
“My fault? I wasn’t the one having s—” With a full-body shudder, I press the heels of my hands to my eyes until I see bursts of light. Maybe if I press hard enough I’ll never have to see anything again. “I wasn’t the one cheating on his wife. This is Rusty’s fault, and we’re the ones who are paying for it.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have helped you.” She sits back against the couch with a growl. “This is what I get for trying to be nice.”
“That was you being nice?” I start, stopping short when she turns to glare at me. I drop my head into my hands. “At least you’re doing what you’ve been hired to do. Babysitting adults is not what I went to school for.”
It was apparently the wrong thing to say. The last person to storm out of the office is Carey, with an infuriated “Yes, yes, James, we all know you’re brilliant.”
My roommates, Peyton and Annabeth, pause midconversation when, just over twenty-four hours later, I roll my shitty suitcase into the living room and set it beside theirs. I look back longingly at their enormous leather sectional; it’s not pretty—it’s old and bulky—but I had really looked forward to making it my home base for the next week. Yet here we are: instead of a staycation at home in my pajamas, I’m facing eight days cooped up in a van with a married couple in the midst of a crisis and Mr. Morality McEngineering-pants.