“Don’t worry,” I tell my roommates. “I’m not crashing your romantic getaway.”
Annabeth looks at the suitcase and then turns bright, inquisitive eyes on me. Her face falls. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes.” I round the counter that separates the kitchen and living room and open the fridge to retrieve a protein shake. “James and I have to join the Tripps on their book tour.”
Peyton lets out a sympathetic groan. “He’s the new one, right? The hot nerd assistant?”
I swallow down a long drink of the shake—as well as the petty desire to ask her to slowly repeat the word assistant while I record it for him. “Yup.”
“What happened?” Peyton pulls her thick dark curls into a ponytail. “I thought you had the week off?”
“It’s complicated.” That’s about all I can say. NDAs aside, I’ve never complained about work—other than my long hours—and never disclosed just how rigid Melly can be, how maddening Rusty can be, and how hard this job is most days. In other words, I’ve always done what I can to protect the Tripps. I owe them that loyalty.
Because of this, Peyton and Annabeth think my bosses are everything the public believes they are: charismatic, creative, in love. It’s such a happy image; I hate to ruin it for anyone, even the two people closest to me in nonwork life.
Is that depressing? That the couple I met through a classified ad when they were looking for someone to rent the second bedroom in their condo, and whom I rarely see, are the closest thing I have to friends? Is it terrible that I haven’t made time for my brothers in at least six months, and they only live a half hour away? Am I a monster for not having been home for Christmas in two years?
Obviously the answer to all of these questions is yes. My life is an embarrassment. This is also why I started seeing a therapist. I’d never been to therapy before—never thought it was for me—but sometime last year I realized that I never really talk to anyone. I didn’t have anyone I could unload on to help me unclutter my brain the way I unclutter Melly’s inbox, QuickBooks, and calendar.
Maybe it helps that my therapist’s name is Debbie. She’s soft and comforting and looks a lot like my aunt Linda. The first thing I saw when I walked into Debbie’s office was one of those granny-square afghans that my dad used to keep on the back of his La-Z-Boy. After a few sessions, I felt right at home. We’re currently working on my ability to be assertive and brainstorming ways I can take control of my life. As you can see from the suitcase I didn’t want to pack for the trip I absolutely don’t want to go on, I’m not crushing this assertiveness thing.
I stare at my roommates’ luggage—they’re bound for Kauai to celebrate their fifth anniversary. I can’t even imagine taking a trip to the Hawaiian Islands by myself, let alone with a significant other. It’s like I started walking down one road and a day became a week became a month became a year, and here I am, ten years later with no idea if this is the right road or what I’m supposed to do when I’m not walking down it.
Flopping onto the couch, I moan dramatically. “Have fun, but feel sorry for me occasionally.”
Annabeth comes and sits near my feet. Her auburn pixie cut perfectly frames her face, and I can already imagine how sun-kissed she’ll be when she returns. “We will raise a fruit-decorated drink in your honor.”
“Oh my God,” I lament, “I was going to lie on this couch for days and drink boxed wine and catch up on like seven hundred different shows.”
Peyton leans over the back and puts her hand on my shoulder. “I know I’ve said it before, but if you want a job with regular hours, I can always find a spot for you.”
Her offer is sweet, but the only thing that sounds worse to me than being Melissa Tripp’s assistant is being an assistant to an insurance claims adjustor.
“That’s so nice of you—” I begin, and Peyton cuts me off.
“But you want to keep your insurance,” she says.
I do. The medical benefits are amazing, and I’m not sure I’d be able to find that in a private plan that won’t bankrupt me.
“And even if that wasn’t the issue, you’d rather die first, I know,” she adds.
I laugh. “The idea of nine to five and three weeks of vacation a year sounds almost mythical, but—”
“But then you wouldn’t get to work with Melissa Tripp!”
I look over at Annabeth when she practically sings this, and grin. “Exactly.”
She’s not being sarcastic. Annabeth is such a sweet, innocent angel baby it would be a shame to burst her image of Melly, who, admittedly, used to be a dream boss. But fame—and then her clawing need to hold on to it—is slowly eroding anything gentle or lighthearted about her. I’d feel sorry for Rusty if he hadn’t eroded in opposite but equivalent ways.
Annabeth and Peyton are dressed and ready, which means that they’re about to leave to catch their flight, which means it’s nearly seven and I need to get a move on, too. I haul myself up from the couch, hug them in turn, and try not to look back at their bright, sunshiny dresses on my way out the door.
Granted, I was never an exceptional student—my crowning achievement in high school was a C in AP Lit and being voted secretary of our Future Farmers of America club—but the short walk from my car to the van has got to be some kind of metaphor for what a college education can do for a person. My shaggy old suitcase chugs along, veering off-path every time it hits a pebble. The fabric is worn out, the lock is broken, and the wheels are barely attached to the case. Up ahead, James McCann is shiny as a penny as he climbs out of his sleek BMW coupe and extracts his glossy aluminum luggage. He sets it down like it weighs nothing and, behind him, it glides across the parking lot like an obedient, high-end robot.
I want to throw something at him, preferably my shitty suitcase.
Plus, he’s wearing a neatly pressed navy suit like we’re going to another Netflix meeting instead of climbing into a cramped van for a fourteen-hour drive from Jackson to Los Angeles.
Irritation crawls up my spine.
“You’re wearing work clothes?” I have to yell to drown out the horrifying screech of my suitcase wheels struggling to stay connected to the bag.
He doesn’t turn around. “Are we not headed to work?”
“Not work work. We’re going to be sitting for a while.” Thanks to you, I think. “I assumed we should wear something at least fifty percent Lycra with no zipper.”
“I left my yoga pants at home.” He still doesn’t even look at me over his shoulder. “This is how I dress, Carey.”
“Even when relaxing?”
“We have an event tonight.”
“And we can change at the last stop,” I say. “Won’t you get wrinkled?”
This time, he looks back at me over the top of his glasses. “I don’t wrinkle.”
I glare because, as impossible as it seems, if anyone can figure out how to be both stain- and wrinkle-proof, it’s James. He keeps walking, and I riffle through my memory. In the couple of months that he’s been working for Rusty, I don’t think I’ve ever seen James in casual clothing, or looking anything less than recently pressed. No jeans, certainly no sweats. Now all I can imagine is James McCann washing his silver BMW in his driveway wearing tailored chinos and one of his many Easter egg–hued button-down shirts.
He’s definitely never spilled a forty-ounce Super Big Gulp down his cleavage.
“Why are you so interested in my clothes?” he asks.
For the record, I’m not—I mean, not really. It’s annoying that he’s seemingly so perfectly turned out, but if I have to endure a week of this, I’m doing it in an elastic waistband.
“Because we’re here against our will,” I say, “and you and I are about to spend the entire day driving to Los Angeles. I’m wearing what I want.”
“I’m sure Melissa won’t have anything to say about that,” he says dryly.
I glance down at my leggings and faded Dolly Parton T-shirt. Melly doesn’t like what I wear even when I’m dressed up, though I do use the term dressed up loosely. Fashion is not my forte. But if I have to tolerate her disapproving face anyway, I might as well be comfortable.
We roll our suitcases around the side of a building that houses one of the Comb+Honey warehouses, and James comes to an abrupt stop. My face collides with his shoulder blade.
I’m too busy being annoyed that his back feels wonderfully solid and defined under that dress shirt to immediately realize what caused him to pull up short.
“So I guess they’re not going for subtle,” he says.
I follow his attention to the giant bus parked at the loading dock.
Wow. “Am I the only one who thought the publisher had booked a van? I mean, a fancy van, but still.”
James heaves a sigh of resignation at my side. “No.”
“I definitely didn’t think we’d be traveling inside Melly’s and Rusty’s heads.”
But why am I surprised? Melly loves flash and she loves her brand—the Comb+Honey logo is literally stamped or embroidered on everything from golf shirts to key chains to the staplers in the office. (If she didn’t think tattoos were the worst kind of tacky, I’m sure she would have gotten a Comb+Honey tramp stamp years ago.) So obviously I was expecting a logo on the door. At most, I was thinking the book title would be tastefully scripted along the side. I did not expect a mammoth tour bus wrapped in a giant photo of Melissa and Rusty.
Their too-white smiles are stretched in vinyl across forty-five feet of windows and steel. Don’t get me wrong, the Tripps are a good-looking couple, but nobody looks their best at that scale, in high definition.
I leave my bag at the curb and take a few steps to the left, and then a few to the right. “The eyes follow you.”
James doesn’t even crack a smile. Apparently engineers don’t enjoy humor as much as assistants do.