A brown head of hair pokes out of the bus door, followed by the rest of a man with broad shoulders and a set of biceps that test the durability of his T-shirt. I’ve never really been into muscles before, but … I mean, I’ll admit these are pretty nice.
“Hey there!” Biceps shouts, easily skipping down the three steps from the bus to the ground, landing with an effortless bounce. “You must be the assistants.”
Beside me James goes completely still, in what I’m sure is an attempt to not have a toddler-level tantrum in the parking lot. Of course, I am delighted. Roll-dragging my suitcase toward the bus, I smile, make a fist, and shake out my fingers before offering my hand. “Yes. Yes, we are. I’m Carey.”
I catch him logging my movements, but he gamely takes my hand to shake. I’ve never enjoyed a handshake before, but in this case, I’ll happily make an exception.
“Joe Perez. I’ll be the handler on the bus. Our driver, Gary, is in there getting settled.” He jerks his thumb and I wave to a portly older guy already seated behind the steering wheel.
Joe looks over my shoulder to where James has begrudgingly joined us, and smiles, introducing himself again.
“James McCann,” Jimbo replies. “Director of engineering.”
I look at him, amused, but he doesn’t meet my eyes.
The two shake hands and do the requisite guy nod, and then Joe is showing us the enormous luggage compartment under the bus. “I know this isn’t a very extensive tour,” he says, unlocking the metal hatch, “but I’ll be riding with you guys, making sure everything goes as planned.”
It’s possible Joe is the best-looking man I’ve ever seen up close. And he’s coming with us? Like, the entire time? Well, well. I do a mental pat-down in search of my lip gloss. Maybe this is a chance to take some of Therapist Debbie’s advice and assert myself, step outside of eighteen-hour workdays and no social life. To put my phone on silent and do what I want for a change. Mixing work and pleasure is likely to be the only way it’s going to happen for me, and I’d risk the fallout for those biceps.
Joe’s hair is dark, cut short on the sides but curly on top. He has a dimple in his cheek when he smiles, and his skin is sun-kissed and golden brown. When he reaches to place my suitcase into the open compartment, his shirt pulls taut across his back, muscles straining. My eyes follow the movement in a way I’m sure resembles our old dog Dusty watching hungrily outside the chicken coop.
“Easy there, Duncan,” James says under his breath.
“Shut up, Jim,” I quietly fire back.
Straightening, Joe turns to us with an enthusiastic clap of his hands. Of note: he’s not wearing a wedding ring. “Okay, who’s ready to poke around with me?”
“Holy shit,” I say for the fourth time, eyes moving over every surface of the bus. I am sure this divine coach has never carried an object as grubby as my suitcase.
“Amazing, right?” Joe runs a loving hand along the front passenger’s seat. May I one day have a man look at me the way Joe is looking at the soft leather of the captain’s chair.
I walk slowly down the center aisle and my feet sink into thick carpet that is nicer than the condo’s. Strips of purple lights are inlaid into the ceiling; the cabinets and desk are solid wood with marble countertops. This tour bus is an odd combination of luxury villa and party limo.
“There are two lounges.” Joe points as he walks. “Seating for nine up front, a wet bar, a full galley kitchen with microwave and espresso machine.” He moves toward the back, pointing out various amenities as he goes. “Bathroom with a full stand-up shower, flushing toilet. Room-specific temperature controls, so nobody has to fight over that.” Joe grins and the dimple in his left cheek makes a delightful reappearance.
“Two forty-six-inch TVs,” he continues, “each with cable and Blu-ray players. Wi-Fi throughout.” He opens a door at the end of the hallway and points into what I assume is the rear lounge. U-shaped leather couches and a reclining captain’s chair offer seating for at least ten more people, and a giant TV hangs in the center. “Oh, let Mr. Tripp know that MLB Extra Innings and MLB.TV have both been enabled.”
James glances at me, expression typically superior. “You can let him know when you’re going over the itinerary.”
“You’re his right-hand man, Jim,” I counter. “I’ll let you deliver the good news.”
Exhaling slowly, James tilts his head up to see his reflection in the mirrored ceiling. Joe and I follow his lead and there’s a weird moment of silence when all our eyes meet in the reflection. I’m sure we’re all thinking the same thing: we are going to be right on top of each other for days.
Joe breaks the awkward quiet. “Anyway.” He claps his hands before reaching for a folder tucked into a corner on the kitchen counter. “I’ve got the itinerary right here …” He shuffles through his papers. “You’ve probably got your own, but I’ve printed one for each of you.”
James nods and takes his, slipping it into his own folder. I fold mine quickly and tuck it in my purse.
“The tour company booked all the hotels that you sent us in the request—I’ll double-check both of yours,” he adds, referencing my last-minute scramble to secure rooms for James and me. “When we arrive at each stop, I’ll take care of everything and bring out the keys. The Tripps can stay in here and relax away from the public eye.”
“Probably a good idea to keep the Tripps out of the public eye as much as possible,” James says to me, and I elbow him—gently!—in his annoyingly taut stomach. Rule number one of Project Trouble in Paradise is Trouble, what trouble?
Joe gives us a brief, puzzled look. “I’ll let you guys get settled. I imagine the Tripps will be here shortly, and someone will be coming by to take food orders. We should hit the road in about a half hour.”
I watch Joe until he’s completely out of sight, then busy myself with peeking in each of the cupboards. When I feel the pressure of James’s attention, I turn and catch him looking with distaste at where I’ve shoved the printed itinerary haphazardly into my purse.
“Is there something you’d like to complain about?”
He blinks away. “Nope.”
I eye his collection of color-coded folders; he’s even printed labels for each one: ITINERARY. NETFLIX. CRITICAL PRAISE. LOCAL CONTACTS. I am very clearly the Pigpen to his Schroeder. “We can’t all be as organized as Jim McCann. It’s one of the many reasons you’re so good at assisting Rusty.”
Under the heat of his answering glare, I open another cupboard and let out a cry of delight when I find a canister full of Jolly Ranchers.
“Listen,” I say. “I may not carry a folder of crisp papers, but I have a system and it hasn’t failed me yet.” My brand of organization would probably drive him nuts. I write everything down in a series of notebooks—usually whichever one I can find—and take them with me. It’s not techy, and my handwriting isn’t pretty, but it works. James is so organized that he probably has a spreadsheet to keep track of his spreadsheets.
We both straighten at the sound of the Tripps approaching the bus. Dread is a bucket of ice water poured over the top of my head. I feel it seep down into my shoes. James meets my eyes, and I see the parts of each of us that hoped they’d pull out last minute die sad, painful deaths in unison. This is definitely going to be awkward and miserable, and I remain unconvinced they can keep up the lovebird act in public.
“I really wish you’d cut your hair like that again,” Melly says, and I can only assume she means the clean-cut style Rusty has on the enormous bus wrap. His current hair is a weird, shaggy style that makes him look like he constantly just rolled out of bed. Dye it black, and he could cosplay as Burly Joan Jett.
“The stylists thought a longer look would appeal to the younger demographic,” Rusty says. “You know, like hipster.”
“The stylists were wrong.”
Side by side, James and I kneel on one of the couches, trying to make out the Tripps through the tiny perforations in the vinyl-coated windows. Our shoulders touch, but neither of us shifts away. It surprises me that I feel more of a sense of comfort and relief at his proximity than aversion; for all our differences in temperament and style, I’m probably lucky to have an ally here.
But then, too loud, he says, “I see they’re off to a rollicking start.”
I slap a handful of Jolly Ranchers into his palm. “Whenever you feel the temptation to speak, put one of those in your mouth.”
Outside, Joe jogs up to join them.
“I see our stars are here.” He claps his hands, so sweetly enthusiastic. I’m already sad to see his bubble burst.
“Yes! We’re very excited,” Melly says. A moment of silence stretches between the three of them, and I know her well enough to look down just as she subtly leans her frighteningly sharp heel on Rusty’s toe.
“VERY EXCITED!” he shouts.
“Yikes,” James whispers next to me, and then dutifully pops a Jolly Rancher into his mouth.
My stomach clenches. “We just … need to work on her delivery.” I stand as they approach. “It’ll be fine.”
Melly is the first on the bus; her sharp blue eyes do a RoboCop scan of the interior, and I swear even the bus holds its breath waiting for the verdict.
“So much marble,” she says with a saccharine smile, and then blinks to me. “Carey, I need to go over the Belmont sketches.” She brushes past me and drops her bright orange Birkin on the couch before slipping into the booth that surrounds the table. She makes a show of trying to get comfortable before she looks up at Joe. “Can we get a better chair in here?”
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb assuming that nobody wants to tell her no.
Joe takes one for the team. “I’m not sure if we can get something before we’re set to leave”—he checks his watch again—“but I can certainly try!”