“Okay,” I finally say. “Let’s go find him.”
With a grimace, James follows me out of the main room and down the hall that leads to the warehouse. The air conditioner seems abnormally loud in the small space, loud enough to drown out James’s clunky footsteps on the industrial carpet behind me. Along the way there are five doors, each closed. One is an A/V room, the next is a janitor closet. After that there’s a greenroom for visiting guests, a small crew lounge, and the editing studio. Trying to imagine what we’ll find inside any of these tonight makes me queasy.
The A/V room is dark and empty. The door hinge squeaks into the quiet room.
The janitor closet is locked, and too small to be useful as a hiding place for a grown man.
The greenroom is empty; the crew lounge, too.
The soundproof editing booth is last, and the door is locked.
I’m not sure why I’m nervous as I pull my key ring off my belt and find the right key, focusing to keep my right hand still as I carefully slide it into the lock.
We both hold our breaths as the knob slowly turns.
The sound hits us first—deep groans, skin slapping against skin—followed by the briefest flash of thrusting white butt cheeks, swinging testicles, and a bright red floral dress pushed up over a woman’s shoulders, her dark hair really all that is visible of her. It takes a couple of grunts and thrusts before my brain connects the dots and melts. Unspotted, I carefully pull the door shut again.
Rusty was definitely not eating cake.
I slowly turn around. James is still staring past me at the now-closed door, unblinking, mouth open.
“That was Rusty,” he whispers.
I give Captain Obvious a nod. “Yes.”
They have a TV show and a book coming out. A book on relationships. Rusty—and his thrusting butt—has impeccable timing. “And Stephanie,” James adds.
I hoped I was the only one who realized that, but no such luck. I exhale slowly, already trying to mentally Tetris my way out of what I just saw. Moments like this make me realize why professional distance is a good thing. I’ve done holidays with the Tripps and watched as they grew from owners of a single store to rulers of an empire. Literally no part of my life isn’t somehow tied up and overlapped with theirs.
“Yes, James, with Stephanie.” I press the heels of my hands to my eyes, trying to figure out what the correct response is here.
When I look back at him, James is staring at me, his eyes round with shock. “But he’s MARRIE—”
I clap a shaking hand over his mouth. “Shut up, oh my God!” I look up and down the hall to make sure no one has witnessed what we’ve witnessed. “Shhhhhhhh!”
I pull him with me around the corner toward the warehouse. A vent blows overhead, hopefully masking our voices. “You have got to keep your cool about this!” I haven’t even figured out how I feel; I cannot deal with James freaking out on top of it.
“Carey, he’s cheating on his wife!”
I stare at him for an astonished beat. Did we not both just witness Rusty and his swinging balls? I visibly shudder. “I got that.”
“But …” James trails off, bewildered. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Of course it bothers me,” I tell him calmly, trying to not feel frustrated that this newbie, of all people, is telling me how to react to a couple I’ve known my entire adult life. Defensiveness bubbles to the surface. “But I’ve worked for them for a long time, and I learned years ago that some things are not my business.”
Marriages have ups and downs, Melly told me once. I need you to focus on the work, not what’s happening between me and Russ.
I’d grown up watching my dad come home stumbling drunk and reeking of perfume, only to see him and Mom happily canoodling on the couch two days later, enough times to know Melly was right. The lines are blurry in this job, but I do my best to let the Tripps’ marriage be their marriage, and their business be my business.
From his expression, I gather James is not on board with Operation Look the Other Way. And his horror triggers an uncomfortable dissolving sensation in my stomach. I’m mad and sad and frankly horrified by what we just saw, but I can’t help but feel embarrassed and slightly protective, too. I shove my hands into my pockets.
“They’re about to release their book on relationships,” he says, voice high and tight. “Their book of marital advice.”
I shift on my feet. “I know.”
“And launch a new show that’s based almost entirely on their brand!” he says, struggling to keep his voice down. “That brand being their blissful marriage!”
I work to hide my irritation. To be honest, I don’t see James often because, whether he likes it or not, so far he’s good at his job and keeps Rusty in line. So much so, in fact, that I didn’t realize Rusty was having another affair.
I narrow my eyes. “You’re sure you didn’t know about this? You were awfully reluctant to go looking for him.”
James flushes. “I thought I’d catch him eating a sandwich, Carey, not”—he points behind him, back to the room—“that.”
I deflate. “Yeah, me too.” I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and then look around the empty hallway. “We can’t let anyone else down here.”
“You’re not going to tell her,” he guesses, frowning. “Are you?”
Defensiveness is my default: “Melly made it clear a number of years ago that she wants me and all assistants to stay out of her private life. That includes you.”
I can see by the way his chest rises that his first instinct is to correct me—yet again—that he is not an assistant, but self-preservation wins out. “This could all blow up in our faces,” he tells me. “You get that, right?”
“What do you want me to do?”
He takes another deep breath. “I think we need to tell Melissa.”
“You also thought we should go find him, and you can see how well that turned out.”
He gives me a long stare.
“I am not telling Melly that we saw her husband plowing their cohost.” I laugh. “Hell no.”
Talking to them about this would be like talking to my parents, but multiplied by the Also My Employer factor of awkward. James probably doesn’t realize that my relationship with the Tripps isn’t just employer-employee. How would he? We barely interact.
But I can’t be the one to rat out Rusty. My dad died when I was seventeen. He’d been noticing some swelling in his legs and feet but brushed it off as a hazard of working on his feet all day, climbing up and down ladders and sometimes having to work on his knees. He put off seeing a doctor until it was too late. Years of smoking had left him with stage-four lung cancer, and he died within just a couple of months. Rusty tried not to be obvious about stepping in, but he’s always been there when I needed him. Not to mention he distracts Melly when she goes off on one of her tirades, and he gives me free rein in his shop whenever I have time. I really don’t want to do this.
James looks at me, silently disappointed. “Carey.”
“Maybe she already knows?” I ask hopefully.
“If she knows,” he begins, “then she needs to tell him to be more discreet. It could have been anyone walking into that room, and someone with less loyalty and a cell phone camera could have blown up their entire livelihood, and ours, with a single tweet.”
It’s physically painful to admit that he’s right. Freaking Rusty.
“Fine,” I say, but decide to give myself a temporary reprieve. “We’ll check in with her tomorrow after the meeting.”
“Check in with her?”
“God, why are you like this? We’ll tell her after the meeting. Are you happy?”
He wearily pushes a hand through his hair. “Not even a little bit.”
We both jump at a voice coming out of the quiet hall. “Tell who what after the meeting?”
It’s Robyn, the Tripps’ publicist: a tightly coiled, neurotic busybody.
“Nothing.” I wave her away with false ease.
“Come on,” she says, face pinched. “You’re down here hiding when you should be getting things organized and packed up out there.” She looks between us. “Clearly something is going on.”
I resent the reminder that I need to be cleaning up after all these people and mentally give Robyn the finger. “James and I were saying that we need to talk to Melly tomorrow. I’ll let her know—”
“Why does James need to talk to her?” Robyn asks, too astute for her own good. Melly has never needed James for anything that didn’t need to be opened or reached on a high shelf. “Is it a big deal?”
I give a breezy “No” just as James utters an emphatic “Yes.”
I turn to glare at him. He glares back at me.
“Robyn should know,” he says quietly, and in my head I’m grabbing my hair at the roots, yelling, Goddammit, James, be cool!
But Robyn seems to be picking up what we’re putting down. She chews her lip, worrying for a reason now. “We’ll do it tonight.”
I let out an incredulous laugh. “It’s already been a really long day, and I still need to clean up once everyone goes.”
Now would be a great time for one or both of them to offer to help, but the silence is thunderous.
Robyn sighs deeply and checks her watch. “Netflix is at nine. I’ll grab Melissa and meet you both in the office in an hour.”
An hour means that I’ll have to hustle my ass off here and then book it over to the Comb+Honey offices across town. Awesome.
Robyn turns to leave, and I glare again at James, who gives me a triumphant smile. “We’re doing the right thing,” he says.
“We now have a work meeting at midnight.”
“It’s the right thing,” he repeats.
One hour. He’s lucky that doesn’t leave me enough time to make a James McCann voodoo doll.