He laughs, slapping my shoulder as he passes. “You know I’m kidding, Jimbo!”
Lowering himself into a chair across from me, he winks. Rusty Tripp is hard to despise, despite his best efforts—swinging testicles and all—and given his jovial mood, it’s clear he has no idea that we saw him … or what’s about to go down.
Melissa glides across the room like a vampire, slipping her heels off and tucking them into a cubby in a sleek black bench near the window. She gives a pointed look to Rusty’s feet, propped on the delicate suede ottoman. Without the benefit of the added height, Melissa is minuscule and suddenly looks very, very tired. But one glance at the fiery glint in her eyes and I know that anyone who suggests this is—
“You look exhausted, Mel.” Robyn frowns in concern.
Rusty, Carey, and I—in unison—suck in our breath and hold it.
If I’ve learned one thing in the last two months, it’s that Melissa Tripp does not like being called Mel; nor does she appreciate any suggestion that she is tired, sad, worried, no longer in her twenties, or in any other way human.
“I am fine, Robyn,” she hisses, and gracefully sits down in the chair beside Rusty. I’m aware if a camera were near she would reach over and casually link her fingers with his. As it is, with only the five of us in the chilly, dark room, she hasn’t even looked at his face yet.
“So what’s up, guys?” Rusty asks, glancing from me to Carey as she takes a seat on the couch at my side. Per usual, Robyn paces in the background, tapping at her phone.
Carey looks at me. I look at her. When we requested this quick conversation, we were both expecting Melissa to come alone. It is infinitely more awkward with Rusty here, and almost impossible to imagine having this conversation with Robyn’s nervous energy further cloying the space.
“We really just wanted a word with Melly,” Carey explains carefully.
Melissa’s eyes narrow, but despite her being close to forty-five, not a single line creases her face. “Both of you?” she asks.
I clear my throat. I don’t usually talk to Melissa. “It’s personal.”
“Are you two fucking?” She’s glaring at Carey when she guns this question at us, so she misses the way I nearly swallow my tongue.
“No.” Carey’s jaw clenches as she and Melissa engage in a silent stare-down, and I internally urge her to not break eye contact, not break eye contact, not bre—
Carey looks down at the rug.
“Then just spit it out,” Melissa says, and waves a tired hand as if to suggest that we’re the reason she’s still up, and she’s ready to be done with all of this, at last. “We have no secrets.”
Carey looks at me again. I look at her.
She lifts her eyebrows. It was your fault we saw it. You say it.
I give a quick shake of my head. No, you’ve been here longer, you say it.
She juts her chin forward. This was your idea.
She wouldn’t think twice before killing me.
Her eyes narrow, so mine narrow, too.
Pushing out a breath, Carey finally says, “We have an entire season of Home Sweet Home in the can. The announcement about the new show is happening next week, on your book tour for New Life, Old Love …” She pauses. “Your, um, book about successful relationships. The hope is for this announcement to go well, and the book to hit the New York Times bestseller list.”
Melissa lets out a low growl that makes my balls climb up into my body. “Thank you for the concise summary of all the stressors fueling my insomnia. Did you request a meeting in the middle of the night to go over the totally obvious?”
“No, I requested a meeting because earlier,” Carey says, taking a deep, fortifying breath, “James and I, well, we found Rusty and Stephanie … together … in the editing studio.”
Melissa’s head turns. It turns so slowly, and on such a level axis, that I have to blink to stave off the mental image of Melissa Tripp’s head rotating an entire 360 degrees, spinning faster and faster and eventually dislodging from her neck and flying away, out of this room.
When I open my eyes, I’m relieved to find her simply staring at her husband. But I can’t read her expression or her silence. My limited experience with the Tripps is that silence generally means 1) Melissa is not in the room, or 2) Melissa is asleep. This is, frankly, terrifying.
Rusty played football in high school. He’s about six foot four and has that sort of dimpled smile, clean shave, and soft floppy hair that makes him seem eternally boyish and therefore harmless. Grown doughier with age, the diet of the wealthy, and a love of American beer, Rusty’s face has only become more affable, not less. Right now, he looks happy and placid, like he’s not the center of a storm that’s about to land directly in his company’s headquarters. I’ve gathered that reading the room isn’t his forte.
Carey looks at me. I look back at her. We both brace ourselves.
“Say that again,” Melissa says to Carey, but she doesn’t take her eyes off her husband.
Carey’s expression tenses, and she searches my face for help—I have none—before reluctantly turning back to Melissa. “Um. That we saw Rusty with Stephanie?”
Melissa nods. “Yep. That.”
Do we … leave the room? Is this when we step out and let them hash out whatever they need to? We don’t really have to be here for this, right? Does Melissa need more proof? From the way her blank expression is slowly transitioning to one of homicidal rage, I’m guessing our word was pretty good.
Rusty bows his head and lets out the longest breath imaginable. Finally, he looks across the room at Robyn. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Melissa’s sharp laugh could cut through stone. “Oh, really?”
“Rusty,” Robyn coos as if to a child, “you don’t mean that, honey.”
“I do. I need a break from all of this madness.”
Melissa tilts her head back and lets out a laugh so maniacal that it could be coming from a sewer drain or a hyena standing on a pile of dead baby lions. “You want to take a break two days before our marital advice book launches?”
And with this reaction—sarcasm, not rage—I am suddenly very confused. I didn’t want to be here before, but right now if I could bolt from this room and leave only a James-shaped cutout in the drywall, I would do it. I want to be anywhere but here. Send me to my aunt Tammy and uncle Jake’s house in Poughkeepsie, and I’ll listen to them bicker for hours. Send me back to the childhood days of soccer and my utter inability to coordinate running and kicking at the same time. Even send me back to the Worst First Date in the History of Time, with Bekah Newmann, where the Indian food didn’t agree with me and I didn’t quite make it to her bathroom in time.
Anywhere but here. I’m too new to this job, too unclear on what’s really going on behind the facade of a happy marriage, and too eager to stop being a quasi-assistant and start doing the job I was promised: engineering unique, creative pieces for the Tripps’ upcoming second season of Home Sweet Home.
I stand. “Carey and I can check in with you all tomor—”
“Sit. Down.” Melissa’s shrill voice is terrifying when she’s mad, and she aims a pointed finger at the floor. “No one on this team is leaving until we figure this out.”
This … team? Granted, given the duration of her tenure with the Tripps, I can see how Carey is a critical part of Melissa’s day-to-day life—which may include being privy to certain marital dramas. But Robyn lives in New York and I … well, everyone knows I’m the new guy and essentially useless here.
“You fucked Stephanie?” Melissa explodes. “Stephanie?”
Rusty sticks his chin out, like he’s being brave by admitting it. “I tried to get you to leave the party!”
“You—?” She stares at him, speechless. “Are you stupid, Russell, or did you have a stroke?”
Inwardly, I groan. Ugh, Melly.
“We were hosting a party.” She enunciates every word, as if she’s teaching him English. “The job always comes first.”
“You didn’t used to say that,” he says quietly.
“Am I understanding you correctly? I wouldn’t leave when you wanted to, so you thought you’d just take Stephanie for a ride in the editing room instead?”
He sniffs, shaking his head. “It wasn’t like that.”
“She doesn’t even have believable implants, you imbecile,” Melissa growls, and I shift my attention to Carey, who is sinking lower into her seat, like she’d be happy if it swallowed her entirely.
This is not going down the way I expected. It’s not that I completely bought into the perfect Tripp image—no marriage is all sunshine—but I would never have guessed at this. No sobbing heartbreak, no wailing demand why, no apologies; only an indifferent man and a shrewd business-woman.
“You can’t keep your dick in your pants? Fine. But to screw her at our own wrap party, where anyone could have found you? Where two of our employees did find you?” Melissa shakes her head. “You are so sloppy.” She levels this as if it’s the most damning of criticisms. I suppose in the world of Melissa Tripp, it is. “I don’t understand what the hell is wrong with you! Do you know how hard we’ve worked to get where we are?”
“I know exactly how hard we’ve worked,” Rusty counters. “I’m telling you, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
His wife, her expression icy, asks, “Do what, exactly?”
“The book tour. The damn books. Hell, maybe the show.”
Robyn throws up two shaking hands, immediately placating. “Okay. Whoa. Let’s take a breath. Deep inhale through the nose, out through the—”
A vein appears on Melissa’s otherwise smooth forehead. “Fuck you and your breathing, Robyn, are you fucking kidding me right now?”
I purposefully let my vision blur.