“It’s a starting bonus.”
“No, it’s not. Plus, I found out what you did for my rent, and while I appreciate the gesture, I’d like to pay for that on my own too. So, if you could take those amounts out of my check each week, I’d appreciate it.”
Confusion swirled in his eyes. When he blinked, a flash of regret hit his stare. “I offended you.”
“No. It was really thoughtful, but I can’t accept these kinds of favors. I don’t want anything that I didn’t work for.”
He didn’t say another word, yet he took the check from my hand and then placed his headphones back on. As he began to walk away, he paused and looked back toward me. His lips parted, but no sound came out. He took a deep inhalation and flinched a little as he tried again.
Was it always that hard for him? To gather his thoughts?
“Can you do me a favor?” he asked.
“Anything you’d like.”
“When you make me a meal, can you make enough for Kelly, too?”
“Yes, of course. Not a problem.”
He slid his hands into his pockets and thanked me.
“If there’s anything else you need from me, I’m all ears. Truly, Oliver. I know I’ve said it before, but this job is more than I could’ve dreamed of. Thank you for the opportunity.”
He almost smiled, and I almost loved it.
His full lips parted again to speak, but no words escaped him. Instead, he continued to walk away, leaving me wondering what it was that he’d planned to say.
Later that afternoon, a voice snapped as I was preparing lunch for Oliver.
“Who are you?”
I looked up from the chicken breast I was slicing and smiled at the woman standing in front of me. Cam Jones. The Cam Jones.
Oh my gosh.
I loved Cam Jones.
She looked even more beautiful in person. She was wearing a sports bra, leggings, and a honey-colored wig, and her makeup was done flawlessly. Perfect winged eyeliner, top-notch lipstick. Cam looked like a goddess, and she was standing only a few feet away from me.
I dropped the knife quickly and hurried over to her side, wiping my hands against my apron. “Oh my gosh, hi! You’re Cam Jones. It’s so nice to meet you.” I beamed, holding my hand out toward her for a shake.
She glanced down at my hand and then back up toward me. “And you are?”
“Oh. Right. You asked me that when you came in. I’m Emery, Oliver’s new chef.”
“Chef?” she huffed, narrowing her eyes. “I’ve been asking Oliver to get a chef for years, and he said it was ridiculous. Who have you worked for?”
“Um, well, no one, really. I’ve worked at restaurants and hotel dining rooms in the past, but—”
“You’ve never worked with another celebrity?”
“None? Not even a C-list celebrity? Like one of Alec Baldwin’s brothers or something?”
“No . . .”
“Jesus. Where did Oliver find you? On Yelp?”
“Close.” I snickered. “In a bar.”
“You can’t be serious.” I blankly blinked her way and she gasped. “Oh my gosh, you’re serious.” Cam pursed her lips together. “Are you truly a chef?”
“I am. Kind of.”
“Kind of?” She looked at me as if I had a horn growing from my forehead before turning away from me and shouting, “What school did you go to?”
“Well, I didn’t exactly finish my degree. But you know what they say: ‘Does every chef need an education in order to make great meals?’” And by “they” I meant Oliver.
Cam stared, looking horrified. “Yes! They do! Oliver!” she hollered, marching away from me and my extended hand that she never shook. “There’s a strange woman in our house!”
Oh my gosh.
I hated Cam Jones.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Cam Jones wasn’t the sweetheart I’d seen online. “Cruella de Vil” seemed like a more fitting title for her. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she kicked puppies during her free time. Each day she came to me with an even more bizarre request. When I made her eggs, she’d tell me she didn’t want them scrambled. When I cooked her hard boiled at her request, she’d toss them out and order me to make scrambled.
Each time she ate my food, she grimaced and only took a few bites. “This is why it’s important to not just hire anyone from the street,” she muttered once, after spitting out my chili-lime chicken salad—which, by the way, was fantastic. She was just too much of a jerk to admit that I’d created something delicious.
Oliver, on the other hand, devoured every meal I’d created, and he’d compliment me on them in his very few words way. “Fantastic.” “Brilliant.” “Great.” “Seconds?”
That was a chef’s dream word—“seconds.”
What bothered me most about Cam wasn’t how she treated me; it was how she treated Oliver. I had thick skin growing up with the parents I had—not much bothered me, especially from Cam, because it wasn’t personal. It couldn’t have been personal because she didn’t know me. Her hatred and crude remarks said more about her than they did me. Yet with Oliver things were different. They knew each other—at least they should’ve. They’d been together for years.
He seemed so far removed from her, yet whenever she interacted with him, it was as if she were speaking down to him, as if he was the scum on the bottom of her shoes. She made comments on his appearance, on his vocals, on his talent. She judged the way he drank water, the way he wrote, the way he wrinkled his nose when he seemed displeased. Everything Oliver did, Cam seemed to have a complaint for. I was shocked she didn’t mention the way he breathed as an annoyance.
Or the way he fiddled with his hands.
Or the way his eyes looked so lost whenever he blinked.
Or the way his soul seemed drenched in despair.
I didn’t know Oliver personally yet, but I did notice all those things. I didn’t find them annoying in the least. All I wanted to do when I saw the lost man in front of me was wrap him in my arms and tell him everything was going to be okay.
That might’ve been the mothering instinct in me—wanting to protect all the broken souls and let them know that they were loved. That was what I tried to do for Sammie. It didn’t really work out in that situation, so I decided to keep my distance from Oliver.
Oliver never questioned her rude remarks or judgmental ways. He simply took them on as if he deserved her negative commentary. Or maybe he’d gotten to the point that he tuned her out so well that her comments didn’t affect him. Either way, it wasn’t okay, especially with everything that Oliver had been through over the past few months. If anything, she should’ve been his strength for when he grew overwhelmed.
She’d belittle him in front of me, too, which felt even more demeaning. Luckily, whenever she felt sassy toward me, it was always just the two of us. Yet a part of me did wonder how Oliver would react if he witnessed it.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked Kelly one afternoon as she sat in the living room, going over some paperwork.
“Tell you what?”
“About Cam,” I grumbled, hating that I had to speak her name.
She stopped her work and looked up with a sparkle in her eyes. “That she’s a terrible human?”
“Oh my gosh! Yes! You knew?”
“Oh, absolutely. I just figured I was too sensitive, though, so I kept it to myself. Plus, you seemed so excited to meet her that I didn’t want to kill that dream for you.”
“Consider the dream killed. She’s evil.”
“Yeah. She’s not really my favorite person, that’s for sure.”
“So, she’s really always like this? Flat-out mean? I’m stunned by the way she treats Oliver too. And he just takes it.”
“The past Oliver would’ve stood up to her for some of her latest comments. I think he’s holding on to a version of her that doesn’t even exist anymore. Plus, now, after losing his brother . . .” Her words faded off again after bringing up Alex. It seemed that every time Kelly mentioned him, a part of her spirit began to crack. “He’s just not fully himself anymore. It’s like he’s not even completely here, so Cam’s comments hardly affect him.”
“That’s too bad. He shouldn’t have someone making his life harder right now.”
“Nothing about Cam is making Oliver’s life easier, that’s for sure.”
“Is she rude to you, too?”
“All the time. She isn’t nasty to me in front of Oliver, though. She’s not that stupid. Because while Oliver won’t stand up for himself toward her, he will stand up for others. That’s just the person he is. So, Cam is very sneaky with her attacks. She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
Which made her that much more dangerous, in my mind.
As the days moved forward, Cam only became worse. Her sense of entitlement was so insane to me.
“Honestly, it’s embarrassing how bad you are at your job,” Cam remarked one Friday afternoon right before I was about to leave to get Reese from camp. My gosh, I was looking forward to the weekend away from her. “This juice tastes like dirt!”