“And you didn’t go home with him?!” Regina’s eyes went big as half dollars as she glanced down at the screen of Delta’s phone. The picture was a candid shot of Mike Walker Delta had snapped while he was bowling, taken for the sole purpose of showing her best friend. “Girl,” Regina had to shout to be heard inside the club, but even in the dim, purplish light that made everyone look like zombies, her expression was plain; she thought Delta was an idiot. “He looks like that and you’re here tonight with Greg? What the hell’s wrong with you? I woulda jumped him in the bowling alley bathroom.”
“I was in that bathroom,” Delta said as she slipped her phone back in her purse, “trust me, no one’s worth jumping in there.”
“Seriously, Delt,” and Regina looked nothing but serious on the other side of the high top table where they were sitting, “you can’t even smile at Greg, meanwhile you’ve got a shot at this blonde lumberjack boy and you’re debating? Why?”
Delta clicked her nails against the stem of her wineglass and glanced across the writhing nest of shadows that was the dance floor. Why was a question she didn’t want to answer, especially not to Regina who viewed dating as a sport and who judged men on appearance and bedroom performance only.
“Have you talked to him since?”
She had. In stocking feet, she’d fallen back across her bed and called him, to tell him she was home “safe” as he’d put it. “What do you mean by ‘book-aholic’?” he’d asked, and though he clearly wasn’t a literature buff, he’d needled her with enough questions until she’d found herself curled on her side, propped up on one arm, talking about Wuthering Heights like he cared.
“Maybe.” She took a sip of Chardonnay and hoped to leave it at that.
“Here come the guys.”
Greg and Regina’s date – a no-necked body builder guy named Steve – were coming back from the bar, drinks in hand. Delta wondered if the white wine in Greg’s hand was a refill of her Chardonnay, or if he’d ordered her Pinot Grigio like he had last weekend. She was opening her mouth to thank him regardless when her phone buzzed to life, sending her clutch purse rattling across the table.
Delta made a grab for it, nearly tipping over her wine, sending Greg leaning away from her, startled. Regina smirked knowingly. Michael W her caller ID read, and even though she’d suspected it was him, a strange thrill went shooting through her anyway.
“I’ll be right back,” she said in Greg’s general direction, staring down at her phone as she slid off her stool and began threading her way through bodies. Two steps away from the table, she answered the call, her free hand pressed over her other ear. “Hold on just a sec,” she said into the receiver, feeling like she was shouting over the music. She picked and stumbled and apologized her way around the perimeter of the dark club before she finally slipped into the restroom.
It was crowded with girls in tube dresses checking their hair and makeup, giggling and gossiping, but at least there wasn’t any music. The bass thumped up through the floors, a deep murmur that Delta felt rattling in her teeth, but she could at least hear. The room was all black tile and chrome, cold and industrial and smelling of sweat, but it was as close as she could get to privacy.
“Okay,” she said, letting her hand fall away. She slipped it around the base of her throat out of mindless habit and felt the tempo of her pulse. “Hello.”
“Hello?” he asked and there was a laugh to his voice. “All I gets a ‘hello’ like some random jackass?”
“No, not random,” she countered, and wanted to smile. She glanced up toward the mirror and saw the redhead painting on lip gloss four coats thick watching her. She gave her a cold, flat look until the other girl’s eyes dropped away.
“You’re murder on a guy’s ego, you know that?”
“Too much for you?”
“Me?” he snorted. “You wish, swee…” he’d almost called her sweetheart, “you,” he finished instead with a sound like he expected to be reprimanded for the almost slip.
The pet names were a problem because she wasn’t used to that sort of thing. And maybe on some level, she worried they would sway her. If they did, would that be such a bad thing? She didn’t know. She didn’t really know anything about Mike Walker except that he was persistent as all hell and her heart had given a leap to see his name come up on her phone.
“Where are you?” he asked. “It’s loud.”
“Aces,” she named the nightclub that all her friends loved and she tolerated. Up at the mirror, a girl was wriggling out of the top of her dress so she could adjust her strapless bra. Delta was amazed she was wearing a bra at all given her Jersey Shore hair and makeup.
“Aces?” she swore she could hear him frowning and realized she was envisioning his face in vivid detail as she pressed the phone closer to her ear. “No way was that your idea.”
“Maybe it was.”
“No,” she admitted.
“Well…” there was a sound like he was tapping a finger against his phone. “Are you having fun?”
He chuckled. “In the spirit of competition, I feel like I’ve gotta offer you an alternative.”
There was no reason for her stomach to give a happy somersault, but that’s what happened. “What kind of alternative?” she thought she kept her voice neutral, even if she had a fingernail between her teeth, scoring her tidy nude polish.
“I’ll let you decide. Do you wanna do the fancy dinner thing? Or go grab a drink and maybe, possibly meet my geeky bartender little brother?”
Even in a cramped, dark, nightclub bathroom, Delta took a deep breath. Why was this happening? Why was she this girl who wanted to giggle and ditch her date all of a sudden? She shouldn’t have taken the call in the first place – she was out with Greg; this was anything but polite. But Greg wasn’t making her bite back smiles tonight, and he couldn’t even keep her wine straight. So…screw polite.
Because she’d had a million candlelit dinners in her life, and because the offer of giving her a glimpse of his life – his family – was strangely sweet, she said, “Let’s grab a drink,” and agreed to meet him in front of the club in fifteen minutes.
When Delta arrived back at the table, Regina and Steve McNoNeck were locked in a conversation that seemed to be heavy on the suggestive looks and light on verbiage. Greg was standing beside her chair, sipping something dark on the rocks and scanning the crowd, features tweaked with polite concern.
“Everything alright?” he asked when his eyes fell across her. Delta thought there might have been a note of suspicion in his voice, but maybe that was just her guilty conscience.
“Fine.” She pulled her coat off the back of her chair and slipped her arms through the sleeves. “Something’s come up, though. I’m gonna have to duck out early.”
Regina pulled herself away from her man candy long enough to flash her a covert wink across the table.
“Really?” Greg’s frown deepened. “What? Hold on a minute. I drove, how are you getting home?” he set his drink down and Delta felt something like desperation rallying in the pit of her stomach.
“No, you stay and enjoy…” enjoy what, she didn’t know, “I’ll be fine.” Her smile was lame, but it was the best she could manage.
“Delta,” he made a reach for her arm, but she used pulling her hair out of her collar as an excuse to evade him. “What’s gotten into you?” His frown was in danger of having some real emotion behind it. “You’re acting -,”
“I really have to go,” she said and found a smile for him somewhere before she picked up her clutch. “I’ll call you.” And before he could call her some delicate version of strange, she’d slipped between two high top tables and out of sight, bodies closing in around her like water. Ditching Greg was ten different kinds of rude, but if she didn’t make a fast get away, she wouldn’t get away at all. And for some reason, beer and brother-meeting with Mike sounded too good to turn down.
God, she was turning into one of those women who had…crushes. A crush, anyway.
Outside, the sidewalk was clogged with foot traffic and stank of car exhaust. Delta buttoned her coat and stuck her hands in her pockets, suddenly wishing she’d thought this through a little; now she stood, in heels and alone, on a downtown Atlanta sidewalk. There were people everywhere, though, row after row of passing cars. A sharp gust of wind came funneling down between the tall shoulders of the buildings around her and she hoped Mike was faster than the fifteen minutes he’d told her. And that another night out with him was worth the wait.
What am I doing? She asked herself repeatedly, more agitated with her school girl behavior by the minute. But then a silver Beemer slid out of traffic and sidled up to the curb and her pulse gave a little jump.
The passenger window was down and Mike’s white smile was just visible through the dark interior of the car. “You look pretty enough to be an undercover vice cop,” he called, and she surprised herself when her first reaction was a grin and not an indignant snarl. His sense of humor was terrible, but at least he had one, which was more than she could say for her first date of the evening.
“Charming,” she said as she pulled the door handle and slid down into his 535i. “You’re so good with the compliments.”
The heat was on full blast and the charcoal leather seat was warm as she settled into it and shut herself in. He’d turned the seat warmer on beforehand, so it would be nice and hot by the time he picked her up. It wasn’t exactly white knight behavior, but she appreciated it.
She started undoing the buttons on her coat and glanced over to see him watching her. It was nothing like the sedate, appraising way the guys she usually went out with watched her.
“You do look hot, though,” he said with a little-boy grin that made him cute despite the lumberjack stature. “Way hotter than a hooker.”
“How many times have you been slapped on dates?”
“Five,” he said as he checked over his shoulder and eased back out into traffic. “So hit my left side if you’re going to. The right’s my pretty side.”
“Which side is your modest side?”
“Don’t have one.”
Delta let her head fall back against the seat and felt the knot she’d been carrying between her shoulders all day start to loosen. Work had been hell and drinks at the club was the sort of night out that gave her a headache. The balmy interior of Mike’s car and his shameless departure from all the pretentious people in her life were better than any muscle relaxer. Men didn’t leave her warm and comfortable as a general rule, but this one was…different. And she was beginning to think she wanted to see how far different could take her.
“So where are we going?” she asked as she watched a Saturday night in Atlanta flash past the window.
“Double Down.” She wrinkled her nose and he must have been watching because he asked, “what? No good?”
“My dad goes there.”
“He’s not there now, is he? ‘Cause I’m not ready for that.”
She rolled her head to the side, saw the shadow of his brow scaling his forehead. “Being afraid of my father doesn’t speak well of your intentions.”
“No, it just means if you’re this much of a hardass, how much worse is your old man?” He held up a hand. “Oh, wait. You’re not a hardass, I’m an asshole. Sorry.”
Delta chuckled, just a small sound she couldn’t suppress, and caught the glance he tossed her way.
“I am a hardass,” she relented, and felt relieved just to say it. “I have to be; that’s all anyone respects anymore.”
“Please,” he snorted, “you could get by on your looks and you know it.”
Still smiling, she said, “but I don’t want to.”
“She reads,” he took a hand off the wheel and listed attributes off on his fingers, “she works, she bowls, she makes me feel like a righteous jerk-off, and she looks good doing it. I think,” the evil smile he gave her across the dark interior of the car sent a quick thrill down her spine, “I might have found the whole package.”
“Don’t get cheesy,” she warned. “That’s not attractive.”
Parking at Double Down had spilled over into the lot of the neighboring body shop and Mike came around to open her car door. “Here,” he reached for her hand once the Beemer had locked with a wink of its headlights. Even if she was self-sufficient, she appreciated the big, solid shadow he threw across her as she slid her palm against his and felt his big fingers curl around hers. He wasn’t the kind of guy who got mugged in a parking lot, and Delta felt herself leaning against him as they passed through the shadows and over the median to the bar.
Inside, the place was all dark wood paneling and Sinatra music, gray-haired men playing pool in the back room. Mike still had her hand – she liked how little hers felt inside of his – and he towed her up to the long bar that stretched the back wall. He went to the right like it was habit, pulled out a stool for her and climbed up next to her.
“Okay, so,” he put his elbows up on the bar and leaned toward her, closer than he had to. Their arms bumped into one another and his cologne shot up her nose, same as the night before. She leaned in too. “My brother’s kinda weird. Just be prepared for that.”
“Weird?” Delta sat back, startled, as someone materialized on the other side of the bar, “or enviable?”
He looked nothing like Michael, the guy who stood in front of them in a black Double Down polo. Skinny, plain-faced, with hair that wanted to be curly, she wouldn’t have believed he was related to Mike if she hadn’t been warned.
“Enviable,” Mike said. “All the girls wanna know your diet secrets.”
“Cardio,” the brother said. “In and out of the bedroom.”
“Bedroom? You mean you graduated from the backseat? I’m proud, Jordie.”
The brother’s eyes, flat and disinterested, came to Delta and then went back to Mike. “What can I say, I don’t try as hard as you. You gonna introduce me,” his head tipped in her direction, “or is this just a hit-and-run?”
She drew up, prepared to strike, but Mike reached across the bar and shoved his brother. Just a play shove that pushed him back a step regardless. “Dude. Manners.”
“Oh. So this is the one from Nordstrom then.”
“And she’s sitting right in front of you and isn’t deaf,” Delta said through her teeth.
He shrugged. “My bad.”
“This is my skinny kid brother Jordan,” Mike introduced. “This is Delta, shithead, be nice to her.”
Jordan didn’t so much as hint at a smile. “But of course.” His eyes came to her again; the irises were green with a healthy dose of blue. “What can I getcha?”
Compared to his brother, Mike was downright saccharine. “Chardonnay,” she answered in the same flat tone in which he’d asked.
Mike ordered a beer and sent his brother off with a middle finger that finally managed to get a smirk out of the guy. “Like I said,” Mike’s glance was apologetic as he traced his fingertips across her knuckles on top of the bar. “Weird.”
Delta looked down at her hand swallowed up beneath his and his brother’s rudeness was forgotten in an instant. “Yeah,” she said, almost to herself. “Weird.”