Delta watched as he hung up his jacket and pulled the knot out of his tie, untucked his shirt and toed off his shoes – they were tossed at the foot of the stairs. He knew she was here – her car was out front – but the slow, deliberate way he came down the hall and went into the kitchen without making eye contact told her he wasn’t ready to shrug off his hurt feelings.
She heard the fridge open and close; a beer bottle opened with the smallest of sounds. And then she heard the hinges of the oven door.
“What the hell’s in here?” he asked, and she guessed it was better than no greeting at all.
“Brownies,” she said, and stood and smoothed her skirt down her thighs. As her shock over Tam’s outburst faded, she started filling up with nerves instead. “I found the mix in your pantry,” she went on, edging toward the kitchen. “I would have made you dinner, but,” she stepped around the half-wall and saw him frowning into his oven, “there was nothing here to make.”
Just as he’d entered the kitchen, his movements were still slow as he eased the door shut and straightened to his full, impressive height. The swallow he took of his beer was slow. The way his eyes strained at the corners so he could look at her without turning his head was slow. “I’m trying really hard not to tell you to get out,” he said, and stared through the open half-wall toward the view of the skyline out his living room window.
If he’d meant to scare her off, he’d done the opposite; Delta felt a warm shot of respect move through her to realize how tightly he was reining in his temper. The knowledge softened her own temper. All men could show anger; it took a special kind to try and control it.
“I know,” she said gently, “and you have every right to. But I’m hoping you’ll talk to me first.”
A muscle in his jaw ticked, but he said nothing.
The speech she’d rehearsed was, she now knew, not going to work. Reminding him that he’d willingly entered the “competition” wouldn’t help her case, so she said all she could think, cringing inwardly. “I’m sorry. Really, Mike, I didn’t set out to hurt you. I -,”
He snorted, a humorless half-smile curling up the corner of his mouth that she could see. “Hurt? Don’t let your ego put words in my mouth.”
“I didn’t lie to you about Greg,” she pressed on, “he came by my place the night I came over here and he was upset -,” Mike rolled his eyes, “and he had a right to be,” Delta said. “As far as he knew, the two of us were happily dating and I wasn’t looking for anyone else.”
“I don’t give a shit what he thinks,” Mike said, and finally looked at her. His expression was the one he’d been wearing out on the sidewalk in front of Nordstrom: harsh and tight and, even if he wouldn’t admit it, hurt. “What did you think? Were you happily dating? Were you just this…perfect damn…sickening couple everyone hated and you just wanted to slum for a little while? Does cheating get you hot? Is that it?”
The first blush of anger went up her throat and through her cheeks, grinding her teeth together. But she took a deep breath. “Greg comes from money and he’s made plenty of his own. He’s the guy who buys presents for no reason and orders dinner for his date and chooses the wine and sends me flowers at work.”
Mike tensed and she thought he meant to turn away from her.
“But,” she added in a rush, “he always orders me steak, which I don’t eat. He never remembers which wines I like. He sends me blue carnations, which I hate. And you know what he brought me Friday night? The night you asked me out for the first time? Chains of Seduction.”
He made a face. “That stupid porn book?”
“Three months we’ve been dating, I have an entire wall stocked with literature…and he buys me the stupid porn book. It’s a physical impossibility that Greg could make me happy.”
Some of the anger was ebbing, but Mike still clung to his doubt and covered it with a scowl. “Then why even be with him?”
“Because…” she couldn’t remember having a conversation like this with anyone save Regina. “Because he’s probably supposed to make me happy,” she admitted, letting her shoulder rest against the rounded corner where the wall ended. “He’s what I’m supposed to want.”
Mike took a long pull on his beer. “That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard.”
She challenged him with lifted brows.
“You either want, or you don’t want, there is no ‘supposed to want’. You know,” his grin was false, “I thought for sure that an ice queen like you wouldn’t be one of those chicks who had to be with somebody. Guess you’re just another no-self-esteem girl who’d rather play two at once than be single.”
“Are you kidding me?” she bristled. “No self-esteem?”
“And we’re back to Greg.”
“Enough,” Delta snapped. “I’ve freaking had enough of this bullshit. I broke up with Greg. He didn’t take it well, you saw that. I’m not seeing him anymore. Can we please just start over and stop hurling our preconceived notions of the opposite sex at one another? We sound like idiots.”
He contemplated it with another swig, green eyes narrowed.
“I’m here,” Delta said, “and I like you against all my better judgment and I have a vase of beat up red roses on my dresser at home.” Surprise softened his expression. “But this is humiliating, so it’s a limited time offer.”
When he said nothing for one…two...three…four seconds, she sighed and backed out of the kitchen. She’d tried. She’d made a fool of herself. She’d struck out.
Her hand was on her scarf where it lay over the back of a chair when his hand curled around her elbow. Delta turned and all the guarded anger had left his face. He was stressed, doubtful, boyish, full of all the human things Greg had never shown her.
“I...I got a little too invested too fast,” he said, and blasted all those preconceived notions of hers to bits. Men didn’t say that. No one said that.
“Yeah, I know,” she smiled.
“You won’t hold it against me?”
And she wouldn’t.
He glanced away from her, nostrils flaring. “What’s burning?”
“Oh, shit! The brownies.”