“What do they taste like?”
Tam swallowed – it took a second, and he made a face like he might have to regurgitate what he was trying to push down – but the muscles in his throat rolled and he took another bite of the blackened brownie he’d pried out of the pan with a boning knife. “Shit,” he said with his mouth full, “burned shit.”
Mike chuckled, but inwardly cringed. No one would have been willing to eat the smoking dish of hockey puck-hard dessert Delta had pulled out of the oven…no one but Tam. Mike gave his friend a closer once-over than he had in a while, taking in the way his skin was starting to stretch tight across his face, his eyes ringed with dark, tired half-circles. The t-shirt he’d borrowed hung off shoulders that were going bony and sharp. Mike didn’t know if he couldn’t afford to eat, couldn’t remember to, or didn’t care enough to. None were comforting thoughts.
“I’m gonna order Chinese,” he said, and pushed up from his round little kitchen table. “What do you want?”
Tam’s eyes were a fast snatch of blue, worried and embarrassed over the charred hunk of brownie he was still choking down.
“My treat. I gotta feed the princess anyway.”
“Mongolian beef,” Tam finally said once he’d forced down another bite.
“What kinda soup?”
“Hot and sour,” he said like most men would say a woman’s name, like he was already imagining the taste. Poor bastard.
“I’ll get some egg rolls too,” Mike offered, and earned another grateful/mortified look. He made the call, ordering sesame chicken for Delta and beef for them, and went back to the table. Tam was still picking at the brownies and Mike shoved them away. “Dude, you’re making me sick just watching that.”
Tam licked a crumb off his index finger and shrugged. “So where is she?” he asked, and cast a look toward the living room.
“Up in the office. She needed to send an email.” To Greg, he knew, though she hadn’t said. She’d asked if she could borrow a computer and he’d left her to it, intent on asking for the details of what she’d said later.
“So you’re serious about this one,” it wasn’t a question and it wasn’t said eagerly.
Mike shrugged. He didn’t want to fight about Delta, not with Tam of all people. “I dunno. We’ll see what happens.”
“What happened to Stephanie?”
“I haven’t called her and she hasn’t called me.”
Tam picked charcoal brownie out of a back took with his thumb, frowning. “I just…don’t get pissed at me… but I don’t get it, man.”
“I’m bored,” he said with a shrug, “and she’s not boring.”
“Maybe boring’s better than difficult.”
“Maybe it’s not.” He got to his feet again. “I’m gonna change clothes.” Tam nodded and eyed the brownies again. “I’m gonna remember this, though,” he grinned, “when you finally bring home your own princess, I’m gonna give you such shit.”
Tam made a sound in the back of his throat that wasn’t really a laugh. “Don’t count on that happening.”
Upstairs, Delta was in the spare bedroom he’d set up as an office, her bare feet tucked up in the chair, long, elegant fingers flying over the keys of his desktop Dell.
“I ordered takeout dinner,” he informed as he stepped into the room and drew up behind the chair, his hands finding her delicate, poplin-covered shoulders. Having her in his house felt a bit like being entrusted with some million dollar artifact he didn’t really deserve to touch. The cool part was, though, she didn’t seem to think that. One of her hands left the keyboard and came up to land on top of his, perfectly manicured and lily white against his skin.
“Mmkay,” she said absently, eyes on the computer. A moment later her head tilted back, eyes wide and brown and not scowling at him for once. “This is what I’m sending to Greg. Do you want to read it so you know what it says?”
In theory, her offer was offensive: she didn’t trust him not to blow up at her. But it was sweet, or as close to sweet as she could get, too. She wasn’t hiding anything.
“Sure,” he said, and she slid out of the chair so he could take her place.
She stood beside him, one arm held loosely around her middle while she held a thumbnail between her teeth, waiting. Mike read the email twice, thoroughly impressed with her vocabulary – most of which he didn’t fully understand – and almost felt a little bad for Greg. Without a single insult, or any petty comments, she’d been absolutely cutting and ruthless – the guy had been unmistakably dumped. No way around it.
“You’re wicked,” he said once he was finished, and watched her try and hide a grin behind her hand. “And you’re proud of it, which is even scarier.”
“I’m not proud,” she protested. “I’m not.” The hint of a smile fell away as her hand dropped to her side. “I’m not enjoying this situation.”
“Well, not this part,” he motioned toward the computer screen. Then he took the hem of her skirt between his fingers and towed her to him, until her knees bumped against the side of his thigh and one of her hands was raking through his hair. “But this part…” he opened his palm against her thigh; her navy tights were slick as silk and warm with the heat of her skin as he reached up under her skirt.
She was smiling when she said, “you ordered dinner, remember?”
“Dessert first? Tam ate all the brownies.”
Her smile turned down at the corners. “He did? Those things were ruined.”
“Yeah, well…” his hand had reached her hip and he squeezed, asking her not to get any more curious about Tam and his willingness to eat ruined food. “So,” he hooked his fingers in the waistband of her tights. “You wanna?”
“As romantic as that was,” she chuckled, “you’re gonna have to wait till after dinner, Captain America. Girl’s gotta have some fuel to tackle you.”
Delta woke up the next morning…happy. She didn’t know if it was funny or sad to realize that it had been too long since she’d awakened with a smile on her lips, but either way, when the alarm went off, she was snuggled down in gray satin with Mike wrapped all around her and the solid heat of his skin was more than welcome.
She’d come prepared this time – fresh clothes, toothbrush, makeup, hair dryer – and she got ready for work in his bathroom, working around him like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Thanksgiving’s tomorrow,” he said as he pulled socks out of the top drawer of his black dresser, and she nodded.
“I’m thinking no family meet-and-greet,” she said as she fastened her earrings. “What about you?”
“It’s too soon,” he agreed. “But you can come by here afterward. We can watch a movie.” The look he shot her across the bedroom was a little bit adorable. “And by ‘watch’ I mean have sex on the couch while the movie plays.”
“Subtle,” she said, but had to return the smile. “Sounds good.”
They parted on the driveway, in the still-dark morning, with a long kiss that neither of them wanted to break. Delta headed for work with a giddy catch to her breath that she chastised herself for. But it refused to go away. She was high as a freaking kite, and even if she hated it, she couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
At ten a.m. red roses arrived. The tag read: They’re not blue carnations, princess. And she grinned all the way through her rounds of the sales floor.
But at noon, something else entirely arrived, and a hard knot formed behind her breastbone.
Dennis Brooks was an excellent father on paper. Delta’s childhood had been full of designer dresses, cotillion classes, white gloves, pearls, custom-made dolls that looked like her, violin and horseback riding lessons, trips to plays and poetry readings, vacations in NYC and Hawaii. She’d wanted for nothing, had been denied nothing, and her father’s wallet had been bottomless. But when Delta glanced up at the sound of a rap against her open office door, and her silver-haired, tanned, immaculately suited father stepped in, her stomach dropped out through the soles of her feet. She wasn’t frightened of him, didn’t resent him, didn’t bemoan her adolescence, but the man inspired an anxiety in her she’d never been able to shake. How did a person live up to a legacy like the one he’d laid before her? How, as an only child, did she fulfill all the dreams he’d held for all the offspring he hadn’t had?
“Dad,” she said, startled, half coming out of her chair. His eyes went immediately to the roses on her desk and her pulse kicked into high gear, thumping through the thin vessels in her ears. “What are you doing here?”
He stared at her flowers a long moment, frowning in the semi-permanent, disapproving way he always did, hands in the pockets of his tailored slacks. “Greg called me this morning,” he said without preamble. “And then forwarded me a rather disturbing email.”
Delta’s mouth went dry as she watched him ease down into the chair across from her desk, his brown eyes finally coming to her face, full of censure. He propped his elbows on the arm of the chair and linked his fingers over his stomach.
“Really?” she asked, hoping her voice didn’t quiver too badly. “I didn’t know you two were that close.”
His look told her he didn’t appreciate her playing dumb. “Delta,” he said, “what are you thinking?”
Dennis didn’t believe in small talk; he was a shark, a bloodthirsty one, straight to the bone without so much as a smile to numb the pain. There was no “hi” or “how are you” or “let’s talk this through like we’re both adults”. No, he was the parent, she was the child, and she was doing something that displeased him.
“Greg is perfect for you,” he continued, his expression daring her to disagree.
“Well,” she wet her suddenly dry lips, “technically, that’s true. In a sense. But I don’t like him.”
“That’s ludicrous,” Dennis said. “Of course you do. Why wouldn’t you? He’s intelligent, successful, and well-respected by his peers. He’s just like you. Of course you like him.”
“Dad,” she said patiently, despite the kettle drums in her ears. “I -,”
“And you’re seeing someone else he tells me. No, I’m sorry, you’re sleeping with someone else. Again, I ask, what are you thinking, Delta?”
She wanted to slip beneath her desk and hide until he left. But she’d wanted to do that as a little girl, too, and had never stooped so low. If she never had his undying love, she’d at least have his respect, by God. Denial was pointless – no one denied Dennis Brooks anything.
“Michael,” she said with a nod, palms sweaty where they rested against her thighs. “His name is Michael. And I’m not ‘sleeping’ with him. We’re seeing each other. In an official sense.”
“Oh.” His graying brows gave an unimpressed jump. “Official. Then he must be something special to have warranted your treatment of Greg.”
Special was the word, but it was a kind of special her dad would never understand or approve of.
“Yes,” she said, drawing up tall in her chair. “He is.”
It would have taken a chainsaw to break up the stare-down she suffered through with the man, but finally he stood, with a sudden burst of energy, and gave her a disappointed glance down over his nose. “I’ll expect to meet him, then. This special Michael. Bring him tomorrow.”
Panic surged in her stomach at the thought. “Dad -,”
“Dinner is at three-thirty, don’t be late.”
Delta sat, staring stupidly at the open door once he was gone, watching patrons move and surge out on the floor, listening to the Christmas music pouring through the sound system. She should have known not to let herself feel happy, she thought, because it never lasted. Today was a new record: seven hours.