The house. Holy shit, the house. Sitting at the curb out in front of it, Mike had to move his head and take turns looking at the two great white wings of it that were nestled between ivy-covered trees. The windows, all its windows, caught the sun and shattered it. Three great brick stoops, ivy climbing up the portico columns, faced the walk, each grander than the one before, the one in the middle clearly the main entrance.
“Breathe,” Delta said in the passenger seat.
Had he stopped? He didn’t know. All he knew was that Buckhead was full of people like him who had stumbled into good jobs and wanted to start living the good life…and then there was Delta’s family. She’d been born in Buckhead. In this Holy Shit house. He might as well have been wearing overalls and had a stalk of hay between his teeth for how much he didn’t belong here.
“Pull in at the drive up there,” Delta instructed, and he finally tore his eyes from the house and took his foot off the brake.
He rolled up along the curb and turned onto a cobbled drive. The gate was a massive piece of iron that belonged in front of a cemetery. Looking at it left his palms clammy.
“You’ll have to punch in the code,” she said, and he could tell she was losing patience.
He buzzed down his window and leaned through. His hands were sweating like crazy. It took more than one try to hit the numbers in the correct order, but the gate finally swung open and admitted them to a cobbled parking pad that faced a five car garage.
“I’m gonna throw up,” Mike said, and felt bile stinging the back of his throat.
“No, you’re not.” Her hand landed on his arm and her nails bit into his skin through his sleeve. “You’re fine. Take a deep breath.”
“No, I really am. I…” he swallowed hard. He hadn’t been this nervous in his life.
“Michael,” Delta’s voice was about as soft as broken glass as she grabbed his jaw and turned his head toward her. “This will be fine,” she spoke to him like he was a child. “We’ll just eat, and then leave. In and out.”
Yesterday afternoon, when she’d called him after lunch, he’d been more suspicious than anything. Why did her parents want to meet him? Didn’t they know it was too soon for that? They weren’t trying to scare him off, were they? Or, even worse, Delta wasn’t…right? But now, as his pulse throbbed in his ears, all those worries had faded into the dull, red periphery of the panic attack that was fast mounting. Her parents were wealthy. She wasn’t just a princess in the figurative sense; now more than ever, she felt so far, far out of his league that he was plagued with the sudden fright that this was all some sort of practical joke played at his expense. Was there a hidden camera in the little headband that was holding Delta’s hair off her face? Was she going to enjoy bringing a hick to dinner as some sort of sick sport?
But under the harsh clench of her jaw, he thought he saw a tremor of anxiety. It gave him hope, but didn’t ease his nausea.
“No dirty jokes,” she warned. “No feet on the coffee table. Okay?”
“Okay. Get out first and walk around to get me because someone’s probably watching from a window.”
“Vomit. I am so going to vomit.”
“Stop saying that,” she hissed and then let go of him and turned away with a smile that was all for show; dear God, someone was watching them.
Mike gulped down a deep breath, shook himself all over, and pulled the keys out of the ignition. The slap of cool air across his face when he climbed out of his Beemer helped quiet his heaving stomach, but it didn’t make his legs any more steady as he walked around to the passenger door. Movement at a lower window, just a twitch of curtains that he might have imagined, squeezed his chest, his breath coming in shallow draws. Get it together, he told himself with a scowl, and opened the door for Delta.
She was in a fitted cream sweaterdress and her long legs and black velvet pumps unfurling down to the cobbles were enough to capture his attention and still his spinning nerves. At least for the time it took her to accept the hand he offered and climb gracefully from the car. She smoothed the skirt of her dress and gave him a slow smile that wasn’t really for his benefit, but for that of whoever was spying on them. Her hand went in the crook of his elbow after he’d shut the door. She’d worn skyscraper stilettos and the top of her head actually came up above his shoulder.
“Breathe,” she reminded again in a whisper, and the walk to the front door began. “Pretend my dad’s a Doberman,” she said, voice the lightest brush of sound as he tried not to stare at the house. Their shoes sounded too loud against the cobbles. “Don’t look him straight in the eye.”
“You know,” he didn’t whisper as well as she did and her nails dug into his arm again, “maybe you shouldn’t have brought me. Or at least told me to bring some Milkbones for your Doberman dad.”
She sighed but said nothing, which was as good as agreeing with him.
“For what it’s worth,” she said as they reached wide brick stoop of the closest door, “I would never have brought you today if it were up to me.”
“Never,” he fiddled with his tie for the hundredth time since they’d left his townhouse. “That’s sweet.”
Her brows did their angry slant routine. “Because I didn’t want to pressure you, moron, not because I didn’t want you here.”
“And now I’m a moron.”
“Oh…would you just pull yourself together already? If you’re going to act like this maybe you should just…”
The black lacquered door in front of them swept inward with a soft sound.
“…leave,” Delta murmured, but clearly, it was too late for that.
The woman on the other side of the threshold reminded Mike of his own mother: that extra weight Beth called “healthy”, sandy blonde hair piled on her head with a clip, a white apron tied on over her floral long-sleeved dress. She wasn’t what he’d expected and the sight of her soothed his anxiety a fraction.
“Mike, this is -,” Delta started with the introductions, but Mike beat her to the punch.
“Hi, Mrs. Brooks,” he extended a hand, “Mike Walker. Your house is beautiful, it -,”
“Oh, honey,” she said, and took his hand in both of hers, smiling, crow’s feet deepening in a way that proved she’d smiled a lot in her life. “Aren’t you cute.”
“Mike,” Delta sighed. “This is Mrs. Miller. Our housekeeper.”
“House…?” He didn’t know what kind of face he was making – the whole thing was numb – but it made the housekeeper laugh.
“Delta, he’s cute,” Mrs. Miller repeated, and Mike opened his hand and let it fall away from hers. “And big too.” Her eyes did an up and down sweep of him that was somehow maternal. “Wait till your mama sees him.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Delta’s voice had become exhausted and lifeless. But her claws dug into him again and she pulled him along. “Come on, let’s go meet my actual mother.”
The room they entered was an opulent sitting room lined with bookcases. Through an open pair of French doors, he glimpsed stainless steel and white tile that must have been the kitchen, but that wasn’t where Delta led him. They went down a long gallery that ran the front of the house, stepping around tables full of flowers and over rugs that had to be genuine Orientals. Light fell in through the windows, glittering off expensive knick-knacks he didn’t have the chance to stop and inspect. Mike had a sudden mental image of his dad in this house, poking at things that shouldn’t be touched and whistling and making a total dumbass of himself…and realized that if Delta hadn’t been towing him along, he would have done the same thing.
When the floors went from hardwood to marble, when the ceiling went shooting up above them – two, maybe three stories – the urge to puke returned. He swallowed it down, barely, and decided that they were in the foyer. And then they rounded the corner into something out of Cinderella and he didn’t decide anything else for a while.
The thing about people with money, the truly wealthy and not just suddenly-rich singing sensations: they weren’t flashy. The sprawling great room and its curved staircase, its fireplace you could park a car inside, was a study in subtle cream and beige tones. No clutter. No gold and diamonds. Just expensive, solid furnishings, another Oriental rug, and a minimalistic design style straight out of a magazine. This was Cinderella alright…only Delta was playing the role of the prince, and Mike was the cleaning girl.
The woman perched on a chaise flipping through a magazine glanced up at their approach and she reminded Mike nothing of his mother. Fit and thin, in a clinging midnight dress, only the faintest tracing of lines on her face hinted at her age. Botox, he thought before he could stop himself. Her hair was probably dark like her daughter’s, but was full of golden highlights. She had Delta’s alabaster skin and dark coffee eyes, the little nose…she was stunning. And she knew it, too, uncrossing her long legs and rising to her feet with a practiced little twitch of her hips.
Delta’s hand slipped from the crook of his elbow and Mike realized she’d been holding him up. He yanked at his tie and tried not to look pathetic as Delta stepped forward to greet her mother.
“Beautiful girl,” the mother greeted like something out of an SNL skit, and she and Delta clasped hands and gave each other an air-kiss on the cheek. Then her eyes came to him, latching on bright and hungry and very not-maternal. “Who did you bring, Delta? This isn’t Greg.”
Delta’s glance was apologetic. “No, Mom,” she said while she shot him a pleading look. “This is Michael.”
“Ooh, Michael.” The way she said his name would have come with a complimentary lap dance most places. “Well aren’t you -,”
“This is my mom Louise,” Delta cut her off with a frozen, pained smile. “She’s very friendly.”
The comment halted Louise in her horrifying lean – she just kept leaning and Mike had no idea where she intended to put her hands once she got close enough – and she gave her daughter a sharp glance, sniffing. “You don’t have to be rude, Delta.”
“Wasn’t trying to be.”
Mike had never appreciated Delta’s coldness more than when Louise’s eyes came back to him – well, parts of him – and she smiled in a way no mother should have smiled at her kid’s date. “You’ll have to forgive her,” Louise said, eyes going almost cat-like, “I always tried to teach her better but she takes after her father. Speaking of…have you met my husband yet?”
“No, ma’am.” He swallowed and the sides of his throat stuck together.
“I’ll go find him.” Her departure was a relief, but she turned to shoot them, or maybe just him, a wink over her shoulder. “Don’t get too comfy; I’m coming right back.”
Her footsteps echoed for long moments after she’d disappeared from sight, and it was only when he could no longer hear them that Mike let his knees finally give out and sat down hard on the edge of the chair behind him.
“Your mom’s trying to put the moves on me,” he said woodenly. And then, more indignant: “your mom’s trying to put the moves on me.”
“You see how fun it is to be me?” Delta quipped, but then her fingernails raked gently back through his hair. “I’m sorry. This is going to be terrible and…I’m so sorry.”
He glanced up at her and saw the genuine apology marring her pretty face. Her eyes said she agreed that this was ridiculous and unnecessary, but they asked him to tough it out too. Please, they said. And Mike didn’t think it was the promise of thank you sex that kept him from bolting for the door. It was the challenge. Delta was a challenge, her family was, this Thanksgiving was…everything about her dared him to stay the course, tested her worth in his eyes. He didn’t just want to sleep with her, he realized – he’d already done that, anyway – but he wanted her to care. He wanted her to be the one with the emotional investment. Because for some reason, getting this particular girl to care would feel like the biggest win in the world.
“If your dad tries to feel me up, I swear to God, I’ll just be a human-shaped hole through the front door.”
She quirked a grin. “My dad feels you up, I’ll be right behind you.”