Delta Brooks was not the sort of girlfriend a guy went to work and forgot about, or who he put off for another night or two while he went trolling for alternatives. She was monopolizing. She was a full-time job. And Mike loved it.
He couldn’t afford her parents’ lifestyle, and he told her as much on Thanksgiving, around four in the morning, in her bed, as her eyelids fluttered in the dark and sleep threatened to pull her under. “I don’t care about that,” she’d murmured in that sleepy you-did-me-good voice he enjoyed so much, and to her credit, she hadn’t pressured him about money once.
He took her bowling, took her to dinner at franchise restaurants with mediocre food, took her to the movies, tried like hell to take her where she wanted to be between the sheets at night. She tested him – every second she tested his intelligence, his kindness, his patience – and he had a feeling it was all done out of some insecurity she’d never admit to having; she didn’t want there to be a shred of doubt in her pretty little mind that she’d made the right decision in keeping him around.
His final test – the biggie – came three days before Christmas.
They’d both agreed that they weren’t going to repeat the Thanksgiving debacle of family visiting. They were going to have a dinner and movie night, he would give her the gift she’d told him not to get her, and they wouldn’t see each other until all family activities were safely over. Mike arrived at her door at seven, as agreed, the wrapped box in his jacket pocket feeling heavy and giving him heartburn. He knocked three times before she answered, and then the sight of her shocked him backward a step.
Her skin was the color of paste, slick and sallow. Whatever eye makeup she’d been wearing had been rubbed clean and her brown irises looked almost black against the red-rimmed whites. She was wearing the navy skirt she worked in, but was barefoot and without her usual tights, shirtless and in just a white, lace-edged bra. She leaned heavily against the door, breathing in shallow little huffs that left her abs looking sunken and clenched. He didn’t think it was possible for her not to look beautiful – she still somehow managed – but she looked terrible too.
“What’s wrong?” Mike put a hand against her ribcage and eased her back away from the door, holding her up as he stepped inside and shut it behind him. Her pulse was a fast, fluttering beat against his palm. “Delta,” he laid his other hand against the side of her face; her skin was clammy. “What’s the matter, sweetheart?”
She swallowed hard, an audible gulp. Wet her lips. “I -,” her eyes widened and she snatched away from him. When she went rushing back to her bedroom, he guessed the reason. It was confirmed as he followed at a safe distance and heard her retching in the adjoining bathroom. He waited until the toilet flushed before he propped a shoulder in the doorjamb.
Delta was sitting on the floor, her back against the edge of her tub, knees drawn up to her chest, feet apart at an unladylike angle. She held her forehead in both hands and Mike couldn’t tell if she was crying or just trying to catch her breath.
“Baby?” he prodded.
“I can’t stop throwing up,” she croaked. “I had to leave work early. I -,” she lunged for the toilet again and Mike didn’t know if he was supposed to go hold her hair back, or if he even could. It didn’t matter, though, because a moment later she eased back against the tub with a groan. The pathetic sight of her finally drew him into the room and he sat down on the edge of the tub. She sagged against his leg almost immediately.
“Did you catch something?” he asked, stroking a hand across the top of her silken head. A disturbing thought pricked at the back of his mind. “You’re not…you aren’t…pregnant, are you?”
“No,” she snapped, and pressed a hand over her mouth like she was trying to suppress a gag.
“So I guess dinner’s a no-go then?”
“Asshole,” she said, but her hand came up and curled around his knee, holding on for dear life.
He stroked her hair, not knowing if it helped, because that’s what his mother had always done for him and his siblings when they’d been sick. She’d stroked their hair and told them how sorry she was and offered to bring them things. “Do you want some water?” he asked. “Crushed ice? Wet washcloth?”
“No,” she murmured. Her temple was pressed to his calf and he imagined he could feel the flutter of her lashes through his jeans. “No, thank you.”
When she went a good ten minutes without puking, he asked, “You want me to take you into the other room?” Her skin was covered in gooseflesh and her spine against the hard tub made his own ache in sympathetic pain. “You can’t be comfortable.”
He thought she’d refuse, but instead nodded. Her hand slipped off his knee and she sat up straighter. “I’m cold,” she admitted.
Mike got to his feet and reached for her clammy hand. He could see her ribs through her skin and wondered how much weight she’d lost just in one afternoon. “Alright, come on, princess,” he said and pulled her to her feet.
She rolled her eyes – or, at least, he thought she did. They kept rolling, until all he saw were the whites, and her hand went limp inside of his. Mike caught her with both arms as her knees went to jelly and all of her muscles let go at once. Her head lolled lifeless onto his shoulder and a sharp, cold bolt of fear went streaking through him.
“Hey,” he pushed her hair back off her face with a shaking hand, but her eyes didn’t open. “Shit.”
He’d never called 9-1-1 in his life, not even when he’d broken his collar bone playing football with his brothers and had driven himself to the hospital one-handed with his teeth grinding together. But he dialed now.
The diagnosis was severe dehydration, the cause not yet known, but Mike was just glad to see Delta awake, some of her color coming back. She was hooked up to an IV in a bed out in the middle of everything, her need for a room to be determined once they’d figured out why she kept puking. Mike had nicked a chair and sat at her elbow, talking mostly to himself. She stared at the ceiling, not responding, but she had her fingers laced through his and kept squeezing. For a moment, earlier, he’d thought she’d meant to thank him, but the words had died in her throat and she’d swallowed hard, glancing away.
“By the way,” he said as his eyes fell on the well-dressed couple moving toward them from the ER waiting room. “I called your parents.”
“You what?” Delta went jackknifing upright in bed, only to clutch at her stomach and ease back down to the pillow. “You did?” she asked, her eyes wild and dark as they latched onto his face. He didn’t know how her fingers had the strength to squeeze his so hard. “Are they coming?”
“They’re here,” he said with a wince, and her shocked, dismayed face tipped up and her gaze moved beyond his shoulder.
“Mom. Dad,” she said woodenly. “You came.”
Mike wanted to come out of his chair when he felt Dennis Brooks’ hand clap down on his shoulder.
“Of course we did,” Louise said, going around to the far side of her daughter’s bed and taking up her other hand between both of hers. “What’s wrong with you? Michael said you were…” she made a face, lipstick-red lips curling up in distaste, “vomiting.”
Dennis’s hand left Mike’s shoulder as he moved to stand at the foot of the bed, arms folded, tanned face tense. At first Mike thought he was worried. But he wasn’t.
“Delta,” her father said, “you’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
Mike felt a little like he’d been slapped. Not because he was afraid that she really was pregnant, but because he couldn’t quite believe any father was so cold as to glare down at his sick, hooked-to-an-IV daughter and ask her that question like it was the worst possibility in the world. Almost a month and a half he’d been seeing this girl and a man – any man, even her father – looming over her while she was sick was pushing all kinds of buttons inside of him. Protective, quick-tempered buttons that had him leaning forward in his chair.
“No, Dad,” Delta said in a small, tired voice. “It’s just food poisoning or something.”
Dennis put his hands on his hips. “And why am I supposed to believe that? You’ve clearly,” he gestured to Mike, “lost all sense when it comes to men. Why shouldn’t I think -,”
“Stop,” she pulled both her hands away from the ones that held them, clenched them over her stomach. She blinked hard. “Daddy, please, not here. Please don’t -,”
“It would be just like you,” Dennis ignored her while her mother looked on silently, “to put me in this kind of…embarrassing…situation again. You’re not sixteen anymore, Delta. You can’t expect me to keep cleaning up your messes.”
Mike watched tears form in her eyes that she batted away furiously. Her breathing was irregular again, like before, her complexion too pale.
“If you’re pregnant again….” Dennis continued, and Mike’s brain took the word pregnant in hand and stepped away from the moment. Locked onto what exactly pregnant again meant and all he heard was, “mistake,” over Scotch and all he saw were the tears slipping down Delta’s cheeks.
Mike came to his feet in a bowed-up, angry rush that pulled everyone’s eyes and left Louise gasping. More often than not, being six-four came in really friggin’ handy. “Shut up,” he said before he could clamp a lid down on his anger. Dennis frowned at him, but he was frowning up at him, and Mike didn’t care how much Daddy Warbucks disapproved of him at the moment. “Just shut up and quit making her cry. She’s sick and I didn’t call you so you could come down here and get her upset.”
Dennis started to say something.
“And if she was pregnant,” Mike cut him off, “you wouldn’t have to worry about it.” He flicked a glance to Delta, but her eyes were shut. “I may be some stupid hick, but I’m not an asshole who’d stand here yelling at her about being pregnant.”
Louise was close to hyperventilating, her manicured hands held on either side of her mouth. Two nurses had stopped in their tracks and were staring at him. Dennis Brooks was probably planning a phone call to a high-dollar hit man.
Oh, shit, Mike thought, but he didn’t want to take it back. Not after he’d felt Delta’s trembling hand against his leg, not after he’d carried her into her living room and held her lifeless body while he called the paramedics, not after he’d realized he was invested enough to not be rattled by pregnancy.
“Are you brave, or stupid?” Dennis asked after the longest stare-down in recorded history.
“Little bit of both. Sir.”
He nodded. “Come, Louise,” he said with a snap of his fingers, and his wife came like a dog being called.
Mike watched them go, wanting to be sure they didn’t turn back. He was glad to be rid of them, but hated that they could be driven away from their daughter so easily. His own mom would have been in a chair beside his bed, ready to throw down with anyone who tried to shoo her away. Delta’s family, well….
He dropped back down into his chair and traced a finger down the smooth white inside of her forearm. Her eyes were still shut tight, the corners shiny wet with tears. Her delicate nostrils were flared, her chest fluttering under the t-shirt he’d put her in before the paramedics had arrived. “They’re gone,” he offered, because he didn’t know what else to say.
She nodded and the muscles in her throat worked as she swallowed.
“Do you need me to flag down a nurse?”
“No,” she said, voice a breathy, shaking ghost of what it usually was. “I’m fine.”
“Delta,” he passed his thumb over the fine bones of her wrist. “I didn’t really mean to -,”
“You heard what he said,” she interrupted, “right? You heard it?”
She meant the pregnant part. “Yeah.”
She swallowed again and wet her lips, eyes opening and going to the ceiling. “I don’t have a child out there in the world somewhere, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“I’m not wondering anything.”
A deep breath hitched in her throat. “I was sixteen,” she said to the acoustic tiles overhead, “and not careful enough. I got pregnant. I got an abortion. My father likes to hold it over my head.” She said it like she hoped to sound indifferent, like she didn’t want him to pursue it further or think her weak. Almost like she wanted to shock him. She was cold, she was unfeeling, she didn’t have any room in her life for regret.
But she sounded terrified. Terrified that he’d think less of her, that he’d think she was some kind of slut the way her father did. Terrified that she would continue to make big, life-altering mistakes.
Mike wanted to pick Dennis Brooks up by his fancy lapels and chuck him headfirst through a window.
She did, in fact, have food poisoning. Delta took the nausea meds she was given and made a mental note to never eat at the deli down the street from the mall again. With strict orders to drink all the Gatorade she could handle, she was turned loose just after one in the morning. Mike drove her home, walked her up, twisted the top off a Gatorade for her because she was still too weak to do much of anything. Shredded by fatigue and a sore throat, she was powerless against the overwhelming tide of hurt and embarrassment the night’s revelation had brought.
She’d never intended to tell Mike about her abortion, least of all like this, with her parents and a whole hospital staff present. She could feel his contempt, his shock and opposition. She wasn’t just cold – she was as cold as they came. He couldn’t want that. Couldn’t care about that. He already wasn’t the sort of posh and polished man she should have been with, but now he knew her darkest truth. A cold man would have seen the wisdom of her decision. Her father’s decision. Mike was thinking she was a monster – he had to be.
Near tears again and afraid she couldn’t stop them, Delta shuffled into her bedroom and shed her clothes, not caring if he watched. She pulled a loose, soft cotton nightshirt out of her dresser drawer and slipped it on over her head, her back to the open door. Mike was still there, lingering, and she didn’t want to face him. She went to her bed and turned down the covers, set her drink on the nightstand. The sheets were cool and soft on her skin and if nothing else, sleep would bring a relief to the hellish evening of puke and professions.
Mike was standing in the doorway when she finally lifted her head. He’d pulled out his shirttail at the hospital and looked rumpled and tired, his strong, angular face lined with fatigue and…something else. She could just make out the green of his eyes from this distance.
“I don’t think I’ll pass out and need catching again,” she said with a pitiful attempt at a smile. “Thank you for…helping me.”
“I’m sorry I ruined our plans for the night. Maybe after Christmas, if you still want to -,”
“Delta,” he said more firmly.
“Or if you’d like to take some time -,”
“Delta, am I gonna have to tell you to shut up too?” he asked, and she finally closed her mouth, shame pressing down on her hard. His expression softened further. “Sweetheart,” he started moving into the room a step at a time, “what you told me tonight doesn’t change anything for me.”
Her eyes started to fill and she didn’t want to look at him anymore.
“I mean, I kinda want to knock the shit outta your dad…” he made an attempt at a smile, but became serious again when she didn’t return it, “but all I am right now is worried about you. I’m…crazy…about you, and I don’t care what happened when you were sixteen.”
He didn’t feel contempt. Wasn’t repulsed. Didn’t hate her for the coldness. He looked at her and it was like he was tunneling all the way back to her past and witnessing the tears she’d shed back then, the nightmares – his look told her all of that and more.
She tried to fight them, but the tears came; salty and hopped-up on IV fluids, they came pouring out, accompanied with a ripping sensation deep in her chest and stomach. Through them, she watched Mike ditch his shoes and clothes, and he came around to the other side of the bed in his boxers. He climbed in beside her and nothing had ever felt as good as his arm around her, the solid warmth of his skin as he pulled her into his side.
She didn’t know if she cried for what she’d lost as a teenager, or for the confused tangle of emotions inside her now. Either way, Mike telling her that he was sorry against the top of her head was the only answer that made any sense.
She didn’t expect to sleep through the night, but suddenly her eyes were snapping open and morning light was streaming in through the drapes neither of them had thought to close the night before. She was on her side, curled up in the fetal position, and as awareness solidified, so did the gnawing, empty ache in her stomach. The inside of her mouth felt like sandpaper, she’d pulled a muscle somewhere in her core, but the nausea was just a dull echo of what it had been the night before.
She rolled over, slowly, and realized she was alone in bed. He’s gone, she thought with a deep, resonating sadness. She pushed up on an elbow and realized that the covers had been tucked in around her, that there was a fresh bottle of Gatorade on her nightstand and that Mike’s shoes were tucked under her tufted chair, his shirt thrown over the arm. He’s not gone, gave her just enough energy to climb out of bed.
Delta gagged once while she brushed her teeth, but didn’t hurl. Which was progress. Her reflection was horrific: her hair a tangled, limp mess, her skin still sallow, dark bags beneath her eyes. She’d never washed her face, her makeup instead had been sweated and rubbed off. But the prospect of cleaning herself up was too daunting. She tied her hair back in a messy knot and went to find Mike, hoping he wasn’t too disgusted by her.
He was in the kitchen, in his khakis and white under shirt, eating something over her kitchen sink and watching the street below through the window. He turned at the sound of her bare feet across the hardwood. “You’re up,” he greeted. “How’re you feeling?”
She sat down at her little dinner-for-two café table. “Don’t you have work?”
“I’ve got a ton of vacation days.” It was toast he was eating, she could see, and he popped the last bite in his mouth. “And I called the store and told them you wouldn’t be in.”
“Oh.” She propped her chin in her hand because her head felt too heavy to hold up. “Well I was going to go in.”
“No you weren’t.”
She didn’t argue.
“You want something?” he propped a hand on the counter and turned to face her. “Mom always made us dry toast when we puked as kids. It doesn’t taste great, but the bright side, it doesn’t taste any worse coming back up.”
She had to smile. It had been her intention to refuse any further offers of help and send him off to work, but all she could think about was the night before: crazy about you, a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and all the sweetness her parents didn’t possess. And here he was now, barefoot in her kitchen, wanting to make her toast.
He was precious.
“I might be able to choke some down,” she said, and watched him pull more of her organic, spelt flour bread out of the freezer and pop it into her toaster oven. He watched it brown with comical earnest, burned his thumb getting it out and cussed about it. He brought her two slices on a paper towel and yet another Gatorade.
“You should keep drinking,” he reminded as he sat down across from her. “Doc said.”
Another tired smile tugged at her lips as she broke off a corner of toast and contemplated it. “Thank you,” she said, lifting her eyes to meet his. “Thank you so much.”
He shrugged. “It’s just toast.”
Her smile widened. “No, I mean…” she needed to take a deep breath for some reason, “thank you for last night. For being the kind of guy who can handle vomit and ER visits and my dad and…” my secret, she thought, but didn’t say.
He watched her a long moment while she fiddled with her toast corner, his hair flat and spiky from sleep. He needed to shave and he’d probably borrowed her toothbrush again; the image of his big, bare arms in his wifebeater furthered the contrast between him and her father. Delta felt something deep in her aching, raw stomach that was warm and tingling and had nothing to do with food poisoning. His expression told her he was probably feeling it too.
“Sit tight,” he said, and slid out of his chair, left the kitchen and headed toward the front door. Delta forced down a bite of toast in his absence and prayed it stayed down. When he returned a moment later, he had a square little box in his hand wrapped in red and gold striped paper. “Here,” he set it on the table with a smile he tried to hide and sat down across from her again.
Delta rubbed the crumbs off her fingertips and stared at the box, pulse coming to attention.
“It’s not that,” he said.
With a sheepish half-smile, she picked it up and peeled off the tape on the bottom, unfolded the paper. The box was white and plain. There was a necklace inside: a dainty silver chain with a tiny silver charm that was a crown. With a glittering clear stone set in the middle. She pulled it out and held it up to the light, watched it catch the morning sun that came in through the window.
“It’s white gold,” Mike said in an uncertain voice, “and that’s a real diamond, not a fake, I swear.”
Her gaze swept up from the necklace and to his face and she saw a blush rising along his cheekbones.
“My brother got his wife one of those heart necklace thingies from Kay, but I knew you’d hate it. And I thought…I dunno…I thought you’d like something original better.”
Delta wasn’t sure she’d ever wanted to hug someone the way she wanted to hug him now. “You thought right,” she said, and felt a lump forming in her throat. “Very right.”
His smile was wide and white and pleased; she just wanted more of it.
“My parents are going to Barbados for Christmas,” she blurted before she could stop herself. “They leave tonight and I’m not going because I have work and…” she took another deep breath, “I know we said we’d keep Christmas separate but I…I don’t want to.”
Surprised and happy, he tried to hide it, showed her just a trace of a smile. “You know that means seeing my family again, right?”
She curled her hand tight around the little white gold and diamond crown in her hand. Princess, he called her, and he’d given her a crown. She nodded. “I don’t care.”