Delta spent New Year’s eve in Mike’s office, the whole eighteen story building dark around them, the blinds pulled all the way up on their cords, fireworks bursting red and green and white and gold over the midnight skyline, the champagne in their Solo cups warm and fizzing. Two days later, she went to see her father.
“He’s balancing his checkbook,” Mrs. Miller informed her at the door, which meant he wouldn’t be in a good mood. Delta squared her shoulders and went to his study anyway.
His silver head was bent over his desk, the gold college ring on his right hand glimmering in the sunlight as he punched numbers into his calculator. He still went through every withdrawal and deposit one by one with calculator and, sometimes, pen and paper, a system she couldn’t very well fault given how successful he’d been. She knew he heard the soft brush of her heels against the rug, because he heard everything, but he didn’t acknowledge her at first.
“Hi, Dad,” she greeted as she settled onto the tufted leather sofa across from his desk. As the backs of her legs hit the leather, a sudden, sun-faded memory splashed across the back of her mind. Her knees on the rug, her slight, six-year-old fingers hiding M&Ms in the button tufts, sunlight playing across the colored candy shells. The Walkers didn’t know it, though Mike was starting to: she’d been a little girl just like all other little girls, even though the house around her had been grand. “Checkbook?” she asked, and crossed her legs at the knee.
“Hmm,” he acknowledged.
“Did you and Mom have a nice trip?”
“Your mother got sunburned and then refused to leave the room because she looked like a lobster,” he said dryly. “I spent the whole week listening to her bitch and moan.”
“So it was better than last year’s trip,” she said with a small smile she quickly wiped away.
“Suppose it was,” he conceded, and finally lifted his head. He gave her the careful, assessing look he might give a potential business partner. The sunlight deepened the wrinkles streaking back from his eyes – the products of years of tanning and frowning. “I take it you spent your holiday with that boy of yours.”
Boy was not meant as an endearment. Greg he’d called a man, Mike was a boy. He was at least ten years younger than Greg, but Dennis didn’t know that; he’d deemed him less than worthy for other reasons.
“With Mike, yes,” she said. “That’s why I’m here to see you, actually.”
“If you’re running away with him and want money to live on, don’t bother asking,” he said, and his gaze fell back to the scratch paper he worked his figures on.
“Dad,” she sighed, “you know he isn’t a pauper.”
“What I know,” his head came up again, anger bubbling beneath his calm exterior, “is that you have a bad habit of settling for men who don’t even deserve to occupy the same room as you.”
She wasn’t sick and weak and in the hospital this time, wasn’t surprised. She’d steeled herself for this very conversation. “Bad habit?” she asked. “I haven’t done anything habitually. I made a mistake years ago – with, I might add, a boy you and Mom loved at the time – and you can believe that not a day goes by that I don’t worry I’ll make a mistake like that again.
“I don’t have a problem with ‘men’,” she continued. “I had a problem with Brody when I was sixteen. And his coldness meant I had a likewise problem with the equally cold Lucas two years ago. And with your favorite, Greg. I don’t have a bad habit, Dad, I have a bad pool to pick from.”
His frown deepened, the lines on his face becoming fissures. “Greg is -,”
“Greg is a very successful lawyer looking for a very expensive piece of arm candy. That’s all I was to him.”
“You would have been well taken care of,” Dennis countered. “You couldn’t hope for better -,”
“I don’t need to be taken care of financially,” Delta squared her shoulders against the back of the sofa. “I have money. I want to be with someone who can offer me more than that.”
“Do you realize how ridiculous you sound?” he asked.
“Do you realize how ridiculous you sound?”
He gave her a look that had always sent the staff running. Delta kept her spine stiff and waited. “God,” he finally breathed and glanced away from her, taking his chin in his hand. “Sometimes I wish you were more like your mother.”
“No, you don’t,” she said, and thought he almost smiled.
“No. But I could distract you with something shiny and be done with this conversation.” He glanced at her sideways and the smile she thought she’d seen crept into existence. “I should be flattered, I guess. You’re more like me – you know what you want and go after it.”
“I don’t think you’re giving Mom enough credit. She wanted a rich husband and she got one.”
“True.” He sighed again and some of the carefully held tension in his face and shoulders left him. He looked older. Tired. Wistful maybe. “I remember,” he mused, and she knew he was about to wax nostalgic, “you as just a little thing, hiding candy in the buttons of that sofa.”
A warm, welcome strand of emotion uncurled in her chest; they shared the same memory.
“You used to call me ‘Daddy’,” he said sadly, “you were this perfect little part of me. And then you…” he didn’t say it, but she knew what it was she’d done. The warm wine. The awkward tumble of shame and anxiety and excitement to be skin-on-skin with her high school sweetheart for the first time. The test stick. The panic. The clinic. The grief she’d poured into her pillow.
She swallowed hard. “That didn’t change who I am.”
He ran a finger across the rim of an empty crystal tumbler in front of him. “Do you really believe that?”
Her eyes fell to the rug, to the toes of her high-heeled boots. “No,” she said quietly. “I didn’t used to be frightened all the time.”
“Are you afraid now?”
She knew he wasn’t speaking in general terms. Was she afraid of her new relationship? Of the tight ball of sentiments that kept expanding in her chest, drawing her in closer to Mike? That’s what he wanted to know. “A little,” she admitted, which was only half true because she was a lot afraid.
“Sometimes fear is our subconscious trying to warn us away from things,” he said in his patented, paternal voice full of what he thought was so much wisdom. When she’d been younger, hiding candy in sofa buttons, impressionable and impressed, he’d used that voice on her and she’d nodded along in complete agreement. Now, no matter how frightened she was, it had no effect on her.
She picked her eyes back up from the floor and met his. “Mike’s not a mistake,” she said, and putting it into words for the first time solidified it in her mind. He wasn’t. He really, really wasn’t. “I think…” she felt a smile tugging, “I think he might love me.”
“Thinking isn’t knowing,” Dennis warned.
“Thinking is better than anything I’ve ever had before.” She took a deep breath. “Please, Daddy, don’t make it hard for him to love me.”
He regarded her a long moment, finger lapping the tumbler’s rim four times, before he finally exhaled, shoulders dropping. “Something else you have in common with your mother: I could never refuse you anything.”