It took at least ten seconds for Mike to roll New York around in his head and realize what that meant. He pushed himself up so he was sitting upright across from her, frowning. “New York? Did you take the job?”
She drew her knees up to her chin and folded her arms around them, diamond finding moonbeams to play with. Even in the dark, he could see the guarded, aloof nature he’d thought she was shaking off come across her face, shutting him out. “Not yet,” she said, and he felt like he’d been punched.
“Not yet? But you’re going to? Are you -,” the bitter, acid taste of anger came up the back of his throat and he closed his mouth before he could say something he shouldn’t.
Delta pushed her hair back with the hand that wore his ring and had the nerve to meet his gaze and say, “I owe it to myself to at least consider accepting.”
“And you were gonna tell me…when?…after we got married?”
“This was always my plan, Michael,” her voice took on a sharp edge. “I’m too well educated to work the retail floor the rest of my life.”
A plan she hadn’t seen fit to tell him about before tonight. A future she hadn’t wanted to share with him and was now dropping over him like a bucket of cold water. All the progress he thought he’d been making with her was a sham. She could take his heart and take his ring and then calmly tell him that she was “considering” New York.
He was endlessly patient with her, but suddenly, he couldn’t contain the angry surge of betrayal building inside him. He shoved the covers clear and got to his feet, snatched his boxers up off the floor because he didn’t want to be naked and indignant at the same time. “I’m so glad for you,” he said as he stepped into them, “for you and your plan.”
“Oh, don’t act like you don’t have plans too,” she shot back.
“Yeah, you’re wearing my plan!”
Her bedside lamp clicked on and she was still sitting with her knees pulled up, the glare she leveled on him vicious. “So you’re telling me,” she said in a huff, “that if you had a chance to transfer and make more money, you wouldn’t take it?”
“No,” he said, and while that might have been a lie before Delta, it wasn’t one now. “I have a good job, I make good money…I’m not some spoiled-ass well-educated brat trying to impress my rich daddy by going to New York!”
She drew herself up against the headboard, dark eyes flashing and furious. “That’s what you want to do here? Call me names?”
“What I want is to marry you. And I guess I was stupid to think that could go smoothly.”
“You’re stupid to think you can…just…just decide that we’re getting married and that’s it. That I don’t get any input,” she countered. Her face was tense with fury, but her voice was wavering.
Because he was, in fact, stupid – at least when he let his emotions get involved in something – he couldn’t tone down his aggression and talk her through this. She wasn’t fighting him, but some sense of independence he was threatening. The girl couldn’t relax and allow herself to be loved, to be doted on and taken care of. Mike should have sunk down on the edge of the bed and walked through her mental minefield with her. Should have, but wasn’t patient enough to. His feelings were good and bruised now.
“You don’t…” his hands clenched and unclenched at his sides, “don’t let me put a ring on you and then tell me you’re leaving. You don’t do that, Delta!”
“I didn’t say I was leaving,” she was almost shouting. “Are you too much of a child for me to even talk to you about it?”
“Yeah, I’m a child,” he sneered. “I’m a stupid caveman baby holding you back.”
She made a frustrated growling sound. “God, would you just listen to me?”
“You’re not saying anything. You want to go to New York. Yeah. Message received.”
“Shut up!” left her lungs as a shriek. A high, shrill, haunted house shriek that pushed Mike back a step. Delta’s eyes were wide and black, like she’d startled herself, her expression almost panicked. “Shut up and listen to me,” she hissed through her teeth.
Taking up the reins of his temper and pulling it in check was a herculean effort, but he managed, because fine, just visible tremors were surging through her delicate arms and he didn’t relish the thought of frightening a woman into agreeing with him. Especially not this woman. “Okay,” it was all he could do to keep his tone neutral, “I’m listening.”
Delta gave a sharp nod of approval…but said nothing. She sat, arms wrapped tight across her shins, still shivering, her eyes lost in the near space between them, and offered him nothing to listen to.
Too soon, Mike knew, as disappointment dropped heavy as a stone in the pit of his stomach. He’d been so sure that her softening was irreversible, that those lonely looks she cast his way and reflexive way her hands found him in sleep had meant she was ready for this. That she wanted this the way he did. That she’d oh my God and I can’t believe this and flash her ring to every other female within a fifty mile radius.
Instead she lifted a hand to her face – the hand with the ring, the diamond throwing bright spots of blue light through the lamp’s warm panels – and put a manicured nail between her teeth, started, ever so slowly, to rock forward and back, an unconscious swaying that made her look more like a child than a harpy.
“Delta,” he said as gently as he could manage, arms folding across his chest. “What do you want?”
Her eyes came to his face and darted away.
“Not what you’re supposed to want,” he reminded, “but what you actually want.”
He could have kicked himself for giving her an opportunity. Me, he willed silently. You want me. Because he wanted her – not as a trophy, not for bragging rights, not for all the reasons he’d ever wanted a girl.
Delta took a deep, shivery breath and let a dark wing of her hair slide from behind her ear and across her face. “I don’t know,” she murmured, and Mike wanted to scream.
Instead, he picked his clothes up off the chair in the corner and dressed.
What am I doing? Delta thought. What in the hell is wrong with me? Mike was doing a sloppy job tucking in his shirt and stepping into his shoes at the same time. Delta watched him through the curtain of her hair and knew that if she couldn’t shake loose from this onslaught of stubborn pride and panic, he’d walk out her door and leave them irreparably damaged. Why was she doing this? Why was she taking shears to this beautiful, shimmering banner of love and acceptance he’d tried to wrap around her?
Her heart was fluttering like a little bird against her ribs and she felt her pulse throbbing in the tips of her fingers and in her eyelids, felt the tremors stealing over her in waves. The diamond on her hand weighed two-thousand pounds and it terrified her. With dry throat and aching chest, she searched desperately for the cause of the terror, not sure if a new career or Michael Walker was the thing she most hated giving up. The awful dichotomy of frustrations that had left her speechless at the washing machine was crushing her now. She couldn’t breathe and couldn’t think and couldn’t do anything to stop Mike from buckling his belt and preparing to leave her.
Say something! Her conscience screamed. Don’t let him get away!
“Mike,” she finally managed to say as he folded back the cuffs of his shirt. Her voice was small and she hadn’t expected him to hear, but he paused and his head lifted. “I’m not trying to be cold,” she said just above a whisper. “I just wanted you to listen.”
His green eyes were skeptical as they moved over her, coming to rest on her left hand. “Listen to what, sweetheart?” he said, not unkindly. “I have no idea what’s going on in that pretty head of yours.”
She pushed her hair back behind her ear, sighing. “Neither do I.”
It stood to reason that every girl decided to marry her man in that shaking, breath-held moment of one-knee-and-ring-box. With her hands clasped over her mouth, hyperventilating, a woman made up her mind before she said yes. But Delta hadn’t actually said the word. And she certainly hadn’t made up her mind. She’d been body slammed with the weight of him asking, with the knowledge that he loved her enough to even consider forever.
Her decision came as she sat curled back against her headboard. As Mike walked around the end of her bed and sat down beside her feet, the mattress dipping. As he reached for her quivering hand and brushed his big thumb across the diamond he’d bought her. His face was heavy with resignation.
“You get that I’m not trying to hold you back, don’t you?” he asked. His eyes came up to hers, thoroughly wounded. “I know you’re all hard-core manager ball-buster,” he said, as inelegant as always, “I know that. I didn’t expect you to be happy staying where you are at work. But…” his hand fell away from hers. “This is what you want? New York?”
Unshed tears burned the backs of her eyes. She sniffed. “I don’t want to make a purely emotional decision and end up regretting it later.”
His half-smile was grim. “What do you think marriage is? A business arrangement?”
“You want Greg back?”
He sighed. “Then, Delta, I -,”
“I don’t know how to do this,” she blurted, the tightness behind her sternum needing some kind of release. The knot started to loosen, the truth tasted like heaven on her tongue, and then words starting pouring out of her. “I don’t know how you can buy me this,” she waggled her fingers against her knee. “Or how you can get on your knee and ask me to marry you. I don’t know,” she swallowed hard, “how you can love me, because I’m such a bitch and I’ve made it so hard on you.” Her eyes started to fill and she blinked. “My dad raised me to be just like him, and I don’t know how to do this,” she motioned between them. “I…I am trapped, and I don’t want out. I want you to love me and I don’t want it to be a compromise for either of us. I want a husband and I want kids and I want not to need them. God, I don’t make any sense…this just hurts and…” She glanced down at her toes, the bumps of them under the sheet.
“Baby,” he said in a careful voice that made her want to look at him, “have you ever actually been in love with anyone?”
It was far too sensitive and perceptive a question for him. It stung to know she was so transparent, and to think that he would pull out her emotions and hold them up to her as a mirror, drawing attention to something no one but her best friend Regina ever had. The answer was a complicated one, because she thought that she might have been truly, deeply, painfully in love with the child that had only ever been a ghost inside her and had then been nothing at all. A life never come into full creation. She had dreamed – still did – about her offspring, sometimes as a dark-headed little boy, at others as a girl with blonde ringlets. A shining face and happy soul that was all hers and no one else’s. She’d felt robbed and starved afterward, cold and unfeeling, and nothing had caused her pain since, except for this moment, wearing this ring, looking at this boy.
“No,” she said on a deep breath. “No, I never have.”
“I guess,” he rubbed at the back of his neck, eyes going to the window, “that I thought you might have been in love with me.”
A thick coat of water glazed her eyes and she blinked again. “I think I am,” she said quietly, and felt something lock into place inside her, a puzzle finally taking shape, its image so clear she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t seen it. Maybe she’d refused to see it. “I think that’s why it hurts so much.”
His head snapped in her direction, a cautious sort of hope shining in his eyes. “Do you want to marry me?” he asked like he was afraid to know the answer. “I don’t mean do you want to get married at all, or if you want a wedding, or if you already have a dress picked out – do you want me?”
And he didn’t just mean for now, or until it stopped working. Mike was an all or nothing kind of guy. He wanted cohabitation and two toothbrushes on the counter and anniversary dinners and belonging to each other. Marriage wasn’t all the things everyone said it was – it was a raw fusing of two lives into one and all the tension that came with it.
Delta watched the lamplight pick golden threads in his blonde hair and she didn’t want to be frightened. She didn’t want to be burdened with her cold heart. She didn’t want to uproot her life for New York and the promise of what-could-be if it meant losing what was in front of her right now.
“There’s jobs in Atlanta,” she said, and watched his whole body light up, coming to sudden, happy attention. Mike wasn’t – as his green eyes went wide and a white, crooked smile stole across his face – so very different from the thing that had been taken from her years before. Maybe that was why she loved him. Maybe that was wrong of her. But maybe all that mattered was, even if it scraped and clawed and killed her, she knew she had the capacity to love someone. Maybe that was worth whatever heartache she had to endure.
“I want to marry you,” she said, and he leaned forward, caught her face in one big hand, and kissed her.