“Oh my GOD!!” Sydney’s excited screech belonged on the other side of a shower curtain in a Hitchcock film. “It’s gorgeous, Delta!”
She should have known that there would be no literature discussed today at book club. Marisa de los Santos’s second novel paled in comparison to the rock that sparkled on Delta’s finger, and all the girls, her mother included, had formed a jostling semi-circle around her chair, eyes wide and mouths open.
“There’s just the one stone?” Jennifer M. asked.
“I’d be happy to have a stone,” Jennifer H. sighed.
“God, you’re so lucky, Delt,” Carly said with a dreamy exhale, chin propped on her small fist.
Louise Brooks took a long swallow of Pinot Noir and grinned, self-satisfied as a cat in cream. “I knew he was the one,” she said smugly from her chair by the window. “I just knew, Delta. He’s absolutely delicious.”
He was delicious, but that wasn’t something Delta wanted her mother to know or think. She took a fortifying sip of her own wine and didn’t comment.
“Engaged,” Regina said with a snort, “I never thought I’d see the day.” Louise shot her a dark look that she ignored. “You’re not running a fever, are you?”
As cheesy as it was for her to think, she was a bit feverish, and not in a medical sense. The words I want to marry you had eased a deeply buried knot of tension inside her she hadn’t even known existed. The peace that had descended had been unlike anything she’d felt before. Though, as this afternoon was proving, that peace could be disturbed by too many witnesses. The idea of marriage was blissful when it was just her and just Mike curled up together in the dark, but the stress of it was making itself known now.
“No,” she told Regina, fighting a smile.
“When’s the wedding going to be?” Sydney asked, perched on the edge of her chair. “Soon? This summer maybe?”
“Oh, Lord,” Louise muttered. “Of course not.”
Sydney shrank back with a startled expression – always so easy to offend or upset.
“It takes at least a year to plan a wedding,” Louise said. “Longer if you want it to be a good wedding.”
“Mom, I think you and I have very different ideas of a ‘good’ wedding.”
Louise smiled again. Quick and insincere. “Then you’re lucky to have me.”
Planning a wedding was, Mike learned as he stared down at the collection of pamphlets on the Brooks’ coffee table, the worst sort of torture. His sister Jessica had been married in a rec center, in a rented room with ugly green carpet, in a dress from David’s Bridal, with flowers she’d arranged herself. Delta’s mother pulled out a great, glossy booklet with a castle on the front and squealed with joy.
“Billingsly,” she said reverently. “It has to be Billingsly, Delta. I’ve been imagining that for you for years.” Her eyes lifted to Mike and her smile became suggestive. “It’s so romantic.”
Delta had her hands on her hips and was shaking her head, hair spilling over her shoulders. “That’s too presumptuous, Mom. It’s stupid.”
“What, um,” all Mike could see were dollar signs (and his future mother-in-law’s wandering gaze), “what’s Billingsly?”
Louise beamed up at him from the sofa. “It’s this incredible castle in Ireland. Dennis took me there one year for our anniversary. It’s….it’s…well, look.” The brochure was thrust into his hands and even the slick cover of the thing felt expensive.
Mike heard the clip of dress shoes over the marble floors as he flipped through the pages. Dennis’s voice echoed against the high ceilings. “What the hell are you trying to talk them into?” he asked his wife. “Something stupid?”
Mike flicked a sideways glance to Delta and saw her head dip in approval of her father’s question, the he returned to the views of castle, lawn and lake that were spread in front of him like so much haughty bullshit.
“Ireland?” he asked, dazed.
“On Lough Corrib,” Louise said. “Isn’t it perfect?”
“Oh.” Beth started to rise from her chair, but her legs gave out and she settled again, both hands clutched to her chest. “Oh,” she repeated. Her eyes were big green marbles rolling between the two of them. “Engaged?” It wasn’t a happy question.
“Yes, ma’am,” Delta said, and produced her left hand to show the ring.
Beth swallowed hard, the muscles in her throat working. “Oh,” was all she could say.
Mike’s father, though, leaned toward her finger, squinting. “Shit, Mikey. How much did you pay for that?”
“Dad,” he said with a groan. The hand he had draped around her waist tightened, his fingers drumming against her hip.
“What? I’m only asking. It looks like it cost a shit-ton.”
Beth’s eyes were on the floor and she tucked her left hand, and her own, smaller engagement diamond, between her legs.
Delta felt herself shrinking inside Mike’s hold. Her own family wanted to go overboard. Mike’s family was stuck at the other end of the spectrum. She belonged to neither.
With the softest of sounds, Delta’s lips left the ridge of his clavicle and she sat up, hands splayed across his chest. Her hair, loose and teasing against his skin, lifted as she rose and fell heavy and almost-black across her breasts. “What?” she asked, and even if her tone wasn’t, her expression was soft, dark brows relaxed. The little hollow at the base of her throat flickered, evidence that her pulse was starting to pick up and she was even more engaged in what they were about to do than he was.
His hands were on her waist and he slid the right one up the narrow bones of her ribcage and under her hair, finding the warm, soft weight of her breast. Her nipple was a hard bud against his palm and she inhaled at the contact, swelling into his hand. She was naked and straddling his waist, resplendent in the soft butter yellow lamplight, and Mike’s attention should have been locked onto her and nothing else.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about their parents, his and hers, and the varied reactions to the engagement news. And there was nothing like thinking about your mom to kill the mood.
When Walt and Jess had announced their marriages, Beth had brought down the champagne she kept hidden in the top of the pantry. That afternoon, his arm around Delta, Mike had watched his mother wilt like a dry flower in the summer heat. She’d looked at Delta with the kind of jealousy and regret that was found in high school girls’ locker rooms. In her mind, he knew, she was already measuring herself up to the Brooks and counting all the ways she couldn’t compete. It’s not a competition, he’d wanted to tell his mother, suddenly furious with her, but he hadn’t wanted to say it in front of Delta and further the anxiety she already had. His priority was his fiancée, not his mother.
“Bored with me already?” Delta prompted, bringing him back to the present.
He found a smile for her, squeezed what he had in his hand. “Don’t count on it.”
One of her slim-fingered hands ventured beneath the curtain of her hair and slid over his, encouraging him. He had a feeling she’d never dare to say it out loud, but the girl liked to be touched. “Then what,” her voice became throaty as they both caressed her, “is putting those wrinkles on your forehead? Hmm?”
Mike reached up with his left hand and flipped her hair back over her shoulder. A tiny shiver went through her, her lashes dark down against her cheek as she watched him cup her other breast. He was gentle, because that’s what always left her purring – soft strokes of his thumb until she had gooseflesh.
“Honey,” she murmured, and her hips rocked. Whatever he had to tell her, she wanted him to tell her now and be done with it. “What?”
“Can we do this?” he blurted, with none of the grace he’d hoped to have.
She snorted, eyes lifting to his face. “We have done it. A lot.”
Okay, he’d walked right into that one. “No, I meant…” his hands stilled and he could feel the thumping over her heart beneath her skin, her deep breaths pushing her nipples into his palms. “The wedding,” he said with a frown. “It’s gonna be…insane. Can we do that?”
Can we survive the stress? Are you going to freak out on me and dump my ass before then? Can anything that begins with such drama settle into something lasting? He asked those and a hundred other questions with a long, searching look that probed the dark, hot irises of her eyes.
A half-smile curled the corners of her pretty mouth and she leaned down low, hair sliding over her shoulders again, breasts pillowing softly in his big hands. She rested her forearms on his chest and let her face hover above his, so close he went cross-eyed looking at her.
“It’s just a wedding,” she said like it was the most simple thing in the world, smile widening as just a flash of her white teeth. “It has nothing to do with you or me or what we have. We just do our duty so my mom doesn’t give us hell, and then we go back to our real lives.”
And she was right, wasn’t she? It was just a party, just a necessary evil they had to get through. It had no bearing on their relationship.
Then why was it bothering him?
He didn’t know, but when she rubbed the tip of her nose against his and stretched like a cat on top of him, bringing all the right places into contact, he decided not to worry about it too much. He had her, he had a year to convince her that no amount of wedding drama was worth splitting up, and that was what mattered.
“You heard?” was how Jordan greeted Tam as he climbed onto his favorite stool at Double Down.
He nodded and accepted the mug that was passed to him across the bar top. There was no need to ask for clarification. Mike had asked his viper girlfriend to marry him, and that was the only thing Jordie could have meant. Tam took a long swallow of beer and caught the overflow with his thumb afterward, shaking his head. “He’s lost his damn mind.”
Jordan cast a cursory look down the bar to make sure the rest of his drinkers were settled, then propped his elbows up and got settled himself. His hair was getting too long and he pushed a hand through it absently. “You know, I’m all about good in the sack. It’s kind of important.”
Tam nodded, trying to hide a grin and mirror Jordan’s expression all the while thankful as hell that something had made him want to smile.
“But there is no way in hell that stick-up-her-ass bitch is good enough in bed to marry.”
“If anything, you’d think that stick would get in the way.”
They both contemplated the scarred top of the bar a moment. “You know what it means for you, right?” Jordan asked, sounding almost guilty. “You’re gonna have to see -,”
“Yeah, I know.” He lifted his beer again. Even if the wedding wasn’t until next summer, there would be countless opportunities at showers and parties to bump into Jo.
It was going to be a long year.