Mike was waiting for her outside the main dining room in a clean white shirt and pressed khakis. He’d showered, she could tell, because his hair was soft and shining. He looked just the way he was supposed to. It was his smile that faltered her step.
It wasn’t the smile he normally gave her – boyish and excited, hinting at aren’t I cute and you’re smoking hot. She’d come to lean on that smile, had let it into the cold corners of her heart and let it warm her, had stopped trying to steel herself against it. This smile, though, as he lingered in the hall, was coolly polite and subdued. No great amount of affection shone through his eyes. His feelings or his pride…something was hurt, and she knew it was her fault because of what had happened upstairs.
Now she had a man to cheer up in addition to welcoming the guests that waited on the other side of the open French doors – she could hear the buzz of voices, knew that dinner wouldn’t be served until she’d done her little speech bit. She forced her lips – they were stiff and heavy with fatigue – into what she hoped was a genuine smile and sidled up to her fiancé, slipped her arm through his.
“I think I found us a spot,” she said in a stage whisper, and his pretend smile dropped away, real interest coming into his eyes.
“There’s an empty coat closet just inside the ballroom,” she smiled up at him, and was rewarded with a spark of excitement. “Turn to your left and it’s through two potted ferns.”
“And it’s empty?”
The real Mike smile made an appearance. “After dinner?”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
He stepped away from the wall and put a hand over hers where it rested on his arm, pulled her in close to his side, to her relief. “Okay…ready?”
She squared up her shoulders. “Let’s get this over with.”
“You gonna say that before the ceremony?”
The dining room – one of several within the castle – had already seen its dinner hour and was now filled only by the wedding party and a few stragglers having coffee and dessert at the far opposite end. It was a room just as elegant as all the others, the long far wall composed entirely of white-framed French doors that opened out onto a terrace. In the dark, she could make out the flickering torches that lined the slate pad on the other side of the windows. Heavy brocade drapes and fine white sheers were art in and of themselves, and the candelabras that marched down both lengths of the room looked centuries old, candle wax hanging like icicles from the wrought iron frames.
Mike towed her up to the little platform at the head of the room, snagging two glasses of champagne from a sideboard on their way. Delta took hers and snuck a thankful sip. As she stepped onto the low dais and turned to face the group, she wished she’d chugged the thing.
This must be what an elementary school teacher feels like, she thought, eyes roving over all of her chatting, laughing friends, and Mike’s family. The Walkers were the kids with the braces and glasses, shooting dirty looks at the popular kids. Jo and Tam were at the same table, she noted with a sudden surge of hope, then realized that Ryan Atkins’ arm was across the back of Jo’s chair, that he was her date, and those power lines were still down. Idiots, she thought, and it only soured her mood further. That, and the fact that all of her friends noticed her standing up here, flicked her glances, and kept right on talking. It was bad enough she had to make a spectacle of herself. Apparently, she was going to have to ask a whole room of adults to shut up so she could thank them for coming too.
Louise, sitting with Dennis at the nearest table, slipped from her chair and came up to the dais holding, to Delta’s horror, a fork. “Give them a little ring,” she instructed as she pressed it into Delta’s hand.
“I am not doing that,” she said, and tried to give the fork back.
Her toe started tapping because her entire right leg was quivering with a mixture of exhaustion and low blood sugar. Nausea rolled through her – she hadn’t eaten a bite that day – and she grimaced against it. “No, Mom,” she said, and let go of the fork, let it drop to clatter across the carpeted dais.
Louise’s face screwed up as she put her back to her daughter and returned to her table, mumbling, the fork left on the floor. Delta heard “ungrateful”.
“You want me to yell?” Mike offered, and to her horror, lifted his hands like he meant to cup them around his mouth.
“No,” she snapped. “If they can’t all shut up like adults, then I won’t say anything at all.”
Mike was smiling at her – a vacant, somewhat polite smile, but he whispered between his teeth, “You’re being a bitch.”
He might as well have slapped her. She pressed her lips together until her teeth bit into them. All that her mother was doing and orchestrating, and she was the bitch? She didn’t speak for fear of what would come out of her mouth, instead scanned the crowd again.
There were eyes on her now. All of the Walkers. Mitch Huddle, whatever his wife’s name was, Lance and Ryan whose arm was getting closer and closer to actually being around Jo’s shoulder. Regina was attentive, as were the Jennifers. And Carly. Delta’s eyes went to the source of the noise. How was anyone still talking?
“Stacy, Sydney,” she said before she could stop herself. She knew her glare was murderous. “This is not the time for talking.” She forced a smile and could feel that it was a gross imitation of one, hating how awful she had to sound and look. “Okay?” Both girls rolled their tongues back into their heads, eyes wide. “Good.” She turned to Mike, shooting him daggers for the bitch comment. “Baby, why don’t you start us off?”
He swallowed hard, still wearing his pretend smile, and shot her back a venomous look of his own. He gave her a nod and turned to their guests. Looking at them, his smile spread, all white and convincing, and he tried to drop an arm across her shoulders.
She shrugged him off. “Don’t make me a bitch with bad hair,” she hissed at him.
Neither of them touching, both of them stewing, they tried to play the happy couple as they thanked and welcomed everyone. At one point, Delta’s eyes collided with Jo’s and she shuddered; something was wrong, and Jo knew it.
“So I guess the coat closet isn’t happening,” Mike said, resolute, as he followed Delta out of the dining room two hours later. She was tired – he could read the fatigue in her face and in the slow way she’d cut into her dinner – but she was doing a damn good job storming off, hips twitching inside her second-skin dress.
She whirled on him, indignant finger already aimed at his chest. “Oh,” she said through her teeth, eyes flashing. “It’s happening.”
He hadn’t expected that. “What?”
“You heard me.” She presented her back – more importantly, her ass – again and headed toward the castle’s main entrance, toward the grand stair and the ballroom behind it.
He may have wanted to put his hands around her pretty little throat and throttle the nastiness out of her, but he wasn’t passing up a tumble in the coat closet. If anything, the angry sparks between them would probably make the whole thing hotter. He sketched a quick picture in his head and felt an expectant non-smile darken his face.
It was late, only a skeleton crew lurking in the halls, and the ballroom was awash in shadow, only a few sconces left on for security’s sake. The cavernous room seemed almost sinister – at least, Mike thought that’s how a woman would have seen it. It was full of hiding places, and for him, that was a good thing. The potted ferns Delta disappeared between were black reaching arms in the shadows, the alcove beyond totally hidden. Mike stepped through after her, into total darkness, and felt her hand latch onto the front of his shirt and curl into a rigid claw.
He couldn’t see anything. Wasn’t even sure his eyes were open. She pulled at him and he followed, half afraid he’d stumble and fall on top of her. The musty smell of old mothballs – like his grandmother’s attic – shot up his nose and there was a whisper of air movement across his skin. The door shut with a soft click and he knew they were in the closet. Or hell. Or a tomb. Or a dumbwaiter. Or God knew where – it was black as pitch.
Delta was there, though; he knew her hands, the familiar feel of her fingers as they slid up his chest, following the grooves between his abs and pecs through his shirt. His back hit something hard – the wall or door – and she leaned into him, her breasts full and soft as they pressed against his chest. Her narrow, tight thighs brushed his, his belt buckle made contact with the soft flat of her stomach.
The dark, he thought, might make it even better. She couldn’t glare at him in the dark. He couldn’t see her crumbling composure and read all the jarring layers of unhappiness shining in her eyes. They could only hear and feel and touch.
He brought a hand up, envisioning her dark hair against his fingers, wanting to pull her face up to his so he could kiss her.
“Ow!” she exclaimed, and it wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear.
“What?” he froze.
Her hands fell away from him and he heard her suck in a sharp breath. “You poked me in the eye, you idiot!”
Mike let his head slump back against the wall, the little energy he’d rallied at the promise of sex bleeding out of him.
“Damn,” she murmured.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes.” She sounded sulky.
“You want me to walk you back to your room?”
“No.” She sighed and inside the empty closet, the sound seemed too loud, heavy and pressing down on them. This whole trip was going to be one long sigh. The whole wedding. All of it.
“I’ll see you in the morning, then.”
The door opened with a rush of air that smelled of furniture polish, and he could tell she left it open, the sense of open space beside him hard to miss. Mike listened to her heels clip across the terrazzo until they faded into silence, then followed.
Delta didn’t sleep well. She told herself it was because Mike had stabbed her in the eye with his thumb, but really, the only thing more overwhelming than jet lag was guilt. It wasn’t fair that she turn on him when he wasn’t the source of her stress.
She was awake at seven, readied herself for the day, and shook Regina into consciousness when the alarm didn’t stir her. “Photo shoot,” she reminded with a grim expression. “Mom will expect us.”
The morning was a glorious fury that limned the stacked gray clouds in gold and violet. When the wind finally decided to come sweeping across the lake and chase away the gloom, the day would be vivid. Delta saw this through windows as she descended the grand stair, wishing she was on her way to the garden with a book and a cup of tea rather than preparing for the first of many photo sessions. Regina joined her in the small parlor that was to be their meeting place a few minutes later.
“Where’s your momager?” she asked as she flounced down onto the chaise beside Delta. Her hair was still damp at the ends and her eye shadow was uneven. Louise wouldn’t be happy about that.
“Examining her imaginary wrinkles in the mirror, no doubt,” Delta said and stifled a yawn. “I have this really bad feeling today isn’t going to go well.”
“Feeling? I know it won’t,” Regina snorted. “But who cares? You’re too worried about keeping Mommy dearest happy.”
Delta made a face.
“I’d be more worried about Mikey dearest if I were you.”
She had a point.
Carly, big-eyed and still a little bit speechless as she continued to survey the castle around her, was the first bridesmaid to arrive. Then Stacy and Sydney. The Jennifers. Brittany and Heather were running late, but that wasn’t unusual. The two absences that were alarming to Delta were the missing Walker sisters. All of her friends wouldn’t miss a chance to have their picture taken. But Jo and Jess…she didn’t put it past them not to stay in bed on purpose.
“Wait here for my mom,” she told Regina. “I’m gonna go find Mike’s sisters.”
“Good luck with that.”
Jo was rooming with her brother Jordan, and that was where Delta went first. She tapped on the door. She rapped with her knuckles. She knocked. Finally, she hit the thing with the heel of her hand and heard, “Jesus, I’m coming!” from Jordan.
A moment later, the door cracked just wide enough to give her a view of his narrow face. His hair was a disheveled nightmare, hanging over his forehead and tops of his ears, and the red rim around his big blue-green eyes told her he’d had too much to drink the night before at dinner. He was in a white t-shirt and boxers, long feet bare on the carpet. Still, after a year, she could find nothing about him that reminded her of Mike. Save, maybe, the unenthusiastic look he shot her.
“What do you want?” he asked. He was always so charming.
“Is your sister up?” she asked, “she’s supposed to be downstairs in ten minutes.”
He frowned. “For what?”
His smile was anything but pleasant. “She’ll love that.”
Anger surged through her veins, hastened by the rapid-fire pulses of mother-related fear. If he didn’t know why she was supposed to be up, then she wasn’t up. “Is she awake?”
“No.” And he didn’t make a move to open the door.
“Then you have three choices,” she said sweetly. “You can wake her up. You can let me in to wake her up. Or I can call the front desk and have them ring your room every ten seconds until she’s awake. Which would you prefer?”
He opened the door wide and stepped back, went to his bed and flopped back into it. “She won’t be happy,” he warned.
Jo was curled up like a little girl beneath her marshmallow covers, just her face, small hands and her bright mane of hair visible across the pillow. For a moment, Delta flashed back to the night before, to Ryan Atkins’ arm across the back of her chair and Tam sitting across from her. Mike – God, he was a dolt – had taken her veiled hints about Jo and “one of his friends” and set the poor girl up with Ryan. To be fair, though, Jo had gone along with it.
Then she reminded herself that, poor girl or no, Jo was holding up Louise’s schedule, and Delta would pay for that somehow. She put a hand on Jo’s shoulder and shook her. “Jo. Jo. Wake up. Jo.”
The little blonde groaned. Her lashes fluttered and she rolled onto her back, eyes just slits as she glanced up at her, uncomprehending.
“Come on, Joanna, we’re going to be late.”
She had the audacity to swat at her, hand falling tiredly through the air. “Late for what?” her voice was a rough croak. “What time is it?”
To be fair – and it was so hard right now to be fair – the jet lag was terrible. “It’s just after eight,” Delta told her, trying to imbue some patience into her words, “and if you don’t get up now, you’ll be late for the photo shoot.”
Jo took her sweet time rubbing her fists in her eyes, blinking away sleep. “Photo shoot?” she frowned.
Patience, it seemed, was going to fail her. She rocked back on her heels, folded her arms and bit down hard on what she wanted to say. “The bridesmaid photo shoot,” she said instead.
“Am I supposed to know what that is?” Jo peered up at her, as petulant as her brother. “Because I don’t.”
Deep breath. Deep breath. Her eyes narrowed anyway. “It was explained fully in your itinerary.”
Jo blinked, glanced over at her brother, then her eyes came back, more awake, more focused. Her deceit was no longer the product of sleepiness. “Itinerary? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“Honestly, Jo,” Delta choked on her frustration. “The one Regina passed out to everyone at the airport yesterday.”
Jo looked her straight in the face and said, “I never got one.”
Delta wasn’t sure she’d ever wanted to slap another woman so badly in her life. On top of her mother’s impossible expectations, on top of Mike calling her a bitch and trying to blind her, now she had another brat to add to her plate. “Yes you did!” she snapped before she could stop herself. “She passed them out to all the bridesmaids.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Her hands came together beneath her nose, her lips pressed together. She took a deep breath, as per her own instructions, and told herself that if Jo wouldn’t cooperate, that was her own problem. “Just put on a dress, fix your face, and meet us in the gardens,” she said, and fired the girl a stern look. “You’re in this wedding for your brother -,” she started to remind. So don’t do it for me, do it for him! But Jo didn’t give her a chance to finish.
“My brother doesn’t give a shit.”
Her platitude twisted in her throat, became something nasty, her temper cutting through logic and manners. “So be glad you get to be in the pictures,” she bit out, and whirled away before she could say anything worse. “You have half an hour,” she tossed over her shoulder, and pulled the door shut on Jordan’s smirk as she left.