Mike slept like hell. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d shared a room with another guy – college, he guessed – and while he might have fallen asleep on the couch every so often while Tam and Jordan were over, all of them waking in the small hours to realize they were still in their chairs and slumped on the floor and not at all comfortable, Lance’s snoring and restless turning kept him awake. Or maybe that was the mix of anger and regret swirling around in his gut thanks to Delta. Or maybe being told he couldn’t share a room with her had left him needing to share a room with her, chafing under authority.
Whatever the reason, he was glad for the morning. Breakfast was already being cleared away from the dining room as he made his way to it. He snagged an apple off a passing trolley cart of leftovers wheeling down the hall and ducked through one of the sets of French doors. The outer doors to the patio were open, the morning bright, a breeze stirring the drapes and bringing in the smells of wet earth and lake water. Guests lingered at the tables with coffee and tea, and only two of them were familiar to him. He’d thought he’d run into Delta, but then he remembered she probably had some damned photo something or other, and bit into his apple: it was a Granny Smith, tart and cracking. Then he joined Jordan and Tam where they sat talking about something that had Jordan leaning over the table in earnest, gesturing with his fork.
“What’s up?” he asked around a mouthful, and both their heads snapped in his direction.
Jordan was his usual impassive self, but Tam looked guilty, blue eyes too big, face freezing in sudden worry.
Delta, he knew. They’d been bitching about Delta and the wedding like two old women. If he hadn’t been hell-bent on not looking like a jackass – a wrong jackass – he would have joined them at it. Instead, he stood beside the table and wished he had something more substantial than an apple to chew on.
“Dad wants us to go shooting,” Jordan said coolly, and turned back to his potatoes. “Archery.”
“Cool. You going?” he asked Tam.
Tam nodded, eyes returning to their normal size. “Yeah.”
His mind went back – years back – to a month or so of afternoons they’d spent in the backyard with the compound bow that had been his Christmas present. He was bad rusty, but all of them were decent with the arrows. It sounded like a nice distraction – a female-free distraction.
As it turned out, Jo being late wasn’t what ruined the photo shoot.
“Do you see this?” Stacy still had red, puffy eyes, and tears had left pale streaks in her makeup. She presented the backside of her elbow and the small welt that was forming. “It hurts like a bitch.”
“Sorry,” Delta said, and knew she didn’t sound sincere.
Stacy knew it too; she made a face and flounced back to her table, falling into her chair like she’d been attacked by a lion and not a bee.
“I’m just glad none of them are allergic,” Regina said with a dramatic shudder and Delta was forced to agree.
It had started out so well…as well as anything Louise had ordered could go. The gardens put the Brooks’ backyard to shame. Carefully tended for decades, the Billingsly gardens were well-established, mature and thick, full of unexpected paths and benches and ponds. The color was almost too vivid to be real. At a junction of cobbled paths, in front of a fountain, all fifteen of them had been posed with the lake behind them and wind in their hair in front of the event photographer, Gladys, and the wedding planner, Maureen. Both Walker girls were dressed and present, neither of them saying anything too hateful. The rest of her easily distracted bridesmaids had fallen in line. For a moment, Delta had let herself hope that the day would go well.
And then Stacy had stepped in some kind of bee hive, or nest, or something. Delta never had seen the bees, but most of the girls had been stung. She’d stood on the lip of the fountain, hands tangled in her long hair as she’d watched, horrified, as the girls stampeded, trampled flowers, knocked Gladys expensive camera to the cobbles, and ruined dresses, hair, and any chance for a nice picture. All she’d been able to see was her mother’s pinched face. All she’d heard was Louise’s diatribe about poor management, that maybe Delta should rethink her career if she couldn’t even control a group of girls.
The only two who’d escaped the fray were Jo and Jess. Delta’s eyes went to them now, narrow and frowning. The sisters sat shoulder-to-shoulder, talking to one another and no one else, not a blonde hair out of place on their pretty little heads. Delta was half convinced Jo had somehow caused the bee fiasco.
“In ten years,” Regina said, pulling her attention, “this will look like funny shit in hindsight.”
It would: the girls flapping their arms, screaming, stop-drop-and-rolling like they’d been on fire, Sydney’s dress pushed up to her boobs, her ass hanging out as she tried…God knew what she’d been trying to do, but no one had needed to see her Tweety Bird tattoo.
“Probably,” Delta agreed. “But it’s not funny now. I should never have brought them all along,” she admitted in a whisper. “I can’t manage them all at once.”
Regina made a sound of agreement.
It was lunchtime, and they were having tea and little sandwiches under a huge pavilion down by the lake, breeze rifling through their hair and lifting the hems of their dresses. Delta stared out across the water a long moment, wishing she could take a giant step back from her own personal reality and soak up the ancient reality of this place. Drink in its ambiance and let herself feel as small as she truly was. Men had died on this land. Had fought and warred and built a castle on this land. Had torn down the curtain walls. Men had toiled to make this an estate. All that history…and she was worried about bees and pictures. Pathetic.
Her gaze swung back beneath the pavilion, across the girls. Jo, she realized, was no longer with them. A moment later, she heard something: a faint echo of what might have been male laughter. Good, she thought. If that girl didn’t get her shit straight with Tam this week, she wasn’t sure she could keep from murdering the both of them.
The best part about getting his own place and finally breaking loose of the family house – aside from the privacy and the freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted – was getting away from his can-I-come-too? little sister. He didn’t have a memory of childhood that didn’t involve Jo, usually dirty or barefoot or looking like something that lived in a forest, turning up, wanting to participate in whatever it was he was doing. Every football and whiffle ball game, every run down to the corner store, every pool match, every movie watched…Jo was always there, tiny and somehow able to wedge herself into things. It had never bothered Jordan. Or, surprisingly, Tam. Those two had invited her to stay, had spoiled her, and Mike had thought he’d never be rid of her. Why couldn’t she just do girl things with Jess? Why couldn’t she get some friends of her own?
Why – today – couldn’t she just fall in line so Delta didn’t have a damn conniption fit?
Jo had turned up, out of, appropriately, the woods, and Mike hadn’t even been surprised. He scowled at her as she pulled the bowstring back to her cheek; she much better at this than she should have been. Their instructor watched her with stern, silent approval. Mike flicked a glance to Ryan and saw him watching his little sister with something that was like approval, but more predatory.
His frown deepened; she might have bugged the shit out of him, but he wasn’t ready to think about her being stalked by someone like Atkins. Delta’s suggestion he try and set Jo up with one of his friends had been a poor one.
Suddenly, he wanted her away from him, from them, for more than one reason.
“A slow pull,” Finn, their instructor, told her. She went still. “Steady now. Deep breath and hold.”
The arrow loosed with a soft twang. It landed in the yellow, just off the center of the target. Mike hadn’t expected any less.
She was congratulated – by Finn, by Dad, by Ryan. Stupid Ryan…Mike had always liked the guy fair enough, but having his little sister ogled – even if she was obnoxious as all hell – rubbed him wrong. It was time to get rid of her. She’d had her shot, she’d been rewarded, now off she went.
“Seriously, Jo,” he said, “you’re supposed to be with Delta.”
Randy had always doted on her, and slipped a big arm around her shoulders. “Aw, leave her alone. She doesn’t wanna be stuck having tea parties.”
Jo, who’d taken an instant disliking for Delta, rolled her eyes. “And it literally is a tea party.”
So? What’s wrong with that? You’re a girl! Girls like tea parties! If she wasn’t with the rest of the females, then she was probably absent for some kind of Louise Books Required Social Event, which meant Delta’s aggression was ratcheting up another notch or two. And he couldn’t take her if she got any worse. He really couldn’t.
“You better head that way, then,” he told his sister with a snort, “you might actually learn something about being a lady, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Jordan, traitor, constant breaker of the bro code, said, “You’re being such a princess, dude. Maybe you need some tea party action.”
Mike’s arm snapped out and he slugged his little brother in the shoulder before he could catch himself. Slugged him hard. Jordan made a face. “You’re hilarious.” He couldn’t understand how anyone could encourage Jo – she was trying to further the hell his life had become over the past twenty-four hours. “I am so dead serious right now, Jo,” he said, turning a scowl on her. “If you screw up this wedding somehow -,”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Randy sliced one of his massive hands through the air between them. “You don’t get to talk to your sister like that.”
“She’s here, ain’t she? We’re all here and all you do is give us shit.”
His entire family had been dead-set against the wedding from the first. None of them had tried to make Delta feel welcome. His mother was always wringing her hands, caught up in jealousy. His father asked embarrassing questions one after the next and defended Jo’s behavior. Mike was a success – he was out of the house, making his own money, college loans paid off, no longer a burden – and they couldn’t be happy for him, not even when it was so important.
That’s not fair, a voice in the back of his head whispered. His mother wasn’t truly jealous, his family didn’t want him to be unhappy. But sometimes they just…
He put his back to them and walked away before he said something he couldn’t take back. He got as far as the vestibule of the castle before the ruin of his day was complete. Dennis Brooks was waiting for him with a thin, pretend smile.
“Let’s have a chat.”
They were going to have to revisit the coat closet. Delta realized that at dinner when Mike sat down beside her and the tension started pouring off of him, vibrating across the table and through the floor until it was moving over her skin too. She’d had a trying day. Apparently he had too.
They ate in silence, listening to Louise. Delta was too tired to fight with her mother and Mike was starting to worry her; he was wound tight, his jaw set, his knife scraping across his plate as he cut aggressively into the trout they were served for dinner. As the waiter cleared their plates, she popped a mint and set her pack on the table at his elbow, gave his foot a little nudge with hers. He gave her a sideways, calculating look, then shook five of the things into his palm, threw them back and crunched them up: message received.
They wouldn’t go together – they touched eyes for a moment and agreed on that – so Mike rose first and excused himself for “cigars with the guys”. Delta gave him about a minute’s head start, then offered a weak smile to her parents and told them she was tired, which was true.
“Don’t forget we have horseback riding tomorrow,” Louise reminded as she slipped from her chair.
How could she have forgotten? It was on her freaking itinerary.
The clip of her heels as she went down the hall to the ballroom was uneven. It was prime dinner hour and she passed other guests in large clusters, heard their laughter and happy chatter. It gave her a headache.
Tonight, warm light from the chandelier above the stair pooled at the entrance of the ballroom, catching veins of gold in the terrazzo. The beautiful room looked lonely – the chairs and tables that would be used for her wedding reception were stacked against the back wall, their shadows long and ominous. Delta paused a moment in the wide threshold, trying to imagine what the space before her would look like in just a few nights, full of her family and friends, laughter and music. The moment seemed years away: too long to last.
A hand closed around her upper arm and she jerked, startled, flinging a glance over her shoulder before she could remind herself that it was Mike.
It was Mike, but his face was dark. The incoming light was at his back and the shadows his brows cast over his eyes kept her from reading them. The fingers he’d curled around her arm dug into her skin just a fraction too hard to be gentle.
“Oh,” she said before she could dispel her surprise. “It’s you.”
“Who’d you think it was?” his tone wasn’t gentle either and it sent a warning crawling across her skin, plucking at the fine hairs on her arms.
“We’re in a castle full of hundreds of people,” she said, all reason, and thought he frowned.
“You wanted us to meet in the closet, right?”
“That was the plan.”
He towed her there, faster than her tired feet wanted to walk, through the potted ferns and into the absolute darkness of the coat closet. It still smelled of mothballs and damp, but unlike the night before, he was the one steering things. Normally, that didn’t bother her, but tonight, her something-wrong sensors were howling at her.
Mike shut the door only halfway, leaving a soft stripe of yellow light across the floor. They stood in total shadow, but the stripe was an anchor, a reminder of where they were and how ridiculous their circumstances were.
Her hip bumped something and she reached out a hand to feel what she realized was a table. Or, rather, some kind of piece of furniture. A waist-high bureau of some kind. The top was cool and smooth – granite or marble – and the solid panels of the sides were sleek wood.
“What is it?” he asked.
“A chest of drawers,” she guessed.
The hand on her arm slid down, over her elbow and down to her wrist, then it closed tight and he stepped into her – his chest pushed into hers and she had to take a step back – and steered her backward until the edge of the bureau’s counter bit into her spine.
“Mike…” her voice held a warning, but she wasn’t sure what she meant by it. “How was your day?” she asked instead as his other hand landed, first hesitantly as he searched, then more firmly, against her shoulder.
“Once I got rid of my family, I listened to your dad talk to me about investments and home management and keeping my wife ‘entertained’.”
Delta winced. For Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, “entertained” meant busy, out of trouble and more important, faithful. “Sorry.”
“Whatever.” His hand swept down from her shoulder, moved across her breasts, felt restless through the fabric of her dress.
He was restless all over, it turned out. He didn’t want to kiss her, didn’t want her to kiss him – it felt like he didn’t even really want it to be her in the coat closet with him. Delta ended up with her hands planted on the cool stone surface of the bureau, ears full of the bristling silence and the sounds they made, eyes trained on the faint stripe of light on the floor, waiting for a release that really had nothing to do with this moment in the dark.
**Sorry, this was the edited version of the final scene. Full version will be part of the final, published draft.