Regina was awake and sitting up in bed, flipping through a Cosmo, the TV babbling away when Delta got back to the room. She wasn’t ever self-conscious in front of her best friend, but with darkening bruises on her skin and her underwear stuffed into her purse, her hair tangled beyond what her fingers had been able to repair, she felt a shameful blush creep across her skin as she walked in front of the TV on her way to her bed.
Regina’s sex radar must have gone off. Her head came up and a smile curled the corners of her mouth as she watched Delta round the bed and go to her suitcase on the floor. “Someone get lost on her way back from dinner?”
“Oh, hush,” Delta said, and it was, she realized, the first word she’d spoken since Mike had put her up on the bureau. She was so tired her tongue felt heavy in her mouth, and she frowned to herself as she pulled her pajamas out of her bag.
“Are the nerves getting to him?” Regina asked with a sour face and a laugh in her eyes. “Not quite the stand-up guy he used to be?” She chuckled before she could catch herself.
As a matter of fact, he wasn’t stand-up tonight – in the figurative sense. Her head was still spinning, her chest tight with emotion. He’d never treated her before the way he’d treated her just now, and as ecstasy faded and her blood cooled, she felt no joy, felt none of the love he’d told her he had for her. She felt used and cheap and dirty. Not by the act – not by being almost naked in a dark closet, the body contact animalistic – but by his approach to the whole thing. It hadn’t been a game, but a venting of frustrations.
“There’s nothing wrong with him anatomically,” she said through her teeth, and rose, heading for the bathroom and the double-wash shower she was about to take.
Regina’s frown became sincere. “Everything alright?”
But it wasn’t fine at all. As hot water coursed over her body, she smoothed suds with her hands, wincing at the tenderness along her hips and the insides of her thighs. Normally, she liked the little bruises, the reminders of him. Tonight, she closed her eyes and tried to rinse them away.
Spent and sated, Mike now knew, were two very different things. He’d gone into the closet mad at her – now he was mad at both of them. At himself for what he’d done, and at her for letting it happen.
He took a long walk through the halls, getting careful glances from the staff that he ignored, watched the play of light and shadow across the opulence of the castle, feeling like he’d stepped back into another century. He didn’t calm so much as steady; he was still furious, deep down, but he reined it in, until he wasn’t frowning like hell at everything around him. He was a big guy – he knew that without any sense of pride: it was just a fact. It wasn’t something he ever abused to get the upper hand with a woman. Even if his parents frustrated the hell out of him lately, he’d always watched his dad treat the women in the family like they were made of glass. One six-foot-four man to the other, he’d been taught that. He lived by that. There was no excuse for how he’d treated Delta. And it made him all the angrier that she hadn’t pushed him away and insisted, hadn’t softened and pleaded until he’d realized they were tumbling down this rabbit hole of useless antagonism until it changed them.
A few doors down from his room, he passed Ryan, and his hackles rose again. The guy had his hands shoved in his pockets, a frown putting lines in his wide, square-jawed face. He watched the carpet as he walked and Mike started to let him just keep walking…
But what was one more transgression for the night?
“Hey,” he said, and Ryan’s head came up. He slowed, and then stopped as Mike came to a halt in the middle of the hall.
“Hey. What’s up?”
Last chance, he thought. He could still walk away… “Have you seen my sister tonight?”
“I just left her at her room.”
No doubt, Jo had been the one to enforce the leaving. At least, he guessed. He hadn’t figured Jo would take Ryan up on his offer in the first place. He was starting to think he didn’t know her very well.
“Are you…” he felt like an ass, “interested in her?”
Something flickered across Ryan’s face: it could have been curiosity or surprise or guilt. “She’s a great girl.”
Which was about the most generic thing that could possibly be said about a girl. It was the barest scrap of an almost-compliment that guys looking for a bang used to appease family members of their targets.
It didn’t appease Mike. “She isn’t anything like the girls you usually date, is she?”
Ryan grinned, but his hands did a nervous check for change in his pockets. “No, she’s not.”
Mike gave him a tight non-smile and started to move on. “Don’t think I believe you suddenly like tomboys,” he said, and Ryan’s smile dropped. “You be careful, Atkins.”
The little bay mare under Delta rolled her shoulders as she started down the hill toward the creek they were supposed to cross, and the motion left her gritting her teeth. All the tender places between her legs had turned horseback riding into a torture test. The jeans she’d worn weren’t helping either.
The mare reached the bottom of the hill and the stony edge of the creek, and then she halted, ears swiveling, snorting softly to herself. Delta would have gladly stayed still, but their trail leader and half the girls were scrambling up the hill on the other side. The swishing tail of Stacy’s mount was all she could see of any of them, and there were scrabbling hoofbeats walking down behind her: she couldn’t hold up the line.
“Alright, chick,” Delta said, and gave the bay a little thump with her heels. “Let’s move out.” Aside from a small handful of lessons when she’d been a little girl, she knew nothing about horses, and wasn’t surprised when she didn’t get a reaction from the mare. “Come on.” She gave her a kick. “Giddy up.”
Still no reaction.
Delta sighed. “Alright, horse…” Weren’t these trail ride nags supposed to blindly follow along one after the next?
Hooves crunched on the pebbles beside her and she glanced over to find a buckskin gelding and Jo. With her river boots and baseball cap, the way she sat relaxed and athletic in the saddle, Jo was the only one of the bunch really enjoying the outing. She held the reins in one hand and propped the other on her hip. “Did you kick her?”
Delta bit down on her retort. “Yes,” she said instead.
“Put a little hip into it.”
Considering how much hip Mike had put into her last night, that wasn’t an option. She gathered up her reins. “I think I’ll just turn around and go back the way we came.”
Jo’s eyes went across the creek and up the trail on the other side and she chewed at her lower lip, considering. Overhead, in the ancient canopy of trees that threw dappled sunlight across them, birds twittered, mocking. Jo nodded, then kicked her feet out of the stirrups, swung her leg over the saddle and dismounted with a little jump.
“What are you doing?” Delta asked, and wondered, for a moment, if Mike’s sister was finally going to try and beat her ass – pull her out of the saddle and deck her right there in the middle of the trail.
In answer, Jo came around and took a hold of the bay’s reins just behind the bit, still holding onto her own mount. “I’m gonna lead you across,” she said, and her eyes found Delta’s, sparkling with challenge from under the brim of her hat. “Is that alright?”
Since Delta wasn’t wading through the creek, she was forced to nod.
Jo turned to the stream, both horses in hand. “Come on, babies,” she said sweetly, and clucked her tongue. Both horses started forward and there was a great splash as boots and hooves broke through the surface of the water.
Delta wasn’t sure she’d ever felt more inept as she sat, helpless as a child, on top of her horse, hands braced on the pommel of the saddle as she fought the jostling. The creek only reached Jo’s knees, but the noise of the horses plunging their narrow legs down to the bottom drowned out all other sounds. When they reached the far bank, Jo twisted over her shoulder to give her what, for some reason, almost looked like a sincere glance.
“You okay from here?”
Delta gathered her reins again and nodded. “Thanks,” she said stiffly, not trusting this sudden act of kindness.
Jo stroked a hand down the bay’s nose and then went around to mount her gelding again. As they started up the hill, Delta rising in her stirrups to save herself further abuse, she reflected on the knowledge that arriving in Ireland had turned her world on end. She had no control over the anger or sweetness of anyone in her party, couldn’t predict reactions, couldn’t ingratiate herself with anyone. She seemed involved in one long stand-off that was on a sliding scale that shifted between her mother, her fiancé, her friends, and the girl who’d just helped her across the creek.
Nothing made sense.
A round of golf did nothing to clear Mike’s head. The emerald hills of the course, the shimmering black glass lake in the distance, the sun on his face and satisfying crack of club meeting ball couldn’t ease the knot of tension between his shoulder blades. Golf was Walt’s game – he and Dylan were loving it – but Mike had played baseball in high school; he preferred sports that involved running, sweat, and dirt. In fact, he wasn’t even sure golf was a sport anyway.
While he showered and dressed for dinner, he tried to decide how to approach Delta. He laughed inwardly at how freaking stupid it was that he had to even worry about that just a few days before his wedding, but that’s how it was and it was partly his fault. He was still feeling too proud and too wounded to crawl to her. He’d try for charming, and see what happened.
She wasn’t in the dining room, though. “She said something about ordering room service,” Regina told him with a narrow-eyed look like she was onto him. “She had a helluva time with her horse today. Saddle sore.” And she wasn’t actually talking about the saddle, he could tell. With an inward wince, he nodded in acknowledgement and headed back upstairs. Everyone else was at dinner, which meant he might actually get her alone, and considering what they needed to talk about, that was a good thing.
He rapped once on her door and called, “Baby, it’s me.”
There was no response.
“Delta, come on.”
He heard a faint rustling, then the barest of sounds that had to be her bare feet on the carpet. The door cracked, but it was on its chain, and only a sliver of her face peered out at him. One accusatory dark eye, the smooth arch of her brow, a porcelain wedge of her cheek. “What?” she asked, and he knew last night was still pulsing and alive in her mind.
“Let me in,” he said, “we need to talk.”
Her eye narrowed, brow a slim angry line over it.
Shit. “Just talk,” he promised. “Hands off.”
She drew in a deep breath; he could hear it. “The fact that you even have to say that – that my fiancé has to ensure he won’t touch me…” her lips, the corner he could see, pressed into a grim line. “There’s something wrong with that, Michael.”
The door closed and he heard the lock click.
“Delta…” he set his palm to the door and realized there was nothing he could do. He’d pushed too hard last night. He couldn’t push tonight.