The rain fell softly, gracefully, gray and gentle over Billingsly. Delta watched it through one of the windows that overlooked the lawn from the mezzanine, letting her mind go spinning away from everything that was wrong until she was just a girl watching rain through a window; she took a slow breath and let the place – the castle and its majesty – pull her up out of her mental muck.
It couldn’t last, though. Another wedding had upstaged hers, a little fact her mother had failed to mention, and the mezzanine and ballroom weren’t available for the ceremony. Maureen had told her this like she already knew it: “But your mum assured me…” Louise hadn’t even bothered to tell her she’d been incorrect in her thinking for weeks.
Ryan Atkins had come out the loser in a bar brawl with Tam and his face, according to reports, looked like an overripe plum. She knew why Tam had attacked him – the motive, anyway – but what she didn’t know was why Tam would sulk and fight rather than take his girl back. He, like Mike, like her mother, like everyone, seemed determined to disrupt the wedding at every turn.
She was exhausted by it all, and not sure she’d eaten since lunch the day before.
With a regret that she couldn’t linger, she turned away from the window and thanked Maureen for her time, descended the grand stair in search of…she didn’t know what. Someone else knew, though, because Mike was waiting for her when she reached the bottom, a pained, guilty expression twisting his features.
In the final three steps it took her to draw even with him, she asked herself if, somehow, in the past day, she’d managed to overlook the coat closet. She hadn’t. He’d never before given her a reason not to trust him, but that night, he’d put up a glacial wall between them and used her through it. She felt fragile and shaken still, and that was something she didn’t like feeling.
“Can I talk to you?” he asked, and even if there was a note of apology in his voice, they both knew it was the first time either of them had asked permission for something so simple. It was a sign.
“There’s a parlor down the hall,” she said, and headed that direction. He fell into step beside her, keeping his pace slow to match stride with her, and they walked without touching. Without even attempting to touch. Mike might have been ready for a thaw, but she wasn’t sure she was.
She led him to the sitting room where the girls had gathered the morning of the bee-infested photo shoot. It was empty, gray light filtering in through the curtains, and Delta went to the dainty gold and green settee in the center of the parlor and sat, arranged the skirt of her dress, suddenly nervous. Then she pinned him with a look that had him rubbing at the back of his neck; he was the one who’d asked to talk, so he should do the talking. He knew that, apparently, but was uneasy.
“I don’t…” he took a big breath, “I don’t really know what to say to you.”
“Well,” she wet her lips and tried to keep her expression from getting too pinched, “you could start by telling me you’re sorry for treating me like a cheap hooker the other night.”
A hurt look flickered across his face. “I didn’t treat you like that.”
She lifted her brows, challenging him for a better way to phrase what had happened.
“Not that it matters,” he consented. “I’m sorry about that.”
He was sincere, but it didn’t soothe her. “And if that were our only problem…” she lamented, dropping her chin into her hand.
“What else is wrong?” he asked, and she felt the threads of her composure start to fray. He was standing over her, tall and solid, the expression on his handsome face daring anyone or anything to give her grief. It was too late for the heroics – for his Captain America stance – and it was too late for him to pretend that he supported her without question. They were not a united front against her mother; they were hapless victims whose bond, apparently, couldn’t survive even these petty issues.
“What else?” she asked, and thought her voice sounded strangled. “Are you kidding me?”
He lowered down onto the settee beside her and reached for her hand, his face soft and sympathetic. She pulled both her hands into her lap, out of his reach. She didn’t want him to touch her and she didn’t want him, after silently, angrily putting her up on over a piece of furniture and going at her like some kind of rutting deer, to play the sweet and compassionate fiancé who cared about her emotions. If it was all pretend, she didn’t want to play along anymore.
“For starters,” she said, her throat aching with the oppressive buildup of emotions, “my mother has dragged us all to this godforsaken place.” Which wasn’t fair to beautifully Billingsly. She blinked hard and stared at her hands because she hated the way Mike’s green eyes were trained on her face. “And your family is acting miserable and trying to make me feel guilty on purpose.”
“They’re not doing it on purpose,” he said, and her hands tightened into fists. “If they’re miserable, it’s because they can’t afford it.” Guilt twisted in her stomach. “My brother and sister still live at home to chip in. They don’t have money to blow on a big trip like this the way your folks do.”
He said it gently enough, but it didn’t ease the blow: the reminder that her rich family was out of touch. She made a grumbling sound in her throat. “Don’t try to make it out like that’s my family’s fault -,”
“I didn’t say it was.”
Then whose fault was it? This mess had to be someone’s fault. “They didn’t have to come for the whole week,” she protested, lifting her head to glare at him. He was making too much sense and his defense of his family was in danger of softening her.
His voice became patient: “You don’t know my mom. Refusing an invitation is rude. They had to come.”
“Then they could at least be pleasant about it!”
Okay, forget the softening. Her anger started fizzing again, and that was before he chuckled. “Come on, baby, have you been pleasant?”
He could be whatever he wanted, could treat her however it suited him at the moment, but she needed to be pleasant. “I can’t believe you just said that!” she snarled, and though she knew her eyes were flashing, his smile didn’t waver.
He laughed. “You know you’re being a little…”
“A little what?”
She was, but he was part of the reason. She sucked in a deep breath and then another, struggling to put her head above water. She latched onto her indignation because it was the only thing she was sure of at the moment. “And your best man,” she huffed. “Is there anyone else’s face he plans on destroying before we take pictures?” Stupid Tam; she’d tried to help him, and the idiot just couldn’t be helped.
Mike, self-assured and giving her a look that was the equivalent of a pat on the head, said, “I’ll handle Tam.”
“We cannot have another incident like that, Michael,” she snapped. “If he can’t get his act together -,”
“I said I’d handle him, didn’t I?” his voice took on an edge. He didn’t expect to be questioned; just like that, her doting defender had turned back into the belligerent asshole. “He’s going through a rough spot. Leave him alone.”
Tam he would defend, but her…
She glanced over the back of the little sofa, toward the windows streaked with rainwater. A slow, acid sort of fear had been building in the back of her mind, radiating outward; it was dancing across her nerve endings now. She reached up and touched the white gold and diamond crown charm she wore around her neck, the one he’d given her. “Mikey,” she sighed, “I’m just so afraid this isn’t going to work out.”
“It’s not too late.” He moved toward her on the settee and it creaked. “We can skip out on this whole thing right now and we can stop at the first church we come to. Get hitched without the fuss.” He sounded eager. She glanced at him again, saw in his face how willing he was to walk out the doors of the castle and leave all of their guests and the wedding that had been a year in the making behind.
“No,” she said, full of fear and doubt and a thousand other things. “I meant…”
“What?” he prodded, and the energy shifted. She felt her fear spread to him.
“I meant…” she said just above a whisper, “us.”
He took a deep breath and she knew she’d stepped over the line between wondering and shoving. “No,” his voice came out hard, sharp, desperate. “No, do not say that.”
Part of her wanted to reach for the hand he’d braced on the velvet cushion between them. Part of her wanted to cry. Instead, she stood, smoothed her skirt, and glanced down on his tight, wounded face. “I already did.” And she left him in the parlor.