As a very little girl, Delta had stood up at the counter in the laundry room, standing on a stool beside Mrs. Miller as the housekeeper’s hands deftly smoothed and folded every starched white napkin, setting them aside in tidy piles. Delta had always marveled at the simple magic of the task, the assuredness in Mrs. Miller’s hands – hands rough and worn and made for the precise rituals of the house. In her own world – the working, breathing, thriving bowels of the big house – Mrs. Miller had been a queen in her own stoic way. She knew things. She understood things. There was a steadiness about her that Delta had wished belonged to her mother instead.
One morning, after a particularly volatile fight between her parents in the drunken aftermath of a dinner party, Delta had watched the folding of the clean napkins and announced, “I’m never getting married.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Mrs. Miller had scolded with a smile in her voice. “Of course you will.”
“I won’t,” Delta had insisted, kicking her chin up. “Not ever.”
Mrs. Miller’s hands had stilled, the sharp creases of the napkin forgotten a moment as she turned to regard Delta on her stool. “Honey,” she’d said gently, “it won’t be like that for you – what it’s like with your mama and daddy.”
Delta hadn’t believed her.
“You’ll just have to make sure you marry the right man.”
“I don’t like any of them,” Delta had said, and scowled.
“But you will. You’re too young to understand now, but you will. There’s things you’ll learn to like.”
She’d made a face. “Kissing?”
Mrs. Miller, her face not so lined back then, had smiled. “That too, but other things. When you meet a man who makes you smile, makes you laugh, makes your heart beat faster, makes you feel like the safest, prettiest, most perfect girl in the world…and when you know that no one does that better than him, then you’ll’ve found him. Your husband.”
It was Mrs. Miller she thought of now as she watched a housekeeper fold new towels through the open door of the bathroom. It was the night of her rehearsal dinner and suddenly Delta wished she was seven again, on a stool, watching napkins get folded, her housekeeper smiling at her and telling her that her life, her marriage, would be nothing like her parents’. That the past few days she’d spent avoiding Mike hadn’t meant anything.
“Delta,” Regina’s voice pulled her out of her own head and back to the moment at hand. Her friend was watching her with a frown. “I’ve said your name, like, five times.”
“Sorry.” Delta gave herself a little shake and regarded her reflection in the dressing table mirror one last time. Her dress was midnight blue, strapless, fitted and tailored well; it matched the navy polish on her toes. She’d taken great care with her makeup, carrying her eyeliner out past her lashes in the most subtle of cat-eye wings. Her hair was in loose barrel curls down past her shoulders. She wore simple diamond studs in her ears that went well with the crown charm around her neck. Outwardly, she was ready; inwardly, she shook and shivered. She hadn’t spoken to Mike since she’d left him sitting in the parlor. They were getting married in the morning, and they hadn’t fixed anything. Now, more than ever, the sense of wrongness that had haunted her all week pounded in her ears, louder than her own pulse.
“Ready?” Regina asked.
Delta blew out a quivering breath. “Sure.”
The staff had set up a tent right on the edge of the lake, rows of clean white chairs flanking the aisle she would walk down. An ominous black thunderhead was rolling in over the water, the wind lifting the edges of the tent, bringing with it the smells of lake and mud, casting a shadow over the hastening twilight. Everyone was waiting for her: her parents, the girls, Mike’s family, the guys…and most importantly, in navy suit and tie, her Michael.
A fissure threatened the solidity of her heart. Somehow, he’d become this chafing presence in her life, and was no longer her Michael. The thought brought tears to the backs of her eyes that she blinked away.
One night, one day, she told herself. That was how long she had to hold herself together. After, maybe once they were man and wife and no longer under scrutiny, they could crack all her worries open like eggs and burn them away until they were nothing. Until she was reminded why she so deeply and surely needed to marry this man.
Mike could have done the rehearsal bit in his sleep. He’d seen all the charts and borne witness to every little procession Delta’s mother had mimed down the middle of the Brooks’ living room. He could have told every bridesmaid and every groomsman and both mothers-of exactly where to stand/sit. In the literal sense, the rehearsal was unimportant.
But he’d gone days without Delta, stewing around the castle trying to figure out why – aside from the obvious sick-mother issues – his best friend was spiraling further and further out of control. The whole reason for this trip – for the money his family was shelling out, for all the ridiculous rituals he’d endured – felt worlds away and was standing on the other side of the gathering crowd from him, watching him with plain mistrust.
He wasn’t, he realized, sure he trusted her either.
“Alright.” Their wedding planner, Maureen, clapped her hands together. She was in her usual black pantsuit, bob of dark hair gathered behind a headband, a pen behind one ear, looking tired and harried. “Let’s get this done and we can eat. Aye?”
There was a responding chorus of, “Aye,” from the wedding party, and then they fell into line: bridesmaids first, groomsmen second. Mike tried to catch Delta’s eye before he went to take his place up at the altar, but she ducked her head and wouldn’t look at him; he sighed.
The minister stood beneath a lattice work arch bolted down to the platform that had been built out right to the edge of the lake. The whole stage had been an ugly thing during construction – plywood and cinderblock for support underneath – but now, draped all in white satin and tulle, it looked perfectly wedding-ish. Mike bobbed a stiff nod to the minister and glanced out across the water, saw the tight white caps the wind was picking up and folding over, and watched fat gray and indigo clouds come tumbling toward them. Thunder rumbled, just loud enough to hear, in the distance, and he took it as an omen.
Numb, indifferent, he watched the girls’ procession. And then the guys. Tam was in his leather jacket rather than a suit coat, and as he stepped into his best man slot, Mike could smell the overwhelming cigarette stink of him. Ryan’s face was a black mess of bruises, and he stared at the toes of his shoes as he walked, giving Tam a wide berth as he fell into his place. There was something smug about Jordan’s dead-faced expression.
And then Delta started down the aisle on her father’s arm and he shoved all the idiots out of his mind.
She looked flawless as fine china, and just as fragile. Tension had tightened every elegant line of her body; her white hand had gone colorless on Dennis’s sleeve. Her coffee eyes were fixed on the minister. Her delicate jaw was clenched tight. He could read her well enough to know she was a hairsbreadth from snapping – but as it turned out, he couldn’t read her well enough to know which direction she’d snap. She might have been on the verge of collapsing into his arms…or telling him she didn’t just “think”, but knew they couldn’t work.
He got his answer a moment later. Dennis handed her off with a sharp-eyed warning look that Mike ignored. Delta set her trembling hand in his, turned to him, her chest lifting beneath the tight midnight blue of her dress, and her eyes came to his face.
She hated him.
The storm was bearing down on them. Regina was up at the mike, toasting them, kicking off the dinner that steamed on the long row of buffet tables at the back of the pavilion, but Delta could just hear her over the ceaseless, kettle drum pounding of thunder. The wind had teeth, snatching napkins and candles and ladies’ hair with fierce tugs. The charge in the air, the lifting of the fine hairs on her arms, heralded each vicious strike of lightning. All the elegance and splendor was a laughable farce in the midst of such a storm; Mother Nature was trying to tell all their guests that this wedding, the bride and groom, were an absolute joke.
She and Mike sat at their honorary table for two, not touching, not glancing at one another, the energy between them dark and aggressive like the weather. Regina made joking remarks about love and destiny and how meant to be they were, but Delta just knew all the guests, eyes trained on her, had to know what a crock of shit that was.
Regina ended her toast to a smattering of applause and then a chill swept up Delta’s arms, prickled goose flesh raising on her skin, teeth clenching tight as she fought the urge to shudder. It was time for Mike’s best man to deliver his congratulations, and dread filled her head-to-toe as she watched Tam get to his feet and move to take the microphone. The expression on his face was so intense, she was grateful when he put his back to them and addressed the crowd. But then he started talking…
“I met Mike when we were thirteen,” he said, and for a moment, Delta dared to hope that he could choke down his venom. “We spent a lot of time in detention for dress code violations: torn up jeans. Mine were just old, but Mike had taken the scissors to his.”
A few faint chuckles reached her ears over the howling of the wind, the unending symphony of thunder.
“But of course, Mike outgrew that fast. Then it was the jock phase, the prep phase…you know all the phases. That’s the thing about Mikey – he always just wants to fit it.”
Delta let her eyes move across the crowd; Randy laughed, but no one else did. She snuck a sideways glance at Mike and saw his plastic smile slowly receding. This wasn’t the toast he’d expected. Tam’s volatile energy was a palpable thing invading the pavilion, falling off of his tense shoulders and spreading, poisoning.
“Mike’s family,” he went on, “well, except for Walt over there, is the kind of family everyone wants.” There was a wistful note in his voice. Not everyone: him. The kind of family he wanted.
“He’s going through a rough spot,” Mike had said; Delta remembered and felt her pulse pick up. That nagging, foreboding anxiety that had plagued her, the undeniable sense that something was wrong, that something was going to explode in all their faces…
This was it. She realized that with a startled breath. This was the culmination, the final manifestation of everything that was so very wrong.
“They’re Norman Rockwell,” Tam said with a glance over his shoulder at Mike. His eyes glowed blue in the semi-darkness. “Mike, dude, you should appreciate them more. Instead of running around sucking Daddy Moneybag’s dick and hoping getting hitched to this,” he pointed at Delta, “will turn you into the Porsche driving prick you always wanted to be.”
She felt a flush bloom in her face that wasn’t even embarrassment. She was too hurt to care – Tam wasn’t lying. Mike’s family, probably even Mike, felt exactly that way about her. Beside her at the table, she felt his fist thump down at her elbow, and couldn’t be bothered to look at him.
“Tam!” he hissed.
Delta saw her mother’s mouth gape open. Saw her father go stiff and flat-faced with rage.
Tam kept going: “But I figure that, if you still think of me as your best friend, then as your best friend, I gotta tell you, you’re making a huge mistake here.”
Someone shouted something, and he held up a hand. “I’m almost done.” And he didn’t have long because her father and Mike’s were on their feet and closing in. “I got one more thing to say.”
And Delta knew what it was. Her eyes, glazed and numb, went to Jo, who’d gotten to her feet, little hands clenched tight at her sides.
“Joey,” Tam said, and his voice changed completely. It was soft and heartbroken and strained thin. “I’m sorry, baby. Four years ago…that…I had to do it, I really did, but I should never have done it that way, and I’m sorry. Because I love you. I love you so much, more than you can even know, and I never wanted to hurt you.”
They stared at one another a long moment, the shipwrecked lovers who were demolishing her rehearsal dinner, and then Tam turned away from the crowd. His eyes passed over her, and Mike, one cold, flat moment, then he dropped the microphone and the pavilion erupted.
Mike’s chair scraped back across the slate pavers as he leapt to his feet. He and his father and his whole damn hillbilly family went rushing out into the night after Tam as the heavens finally loosed the rain in a torrent.
Delta saw her parents closing in and knew what they would tell her. It was over. She didn’t know if the knowledge was blessed or devastating, but this whole awful thing was over. She dropped her face into her hands and drew in a shaking breath, felt the light touch of raindrops against her back, and steeled herself against the fallout.
Thunder followed him into the castle through the vestibule, the sharp, crackling, murderous kind of thunder that caught the breath of everyone passing in front of the grand stair. Heads turned his direction and mouths dropped open. His shirt was ripped and he was streaked with mud, clumps of it sliding down the legs of his pants and onto the tops of his ruined shoes. He saw the brown smudges of it on the backs of his hands as he cupped them around his mouth and shouted, heedless of who he disturbed.
“Tam!” His voice boomed, up the stairs, beyond into the ballroom, echoing. “Tam!”
There was no sign of the guy, not even a muddy sneaker track on the terrazzo.
Mike pushed both his dirty hands through his wet hair, felt the grit he left behind, and caught his breath a moment, chest heaving, veins pulsing with adrenaline, the fight still very much in his system. When he blinked he saw the lanterns swinging, light flashing across Tam’s snarling face as they grappled and shoved at one another.
“I love you so much,” Tam had told Jo, in front of every-damn-body, and Mike’s brain had exploded.
Love? He loved her? Tam loved Jo? And there’d been something about four years and hurting her and sorry and…Jesus Christ! In a handful of seconds that had stretched like hours, he’d gone tunneling back through his memories, searching for all the moments he could recall in which Tam and Jo had been together. The signs – so many signs – that he’d ascribed to brother/sister friendliness, had slapped him in the face. Had made themselves known for what they were. His rose-colored, innocent picture of the two of them had been blasted apart and he’d known, in a swift and sure way that left him nauseas, that Jo had never been Tam’s surrogate little sister. All week Mike had been worrying about Ryan’s wandering eyes and hands, and it was his very best friend who’d been horizontal with his little sister. For years, apparently.
He couldn’t process that right now. Wasn’t even sure he wanted to. But he needed to find Tam, before the idiot locked himself up somewhere and killed himself with alcohol. The fact that he even cared was telling, proved just how angry he wasn’t.
As castle guests watched in horror, he went up the stairs two at a time, wet and muddy and not giving a damn. He pounded on the door to every room that was part of the block Dennis had reserved, but Tam hadn’t grown up his father’s son without knowing how to disappear when he wanted to.
He came up empty, kicked the locked door in front of him in frustration, and turned to find Delta and both her parents in the hall, damp from the rain, staring at him with abject horror and disapproval.