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Friday, January 11, 2013

Better Than You: part 35



Dennis and Louise had not just a room, but a suite, complete with sitting room, and that was where the four of them now stood. At least, Mike stood, and Dennis was squared off from him, his tan hands braced on the back of an embroidered chair. Louise was sniffling into a wadded tissue in the matching chair. Delta, her hair wet and curling, was perched in the windowsill, watching the black night and the jagged tongues of lightning through the drapes left parted. Her profile ghostly white, dark lashes low on her cheeks, she was as breathtaking as always. And as cold and aloof as always.


“We need to talk,” Dennis had growled out in the hall, and Mike had followed him in here, thinking that maybe, just maybe, there’d be something like need shining in Delta’s eyes. But he’d been mistaken. And like hell was he enduring a lecture from this rich jackass for the fun of it.


“Look,” Mike started to turn for the door, mind still away with blood- and mud-spattered Tam and wherever he’d crawled with a bottle, “I don’t have time for this shit -,”


“You won’t go anywhere,” Dennis had a commanding, courtroom voice when he chose to use it, “until you’ve explained that damn Jerry Springer episode I just watched down there!”


A personal attack he could have handled; an attack on his family – and even if he was a miserable, sister-screwing ass right now, Tam was his family too – was too much to tolerate.


“Yeah,” he let a sneering non-smile split his face. “We’re all one big white trash nightmare for you, aren’t we?”


The look Dennis tossed up at him wasn’t anything Mike hadn’t seen before. In fact, the guy’s daughter was much more intimidating. “Can you even comprehend,” he growled through his teeth, “how much money I’ve spent on this whole charade? Can you? And you’ve -,”


“Shit all over it. Yeah. I know,” Mike interrupted and earned a flashing, black-eyed glare that was almost as ruthless as one of Delta’s. “I didn’t wanna come to Ireland, Dennis. And neither did Delta.” Her head turned toward him a fraction but he couldn’t read her expression. “That was all your wife’s idea, so if you wanna talk money, talk about it with her.”


Louise, never anything less than inappropriate, looked for the first time like she loathed him. Attraction didn’t, it seemed, run deeper than pride or love of riches. She crumpled her tissue in a ringed fist and glared at him through red-rimmed eyes. “You’ve ruined everything!” she wailed. “You and your idiot friends! And your sister -,”


“My sister,” Mike didn’t realize until it was happening that he was drawing up, his chest inflating, his hands coming out of his pockets, his voice rising to a controlled shout; too many people had pushed the sister button, and in this instance, it infuriated him. “Is nobody’s damn business!” he roared, and Louise fell back in her chair with a little gasp. “You know who’s ruining this wedding? We,” he pointed at Delta and then at himself, saw her eyelashes flutter, “are. So nobody say another damn word about my family!”


Dennis came around the chair, hands balled into fists. “Do not talk to my wife like that.”


“Oh, I forgot how respectful you are.” The man disgusted him: dressed to the nines, wealthy, successful…and an unfeeling bastard who had no love or respect for anyone. Mike was tired, he needed a shower, he’d had family drama dumped on his head, and he was ninety-nine percent sure his fiancée hated his freaking guts. He didn’t have the time, patience, or grace for Dennis Brooks. As Dennis opened his mouth to say something, Mike cut him off. “I wanna talk to Delta alone. Get out.”


Dennis’s silver brows went up his forehead. “Excuse me?”


Mike pressed his height advantage and leaned down in his face. “I said, get out.”


“Dennis,” Louise shrilled, “he can’t tell us that! This is our room!”


Maybe, Mike thought, as hot, overwhelming rage pumped through his veins, this was what Tam felt like most of the time. “I don’t care whose room it is,” he dropped his voice until it was a level, calm, unquestionable threat, not breaking eye contact with his father-in-law to-be. “I will remove you, both of you, conscious or not. I’m talking to Delta. Alone. You can take your subtle bullshit and shove it up your ass, old man. I will fight you for her, physically, and trust me, you won’t win.”


Somewhere, through some psychic knowledge of the moment, Randy was cheering. To prove his point, Mike took a deliberate step toward Delta’s father.


Dennis held his gaze a moment…two…and then with a sharp tug at the front of his suit jacket, turned for the door. “Come, Louise,” and she did, with a hard sniff and another glare at Mike.


He watched them go, not believing he’d managed to win. But when the door clicked shut, and he turned to Delta, saw the glacial light in her dark eyes as lightning turned the window, and her face, vivid white, he realized he hadn’t won at all.


She stared at him a long moment, unblinking, and for some reason, he wasn’t expecting what came out of her mouth. “You’re going to fight my father?” she asked, long legs uncurling from the sill as she stood. Her spine was stiff, her posture an unnatural collection of tense angles. “Is that all any of you people know how to do?” he’d never heard her voice so razor-sharp; it was more cutting and hateful than the day they’d met, the day he’d bought a dress just to keep her in sight, plying her for a date. That had been a cold, shrewish sort of tone – she hadn’t known him and didn’t want to. This was lethal – she did know him, and wished she didn’t. “Fight? Are you and your…best man…proud of yourselves?”


He knew who she was, what she was, but just once, he wanted to see her soften. She was only soft in soft moments; she would never bend when their hackles were up like this.


He wasn’t bending either.


He felt the heavy scowl that took hold of his face. “What’s going on with me and Tam is none of your business -,”


“No!” she took two stiff steps toward him, lips skinned back off her teeth in a snarl. “It’s everyone’s business because the two of you had a fistfight in the middle of my rehearsal dinner!”


“I told you I’d handle him.”


“And a bang-up job you’re doing of it! You can’t ‘handle’ him. He’s a rabid damn dog and you brought him along anyway -,”


“Shut up,” he snapped, and her voice caught in her throat, eyes springing wide; they were the color of black coffee in the lamplight. “I told you not to push me about Tam. You don’t know shit about him.”


She found her voice again, and something moved through her face, a flicker of betrayal that registered somewhere in the back of his mind as a warning that he’d gone too far – even farther than he’d gone in the coat closet. “Neither do you,” she shot back. “I tried…I freaking tried, Michael, to get you to open your eyes and see that he was in love with your sister -,”


A white, hot flush of anger swept through him. “You knew?”


“Everyone knew!” she flung up her arms and let them clap back to her sides. “Everyone with eyes in their head could see that except you.”


There was a settee in front of him and he curled a hand around the decorative wood scrollwork at its top, squeezing hard because he wanted to feel his arm flex.


“He has pictures in his wallet, for God’s sakes,” Delta went on.  “But, oh, you know what’s best, don’t you? How dare I form my own educated opinion of your precious best friend?”


He felt like he kept getting slapped. Tam wanted Jo. Delta knew Tam wanted Jo…the earth was fast tipping and he was sliding down its slope. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked through his teeth, and she blinked. “If you knew, why didn’t you say anything? You set her up with that creep Atkins -,”


“That was you,” she interrupted. “I nudged you toward a ‘friend’ and you picked Atkins.”


And he had, hadn’t he? He saw her, flossing her teeth in front of his bathroom mirror, her pretty bare toes on the rug, suggesting one of his friends might be interested in Jo. He’d jumped to Ryan, had allowed that to happen – and by default, had allowed all the Tam-related punch-throwing that had turned their castle getaway into a white trash reality show.


He shook his head. “You lied to me.”


Her beautiful face twisted, the anger shifting, giving him a glimpse of what was beneath. “And you abandoned me.”


Mike blinked. “What?”


She was just one long arm reach away from him, close enough for him to see the hurt shimmering deep in her eyes. She banded her arms around her middle and kicked her chin up, imperious and defiant…at least, she tried to be. She was shaking head to toe.


“All you had to do,” she said in a strained voice, “was toe the line this one week. We had to keep my parents happy for just seven days, and you didn’t even try.”


“Yes I did,” he protested.




“I…” He’d what? Thought about his frustrating family and frowned a lot?


“I gave things up for you,” she said, and her voice came dangerously close to cracking, heavy with emotion. Her frown was wavering, giving way to a truer, more pained expression. She hugged herself even tighter. “I gave up a job at Saks I would have killed for. I gave up my apartment. I gave up,” she took a ragged breath, “my secrets. Everything in me told me not to, but I gave and gave to you, Michael.” Her lashes fluttered. “And all I wanted was a week. And all you did was take.”


She meant the coat closet. Her thoughts were, apparently, fixated there; she used what had happened there as the centerpiece of a deepening rage…


But it wasn’t really rage. Her eyes lifted to his, wet in the corners, lashes batting furiously, and he knew she wasn’t furious with him; she was heartbroken.


It was not, Mike acknowledged, about bending. This wasn’t a battle of wills, a case of who was wrong and who was right. They – he – had damaged what they had together, and if they did any more wrecking, they wouldn’t be able to patch it back together again.


His hand relaxed on the back of the settee. A deep breath eased the tension across his shoulders a fraction. “Baby -,”


“I always said I didn’t want to get married,” she said, and her eyes fell away from him, going to the door of the suite. Quietly, almost to herself, she said, “I should never have forgotten that.”


Fear touched him as a thin, cold finger trailing down his spine. He swallowed. “Delta.”


“I was stupid to even think -,”


“Baby, don’t say anything else.” He stepped around from behind the settee, putting himself in her line of sight. “Just stop talking.”


He could see in her face that she’d already pulled back. She was withdrawing from him, stowing her emotions away. Shutting him out, filing him away under an aggressive closet encounter so that she could recall him when she needed to think about the men who’d misused her.


Mike’s eyes went down her slender pale throat and latched onto the white gold crown he’d given her. She’d worn it every day for a year, didn’t even take it off in the shower or when she slept. She touched it when she was pensive, when she was watching a movie, when she sat at the computer. She loved it, and for him, it had been like watching her wear his love willingly, all the time, for all the world to see, her fingers brushing across it when she needed a reminder. She didn’t touch it now, though; her hands stayed rigid at her sides.


But then they lifted, and he hoped…and then dread fell heavy as a stone in his gut as he watched her reach for her engagement ring with her right hand.


Do not take that off.” He hadn’t meant to shout at her, but seized with desperation, he did shout.


Her head snatched up, dark, damp hair flitting against his arm, frozen in the act of wrenching her diamond off her finger.


“Don’t,” he said, and it was the wrong thing to say because now there was clear fright etching her features. “Delta -,”


She stepped around him.


He caught her.


Mike swept an arm around her waist and pulled her off her feet, brought her in tight against his chest. She exploded: twisting, kicking, struggling to get out of his hold, her eyes rolling wildly.


“Put me down,” she hissed.


He held her tight and gave her a little shake, hard enough to pull her gaze to his face. “No,” he told her. She was breathing hard, her chest pushing against his, and he realized he was gulping in air too. “No, you’re not doing this.”


Her nails bit through the wet fabric of his shirt as she pushed and strained away from him. Her dress was smudged with mud in places, transferred from him, and tears were threatening to spill over her lashes. She wasn’t Delta anymore, but a riled feral cat, terrified and unreasonable. “You can’t force me to do anything,” she said and it was almost a wail. She bared her teeth at him, fighting against his arms. “I don’t care how big you are,” her voice broke and the tears came, “you can’t do this to me again!”


Her meaning slammed into him hard, struck the breath from his lungs. She wasn’t trying to hurt him, wasn’t flinging barbs. She really thought…


A lump formed in his throat. “No,” he said, just a murmur this time. “No, baby, I’m not -,”


He felt the sharp bite of claws raking down his cheek before he saw her hand move. She struck him hard, fingers flexed, nails gouging into his face. It stung – he felt the flesh tear – but it was the sheer shock, and not the pain, that caused his arms to go limp.


Delta lunged away from him and bolted, a swirl of dark hair and midnight skirt before the door slammed and he was alone. He stood a long, stupid moment, blinking, listening to rain pelt the window, the silent room pressing in on him. He reached up and touched his face, felt the slickness of blood, drew his hand back and saw it crimson on his fingertips. Saw, too, how badly he was shaking.




Delta didn’t know how long she lay curled on her side on top of the covers, the room black around her, the sound of rain against the window just louder than the shallow rhythm of her breathing. It felt like forever before the lock clicked and the door swept in, a panel of warm light falling across the wall.


“Delt?” she heard Regina, and then the lamps came on. The door shut. “Honey.”


She wondered, for a moment, what she would say if she rolled over and faced her friend. When she realized she didn’t have the words, she closed her eyes and feigned sleep. She heard Regina come around the bed and look at her, heard the sigh, and the retreating footsteps. Perfectly still, she listened to Regina shower and ready for bed, slide beneath the covers and then the lamps went out.


Maybe, she thought, and felt the deranged urge to laugh, if I stay like this, I’ll wake in the morning and it’ll all have been a dream.


But she couldn’t sleep, and she couldn’t stop shaking, and she couldn’t stop replaying it all in her mind. She didn’t know why the lamps came back on or why her bed dipped as Regina sat beside her, didn’t understand the hand that rubbed circles across her back. Until, finally, she realized she was sobbing.

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