All the next day it rained. The white sweeps of satin, the bundles of tulle, the ribbons and cut flowers, the lanterns, the red carpet…all of the finery took on water until it was as gray and muddied as the churning surface of the lake. There was no wedding. The castle didn’t notice. But Mike watched the breeze unwind a long, once-white silk ribbon from around the bole of a tree until it clung by just an end, lifting and diving in the rain. He let his forehead rest against the cool dampness of the window and looked all the way across the lawn, toward the lake and the place where he was supposed to be married.
He stayed in his room. Walt and Jordie and Dad all came by to sit on the side of the bed with him and offer wisdom – which was none. Tam had found an earlier flight back to Dublin – no doubt he’d maxed out his credit card doing it.
His mom was the female to finally brave the door. It must not have been latched because she didn’t knock, but came in unasked. Mike knew it was her before she came and took the honorary place of advisor beside him on the bed; the smell of her perfume was something ingrained in his memory – in all the Walker children’s memories – and even if he’d dreaded it as a teenager, hiding smokes and porn mags under his bed, there was a comforting familiarity about it now.
Beth tended to be fretful – not flighty, just stressed – and because of that, Mike forgot, for long stretches, that under her deep breaths and exclamations, she was a matriarch too. When they needed her, or when she thought they needed her, she became this steadfast rock focused solely on her children. It didn’t matter that he could have picked her up in one hand these days, he felt very small as she settled next to him and fixed his profile with one of those penetrating mother looks.
She reached up and he felt her fingernails against his scalp as she petted his hair like she still did with all of them. “I’m so sorry, baby.”
He’d expected his family to be all-smiles to learn that Delta wasn’t, in fact, going to become a Walker. The honesty in her voice stung. He’d been pushing them all away and… “You sure about that?” he asked with a humorless chuckle as he continued to stare through the window.
She made a tsk-ing sound against the inside of her cheek. “Don’t ask me that,” she said, her censure light, but serious. “I – we – may not…understand your Delta.” Her tone softened. “But she’s still yours. And I don’t ever want you to hurt like this.”
“I’m not hurting,” he said automatically.
She stroked his hair again and was silent a long moment. She wouldn’t argue with him about his feelings. Finally, she heaved a little sigh and said, “Melinda Wales is dying.”
His head snapped in her direction. She looked tired and it reminded him that this week had been a long one for everyone.
“The cancer is everywhere – her stomach, her pancreas, her lungs…” she shook her head. “She’s got bronchitis and it’s just the last little thing to push her over…” another sigh, “she won’t see another month.”
Mike had met the woman only once, and had seen, even in that short amount of time, just how fragile – physically, mentally, emotionally – Tam’s mother was. Tam had been taking care of her since he was a kid, taking on burdens no seven or eight-year-old should have ever had to carry. Cancer had begun its slow ravaging of her body nine or so years past, and before that, it had been her monstrous husband, Tam’s father, who’d abused her. Melinda dying wouldn’t mean anything to him, but it would mean something to Tam, and that was what left a cold knot in Mike’s stomach.
“Is in a dark place,” Beth said, her eyes sad. “We have to go home, Mikey. He needs us.”
“I swear, your dad could talk his way out of his own funeral,” Regina announced as she came breezing back into the room. Through the dressing table mirror, Delta watched her approach, wide hips swinging inside her flouncy white skirt, a short stack of papers in one hand. “He got you out of your honeymoon, got you seats on all three flights back to Atlanta. You’re all set.” The papers were set at her elbow; they were boarding passes, she realized.
“Thanks,” she murmured, and faced her reflection again. She’d spent thirty minutes, dipping into every jar and powder in her makeup case, and still she had dark bags beneath her red-rimmed eyes. Her crying jag – her overwhelming depression – showed in every line of her face, like all the muscles were numb.
It was nine a.m. and she should have been waking up to Caribbean sunlight streaming through the windows, to the smell of the ocean and flowering vines, to the weight of her husband’s arm draped across her, tangled and aimless and married and too content for words.
Instead, she was homeless, single, and shaking inside. And running late – she hadn’t had time to dry her hair and now it was a frizzy mess. She chose to focus on that – on her hair – rather than the horrifying prospect of walking out to the waiting vans in ten minutes. Because at the vans, there’d be the wedding party, and there’d be Mike…
She shoved him out of her mind before tears could start building at the backs of her eyes again. She had to think of mundane, stupid things; it was all that kept her from thinking about him, and about her emotional upheaval. She would put her hair up in a scarf, she decided, and wear her sunglasses to hide her eyes, despite the rain. Rising to fetch both from her suitcase, she was halted by a knock on the door.
She froze, her pulse stuttered, and she locked eyes with Regina for a panicked moment in which she tried to decide if it was hope or dread she felt at the thought of facing Mike. Regina lifted her brows in question and Delta nodded, when she could, heart thumping in painful anticipation.
Her reaction was wasted, though, because it wasn’t Mike, but his mother who stepped into the room and asked Regina if they could have a minute alone.
“It’s fine,” Delta assured, voice tight, and watched Regina slip out into the hall, closing the door behind her. Then she was alone with Beth Walker.
Beth was in a salmon-colored shirtdress belted at the narrowest point of her waist, flats and a white cardigan: soccer mom-ish, but sweet. Her pinched expression reminded Delta too much of all those awkward, jostling, jealous dinners at the Walker dining room table. She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, eyes coming to Delta’s face, giving the impression of fortifying herself for whatever she was about to say. Delta didn’t ease the tension with any polite inquiries. As far as she was concerned, Beth had no reason to call on her, so she wasn’t going to help the moment along.
“I don’t guess,” Beth said when the silence had stretched beyond the point of discomfort, “that you don’t like me – us – very much right now.”
“But I just wanted to say…well, you and I don’t have much in common.”
“No, ma’am,” Delta said, voice quiet, “we don’t.”
Beth nodded and the gray light from the window touched on her green eyes in a way Delta hadn’t seen before. “But we have Mike. We have him in common.”
Did, Delta thought. Past tense.
“I don’t know,” Beth went on, “what’s happening with the two of you, and I don’t want to. But before we left, I wanted you to know that, whatever he did – and trust me, I know the boy’s a royal ass when he wants to be – he does love you. I half expect you hate him and that I won’t see you again…but if your temper can cool, and if you can still love him…” she let it hang, but the way her brows lifted was anything but subtle.
I still have a chance, she knew. If she wanted him, if she could untangle the snarls in her brain…
“I’m sorry, honey,” Beth said. “If it’s my fault at all, then I’m sorry.” She left without waiting for a reply which was a good thing, because Delta had no idea what to say.
Their departure from Billingsly had the air of a funeral procession. Under a leaden sky and an insistent rain, black umbrellas screened a somber group that made its way down the front steps of the castle to the waiting vans. Delta shared an umbrella with Regina, the two of them pressing together to keep dry, fat drops pattering above their heads and dripping down onto their protruding shoulders.
At the bottom of the stairs, she paused, turned one last time, took one last deep breath, wanting to remember this place, to torture herself with the pain it had caused her. Her eyes swept across the others, absently registering them, and then her gaze fell across Mike and she forgot about the castle and her one last look.
He stood rooted in place, his umbrella tilted back, watching her. The unguarded regret on his face, the sadness pressed into the fine lines between his brows, was almost her undoing. He was in jeans and gray t-shirt, an unzipped hoodie over it, casual and big-shouldered and familiar – his obvious depression dulled the edges of her heartbroken fury until she wondered, for a fleeting moment, if she was making a terrible mistake. She could fling herself through the rain and collide with his chest, throw her arms around his neck and absolve him of all those little sins that had left her afraid of him.
But she didn’t have the strength for that. She faced forward again, toward the van, and put her back to the castle, to Ireland, to the man who was supposed to be her husband.
For now, anyway.