Mike’s phone rang at the bottom of the stairs and he answered it with a tired-sounding,“Yeah?”
Delta toed off her pumps and set them neatly beneath the coat rack in the foyer while he had a short conversation with whoever was on the other line, gave his thanks, then hung up.
“Mitch,” he explained. “His brother’s in insurance and I needed to get an address.”
She nodded, not wanting to press for info that was clearly none of her business.
He rubbed the back of his neck, expression reluctant. “Tam and I hafta take care of something tomorrow morning.”
He watched her and she realized that he was waiting, wondering which one of them would initiate the painful series of apologies that needed to be spoken. He would, his wounded green eyes told her, submit to her and come groveling if that’s what it took. But she knew, as she tried again to swallow the lump in her throat, that she didn’t want him to do that. She didn’t want to hear what a hero he was and then force him to beg. He was a caveman – her caveman – and she didn’t want to take that away from him.
“Can we go upstairs?” she asked and hoped like hell she succeeded in lowering her shields, letting him see how much regret she carried.
He saw; the planes of his face softened and he extended a hand that she slipped hers into, towed her up the staircase. They paused at the top and he cast a glance down the empty, shadowed hall. Tam and Jo were down there, she felt sure, and he was still struggling with the notion. She pressed her free hand against his back and gave him a little push, and he turned into the master suite, pulling her with him and closing the door. There was a finality about the click of the latch; she suppressed another shiver as she faced the daunting task of laying her heart at his feet for the last available time. She paced to the foot of his bed, left him at the door, and turned to face him with a deep breath…
Only she couldn’t say anything. From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of wax pine that was her dressing table, out of place amid the black and gray of his bedroom. “My furniture,” she said stupidly, meeting his gaze. “It’s all still here?”
“The stuff smells like you,” he said, lip curling. “It’s driving me nuts.”
But he hadn’t thrown in out on the curb.
“How’s your face?” she asked, eyes tracing the faint pink lines her claws had left.
He shrugged. “Fine.”
She had relived the memory at least a hundred times: her hand flashing, fingers angled so her nails would do maximum damage. She’d tried to tell herself that she’d just wanted him to turn her loose – and she had been gripped with the fear that he’d hurt her – but she’d scratched him with vicious intent, not just self-preservation. Because she was cold and unfeeling and she’d wanted to punish him for making her vulnerable.
“Oh, Mikey…” her voice cracked, tears filling her eyes again. Her chest gave a big squeeze, and then another as he started toward her. “No, wait,” she dashed at her eyes and tried to smile. “Gimme a sec. I need to say my piece.”
His hands closed over empty air, he leaned toward her, but he stayed his ground. She needed the space between them because once his arms slid around her, she wouldn’t be able to speak, and he needed to hear what she had to say.
“Do you remember,” she asked with a deep breath, “how you asked me if I’d ever been in love with anyone before?”
He nodded, the muscles in his throat working as he swallowed. In his face, she read that he remembered that moment exactly: on the edge of her bed, his ring on her finger, her heart in her throat.
“It wasn’t because the opportunity never presented itself,” she said. “It was because I never could love anyone. Because they didn’t deserve it.”
What he wanted to say in response wouldn’t be held down, apparently. “That thing in the closet, in Ireland, babe -,”
“You don’t have to -,”
“No, I do.” His expression was pained, earnest. “I know better than to…do what I did. I’m sorry, sweetheart. I am, I -,”
“I know you are,” she heard the emotional strain in her voice and decided not to fight it. What she wanted to tell him hadn’t changed, but his apology left her even more certain, if that was possible. “You didn’t hurt me,” she assured. “And it wasn’t like I didn’t…enjoy myself,” she felt a blush come up her neck and creep across her cheeks. “But it just scared me a little.”
He took a step toward her and she held up her hand, knowing she couldn’t keep him back, grateful he stayed back anyway.
“I don’t want to pretend Ireland didn’t happen,” she said, feeling too logical, “because I think it would be stupid not to remember our mistakes and learn from them.”
“But I don’t…” she swallowed, “I don’t want it to wreck us, because…” how could she pride herself on apropos quips and then be so speechless now? She was, she knew, so spot-on with cutting remarks that she’d lost the skill to wield sweetness, even when she so desperately wanted to. She reached up with her right hand, brushed her fingers across the crown she wore at her throat, and watched his eyes follow her movement. Watched his spark of gladness. “Because,” the words started lining up like dominos; all she had to do was give them a little push to get them going. “I’m done pretending,” she said, and felt a welcome flush of confidence.
His brows lifted in silent question and one foot slid just a fraction closer across the carpet.
“I’m tired of wanting,” she went on, “all those inconsequential things I’m supposed to want. I wasted so much time worrying about pleasing my parents, about the legacy I’m supposed to leave – but it was the wrong kind of legacy. It was superficial and heartless. And I didn’t know any better because I had no idea what it really, truly was supposed to be like. You have ruined me for anyone else, Mike,” she said, and clutched her hand around the charm. “If we can’t fix this and I walk out that door…I’ll be a miserable old spinster the rest of my life.” Giving him that kind of power was terrifying, but it was true and necessary.
He inched toward her again; she saw the tension in him, how hard he was working to maintain the distance, and knew she was fast running out of time.
She took a deep breath that hitched in her chest, felt the tears threatening to overflow her lashes. “I still can’t believe you love me. You are kind and you are good, and…” she found his eyes with hers and locked on tight, “you make me smile, and make me laugh, and make my heart beat faster and no one – not anyone in my life – has ever, nor will ever, do that better than you.”
It was the sort of big, heavy, hard to hold statement that hit like a sack of hammers. But Mike was tall and broad and strong, and he took it without faltering. His smile was unsteady, but his voice wasn’t. “Are you done?”
“Is that as close as you’re ever going to get to really telling me you love me?”
“No.” She swallowed hard. “I love you.” And then she stole from Tam with a shaky smile of her own: “More than you even know.”
Nothing had ever been as welcome as the way he charged her and snatched her up, lifted her feet off the ground as he crushed her against his chest and pressed his face into the hollow of her throat. She clung to him, fingers digging into the fabric of his shirt, and wasn’t sure which one of them was shaking. Probably both of them.
She was still wearing her ring; as she slid her hand up the back of his neck, fingers threading through the supershort hair at the back of his head, he felt the cool, smooth band against his skin. Even with her fragile and trembling inside his arms, he wanted confirmation. He wanted to ask her if she’d still marry him, if all this stupid crazy drama could be over so they could just live their lives together. But he knew what he needed to do instead; he tangled a hand in all her thick, dark hair and eased her back away from him a fraction, far enough so he could look down into her face. Her eyes were wide and warm and swimming with tears.
He withdrew his arm from around her waist so he could reach up and cradle the side of her face with his other hand, smoothed the pad of his thumb along the high ridge of her cheek. “I’m sorry,” he told her again, and waited to see her tiny smile and her nod before he ducked his head and kissed her.
Mike took his time, thinking about the night in the coat closet, wanting this to replace that memory in her mind. He eased his lips against hers, waited until she responded before he pushed them wider, let her invite his tongue into her mouth, let her sigh and lean into him, her jaw cracking wide. Still he didn’t rush, but walked them through a slow reacquainting, making out like teenagers trying to wring every last sensation from just a kiss.
Delta was the one who broke away and pulled back, stepped out of his arms. Breathing a little heavy, all reticence gone from her expression, she watched his face as she plucked down the straps of her sundress and smoothed the dark blue cotton down her waist, over her hips, and let it drop to the floor. Her hands went to the clasp of her bra and he loved the way her spine arched, the way the lamplight carved shadows along her ribs and the sleek contours of her stomach. Her bra hit the floor, then her panties, and then she was in front of him, naked and spectacular and beckoning him to her.
His hands and hers worked in a frenzy to strip off his clothes, and then he eased her back across his bed, braced over her on his arms. Her eyes were glittering dark coffee watching him with a sort of rapturous attention he hadn’t seen in her before; it sent a welcome rush of heat blasting through him.
With the lights on, he made up for the night in the dark of the ballroom coat closet, and did his best to live up to no one does that better than you.
Morning’s arrival was a painful reality. Delta cracked her eyes to the blinding vista through the picture window and groaned to herself. She didn’t want to get out of bed, or, worse, slip from beneath the heavy arm Mike had draped across her waist.
But Mike and Tam had plans this morning, and she had a driving urge to make her man – and his very messed up friend – breakfast. With regret, she sat up and eased his arm away, smiled when he stirred and wiped at his eyes like a child.
“Where…?” was the closest he could come to forming a real question.
She leaned over and dropped a kiss on his forehead. “I’m gonna make breakfast before you guys have to leave.”
He mumbled something unintelligible.
Stacks of labeled cardboard boxes shoved along the wall beside his dresser were full of all the clothes she’d moved over before leaving for Ireland, but as she left the haven of the sheets and his warmth, she didn’t want any of her own things. She found a t-shirt and basketball shorts that swallowed her whole, but having his fabric against her skin was the next best thing to rolling over in bed and plastering herself to his side.
Downstairs, fresh sunlight lay in silver stripes across the floors, finding spots to shine in the kitchen. There was something soothing and domestic – in her life, forbidden even – about being the only one awake in the house, cooking and humming to herself, acting the little missus. She’d worked in Mike’s kitchen enough to know every corner of it, to work as efficiently as a gourmet chef in it. Absorbed in collecting things from the fridge and lining them up on the counter, she didn’t hear Jo, but suddenly saw her, small and disheveled, standing in the threshold.
She tried and failed to hide her startled reaction, and they regarded one another a long moment. Yesterday hadn’t made them friends. Delta still didn’t know how to work around the girl, but she was going to have to learn, she guessed, if they were going to be sisters-in-law. It was an effort she hadn’t made before, a lack of a willingness to try that had been one of so many pre-Ireland mistakes.
“Do you cook?” she asked, and thought Jo’s always-ready hackles smoothed. “I’m making eggs.”
“Not even a little bit,” Jo admitted, which wasn’t a surprise.
“Can you work the toaster?”
The Walkers were not going to be swept under the rug and forgotten. They didn’t love her – God knew if they ever would – but Delta needed to love them. For Mike.
They went looking for Tam’s father. The address Mitch provided took them to the slum apartment Hank Wales was renting, but his landlady informed them he’d disappeared one night. They checked his favorite haunts, talked to sketchy losers leaning up against dumpsters, but the trail had long since run cold. Mike accepted their strange morning for what it was: the sort of unsavory errand he didn’t ever want his friend to endure alone. He carried Delta’s accepting half-smile in his pocket and chose to think about Jo in the only way he could at the moment; she was probably the only other person who could help him deal with the snakes in Tam’s head right now.
When they’d exhausted every avenue and Tam finally admitted that Hank couldn’t be found, Mike pulled over for lunch, sent Tam to find them a window table while he bought them a whole sack full of cheeseburgers and fries.
Tam was staring out at the parking lot, picking imaginary bits of whatever from a back tooth with his thumb when Mike set a tray in front of him. His eyes went to the table and his hand went for his wallet.
“No, damn it,” Mike said without malice, “just eat.”
Tam was halfway through his second burger when he slowed down enough to talk between bites. He took a hit of soda and fixed Mike with a serious look. “So. What now?”
Mike swallowed and frowned. “What do you mean ‘what now’?”
Tam’s eyes skittered away, studied his fries for a long moment while he composed – the guy was working hard to say exactly the right things in this weird new situation they’d found themselves in – then returned. “I broke up with Jo because of my old man. How’s it any different now?”
Mike flashed back to his mother’s phone call the day before: “He needs her.” He plucked the Jo Tam referred to apart from the girl he knew as his little sister and focused solely on the first. “She knows now,” he reasoned. “It’s not some dirty secret anymore. She knows about your dad and probably doesn’t give a shit about him.”
And he was: not in the romanticized way stupid women thought was sexy, but in a very real, very careless and violent way. Someone needed to put the asshole in the ground, but like all of his kind, he lived in and out of jail and stayed just one step ahead of the end he deserved.
Tam, though, couldn’t keep living under the threat of the man. It was, quite literally, killing him.
Mike shrugged. “You haven’t seen him in, what, at least a year?”
“And you didn’t ‘break up’ with me, so he still knows you’re connected to the family and hasn’t bothered any of us.”
Tam’s face twisted and he glanced down at his tray. “He doesn’t pick on anyone his own size. If he thought I had someone…and she’s so small…” he didn’t finish.
“You are kind and you are good,” Delta had told him. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but he knew he wouldn’t do what he was about to do, say what he was about to say, for just some friend. As far as he was concerned, he’d always had three brothers: two blood, one sitting across from him now.
“Look at me.” Tam did. “God help me for asking this, but do you seriously love her? I know you said it in Ireland, but I mean for sure, without a doubt. Period. The end. No one else holds a candle. Do you, hand on the freaking bible, really love her?”
Tam didn’t blink. “I wanna marry her.”
And at the end of the day, wasn’t that what big brothers wanted? For some sad sack to be totally enthralled and wanting to marry their sisters and spare them from the Atkins of the world? “You know,” Mike said, dead-faced, “that would mean we couldn’t talk about sex ever again.”
“I don’t wanna do that anyway.”
Mike regarded him a long moment and decided he was damn tired of watching him be so depressed. “Then here’s how it’s gonna work,” he said. “If your old man shows back up, if he even so much as passes you on the damn street, you tell me. He won’t ever have a chance to hurt Jo because we won’t give him one. We will take care of him, Tam.”
His blue eyes went wide, bright with a lethal combination of hope and disbelief.
Mike extended a hand across the table. “Deal?”
Tam swallowed hard. “I’ll have to talk to her, I have to make sure she…”
Mike lifted his brows.
Tam’s hand came across the table and clasped with his, gripped tight. “Deal.”
Mike and Tam parted in the drive of the townhouse. Tam was going to clean his meager belongings from his apartment, and was, per Mike’s orders, going home – wherever Jo was. Mike went inside, into his home, to find his woman consolidating his handful of books with all of hers in the cabinet in the formal sitting room.
She’d changed into her own clothes, jeans and a purple tank top, her hair in a ponytail, loose strands framing her face. She was rarely this casual and he liked it: her bare feet on the hardwood, toenails navy blue, her bra straps showing, her makeup light. He plopped down into the leather armchair just inside the threshold and the smile she tossed him over her shoulder was worth killing for. It came and went quickly, eyes concerned.
“How’d it go?”
“We couldn’t find him,” he said, and for some reason, it was an unexpected relief to admit it to her. She knew about Tam, she had been invited into the circle of confidence, and he loved her more for settling there so nicely.
She paused, the spine of a book between her elegant fingers, poised to slide it into place. “What does that mean?”
He sighed. “I sort of agreed to help my brother-in-law kill a guy if it ever comes to that.”
Her dark brows lifted. “Brother-in-law?”
“He wants to marry her.”
One corner of her mouth twitched and she returned her attention to the cabinet of books. “Good.”
“You’re not gonna ask me about the whole killing a guy thing?”
She stepped back, surveyed her work, then turned to him, ponytail falling like black silk over her shoulder. “I’m not supposed to press you about Tam, remember?” she said, but there was a sweetness to her voice.
“Well, I mean…you could press about murder.”
She walked to him, graceful even when she wasn’t trying to be, and climbed into his lap, her head on his shoulder, arm across his chest. “How about I just bail you out of jail when it happens?”
“See? This is why I wanted to marry into a rich family.”
She snorted and her hand smoothed an aimless pattern across his chest, her palm warm through the thin fabric of his t-shirt.
Mike curled an arm around her waist, hand splayed across her hip. “You are still gonna marry me, right?”
He glanced down and saw that her head was tilted back, her eyes tracing over his face. “Only if it’s small scale this time. And easy for your family to attend.”
He lifted his brows in mild surprise.
“My family loves money,” she explained in a quiet voice, “and yours loves poor little abused boys. When I become a Walker, I want them all there.”
He caught her face and kissed her.