His daughter in all aspects, Delta was never surprised by any of Dennis’s edicts. But she wasn’t prepared for the grudging respect he offered Mike. Apparently, Mike threatening to beat his ass – for her no less – had triggered some well-concealed, primitive male side that was only impressed with chest-beating and territory-marking. Whatever. She was just glad they were getting along. Her father asked her, at that horrible but necessary first dinner post-Ireland, if she would have truly stood by and let Mike attack him. Chin lifted, she’d told him yes, and that the bigger man always won out in that sort of thing. Dennis hadn’t missed her double meaning. And the wedding was back on.
They were going to get married in the Baptist church. And migrate to Dennis’s country club for the reception. It would be the wedding they were supposed to have had in the first place.
Delta closed the car door with her hip and rearranged the garment and shopping bags she juggled.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to wait for you?” Mike asked from across the top of his Beemer. She cut him a glance and saw a familiar tension steal over his face. “If you’re not sure -,”
“Baby,” she said sweetly, “they’re your family, not a pack of wild dogs.”
He lifted his brows in doubt.
“I’ll be fine. Go ahead and meet Tam and I’ll come with the girls.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said, and slid back down behind the wheel.
Delta knew he wouldn’t drive away until she’d gone inside, so she squared up her shoulders, took a deep breath as she faced the Walker house, and headed up the front walk to the door. It was unlocked and she let herself in, snuck a peek at Mike backing out into the street, then cocked her head to listen.
There were muffled female voices coming from upstairs and that’s where she went. In the master bedroom at the end of the hall, Jo sat in front of a dressing table while her mother and sister fussed over her hair. Delta paused in the threshold, suddenly nervous, and she reminded herself not to look at the flowered bedspread or the mashed, walked-over carpet, the shirtsleeve that trailed from the mouth of the wicker laundry hamper. Instead, she focused on Jo’s face in the mirror, on the radiant, glowing smile Delta hadn’t ever seen before. A lack of funds and the poorly aging suburban house around her did nothing to diminish the joy that was finally marrying her childhood sweetheart. And Beth and Jessica were thrilled for their girl, not for the spectacle – because there was none – but for the happiness.
Delta cleared her throat and their eyes swept to her, Jo’s through the mirror, the laughter and chatter coming to a sudden halt. They watched her, waiting to see if she was here because she wanted to be, or if it was an obligation. She deserved that, but it still stung.
“Jo, I brought you something,” she said, and let the garment bag slide over her arm so it hung full-length from the hanger.
They all looked at the bag. Beth’s breath caught, mouth a surprised O. Jo’s expression went carefully blank.
Jess shook her head. “I tried to get her to wear a dress. But she wants to wear jeans.”
“It’s just the courthouse,” Jo defended. “And all I care about is marrying Tam, not clothes.” Doubtless, Ireland had proved that her prejudices about fancy weddings were well-founded. Delta wasn’t sure she disagreed with her, but she hoped Jo would allow her to do this one kind thing. To make up for the drama she’d caused everyone.
“Well,” Delta said, “just look at it and then see what you think.” She unzipped the bag, gathered the skirt within, and pulled out the dress with a flourish. Someone gasped.
It was a vivid, vivid blue, simple and elegant. The bodice was fitted, the straps wide and skirt floaty. It would hug Jo’s figure and still give her a little rustle around her knees.
“I tried,” Delta said as she watched Jo’s eyes widen, “to match the color as close as I could to Tam’s car.”
“It’s…” Beth started.
“Perfect,” Jess finished.
Jo swallowed and Delta knew she was caught between her dislike of dresses and her love of the color. She shook her head. “I couldn’t.”
Was the rest of that statement: I couldn’t take something from you? Most likely. Delta met Jo’s guarded stare with one that was more open, willing Mike’s sister to understand that this was nothing but what it seemed: a gift. “I brought shoes, too,” she said, and offered the shopping bag.
It felt like forever before Jo stood from the dressing table’s bench. She did look very pretty, her feminine pixie face brought to proper attention with her shining, big soft waves of hair falling around it. She wore makeup usually, so it wasn’t rouge, but a collage of emotions that had brought such warm pink to her cheeks. Her eyes went to the bag. “Are they the same color as the dress?”
Delta smiled. “They’re red.”
Jo’s head snatched up, eyes wide. Her bottom lip got tugged between her teeth and she studied her a long moment; Delta felt a bit like a zoo animal. Finally, a smile teased one corner of Jo’s smile. “I love red.”
“I know,” Delta said with a pretend sigh, “though you’d think I was asking for your social security number instead of your favorite color when I talked to Tam about it.”
The smile grew. Delta had asked Tam, and not Jess or Beth, about Jo, and that had earned her brownie points.
Delta gave the dress a little shake, the skirt rippling. “Will you wear it?”
There was nothing romantic about the courthouse: not the judge in his robe, not the dark wood paneling of the walls nor the hollow echo of their footsteps on the tile, not the brusque recitation of only the most legal of vows that left the whole process feeling more like a contract signing – none of it. But Jo, in her blue dress and red heels, was effervescent. Her fingers were tangled with Tam’s and the two of them shook head-to-toe, their excitement shimmering in the air between them, their eyes gleaming, smiles ecstatic.
Delta leaned into Mike’s strong, solid side and her hand searched for his. His arm shifted and then his fingers closed over hers, squeezed. She rested her temple against the point of his shoulder – feeling even smaller beside him in the flats she’d worn so as not to outshine the bride – and had the strangest sense that she was the one supporting him for a change. He had blessed them, had expressed in surprisingly mature language that having his best friend become an official member of the family was a great thing, but Delta had the sense that he was lamenting the end of this stage of his life. He was getting married, his best friend was getting married now – their priorities, their lives, their futures were shifting. That, or he still didn’t want to watch anyone kiss his sister.
For her, there was nothing except the warm grip of his hand, the wonderful way he dwarfed her, and the sweet spectacle in front of them. A sense of such rightness flooded through her, washing out the worry and stress and fear that had plagued her before the Ireland disaster. Peace cloaked her, happiness thumped through her veins, and in a moment of stunning clarity, she knew that the life that lay before her was not a race to some imaginary finish line; it was a string of moments – bright, overwhelming little moments like these – that she got to anticipate and savor.
She didn’t have to get married: she wanted to.
She didn’t have to stay in Atlanta: she wanted to.
She didn’t have to settle…and she wasn’t. Not at all. That hateful phrase “supposed to” hadn’t left her vocabulary, but had come into its own. She was supposed to love Mike, because no one loved her like he did. She was, if she dared to think it, supposed to be this happy.
She was supposed to stand right here, in this courthouse, holding her man’s hand while his sister and best friend showed everyone watching how thrilling forever looked.
St. Simons Island wasn’t Aruba, but it was the best they could book on short notice, and there was still an ocean view. And there was still a sea breeze that lifted the loose mass of Delta’s dark hair and streamed it across her shoulders. Their room had a balcony and she stood with her arms folded over its railing, her back to him, salt-smelling night air playing with the hem of the crochet cover-up she wore over her bikini.
Mike – showered and dressed and no longer stinking of chlorine – stepped out onto the balcony behind her and tangled his fingers in the ends of her hair; it was soft and slick and he liked playing with it, if he was honest. “You gonna go down to dinner like this?” he asked.
She heaved a little sigh that jacked her shoulders. “Can I be honest?”
“Um, when are you not?” he chuckled.
Her head turned a fraction, profile silvered with moonlight, and the corner of her mouth curled in a small, guilty smile. “I dread going to dinner,” she admitted. “I’d give my left arm for Chinese takeout and a Pay-Per-View movie.”
Mike laughed. “You think I like getting all dolled up? Keep your left arm.” He slid his around her waist and leaned down until his lips were against her ear. “What kind of Pay-Per-View movie?”
“Not the kind you’re thinking,” she said with a snort, but leaned into him. There was not an ounce of tension in her body; she was relaxed and from all he could tell, content.
His stomach growled, but he lingered, watching the night – the warm squares of lighted windows and the endless black stretch of ocean beyond – over the top of her head. It had taken a year and a half to get to this moment, on this balcony, his arm around this girl. He’d never worked so hard for anything in his life, and nothing had been more worth it. Meathead though he was, he had this theory that Delta was only just starting to figure out what he meant when he told her he loved her. She’d gone so long without trusting that he did, but now she was starting to settle, starting to take it as truth and not a fantasy.
“I’m not even sure we can get Chinese,” she said, a frown to her voice.
“Baby, you can get anything you want.”
She breathed a laugh. “What I want is to know when to expect these bad innuendos to stop.”
“Hmm. Shoulda married Greg if you wanted that.”
With a scandalized gasp, she whirled on him, her sternest mock scowl pinned in place. “You,” she stabbed his chest with a finger, “are just…” her seriousness dissolved, smile stealing across her face, “the biggest goober I ever met.”
“Should I be insulted?” he asked, hands finding her hips, the warm skin and clinging dampness of her bikini bottoms still wet from the pool.
“But do I get laid?”
Her grin stretched. “Most definitely.”
“Then I can live with that.”
And he could. Wanted to, in fact. For the rest of his life.