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Friday, January 4, 2013

Better Than You: part 28

** Short one tonight. I'll make up for it tomorrow!



“…and through there…”


Delta didn’t listen to flaxen-haired Tilda who’d greeted them on the front steps. As they passed beneath the cavernous, hand-painted ceiling – it was alive with a forest full of cherubs and lounging nude women – Delta’s eyes went past the grand stair that spilled down from the mezzanine, a waterfall carpeted in crushed red velvet, to the ballroom that lay beyond. She’d seen it online and in the brochures, but the glimpse of gilt-framed paintings, cathedral ceilings and terrazzo floors was enough to take her breath away.


That is, it would have if she wasn’t already semi-breathless with nerves.

The rest of the girls oohed and ahhed around her. Mike’s head was on a swivel and he kept cursing under his breath in appreciation. Louise was floating up out of her shoes, aglow with happiness.


Delta wanted to go fling herself in the lake across the driveway rather than face the reality that they were here – all of them – solely for her. No one was fool enough to think that Mike had had any say in coming to Ireland. They all knew it was her. Or, rather, her mother, but she had a feeling none of the Walkers would see the difference.


“If you’ll follow me,” Tilda said, and started up the staircase with a wave for them to follow. “I’ll show you to your rooms.” Her brogue was light, but fell heavy on certain words, proof that she’d never be able to shake it.


The stairs were wide enough for six to walk abreast, and old and shallow and steep, something she learned halfway up them when her calves started to burn. Everyone was talking all at once, pointing out wall sconces and paintings and a thousand little expensive details. Delta took it all in through a screen of numbness, thankful for the arm Mike slid around her waist.


Their rooms were on the second floor of the main keep, down a long hall carpeted with more crushed velvet. Umbrella stands and shoe racks done in heavy brass were stationed outside every room door. The paintings were massive, heavy oil things, all portraits of lords and ladies who’d lived in the castle at some time or other. A housekeeper in black uniform and starched apron was pushing a room service trolley and dipped her head in acknowledgement as their group passed. Itineraries were checked and key cards were withdrawn from pockets as Tilda pointed out rooms.


Delta rolled her own key card between her fingers and glanced up at Mike, who’d gone curious, lines pressed between his brows. “I’m rooming with Regina,” she said, and his frown lines deepened.


“We’re rooming with who?”


“Not ‘we’. Me,” she said with a wince. We have separate rooms.”


He blinked.


“Dad made the arrangements and -,”


“We’re practically living together,” he cut her off. “Have been – for a year. And we need separate rooms?”


She had to give him credit: it was the first time since they’d stepped out of the townhouse so many hours ago that he’d sounded impatient. “I know it’s annoying -,” she started, and he cut her off.


“Annoying? Do I not get to touch you this week?”


Delta shot a glance to her right, taking in her parents just a few feet away. “Someone will hear…”


“I get that you’re trying to keep your mom happy,” he continued, a frustration lacing his words that was akin to anger. He was staring hard down at her, and caught her wrist in his hand, just to make sure she stood still and listened. “But your mom doesn’t get to keep us from having sex all week.”


“Mike,” she pleaded, sighing. She kept her voice low and hoped he’d follow her lead. “We can still have sex. But the rooms -,”


“This is bullshit.”


It was, but she wasn’t going to argue about it out in the hall like this. With another sigh, she slipped her wrist through his fingers and turned away from him, heading for the door to her room. She heard his heavy steps behind her. “What are you doing?” she hissed over her shoulder.


In answer, he wrenched her rolling suitcase out of her hand. Roughly. She made a face at him. “Carrying your bag to your room,” he said, but his face was lined with unhappy tension.


Great: her anxiety was a virus she was going to pass along to him.


“Michael,” Dennis called, clearing his throat. “You’re down the hall with Lance.”


He kept following her. “Yeah. Thanks.”


The door to the room was open and Regina was already inside, unzipping her suitcase on top of the double bed closest to the door. The room itself was beautiful, done in mint green and cream, with deep navy accents. The drapes – pulled back with silver cord – were a heavy mint and cream brocade that matched the duvet covers. The carpet was plush oatmeal with a mint runner between the beds. The nightstands and little table and chairs by the window were a high-sheen walnut, buffed and polished until they reflected like glass. A massive arrangement of white roses and wispy blue wildflowers sat on top of the TV armoire. The door to the bathroom stood ajar and she glimpsed clean, modern white tile beyond.


Delta saw all of this at a glance as she marched to the foot of the bed Regina had left for her and spun on her fiancé. Mike was scowling.


“Seriously?” he turned loose of her suitcase and it fell, the plastic handle clacking against the footboard of the bed. His misuse of what was probably antique furniture left her scowling. “Separate rooms?”


“Saying it more won’t make it go away,” she snapped, arms folding beneath her breasts. “You knew this wasn’t going to be fun, Mike.”


“I knew the wedding wasn’t going to be fun – I didn’t know you weren’t gonna be fun.”


Regina snorted and Delta sent her a sharp look, wishing this conversation was in private.


“He’s got a point, Delt.”


“I know that,” Delta said, eyes going back to Mike. “I know it,” she repeated to him. “Look, separate rooms doesn’t mean anything. We can still…” hook up sounded too juvenile and she couldn’t make herself say it.


“It’ll be like you’re in high school,” Regina offered, smiling as she pulled clothes from her suitcase. “Sneaking into each other’s rooms, trying not to get caught.” She shrugged. “Could be interesting.”


But Mike didn’t think so. Delta watched a muscle in his jaw twitch and wondered if the mention of high school had sent his brain to where hers was now – to her high school mistake and the product of her sneaking around. Or maybe that was just her being paranoid.


“Regina,” she said, “could you give us a second?”


Regina glanced between the two of them and then nodded, set the shirt in her hands on the bed and slipped out through the still-open door.


When she was gone, Delta reached up and set her hand on Mike’s chest; he tensed beneath her touch, but didn’t step away. She had a fleeting wonder why she’d even expected that, then shook her head and tipped it back so she could meet his eyes. They were the same shade of green they’d always been, but there was a shadow in them. He wasn’t pissed about the room arrangements; for the first time, his nerves were bleeding through, out where she could see them. This wedding and this week were making him anxious too, and he wanted, needed for them to be together so they could remind each other why they were doing this. Down the hall, with Lance – who wasn’t his brother or his best friend – he would stare at the ceiling like she would, both of them questioning things they shouldn’t.


Delta took a deep breath and dredged up what logic she could afford, tried to find a reassuring smile for him. “It’s just sleeping arrangements,” she reasoned. “We’ll be tired – we’ll need to sleep. And this is a huge estate – we can find places to be alone together.” She swallowed, hoping it was true. “I promise.”


One corner of his mouth twitched, but it wasn’t a smile. “We should get ready for dinner,” he said, and eased a half-step back until her hand fell away from him.


“Mike -,”


He attempted a grin. “I’ll see you in a bit.”


She watched him leave, watched the muscles in his broad back roll under his shirt, the fabric wilted from travel and clinging to him. She still felt like something was wrong. And now loneliness made itself known, spreading slowly under her skin.


Whatever it cost her, she’d have to find a rendezvous point tomorrow. Maybe even before then.