“Oh my God,” Louise sounded like she might hyperventilate. “Oh my God…oh, Delta. It’s…it’s…” she clenched both hands together under her nose, eyes saucer wide, lips pulled back from her teeth in a clownish smile that was more than a little bit horrifying. “It’s…” she reached for an adjective again, huge eyes riveted on the mirror Delta stood in front of. “It’s amazing,” she finally said, shaking her head, highlighted dark locks spilling across her shoulders. “Aaamaaaaziiing, Delta.”
Then why, Delta wanted to know, did you fight me so hard on it?
The dress was amazing, though. A long slender flute of ivory, her Regency dress was cinched beneath her breasts with a belt of emerald ribbon and two ropes of pearls. Gossamer, it floated behind her as she moved, the little cap sleeves and tight, ruched bodice exposing her delicate collarbone and the round, white swells of her breasts above the plunging neckline. The back was open down past the points of her shoulder blades and embroidered with lace. Wanting nothing to do with the strapless ball gowns and mermaid dresses that were all the rage, Delta had been instantly drawn to the throwback she now wore. It was elegant and feminine and totally unexpected. If her mother was insisting on an English-named castle in Ireland, there was no more perfect a dress in existence.
Louise hadn’t thought so, though. Six months before, when the dress had been purchased, Louise had come into Delta’s dressing room dragging along six poofy, opulent, taffeta nightmares that had screamed I’m trying too hard to look rich. No offense to Cinderella, but Delta hadn’t wanted to look like her. Telling her mom as much had resulted in an argument that had left Delta in tears and Louise in the throes of a screaming tirade in the bridal shop.
Somehow, magically, during the final fitting, Louise thought the dress was amazing with too many vowels, and it was at least one small relief to Delta as she turned and scrutinized her reflection. The hem was a hairsbreadth too long, but in her wedding heels, would be just right. She nodded and presented her back to the seamstress so she could be untied, then stepped out of the dress.
Of course her mother decided to jump on her while she was standing in front of a three-way mirror in just her panties.
“Delta, dear,” Louise said in a tone that Delta had long since learned to be wary of. It was light and seemingly innocent, but there was a dark undercurrent to it, down beneath the shiny surface if you strained your ears and knew what to listen for. “I’ve just remembered something I forgot to tell you.”
Delta went rigid, fingers curling tight on the bra in her hand. “You did?”
“Yes,” Louise gave her an offhand wave and glanced into the mirror, two tiny frown lines marring her Botox-riddled forehead. “What’s that bruise on the back of your thigh? Oh -,” reality dawned with a wicked smile. “The boy does have big hands…”
“Mom,” Delta cut her off and fitted the cups of her bra over her breasts, reaching behind her to fasten the clip, “you were saying?” She reached for her white linen crops.
“Right, right.” She sniffed. “Our arrangements at Billingsly are a week earlier than I originally told you.”
Delta felt her heart came to a complete stop before it lurched into an uneven rhythm. “What? The wedding’s been moved up? Mom, the invitations -,”
Louise cut her off with a wave. “Not the wedding. The reservations. I forgot to tell you,” she said like it was nothing, like it had no bearing whatsoever on anyone’s plans, “that I thought it would be nice to spend a week at the castle before the wedding. All of us. It’ll give us more opportunities to take pictures and, well, I’ve been wanting to go back and your father won’t take me.” She shrugged. “So we’re all going.”
“And by all,” Delta felt her temper starting to rise as she stepped into her crops, “just who do you mean?”
“You, me, us. Michael and his family. The wedding party – all the girls and boys.” She gave another shrug. “It should be fun.”
“Fun?” Delta asked, heart still beating unevenly. Anger was bubbling in her veins; as usual, her mother thought of nothing but her own amusement. The wedding invitations had gone out two months prior and doubtless flight arrangements had already been made, vacation time already asked for. Dennis had secured the rooms at Billingsly, but still, Delta could think that this new twist would only inconvenience everyone involved. “No one planned on an extra week.” I’m not sure I can stand them all an extra week, she thought. Trapped in a castle with all her idiotic friends and Mike’s bizarre, jealous family, to say nothing of his best friend, sounded like pure torture.
“You can go early, but I’m not asking anyone else to inconvenience themselves,” Delta said, and reached for her shirt where it was folded over the back of a chair.
Her mom’s dark eyes cut up at her, hard and black as obsidian in a moment of rare show-through; sometimes, the harpy inside clawed and shredded the pretty outer shell until she was something fierce and monstrous, terrible to behold. This was one of those times. Her lips compressed, her nostrils flared. “Delta,” she made the name sound like it belonged to something sticky she’d found in the bottom of her purse, “I have only one daughter. Which means I get to have only one wedding. You will not rob me of that. Do you know how many girls would kill to have your father’s money in this situation? Hmm?”
Delta did know, but it didn’t make her any more thankful.
“I don’t give a damn about being inconvenient,” Louise said, voice all ice.
Delta paused with one arm thrust through the sleeve of her shirt, a cold tingle rippling up her spine.
“It’s taken you twenty-six years to finally settle your ass down with someone and I’m going to enjoy it. You can’t give me one extra week?” Her eyes flashed, daring a retort. “You shame and humiliate our family and now you want to fight me over five extra days?”
It was never going to stop hurting: having that particular sin flung back in her face. Dennis used it as an educational tool, the heartbroken father wanting her to keep her legs closed from now on. But Louise used it as a weapon; she waited until Delta was vulnerable, threw out the barb to cripple her, then applied leverage until she had what she wanted secure in her claws. It bordered on evil. And because Delta, still haunted by guilt and some sense of parental deference that was long-since dead in the lower social orders, could only fight her fights for so long, she bowed her head and did up the buttons on her light poplin shirt. “Fine, Mom,” she said. “It’s only five extra days.”
But it wasn’t just five extra days. It was about five thousand too many straws on the camel’s back.
It was a good thing Dennis hadn’t said good, because this sudden visit from Delta’s father wasn’t improving his afternoon. Mike shoved up from his desk, ran a reflexive hand down his tie and reached to accept Dennis’s shake with the other, silently wondering how the man had gotten past lobby security and this floor’s secretary without him being alerted that he had a visitor. He was eating lunch at his desk, looking through his spam email. The napkin across his lap floated down to the floor when he stood, and with a fast glance, he saw it hadn’t been protecting his pants from crumbs anyway.
“Mr. Brooks,” he said and hoped his voice wasn’t too shocked. “I didn’t expect you.”
“Why would you?” Dennis was in another perfectly tailored suit – in the year he’d been with Delta, Mike had never seen the man wear the same thing twice – and the way he flashed his cuff links as he settled into one of the two chairs across from the desk seemed deliberate. He swept a hand back along the slicked silver wings of his hair and cast an assessing glance around the office.
It was an interior office, without windows, the walls white, the light fluorescent. Parrish may have been a money-making firm, but the offices were all standard save those up on the twelfth floor where the CEO reigned. Mike had a pinboard full of Post-Its and reminders, a calendar, two coloring book pages from his nephews, Chase and Logan, and a framed photo of Delta on the corner of his desk that his coworkers had insisted must be something he’d cut out of a magazine because no way did his girlfriend look like that. Everything was tidy and clean, but Dennis had his nostrils flared in distaste.
“So…” Mike drawled as he took his seat again, wanting to get rid of him. He put the lid back on his takeout pasta and slid it over beside the wall. “The party’s still on for tonight, yeah?” Yeah? Who was he? Jordan?
“My house looks like the damn Macy’s Parade, so I can only assume,” he said. “But I wanted to talk to you about real estate.”
“Real estate?” Mike echoed stupidly.
Dennis propped his elbows on the arms of the chair and made a steeple with his fingers; it was so cliché a move Mike would have laughed if he hadn’t been afraid to. “I take it you and Delta have talked about a detached house now that you’re marrying?”
Mike shifted in his chair. “We’ve talked about it. The market’s bad right now, so -,”
Dennis cut him off with a lift of his index finger. “The market’s immaterial. If the two of you want a house, I can make it happen.”
Of course he could. He could tell the sun not to come up tomorrow.
“We haven’t looked at anything yet,” Mike said, and felt his expression hardening. “She gave her notice on the apartment, so we’re going to stay in the townhouse until we find a place.”
“You’re going to move her into your bachelor pad? Trust me, son, that won’t go well. You need a place that’s both of yours, not just yours.”
Apparently, he was a relationship coach, too.
“And how would you ‘make that happen’?” Mike asked, and couldn’t keep the tension out of his voice.
Dennis gave him a knowing look. “That townhouse of yours hasn’t appreciated in the last four years. You’re under water with it.” Not a question. “Let me buy it – I’ll rent it out; the rental market’s great at the moment. And you and Delta can move on.”
It sounded like the perfect plan. Simple. Only it would indebt Mike to his father-in-law indefinitely. It was the sort of “favor” that wasn’t a favor at all, that would come back to bite him in the ass. He might have been a big jackass, but he wasn’t so stupid to think that he could let the man do such a kindness for him and not have it held over his head every day for the rest of his life. Delta’s abortion was a ghost her family wouldn’t exorcise, and the townhouse would be too.
“No, thanks,” Mike said, and forced a smile.
Dennis lifted his brows. “No, thanks?”
“Yeah.” Mike felt his grin widen, become a little more true; the surprise on Dennis’s face was a sweet thing. “I don’t need the help.”
Dennis grinned back in a sinister way. “Michael, I’m not the sort of man who makes offers like this twice. If you say no -,”
His graying brows lifted, and then he pushed to his feet. “Very well, then.” Mike had closed the door, forever. “I’ll see you this evening.”
“Yeah. See ya.”
“Change your tie,” Dennis said over his shoulder as he turned for the door. “There’s marinara on it.”
“You told him what?” Delta asked into the phone as she held it between her cheek and shoulder. Regina was holding up two pairs of strappy sandals and Delta motioned to the silver ones on the right; Regina nodded and set them at her feet, then went back to the closet.
“That I didn’t want his help,” Mike repeated. He sounded so proud of himself, or, at least, he had before her last question. “I mean, we don’t, right?”
“Mikey,” she groaned, the nickname his family used coming out of her before she could even register it. She blinked, shook her head. “You don’t tell my father ‘no’ about anything. It just isn’t done!”
Regina, on her knees in the back of the closet, searching for a pair of shoes she could borrow, looked around, her overdramatic shocked expression almost pulling a smile out of Delta.
He sighed on the other end of the line. “Sweetheart, he twists your arm all the time. I don’t want him to be able to twist mine. We don’t need his help with a house.”
“But if he offered -,”
“Don’t tell me he was right – you can’t stand my ‘bachelor pad’?”
It truly was a bachelor pad, all his leather and chrome and glass and gray satin sheets. It wasn’t hideous, but it was nothing of her décor taste, and it wasn’t the sort of place to raise a family.
“Delta,” he said, pulling her out of her own head, “I was kidding.”
But she wasn’t. Dennis was never refused anything, not even the opportunity to do something for someone else. If they stayed in the townhouse for any period of time, both her parents would invite themselves to dinner. Both of them would remark how little influence Delta had over the interior of the place. In their eyes, she’d be deferring to Mike, and to them, that wouldn’t be a good thing.
“I’m on the way, okay?” he asked. “I’ll see you in a few.”
“Love you, too.” She hung up her cell and let it rest in her a lap a moment while she gathered her thoughts. She and Regina were in her old bedroom in her parents’ home. The closet was full of the clothes and shoes she hadn’t had room for at her apartment; she rotated sometimes – brought an armload from her apartment to exchange for what was here. Usually there was a shoe or scarf or earring missing because Louise had borrowed something and never returned it.
It was almost seven and the light beyond the windows was the golden stuff of approaching dusk. Inside, her bedroom was a palette of white, sumptuous fabrics and delicate details. Unchanged from her teenage years, it always sent her tumbling back to a time period better left forgotten. It was beautiful, it was physically comfortable, but she didn’t miss it.
“Boy’s got balls,” Regina said as she heaved up to her feet, a pair of white wedge sandals in one hand. “No one in the history of…ever…has told your dad ‘no’. About anything.”
“I know.” An unexpected shiver went up her spine.
“That’s more than a little hot,” Regina said, and went to the floor-length mirror to step into the shoes and check her reflection.
“I know,” Delta repeated. Even if she loved him all the more for it, she was drowning in the pressures of this wedding already – she didn’t want Mike to create more.
Downstairs, the house had been transformed into a museum of candles. They covered every solid flat surface: tall tapers and squat fat ones, tea lights and round ones shaped like globes. All were white and all were ready to be lit the moment darkness fell. The gardens in the book looked much the same. Two long linen-covered buffet tables had been set up to accommodate finger foods and wine glasses. Stakes had been driven into the mulch to support the strands and strands of white twinkle lights that had been used to create a canopy of faux stars overhead. The fountain bubbled, the flowers bloomed with riotous color, and her mother’s sculpture glistened copper in the center of everything. Lit paper lanterns lined the walkways and the yard was a fairy land.
It was a little bit ridiculous.
Delta laced her fingers through Mike’s as he whistled.
“We got engaged a year ago. How can an engagement party now be this huge?”
“You haven’t figured that out by now? My family does everything huge.”
“This looks like…”
“Disneyworld, I know.”
He sighed. “It’s gonna keep getting worse, isn’t it?”
Regina had been strolling through the yard, taking it in, and headed toward them, already finished with her first glass of White Zin; she’d filled it to the rim against the caterer’s frowning look. “So, Mike,” she said as she drew up to them, and Delta recognized the twinkle in her eye. “Will all your groomsmen be here?”
“They’re supposed to be.”
She grinned. “Good.”
Tam had never been to a party that hadn’t involved six-packs sitting on a coffee table and hot wings. Tonight, in his paper-thin shirt and skinny red tie, jeans and sneaks and his leather jacket even though it was too hot, he watched waiters work their way through the Brooks’ back garden. One passed him and he plucked a glass of dark wine off the tray the guy carried. He chugged it in two swallows; it tasted like shit, but he hadn’t seen any beer or liquor and he needed something to fortify him because he’d just caught a glimpse of dark blonde hair through the crowd and he was way too sober for what he intended to do.
It felt like there were two-hundred people in the Brooks’ yard, and maybe there weren’t, but there were enough bodies to make him uncomfortable. All the groomsmen, Delta’s pack of bridesmaids, and both families were present. Tam had been Mike’s shadow for a time, and then Randy’s for a little while. He’d seen Jordan only briefly, and figured that was who belonged to the dress shoes he saw poised next to Jo’s stilettos across the grass.
He didn’t know where his sudden rush of bravery had come from as he began threading his way through the crowd. Nothing had changed in the past weeks…nothing save the groomsmen asking about Mike’s sisters. Asking if either of them were single. Finding out Jo was. He’d gone four years without her, and while there was no reason for his desperation to spike so hard now, it was. Maybe he was afraid Delta might succeed in setting her up with someone. Maybe four years was all he could expect to go without snapping. Maybe putting his mother in a nursing home had finally severed the thin threads of patience inside him.
It was stupid and reckless, but he was moving toward her anyway, and it was going to take something besides his conscience to stop him tonight.