Jo hated parties so much she wasn’t even sure hate was a strong enough word. She detested the strappy little dress and sandals her sister had let her borrow, abhorred the way her heels kept sinking into the grass, absolutely wanted to scream every time anyone looked at her like she wasn’t supposed to be there. She could feel their judgment because she’d felt it from others her whole life. Normally it didn’t bother her. After Delta’s invitation to the nightclub, it was chafing against all of her nerves.
When Jordan happened past, she snagged the sleeve of his jacket. “Stay with me,” her request was more of an angry hiss, and he turned a lazy look on her.
“Stay?” One of his brows lifted. “But I’ve got, like…” his eyes went to the sky as he counted in his head, “at least ten bridesmaids I wanna meet.”
“You wanna bang,” she said with a snort. “I’m sure their tastes are more expensive than you.”
“Now that hurts.” He was drinking red wine and took a sip, made a face. “Jesus, don’t they have anything worth drinking around here?” His eyes did a restless scan of the crowd and Jo was afraid she’d lose him.
“No, only wine. Just…stand with me for a bit? Please?” Her fingers tightened on his sleeve and he finally looked at her, his blue-green eyes round with surprise.
“You’re really freaking out, aren’t you? Why?”
“I’m not freaking out. I just don’t want to have to talk to any more of Delta’s stupid friends.”
He shrugged. “So go hang with the guys.”
She’d thought of that, but unlike her brothers – Jordan, anyway – Mike’s other friends seemed to think she was flirting with them, even when she wasn’t. “I…” whatever she’d meant to say left her head as the crowd shifted in front of her and she saw who was walking toward her. She’d tried to prepare herself mentally for tonight on the off chance she’d have to speak to Tam, but it had been more than a year since she’d so much as laid eyes on him, and doing so now cut deep and hit bone.
Her mouth went dry and her heart gave a great lurch that left her light-headed. She loved him – had always loved him – but she hated him now too. Hated him for what he’d said and done to her up against the side of her dorm building four years ago. Hated him all the harder for not trying to reach back out to her and ease the sting of rejection. Hated him for letting this hate fester, for dropping out of her life after growing up together like she meant nothing to him, and never had.
“It’s Tam,” she choked out, pulse thundering in her ears, eyes traitorous as they stayed glued to him. He was still coming toward her, long legs eating up the grass in the Brooks’ backyard, and he was totally focused on her. Not on the party around them or Jordan or anything else. Four years and suddenly she had his undivided attention.
It confused the hell out of her, and for that, she hated him some more.
Jordan shook her hand off his sleeve and started to pull back. “So talk to him,” he offered, and before she could tell him that she wasn’t going to talk to the man who’d broken her heart, he slipped away. Damn him.
Alone, Jo banded an arm across her middle and straightened as best she could with her heels sinking into the grass. She could either let Tam come to her, or try and send him away before he reached her side. Her heart was galloping – she could feel it in every pulse point beneath her skin – and her stomach was twisting into knot after knot. She wasn’t ready for this, for him, for whatever pitiful thing he would say to her.
Taking the coward’s way out, she set her jaw and narrowed her eyes and gave him a look that warned him not to come any closer. He halted immediately, swaying like he’d run into an invisible wall, and it broke her heart to think that even if he’d ruined her and she hated him, they could still read each other so well.
In a garden full of mingling, laughing, well-wishing guests, Delta’s eyes latched onto the anomaly: the stand-off happening over against one brick garden wall. Tam and Jo had found each other, and there were downed power lines running between them.
Maybe five feet apart, Delta could tell they wouldn’t get any closer, and the one doing the pushing was Jo. Tam’s hands clenched empty air – he wanted to narrow the gap – but Jo had her little chin kicked up and the look in her eyes was so threatening it would have been amusing if Delta hadn’t known what was going on between the former sweethearts.
On her way to ask the waiters to bring out more white wine – a directive from her mother – her gaze had landed on the silent soap opera playing out between Mike’s best friend and sister, and she’d been drawn to a halt, fascinated to see what happened. Even from a distance, through the twinkling of lights and shifting of bodies, she could read the tension in them, see the fine tremors in Jo’s little hands, watch Tam’s chest heave as he sucked in air. His eyes were full of question, hers of warning. He, she realized, had been the one to hurt her, and she wasn’t ready to forget it, even if she was lonely for him.
In a sea of humanity, Delta had found the one true thing to find. Her friends, Michael’s friends, the stressed relatives…all of them were here not for her, but for the promise of a new event to celebrate. Weddings, babies…everyone wanted to celebrate things like that. The bride, the baby, those were immaterial. They all just wanted an excuse to gather, to get tanked up, and to pretend it wasn’t for selfish reasons. The smiles might have been true, but sentiments only half-true.
Tam and Jo, however, were electric, and no one else seemed to know it but her.
She held her breath and waited; party goers streamed around her, bumped into her, but she didn’t notice. Do something, she urged silently. Say something to each other.
But Tam edged a step back, and then another. And then he deflated, shoulders slumping, and turned away from Jo, put some space between them. Jo watched him go, unwavering, until he was halfway across the lawn, and then she fell back against the wall, a hand going to her lips, quivering.
Delta cursed softly to herself and felt a touch at her elbow. She jumped and twisted her head around to see Mike looming over her, tall and blocking out the light behind her with his wide shoulders. Guilt surged.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, and his eyes went across the garden, but didn’t land on anything. “Or are you just spacing out?” His gaze came back to her and he smiled, one of those Captain America smiles that wasn’t as sly as he thought it was. She loved them.
“Spacing,” she said, and tried and failed to smile back. She swallowed, her guilt pushing up the back of her throat. It wasn’t her place, but she was starting to think that keeping Mike in the dark about what she’d just witnessed was getting dangerous. “Actually…” she wet her lips, “I need to talk to you about something.”
Oblivious to her tension, he nodded. “Can it be now? I’m dying to get out of this,” he gestured to the lush, lit, beautiful garden, “cattle chute.” Only Mike…
“Sure.” She reached for his hand and slid her much smaller one into it, felt his fingers squeeze hers as he started to draw her off, but then her mother materialized in front of them.
“Just who I wanted to see,” Louise cooed, her smile too bright. “Come say ‘hello’ to your cousin Helen.”
And her opportunity was lost.
Mike shook so many hands he lost count. He smiled until his face ached. He’d always thought he had plenty of friends, but Delta’s relatives and acquaintances seemed to number in the hundreds. When he finally found himself alone with her behind some kind of gnarled fruit tree, he let the tired muscles in his face relax, exhaled in a rush that left his shoulders sagging. “Jesus,” he muttered, and she nodded, not even asking what he meant.
She put her back to the brick garden wall and drew one high-heeled sandal up to prop back behind her, arms folded loosely across her chest. She looked exhausted, and not just tonight. She’d looked that way for a while now. Her face, slack now, was thin and pale and drawn, the dark circles under her eyes not hidden by her makeup. She was still the most beautiful girl he’d ever laid eyes on, but she was tired, and he could tell.
Her head lifted and she let it fall back against the wall, her throat a slim column bowed toward him. She twitched a sideways smile. “Fine.”
He smiled back. “Liar.”
“What gives me away?”
“If hell could look as good as you, then you look like hell.”
“You know what I mean.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes up toward the net of lights overhead; the brown irises caught the pinpricks and seemed spotted with white. “This wedding’s killing me.”
“So call it off,” he shrugged. “We can go to the courthouse. Or to Vegas,” he smiled, “get married by an Elvis impersonator.”
Delta’s smile was sad and distant. “You know I don’t have that option.”
He knew she thought she didn’t have that option, but he didn’t understand her commitment to something she didn’t care about. He would only ever go so far when it came to making his family happy, and beyond that, he had to do what he had to do. Delta, though, was dead set on agreeing to her mother’s every wish.
“We’ll have to redo your townhouse,” she said, voice grim. “Mom will hound us if we leave it like it is.”
It was stupid, but a small price to pay. “Okay.”
“Just like that? Okay?” She still had trouble believing him when he agreed with her without a fight. “I want you,” he’d told her one night, in the dark stillness penetrated by the sounds of them catching their breath, “I don’t care about the little shit.”
“You have a whole apartment full of furniture,” he said, “I figured you’d bring some of it with you.”
She blinked and her eyes were dazzling with the Christmas lights. “I’ll have to bring all of it,” she said like an apology. “My mom -,”
“Is nuts,” he finished, “but you can humor her if you want.”
She glanced away from him and her body was tense all over. She was thinking too much, trying too hard, and it was eating at her. Until she couldn’t relax even when she had the chance.
Mike pushed away from the tree and closed the gap between them, took her thin upper arms in his hands and squeezed until her eyes came to his face. “What did you wanna talk to me about before?”
She leaned toward him and placed her hands on his chest, flexed her fingers until the tips dug through his oxford and into his pecs. Her lips parted and her eyes darted back and forth across his face: his mouth and nose and hair and eyes and somewhere over his shoulder. He could have sworn she looked worried, frightened even. Whatever she wanted to say built and built and built – he swore it was pushing at him through her chest as her breasts brushed against him – but then it receded. She pulled it back in and offered him a quiet, tired smile.
“You’re handling this like a champ.”
“I know,” he said, and she rolled her eyes.
But then she stretched up on her tiptoes and asked for him to kiss her. He did, and for a stolen moment, was reminded that being a champ was worth it.