The morning they were to leave for Ireland, Delta’s alarm was set for three, but her eyelids flipped open at two. Totally awake. Startled from sleep by some snippet of a dream that was already receding and she couldn’t grab hold of.
Something was wrong.
She was alone in bed because she and Mike had spent the night in their respective places. Her apartment was bare, only the bed remained and after she left today, the movers would come disassemble it and take it to her parents’ home where she would store it. She should have slept over with Mike, but she’d been kept here by this nagging sense that, for the last night it belonged to her, she should stay in the apartment.
And now she was awake, and something was wrong.
She didn’t know what, though, and the question of it would make her last hour of sleep fruitless. Delta flipped back the covers and swung her feet over the edge of her bed, found her silk slippers and slid her toes inside them. As she waited for the last fog of sleep to clear, she felt a punch of nausea deep in her belly, and a dizziness that had nothing to do with two a.m. She didn’t believe in premonitions in the least, but she didn’t know how else to label the chill that swept over her and left her with the sensation that the whole world around her was tumbling and spinning and falling.
Cold feet, she reasoned, that’s what it has to be. One last rally of doubt before she climbed on a plane with Mike and flew to a place where history and romance would cloud her judgment.
But the feeling stayed with her as she showered and applied her makeup. Dried her hair and dressed. Her luggage was with her and she repacked her shampoo and soap, her cosmetics and hair dryer. She stripped the bed and put the sheets, comforter and pillow in clean garbage bags that she labeled Take for the movers. And all the while, her skin tingled and her breathing was irregular as she tried to beat back the sense that something was terribly wrong in her life all of a sudden.
She was ready a full hour too early, and sank down on the edge of her bare mattress, stomach growling, head still pounding, not with pain, but with this stupid anxiety that wouldn’t leave her. She stared through her naked windows at the blackness of pre-dawn for a long moment, searching her memory for some tiny little something that could account for the way she felt – a word or incident that had set its claws in her.
Mike had wanted her to stay with him the night before and she should have. “It’s a little late to act all little miss virgin in separate beds,” he’d plied her with a total lack of charm. She wished she’d listened to him because, suddenly, she wanted to be with him. To see his forehead crease as he frowned at her and told her she was thinking crazy.
She checked the time on her cell phone, then stood and gathered her bags. It took three trips to take both her luggage and the bedclothes down to her car, but she managed, and then left the key under the mat. She wondered, before she switched out the hall light and closed the door of her apartment forever, if giving up her place was what was bothering her. But her eyes moved over the open French doors, the unadorned walls and empty stretches of hardwood floor and she didn’t think that was it. She felt a flare of sadness, but it wasn’t connected to whatever was wrong.
With a sigh, she flicked off the light, shut the door, and left for Mike’s.
His street was all dark save the sinister harsh light the streetlamps threw across the pavement. No one stirred. Delta heard a cat meowing somewhere as she went up the front walk and pulled out her key ring. She saw the light on up in the master bedroom window and didn’t bother knocking; he’d had a key made for her months before and she let herself in, locking the door behind her. Mike was prowling around his bedroom in a towel, still damp from the shower, a suitcase open on his bed that he folded things into as he found them in drawers and in his closet and carried them one at a time to be packed.
Delta propped her shoulder against the doorjamb. “Why am I not surprised that you’re packing now?”
He halted halfway back to the bed, a sweatshirt in one hand and a half a dozen pairs of socks in the other. His head came up with a start, then he grinned, then it turned sheepish. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I’m stealthy like that.” She wanted to be mad that he had procrastinated on this so important of days, but just seeing him had calmed her down so much that she couldn’t. “Here,” she stepped into the room. “You bring and I’ll fold.”
He put the sweatshirt in her outstretched arms and caught her face with his hand. He leaned down and kissed her, the sort of kiss that wanted to go further than she let it. “What’s wrong?” he asked as she pulled back.
“You know, that’s all you ever ask me anymore,” she said as she stepped away from him and folded the shirt.
“All you ever do is look like something’s wrong,” he countered, and reached to tuck her hair back behind her ear. “I’m starting to get kinda worried.”
She was too, but she didn’t say so.
Dennis checked his watch and sighed. “They can find their own way,” he said of Delta’s friends, and leaned in the direction of the security checkpoint. They were all late; none of them save Regina had seen fit to meet at the scheduled time.
“Let’s give them five more minutes,” Delta said, casting a glance across the airport. She knew that if left to find their own way to the gate, more than one of them would get lost along the way. And a missing bridesmaid was worse than a late bridesmaid according to Louise.
“Three,” Dennis consented with a sharp glance, then he turned to his fidgeting wife. “Honestly, Louise, don’t wear a thong if you can’t keep from adjusting the damn thing in public.”
Delta’s face burned with embarrassment and she let her forehead fall into her palm, other arm banded tight around her middle. The sense of wrongness had returned, stronger than before, as soon as they’d arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson, and it was leaving her weak, feeling like she had to hold herself up. Or maybe that was just the lack of breakfast. Regardless, she was full of sweeping waves of dread that she couldn’t explain.
Mike was with her, though, and he was all that kept her sane. He didn’t put an arm around her, but stepped closer, edging in until they almost touched and giving her a shoulder to rest her temple against. She leaned against him, grateful, and ignored the scrunched-nose aren’t you cute look Regina gave her.
“They should be here,” Louise said, still looking flustered by the thong comment. “They have to be here.”
“They’ll be here, Mrs. Brooks,” Regina assured, and then rolled her eyes at Delta.
Delta let her eyes drop to the floor, knowing that with three flights, stopovers in both New York and Dublin, the day would be hellish, and she hoped to catch a moment of quiet. She wanted to soak up Mike’s solid warmth beside her and try to sort out the root of her morning’s fear. That proved impossible, though, thanks to her mother.
“I’ve been thinking about the photo album,” Louise said in an excited voice, and Delta reluctantly lifted her eyes.
“The wedding album, of course. I don’t want it to be all willy-nilly with pictures. I want it to tell a story.”
Mike made a noise in the back of his throat that could have been a laugh and she elbowed him.
“A story, Mom? Isn’t the dress going to be self-evident?”
“The story of the wedding,” excitement gave way to irritation. “Didn’t you read that article I forwarded you? From that bridal magazine? About preserving your courtship through pictures -,”
“Well why not?”
“I was at work.”
Louise’s painted mouth twitched to the side. “Anyway, I think that, years later, you’ll wish you’d captured every little moment on film.” To Delta’s horror, she opened her LV purse and withdrew a sheaf of printer paper. “I made up an itinerary.”
Oh my God. “A what?”
Louise handed over one of the sheets and Delta was almost afraid to touch it – afraid she’d be livid. It was an itinerary worthy of a duchess making calls at charities and cutting ribbons at children’s hospitals. In tight, eleven-point font, her mom had detailed each and every photo she wanted, with notes on poses and facial expressions…smiling, serious, looking wistful…etc.
“I’ve been talking with the photographer at the castle,” Louise continued, “and we agreed it would be nice to have some group shots too. You and the girls. Michael and the guys. We’ve set up private and group shoots.”
Delta was queasy. “Photo shoots,” she said woodenly, and didn’t have the strength to protest.
“I printed one for each of the girls,” Louise handed the stack to Regina. “Pass them out before we take off, please, dear.”
The girls arrived, finally, in twos and threes, trailing luggage and tripping over their high heels. All of them buzzing and chattering like schoolchildren leaving on an overnight field trip. Louise loved them; they flocked to her and complimented her and when they were around, she got to pretend she was mother to more than one girl.
“You invited them, remember?” Mike said under his breath when she stiffened beside him, and she couldn’t argue.
Directing the girls from the rear of the group was about as successful as herding cats, so when they stepped off the last of the moving sidewalks, Delta hooked her arm through Mike’s and towed him up toward the front of their party. As they passed her mother, Louise hissed, “You be gracious, Delta, do you hear me? Drop the attitude.”
So as they started down the concourse to where their plane, and the rest of their party, waited, she cinched up her face against all the anxiety that welled inside her and lifted her shoulders, shook her hair back behind them. She was the bride, she was on display, she was expected to put on a performance, and like all the times she’d had to before in her life, inbred courtesy took over. Inside, she rolled; outside, she knew she was cool and composed and, hopefully, friendly.
She spotted them as they drew near: Mike’s family and the groomsmen. A few – Mitch and Ryan and Lance and Walt – were dressed appropriately. The rest were in jeans and rumpled shirts, slumped in chairs, eating Starbucks food. Beth stood when she spotted them; she’d made an effort in a skirt and sweater set, her hair piled neatly on top of her head. But a nervous fluttering of her hands left her looking childishly nervous.
Randy’s voice carried like a gunshot across the tile floors: “…so he tells me…”
Jo stood tight at her brother Jordan’s side – the two of them had the look of twins at moments. She had a baseball cap pulled down low over her face and had tucked her jeans into a pair of beat-up brown river boots.
Tam looked asleep in his chair, a Mountain Dew in one hand, but she knew better. The tension in his arms gave him away.
They were, all of them – disheveled and unworthy and ill-prepared for the trip – but they were early. And they were waiting. And they’d all come. And now they were all watching her, giving her more attention that her friends or family ever had – it was almost eerie the way their eyes came to her. It was respect, but a grudging respect. All of them had left her feeling like they didn’t like her or were nervous around her…but here they sat. Without any urging. Even if they hated her, they had arrived on time and now watched her, expectantly, as the rest of her group fanned around them and filled in the gaps between them.
She didn’t know what to think, and thankfully, her manners took over.
Mike was proud of his girl. He knew not everyone would have been – how could anyone with her family’s money find anything to complain about? – but he knew the kind of strain she was under. The weight she was carrying on her elegant shoulders. On the way to New York and their connecting flight at JFK, every time her mother twisted around to say something, Delta made a grab for his hand on the armrest. He was just glad that she was leaning on him instead of pulling away from him like she’d done for so long. She was so scared of this wedding that it was starting to rub off on him, but if she kept reaching for his hand, he thought they’d survive it. Hopefully. Though her strange mood this morning was making his palms itch.
In Dublin they changed planes and rode a too-small, rattling tin can across all the misty green of Ireland to the other side of the isle. They touched down in Galway, loaded into vans emblazoned with the Billingsly crest. And then…they were there.
The first breath of clean air he’d sucked in all day went down into his lungs: wet and green and smelling of the lake that lay behind them shimmering and black. Mike’s shoes touched down onto crushed gravel and he was dimly aware of walking forward, his hand floating at the small of Delta’s back. All he could see were the massive stone wings of the castle that blocked the sky and put to shame every pamphlet photo he’d seen of the place.
Billingsly was incredible. He wished he’d read the brochures because he wished he knew the history behind the odd combination of architectural style: the hundreds of mullioned windows that caught the evening sun and shattered it; the steep peaks and jagged teeth of the roofline to his left; the broad merlons on the wing to his right. The structure sat in a bed of gardens, and lawns stretched emerald away from it, on and on until they hit the lake and forest. There was a fountain behind him that rushed loud as a rainstorm, and the staff coming down to meet their arrival – down wide stones steps and between flickering coach lamps – looked straight out of the novels Delta read.
Movement drew his eye as Delta spun to face him, her hair flaring rich mahogany in the sun as it swung across her shoulders. He didn’t expect the tension on her face as she tipped it up to him.
“The itinerary,” she said in a rushed whisper. “Mom wants a picture of us, with the invitation, right here in front.”
He’d seen the note on the list Louise had printed, but he hadn’t expected it to cause such panic in Delta. He’d been about to admit to her that, okay, it was expensive as hell, but the place was crazy impressive…but it was clear, looking in her eyes, that she wasn’t even seeing the castle. She was seeing her mother’s itinerary and focusing only on pleasing her. Her face was pale, drawn, her hands shaking as they settled on his chest. She was rattled. Too rattled.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s just -,”
“We have to do it now,” she insisted. Then she ducked around his shoulder and called to her father in a high, brittle voice he’d heard her use several times now. She’d had some sort of conversation with Dennis a while back and been sugary sweet with him at times since. “Daddy, get the camera!” she called. “I want you to take a picture of Michael and me as we’re arriving.” Her eyes darted back to his face and she said, “I’m so sorry,” in an undertone. Then, back to her dad: “And bring the invitation! I want the invitation in the shot!”
“Baby,” Mike caught her wrist in his hand. “Calm down.”
She shook her head. “My mom wants this. Even more, she wants me to want this, so we have to play along.”
He nodded, but worry bubbled along the edges of his conscience. Delta couldn’t keep “playing along” like this, not if she was this desperate to please. Something was going to blow up in their faces.