For the last five years, three months, and two days there had been one bright and shining benefit to Delaney Winters’ father’s arrest for a Ponzi scheme. Being an outcast from the upper crust society she was born into had limited the number of invitations she’d received to almost nil.
Except for this one.
Caroline and Matthew are finally getting married!
Please join the happy couple for a week on Whitby Island prior to the wedding for fun, sun, and the reunion of old friends.
Current partners may arrive for the rehearsal dinner.
On the bulletin board next to her desk in her small office in the bowels of the Elizabeth Stanley Museum of Art, Delaney could read the silver script flowing across the parchment, sitting in the ornately decorated bridesmaid’s survival box that included a schedule of wedding events for the guests, wedding favors, and a map of the island. Delaney didn’t need the map, having spent many summers there, but the itinerary was a problem, not to mention the guest list. Ever since Caroline had showed up out of the blue and asked Delaney to be her maid of honor, Delaney had been scrambling for a way out to avoid the embarrassment of seeing her former friends and reliving the shame of her past. But Caroline was like a tennis pro, calmly refuting every excuse with another volley.
Delaney had always sucked at tennis.
Now, with exactly one week to go, she was out of excuses, out of time, and out of her mind to consider attending. Not that she could cry off now. It was far too late for that. If it was only the rehearsal dinner and wedding, she’d survive, easy peasy. But no, it was a whole week of fun, sun, and a reunion of people who had once been her closest friends, people she had pushed away and avoided for five years. People who probably resented the hell out of her for her actions.
Delaney refocused her attention from the past back to the present and studied the bride perched calmly in the chair facing her desk, hands folded in her lap studying Delaney with a cool arch of her perfectly manicured eyebrow.
“I like what you’ve done with your office.”
Delaney followed her gaze around the small basement office, her cage for the past few years. It was small and tight, almost claustrophobic, but it was also comforting down here, out of the way of the regular museum patrons and workers. It was just enough room for her position as manager of the docents, a thankless job really, but critical to the running of the museum tours. No one cared about the docents, unless they didn’t show up for their tours on time. Otherwise, she was forgotten. And that was perfect for her. A perfect hiding place. So what if she felt trapped sometimes, as if the walls and her life were closing in on her and the world was moving on without her, leaving her behind.
It was better than the alternative.
She only smiled, the same fake mask she had been wearing for five years. “Caroline, why are you here? I’m going to see you in less than a week.” Along with everyone else from her past.
“I know. I just wanted to check in.” Caroline’s hands twisted on her lap, tangling themselves in the strap of her Louis Vuitton handbag. “You did remember to take the week off, right?”
“Of course. How could I forget when you’re getting married?” Her cheeks were starting to hurt from the strain of the smile.
“Good. I know you’re worried about seeing everybody next Saturday. I really appreciate you standing by me and being my maid of honor.”
Delaney almost laughed. It was the other way around, and Caroline damn well knew it. Delaney was the charity case, nothing else. If Delaney hadn’t known any better, she would’ve thought Caroline asked her to be her maid of honor as a cruel joke. But, dammit, she just didn’t have it in her. Caroline could never truly be a nasty society bitch. Delaney should know. She wrote the manual.
The moment deserved a joke. “I haven’t done anything yet, Caroline. Who knows? I may not even show up next week.”
Caroline smiled, a knowing gleam in her eyes. “Yes, I know that’s tempting for you, so I decided to come and see you today, to make sure our plans are all set for next week.” Caroline reached into her bag, pulled out a large envelope and handed it to Delaney. “Here’s the bridal party’s schedule for the week, starting on Sunday. I also included a ticket for transportation to the island. And don’t worry, I know how afraid you are of the ferry. I chartered you a plane to the small airfield on the island.”
Delaney opened the envelope then stopped as the ticket slid out. “Thank you. But, honestly, I don’t need it. I can get myself to the island. And I was only joking before.”
Caroline leaned forward and laid a hand on Delaney’s arm. “I know, Delaney. Considering I asked everyone out there a week ahead of time, this is my bride’s gift to each of you. And your attendance is your gift to me. It’s nonnegotiable.” A hint of steel threaded its way through Caroline’s words, reminding Delaney that while Caroline was a sweet person, she always got her way. Maybe that was what made her such a great fund-raiser.
Delaney withdrew the folder from the envelope and opened it, riffling through the papers. “Caroline, what did you do? This is more than just a ticket ride.”
“I’m so glad you asked.” Caroline stood and began pacing the small office, her hands making excited gestures. “It’s been five years, Delaney. Five years since we’ve all been together. I miss those days. Oh, not going back to college, but the friendship. Our time ended badly, not anybody’s fault, but it ended. We all swore we’d stay friends, but we didn’t. As the bride, I’m allowed a little latitude. And we also know, what the bride wants, the bride gets. And I want my friends together for one last vacation before my wedding. All of my friends.”
A chill ran up Delaney’s back that had nothing to do with the frigid air conditioner in the office. “All of your friends?” If Caroline had noticed the mouse-like pitch to her voice, she didn’t show it or was too polite to comment.
“Yes, Delaney, all of my friends. You, Anna Maria, and Bridget. The old crew. Who did you think I meant?” Caroline cocked a perfectly manicured eyebrow at Delaney. Perfectly innocent look; although, Delaney could swear she saw a hint of mischief in Caroline’s eyes.
“Just the girls?”
This time, Caroline’s gaze shifted away to study the very uninspiring beige ceiling. The tiny chill that had worked up her back now spread into a full body grip of fear. She tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. She cleared her throat and tried again.
“Is Ethan coming?”
Caroline met her gaze evenly. “Yes.”
Delaney sagged against the desk, the shock surprising her, even though she’d expected the answer.
Ethan Van Owen.
Her former fiancé.
The man she’d driven away after her father’s scandalous arrest and sudden death.
She’d always been close to her father, so his death had broken her heart. Ending her engagement to Ethan had destroyed her. The scene had been ugly. He insisted on protecting her, offering his name, his family, his money to her and her family, or what remained of her family. She was so tempted. It would have been so easy to let him take care of everything. But the impact on him and his family’s investment business would have destroyed him. Her life had been irrevocably changed, but his didn’t need to be.
So, she had let him go, driven him away, really. Not that it mattered. He’d left Houston shortly after the broken engagement and she hadn’t seen him since.
Until next week.
Thoughts of Ethan twisted in her gut, conflicting emotions and fears. Did he still hate her? Was he with someone else? The last thought stabbed her in the heart. It had been five years, but she had never forgotten him. Now she had a chance to make things right, to apologize and hopefully get his forgiveness. Then she could move on with her life. She only hoped she could hold back her emotions. They were in the past and no good could come of a renewed romance between them.
Tell her hormones that. They kicked into overdrive at the thought of spending a week in a beautiful island getaway with the one man who could make her blood sizzle with just a look.
Caroline studied Delaney with a shrewd gaze, seeming to miss nothing. But Caroline didn’t say anything, leaving Delaney in her own maelstrom of emotion.
Caroline bent down to pick up her bag. “Now, I’ll see you Sunday. Oh, by the way, we didn’t get a chance to have a bachelorette party. I thought we could do something fun one night on the island. Would you think about it? Look at the itinerary and talk to the other girls. Their contact information is in the packet.” Caroline laughed. “I’ve missed you so much.” Impulsively, she hugged Delaney. “Now, make sure you’re ready for this. Don’t make me turn into Bridezilla.”
Delaney swallowed, trying to make words come out. Finally, she croaked, “You could never be Bridezilla. It’s not in you.”
After one last hug, Caroline headed for the door. Before leaving, she paused, turned and looked at Delaney, her expression sober. “Delaney, I know how hard this is going to be. You mean a lot to me. And not just because we’ve been friends since elementary school. You’re almost like a sister to me, and it really hurt when you cut me out of your life. It’s important to me that you’re by my side at my wedding. I’m hoping we can rekindle our closeness.”
And she swept out of the room, leaving a firestorm of guilt and regret in her wake. Delaney buried her head in her hands, remembering a different time, when she’d said goodbye to Caroline, Ethan, and her friends. It was five years later and the feelings were the same–an empty, gaping wound in her stomach. She reached for the antacids.
Dammit. Why couldn’t Caroline have left her alone?
Delaney sank into her chair and opened the folder that Caroline had given her. What bride had time to coordinate events for her bridesmaids? What bride planned a college reunion the week of her wedding? Of course, what bride chose a disgraced ex-friend as a maid of honor? Same answer to all three – Caroline Masters, a woman who gave new meaning to the word stubborn.
Delaney began leafing through the events for the week. Mani-Pedi. Bridesmaids’ dinner. Dress fittings. All pretty standard fare. She glanced down at her nails, smooth and rounded, but having not seen a manicurist in years. A little luxury she had not been able to afford in a long time. God, it would feel so great to have a mani-pedi.
Her dreams were so small, it made her sad.
A few events piqued her interest. A scavenger hunt? A bonfire? What the hell kind of events were they for a pre-wedding reunion? Well at least she knew how to dress this time. Not that she had a lot of clothes to choose from. Her closet was positively anemic without her steady diet of shopping.
She started at the sudden knock on the door. One of the docents, Natalie, stood at the door. Natalie was one of the first friends Delaney had made at the museum. One of the few docents, of all the staff really, who took her reduced circumstances in stride. Natalie didn’t care if she had once been one of the rich bitches wandering around the events the museum held. Didn’t mind that she once served Delaney wine and hors d’oeuvres. No, Natalie was indefatigably cheerful and welcoming to all people. A motherly figure, Natalie adopted Delaney almost as a granddaughter, giving Delaney the family support she had lost since her father’s death and her mother’s breakdown after the fall. Natalie knew the whole story of the wedding, and she’d get a laugh out of the latest turn of events.
Delaney waved her toward the chair. Natalie bit her lower lip, and glanced over at the clock. “Did he call yet?”
Delaney shook her head, pressing her lips together and trying to maintain a calm façade. “He still has thirty minutes. Not that he’s ever on time.”
Natalie glanced down and away, still tugging on her lower lip. Delaney waited, expecting Natalie to say something.
When she didn’t, Delaney’s stomach lurched and bile rose in her throat. “What have you heard? Please tell me before I hear from Benson.”
At that moment, the phone rang and both women jumped. Their eyes darted to the phone and then met each other’s gaze. Dread gathered in Delaney’s stomach, rolling low in her gut. Thank goodness she hadn’t had breakfast that morning or drank that second cup of coffee.
She picked up the phone. “Delaney Winters.”
“Winters. My office. Now. I have a luncheon appointment in ten minutes.” Benson’s voice shot out of the phone like a cannon. He always had the ability to make her, and every other employee, nervous.
Before she could reply, he hung up, the dial tone echoing in her ear.
When she stood, her knees wobbled a little. She smoothed her hands down her skirt and adjusted her suit jacket. “It’s time.”
Natalie stepped around the desk, enveloping Delaney in a bear hug of support. “Go get them, darling.”
Delaney paused, remembering the beginning of the conversation. “Natalie, you never told me what news you had?”
Natalie shook her head, still refusing to meet Delaney’s eyes. “It’s nothing. Just rumor. You’re the best candidate; you’ve been doing the job for six months. Benson would be crazy not to hire you for the vice president role of learning.”
“We’ve heard that before.” Delaney laughed, the sound shaky to her own ears. She took a deep breath. “Wish me luck.”
She walked down the hall closer to the lobby. Benson was the museum curator and the head of all the museum staff. His office was right off the lobby with beautiful windowed views of the front and the gardens. Before the fall, she often sat in that office while working with her mother directing museum activities. It was one of her family’s charitable endeavors. She always thought that, if she had an office in the museum, it would be close to his, as a trustee, as a benefactor, not as a common employee relegated to the bowels, hidden and forgotten.
Her new office suited her now, suited her new life, away from all the prying eyes, the whispering voices, the pointing fingers. She was making a difference in the actual running of the museum, something she had always wanted to do. It just wasn’t the way she had expected.
Delaney rapped on Benson’s office door and he gestured her to a seat. “Close the door, Winters.”
Benson stood looking out over the gardens, his back to her. She slipped into one of the chairs, crossed her ankles and folded her hands in her lap as her mother had taught her all those years ago. She waited patiently, scarcely breathing, while Benson continued staring at the garden, his hands twisting in the folds of his dress slacks, shoulders tense. A twinge of alarm niggled the back of her head, and she clenched her hands in her lap, vainly trying to remain still and outwardly calm. Doubt and fear pumped through her veins, a dull roaring of blood rushing in her ears, the longer the seconds then minutes ticked by with no comment from her boss.
Finally, he faced her and heaved a sigh. He sat on the wooden file cabinet that buttressed against the window. He looked up at her and sighed again.
Her heart plummeted. “I didn’t get the job.”
He shook his head. “No. While you were an excellent candidate, the trustees had some concerns about your qualifications.”
She suppressed a flash of anger, the instant reaction to retaliation by her former friends. “What was their concern?”
He stepped away from the file cabinet and sat on his desk chair. “They were concerned that you didn’t have enough experience or education to run the educational programs here at the museum. They’re very protective of our programs, as you are well aware.”
She clenched her fists in her lap, willing herself to remain calm. After a moment, when she was confident her voice would not shake, she asked, “What additional qualifications would I need for this position?”
He pursed his lips and shuffled a few papers around averting his gaze. A common reaction on this day, she noticed. “Delaney, why did you want this role? What is your five-year plan? When you started here, it was a stop-gap measure, a way to help your family. Is this what you really want to do with your life?”
Hell no. She wanted to scream. This is not how my life was supposed to be. She willed her tense muscles to relax, her clenched jaw to smooth out, to not show her desperate fear that was building with every avoidance.
“No. I wanted this job because I’ve been doing it for six months.”
Although he was also correct. It would have been much better to go to the wedding as a vice president at the museum rather than a manager of the docents. It would have assuaged her guilt and made her appear stronger in front of her former peers.
“Well, Delaney, I’m glad to hear that. You’re a valuable member of our staff and we’d hate to lose you.”
His words sounded practiced, memorized for when he had to tell staff they didn’t get a job or were fired. His words were bullshit, a word she had gotten comfortable using the further away she was from having to maintain a certain appearance. And it fit the situation. It reeked of rot and privilege and patronage. She knew exactly whose hands had smeared that shit on her.
“Kira Van Owen didn’t want me to have this job, did she? What did she promise if you gave it to her favorite?”
“I never said who got the job.” He sputtered, but his averted gaze gave him away. “Serena has more experience dealing with the trustees, and this role requires that you deal with them on a daily basis. There were some concerns that there might be some difficult feelings, some tension remaining between you and the Van Owen family, since your broken engagement.”
“Bullshit.” The word shot out of her like a bullet and Benson flinched as if physically impacted. “Serena is an intern, barely out of college, and has actually no experience running the educational programs. She doesn’t know a Monet from a Manet, or a Picasso from a Vermeer. And you’re going to have her educating our blue blood patrons?”
Delaney jumped up, began pacing the office, warming to her subject and letting her temper have free rein. “You only hired Serena because she comes from the right family, and has the right patrons. She’s not going to do a damn thing for educational programs and you know it. You owe this museum a responsibility to hire the right staff. Lord knows you quoted that to me a thousand times in the past five years, usually when you weren’t sure that you should’ve hired me. But I’ve more than made up for any doubts you could have. And this is how you repay me?”
Benson stood, a conciliatory expression on his face. “Delaney, you know you’re a valuable member of our staff…”
She leaned on his desk, face-to-face with him. “Prove it. You know this is wrong. Make the right decision.”
He looked away, shoulders slumping. “I can’t and you know it.”
She snapped up straight. “Well, that’s it then. I can’t report to her. And I sure as hell won’t be doing her job. So that leaves me with one choice.”
His head flew up, eyes widening in alarm. “You can’t quit, Delaney. You need this job. You need us.”
She crossed her arms in front of her and leaned back a little, drawing on all the attitude that she had learned growing up. “This isn’t five years ago. I’m in a much better position now than I was then. And unless you’re going to blackball me with every museum in this country—and I don’t think you’d do that—then I have nothing more to say here.”
She turned on her heel, wanting to make a dramatic exit, something she had been known for in prior years. The theatrics might be a little rusty, but she hoped she had one last performance in her. Benson cleared his throat, and called her back in.
She turned, cocking one eyebrow at him. “Yes?”
“I need you, Delaney. The docents love you. You’ve done an excellent job developing that program. I can’t do anything now, but who knows what the future will bring. Don’t make a rash decision. I won’t block you if you decide to leave, but I can’t promise the same for others. They hate you. And I’ve always stood up for you. You owe me this one thing.”
“I owe you?” Disbelief tinged her laughter. “I’ve more than repaid my debt. I’m grateful to you, but maybe it’s time we parted ways.”
“Don’t be hasty. Why don’t you take some time to think about it. We can talk after the wedding. You are going to the Masters’ wedding, aren’t you?”
She eyed him shrewdly, gauging his desperation. “Fine. I won’t decide now. I’ll take the week. But I want it as a paid vacation. And it doesn’t count toward my normal time off.”
He smiled at her, but all the bite, all the anger, was gone. It was a toothless anger, they both knew it. “Fine. I’ll expect your answer in two weeks. Delaney? Make the right decision.”
Delaney didn’t wait for the end of the day to leave. After her meeting, she wrapped up a few loose ends, grabbed her things and slipped out of the museum’s back entrance. Benson owed her for all the times she’d worked extra hours, coordinating events that he or members of his staff were supposed to do, and all the other little extra things she had done for him, including stifling her pride and serving him and the rest of the museum trustees at various functions. Not to mention failing to back her up on the promotion.
How long would her past haunt her? How long before she’d be free of the stigma? Would she ever be free as long as she remained in Houston, remained a Winters?
She parked in front of the building where she shared an apartment with her mother. The brick building in Houston’s Museum district neighborhood was a far cry from the elegant River Oaks home she had grown up in and the condo she’d had in Austin during college. At least it had a parking lot and it was in a fairly safe neighborhood, and far from anyone she would ever see from her old life.
Delaney grabbed the mail and took the elevator to the third-floor, two-bedroom apartment. She let herself in and paused, listening for any sound. Hearing nothing, she walked down the hall to her room. She closed the door to her bedroom and walked over to the closet, thumbing through the limited assortment. Target poly-blend dress, no. Ann Spencer black linen shorts, maybe. Two thousand nine Prada black silk dress from the consignment shop around the corner, definite yes. Delaney held the little black dress against her chest, her fingers instantly recognizing the quality fabrics she’d once been accustomed to wearing. It wasn’t the latest style, but it would suffice.
A timid knock echoed in the room. “Delaney? Is that you?”
Delaney sighed. It was too much to hope that her mother might’ve left the apartment for the day. And why should today be different? The irony that her mom, former socialite extraordinaire, had become a hermit martyr might be comical if it weren’t for all the extra responsibility it heaped on Delaney.
God forbid Mom would go to counseling to deal with her demons. “Shrinks are for weak people,” she’d argued, as if hiding out from the world were a show of strength.
She didn’t pause sorting clothes but called out, “Come in.”
Her mother stepped into the room and sat on the bed with a long, drawn-out breath, the very image of a delicate, English lady from the eighteenth century, except her mother wore lounge wear from Neiman Marcus. From her mother, Delaney had inherited her ash blond hair and blue eyes, but time, no expensive hair salons, no Botox and depression had lined her mother’s face, aging her.
Without missing a beat, Delaney asked the question she asked every day, but already knew the answer. “Did you go out today?”
“Actually, yes, I did. I had lunch with your Aunt Trudy and a nice meeting with a very polite young man.”
Delaney nodded, only half listening. How warm would it be on the island? It was September, and Houston was still hot and humid, but the island had cool ocean breezes, keeping temperatures lower. Did she dare wear shorts? It had been months, well, years, since she’d worked out regularly. And her skin was creamy pale, not sun-kissed like it had been. She tossed the shorts aside and grabbed a couple of white, linen, Capri pants and tossed them on the bed.
Her mother huffed and glared at her. “Aren’t you going to ask me about my meeting?”
Delaney paused and turned slightly but dutifully asked the question. “Who were you meeting with?”
“Tom Reynolds, a reporter with Houston Lifestyle magazine.”
Shock wound icy tendrils up her spine. “You spoke with a reporter?”
Her mother had never voluntarily talked with a reporter, not since the attacks every time they showed their faces outside. It had taken a couple of years, but finally she’d started going out to lunch, and Delaney had even gotten her to help at the museum with some of the event planning. But she always dressed in disguise, a scarf around her hair, large sunglasses and a coat wrapped protectively around her. She never quite understood that people paid more attention to someone who was so obviously hiding and were more interested in her.
It had been a couple of years since anyone had done anything but express polite interest, well, anyone except for Ethan’s stepmother, Kira Van Owen, whom Delaney had to see at every museum function. What could a reporter have wanted from her mother?
She sat on the bed next to her mom and laid a hand on her mother’s hand. “Are you okay?”
Susan’s brow furrowed. “Why wouldn’t I be? I asked for the meeting. I thought I told you about him. He’s the reporter who wants to do a follow-up on the story. A ‘where are they now’ story.”
Delaney froze, hand clenching her mother’s arm briefly. “I think I would’ve remembered a reporter digging up more dirt on us.” She jumped up and began to pace. “Mother, you know how reporters are. This can’t end well for us or anyone. How could you?”
Her mother glanced up, anger flashing in her eyes. “I asked you, no, begged you, to come with me and speak with him. We made a mistake all those years ago. If we’d taken control of the situation, we could have controlled the media and everything would have been different.”
How could her mother be so naive? Nothing would have saved the situation. Her father had tried, had a spokesman and a lawyer, and look where that got him. Dead of a heart attack at fifty-six after being broken down and destroyed by the media in their rush to judgment. And he had been a master of the spin, as evidenced by his many confidence games. Her mother was barely a guppy in the pond of piranhas, almost too small for a meal.
“Who is Tom Reynolds?”
“I told you. He’s doing a story on us, what has happened in the ensuing years. He was very nice and assured me he wouldn’t twist any of my words. I trust him. Trudy set it up for me.”
Delaney’s knees gave out and she sagged on the bed. Visions of her job at the museum, her life she’d worked so hard to build, faded away, destroyed in a single moment.
Her mother awkwardly patted her on the back. “So, why are you home so early?”
Delaney blinked back tears. “I didn’t get the promotion.”
Her mother hugged her. “Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry. You’ve been counting on that. How could they do it?”
Delaney shrugged, wiping at the moisture in in her eyes. “Same old, same old. The Winters name. Apparently, people feel that my reputation might tarnish the image of the museum so I should remain a hidden secret.”
Her mother sagged onto the bed, wringing her hands on her lap. “And I went and did the interview, making it all worse.”
Delaney’s mouth twisted in a facsimile of a smile. “And now I have to face them all at Caroline’s wedding. Joy.”
How could she go now with her past being trotted out for everyone to see and talk about again? It had been difficult enough to get over the first time. She couldn’t turn and run this time, hiding from the world. She had to face them, hold her head high, and brazen her way through it. Not to mention Kira Van Owen, knowing how she had blocked Delaney’s promotion again at the museum. That woman lived to torment Delaney, ever since her father’s arrest.
Susan wandered over to the mirror and pulled out a picture tucked into the frame. She slowly turned and held it out to Delaney. It was a picture of the whole group, the last time they were all together, the waves from the Gulf of Mexico rolling in on the beach where Caroline’s beach house was located.
“Will they all be at the wedding?” Susan asked.
Delaney nodded. “We’re all in the wedding.”
Her mother pulled the maid of honor gown out of the closet. The gorgeous, ice blue complimented Delaney’s eyes and cool complexion perfectly. A simple design with long, sleek lines, it was fitted to flatter her slender frame. Caroline always had a good eye, but this dress had Anna Maria’s hand written all over it. She must have used her fashion contacts in Los Angeles to find the perfect dresses for all three very different women.
Thoughts of Anna only triggered Delaney’s stress over clothes. Anna had always been jealous of Delaney and her New York or LA shopping trips. How the roles were reversed now. Anna was a big-time television star, while Delaney managed a group of tour guides, far from the high society wife and charity foundation head she had expected to be. She dreaded seeing Anna that weekend, anticipating the awkward role reversal.
“Is Ethan going to be there too?” The tone was casual, but her mother studied her too closely for her to be uninterested.
Delaney stood and took the dress from her mother, hanging it back on the rack. “Yes, he’s Matthew’s best man.”
A gleam of excitement entered her mother’s eyes and a smile broke out. “So, you’ll be walking down the aisle with him? How lovely!” Her mother clapped her hands. “We have to find the right clothes for the week. We should go shopping! You’ll feel better with new clothes, looking fabulous.”
“Not only can’t we afford it, I’m really not going to keep up with them. That’s not my life anymore, mother.” Delaney pulled a simple Donna Karan linen blend sheath and tossed it on the bed. Perfect for cooler nights and warm days. Multi-functional. She grabbed a black jersey dress and tossed it after the sheath and her mother snagged it before it hit the bed.
“No, that won’t do at all. Not if Ethan is going to be there.”
“What does Ethan have to do with my choice of clothes?” She grabbed it from her mother and tossed it on the bed, blocking her mother when she reached for it.
Her mother frowned and folded her arms. “You need something new, something exciting, something sexy. You haven’t seen him in a couple of years. Men always get better looking, while women age. You need to show him what he’s missing, maybe entice him back. I hear he’s not dating anyone.”
The last was said in a sly tone, leaving no doubt why her mother had really sought her out.
“I’m not interested in dating him again,” she lied, hiding crossed fingers under a blouse. “Besides, I highly doubt he’d be interested.”
“That’s what the new outfits are for. Has it been so long that you’ve forgotten how to flirt?” Her mother grabbed her hands. “Delaney, you love Ethan. I know it. I don’t know what happened between you back then, but time has passed. This is your chance to have everything back again.”
“Mom, listen. My life is good. Not what I had expected, but still okay.”
Pity and a hint of tears glistened in her mother’s eyes. “I never wanted this to happen, you know. You were supposed to marry Ethan and live a wonderful happy life. Now, you live in this tiny apartment, working for a living, supporting your mother. No dates, no social life. I feel like I’ve failed you.”
She slumped on the bed, twisting one of Delaney’s tops in her hands. Delaney sighed, suppressing the spurt of familiar anger whenever her mother started her pity party. If she had really meant it, then why had she cloistered herself in this apartment? Old news, like so many other things.
Delaney sat and put her arm around her mother, providing the expected comfort, the words almost verbatim. “Maybe this is the way my life was supposed to be. And it’s not all bad. I like my job.”
“Oh, please. That job is nothing for you, just a dead end. You need more. You deserve more. I want you to embrace your life, not deal with duty and obligation.” She took a deep breath and let it out. “That’s why I’m going to live with Trudy in Arizona.”
Delaney gaped at her mother, stunned by the second revelation of the conversation. The hits just kept on coming. First, Caroline and the wedding; although, she had expected that one. Then the interview and now her mother was moving? Her mother who rarely left the apartment?
“Who are you and what have you done with my mother?”
Her mother paced the small bedroom. “Your Aunt Trudy is lonely. She lost Ed suddenly and has been feeling down and at loose ends. Houston has too many bad memories for her and, frankly, for me too. You don’t need me. In fact, you’ve spent the past five years taking care of me. A mother should take care of her daughter, not the other way around.” She stopped in front of Delaney and grabbed her hands, forcing Delaney to look at her. “I love you, baby. But you need to move on. I’m ashamed that I’ve trapped you and sucked you down into this black hole with me. It’s time for you to live your life.”
The room spun and Delaney yanked one of her hands from her mother and pressed it against the heaviness in her chest. She bent over, breathing deeply. When had her mother grown up and come to this realization? How had Delaney missed it? What would she do without her mother to take care of?
She slowly regulated her breathing and straightened. Her mother hovered anxiously, clinging to Delaney’s hand like a lifeline.
“I don’t understand how this happened.”
Her mother relaxed fractionally. “Honey, I need to move on with my life. And so do you. Maybe this week you can reconnect with your friends, with Ethan, maybe.”
Delaney bit her lip, feeling at loose ends. That morning, when she left the house, life was normal, if boring and claustrophobic. But she knew who she was, what she was doing. And despite wanting her mother to get out more, what would Delaney do with her completely gone?
She nodded, instead, not sure she could trust her voice. Impulsively, she stood and hugged her mother. “I’m so happy for you. If this is what you want, then I think you should do it. Don’t worry about me.”
Her mother drew back. “I want you to be happy. Maybe move away from here. Or reconcile with Ethan. Something other than working in a dead-end job for that horrible man. What do you want to do?”
Panic swamped her. Her mind drew a blank. She had no idea what she wanted, had never allowed herself the luxury of having dreams. She had been too focused on getting through each day. She took another deep breath. One thing at a time. Get through the wedding then figure out her next steps.
She hugged her mother again. “Don’t worry about me, Mom. I’ll be fine. What do you say to a mother-daughter day tomorrow? Shopping, lunch? Maybe you’re right. I could use some new clothes for the wedding.”
A broad smile broke out across her mother’s face, reflecting relief and happiness at the idea. “I’d like that. And maybe make a few changes?”
She turned and caught a glimpse of the old picture of her and the group on the island before their senior year in college. Little had changed in five years. Maybe she didn’t have expensive highlights and lowlights, and her skin wasn’t the deep, even tan she’d always sported in the fall. So much had changed for her, yet so little showed. Maybe it was time for her to make a few changes, move beyond her past. She lifted a lock of her long blond hair.
“You’re right. I think it’s time to make a change I should have made a long time ago. Are you in?”
If her mother could turn over a new leaf, so could Delaney. She could start by letting go of the past, by tying up loose ends with her friends, fixing what she broke five years before. Maybe, if they could forgive her, she could somehow forgive herself and move on with her life, whatever that meant.
The future would take care of itself. Somehow.
End of Excerpt