Delilah's eyes flipped open at the buzz on the nightstand. She blinked the unfamiliar room into focus, once . . . twice. It had to be at least two in the morning, maybe later. She fumbled for her phone, silky white sheets tangling around her naked thighs as she twisted to silence the vibrating, which seemed loud enough to wake up-
She'd done it again. The name of the woman lying next to her slipped and slid in her memories from the previous night, the letters nearly impossible to grasp through the art show at the tiny Fitz gallery in the Village-a few of her photographs on the walls, a handful of patrons nodding and praising but never actually intrigued enough to buy anything, the champagne that never seemed to stop flowing- followed by that florid bar up on MacDougal Street and a whole hell of a lot of bourbon.
Delilah glanced over her shoulder at the sleeping white woman next to her. Dark blond pixie cut, creamy skin. Nice mouth, full thighs, phenomenal hands.
No. Lola. Her name was definitely Lola.
Delilah bit her lip and grabbed the still gyrating phone, squinting at the name flashing on the bright display in the dark.
She barely had time to smirk at the way she'd spelled her stepsister's name in her contacts before she hit Ignore. An instinct. In Delilah's experience, a phone call at two in the morning was rarely a good thing, particularly when Astrid Parker was on the other end of the line. And who the hell even called anymore? Why couldn't Astrid text like a normal human?
Okay, fine, there might have been several unanswered texts in Delilah's messages, but in her defense, she was a useless sack of skin lately, with another month's rent looming and preparing for the Fitz show, at which her work only appeared because she knew the owner, Rhea Fitz, a former fellow waitress whose dead grandmother left her enough money to open her own gallery. The past few weeks had been a scramble of waiting tables part-time at the River Café in Brooklyn and working freelance portrait jobs and weddings, all of which barely paid enough to cover her apartment and food. She was one catastrophe away from having to move to New Jersey, and if she ever wanted to break into the ruthless New York City art world, New Jersey wasn't going to cut it. She'd sold a piece or two, sure, but her photography was niche, as one agent had told her while declining to represent her, and niche wasn't an easy sell.
So, yeah, she'd been too busy busting her niche ass to talk to her stepsister. Plus, it wasn't like Astrid even liked her all that much anyway. They hadn't seen each other in five years.
Had it already been that long?
Hell, it was late. Delilah dropped the phone to her chest while Jax drifted into her thoughts for the first time in a while. Months. She squeezed her eyes closed tight, then opened them and stared up at the ceiling, which was covered with those glow-in-the-dark star stickers. She sat up, a cold panic shooting through her veins. Was she in a college dorm? God, please no. Delilah was nearly thirty years old, and college girls . . . well, she'd been there already, lived that part of her life. She preferred women her own age, always had, and was happy to leave behind all the fumbling and fluttering lashes she remembered from her early twenties.
She relaxed as the room came into focus, felt the softness of expensive sheets under her fingers. The bedroom was filled with modern furniture, all straight lines and cream-colored wood. Sophisticated art dappled the walls, expertly hung. An open door led into a living area, which Delilah now distinctly remembered as the scene where-Lana? Lily?-had pushed her onto a very posh white couch and slid Delilah's underwear off, tossing it over her own bare shoulder.
Definitely not college-level kind of furnishings. Not even Delilah Green-level kind of furnishings, and she was a full grown-up. Also, what Lilith had proceeded to do with her mouth was definitely not a college-level kind of skill.
Delilah flopped back down onto the bed, boneless at the memory. Her eyes had just started to feel heavy enough to close when her phone buzzed again. She jolted fully awake, peering at that same unlikely name and pressing Ignore for the second time.
Layton stirred next to her, turning over and squinting at Delilah, mascara smeared under her eyes. "Oh. Hey. Everything okay?"
Her phone went off again.
"Should you get that?" Linda asked, tousled hair falling adorably over one blue eye. No way this sex goddess's name was Linda.
"Then do it. When you're done, I've got something I want to show you."
Lydia-sure, why not-grinned, pulling down the linens to her hips for a split second before tucking the sheet back up to her chin. Delilah laughed as she tossed the covers back, slipping out of the bed completely naked. She very nearly answered the phone like that, but then grabbed a silk robe-definitely not a college-level kind of robe-that hung over a gray upholstered chair in the corner. She could not and would not talk to her stepsister in the buff.
Sliding on the robe, she went into the small living room-slash-open kitchen and climbed onto a stool, resting her elbows on the cool marble counter. She breathed in . . . out. She shook out her hands, rolled her neck. She had to prepare to talk to Astrid, like a boxer heading into a match. Gloves on, mouth guard in. On the counter, the phone stilled, Astrid's name disappearing, only to pop back up like a greeting card from hell. Best get this over with, then. She slid her finger across the phone.
Astrid's velvety voice filtered through the phone. Like an American Cate Blanchett, except more stick-up-your-ass and less queen-of-bisexuals. Exactly the kind of voice Delilah always knew adult-Astrid would have.
"Yeah," Delilah said, then cleared her throat. Her own voice was somewhere between six-cocktails-parched and years-of-sleep-deprivation-raspy.
"Took you long enough to answer."
Delilah sighed. "It's late."
"It's only eleven in Oregon. Plus, I figured this was the best time to catch you. Don't you turn into a bat after midnight?"
Delilah snorted. "I do. Now if you'll excuse me I'd like to get back to my cave."
Astrid didn't say anything for a few seconds. Long seconds that made Delilah wonder if she was still there, but she wasn't going to be the one to crack. They'd only spoken on the phone a dozen or so times since Delilah left Bright Falls the day after high school graduation, hopping a bus to Seattle with her Bright Falls High duffel bag on her shoulder, while Astrid took off for a postgrad trip to France with all of her horrible BFFs. Isabel, Astrid's mom and Delilah's wicked stepmother, had armed both girls with enough cash to keep them out of her hair for two weeks. The only difference being, Astrid came back, prepared for college at Berkeley like the dutiful daughter, while Delilah flew to New York and rented a one-bedroom dump on the Lower East Side. She was a legal adult, and there was no way in hell she was going to stay in that house one second longer than she needed to.
It wasn't like Isabel mourned her leaving.
Neither did Astrid, as far as Delilah could tell, though every now and then, this would happen. Texts that went ignored and turned into awkward phone calls where Astrid tried to pretend she hadn't made Delilah's already lonely childhood a living hell. Delilah had been back to Bright Falls five or six times in the past twelve years-a few Christmases and Thanksgivings, a funeral when her favorite art teacher had died. The last time was five years ago, when Delilah fled New York with a freshly obliterated heart, mistakenly thinking the familiarity of Bright Falls might serve as a balm. It hadn't, but it had given Delilah an idea for a photo series that had changed her ambition from struggling freelance photographer who barely made rent to successful queer artist with an amazing apartment in Williamsburg.
Which she still hadn't achieved, but she was trying.
"So . . . are you coming?"
Astrid's voice cut through her musings, and she blinked Lucinda's kitchen back into view. "Coming . . ." A dirty joke rested on the tip of her tongue, but she bit it back.
"Oh my god," Astrid said. "Are you serious? Tell me you are not serious."
"Delilah, tell me!"
"I'm trying if you'd shut up for two seconds!"
Astrid blew out a breath so loud, it buzzed in Delilah's ear. "Okay. Okay, I'm sorry, I'm just stressed. There's a lot going on."
"Right," Delilah said, racking her brain for what the hell was going on. "Um, so-"
"Nope, no, no. You are not canceling on me, Delilah Green. Tell me that is not what you're doing."
"Jesus, Ass, take a Xanax, will you?"
"Please don't call me that and do not cancel on me."
Delilah let a beat of silence pass. Maybe seeing her own art on actual gallery walls, tiny as they may be, followed by great sex had just addled her brain a little, and whatever the hell Astrid was talking about would come roaring back to clarity. She pulled the phone from her ear and hit the speakerphone button, then checked the date on her calendar app-Saturday, June 2. Wee hours. Friday the first was definitely a date that had been cemented in her mind for months as she prepped for the Fitz show. But there was something else there, something June-ish and Astrid-shaped and-
"Your wedding," Delilah said.
"Yes, my wedding," Astrid said. "The one I've been planning for months and for which Mother insisted I hire you as a photographer."
"Don't sound so excited."
"I have another word for it."
"You're not really helping your case here, Ass."
Astrid huffed into the phone.
"I'm still crushed I'm not a bridesmaid," Delilah deadpanned, but with the revelation of her stepsister's impending nuptials to some poor sucker, her heart picked up its pace as both terror and relief flooded her system.
On the one hand, a Parker society wedding in Bright Falls was the absolute last thing she wanted to do right now. Or ever. She'd rubbed elbows with a few agents at the Fitz show and sold one whole piece-granted the patron was currently sleeping in the next room, but Loretta one hundred percent forked over her money before even batting a single lash Delilah's way. At least, Delilah was pretty sure that's how it happened, as she was too busy freaking the fuck out that someone traded actual money for something she'd created.
Regardless, now was not the time for Astrid-slash-Isabel bullshit. Delilah felt as though she was on the edge of something, being someone, and Bright Falls was a soul-sucking pit of despair where she was absolutely no one.
On the other hand-the hand that tried to keep Delilah fed and clothed-Isabel Parker-Green had offered her a ridiculous sum of money to photograph Astrid's wedding and two weeks' worth of pre-wedding events. As the details from when Astrid first called Delilah about this happy event floated back to her now, there were definitely five figures involved. Low five figures, but still. Pocket change to Isabel Parker-Green and to most Brooklynites, but to Delilah, who could stretch a dollar for days, it was an IV to her dehydrated bank account.
Along with the money, which Astrid almost certainly knew Delilah couldn't refuse, Astrid had also delivered an oh-so-subtly manipulative, "Mom says your father would've wanted you at my wedding." Delilah still resented her for it, mostly because she knew Isabel was right. While he'd been alive, Andrew Green had been a devoted family man to the point of ridiculousness, insisting on nightly dinners and spring break vacations, Christmas Eve traditions and checking homework and learning how to plait hair just so Delilah wouldn't be the only girl at the Renaissance Faire field trip without a braid crown.
A wedding would be nonnegotiable. You showed up for family, even if you got paid for it and gritted your teeth the entire time.
"Pre-wedding events start on Sunday," Astrid said now. "You agreed to be there for all of it, remember? The details I emailed you indicate you're booked June third through the sixteenth. I signed your contract, agreeing to all of your terms, and-"
"I know, I know, yes," Delilah said, running a hand over her hair. Shit, she did not want to go back to Bright Falls for two whole weeks. And it was Pride month. She loved Pride in New York City. Who the hell started all this wedding nonsense that far before the actual day anyway? Well, Delilah knew exactly who.
"Don't you fucking dare."
"That mouth, Ass. What would Isabel say."
"She'd say that and a lot worse if you're about to cancel on her only daughter's wedding on such short notice."
Delilah sucked in a breath, even though she tried not to.
Her only daughter.
She wanted to fight the sting, to let the words slide right over her, but she failed. It was a reflex, this feeling, left over from a childhood with two dead parents and a stepmother who never really wanted her in the first place.
"Shit," Astrid said, her tone regretful and irritated at the same time, as though Delilah had made her forget that Isabel had been Delilah's sole guardian after her father, Isabel's second husband, had died of an aneurysm when Delilah was ten years old.
"There's that mouth again," Delilah said, laughing through a thick throat. "I think I might like this new stressed-out Astrid."
Her stepsister didn't say anything for a few seconds, but the silence was long enough for Delilah to know she'd be on a morning flight out of JFK.
"Just be here, okay?" Astrid said. "It's too late to find someone decent to replace you."
Delilah wiped her hand down her face. "Yeah."
"What was that?"
"Yes," Delilah practically yelled. "I'll be there."
"Good. I already booked your room at the Kaleidoscope-"
"What, I'm not staying with Mommy Dearest?"
"-and I'll email you the itinerary. Again."
Delilah grunted and hung up before Astrid could hang up on her, then dropped the phone on the counter like it was on fire. She twisted the lid off a half-full bottle of gin that sat next to the sink and took a shot, no glass required. The liquor burned all the way down, searing her nostrils and watering her eyes.
Copyright © 2022 by Ashley Herring Blake. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.