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I adjusted the phone so I could hold it between my ear and shoulder and tapped a stack of papers together, placing it neatly in front of me. “I see.”
Static vibrated across the quiet line.
“You see?” Portia repeated in a voice that had grown tight and thin. “Are you even bloody listening?”
Had she always sounded so impatient with me? Sadly, I think the answer to that was yes.
“Of course, I’m listening. You’ve told me you’re stuck. But I don’t see what I can do about it, Porsh.”
“It’s what we agreed, Niall. You agreed to let me keep the dog if I agreed to let you watch him when I went on holiday. I am going on holiday and need you to watch him. But if it’s a bother . . .” Portia’s voice trailed off but the echo sizzled across the phone line like acid dripped on metal.
“Under normal circumstances, taking Davey is no bother,” I answered calmly. Always calm, always patient, even when we were discussing who should care for her pet while she went to Majorca for a week to recover from the stress of our divorce being finalized. “The issue is simply that I will be out of the country, love.”
I swallowed back a curse, wincing.
After nearly sixteen years together, some habits died hard.
Her answering silence was weighted, dense. Two years ago, the quiet ticking across the telephone line would have had me in a panic. A year ago it would have made my stomach sour and tight.
Now, nine months after I’d moved out of the home we’d shared together, her angry silence simply made me weary.
I looked up, at the load of emails in my inbox, at the stacks of contracts on my desk, and then at the clock, which told me it was long past time to head home. Out- side, the sky had gone dark. Once I returned home tonight I would need to start packing for New York and would barely make a dent in the work in front of me before then.
“Portia. I’m sorry. I really must go. I’m sorry about the dog but I can’t make it work next week.”
“Right,” she sighed. “Get stuffed.”
I stared at my desk for several seconds after she’d hung up, feeling faintly sick, before setting my mobile down. I had only two breaths to recover before the door to my office flew open and Tony stepped in.
“Bad news, mate.”
I looked up, lifting my brow in silent question.
“The wife’s gone and started contractions.”
My siblings had enough children for me to know that Tony’s wife wasn’t far enough along for this. “She’s all right?”
He shrugged. “Sentenced to bed till the kid is here. Hence: I’m staying in London.”
Relief spread through my blood. Tony was a decent colleague, but a business trip with him usually meant nightly visits to strip clubs, and it was honestly the last thing I wanted to do for a month in New York. “So I’ll go it alone, then,” I said, my tone already lighter than it had been only a moment ago.
Tony shook his head. “I’m sending Ruby.”
It took a couple of ticks for me to place who he meant. Richardson-Corbett wasn’t a large firm, but Tony hired as many pretty young interns as his budget allowed. There were a few on his team now and I could never quite keep them sorted. “She the brunette from Essex?”
His expression of disappointed envy was so pronounced it was nearly audible. “No. The delectable bit from California.”
Oh. I knew which one he meant. The one who came to my rescue today when I’d experienced an uncharacteristic stumble.
Ironically, I’d been flustered over the sight of her. She was lovely.
Alas . . . “She’s the one who seemed concerned you were leaving for a month?”
I could practically see Tony’s head growing, and he smiled proudly. “That’s right.”
“Is it really necessary to send someone, though?” I asked. “Most of the meetings will be logistics anyway. Engineering was only going to advise.”
“Aw, ya prat. I’m sure you can get her to go to the titty bars with you.”
I groaned inwardly. “That isn’t—”
“And besides,” he interrupted, “she’s fit as all fuck. You may not need a girly bar if you’re getting a leg over on Ruby. All legs, good tits, bloody fantastic face.”
“Tony,” I said with steady calm, “I’m not going to ‘get a leg over’ on an intern.”
“Maybe you should. If I wasn’t tied down, I sure as fuck would pull that.” He let the silence bounce around the room, and I tried to hide my disgust that he seemed more disappointed that he was unable to shag Ruby than worried that his wife had gone into labor early. “How long since you’ve been out?”
I blinked away from his challenging expression, looking down at my desk. I hadn’t dated since the divorce and, except for the drunken grope I’d received at the pub a few weeks back, hadn’t been close to a woman in what felt like forever.
“Right, so you’re staying here,” I deflected, “and Ruby is coming along to New York. Have you gone over the agenda with her?”
“I told her the agenda is you get there, hit the bars, get pissed, get a leg over.”
I wiped a hand over my face, groaning. “Bloody hell.”
He laughed, turning and walking to my door. “Of course I gave her the agenda. I’m just taking the piss. She’s a good one, Niall. She may even impress the likes of you.”
I was alone in the lift, heading out for the night, when Ruby stepped in just as the doors were closing. Our eyes met, I coughed harshly, her breath caught . . . and descending in the weighted silence became immediately dreadful.
The lift moved too slowly. The quiet felt enormous.
We were going on a business trip together, and glancing at her now—young and energetic and, admittedly, unbelievably beautiful—I registered we would be required to chat and get on, and there were few things I was worse at than talking up women.
She opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped, falling back into silence. When she looked at me and I looked over, she blinked away. Just as the doors opened in the lobby, I gestured for her to lead us out, and instead of moving, she nearly shouted, “Looks like we’re going away together!”
“Too right,” I said, but my smile felt stiff.
Try, Niall. Try to get it out of robot mode for at least one conversation.
Nothing. My brain felt like a sieve, completely void of social pleasantries. And she still didn’t exit the lift.
The moment needed to end. I was bloody awful at small talk, and close up, she was even more attractive than I’d expected. Several inches shorter than I, but by no means short, Ruby was willowy and toned, with short, playfully mussed golden hair, sun-kissed cheeks . . . and a truly perfect mouth.
Ruby was rather exquisite. On some strange instinct, I held my breath.
She shrugged a little, smiling. “I’m from the States but I’ve never been to New York. I’m really excited.”
“Ah. Well . . .” I searched for a good response, looking around the small space before eventually settling on “That’s good.”
I groaned inwardly. That was bad, even for me.
Her eyes were enormous, green and so clear I registered with one glance down at them that she was unlikely to be a very good liar: her entire world spilled out her through those eyes, and right now she was an anxious heap.
I was a VP at the firm. Of course she was nervous around me.
“Will we meet at the airport on Monday morning?” she asked, looking back up. Her tongue slipped out to wet her lips and I fixed my attention to the middle of her forehead.
“Yes, I believe so,” I began and then stopped. Was I meant to arrange a car for the two of us? Dear God, if three minutes in a lift was this bad, I couldn’t fathom how claustrophobic the forty-five-minute commute to Heathrow would feel. “Unless—”
“Oh, sorry,” she said, cheeks bright. “I interrupted you. Go ahead.”
I sighed. “Please, go ahead.”
This was abysmal. I longed for her to move aside to simply let me pass. Or, for the ground to open up, swallow me whole.
“I can just meet you at the airport.” She hitched her satchel higher over her shoulder, gesturing inexplicably behind her. “At the gate, I mean. It’ll be really early, you don’t need to—”
“I won’t. That is, I wouldn’t.”
She blinked, understandably confused. I’d completely lost track of what we were even talking about. “Okay. Good. Of course, you . . . wouldn’t.”
I looked over her shoulder to the blessed freedom beyond and then back to her. “That’ll be fine.”
The door to the lift began to buzz in warning as I continued to hold it ajar, a shrill soundtrack to what had to be one of the most awkward encounters ever.
“So I’ll see you Monday.” Her voice wavered with nerves, and I felt a cold sweat prick at the back of my neck. “I’m really looking forward to it,” she said.
With a little tilt of her head, and a final blush that exploded rather sweetly across her cheeks, she stepped off the lift.
Without really intending to, my eyes drifted to her backside as she went. It was round, high, perfectly shaped in her smooth, dark skirt. I could imagine the curve of it in my palm, could still smell the whiff of rose water she left in her wake.
I stepped out into the dark lobby and followed her toward the exit. Without effort, my mind drifted to thoughts of how her breasts would fill my hands, the feel of her mouth on me, my palms on her backside. I wasn’t rubbish in bed, was I? And even though Portia had generally treated sex as a favor to me, she had never once failed to enjoy—
This unconscious flash of interest was quashed when Tony emerged from the stairwell, giving me a wink and a little wiggle of his brow, murmuring, “Shagfest,” as Ruby rounded the corner. Left in its place was a sour twinge of shame for letting his earlier suggestion worm its way into my head.
Growing up with twelve people in the house, air travel simply didn’t happen often, and when it did—the odd puddle jumper with a few kids to Ireland and once, when it was only me and Rebecca left at home, Mum and Dad took us to Rome to see the pope—it put the entire house in an uproar of preparation. We had regular Sunday clothes that weren’t as posh as our Christmas mass kits, and even those were yards below our air travel outfits. It was a hard habit to break, even when dressing before the sun rose, but this history dictated why I found myself at Heathrow, wearing a suit at four thirty on Monday morning.
By contrast, Ruby sprinted in just at my panic point— when the flight was boarding—in a zipfront pink hoodie, black workout pants, and bright blue trainers. I saw the response to her pass through the crowd in a quiet ripple. I couldn’t tell if Ruby noticed or not, but nearly every set of male eyes—and many female as well—followed her as she made her way toward our gate.
She looked casual but fresh, her cheeks flushed from her run and her full, pink lips parted as she caught her breath.
She stopped short when she found me in the crowd, her eyes going wide as saucers.
“Shit.” She slapped a hand over her mouth. “I mean, crap,” she mumbled from behind it. “Do we have a meeting right when we land?” She began searching through her phone. “I memorized the schedule and I could have sworn—” I felt my brows pull together. “No . . . ?” She’d memorized our schedule?
“I . . . you look really dressed up for the plane. I feel like a hobo in comparison.”
I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to feel insulted or praised. “You don’t look like a hobo.”
She groaned, covering her face. “It’s a long flight. I thought we were going to sleep.”
I smiled politely, though the thought of sleeping next to her on a flight created an anxious, gnawing sensation in my gut. “I’ve a few work things to do before we arrive. Feel better dressed for the occasion, that’s all.”
I wasn’t actually sure which one of us had misjudged, but looking at the attire on most of the boarding passengers around us, I was beginning to understand it was me.
With one last wary glance at my suit, she turned and made her way down the jetway to board and stowed her tote in the overhead above our seats. I made every effort to not look at her backside again . . . and failed.
Sweet Lord. It was unbelievable.
Oblivious, Ruby turned and I pulled my gaze up to her face just as she gestured to the two seats. “Do you want the aisle or window?” she asked.
“Either is fine.”
I removed my suit coat and handed it to the flight attendant, watching as Ruby slid into the window seat and tucked away her iPad and book, keeping a small notebook with her.
Seated beside her, and even with the rest of the passengers still boarding, a heavy silence descended between us. Christ. Not only did we have six hours on the flight today, but then nearly four weeks in New York together for the summit.
Four weeks. I felt mildly ill.
I suppose I could ask her how she liked Richardson-Corbett or how long she’d lived in London. She wasn’t under my charge, but working for Tony, I was sure her time there had been . . . eventful. I could ask her where she grew up— though I knew from Tony it was California. At least it might break the ice a little.
But then we would be required to keep talking, and that definitely didn’t seem to be going well. Best to just leave it.
“Can I offer you a beverage before we lift off?” the flight attendant asked before setting a napkin down in front of me. I deferred to Ruby, and she leaned closer to speak to the woman over the din of travelers boarding the plane. Her breast pressed to the arm of my shirt, and I felt my entire body go stiff, careful to not seem to lean into . . . it.
“I’ll have some champagne,” Ruby said.
The flight attendant smiled uncomfortably as she nodded—no doubt it wasn’t something they generally poured before five in the morning—and turned to me.
“I . . .” I began, haltingly. Should I order champagne, too, so it wasn’t odd for her to do it? Or should I set the example for professional decorum and order the grapefruit juice I’d planned for? “Well, I suppose if it’s not too much trouble, I could also—”
Ruby held up a hand. “I’m totally kidding, by the way. Sorry. Joke bomb! I mean no! Not a bomb, I’d never joke about . . . that.” She closed her eyes and groaned. “I’ll just have some OJ.”
I looked up, sharing a brief, confused expression with the flight attendant. “I’ll take grapefruit juice, please.”
With our orders noted, the flight attendant left and Ruby turned to me. Something about her face, the unguarded honesty in her eyes . . . it triggered a tender protectiveness in me I was wholly unaccustomed to.
She blinked away, moving to stare so hard at her tray I was afraid she would crack it through sheer intensity.
“All right?” I asked.
“Just—sorry about that. And yes. I—” She paused and then tried again. “I wasn’t going to order champagne. Did you really think that?”
“Well.” She had ordered it, even if only in jest. “No?” I hoped that was the right answer.
“And that whole bomb thing,” she whispered, waving a hand in front of her as if to push the thought away. “I am such an idiot around you.”
She slumped and I realized how it had sounded.
“No. I . . . that is, I take issue with what you’re saying: I’ve never seen you act like an idiot around me.”
Smiling, I conceded this. “Well.”
“And right now?”
This twisted something inside me. “Is there anything I can do?”
She blinked up to my face and gazed at me with a familiar sort of fondness.
And then she blinked, shaking her head once, and it was gone. “I’ll be fine. Just nervous about a trip with the director of planning and blah blah.”
Wanting to put her more at ease, I asked, “Where did you do your undergraduate work?”
She took a deep breath, and then turned to face me fully. “UC San Diego.”
“Yes. With Emil Santorini.”
I acknowledged this with a small lift of my brow. “He’s tough.”
She grinned. “He’s amazing.”
A sharp curl of interest spiked through me. “Only the brilliant ones come out feeling that way.”
“Push through or break,” she said, shrugging as she accepted her orange juice from the flight attendant with a bright smile. “That’s what he said the first week in the lab. He wasn’t wrong. Three of us started in there at the same time. I was the only one still there by Christmas our first year.”
“Why are you in London?” I asked, though I suspected I already knew.
“Hoping to make it into the Civil program. I’m already in the engineering general but haven’t heard from Margaret Sheffield yet whether I’m in her group.”
“She doesn’t decide until just before the term starts. Makes the students completely barking mad, if memory serves.”
“We engineers like our calendars and spreadsheets and plans. Not the most patient bunch, I guess.”
I smiled. “Like I said. Barking mad.”
She pulled the corner of her lip into her mouth and smiled back. “You didn’t study with her.”
“Not officially, but she was more a mentor to me than my own mentor was.”
“How long after you finished did Petersen retire?”
I felt my eyes widen. How much did she know about my old department? About me? “I suspect you already know the answer to that question.”
She sipped her juice and apologized quietly after swallowing. “I knew you were his last student but I guess I was curious to hear how bad it was.”
“It was abysmal,” I admitted. “He was a drunk and more than that—a ruddy awful person. But that was nearly ten years ago. You were a child. How do you know all of this?”
She pursed her lips slightly and I felt my skin flush warm.
Christ. She was so beautiful.
“One answer,” she started with a small smile, “is that I learned about Maggie Sheffield’s work when I was a sophomore and we toured the Stately building. I grew kind of obsessed with getting to study under her before she retired. When I asked Emil about her, he also shared some of the history of your old department.” Shrugging, she said, “I heard a few stories about Petersen.”
I tilted my head, wondering which ones still floated around.
“He threw a bottle at a student?” she asked.
Ah. The one story that would never die. “He did, but it wasn’t me. The worst I ever got from him was a verbal berating . . . or ten.”
Ruby nodded, looking relieved.
She’d said one answer was this. “And the other answer?” I asked.
She looked out the window for a few breaths before saying, “I joined R-C and found out you’d studied at Oxford, and wondered if you’d been in Maggie’s program. You hadn’t but . . . I learned a bit about you anyway.”
There seemed to be an extra layer to what she was saying, and I thought for a beat I understood the look of fond familiarity she’d given me only a moment before. But then she turned back, wearing a sweetly devious grin. “You’d be amazed how much you can pick up just by paying attention.”
Sitting up in her seat, she said, “You came over from your position at the London Underground to start up an urban planning division. You went to Cambridge for undergraduate, Oxford for graduate school, and were the youngest executive in the history of the Tube.” Ruby gave me a shy smile. “You nearly moved to New York to work for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority but turned the job down to come to R-C.”
Lifting a brow, I murmured, “Impressive. What else do you know?”
She looked away, blushing further. “You grew up in Leeds. You were a star on the Cambridge football club while you were there.”
Had she looked any of this up last night? Or had she known all of this about me before this trip? And which answer did I want to hear? I suspected I knew which would make this small thrill in my stomach grow more intense. “What else?”
Hesitating, she said, “You own a Ford Fiesta, which I find endlessly amusing given that you probably make more money than the queen and are known to be a staunch public transportation advocate, so you never use it. An aside? I have no idea how you would even fit in a Ford Fiesta. Also, you’re recently divorced.”
My jaw grew tight as any amusement regarding her research endeavors was quickly extinguished. “One would think that detail wouldn’t be discussed at work, nor available by easy online search.”
“I’m sorry,” Ruby said, wincing, and I watched as she shrank a little more into her seat. “I forget not everyone was raised by two psychologists. We aren’t all open books.”
“I’m tempted to ask how you knew about my divorce, but I suppose the office chatter . . .”
“I think it was all wrapping up when I started so people were talking . . .” She straightened and looked at me with wide, apologetic eyes. “It’s not an ongoing topic, I promise.”
I could only imagine my dark mood at the time Ruby had joined the firm. By that point I was so put off by Portia’s dramatics I’d have happily resided inside a pint. I decided to change the subject. “Do you have siblings, or was it you alone with the shrinks?”
“One brother,” she said and then took a sip of her juice. “What about you?”
“What—you’re telling me you don’t already know?”
She laughed, but still looked a bit embarrassed. “If I took the time to find that out . . . that might have veered into stalker territory.”
With a little wink, I murmured, “Might have.”
She watched me expectantly and as the plane began to accelerate, I noted the way her hands gripped the armrests. She was shaking.
Waffling on to distract her seemed like a rather good idea. “I have nine siblings, actually,” I told her.
She leaned in, jaw dropping. “Nine?”
I’d become so accustomed to this reaction that I barely blinked anymore. “Seven sisters and two brothers, with me the second youngest.”
Her brow creased as she thought about this some more. “My house was so quiet and calm. I . . . I can’t even imagine your childhood.”
Laughing, I said, “Trust me, it’s true. You can’t.”
“Eight older siblings,” she said to herself. “I bet at times that felt like having eight parents.”
“Sometimes,” I admitted. “My oldest brother, Daniel, was the peacekeeper,” I told her. “Really, he kept us in line. I think it helped that there were more girls than boys; as a general rule our lot was pretty well-behaved. The brother just older than me, Max, was usually the one pulling pranks, and he got away with it because he was charming. At least that’s how he describes it. I was quiet, and studious. Rather boring, really.”
She grew still for a moment, watching me, and then said, “Tell me more?”
I leaned my head back against the seat, inhaling deeply, calming. It had been years since I’d so casually spoken with a woman other than Portia, a sibling, or the wife of a friend. Her interest was genuine and gave me a sense of confidence I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
“Most of our adventures were taken on together. Forming a brass band. Deciding to write a picture book. Once we painted the side of our house with finger paints.”
“I honestly can’t imagine you with paint on your hands.” I gave a dramatic shudder and smiled at her delighted laugh. There was something there, some relief in her eyes, just beneath the surface that made me feel quite tender toward her.
I prattled on, completely out of character, but she listened with rapt attention, asking questions about Max, about my sister Rebecca, about our parents. She asked about my life outside of work, and so when I said with a teasing grin that she already knew about the divorce, she asked how my ex-wife and I met. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel strange to tell her how Portia and I met when we were ten, fell in love when we were fourteen, and kissed at sixteen.
I didn’t admit that the magic began to die only three years later, on our wedding day.
“It must be weird to have been with someone for so long and then see it end,” she said quietly, turning to look out the window. “I can’t even imagine.” Her fringe fell over one eye; a small diamond earring decorated the delicate lobe of her ear. When she looked back, she said, “I’m sorry people were talking about it in the office. It must feel like such an invasion of privacy.”
I looked away, not replying. Every potential response I might give felt too honest.
It’s not that weird, and maybe that’s what is weirdest about it.
I’ve been lonely for a very long time. So why am I acutely aware of it only now?
I never imagined wanting to talk about this again, but here we are. You could ask more.
But when silence grew, it became awkward. With her attention focused out the window and her body easy and relaxed, however, I registered with relief that it was only awkward for me. The tension from the lift had dissipated, something in her had calmed.
I was surprised to find myself thinking how much I liked being near her.
Eventually, Ruby drifted off to sleep, slowly slanting toward me until her head rested on my shoulder. I turned, telling myself I was glancing out the window, but took the opportunity to inhale the light floral scent of her hair. Up close, her skin was perfect. Pale, with a tiny smattering of freckles across her nose, and a clear, beautiful complexion. Her lips were wet where she’d licked them, eyelashes dark against her cheeks.
In her hand, she held a small Richardson-Corbett notebook and pen. I eased it from her lax grip and—against my better judgment—was propelled by curiosity to open it to the first page of what appeared to be work notes. Our agenda, some resources for engineering firms and projects in the area, a list of people she would meet in New York, and some bulleted thoughts on how she could use this conference to build her thesis proposal for Margaret Sheffield. I could tell she’d meticulously written down everything Tony had passed along to her.
At the bottom, in her neat penmanship, she’d written:
Agenda note # 1: Don’t be an idiot around Niall Stella. Don’t stare, don’t babble, don’t go mute. You can do this. He is human.
Only now did it occur to me that this journal could have been a diary of sorts, rather than a professional ledger. She’d been so anxious to go on a trip with a VP from the firm that she’d written herself up a pep talk.
Easing it back into her grip, I closed my eyes, tilting my head to her as I silently apologized for invading her privacy this time.
I dreamt of soft skin resting on my bare chest and kisses tasting of champagne.
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