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.”
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.
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.