I banged my head on the counter as I bent to push my pants down my hips. We hit a pocket of turbulence as I lifted my foot to slip on my skirt, and it nearly ended up in the toilet before I was knocked back into the door with a loud bang. It took me ten minutes to dress and fix my hair, and there was zero question that every single person in first class—and probably beyond—had looked toward the bathroom in concern at least once, wondering what the hell was going on in there. But with my head held high, I stepped out and took my seat.
The fact that Niall Stella was noticeably still did not ease my nerves.
He didn’t look my way, instead keeping his eyes straight ahead, and murmured an “All right?” when I’d rebuckled my seat belt.
“Perfect,” I lied. “Being trapped in a tiny space, I decided it was a good time to dance.”
A tiny smile tugged at the corner of his lips before he bent down and laughed outright. “I did some of that myself while you were in there.”
Something inside me melted, and it was all I could do to not turn, take his face in my hands, and make out with him like there was no tomorrow.
The plane landed ten minutes ahead of schedule. Passengers began to stand and pull their things from the overhead compartments, and I stood in front of Niall as we waited to make our way down the aisle toward the exit.
I looked over my shoulder at him, wanting to make sure he was all set. But he didn’t look down to meet my eyes. He was staring with determination at the ceiling of the plane.
Something was off.
For six months I’d worked in the same building as Niall Stella and he’d never really noticed me. This was different. This wasn’t the oblivious avoidance I’d seen in the past, this was deliberate. He was fidgety and flustered and if it would have been acceptable to shove me out of the way and run to the taxi stand to flee the scene, I thought he might do it.
First class and coach were filing out the same door and I turned again, smiling at him as we waited for the people in front of us to move. “We’re a little early, so our driver might not be here yet,” I said.
His eyes darted down to mine and then quickly away.
I turned on my heel and continued on down the row, when a woman near me reached out, tugging on my skirt.
“Girl code, girl code,” she whispered, and I looked down at her, confused. “Your skirt is tucked into your underwear.”
She leaned in and I felt the blood drain from my face. “Though between you and me, I don’t think the gentleman behind you minds one little bit.”
I reached behind me and felt nothing but skin, frantically pulling my skirt free from where it had been completely tucked up into itself,
I thanked her and stepped out onto the jetway, rolling my carry-on behind me and praying that the ground would open up and swallow me whole. Once we were just inside the terminal, I made a show of looking for something in my purse so Niall Stella would walk in front of me and I wouldn’t have to fight the urge to constantly smooth my skirt down over my backside.
Why did you choose to wear a G-string?
We stood side by side as we waited for our luggage, and honestly I wasn’t sure which of us was more mortified. There was absolutely no way that he didn’t see. I knew he saw. And he knew I knew he saw.
I stared at the turnstile, waiting for my bag to appear, when I felt him lean closer.
He smelled like fresh soap and shaving cream, and when he whispered, his breath was minty. “Ruby? Sorry about the . . . I’m not very good at . . .” He paused and I turned to meet his eyes. We were so close. His brown eyes had flecks of green and yellow in them and I felt my heart claw its way up my throat when he glanced quickly down at my mouth. “I’m not very good at . . . women.”
My humiliation was replaced with something warmer, and calmer, and infinitely sweeter.
I’d been in large cities before—San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London—but I was pretty sure they were absolutely nothing like New York.
Everything was massive, taking up as little ground as necessary while towering overhead. The buildings crowded the sky, leaving only a strip of gray-blue directly above us. And it was loud. I’d never been somewhere with so much honking—not that anyone on the street seemed to notice. The air was a chorus of horns and shouts, and as we made our way from terminal four of JFK to our car, and from our car to the revolving doors of the Parker Meridien, I didn’t see a single person who seemed bothered by the cacophony.
Niall followed an appropriate distance behind me as we made our way through the lobby—close enough that it was clear we were together, but not together—and we checked into our respective rooms. I was there as Niall’s colleague, not his employee or assistant or . . . even his friend, really, and so I wasn’t given any information about where his room was or, say, what size bed he had in there. I didn’t even get a formal goodbye; when his phone rang, he did little more than offer me a small, polite wave and disappear down a quiet hallway.
No doubt I looked like someone had just walked off with my puppy, and so I jumped slightly when the bellman coughed next to me, clearly waiting to show me upstairs.
Once inside the elevator, the weight of the day hit me like a truck, and it occurred to me that I’d been up since three and caught only a small nap on Niall’s shoulder. A screen embedded into the elevator wall played an old cartoon: Tom nailed Jerry over the head with a hammer, and as they chased each other around a wooden barrel, the elevator climbed to the tenth floor, and I felt my eyes grow heavier and heavier.