“Yes, please,” she said, and her enormous smile, her long silhouette slightly vibrating with excitement, pulled every remaining thought from my mind. “I could eat an entire cow right now. I hope they have a steak the size of your chest in there.”
She laughed as she dug through her clutch for something, mumbling to herself, “I swear I’m normally more intelligent than this.”
I wanted to protest that Ruby was ebullient and refreshing. But I held my tongue; this time, her observation hadn’t really seemed to bother her.
“My brother will be there,” I reminded her. “And his friends. I hope this is okay. They’re good people, just . . .”
“Guys?” she finished for me.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” I said with a smile.
“Oh, I can handle guys,” she said, falling into step with me. I noted, perhaps not for the first time, that she had the ability to say things that might sound peckish had they come from my lips but sounded playful and lighthearted coming from hers.
Turning to look up at me at the hostess stand, she said quietly, “Is that a compliment?”
Her eyes twinkled under the spots of overhead lights just inside the bar, and again, she seemed to know already that whether or not it was a compliment, it certainly wasn’t an insult. The truth was, it had been praise. What I should have said was that she seemed able to handle almost anything.
“I wouldn’t dream of insulting any of your skills.”
“See?” She shook her head a little. With a teasing smile, she said, “I can’t tell if you’re messing with me. You’re so dry. Maybe I should have you hold up a sign.”
I hummed in response, giving her a wink before turning to the hostess. “We’re meeting some people here.” And as I spoke, just over her shoulder I spotted my brother and his friends. “Ah, there they are.”
Without thinking, I took Ruby’s elbow and led her to a table surrounded by low, velvet couches and plush ottomans. Her arm was warm and toned, but once I realized how close to flirtation this had come I released it. It was the way I would lead a date to a table, not a coworker.
Our approach was noted when we were still several tables away, and the men seated—Max, Will, Bennett, and George—stopped talking to watch us. Ruby was tall but slight in a sort of gangly way, but you wouldn’t particularly dwell on it. Her posture was perfect, her chin always straight. She had the grace of a long-limbed woman just barely inside the door to adulthood.
Four pairs of eyes moved from Ruby’s face down her svelte body to her feet and back up before turning to me with renewed brightness.
I knew without having to hear one word from his mouth what my wanker of a brother was thinking. I gave him a subtle shake of my head but his grin only expanded.
Everyone stood, greeting me and introducing themselves to Ruby in turn. Hands were grasped, names given, and pleasantries exchanged. A tangle of nerves clutched me. This no longer felt like a business dinner or even a social dinner with my mates. It felt somehow that Ruby was on display, that I was presenting her. That this was an introduction.
“I feel like I’m at a job interview,” she said as she took her seat beside George on a red velvet sofa. “All these suits.”
I swallowed, feeling my face heat in embarrassment and relief as I realized she hadn’t shared my sense about the evening. We hadn’t been flirting after all.
“The danger of Midtown, I’m afraid,” Bennett said with an easy smile, and waved down the waitress to come take our order.
“A gin and tonic, with as many limes as you can get in there,” Ruby said, and then glanced briefly at the limited bar menu. “And the prosciutto sandwich, please.”
A woman with a fondness for gin and tonics, my favorite evening cocktail? Christ almighty. Even Max caught my eye, brows raised as if to say, Well, well, well.
“I’ll have the same,” I said, handing the waitress the menu. “Though one lime is fine.”
“So how do you all know each other?” Ruby asked Max.
“Well,” he tilted his head toward me, “this one’s my younger brother, of course.”
“That’s right,” Max said with a small laugh. “Ten of us.” He pointed to the men at his side. “Bennett here I met in uni; Will I met when I moved to New York and we made the poor decision to open a business together—”
“Your wallet cries in regret daily,” Will said, dryly.
“George here works with my wife, Sara,” Max finished.
“I’m her Boy Friday,” George clarified. “In charge of schedule, refilling the flasks in her desk, and hiding Page Six from her whenever she and Max get caught out and about.”
With the five of us already acquainted, our attention justifiably fell to Ruby, though I suspect mine may have regardless. In the dim candlelight, and against the backdrop of mirrored walls, heavy velvet curtains, and the dramatic polished wooden décor, she seemed to nearly glow.
“How long have you lived in London?” Bennett asked. “You’re clearly not British.”
“San Diego native,” she said and reached up to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear.
Bennett’s eyebrows rose. “My wife and I were married at the Hotel Del on Coronado.”