“How could I deny you? You moaned through every bite yesterday.”
Only then did it occur to me how that must have sounded. “I—”
“And until the repairman gets here . . .” He pulled a box from the bag to reveal a large desk fan.
“We wouldn’t want you melting, now would we?”
And that was it. Finally bold enough, I stood and rounded the desk in front of him, and did what I’d wanted to do for six months: I straightened his tie. I took my time, using the opportunity to right the knot and smooth the silky material down his chest.
He sucked in a breath and I waited, worried that maybe I’d crossed a line, that perhaps I’d taken this small progress we’d made and ruined it by being too forward. The silence seemed to balloon between us, stretching, growing heavier with each tick of the clock.
“You’re quite welcome.” A tiny flicker of a smile, a flash of his dimple, and then his expression straightened and his eyes searched mine for a small eternity.
Finally—and while my pulse jackhammered in my throat—Niall took my hands, moving them up his body. I could feel his torso, the defined planes of his stomach beneath his dress shirt, and then his hard pectorals.
Now it was my turn to suck in a breath. The possibility of something happening between us had gone from an adorable little fantasy to a check mark in the Number of Times Niall Stella Ran My Hands Up His Chest column. What were we doing?
The faint scent of his cologne hung in the air, a hint of coffee and fresh paint from an office somewhere on the same floor. I leaned in slowly, my body on autopilot, my brain not even in control of the equipment anymore.
He leaned in, too: small, stuttering movements that made the space between us disappear. His nose brushed the edge of mine and I could see his eyelashes, feel his breath across my lips. I closed my eyes, not sure I could be this close to him and see these things and ever be the same again.
“Are you going to kiss me?” I asked, surprising myself as the words tumbled from my mouth.
His chest was pressed against mine, but he didn’t do what I thought he would. He pulled away just enough to meet my eyes.
“I fear I wouldn’t be able to stop,” he whispered.
Life Alert? This is not a drill.
“Maybe I wouldn’t want you to.” His brows lifted but he didn’t speak; instead he waited for me to continue. I wasn’t sure I could, but eventually I managed, “I’ve thought about this exact moment, and what I would do or say.”
He pulled back to better study my face. “You have?”
This time his brows disappeared into his hairline and I barreled on: “I thought it would always just be a crush. I never really expected us to interact for any significant amount of time. But we’re here and together a lot and this flirting is fun, but I’m about to completely lose my mind . . .” I looked up, meeting his wide eyes. My mouth had sprinted away from my brain, leaving it in the dust. I closed my eyes again, groaning. “And now I’ve made you uncomfortable.”
When I looked at him again, I found him studying my face, expression soft. “You haven’t. Not at all. I’m just . . . unaccustomed.”
“Unaccustomed to girls admitting they have crushes on you?” I attempted a lighthearted laugh but it came out really awkward, more bark than chuckle. “I have a hard time believing that.”
“Well,” he said, stepping back and shrugging a little apologetically, “it’s true. As I mentioned, Portia is the only woman I ever . . . that is to say, there’s been no one else.” He ran a hand across the back of his neck. “Aside from the fact that this is a work meeting and we’ve only just met, there is that consideration. I feel a bit out of my depths here.”
I gaped at him, at Niall Stella, the unexpected flirt with a body that screamed I’ve-Had-All-of-the-Good-Sex-in-the-World, who stood before me reminding me that he’d been with one woman his entire life. I knew he’d met Portia when he was young but it hadn’t really sunk in until now that he’d only ever been with her. No high school manwhoring. No college years full of wild shagging. No early twenties with a different woman every night. Zero oats sowed.
“So, you see,” he said, smiling a little, “if you’ve any interest in me at all, you’ll need to come into it knowing I’m driving quite blind.”
And right then, when I expected him to hold his gaze to mine, to take my hand and squeeze it, or do any other human thing to hold the moment, or at least acknowledge that a moment occurred, he blinked away, turned to his desk, and began reading a report until I mumbled something about needing to use the ladies’ room, and left.
Come meet us for a pint.
I’d only just returned to my room, my mind and gut in a twist, when the text from Max arrived. The only thing I wanted more than to fall face-first into my mattress was a pint.
In fact, what I wanted most was to be with Ruby.
How is it possible, I thought, to have become infatuated in a matter of days? In a space of time that could still be easily measured in hours?
There was a tiny part of me that seemed to be expanding, doubling inside my rib cage every day. This secret space, an unexplored romantic nucleus, told me the reason Ruby had burrowed so easily in my mind and under my skin was meaningful. And not because she was a rebound, or a distraction, but because she fit me. I wanted to trust this tumbling sensation I had near her not because the feeling was familiar, but because it wasn’t.