And yet, when given the chance to explore things, I’d immediately closed up.
Best to bury my nose in a pint.
The blokes were down at Knave again, almost as if it was their regular haunt. I knew better; I knew my brother well enough to know he was going out of his way to keep an eye on me. That he could sense something was off in my mood.
He and the lads were seated around the same low table we’d inhabited the other evening, each halfway into a cocktail and snacking on the smattering of appetizers on the table. It was nearly eleven, and I hadn’t eaten.
“Be a good chap and look to the side while I polish off the lot,” I joked, sitting down next to Max and reaching for a small handful of mixed nuts.
“What,” Bennett asked, looking around as if searching, “no Ruby? I have to admit I’m a little disappointed.”
“Ah . . .” I started, and then put an entire slice of bruschetta in my mouth to avoid answering.
“Think she might want a bite to eat?” Will asked.
Swallowing, I mumbled, “Frigging hell, you’re all subtle. I’m sure she ordered in. And since we’re on the subject of women: why are you lot constantly on me? I don’t see your women around anywhere.”
“Careful what you wish for,” George said. “Chloe the Barbarian is meeting us here.”
“Chloe the—I’m sorry, are you talking about Bennett’s wife?” I asked, positive I must have misunderstood.
But Bennett waved me off. “Sara and Hanna are at some sort of party. Chloe should be here shortly. And don’t worry,” he said. “They call each other much, much worse.”
George shrugged and then leaned forward. “Chloe and I have a special bond. Namely being so terrible nobody else would want us.” Bennett cleared his throat and George blinked over to him. “Except for him, and he’s pretty rotten himself.”
And as if she were summoned, one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen walked into the bar. She wasn’t tall, but she certainly carried herself as if she stood head and shoulders above everyone around her. Dark hair spilled halfway down her back and she wore a tight black dress and heels so high I feared for her ankles.
“Speak of the devil,” Bennett said, and stood, watching with a proud smile as his wife walked toward him.
“Look away,” Will said, just as Chloe reached us.
Confused, I glanced at each of the men before I blinked back up to Bennett and Chloe and had to quickly look away. To say that their embrace was passionate would be a gross understatement, and once again I felt the sting of my failed relationship, and the fact that I’d barely even pulled my head from the sand to join the world, let alone considered finding that for myself.
Chloe kissed her husband once more before she turned her attention to us. “You’re just jealous because your fiancée is sitting with a bunch of women talking about books, instead of here, gazing adoringly at you.”
“When you put it that way . . . yes, I am,” Will said. “Why aren’t you with them, again?”
Chloe ordered a drink from a passing waitress and took a seat at our table. “Because this is my only free night this week, and I intend to spend it banging my husband. Speaking of”—she looked at Bennett commandingly—“finish your drink.”
“George,” Chloe said, greeting him with a smile.
“And you must be Niall?” she said, turning her attention to me.
“Yes,” I said, and offered my hand. “Lovely to meet you.”
Chloe returned my handshake with a firm grip. “You, too. Where’s the girl?”
“Girl?” I asked, looking at each of them.
Chloe smiled, and I had to admit the effect was quite stunning—if somewhat frightening. I could only imagine the terror this woman could inflict on a poor soul when she put her mind to it.
“I assume she’s talking about your Ruby,” Max said.
“She is not my Ruby,” I corrected.
“Sure she isn’t,” Chloe said. “That’s what they all say.”
As I was busy choking on a bite of truffled Tater Tot, the realization settled in. I’d nearly kissed her at work. “Right, you all settled this the other night.”
“Course we did,” George continued. “You’re the only one who was confused. You turn into a robot around her—”
“To be fair, he’s always a bit of a robot,” Max cut in.
“Cheers, mate,” I mumbled sarcastically. “Funny how I’m the only one here who seemed to be in the dark about it.”
Chloe’s drink had arrived, and she lifted the stemmed glass. “That’s because men are idiots,” she said over the rim. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, women can be jackasses, too, and are every bit as capable of messing things up as men. But in my experience, when these things go wrong, it’s usually the one with the penis who’s fucked it up.” She looked at me with her amused certainty for a moment before adding, “No offense.”
They studied me for a few seconds longer before turning back to each other, picking up where they’d apparently left off when I joined them. All except for Chloe, who continued to eye me.