He took his tea milk first (no sugar), had an enormous office on the third floor—far from mine—clearly never had time for television, but was a Leeds United man through and through. And although he was raised in Leeds, he went to school at Cambridge, then Oxford, and now resided in London. Somewhere along the way Niall Stella had developed quite the posh accent.
Also: recently divorced. My heart could barely take it.
Number of Times Niall Stella Had Glanced at Me During Thursday Meetings? Twelve. Number of Conversations We’d Had? Four. Number of Either of These Events He Might Actually Remember? Zero. I’d been wrestling with my Niall Stella crush for six months, and I was pretty sure he still didn’t know that I was an employee at the firm rather than a regular takeout delivery girl.
Surprisingly, because he was almost always one of the first to the office, the man in question wasn’t here yet. I’d checked—a few times—craning my neck to see through the mass of bleary-eyed people filing in through the conference room door.
Our meeting room was lined with a wall of windows, each looking out onto the fairly busy street below. My morning walk to work had been relatively dry, but as it did most days here, rain had begun to drizzle from a sky heavy with clouds. It was the kind of rain that looked like a harmless haze, but I’d learned not to be fooled: three minutes outside and I’d be soaked through. Even if I’d grown up somewhere rainier than Southern California, I could never have been prepared for the way the London air, between October and April, felt almost saturated with water, heavy and damp. Like a rain cloud had wrapped itself around my body and seeped straight into my bones.
Spring had just begun in London, but the little courtyard across Southwark Street was still dismal and bare. I’d been told that in summer it was filled with pink chairs and small tables belonging to a restaurant near the back. Right now it was all concrete and mostly naked tree branches, damp brown leaves blown across the stark ground.
Around me, people continued to voice their displeasure with the weather as they opened up their laptops and finished their tea, and I blinked away from the window in time to see the last few stragglers rush in. Everyone wanted to be seated before Anthony Smith—my boss and the firm’s director of engineering—made his way down from the sixth floor.
Anthony was . . . well, okay, he was a bit of a jackass. He ogled the interns, loved to hear himself speak, and said nothing that sounded sincere. Every Thursday morning he relished making an example of the last person to walk in, sharply commenting with a saccharine smile on their outfit or their hair so everyone in the room would have to watch in leaden silence as they found the last empty seat and sat down in shame.
The door squeaked as it opened. Emma.
Emma lingered, holding the door open for someone. Gah. Karen.
Voices sounded from outside the room, growing louder as they came in. Victoria and John.
And then, there he was.
“Showtime,” Pippa muttered next to me.
I saw the top of Niall Stella’s head as he stepped in just behind Anthony, and it was as if the air had been sucked from the room. People and chatter blurred around the edges and then it was just him, expression neutral as he seemed to instinctively take in who was there and who was missing, his shoulders wrapped in a dark suit, one hand tucked casually into the pocket of his dress pants.
The urgent, fiery feeling in my chest grew.
There was something about Niall Stella that made you want to watch him. Not because he was boisterous or loud, but because he wasn’t. There was a quiet confidence about him, a way he carried himself that demanded attention and respect, and a feeling that while he wasn’t talking, he was watching everything, noticing everyone.
Everyone except me.
Having come from a family of therapists that discussed everything, I’d never been the silent type. My brother, and even Lola probably, would start calling me a chatterbox when I really got going. So the fact that I of all people couldn’t manage a single articulate thing when Niall Stella was within touching proximity made absolutely zero sense. What I felt for him was a distracting kind of infatuation.
He didn’t even have to attend Thursday meetings; he just did, because he wanted to make sure there was “cross-departmental consensus” and so his planning division “could at least have a working engineering vocabulary” since it was Niall Stella’s responsibility to coordinate engineering with public policy and his own planning division.
Not that I’d memorized everything he’d ever said at this meeting.
Today he wore a light blue shirt beneath a dark charcoal suit. His tie was a mesmerizing swirl of yellow and blue, and my eyes moved from the double Windsor knot at his neck to the smooth skin just above, the heavy curve of his Adam’s apple, the sharp jaw. His normally impassive mouth was turned down in consternation, and when I made it up to his eyes . . . I registered with horror that he was watching me eye-fuck him like it was my job.
I dropped my gaze to my laptop, the screen blurring out with the intensity of my stare. The flurry of telephones and printers from the outer office flowed in through the open door, seeming to reach a crescendo of chaos, and then someone closed the door, signaling the start of the meeting. And as if the room had been vacuum sealed, all noise came to an abrupt stop.
I clicked on my mail folder, ears ringing as I strained to hear his reply. One breath in, one breath out. Another. I typed in my password. I willed my heart to slow down.