She smiled a little, but I suspected she wanted what I wanted, which was for me to stay the night with her. Even not touching, it was better to be near her than anywhere else.

Her name was a constant, looping mantra in my thoughts, but not once had I heard her call me Niall.

I opened my eyes to the sun beaming in the window, the phone ringing with my wake-up call, and an immediate dousing of cold, hard Holy Hell what have I done?

You know, just an average morning after I drunkenly masturbated in front of Niall Stella.

I rolled face-first into my pillow and groaned.

As the details returned—and oh, they did—I wasn’t embarrassed exactly. I remembered the he-said-she-said. I remembered how hard he’d been, how breathless. I remembered how he stared so intently at my hand between my legs, completely unashamed to simply look. Seeing him there, hungry in that way, completely open in his desire . . . I’d been a woman possessed.

My fear was that, after a few hours alone to contemplate what we’d done, he would be mortified. If the suggestion of a kiss in the office yesterday turned him stiff and silent, what happened last night might make him crawl back into his shell and never emerge again.

How often had I fantasized about something happening between us? Countless times. And in every fantasy, I was brave enough to tell him what I wanted, and it unleashed something in him to know that I could be a safe place for him.

That I understood his reserve and would let him shed it when he needed to.

Then last night—suddenly—he was right there. And for once I wasn’t mute, I wasn’t a babbling mess.

He’d looked so gorgeous, eyelids heavy and cheeks warm with alcohol, the uptight and buttoned-up persona barely hanging by a thread. He’d worried he was being presumptuous, or that he was somehow taking advantage of me, but he was wrong.

I’d wanted to see that final thread unravel. See him unravel. I’d wanted it so much I could hardly breathe. My skin felt like it was on fire, so sensitive I might turn to ash with just a touch. He may have thought keeping his distance had been for his benefit, that we’d been drinking and he wanted to be in full control of his senses when we did more, but somehow, it had been exactly what I’d needed.

I bet he thought intimacy happened in ordered stages: admiring, flirting, consensus about feelings—but not too much discussion—permission to touch, kissing, hands up shirts, hands down pants, the I Love You, and then, finally, sex. I wondered if, in his mind, what we’d done—or hadn’t done—last night still allowed him a certain amount of emotional distance.

How could he not know that it had been more intimate than any sex I’d ever had?

How could I show him?

I knew I needed to get up and get going, but I wasn’t ready yet. My stomach was in knots and my muscles hummed with a tangle of nervous energy too big for my skin. I missed my friends and having someone to talk to. I missed shuffling out into the living room on Sunday morning and having coffee with the girls, huddled over steaming cups while we talked about our lives and work and school and men.

Tucking the blankets around me, I rolled over and reached for my phone. I was three hours ahead of California, but I reasoned that this was still far preferable to the UK time difference, where I was getting up just as everyone else was going to bed. I’d stayed up late countless nights so I could listen to London or Lola unload; it was their turn to do it for me. I needed to talk to someone.

Without another thought, I sent a group text. Most of Lola’s late nights were spent working, so there was little chance of her answering. She was the sensible one, the driven-to-succeed-since-she-was-tiny one, and probably would have her phone set on do not disturb hours ago. Mia and Ansel rarely answered the phone after the sun went down, and Harlow, more often than not, was up on Vancouver Island newlywedding it up with Finn.

London, my best friend, was my best bet.

Anyone awake? I need help :(

You have a phone so you MUST know what time it is, came London’s reply.

I know and I’m so sorry. But . . . something happened. I held my breath as I hit SEND.

Something or ~something~?

I’m not sure which something I’m supposed to use??

The phone vibrated with a call just a few seconds later, and I answered before the first ring had even finished.

“I assume this is somehow referring to Niall Stella.”

“So when I say something,” London began, sounding tired and groggy. She worked as a bartender, and I wondered what time she’d actually got off this morning. She cleared her throat and if I hadn’t been so thankful to hear her voice right then, I might have felt the tiniest bit guilty for waking her up. “What I mean is, something like you had coffee together? Or something like he’s seen your vagina?”

I rolled onto my back, blinking up at the ceiling. “Uhhh,” I started. That was disturbingly close to the mark. Could she hear it in my voice? Was there something in the way I sounded that screamed, I bared my entire body to him last night, but yeah, he mostly stared at my vagina.

“Oh my God, you little shit. You had sex with him?”

I brought my hand to my forehead. “Not exactly,” I answered truthfully.

“Not exactly? Ruby, honey. You know that I love you, but I’ve been up late every night this week with work. I need some sleep, not a brain teaser.”