Niall considered this, straightening his cutlery and wiping a bead of condensation from his water glass. “I haven’t, no.”
“Why? You’re gorgeous and successful. You—” I stopped, wishing someone would tape my mouth shut. “Let’s just summarize: you’re a catch.”
He let out a small laugh. “I’ve never really, I mean I know I’m not . . . but I’d never describe myself as such.”
“You must be joking. Have you looked in a mirror? Listened to yourself speak? Maybe I could get the server to come back and you could read her the menu. I’m sure she’d propose before you got through the salads.”
When he smiled at this, one dimple flirted shamelessly with me. “You enjoyed last night, then?” he asked.
Ah. There it is. “I’m pretty sure we both know I enjoyed last night.” Fighting the heat of my blush, I continued on to the more pressing matter: “But then today, when you were touching me and . . .” I took a sip of my wine, mouth suddenly dry. “I wasn’t sure all day where your head was.”
“I’m not sure where my head was, either,” he admitted. “My body kept pushing me forward, but I’m still hesitant. Not because I’m not attracted to you. I am—hopefully that much is obvious. But I’m not sure I trust my navigational skills in relationships.”
“There’s only one way to learn,” I told him, honestly. “I’m not sure I have it any more figured out than you do. Besides, your marriage lasted over a decade. You had to have done some things right.”
“I’m afraid that even when Portia and I were together, it wasn’t always . . .” He trailed off, clearing his throat before starting over. “With Portia, one has the sense that one does most things wrong.”
What had she done to him? I imagined straight blond hair pulled tight, pinched features, and a constantly sour expression. A husband who felt he could never do anything right. “Well, her name is Portia, for starters.”
He gave me a small smile to acknowledge this. “We found a rhythm in day-to-day life, I suppose. It was quiet, but it was predictable.” He took another sip of wine. “But with you, when everything feels so intense and overwhelming . . . when I’m alone afterward, I find myself overthinking it all, and floundering.”
God, he was so adorably stuffy I could hardly stand it. I’d seen glimpses of how much fun he could be—when he’d caught me in the hallway, taking a selfie in front of Radio City, talking about his niece—he just needed to loosen up a bit. “I think it’s best between us when we both don’t overthink it. When it’s just us hanging out, it’s been really good.”
“Agreed. Yet . . . with matters of intimacy, I’m less well versed. So—”
“You mean sex,” I said, trying to put it plainly.
He shook his head at me, a patiently amused smile curling his mouth. “Not just sex. Intimacy including and beyond that. We didn’t have sex last night, but it was one of the most bare, intimate experiences I’ve had. I’m still digesting that a bit.”
I held my breath, nodding slowly. So he did understand how different last night was, how much deeper it went than a quick tumble on a hotel bed.
He scratched his jaw, contemplating his wineglass. “You’ll find,” he began carefully, “that much of this may feel like a retread for you, if you’re used to discussing up front what a relationship will be, or how it will proceed. But for me, this is all unfamiliar. Portia decided we would be together, and then we were. After that, she and I were more likely to discuss the weather than emotion. As far as sex . . . to discuss that was unheard-of. So the mere fact that you and I are sitting here, discussing what we did last night—and yet we haven’t really kissed or even touched . . . it’s a bit of a revelation for me.”
“A good one?” I asked, not able to hide my hopefulness.
“A good one,” he agreed, nodding slowly. “I enjoy your company. I just want to explore this in the right way.” He paused, meeting my eyes. “We’ve been quite intimate already without really knowing each other.”
I nodded, swallowing a heavy lump in my throat. The oddest twinge came over me, because I felt like I did know him. But upon reflection, it was true; he didn’t know me yet. “We can take a few steps back. Learn about each other.”
Shaking his head, he murmured, “That’s just it. I’m not sure I want to move backward, or that I need to. Why do I need to know everything about you before we enjoy each other physically? I like you. Isn’t that enough?”
I shrugged, feeling my stomach twist as I watched him work through it all. “It is for me. It doesn’t have to be for you.”
“I want it to be. There is a unique freedom I feel near you.”
“You make me feel adventurous and interesting . . . and fun.”
“Fun?” I repeated, with feigned shock. “Mr. Stella, you must banish the thought.”
His answering laugh was deep and warm, sending a shiver across the surface of my skin. “You also make me think about things I don’t consider gentle, or chaste or very proper.”
He blinked up, met my eyes. “I believe I’d prefer to show you. I just have to give myself permission, if you’d agree.”