The opportunity to move forward with Ruby got away from me tonight, but I wasn’t going to let it happen again. Ruby was my safe space; oddly, after only a handful of days I felt we knew each other better than I knew Portia after nearly eleven years of marriage.
I could give Ruby what she needed.
I hit record again. Picking up my phone, I dialed her mobile and waited as it rang once,
My heart is beating so hard
Do this, Niall. Do this
and then she answered, clearing her throat before saying, “Niall?”
My heart thudded in my chest and it occurred to me that I was standing in the middle of my hotel room, stark naked, on the phone with her. “Everything is fine,” I murmured. I closed my eyes, imagining her listening to the recording of what I’d done, and then realizing I called her just after. Smiling, I said, “I just wanted to confirm that you’ll be present at the meeting tomorrow at eight thirty?”
Another pause, and when she answered, she sounded slightly disappointed. “Of course. I’ll meet you in the lobby at a quarter to eight?”
I glanced at the clock. It was nearly midnight. Only a matter of hours before I would see her. “Quarter to eight,” I said. “Perfect.”
I hung up, and reached over to hit stop on the recording.
The next morning, I was holding my breath the entire time the elevator was descending to the lobby. It was 7:43 and I knew without question that Niall would already be downstairs—suit: immaculate, hair: perfect, body: banging. What I didn’t know was exactly which Niall I would encounter today.
Would it be the teasing, flirtatiously forward maybe-almost-my-boyfriend-Niall from dinner last night? The one that sent my hands straight down my panties within seconds of closing the door? Or the strangely terse, abrupt Mr. Stella from the phone call only an hour later?
Niall’s brain seemed to be his own worst enemy, unable to shut down or stay silent long enough for him to just have fun. At dinner he’d let the walls down, teasing and being downright filthy across the table from me. But give him an hour in his room, alone with his own thoughts, and any afterglow I’d been experiencing was doused like a bucket of ice water.
A tiny voice warned that I should pay attention, that I should heed the warning bells—however dim—inside my head. Although he looked like a man who carried the world in the palm of his hand, Niall was also a hypercautious overthinker, and maybe I should rein in my desire to dive headfirst.
But when the elevator doors opened and I saw Niall Stella himself across the lobby, that advice was all too easy to ignore.
Like always, my pulse sped up at the sight of him, my skin prickly and almost hot to the touch. He looked over and met my eye. People filed out in front of me and the seconds seemed to tick by while I waited for a reaction from him—any reaction. My shoes clicked on the marble floors as I walked, and I had to look away, adjust the belt on my trench coat, and force myself to keep my shoulders straight. Niall was just a man, after all, and from what he’d told me last night, I had more experience in this sort of situation than he had. I had the upper hand.
Keep telling yourself that.
His overcoat slung over his arm, he checked his watch, his brow lifting when he glanced back up at me. “Punctual, I see.”
Teasing. My breath eased out of my lungs and I straightened my shoulders. I could do teasing.
“Couldn’t agree more. I happen to find it very attractive.” His voice sounded deeper this morning, more confident. There was something about the way his accent sharpened very, shaping it into something dirty that sent goose bumps up and down my arms. If this was anyone else, I would have questioned whether he was up to something, but this was Mr. Straight and Narrow. I was fairly certain he wouldn’t be ravaging me in a hotel lobby, or while meeting with the New York Transit Authority.
I knew he’d be careful to keep everything between us strictly professional at work, but after last night, when he’d suggested he wanted to show me all the things he didn’t consider “gentle, or chaste or very proper,” the question of where we stood was still largely unanswered, and I was trying my best to let him tell me how fast we should move. One would think he would have wanted to start right away. One would think he would have even simply kissed me good night.
I looked at him expectantly as he slid his arms into his coat and motioned for me to lead the way. “Shall we?”
Halfway through the first meeting, we adjourned for a break. I felt pretty useless during these discussions about budget and public perception rather than the cogs and wheels of the actual structures themselves. But I listened, knowing the conversations that felt challenging right now were actually the ones I needed to grasp the most.
Still, even Niall seemed to be distracted, staring down at the same page of his agenda repeatedly, and twice needing to be nudged when called on to answer a question. He barely glanced my way, but there were lingering touches as I’d handed him a stack of papers. His calf rested a bit too comfortably against mine to be written off as anything but intentional.
In fact, his lack of focus was bordering on unnerving, and so I was grateful when he pulled me aside, asking if I’d mind sitting the rest of the meeting out.