She shrugged. “Nothing,” she mouthed back, her tongue peeking out between her teeth with the single word.

She knew. She had to know what that tongue did to me. So soft and pink and teasing.

I tore my eyes from her and back to the woman leading today’s discussion on hurricane disaster relief budgeting. All around the room, eyelids drooped or hands doodled on notepads. For my part, I’d found the meetings all week predictably intense but fascinating. I loved my job, loved the topic of disaster preparedness and the details we had come together to scrutinize. I enjoyed work in a way I suspected many of my colleagues didn’t: it was my escape, my passion. So it threw me somewhat when I found my eyes wandering to the clock, my mind drifting to Ruby and what would happen between us tonight.

We had no meetings, no social obligations. From 1700 until the following morning, we had nothing but time . . . together.

With Portia, we’d had all the time in the world, eleven years’ worth. And yet, even in the beginning, more time in each other’s company was never something either of us particularly yearned for. Everything felt more important than having lunch together; even something as simple as a few hours side by side watching television was always passed up in favor of working independently or catching up on odd projects. But Ruby seemed to practically vibrate at the prospect of a handful of hours alone—with me.

Clearly what had happened over lunch was an admission that we both needed to move forward, away from the flirtatious games we enjoyed during the day into something more personal and intimate at night.

I simply didn’t know how well I could do it. I had little practice being forthcoming about emotions, and even less experience being bare sexually with another person. I knew I’d made her come. I knew I could give her far more pleasure than what I’d done today. That wasn’t really what worried me. What worried me was knowing she would give me exactly as much as I wanted from her.

If I wanted to make love to her tonight, I could. If I wanted to feel myself deep in her throat, I could. If I wanted limits, I would need to be the one to set them. But did I truly want limits, or did I think I should want them?

My stomach cramped and I looked back to the woman at the head of the table. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ruby tilt her head and glance at me, and I suspected she was watching my every thought pass across my face. I was starting to believe she had a decoder ring and was the one person I’d known other than my brother and younger sister who could take one look at me and know just how much I was hiding.

She studied me briefly, her expression softening as she smiled, mouthing the words, “Don’t worry,” before looking down at her notes and then up at the moderator.

At once, my shoulders relaxed, my jaw unclenched.

Let go, her voice whispered in my thoughts. We’ll figure it out together.

We walked back to the hotel, and Ruby babbled sweetly about the meeting, the oddly warm weather, the band she’d been dying to see live that was in town. She talked to me about all the wonderful nothings I wanted to hear, distracting me from my own neurosis about the impending evening.

At the Parker Meridien, Ruby steered us to the elevators, down the hall, and stopped in front of the door to my room. Turning her green eyes up to mine, she whispered, “So. Decision time. Do you want to hang out with me tonight?” She placed her palms flat to my chest. “No pressure. I can go to my room and masturbate to a Ryan Gosling movie, and you can go back to your room and beat yourself up for not getting me topless, but the choice is entirely yours.”

I swallowed, taking a few calming breaths before giving her a kiss that started at the corner of her mouth and slid over to her cheek, then to her ear. “Yes, please,” I murmured.

“So,” she said, managing to stretch the word into at least three syllables. “Dinner out, or in?”

It took no more than three seconds for me to answer, “In,” and with a bright smile, she took my keycard from my hand and let us in, bounding across the room. She kicked off her shoes, jumping on the bed and rolling until her face was in my pillow.

“Dammit, they changed the sheets. This pillow doesn’t smell like you.” She flipped back over, hugging it to her chest anyway.

“I’ll make sure to have them leave the linens tomorrow.”

Then, in a Niall Stella voice, she said, “An excellent notion,” and nodded once crisply, bringing a smile to my lips. Smiling back at me, she reached for the room service menu off the bedside table and flipped it open. “What are you in the mood for?”

I leaned against the desk, watching her. Loving seeing her in my room, on this bed, so easy and comfortable in this role as . . . girlfriend.

Sitting down to unlace my shoes, I murmured, “Hmm. Maybe a burger?”

“Are you asking me?” She looked back down at the menu. “They have a few choices. Cheeseburger and fries?”

“Perfect. And whatever dark beer they offer.”

She chucked the menu to the floor and grabbed the room phone. I heard the quiet echo of a voice on the other end of the line and Ruby laughed, cupping her hand over the receiver. In a playfully scandalized voice, she said, “They called me Mrs. Stella.”

I smiled, slipping off my shoes. Mrs. Stella was my mother, or—once upon a time—Portia. “Mrs. Stella” wasn’t this vivacious creature sprawled on my bed with her skirt slowly inching up her long, slender thighs.