“Niall,” she said, stretching to kiss me, letting her lips linger at the corner of my mouth. “Ask.”

“Sex . . . isn’t an issue for you.” It wasn’t a question, and I wanted to close my eyes and vanish when I felt the hot flush of embarrassment rise over my skin. She was just so open, so comfortable being sexual.

She didn’t seem to notice, and didn’t even seem bothered by my blunt words. “It was at first,” she began. “I mean, maybe it still is sometimes. For the first year or so after I was a little . . . freaked-out. I slept with a bunch of guys, almost like, ‘Hey, universe, I choose to do this. And this, and this.’ But my therapist helped. What Paul did wasn’t really about sex. He was a mess. The times I’ve been with guys after him weren’t anything like that. I don’t feel like he broke me, but he did show me that some people are just . . . bad.”

“Do you think of it often?”

She smiled up at me and touching my lips with her index finger in a gesture that was at once sweet and maddeningly seductive. “I guess. It depends on what’s going on in my life, really.”

“But especially times like now, where I’m worried it’s going to make you careful with me, or hesitant to let go . . .” Her eyes searched mine, pleading. “Promise me you won’t be.”

I wanted to promise her this, but what she’d told me simply reinforced my desire to take this slowly. “I—”

We were interrupted by a knock at the door: our food had arrived. I stood, slipping on and buttoning my shirt to let a man with a rolling food-laden table into the room. He placed it beside the bed as I signed the ticket. The room ticked in the silence; the remnants of our conversation seemed to dissolve out of the air.

Ruby sat on the mattress, curling her legs beneath her as she lifted the silver domes off our plates. The door closed behind the waiter, and I sat beside her at the table.

“Starving,” she mumbled, pouring ketchup on her plate. She leaned over, kissing my cheek. She was relentlessly right-minded. “Thanks for dinner, hottie.”

And as she tucked into her meal, it was clear that, for the time being, our conversation had moved on.

Ruby fell back against the mattress with a satisfied groan. “Whatever happens tonight, just know you’re in competition with that cheeseburger for best in show.”

“I fear Burger Joint has a bit more experience with cheeseburgers than I do.”

Dinner had been good, but I hadn’t paid much attention, moving mostly on autopilot. I knew without a doubt that I didn’t want to move too fast, and given her honesty with me tonight, I wanted to be particularly careful with her emotions, too.

I moved the table away from the side of the bed and returned to her, maneuvering so that I lay beside her, hovering above.

“Good start,” she whispered, hands moving to begin unbuttoning my dress shirt. Again.

My fingers played with the button at the top of her silk shirt.

“Are you having second thoughts?” she asked, perhaps after I lingered too long on my action.

I shook my head, thinking. Her green eyes scanned my face, patient but intense.

“I suppose I just want it to be clear what we’re doing tonight,” I admitted at length. “I’m a bit thrown by what you’ve told me.”

Her forehead relaxed in understanding and she pushed her head back into the pillow a bit to see me better. “About Paul.”

“And your reaction after of running headlong into sexual relationships.”

A flash of hurt crossed her face but she hid it away quickly. “I haven’t done that in a long time.”

I smiled at this. She was twenty-three. A long time was such a relative thing. “I’m not trying to judge you, Ruby. Perhaps it’s a good reminder for me, as well, to take this slow.”

Looking into her eyes, I nodded. “I’m old-fashioned, I realize, but that’s something I do want to do only when I’m in love.”

Her face registered some unrecognizable emotion and she looked like she was going to say something but instead, she simply nodded.

I wanted to clarify my words, knowing how she may have interpreted them—that ours wasn’t that kind of relationship, that we weren’t headed in that direction—but how was I to know whether or not we would? In my lucid moments near her, it occurred to me that all of this seemed so impossibly easy. I wanted to enjoy her for whatever this was, and not expect too much. My default always seemed to be so bloody sincere about it all. Maybe this was just meant to be something lovely, and easy but, ultimately, primarily sexual.

Most people had several relationships in their lives; I liked the idea that Ruby could be something more permanent, but I’d known her just two weeks.

“I can practically hear you thinking,” she whispered, pulling my head down so she could kiss me once, sweetly. “Why does being alone with me in this hotel trip your panic button? No one is labeling this.” It was as if she read my thoughts. “I like you. I want to be close to you, whatever that means right now.”

Whatever that means right now.

The words liberated me, and I leaned into her touch, relishing the feel of her hands sliding up my neck and into my hair. I loved the tugging, the nails scratching. I loved the signs of passion that had always been absent from my romantic life.