“I think you’re right,” Will said. “What was it you said about repressed sexual energy?”
“Enough to power the whole bloody city, if you ask me,” Max said. “That’s where his real urban planning skill would come in—hooking himself up to the grid . . .”
Will laughed into his mug. “Well, it worked for Chloe and Bennett. A little boss, a ball-busting intern—”
“Niall is not my boss,” I said, with perhaps a bit too much conviction. It was like someone gathered up all of the awkward in the room, wrapped it up in a bow, and dropped it right in the middle of our table.
Thankfully, they were each polite enough not to acknowledge it. Instead they took sips of their coffee, straightened their silverware, and checked the time. Subtlety was not their strong suit.
“Okay,” I said with a sigh, unable to take their dramatic silence any longer. “I like him. A lot.”
Max’s enormous grin was back and God, just like his brother, so damn endearing.
“Now you’ve done it,” Will said. “This limey’ll never butt out. Might as well invite him to move in. Plan all your dates, your wedding. Name your children—”
“Just be patient with him,” Max said, ignoring Will. “He’s a tough egg to crack.”
“I’m discovering this,” I said. “He is not skilled in the art of the overshare.”
Max laughed and lifted his cup in reply. “He may not say much, but I can assure you that for every one thought Niall verbalizes, there are at least six running through his head. Been like that his whole life.”
“Great.” I dipped my head, staring at what was left of the foam floating at the surface of my latte.
Across from me, Max set down his coffee. “Allow me to be protective big brother for a moment though, yeah?”
I looked up and his expression softened when I murmured, “Of course.”
Even Will, who seemed to realize the serious turn the conversation was taking, leaned forward to listen.
“My brother is loyal to a fault, always has been. Whether to us, or his job, or a woman. I’m not sure how much you know about his divorce . . .” he said, letting the implied question—what has he told you?—hang in the air.
“We’ve talked about it,” I answered, wanting to be honest but not wanting to betray Niall’s fragile trust. “A little. I get the sense she was . . .”
How to finish that sentence?
“Well put,” Max said with a knowing wink. “I think his loyalty is why he stayed for so long. And why, I think in many ways, he feels like he failed . . . or should have done something different, left sooner. She wouldn’t have been happy no matter what, but that’s a tough truth to accept. He’s had a rough go of it this year.”
“Give him time. Might have to chip away at the outside, but I promise it’ll be worth it.”
Niall was at his desk when I walked in, and I closed the door behind me. His pen stopped moving midsentence, and he set it down, slipping off his glasses to look at me. His eyes moved from the tips of my patent leather pumps to the top of my hair. Heat curled in my stomach and slithered lower.
“Where have you been?” he asked. Not accusing, not upset. Just wanting to know.
“I had coffee with Max and Will.” When his eyebrows rose, I added, “They found me taking selfies in Midtown.”
“Did you have a good time?” he asked.
“They’re . . . nice.” Tucking my hair behind my ear, I added quietly, “We talked about you. He’s quite a fan, that big brother of yours.”
Niall’s smile curled one side of his mouth and he pushed back from his desk and stood, walking around to face me. I expected him to ask what we’d said, but he didn’t. He simply let his attention move over my face. I’m sure it was obvious that we’d talked about my feelings, about Niall and me together; I could feel how warm my cheeks were.
“How was your meeting earlier?” I asked, out of breath. I’d taken the elevator; it wasn’t from exertion. It was the nearness of him, the way he was looking at me as if he was reeling through every touch from last night. This morning he’d been so brusque, and with the intensity of his stare now, I was able to acknowledge without triggering an internal panic that Niall had seemed to be freaking out—as if fleeing the scene of a crime.
But had I misread him entirely?
Had he simply wanted it to feel familiar? Or had he needed to know that I was okay, that this was okay?
“It was good,” he said. “We’re very nearly done with our proposal.” His eyes barely strayed from my mouth.
I bit my lip, pulling in a nervous smile before saying, “You seem a bit distracted.”
Niall nodded, reaching up to carefully touch my bottom lip. “I’ve never seen you wear this color.”
He blinked, shaking his head in two tiny movements. “No. Not too red.”
Was this how I chipped away at the outside? By reminding him again and again that I wasn’t Portia, that I wanted him, and that it was okay to want me, too?
My heart hammering, I turned to the door and locked it as quietly as possible before turning back to him. Pulling my purse up, I dug inside it for my lipstick. I still had no real idea what I was doing, only that he was transfixed by the color of my mouth and I felt physically unwilling to redirect his attention.