“ ‘Are you imagining how far I could work my tongue inside you,’ ” she quoted in a British accent, “ ‘or how many of my fingers would fit?’ ” Resting her chin on my chest and gazing up at me, she said, “That, my darling, is perhaps the flirtiest and filthiest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
I held her gaze as I slid another twenty onto the bar to cover the drinks, saying, “Aw, dove, you can’t have a go at me for asking a simple question.”
She laughed pulling away and playfully thumping my chest. “Don’t play innocent with me. I’m onto your act. The calm stoic man in public, and behind closed doors, you’re wicked.”
I stilled, looking down at her. Was this how she saw me? I reflected back on the past week with her in this new, easy relationship and had to admit my behavior was so far out of character for me I could hardly recognize myself. And at the same time, falling into the role with her had felt nothing but natural.
“When you let yourself enjoy it?” she started, her voice quieter now as the crowd hushed to watch the band assemble up front. “You’re almost too much for me to take. I didn’t think men like you really existed.” Reaching down to wrap her fingers through my free hand, she said, “Tell me what you’re thinking right this second.”
I blinked away, swallowing my reflex to inwardly recoil at this type of question and reminding myself how important it was to her that we were open with each other. “I’m glad you made me come here tonight.”
She waited, clearly hoping for more.
“The last week, since we’ve settled into each other, has been lovely. Part of me worried initially that you viewed this relationship as only sexual.”
“I want a lot of sexual things from you,” she admitted, “but I want that because I want you, and this. Not because sex is the most important thing or I’m working through something.” She looked away, out over the crowd and to the stage.
It took me a moment to realize I’d tested her patience, that what I’d said had actually hurt her feelings.
“I don’t question that you genuinely care for me,” I told her. “I hope you feel the same keen fondness from me.”
She laughed, stretching to kiss my jaw. “You are so adorably proper, I can’t handle it.”
We drank our second round only a touch slower than the first, and by the time I ordered our third drink, I could feel the warm flush of alcohol in my blood. Ruby’s cheeks were pink, her laugh bursting readily from her lips as I told her stories of my childhood in Leeds: Max running home trouserless at fifteen after getting caught shagging the daughter of the chief executive of Leeds City Council in the middle of Pudsey Park, my oldest sister Lizzy’s wedding, where her chief bridesmaid spilled a full glass of red wine on her wedding dress and Uncle Philip got so pissed he fell into the wedding cake, my other sister Karen’s famous temper and her high school reputation as the best (unofficial) boxer in Leeds.
As the opening band—an absurd group of screeching men calling themselves Sheriff Goodnature—wrapped up, people started to gather at the bar again, refreshing their drinks before the main act appeared. Ruby swayed a little in front of me, putting her half-finished drink down on the bar and excusing herself to the restroom. I followed her into one of what appeared to be a number of small corridors, and met her back in the hall when she emerged, taking in the sight of her excited grin as I bent to kiss her.
“Couldn’t wait for me to come back?” she asked with a giddy flush.
With a little squeak, she pulled me back to the main room and deep into the throng of sweaty, pulsing bodies, all anxious for Bitter Dusk to appear onstage. The band members came out, plugged in their guitars, tested the mics, and ducked in and out of the backstage area. I could feel Ruby trembling excitedly against me and watched as she absorbed every move they made. It was too loud to speak to her, but even though the packed room wasn’t my scene and I was sure to complain later about the noise, seeing her this happy erased any reserve I felt. I could watch her all night and enjoy each and every second.
A hush fell over the crowd as the lead singer approached the microphone. He didn’t say a word, only looked behind to his bandmates and nodded. The drumsticks met in a sharp crack once, twice, three times.
And then the room exploded into noise.
It was drums and bass and raw guitar layered together in a way that could only be described as pure beauty. In an instant, it fed into my blood, made the hairs on my skin stand up. The music was wonderful: full and rich, clean bluesy guitar and precise drums with vocals that astounded me. I knew at the end of the night my ears would ring and Ruby would need to shout into my brain to be heard, but it was a kind of magic I’d never imagined: I felt the music as a physical presence all along my skin and inside me.
Ruby hadn’t said anything about what to expect, and maybe she’d assumed I’d done this before—but the truth was, I never had. I’d seen the symphony, the ballet, and endless musicals with Portia over the years in the London theater scene, but never had I experienced anything as visceral as this.
The lead singer’s voice in one song was smoke and rough pavement, and then in another was honeyed and smooth. The lyrics made my imagination do things I’d never expected, made things like regret and guilt, anticipation and relief bloom thickly in my chest. I felt oddly nostalgic for my wasted years of misery, and massively hopeful about what life could be, starting from this very point in time and onward. It was nearly too much, too intense with the lights bursting across the crowd, and Ruby lifting her arms over her head and singing along to every word of the song.