I carried her into the bathroom, her legs wrapped around my waist and lips on my neck, kissing, scratchy voice quietly confessing she’d never felt anything like what I’d given her just now.
Ruby shook in my arms, weak and overwhelmed, and I carefully lowered her into the shower, shielding her body from the pounding spray as I followed after her and lathered every inch of her skin. She braced her hands on my waist, watching me silently, with eyes full of an emotion I was suddenly terrified she would name aloud. Ruby’s eyes hid nothing: I knew, without a doubt, that she was in love with me, and that it wasn’t just the pleasure of my mouth just now, or the idea of my stoic reserve melting under her charm, but honestly in love. With me.
And if it were that simple, I would be making love to her right now, for I knew my feelings had quickly crossed over from initial attraction to a far deeper emotion. Love, maybe. But having stayed with Portia for so long under the pretense of what I sincerely believed was love, how could I trust my own definition? I was dedicated to her, yes. Loyal to a fault. But love? I wasn’t so sure anymore.
A memory burst through me, from the evening of my wedding, while we danced in front of every guest, and when I felt oddly effervescent, brightly hopeful.
“Why is it so alluring you’re wearing white? It’s like a secret.” I’d bent, kissed Portia’s neck. “Our secret.”
“What do you mean?” she’d asked, and if I were a smarter man then, I might have caught the edge in her voice, the look I would come to know so well that suggested I tread carefully.
But I was not a smarter man. “I’ve already had you, love,” I said. “I’ll have you again and again tonight.”
Portia fell still in my arms, letting me sweep her ’round the floor. The song ended, and guests broke out into applause.
I looked down at her face, steely and cold in the warm glow cast from the overhead tent lighting. “What is it?”
She smiled stiffly at me, stretched to kiss my cheek and said, “You just called me a trollop at our wedding.”
The beginning. Though it hadn’t always been like that, just mostly. I had proposed to Portia with a ring I’d bought in a sweet shop and she’d laughed so hard she’d cried and then kissed me properly in front of whoever may have walked by at that moment in Piccadilly Circus.
Our engagement was a memory that often got lost in the shuffle of all of the flat, emotionless ones that followed. I struggled to remember the brighter times whenever I spoke with Portia lately, held on to them with an admittedly strange fever for a man who had no desire to reconcile with his ex-wife. I replayed them because I needed to remember there had been a time when marrying her wasn’t only a clear expectation, but a rather lovely idea.
It was jarring to feel things for Ruby—crippling lust, admiration, worship, and a willing defenselessness—that I’d never before felt, even with the woman I’d married.
Guilt lingered in my chest—guilt that I’d wasted time, that I’d had more to give Portia than I’d bothered to. Guilt that I was thinking about all of this while I washed the body of the woman I was falling for.
Ruby left me feeling exhilarated, but I was terrified. Terrified of the speed at which it was happening, terrified that it wasn’t in fact fleeting.
I smoothed my hands over her breasts, her hips, her backside, and down each leg, washing her feet. My body stirred for her again, insatiable, and more than anything I was terrified that I’d already grown addicted to the way she looked at me, that I’d come to rely on her affection and devotion in a way I never had with Portia. That I knew I never would have, no matter how many years we suffered through.
I stood, turning Ruby into the water to let her rinse and unable to keep my hands from roaming over her curves, and—when she’d finished—guiding her hand to stroke where I’d stiffened painfully between us, bending and practically begging without words for her mouth on mine.
She stretched to kiss me, pulling me with one arm down until our mouths met beneath the water, her other hand moving sensuously along my length.
With her eyes squeezed closed and tiny whimpers escaping from her mouth into mine, her lips shook when she kissed me. I wouldn’t be able to distinguish tears from the water running down her face, but I knew I loved her when it registered how desperately I cherished seeing her so overcome. And the twin realization followed, with a single, stabbing heartbeat, that if Ruby’s affection for me ever cooled, it would break me.
That I was in love with Niall Stella was only a secret in theory. He knew it, I knew it. The fact that the actual words had yet to be said was nothing more than a mere formality. I saw the realization as it flickered across his face—expression adoring if not slightly wary—behaving as if I were a glass he might drop, then be left to pick up the pieces.
The sentiment hung in the space around us and it was hard not to feel even the smallest flash of irritation. My wild adoration, his almost constant wariness—I wasn’t sure which was worse. My silent admission was as good as graffiti across my chest, and yet he didn’t say anything.
So neither did I.
Niall had toweled us both off, and we’d fallen almost immediately into bed. His? Mine? I wasn’t even sure anymore. Did it matter? My orgasm had left me boneless, but I was still wide-awake.
“If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be?”
We’d been quiet for a while now, lights off and only the sounds of traffic, or the occasional bump or voice from down the hall to break into our thoughts. He’d assumed the position—stretched out on his stomach, pillow clutched tight—and looked up at me in the dark. I loved that I knew how he slept now. It was such an intimate thing, to know the way a person arranges themselves to depart at night, and a part of me delighted that I was one of the very few who knew this tiny, secret thing about him.