Ruby was sitting in the small break room with her friend Pippa when I went in to grab my lunch from the refrigerator. Her eyes met mine and she quickly blinked away, but a bright flush crept up her neck and into her cheeks.
“Hi, Mr. Stella,” Pippa replied, brightly. Too brightly. Had Ruby been similarly interrogated?
“Mr. Stella,” Ruby said, looking back up with a secret little smile. Her teeth bit down on the tip of her tongue and I sucked in a sharp breath, remembering the last kiss she gave me before we parted ways last night. Her mouth had tasted like the lemon candy she’d sucked on the drive from the airport. I cleared my throat and reached for the refrigerator door handle.
“Adjusting to the time change?” I asked, looking over my shoulder to her.
Pippa stared studiously at her plate of leftovers as Ruby’s gaze held mine.
I felt the air draw from my lungs and struggled to inhale evenly. Back here, in everyday life, the reality of us—that there was an Us—made every part of me seem to ache with longing. With her so close all day long, would I be able to focus on any of the work in front of me? Would I be able to focus on anything?
If I considered her features one at a time maybe she would overwhelm me less. Her eyes were too intense; they communicated to me that she was just as desperate to be alone as I was. Her tongue slipped out, dampened her lips. Her neck was long, smooth, and I imagined taking her to my place, kissing down the slope of that throat as I unbuttoned each of the tiny pearls lining the front of her—
“Um . . . Mr. Stella?” she asked, eyes widening meaningfully as she tilted her head toward my hand . . . which was still wrapped around the handle to the refrigerator door I’d pulled open. Cold air filtered into the room, against my warm chest.
“Ah,” I said, jerking into motion and bending to retrieve my salad. I reached for a fork from the drawer and hurried back to my office.
As I suspected, I could barely focus, and knew I needed to find a way to calm my frayed thoughts. This uncertainty wasn’t like me; it was disorienting. I needed to know what our schedule would be: Would she stay over at night? How would we be able to take things slowly physically . . . or was it already too late for that? Did I even want to anymore? At this point, sex felt like a formality. Everything we’d done felt infinitely more intimate than that, but as soon as I had the thought I knew that being with Ruby in that way would mean more to me than a simple next step in our physical relationship.
Did I want that? And when I did have sex with her, would I be able to maintain any sort of cage around my heart, in the event I wasn’t what she needed me to be down the road?
I’d assumed Portia was the love of my life, but from the first moment Ruby had stretched and kissed me with such bravery, I knew I’d been wrong.
My phone buzzed on my desk, pulling me out of my obsessive analysis: Are we doing dinner at my place or yours tonight? And before you answer that, remember I have a roommate and a small bed and am the worst cook in the history of bad cooks. PS: stop thinking.
Laughing, I replied, In that case, there is no other option but for you to come to my flat. I live alone, have a large bed, and am perhaps slightly more capable in the kitchen (only slightly; perhaps I will order takeaway).
Just outside my office, I heard a short clip of a cartoonish voice yelling, “Bottom!” and then the same cartoon giggles. A knock landed on my door immediately after.
Ruby stepped inside, smiling down at her phone. “Okay.”
My heart swelled at the sight of her again. “Okay?”
She closed the door behind her. “Okay I’ll come over for dinner, since you insisted so vigorously.”
Just then, I registered that the sound I’d heard outside my office was her text alert. “Was that . . .” I stopped, leaning back in my chair and smiling at her. “Did your text alert say, ‘Bottom’?”
She shrugged, all trace of her blush gone now that we were alone in my office. “Specifically, it’s your text alert. It’s the minions. From Despicable Me? The movie?” She shook her head as she stepped inside. “We have got to get you out more. Anyway, it fits. You have the best ass this side of the Atlantic.”
“ ‘This side of the Atlantic’? Does that mean when we were in New York you found an ass superior to mine?”
She pursed her lips, pretending to think on it. “I didn’t have a chance to do a very extensive survey, but Max’s friend Will is pretty fit and—”
I leaned forward, growling, “Finish that sentence, Ruby Miller, and so help me I’ll take you over my knee and spank your bottom.”
She threw her head back, laughing my favorite Ruby laugh. “I love that you think a spanking would be—”
Two sharp knocks landed at my door and Tony burst in, smiling. The smile froze and turned sour, and then slowly straightened as he took in the sight of Ruby leaning casually against my desk. She bolted upright, pretended to find something to pick at on the front of her skirt.
“Ruby,” Tony said, brows pulling together. He looked over at me, and then back to her. “How’re the Barclay Industrial friction calcs coming?”
Her blush was back, and her eyes fixated on the carpet. “They’re done, I just need to compose the email. Sorry, I was just catching up with Niall”—she caught herself—“Mr. Stella after the trip.”