My blood ran hot and I leaned closer, realizing as soon as she glanced at them that my hands had formed tight fists. “Well, that’s just it,” I said. “I think he may have thought rather too highly of her.”

“Bloody Tony.” Maggie’s expression cleared in comprehension. “And you were the distraction Tony mentioned.”

“Please understand,” I said, with urgency, “I wouldn’t ever speak to you about this matter if I didn’t feel that it impacted a professional decision on your end. Tony handled this terribly. As did I, I suppose. But in this instance, I worry that you would miss out on a wonderful student if you heeded Tony’s advice. Ruby is bright and driven.”

Maggie studied me, sipping her tea. “May I ask you a personal question?”

Swallowing, I nodded. “I’ve imposed on you simply by coming here. Of course, ask me anything.”

“Are you coming here because Ruby deserves a spot in my program or because you’re in love with her?”

I swallowed and struggled to maintain eye contact as I admitted, “Both.”

“It was, and then it wasn’t. I didn’t know she had feelings, and she admitted them only after I had some of my own.”

She nodded, looking past me at a line of students marching past the café. “I’d never expected you to ever speak on behalf of a girlfriend. I’m not sure if I’m more surprised or thrilled for you.”

“She’s not,” I managed. Maggie turned her face up to me, confused. “She isn’t my girlfriend anymore,” I clarified. “The loss of her job, the loss of her spot in your program, my inability to handle emotions all that well . . . I suspect in the end it made her reprioritize.”

“ ‘Reprioritize’? The ‘loss of her spot in my program’?”

“Tony thought it wise to send Ruby a copy of the letter he wrote for the application. Given that Tony is your former student and completing an engineering internship is generally a critical requirement for your consideration, she said she suspected she wouldn’t get in.”

“Niall,” Maggie began, setting down her tea. “Excuse me for being blunt, but please do not insult me by suggesting I would cast away a good student for having a crush at work.”

“Or for being young and unable to always put aside personal for professional. I appreciate you coming here, but the net effect of that was my satisfaction over seeing you actually in love with a woman, not help for Ruby. Ruby’s application is brilliant. Her other letters of recommendation are positively glowing. Her grades are perfect, test scores put her at the top of her incoming class. Her personal statement was one of the best I’ve ever read.” Leaning in, Maggie shook her head at me. “You see, her spot was never jeopardized by Tony’s letter. Do you think I’ve known a different Tony than everyone else these last fifteen years? He’s a brilliant engineer but a complete arse.”

“If I may drop the professionalism entirely for a moment?”

“Of course,” I said, feeling oddly hungry for her wisdom in a way I hadn’t expected. “Please.”

“You have known me as an instructor, and then quasi-mentor, and now as a trusted colleague. But I am a woman first, Niall. I was married at twenty, for five years, and then divorced. I married again when I was in my late thirties. With the distance of age and wisdom, I am able to tell you as gently as possible that your reason for this visit is wildly presumptuous. Ruby doesn’t need you speaking on her behalf. In addition to all of these accolades I’ve already mentioned, she’s also come to see me.” Maggie’s eyes smiled. “Quite amazing, that one.”

I felt my brows rise to my hairline. “Truly.”

“Ruby doesn’t need a knight in shining armor. She needs a partner, I suspect. She needs to know that she is seen. And loved. And, occasionally, the inner mechanics of how she is loved. She is an engineer. Show her how you are put together. Show her the bolts, and wires, and map of your thoughts when you can.”

I didn’t bother going home or to the office after my conversation with Maggie. The hour-long train ride was a form of torture. I wished for the gift of flight or the ability to teleport. What Maggie had said was true and so obvious: I had to tell Ruby how I felt.

I climbed the slate steps to her flat, hesitating outside the door for a hundred pounding heartbeats, before holding my breath, and knocking.

She opened the door, wearing a smart skirt and fitted sweater with a neckline that showed the top swell of her breasts. I can’t imagine what my expression was when I took her in fully, but when I searched her eyes, I saw a tenderness there that surprised—and thrilled—me.

I tried to draw a breath deep enough to feel calm, but couldn’t. “No.”

She looked over my shoulder, face tight with anguish. “Why are you here?”

She looked back to me, her eyes scanning my face. “Part of me wants to pull you in, and kiss you like crazy. I miss it, and can’t pretend I don’t still feel it.”