“Then don’t push me away,” I begged her, taking a step closer. “Ruby, I should have told you how I felt that night we made love. I felt it then; I just didn’t know how to name it, or whether I trusted myself enough to believe it.”

She was shaking her head, eyes glassy with tears, and I could tell she didn’t want me to say it, but I needed to.

“I love you,” I whispered, urgency making my voice thin. “I am desperately in love with you.”

“I knew it at Portia’s. I felt sick being there. I don’t know why I went, but if nothing else it clarified everything for me.”

Ruby laughed, a little humorlessly. “It clarified things for me, too.”

“I want to. I really do. But I don’t know how to move past that feeling of humiliation and this deep, exhausted frustration. All of it: trying to figure out what you needed, trying to be everything for you in every moment. Then telling you I love you, hearing you say ‘you’re lovely’ in return, losing my job, and then—the worst—being told you were going to have dinner with Portia to discuss your marriage . . . I just still feel really raw.”

“I think I felt like I had to close this one door,” I tried to explain. “Or, maybe I just had never heard Portia sound so emotional and a very dark part of me was morbidly curious. But I didn’t consider your feelings really until I went, and it was terrible of me. As soon as I got there I knew there was no conversation to be had, no long-buried truths to be shared. I felt unfaithful to you just being there—”

I closed my eyes. It was shattering to see her like this. “I’m so sorry.”

“I know you are,” she said, nodding. “And I think I get it. But I can’t help it. I’m mad at you.”

Wiping my hand across the stubble on my jaw, I whispered, “Please let me in.”

Looking up at me, she said very quietly, “Is it weird to feel like I need to say no? Like, I need to make sure I can? I gave you time to work through every tiny hesitation. I tried to be understanding and patient, but as soon as you had the chance, you didn’t give my feelings the same consideration. I lost myself somewhere in the last six months. I told you to trust me to tell you where my limits are. This is a limit. You disregarded me, and so obliviously.” She dropped her voice, looking straight into my eyes, and said, “I thought that wasn’t the kind of relationship you wanted anymore.”

This was a knife to my gut and I pulled back, pained. And even though her lip trembled and her hands shook at her sides, even though I still saw every ounce of the emotion in her eyes that she had only a week ago, she didn’t take her sharp reprimand back, not with words or expression.

I could push her. I saw it now, and another man—a more aggressive man—may have stepped closer, taken advantage of the pain in her eyes. If I kissed her right now, she would kiss me back. I could sense it in the way she watched my mouth, the way she continued to shake.

Ruby still loved me as I loved her.

I could press my way inside, put my hands on her body, peel away her clothes and give her pleasure, taste her sweat. With my mouth and hands and words I may even have been able to convince her for a night that I truly did love her.

But she already was struggling with how much she’d lost the sense of herself in her feelings for me. I couldn’t manipulate her like that.

I pulled at my hair, completely torn. “Tell me what to do. If I leave, you’ll think I don’t feel for you. If I stay, I’m not listening to your wishes.”

“Niall,” she whispered. “I can barely be this close to you without feeling like I’d give you anything. It’s your turn to be patient.”

I swallowed thickly and stepped back, walking two paces without turning. “Come to me,” I said, begging quietly. “When you’re ready, I’ll be waiting for you. Let me catch up in my time spent longing if you need me to. Distance from you won’t extinguish what I feel.”

“Promise you’ll come to me when you’re ready. Even if it just means you’re ready to tell me it’s truly over.”

April was hell, but May was worse. At least in April I could replay, again and again, the memory of how Niall had looked coming to my flat, eyes wild and anxious. I could still hear how his voice sounded—so deep and hoarse and desperate—when he’d said he loved me.

But in May, I hadn’t seen him in a month, and it was nearly impossible to convince myself that his affection hadn’t begun to dissolve.

The Number of Days I Needed Niall Stella to Give Me Space: unknown.

I’d felt like the needy, frantic girl, waiting for him to have dinner with the ex and then decide if I was the better option. I’d never been so desperate for a late-night phone call as I was the night he was at her place for dinner, but when it came . . . I ignored it. Not until he realized what I’d known all along—that Portia had never been good for him, that in fact I was the best thing for him—did I realize that I was . . . really, really mad.

I knew I was capable of taking things in stride in a way that surprised Niall. It surprised people my whole life. But that evenness didn’t mean I couldn’t get hurt, be angry, feel betrayed.