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Tony held up his hands. “It’s my group policy, Niall. Per the rules I set forth verbally when Ruby started in my group, I can’t allow fraternization.”
“Since when?” I nodded to the door. “Was this rule set forth before or after you hired that one there?” I took a step closer. “Was this before or after you suggested I pull Ruby? Was this before or after you admired her t.i.ts, her legs?”
He blinked, swallowing nervously. “I’m not sure what conversation you’re referring to, but if you’ve been able to find it in writing, I’m happy to discuss it with you.”
I laughed dryly. “So you’ve been to HR, then.”
Tony closed his eyes, repeating, “Per the rules I set forth verbally when Ruby started in my group, I can’t allow fraternization.”
Seething, I told him, “You are a b.l.o.o.d.y joke. I hope Ruby sues your pockets inside out.”
If someone had told me only a month ago that I would meet a woman from the office, fall in love, and lose her all before spring truly arrived in London, I would consider the prospect ludicrous.
Ruby didn’t return to the office that morning, not even to clean out her desk. Her absence was a blaring void: no hint of her silly laugh, no flash of her playful green eyes. Even the interns’ office seemed subdued when I walked past. So as late as half past nine—after my blowup with Tony, and as my blood pressure seemed unwilling to return to normal—I could barely focus on a single task in front of me.
Will you not call me back? I asked her via text message. I’ve made a mess of this. I’m desperate to speak to you.
Productivity at work remained impossible after I hit SEND. I glanced to my mobile nearly every ten seconds, turning the volume up on the ringer as high as it would go. Normally one to leave the device in my desk drawer when I went to meetings, I carried it with me, leaving it just at my elbow on the table. Short of showing up unannounced at her doorstep, it was my only connection to her.
Just after lunch, I heard my text alert, and startled like a madman, toppling a cup of pens on my desk. Hope bloomed, immediate and heavy, making it nearly impossible to breathe. It took no time at all to read it; my heart felt neatly punctured. Her message said, simply, Job hunting.
Typing furiously, I asked her, Darling, please call. Why didn’t you tell me what happened with Tony?
An hour pa.s.sed. Two, three, five. She didn’t reply.
I interpreted it as the dismissal I knew she’d intended and turned off my phone to avoid the temptation to plead with her in an unending string of messages. Unable to work, I paced the hall like a lunatic, ignoring Tony’s furtive, guilty glances in my direction and Richard’s lingering, uncertain ones.
Almost as soon as I set foot in the door of my flat, I moved to the office, dialing her number. It rang once—my heart was lodged in my windpipe—and again, and finally a third time before she answered.
“Hi,” she said, her voice small and thin.
Nearly choking on my breath, I managed, “Ruby, dove.”
I could immediately picture her wince when she replied, “Please, don’t call me that.”
I sucked in a breath, pain radiating through my chest. “Of course, I’m sorry.”
She didn’t say anything in response.
“I wish you’d told me about your conversation with Tony,” I told her, absently folding a small piece of paper on my desk. “Darling, I had no idea it had gone that way.”
“I was going to tell you away from the office. I didn’t want to cry there.” She sniffed, cleared her throat, and then fell silent again. Her chatty disposition was notably absent, and the loss of it ached as if a branch of my lungs had been dissected away, leaving me slightly breathless. Indeed, other than the occasional sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line, she was oddly silent; a part of me wondered if she was crying.
“All right, Ruby?” I asked quietly.
“I’m fine,” she murmured, “just going through some application forms.”
“Ah.” So my options were to talk to her while she was distracted, or lose this one connection I had to the woman I loved.
I told her about the fruitless dinner with Portia, and how in the end there wasn’t anything to discuss. I knew it as soon as I walked into the old flat. “I’m sure it felt awful for you.” I pressed my palm to my forehead, murmuring, “I can’t talk through all of this on the phone. I have so much to say.” I love you. I’ve been a fool. “Ruby, please just come to dinner.”
“I can’t,” she said, simply.
So, to keep her on the line, I spoke to her until I ran out of subjects, feeling b.u.mbling and lost for the first time with her. I described my day of distraction, the walk home, the bland dinner I planned to prepare. I told her about my conversation with Max earlier in the day, that Sara was expecting a second baby already. I kept talking until I ran out of the normal subjects and babbled on about nothing: stocks, the new construction down on Euston Road, my relief at the lessening rain.
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