FLIP HAD toggled his phone screen on and off so many times that the battery had run down even though it was still plugged into the charger in his armrest. That didn’t stop him from pressing the button again, scanning his thumbprint, and reopening the same message he’d been stewing over for the first two hours of his seven-hour flight from Toronto to Paris.
You are cordially invited….
He reminded himself he was too well-bred to sigh.
Just in time too—the flight attendant trundled by with his cart of champagne and spirits, and Flip would’ve hated to be maudlin. God forbid he evoke pity. His great-grandmother would turn in her grave.
“Your usual, sir?” Brayden asked with characteristic cheer.
Flip wouldn’t have admitted it to a tabloid, but his mood lifted too. “Yes, that would be lovely.” A thought occurred to him. “Perhaps a double? I’m feeling self-indulgent.” An extra helping of Macallan would do him far more good than a gusty exhale.
Brayden grinned, showing off a deep dimple that measurably improved Flip’s mood. “My kinda guy.” He poured the drink and set it on Flip’s tray table with a serviette. “Would you care for a snack as well?”
His laughing blue eyes twinkled as he said it, perhaps because Flip had guiltily asked for the same snack on every flight they’d shared—twice a month for the past six months while Flip was setting up the office in Toronto. Around him, other passengers picked at the cheese-and-fruit plate the airline deemed as appropriate snack fare in first class, but….
“Yeah, silly question, I know,” Brayden said before Flip could ask, and he stealthily delivered three packets of economy-class peanuts to Flip’s tray. “The heart wants what it wants.”
Flip’s lips twisted into an involuntary smile. “You take good care of me.”
“You’re easy to please. I like that in a man.” If only that were true. Brayden provided a hot towel for Flip to wash his hands. The little things made flying first class a worthwhile expense. “Do you need anything else at the moment?”
Flip shook his head. “Thank you, Brayden.” High-class booze and a couple hundred bags of peanuts. He was set for an hour at least.
“Send up the Bat-Signal if you change your mind.”
Flip absolutely did not watch as Brayden rolled his cart down to the next row, but he imagined it in great detail—another harmless indulgence, like his second helping of Macallan. Anyway, it kept him from brooding on weightier topics.
Almost automatically, he flicked his phone screen on.
You are cordially invited to the Night of a Thousand Lights hosted by His Highness Prince Antoine-Philippe of Lyngria.
Flip had originally intended to bring a date, of course. He could host a charity ball without one—if his parents hadn’t met at the same charity ball thirty-odd years ago when his mother was hosting, or if he didn’t mind that every introduction made over the night would sound like a singles ad. But Adrian had broken up with him when Flip refused to give up travel and work… or maybe Adrian had broken up with him when Flip hadn’t put a ring on it quickly enough or taken him on enough vacations in the Maldives.
Anyway, Adrian had broken up with him months ago, the ball was in less than a week, he couldn’t back out because it was the biggest royal charity in Lyngria, and the press would have him married off to six different people or suffering a psychotic break by Sunday.
He could’ve had his mother arrange someone, but that seemed pathetic. He could’ve asked his Lyngria-based bodyguard, Celine, whom he’d known since they were in diapers, but that seemed worse. And he could have asked any number of friends and acquaintances, except most of them weren’t single—and they’d do it anyway and have their names dragged through the mud for their trouble.
If only he weren’t completely pants at meeting people.
Days like these, he envied his cousin Clara, who didn’t have to worry about any of this nonsense despite her place in the line of succession. Of course, she was nine.
Maybe she could host next year.
Flip put his phone away again. He had a briefing and a subsequent press conference to prepare for, and the remainder of this flight plus his puddle jumper to Virejas to do it in. But if he started reviewing international policy now, he’d need an Ativan and a lot more of that Macallan to keep him sane for the next ten hours.
He cracked open the first of the illicit peanut packages and unfolded the entertainment screen to peruse the in-flight menu.
By the time Brayden came around to collect trash, Flip had found exactly nothing that he could convince his brain sounded appealing.
“Five hundred channels and nothing’s on?” Brayden asked sympathetically as he retrieved the peanut bags with gloved hands.
“I think I have decision fatigue.” Flip rubbed his forehead. He’d spent most of the past week doing the last round of employee evaluations, trying to decide who was the most trustworthy to handle the company. He wanted to sleep, but he knew he didn’t have the self-discipline to clear his thoughts; his mind was always too busy on these returns to Lyngria. “Choosing what to drink was the last straw.”
“Gotcha.” Brayden perched on the armrest of the empty seat opposite him. “Mindless but cute, or zany but riveting?”
Flip handed him the tiny remote, bemused. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d let someone schedule his life. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do right then, and if something could hold his attention, the flight would pass more quickly. “Rivet me.”
Flip was three episodes into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, deeply invested in anyone on the show realizing the girl was in the dog, by the time Brayden came around with dinner. He didn’t ask which meal Flip preferred—though he probably didn’t need to, since the in-flight meal options didn’t vary much—but he did ask, “Good choice?”
“That depends.” Pulling the headphones down around his neck, Flip met Brayden’s eyes. “How many seasons are there?”
BRAYDEN BID goodbye to his favorite guest at the jet bridge at Charles de Gaulle. He was polite—some would even say reserved—but he treated everyone well, and Brayden had a bad habit of tossing decorum to the wind in order to win a smile now and then. He couldn’t help it.
“Safe connecting flight,” Brayden said cheerfully, and Antoine Philippe, seat 3A, lifted his fingers in a wave and smiled as he left.
Joanna, the head flight attendant, elbowed him in the side when first class had emptied. “So he’s cute,” she whispered.
Brayden grinned as the business-class passengers began to depart, and varied his farewells between English and French. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” he told Joanna out of the side of his mouth. “My interest in 3A is completely professional.” It wasn’t even a lie—the man was good-looking, with his smooth amber skin and movie-star-quality smile, but Brayden had a policy of leaving work at work.
“Checking out his butt as he went by is a funny definition of ‘professional.’”
Brayden covered his laugh with a cough. She’d caught him there. “What can I say? Some days I love my job.”
Joanna shook her head minutely as business class finished disembarking and the main cabin passengers started their exit. “Where are you off to this time?”
“Lyngria.” A tiny country tucked between Germany and Poland on the Baltic Sea. In his three years as a flight attendant, Brayden had never been to a Baltic country, at least not beyond the airport. “I’ve got three weeks, but I don’t know. It’s not a big country. I might make my way over to Berlin or Prague.”
“You said that when you went to Madrid,” Joanna pointed out. “And Sarajevo. And Budapest. And Zagreb. Every time. ‘Oh, if it sucks, I’ll just go back to the last place I loved.’ And every time you love the new place even more.”
Brayden shrugged. “What’s not to love?” Every country, every city had a different vibe, a different culture, a different take on what made life worth living. He didn’t have this job to ogle hot rich guys. He was in it for the travel. “Bon voyage,” he added to a departing five-year-old who was hiding her face in her father’s shoulder. She waved shyly, and a pang hit him. He missed working with kids—not a lot of those in first class.
Deboarding finished, and Brayden and the rest of the crew completed their checks.
“One man left behind,” Luis said mournfully, holding up a stuffed animal that had been loved into ambiguity. “42B.”
Brayden took it while Joanna looked at the passenger manifest. “What do you think? Is it a sheep?”
Squinting, Luis proclaimed, “A capybara.”
Before their argument could devolve into further silliness, Joanna made a sharp noise. “They’re off to Lyngria as well,” she told Brayden. “Might be on your flight, if you make it off Standby. You want to play hero?”
Brayden clutched the maybe-opossum to his chest. “I accept the assignment.”
By the time he’d retrieved his wheeled bag, he didn’t quite have to run to make it to the next flight, but only because he had the luxury of flagging down a cart—he was still in uniform and with the possibly-panda, he was technically on official airline business—to drive him across the sprawling nightmare spiderweb of Charles de Gaulle.
He made it to the departure gate just as general boarding began and made his way to the counter. “Room for two more?” He waggled the dubious bear’s paw.
In the boarding line, the little girl who’d waved at him raised her head from her father’s shoulder. “Alain!” Well, damn—that didn’t do much to help figure out what kind of creature it was. She let go of her father and stretched out her arms toward Brayden.
“He thought you might get lonely without him, so he asked me to track you down,” Brayden told her in French.
The girl’s father looked over, startled at first and then visibly relieved. “Thank you, monsieur. You’ve saved us some very difficult nights.”
Brayden waved off his thanks as the gate attendant checked the flight ability. “You’re in luck—one seat left, in business class.”
Brayden waited for the paying passengers to finish boarding, and then he wheeled his suitcase down the jet bridge. Just two short hours and he’d be on the ground in Virejas, ready for his next adventure.
This flight was too small for a proper first class. Brayden had seat 3B—a slight disappointment, since he wouldn’t be able to check out his temporary home from the sky, but he’d live. He rolled his bag to his seat and lifted it into the overhead bin—
Only to realize the man in 3A looked very familiar.
“Fancy meeting you here.” Brayden smiled and folded himself into the chair. So much better than the jump seats. “Hope you don’t mind slumming it with me for a few hours. I promise I can occupy myself.” He held up his phone as if for proof.
“Well, that’s fortunate—these puddle jumpers haven’t been fitted with the full arsenal of in-flight entertainment options yet.” Antoine gave him a rueful smile. “No Dirk Gently.”
Brayden couldn’t help but smile back. Joanna had a point—this guy was handsome. “Oh God, a travesty. I’ll take it up with management. But not for another three weeks.”
“Vacation?” Antoine inquired. “In Lyngria? In the dead of winter?”
Brayden shrugged. “Most of my family is going on a Christmas cruise, but I get seasick, even on the biggest ones. Besides, I’ve always wanted to check out the winter markets and the light festival. And I know it’s a long shot, but maybe I’ll even get lucky and catch a glimpse of the aurora. That’s bucket-list stuff, you know?”
“Fair enough. But I hope you packed your woollies.”
Brayden had a spare uniform, two civilian changes of clothes, a winter jacket, and some heavy boots. “I’m Canadian.”
Antoine smiled, a sly, knowing thing that reminded Brayden that as of twenty minutes ago, he was officially on vacation. “So you know about thermal underwear.”
Laughing, Brayden admitted, “Yes, but I’m too vain to hang up my Andrew Christians over a little cold weather.”
It was a perfect setup—Brayden could list five or six witticisms off the top of his head—but instead of choosing any one of them, Antoine briefly opened his mouth and then offered that reserved smile he used when Brayden asked if he wanted anything else, and said, “I see.”
Which was… weird. Then again, they’d just had a long flight, so maybe he didn’t want to talk. Brayden could respect that. He buckled his seat belt, ignored the little frisson he felt when Antoine handed over the buckle, which had been tucked under his leg, and thumbed open his phone to his travel guide.
By beverage service Brayden had forgotten all about his seatmate’s hot-and-cold act. He looked up as the hostess parked her cart next to their row, but she looked right over his head at Antoine. “Welcome home, sir. I hope your flights have been agreeable?”
That measured, practiced smile again. “I’ve no complaints, Bridget, I assure you.”
Bridget poured coffee and handed it over with one cream and one sugar. “We’re all looking forward to the Night of a Thousand Lights. My nephew is one of the charity scholarships this year—fine arts. He’s studying in New York.”
Antoine set the coffee on his tray. “That’s wonderful. He must be very talented.”
Obviously Antoine wasn’t just some ordinary rich guy. Not like Brayden’s uncle, who’d won the lottery this past April, but like, really rich—the kind of rich where you couldn’t ever spend all the money you had. And important too, if he was somehow associated with the Night of a Thousand Lights, whatever that was.
“We’re all so proud of him,” she gushed, but she caught herself—Brayden could see it in her face as professionalism took over and her tone changed. “Can I get you anything else, sir?”
Antoine shook his head. “No, just the coffee, thank you, Bridget. Oh, but I don’t know about Brayden?”
“Also coffee,” Brayden said too quickly, a bit embarrassed at being caught eavesdropping. “Thank you.”
“Cream and sugar?”
Bridget left them after that, and Brayden turned his cup this way and that, watching the liquid slosh up to the rim, lost in thought, until Antoine cleared his throat. “Well. Now you know my secret.”
Brayden looked up. “Secret? What, that you’re the sort of posh person who attends fancy charity balls and who people recognize on international flights? I figured out most of that on my own, actually.”
“Touché.” Antoine shook his head and peeled back the corner of the creamer. “I meant that I’m….”
After a few seconds, when he still hadn’t finished the sentence, Brayden took a sip of his own coffee. “That you’re…?” he prompted.
Antoine sighed and shook his head, perhaps deciding he didn’t want to talk after all. But then a curious expression came across his face and he looked at Brayden, eyes narrowed in assessment. “Three weeks in Lyngria, you said? Any plans in particular?”
FLIP COULDN’T quite believe his own nerve. Then again, he’d been raised to weigh boldness and caution, and perhaps he’d been afforded a rare opportunity. He’d be a fool not to take advantage.
“You see,” he went on, when Brayden confirmed that he had no particular agenda, “you might have heard I’m hosting an event later this week. The Night of a Thousand Lights?”
Brayden’s generous mouth twitched in an aborted smile. “I think I heard something about that. Going to be on national TV and everything.”
Well, the crown owned the national TV station, so yes. Flip cleared his throat. “I find myself in the unenviable position of playing host without an escort of my own to pull me away when conversations become tedious.”
Brayden had been sipping his coffee, and he spluttered a bit and reached for his napkin. “Uh, when you say escort—”
Damn North American euphemisms anyway. “I meant a date,” Flip clarified quickly. “Not the other sort.”
“A date, huh? To a fancy dance?” He licked his lips, chasing away a stray drop of coffee. “To be clear, are you asking me?”
Flip nodded once and resisted the urge to wipe his palms on his suit pants. Why was it suddenly so warm in business class? “Yes, I—if you’re still available.” As though Brayden could have made plans in the three minutes since the conversation had begun, but Flip felt as though he owed the man a graceful exit. “I know you’re only in town for a few weeks, but I would enjoy your company, and your presence would shield me from a number of well-intentioned matchmakers. I would, of course, take care of all the details.”
“Details?” Brayden echoed. “I, um. I’m flattered, and actually, rescuing you from people who want to bore you to tears sounds like it might be fun, but I definitely didn’t bring a suit, and I imagine this kind of event has a strict dress code.”
“Black tie,” Flip admitted as Brayden winced. “Don’t make that face. It was white tie last year. This was a major concession on the part of the royal tailor.”
“That is not a real thing.”
It was, but Brayden likely wouldn’t believe it until he met the woman. “If you’re amenable to an evening of dancing and canapés, I will of course provide a suitable ensemble, including access to the royal tailor.” Bernadette would love to get her pins on Brayden’s figure. “No strings attached,” he added in an uncharacteristically desperate bid to secure Brayden’s agreement.
“Dancing and canapés and a free tux,” Brayden mused. “That does sound pretty awesome.”
Flip’s spirits lifted. “So you’ll come?”
He realized the innuendo too late, but Brayden took pity on him and didn’t comment. “Yes,” he said and held out his hand. Flip shook it eagerly. Brayden’s grip was strong and sure. “It’s a date.”
Oh bollocks. It really was.