My phone buzzed as I ducked my head to fit through the door on to my flight, and I glanced down to see who it was.
Instantly, pain exploded above my eye and pulsed along with my heartbeat.
“Ow. Fuck,” I muttered, rubbing at the spot I’d just knocked against the hard metal of the airplane’s exterior. Day after day of eating dirt and turf, compliments of some of the biggest guys in the world, and I was going to end up in the hospital from something as simple as boarding my flight.
“Walking and texting,” a flight attendant said with a sigh, shaking his head. “Hazardous to your health, I tell ya. Just last week, I missed a step on the sidewalk in front of Bloomingdale’s.”
“Wow,” I commiserated. “That sucks. Did you get hurt?”
His voice was somehow grave and shrill at the same time. “I spent four hundred dollars in there after I fell into the sale sign! Four hundred dollars meant for things like eating and self-maintenance. I had to skip breakfast this morning, and my eyebrows are making a bid to become one. Trust me, it’s still hurting.”
I laughed at his tale of woe and decided immediately I liked him. I glanced up again to survey his features, noting he was groomed to the nines—even his so-called overgrown eyebrows—had plump, friendly cheeks, and blue eyes that sparkled.
I wonder if he’s my brother’s type?
Taking my life into my own hands, I focused back on my phone as I navigated the short aisle to my seat in the second row.
A text from my brother sat waiting for me.
Speak of the devil.
Denver: Did you make it on to the off-brand deathtrap yet?
Kicking my bag under the seat, I settled into the leather and typed out a response.
Me: Just sat down. And there were no flights left on any of the major airlines, so it was either this, FedEx, or you don’t see me.
Denver: RoyalAir sounds like a one-guy operation with a Prince Harry complex. At least FedEx is a global corporation. They probably could have fit you into their cargo bay. They must haul oversized loads occasionally, right?
Apparently, my brother was an airline snob. You’d think he worked for Delta or something. RoyalAir was actually a pretty nice, new-to-the-scene airline. Sure, their seats could’ve been a little more accommodating for a man my size, but it wasn’t like the major airlines had La-Z-Boy recliners.
Me: Ha. Ha. I’m laughing so hard my sides hurt. And to think I was going to set you up with a cute guy I just met.
Denver: My straight brother picking out men for me? Jesus take the wheel. Tell me, how big was the pool of gay men you selected him from today? Negative one?
Me: So what if he’s the only potential mate I met for you today? He could be great. You don’t know.
Me: Fine. But you’re missing out.
Denver: Sweet baby kittens. You’ve bonded with the random gay man.
Me: He’s funny!
I shifted and squirmed, trying to make room for my shoulders in the miniature-sized airplane seat and pulled my Beats headphones up from around my neck to settle on my ears. Candy bars, shampoo, even horses—all cute when you make them little. Seats that I had to be confined to for more than five minutes? Not so much.
Even the first-class seat struggled to accommodate the width of a professional football player like myself, but a few hours of discomfort was worth the end result—three blissful days with my family before the grind of the upcoming Mavericks season took over my life.
Once the season started, I never even considered flying home for fear of losing focus. It was too easy to slow down and slip into a different frame of mind when I set foot in Boone Hills. An hour and a half south of Birmingham with a population of three hundred, it put the small in small town and the simple in simple life. Frankly, it was everything I loved in life—homey, personal, completely feel-good in its eccentricities—but it wasn’t conducive to maintaining the mental focus required to lead a football team at the professional level.
My phone vibrated against my thigh.
Denver: Funny ha-ha, or funny-looking? I’m still young and beautiful. I’m not ready for someone with a “good personality” yet.
I smiled to myself and shook my head as “Rockstar” by Post Malone featuring 21 Savage pumped into my ears.
Me: Maybe you’re right. Remotely hooking you up with someone probably isn’t a good idea. You sound a lot less likable via text.
I smiled as I thought about how true that was—in person, my brother Denver was remarkably pleasant. Truth be known, he was one of my favorite people in the whole world, and I didn’t see him nearly enough. He was still in college at the University of Alabama, and my schedule with the New York Mavericks was extensive and long. My trips home were few and far between, and this would be the last one I’d be able to make for a while. Hell, I’d spent last Christmas in a cabin in the Catskills with my coach, his family and closest friends, and several other players, so dedicated was my vow to avoid hometown comfort during the season.
“Excuse me,” I heard from my immediate right. A guy in his early thirties with a flashy suit and perfectly gelled comb-over hadn’t even made ass-to-seat contact, but he was already flagging down the flight attendant. I couldn’t see Mr. Bloomingdale’s behind the line of people still boarding the plane, but based on the snap of the stupid fuck’s fingers in impatience, I immediately felt sorry for the funny flight attendant.
Darkness enveloped me as I closed my eyes, pushed my head back into the headrest as best as I could at my height, and tried to let the music drown out everything else. 21 Savage rapped about having a twelve-car garage despite only having six cars, one of my favorite lines of the song, but the annoying hum of the guy next to me pulled me out of the moment and made me crack an eye—just barely.
“Forty percent vodka, fifty percent cranberry, ten percent lemon juice. Don’t try to cheapen it with less vodka, okay, sweetheart? Take care of me here.”
Jesus Christ. I guess it’s Merry Douche-mas in July to us today.
I closed my eyes again without looking over, not at all interested in the play-by-play of this self-acclaimed sweet talker.
But a female voice was not what I was expecting, especially one that vibrated in my chest like it was physically scraping against me. It had a delicate rasp, almost like she was losing her voice to sickness, but the end of every word came out soft and smooth like silk.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have any lemon juice on board. I’d be happy to make the cranberry and vodka for you, though.”
Simple and to the point, she did her best to remain professional, and like some kind of hypnosis, it pulled my eyes open again—both of them.
Her skin was like a glass of hot chocolate, the mocha swirling smoothly over the surface. Its only imperfection was a tiny smattering of dots—brown freckles sprinkled like cinnamon across her nose—and the deep brown of her eyes worked to look warm despite the dickhead they were pointed at.
Je-sus, she’s pretty.
All of a sudden, comb-over in 2B’s use of sweetheart made a lot more sense. He was on the prowl.
“Fifty-fifty then, babe. But you should really talk to your superiors about catering to your VIP passengers more specifically,” the guy said with a derogatory undertone. Like somehow making her feel less worthy was going to get him somewhere.
I couldn’t seem to pull my eyes away from her face to look at him, but I had a feeling if I’d been able to, the smug bastard would have looked like he actually thought he could talk to her like that and get in there.
In my experience, being a condescending asshole and calling women you’d never met babe never helped in the flirting game.
She smiled minutely—an expression I could tell was forced but I suspected he couldn’t—and gave the asshole what he wanted, if only in an effort to get the fuck out of there. “No problem, sir.”
“It’s Luke,” the guy said, giving her his name but not bothering to get hers. She nodded, her creamy pink-tipped fingernails squeezing into the leather of the headrest in front of us reflexively.
Somewhere deep in my mind, I had a moment of disappointed reflection that I wouldn’t be seeing any more than necessary of the beautiful woman in front of me this flight. Lucas Dickhead Doucherson had made sure of that.
Her eyes came to me then, and I pulled my headphones off, settling them on my neck to better hear her as she spoke. “Can I get you anything, sir?”
I glanced down at my phone to check the time. It was already 7:55 p.m., and we were supposed to be wheels up in ten minutes. Anything I asked of her would take too much of her time before takeoff.
I searched out her name tag, finding it a few inches down from her shoulder, nestled in the crisp white fabric of her shirt, and then met her eyes, trying to make my face as remotely friendly as possible, and shook my head. “No thanks, Catharine. I’m good for now.”
She smiled again, this time big enough to empty the flesh from the dimples in her cheeks, and her nonverbal gratitude ran through me like a current.
God, why does her smile feel so personal?
A quick glance to Luke told me he was completely oblivious to the fact that I’d just addressed her by her actual name and received a warm smile in return.
Some fools can’t be taught.
I forced myself to put my headphones back in place and close my eyes as she walked away, but my imagination finished the image for me as clearly as though I’d actually seen it. The sway of her hips, the lines of navy that seamed together her hose along her calves, and the perfect sweep of her dark hair across her back—all of it burned on my eyelids and trickled into a special bank of memories.
A place behind a lock and key—and then a coded keypad for good measure—where I kept inappropriate things hidden away from public discovery.
That’s right, Quinn. Take that sexy little montage to the grave.
I’d done this flight—on my way home to Boone Hills—what felt like a thousand times, usually via one of the major airlines and out of Newark rather than JFK, but it was all the same. Usher herd of people on to plane as quickly as possible, cram bags into overhead bins, cater to those of us lucky enough to be in the front of the plane, go over a bevy of safety information that no one paid attention to, and then push back from the gate to get the show on the road and the big metal bird in the air.
Catharine was prettier than most of the flight attendants I’d encountered in the past, but she was also just another face in the sea. After this flight, I’d never see her again. Frankly, once the season started up, most of the faces I’d see would be ugly, male, and coming at me at full speed with every intention of breaking my body.
Ah, football. Good times.
My playlist rolled on to a Selena Gomez song, and I felt my cheeks pull up into a smile. My teammate and one of my best friends, Sean Phillips, was always stealing my phone and adding random music to my playlist. Funny thing was, I normally liked everything he added. Britney, Selena, Beyoncé, Kesha, Lady Gaga—they were all empowered women. And I got a certain kind of excitement out of women who knew their own worth. Not that I shared that kind of information with Sean—he wouldn’t keep adding to my music collection if he thought I was actually enjoying it.
I felt a presence return and tensed. A cramping, tight chest and clenching hands—symptoms of want and curiosity—tried to sway me to give in to the urge to take a peek.
Was Catharine back with the drink? Would she smile my way again? Would I be able to keep my loose tongue from running away and saying something embarrassing?
It was serious battle, a war waged with nothing but desperation and self-preservation on my side, but I managed to keep my eyes closed. Just barely.
I did turn the volume down on my music so I could listen in, though. I was only fucking human.
The voice I heard surprised me. It was hard, to the point—and it definitely wasn’t hers.
“Your drink, sir.”
I opened my eyes then, seeing Mr. Bloomingdale’s leaned over, the offensive drink offered up to Luke like a trophy. My brother’s almost-boyfriend was the picture of poise, his face fixed into an almost-smile—but make no mistake, there was nothing friendly about it.
Just as I’d suspected, I wouldn’t be seeing too much of the pretty flight attendant from before. Even through my disappointment, I was glad for it. Glad she had the intelligence to avoid a guy like Luke despite his obvious money, and glad she had friends who were willing to help her do it.
I could feel my face settling into a grin just as the male flight attendant looked over—and winked.
My smile deepened.
He looked surprised for the barest hint of a moment, and then turned to hustle back up to the front of the plane. He spoke rapidly to Catharine, and I watched raptly, unable to stop myself. Her eyes flicked up in surprise and landed right on mine.
All I could do was hold them.
Moments passed as time slowed, her surprised gaze opening up a virtual tether between us where she tried to infiltrate my mind and I tried everything I could think of to be superhuman enough to let her.
Fuck being only human. I could Clark Kent the shit out of this moment and open up my mind.
Just as concentration started to feel a little more like constipation, my abilities to let her mind meld with mine officially limited by the constraints of something called science, the speaker crackled, breaking the connection. Released from her grasp, I moved my scrutiny to the male flight attendant standing at the front of the plane, right in front of the cockpit doors, an old-style beige phone to his ear.
“Hello, my name is Casey,” he announced over the speakers, his voice about two-hundred percent cheerier than it had been while addressing my seatmate, Luke. “I’d like to be the first to welcome you to RoyalAir Flight 2107. If you’re going to Birmingham, you’re in the right place. If you’re not going to Birmingham, you’re about to have a really long evening.” He chuckled into the intercom as Catharine moved out of the galley and to the center of the aisle and turned to face the entire plane, ducking her head as she turned back to glance at him. Her long, dark, smoothly curled hair covered her face like a curtain.
“With the help of lovely Catharine, we’d like to tell you now about some important safety features of this aircraft,” he continued. Catharine smiled at us, her professional persona in place.
I had a moment of hysteria where I imagined she was smiling only for me, from the center of my bed.
Holy Christ, I said with a mental slap as I started to undress her in my mind. You better get your shit together, Quinn. Stop being a pervert.
Quickly, my daydream followed orders, pulling her shirt closed and doing up the buttons. But my mind was a rebel, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it to refasten the last button.
Poor Catharine would forever be sporting a hint of cleavage in my mind.
Goddamn, I’m an asshole.
Really, though, fantasizing about random women was a reality thrust upon the male gender by biology. The Quinn in my pants was always ready to rut—a genius plan by our creator to ensure the survival of the race.
But male-female interaction wasn’t always that simple, and P didn’t always stand for penetration.
“The most important safety feature we have aboard this plane is…the flight attendants. Treat them well, and you have a much better chance of getting out of this flight alive. Please move your attention to the pretty one in the front of the aircraft now.”
Catharine smiled toward us, a hint of blush covering the mocha hues of her cheeks at the mention of being pretty.
Jesus Christ. I was thinking about her like I actually knew her. Don’t get attached to the flight attendant you don’t plan on ever seeing again.
“There are five exits aboard this plane, two at the front, two over the wings, and one out the plane’s rear end,” Casey continued while the female flight attendant—I rolled my eyes at myself… Good try, Quinn, but just because you don’t use her name in your thoughts doesn’t mean you’re good to go—used two finger motions with both hands to gracefully point out the exits. “Please take a moment to look around and find the nearest exit. In the event that the need arises to find one, trust me, you’ll be glad you did, even if it’s the one in the rear.”
This was their stand-up routine, a thing they did on a regular basis to liven up the mundane. I smirked to myself.
My pregame routine was legend among my teammates, gossiped about on tabloid sites, and a staple of the unorthodox way I went about life.
Kindred personalities, Catharine and I.
Oh my God, Quinn, stop. This is not a dating show.
“We have pretty blinking lights on the floor that will blink in the direction of the exits. White ones along the normal rows, and sparkly red ones at the exit rows.” Casey’s voice pulled me from my delusion.
Catharine giggled and offered a smirk toward her coworker as she pointed toward the lights, before grabbing a prop oxygen mask from an empty seat and holding it up for everyone to see.
I choked on my own saliva. Good God, that laugh. It was so perfectly awkward.
“In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, the baggy thing that Cat is holding will drop down over your head. You stick it over your nose and mouth like she is doing now. The bag won’t inflate, but there’s oxygen there, I promise.” He grinned. “If you are sitting next to a small child…” He moved his gaze very pointedly to me and emphasized, “or someone who is acting like a small child, please do us all a favor and put your mask on first.”
I chuckled and nudged Luke with an elbow. “I’ll get yours right after I do my own, okay, buddy?”
His eyebrows shot together. “Do I know you?”
The question wasn’t completely out of the blue. As a professional quarterback for the New York Mavericks, I got recognized all the time. But this guy looked like he knew as much about football as I did about knitting—not fucking much.
“I doubt it.”
Catharine smirked discreetly, the corners of her lips curling up in such perfect synchronization with my own that I nearly felt it, and tucked her head down to put her prop away.
“If you are traveling with two or more children, please take a moment now to decide which one is your favorite. Help that one first, and then work your way down,” Casey added as Cat switched out the oxygen mask for a safety pamphlet.
She held it in front of her body and then started to teasingly use it as a fan, smirking as she did.
“In the seat pocket in front of you is a pamphlet about the safety features of this aircraft. I usually use it as a fan when I’m having my own personal summer, just like Cat is demonstrating for you,” he said with a soft chuckle. “Please take it out and play with it now.”
“There is no smoking in the cabin on this flight or in the lavatories. If we see smoke coming from the bathroom, we will assume you are on fire and then put you out. Don’t worry, this is a free service we provide, and we’re experts at keeping the spray of the fire extinguisher off of ourselves,” he joked, and Catharine nodded toward us with big, amused eyes.
“In a moment, we will be turning off the cabin lights, and it’s going to get really dark. If you’re afraid of the dark, now would be a good time to reach up and press the yellow button. The yellow button turns on your reading light. Please don’t press the orange button unless you absolutely have to. The orange button is your seat ejection button.”
I glanced up to see the orange button was, in fact, the flight attendant call button.
A soft chuckle left my lips. I guess I’d been wrong. This flight was different. These two were a nice change of pace from the usual dull flights I’d become accustomed to.
“I can say on behalf of myself, Cat, and the rest of our crew, we’re glad to have you on board. Thank you for choosing RoyalAir and giving us your business…and your money.” He grinned. “If there’s anything we can do to make you more comfortable, please don’t hesitate to ask,” he finished, smirked, and then winked toward us as he added one last sentiment, “but ask Cat first.”
Every passenger on the plane laughed, and then, surprisingly, gave the dynamic duo a round of applause.
Shit. Even I was laughing and clapping. It was rare to keep a plane full of New Yorkers happy, much less get them to actually listen to the safety instructions.
I watched as Cat and Casey did their final checks before strapping themselves into their jump seats at the front of the plane, and then I grabbed my phone to send my brother a final text.
There was one from him already waiting for me from our earlier exchange. Somehow, I’d missed it. I blamed the douchebag sitting next to me, but my mind said otherwise, whispering, you were too distracted by the pretty flight attendant.
Denver: That’s because you can see my charming smile in person. It takes some of the edge off.
Me: I guess it’s good that I’ll see you in person soon, then. You can remind me why I like you. About to take off. Should be there in about 2.5 hours.
“Good evening, this is your captain speaking. Thank you for choosing to fly with RoyalAir tonight. We are pleased to have some of the best and most professional flight attendants in the industry, but as you can see, none of them are on this flight…”
Cat smirked and Casey rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t hide the hint of a smile on his lips.
“We’ll be taxiing for the runway for another two minutes,” the pilot added, “and then our takeoff toward Birmingham will begin. Please sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”
After one last look at Catharine, I decided to do just that. Closing my eyes and settling into my seat, I shut out the world and let myself look forward to heading home—even if just for a little while.