Mark couldn’t get on the plane. His lungs seemed to tighten, and his breaths turned shallow. The backpack hooked on his shoulders weighed him down, pinning him to the spot. He sent urgent messages to his feet. They refused to shift through the wide doorway of the bar in London Heathrow’s terminal three, where he’d been stuck for the past few hours.
He stared up at the bright lights of the vast airport lounge while a crowd of hot bodies flowed around him. A woman jostled past, her high heels clacking against the shiny floor and her handbag bashing his hip. The blow prompted Mark to stumble away from the exit, shoulders hunched. Being tall was no advantage when wanting to hide from the world, and he didn’t get far. As his flight was called for the second time, he slumped sideways against a sticky plastic wall panel, which hummed with the resonance of the announcement.
“Passengers for the delayed flight GL two four seven to Florence,” said the tinny voice. “Please proceed immediately to gate thirty-four. Your flight is now boarding.”
He squeezed his eyes shut, and sweat prickled his brow. If only the wait hadn’t been so damned lengthy, he wouldn’t have got into such a state. He’d been fine when he’d originally been due to leave. Well, almost all right. He’d calmed his jitters with a pint of pale lager and wasted an enjoyable few minutes admiring a hot guy in a Chicago Bulls jersey, who’d been sitting at a table about five yards off.
Ogling Mr. Chicago Bulls, as Mark had nicknamed this man, had briefly distracted him from his terror concerning the lecture he was flying out to give the next morning. Now, after too long fretting, tomorrow loomed ahead like an apocalyptic judgment day. If he could nail his talk on St. Bernard’s Abbey, it would help overcome his many demons, including the one who would be attending--Jerome Dugally.
Mark had seen the demon Dugally’s name on the list of delegates when he’d flicked through the conference program while packing. It’d pushed him onto the verge of having a full-fledged panic attack, which would’ve been the first in months. After he’d lain down and let the agonizing twist of dread float by, he’d almost canceled the trip but resisted. Just. He’d made it to the airport still unsure whether he could face the bastard whose searing review of his firstborn journal paper had slapped his doormat in a copy of the ArchHist Newsletter
two years ago. That’d been the tenth anniversary nearly to the day of his younger brother’s death, and the drubbing had shot his fragile self-confidence to pieces. He’d had issues with anxiety well before the Dugally incident, but it had triggered a decline.
Mark couldn’t slump on a sofa and find peace in this hectic concourse, and now his misgivings threatened to conquer him. The forthcoming conference--twenty-four months after Dugally declared Mark to be “another talentless rich kid playing at being an academic”
--was the first time he would be brave enough to present his work in public. He’d never met Dugally, but all he could picture was the bastard mocking him in front of a room of listeners. Bile clogged his throat, and the mingled scents of fry-ups and duty-free perfume made him feel sick.
Was he going to retch? He had to get out of there. Upon deciding to attempt a dash for the gents’ toilet, he looked up, and a flash of a red sweater caught his attention.
The guy Mark had admired earlier, Mr. Chicago Bulls, strode out of a bookstore and stopped in front of the departures board. He raked his fingers back through his thick chestnut hair, which gleamed dark gold beneath the lights. The abrupt about-turn he made--back toward Mark and the departure gates--suggested he could be on the same plane as Mark.
Mark made it that far.
He filled his chest with two calming breaths, dabbed his forehead with the back of his sleeve, and gently willed himself to move. It’d taken twenty-five sessions of public-speaking training and not a little therapy to get him this close to embarkation. He could get on the flight to Florence. He would
. All he had to do was stop thinking about Jerome laughing in his face and shift shoes that felt like ton weights toward the plane.
“Hey, Mark Mason, isn’t it? From the University of Swindon?”
At the deep American-accented voice, Mark jolted. Mr. Chicago Bulls had halted a foot before him, a black carryall slung over one broad shoulder. His square jaw and strong brow afforded a rugged air to pleasant features that might otherwise be deemed pretty, and his silvery-gray eyes glimmered with recognition.
“Um, er...yes, that’s right. That’s me.” Mark swallowed hard, mind boggling as to how he’d been recognized, even as he spotted a booklet tucked in a mesh compartment on the man’s luggage. The purple cover was familiar, the title revealing--The 21st Symposium on European Architectural History, Florence, Italy, 2014
Mark’s heart jumped. Not only were they on the same flight. They were going to the same event.
“I saw your photo on the conference website,” explained Mr. Chicago Bulls in answer to the confusion that doubtlessly etched Mark’s countenance. “I’m Doug. I work at the Central London Institute of History, though I guess you can tell I’m not a born-and-bred cockney.”
Despite Mark’s standoffish response, Doug clasped the hand Mark had raised on autopilot and gave it a firm shake. The contact sent hot shock waves gravitating to Mark’s core, and if the wall hadn’t blocked him, he’d have staggered backward. Up close, Doug oozed the sexy solidity of an athlete and stood about the same height as Mark’s six feet one.
“Er, are you okay?” Doug’s fine brows knitted into a frown.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Mark lied, suspecting his cheeks were burning bright as radishes. He smoothed his hair, conjuring his manners. “Ah, so the website explains how you know me.”
After he’d seen Dugally’s name in the initial listings, Mark hadn’t dared study the snaps of the other delegates online, though he’d drooled over one of the organizers who was pictured in the booklet, Francesco de Santis. Had he realized there was even better eye candy than Francesco on offer, he might have plucked up the courage to peruse his fellow attendees. Though probably not.
“I’m looking forward to your presentation on St. Bernard’s tomorrow,” continued Doug, radiating an easygoing air that would no doubt be infectious to anybody not wound tight as a snare drum. “I just read your abstract. It’s pretty rare to see an architecture student get out there in the field and use archaeological methods. You’re pushing the boundaries.”
“Thank you.” Mark attempted to look scholarly rather than bilious. “Are you giving a talk, Doug?”
“Yeah. I’m first up in the session on Wednesday. Not finished writing the thing, though.” Doug’s confession tugged a grunt of empathy from Mark. Like all PhD students, he’d had last-minute rushes with assignments in his time. He’d not take such a risk on this occasion, though for better or worse, they were currently both in jeopardy of not getting to Florence at all. The final call for their flight had started. “Hey, that’s our last warning. We’d better move.”
“Okay,” murmured Mark. Doug started off at a lick, and after a second or two, Mark followed.
He was still disoriented, yet Doug’s company soothed him more than he’d have guessed, and his stomach settled. Maybe that laid-back charm was
catching, though more likely, Mark felt better because he’d already dealt with the worst of his fretting when Doug had approached. His body felt looser, his legs shaky but moving freely. In terms of comforting distractions, it did no harm that Doug’s arse lived up to the standards of those brooding features. Snug denims showed off rock-hard buns to perfection, doing even better justice to Doug’s lower portions than the sweater did to his well-shaped torso. Mark couldn’t prevent himself picturing the powerful sinews flexing beneath the trousers. It took an effort for him to look up and confirm they were indeed walking in the right direction, passing down an airy corridor toward gate thirty-four.
Doug stepped onto a moving walkway, peeped back, and unleashed a ravishing smile. A fresh wave of concern hit Mark. Doug might want them to travel together. Mark’s recent record of making conversation with strangers--let alone blokes he fancied--wasn’t great. Still, it would be rude to snub the man, so he leveled at Doug’s side, clasping the rubbery handrail. They glided past images of the Eiffel Tower, the Bridge of Sighs, and the Acropolis.
“Hey there,” said Doug, seemingly pleased Mark had joined him. “So you’re all ready for your talk, I guess?”
Mark nodded. Ready as I’ll ever be.
“I was going to spend this evening working on my paper when I got to Florence,” admitted Doug. “Doesn’t look like there’s going to be much evening left at this rate.”
“No, not really.” Mark paused to concentrate on stepping off the human conveyor belt. Falling off and landing on his nose would’ve been more embarrassment than he could handle. “Bloody shame. I was hoping for some prep time as well. Just to read through things one last time.”
“Man, listen to us. We’re flying to Florence--Florence, goddamn it, home of romance and the Renaissance--and all we’re planning to do is hole up and work.” Doug chuckled self-deprecatingly, a delicious low rumble. “What a tragic pair, huh?”
Mark managed a grin. “Yup, totally sad.”
He was still beaming, his face muscles strained, when they reached the departure gate. A young couple in front of them showed their documents to the officials, and Mark scrambled to find his passport, which had slipped to the bottom of his rucksack.
“Boarding cards, please,” said a tiny brunette, her hair pinned back with blue-and-white slides that matched her uniform. Doug handed his over for her to scan. After she gave it back, he waited for Mark at the start of the tunnel that led to the plane.
This is it. I go home and admit I’m a failure...or I travel to Florence and meet my fate.
With a jerky thrust, he offered his pass to the woman. No turning back now. Nevertheless, instead of craving to flee, he found himself glancing at Doug and dismissing as wishful thinking the faint hope Doug fancied him. His gaydar had never been as finely tuned as he’d like it to be, but whether Doug swung his way or not, the sexy American would never be interested. The brunette handed back his torn card, and he joined Doug, smiling timidly. They started along the tunnel together.
“I haven’t reserved a seat,” said Doug. “Have you?”
Mark shook his head. “It was extra expense, and the uni wouldn’t meet it.”
“You guys in Swindon sound as mean as the Central London Institute.”
“Tell me about it! I ate beans on toast for dinner for the past month in order to top up the price of my apartment for this week, because it was more than the allotted seventy-five euros a night.”
“You’ve got an apartment? Sounds swanky.”
“It is. At least I hope it is.” Mark stepped smoothly onto the aircraft behind Doug--an action that’d before felt impossible happening with disconcerting ease--letting his mind fill with images of chandeliers and marble floors. “It was pricey, but when I saw it online, I just couldn’t help myself. It’s got frescoes--gorgeous paintings covering every wall.”
He’d beaten himself up about the cost as a matter of course and felt guilty about spoiling himself, though in this case, excitement had won out. He would most likely be sleeping alone this week as usual, but at least he’d be sharing a room with paintings of a butt-naked Apollo cavorting amid several similarly buff mythological types.
They squeezed their way down the gangway of the cramped Airbus, pausing numerous times to allow folk to slot luggage into the overhead lockers. Doug narrowly avoided being brained by a tumbling walking stick, and a woman strapping in a child swung back and elbowed Mark in the stomach. Mildly bruised, they fought through to the back, where a row of three seats remained free.
“Do you want the window?” asked Doug.
Mark hugged his backpack. He enjoyed looking out, though he didn’t like to say, and anyway, it was already dusk. There would be less to see at night, and he ought to concentrate on his work. If he could focus on anything
--even his fears concerning Jerome--with Doug jammed next to him, a prospect that grew likely. They wouldn’t be able to spread out. A further bunch of stragglers were making their way up the plane, so it was probable the final place in their row would be claimed. “Not if you do,” he answered at length.
“I don’t,” replied Doug. “I might want to get out and stretch my legs, so the fewer people I have to disturb, the better. You go for it.”
Doug edged forward, allowing Mark to press past. The front of his trousers brushed the curve of Doug’s taut arse, and all Mark’s blood seemed to rush from his face to his prick. He banged his knee against the chair arm in his hurry to put space between them, albeit not for much longer. This journey was either going to be the most excruciating or among the most pleasurable of his life. His money was on it being torturous.
Doug hunkered down next to him, their thighs touching. He smelled great, a fresh herby musk. Mark savored it, but his mouth turned dry. His attraction to Doug aside, ingratiating himself was important, because he sure as hell could use an ally now he knew Jerome Dugally was going to be at the conference. At this moment, however, he could think of sod all to say to the guy, save confessing how much he wanted to see him naked.
“I want to hear all about this apartment of yours.” Doug tapped Mark’s knee, as comfy as if they were old friends, and Mark bit back a squeak. “It’s got to beat the guesthouse I’m staying at. When I heard the flight was delayed, I called to let them know I’d be late, and apparently if I don’t make it before eleven, that’s it. They won’t let me in. I seem to have found the only Florentines who go to bed before midnight.”
“That’s a bit rough.” Mark glanced at his watch. Their flight had been due to leave soon after three, which was four o’clock Florence time. It was now almost seven, so eight o’clock in Italy. “You ought to make it. Just.”
“I hope so. I wish I’d stayed at the official conference hotel now, but...” Doug frowned, his first sign of unease. A sleepy-looking guy with a beard loaded in beside him, and Doug leaned close. His gentle breath on Mark’s neck set tiny hairs on end. “But my ex is staying there, and even though we’re still friends, I wanted some space.”
Doug’s ex. Mark’s throat went tight again, and he coughed, prompting Doug to draw back, which was all for the best. Mark couldn’t stop staring at Doug’s lips. They were slender, masculine, and preeminently kissable. “D-do you think you’ll be able to avoid her at the conference? What session is she in?”
,” said Doug softly, “will be at pretty much every session. He’s the chief administrator.”
Mark’s tension and hopes soared as one. “You mean, uh, Francesco de Santis?”
Doug rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah. Pretty name, pretty face. That’s Frankie.”
Doug and Francesco. The image of what had to be two of the most attractive guys in the combined universities of the world getting naked together filled Mark’s mind, and he stretched his eyes wide. Doug looked a little irritated.
“No, no. I mean, it’s okay.” Mark feared he’d come across as shocked by Doug’s sexuality. Now Doug seemed confused. “I’m, uh, into chaps too. I just had no idea, about...Francesco.”
“You’ve never met him, then.” Doug visibly relaxed, shoulders rolling back as he molded his large body into the seat. “He’d have been all over you, believe me.”
Mark took a moment to digest this information, nodding in what he hoped was a sage rather than a manic fashion while he crammed his luggage next to his feet. Triumph number one--Doug was gay. Triumph number two--in saying Francesco would be “all over” him, Doug had implied Mark was attractive. Or had he?
Maybe Doug meant Francesco hit on pretty much anybody. This seemed a more likely interpretation of Doug’s words. Mark was a well-groomed, preppy Englishman, okay to look at but unlucky in love. His sole serious relationship, with a linguist called Alan, had disintegrated during those black months a couple of years back--around the same time he’d received Jerome Dugally’s bad review--when his whole life had gone to pot. Since then, he’d had sex only twice, both fumbling one-night stands from which he’d scarpered pronto. Anyhow, he couldn’t hold a candle in looks to the dashing Francesco with his to-die-for Mediterranean charms.
Or to the American sex god regarding him with a gleam of what might have been interest. On the other hand, Doug could be wondering why he was sitting next to a person who’d doubtlessly passed beyond the realms of resembling a radish. Mark’s face burned hotter than the fires of hell.
The usual preflight information recited in a variety of languages afforded Mark a chance to collect himself. Once the safety instructions were done, Doug shot him a boyish grin, which made Mark feel happier than he knew he ought.
“Shall we order some wine once we’re in the air?” asked Doug. “I think we deserve it after that wait.”
“Hell, yes.” Mark blew his drooping fringe from his nose. Maybe the alcohol would dull his senses enough to stop him dwelling on Jerome Dugally. Or thinking about Francesco and Doug humping like rampant bunnies, their writhing bodies bathed in Tuscan moonshine. He gazed out at the rows of lights lining the runway. The grasses beyond were laid flat by the blast as the aircraft taxied by.
Doug picked up the menu and perused it. “I think I’ll get a sandwich too,” he said.
Mmmmm. I’d like to taste the meat in a Doug-and-Francesco sandwich.
Mark blinked hard. This was ridiculous. He was nursing a semierection, and his imagination had regressed to that of a horny teenager.
Stop it. Now.
The roaring engine hit a crescendo, and the pilot announced over the intercom that the crew should strap in for takeoff. On instinct, Mark gripped both arms of his seat. To his right, Doug’s large hand crash-landed over his. Mark yelped.
“Sorry.” Doug readjusted his position so the sides of their fingers brushed, much less intimate. “I still hate this part,” he mumbled. “After all these years flying. You must think I’m crazy.”
“No. It’s all right.” When Mark’s gaze met Doug’s, the gratitude and warmth rolling from Doug entranced him. Mark smiled, for the first time enjoying the heat tingling between them. He would scarcely have noticed the plane surging forward if it hadn’t been for the fear tinting Doug’s silvery eyes, keeping him alert. That this macho-looking guy could be scared of anything--and appreciated his support--endeared Doug to him all the more.
He considered clasping Doug’s hand, holding it for real, and then chickened out. The plane plowed up into the night, and they both let out long, shuddering sighs.
Mark liked Doug; he really did. But in a city packed with men as appealing as Francesco de Santis, his hopes of propelling this embryonic friendship to any physical level were the same as his expectations of getting the best-paper award at the forthcoming conference.