As a member of the royal family in a small European country, Griffin Verdi’s presence is requested at the wedding of the century. The scholarly billionaire feels out of his depth in social situations, so a good assistant is required—especially when dealing with royal etiquette.
Unfortunately for Griffin, he’s stuck with Maylee Meriweather, a pretty, charming, and thoroughly unsuitable woman who doesn’t know a thing about high society—but she sure can kiss. Her lack of polish may sink Griffin, because after all, even his money can’t buy class. But through Maylee’s eyes, he’s starting to appreciate the simple things in life—if simple means the most complicated woman he’s ever met.
Maylee is everything Griffin isn’t—and everything he wants—if he can let down his guard and step outside his sheltered world...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The timing of Griffin Verdi’s personal assistant-slash-valet was appalling. “What do you mean, you have the chicken pox?”
“I mean just that,” Kip Rothwell said into the phone, with a hint of the proper ruefulness. “My doctor assures me I won’t be contagious after ten days have passed. He suggested I stay in a hotel until I’m no longer contagious, because I know you can’t get sick right now.”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Griffin said, using his friend Reese’s favorite expletive. It seemed appropriate at the moment. “You’re contagious for ten days? We leave tomorrow for Bellissime. I can’t go without my assistant.”
“I realize that, sir, but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”
Furious, Griffin hung up the phone on his long-serving personal assistant. The man had never troubled him before. Kip had worked for Griffin for ten years, all the way back to when Griffin was an eighteen year old who insisted on coming to the States for his education. Griffin’s mother had insisted on sending an entourage of servants to join him as befitted his class. He’d fired all of them except for Kip. Someone had to pick out his clothes and drive him around, after all.
And now, when he needed his assistant the most, the man was abandoning him.
Griffin stared at the pile of periodicals on the corner of his paper-strewn desk. Under a copy of Scientific American and Archaeology Today, there was a copy of Bellissime National News, which he had imported in. And below it, Time magazine, which had the same damn headline.
COUNTDOWN TO THE WEDDING OF THE CENTURY, it read in big, bold letters. Below, there was a picture of his cousin, Crown Princess Alexandra Olivia the Third, Duchess of Beaulac, Heir Apparent to the throne of Bellissime, and her fiancé, Hollywood action star Luke Houston.
Not only was Her Royal Highness marrying an American commoner, but she was marrying a very famous one, which meant that both American papers and Bellissime ones would be covering it to a ridiculous extent.
Bloody annoying was what it was.
As the upcoming event was the wedding of a royal princess of Bellissime, it meant every Verdi had been invited to the wedding and festivities, Griffin included. And while he could get away from most of his titular duties since he was an unimportant younger son and lived stateside, he couldn’t get away from this. The royal family—right down to far-flung cousins with better things to do—would be rounded up in Bellissime to celebrate HRH Alexandra’s wedding. Griffin fully expected to spend a week utterly miserable, avoiding paparazzi, smiling for photos (he hated photos), and generally avoiding whichever eligible princesses his mother threw in his direction.
All of which would be made even worse because his faithful assistant and traveling companion wouldn’t be at his side. He needed an assistant. Griffin couldn’t keep his own schedule straight, and according to his mother, it wouldn’t do for a royal to make his own arrangements. If his mother knew that his one and only assistant abandoned him, she’d resume her efforts into pressing him into a lifestyle he hated. His mother, Her Royal Highness Princess Sybilla-Louise, believed that a royal lifestyle should consist of an entourage, and she never had less than forty-six staff in her employment at all times.
But Griffin hated that sort of lifestyle. As long as he had things under control, he could live in his small, book-scattered townhouse off Central Park, with only Kip to assist him and a cleaning lady who came by to straighten things on weekends. It was how he preferred it. He hated hovering, and he hated having people around at all times. He hated fuss.
Griffin’s mother thought fuss was a necessity for the royal family.
He had to figure out something, and fast. His mother would suspect him the moment she clapped eyes on his tie. If it was even so much as askew, she’d hyperventilate and force servants on him. It wasn’t proper, she’d say. Look at how he was running his own life into the ground, she’d say. Wouldn’t it be easier if he had an equerry and a valet and a driver and a few maids, and the next thing Griffin knew, he’d be tripping over people determined to make themselves useful. Then he’d have no peace at all. His loft would be crawling with maids and butlers and . . . he shuddered at the thought.
Griffin’s phone buzzed. He picked it up eagerly, hoping that Kip had texted him to state that he’d called the doctor because he knew Griffin was displeased, and had been cleared to fly. That he was returning to Griffin’s townhouse and it had all been a complete misunderstanding.
Sir, I have called the agency to see if they can provide a replacement. Will keep you posted. And I’ve arranged for a selection of high-end clip-on ties to be delivered this afternoon.
Dear God. The only thing worse than his mother seeing his tie askew was if she saw him in a clip-on.
Something simply had to be done.
“Ante up, boys.” Reese tossed his chips into the center of the table. “Let’s get this show on the road. Some of us don’t want to be here all night.”
“You never minded before,” Jonathan grumped as he threw his chips after Reese’s. “Marriage turning you into an old man?”
“Nope,” Reese said easily. “Just eager to get home and see my firecracker. Pregnancy really increases a woman’s hormones, you know.” He wagged his eyebrows at the others in a devilish manner.
“Please, spare the details,” Cade said with a grimace. He added his ante. “Audrey’s a childhood friend of mine, and I don’t want to hear about her raging hormones.”
“Jealous?” Reese said with a grin. He nudged Griffin on the other side of him. “You in, buddy?”
“Hm?” Griffin looked up from his phone, frowning at Kip’s message. It was two simple words. No luck. Damn it all. “I’m in.” He forced his attention back on the card game.
Logan put in his ante and arched an eyebrow at Griffin. “Everything okay?”
“Just family issues,” Griffin said sourly, and reached backward to the drink table and grabbed the bottle of cognac. The others preferred whisky, but he liked something a bit smoother. He didn’t bother pouring it into a glass, just opened the bottle, swirled it, and took a swig.
Now, both of Logan’s eyebrows went up. “I’m pretty sure,” Logan began, “that there’s no such thing as ‘just’ family issues. At least, not in my experience. They asking for money?”
“If only.” If he could toss a few million at his family and make this go away, he would. Griffin chugged the cognac again. Maybe he should have gone for whisky after all.
Reese began to flick cards out on the table, dealing. “So where the hell is Hunter tonight?”
“Gretchen said he was on his way,” Logan said with a shrug. “I assume he got caught in traffic.”
Jonathan picked up his cards off the table and gave Griffin a curious look. “You nervous about the site visit?”
“The dig we sponsored. Spain?” Jonathan looked surprised that Griffin had forgotten. “We’re supposed to go next week and see how things are progressing. You know they found a promising cache of coins.”
“Damn it.” He’d forgotten. “I can’t go. I have to be at the royal wedding.”
All the men groaned sympathetically. “God, that sounds like the biggest whipping ever,” Reese said.
Griffin didn’t disagree.
Jonathan was frowning. “You’re bailing out on me, man? But I—”
The door at the top of the stairs opened, and all five men turned, conversation forgotten.
Hunter appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in a heavy jacket, scarf, and carrying a box of Kleenex. His nose was red, his eyes bleary, the ugly scars on his face livid. He sneezed.
As Hunter descended the stairs, his girlfriend, Gretchen, trailed close behind him, a worried look on her face. “Do you need more cold medicine, baby?”
She looked like she was the one who’d been sick. Her vivid red hair was pulled into a messy bun, and she wore a baggy sweater and yoga pants. If he’d have passed her on the street, Griffin would have questioned if she was homeless or not. He still couldn’t believe Hunter had fallen for her. She seemed so very . . . uncouth.
“I’m fine,” Hunter said, though he hardly sounded like himself. His voice was raspy and broken.
“Oh, clearly,” Gretchen said sarcastically. She tromped to the bottom of the stairs after him and began to unwind her scarf, tugging off her jacket. “Hi boys, sorry we’re late.”
Griffin groaned into his cards. This wasn’t the first time Hunter had brought his loudmouth girlfriend with him to one of their “supposedly” private meetings, and it annoyed Griffin each time. “Really, Hunter? You couldn’t come without her?”
Gretchen shot Griffin the finger as she reached for Hunter’s jacket, helping him take it off. “He’s sick as fuck, prick. I told him to stay in bed, but he wouldn’t, so I came with him. You can just suck it up.”
“Lovely,” Griffin muttered. “Just what the evening needed, a visiting harridan.”
“That’s my sister-in-law,” Reese murmured to him. “So can you shut your mouth before I hear about it when I get home?”
Griffin gave Reese an icy look. “Not you, too? Am I the only one who has a problem with the whole ‘secret society’ being secret?”
Jonathan shot him a sympathetic smile across the table, but Griffin noticed he didn’t speak up. Coward.
“Hey, I know,” Gretchen said, giving Griffin a wide-eyed innocent look as she settled Hunter into the only empty chair at the table. “Why don’t you take another swig of ‘Shut the Hell Up’ and let me care for my man?”
Dignity didn’t allow Griffin to answer. He settled for giving her his best cold aristocratic stare-down. It seemed to be wasted on Gretchen, as she was currently fussing over Hunter, and the scarred man was letting her. Disgraceful. When Gretchen was satisfied with the state of Hunter’s attire, she turned around and sat in his lap. “So, what are we playing?”
Griffin stared at her and waited for someone to correct her impertinence.
“Hold ’Em,” Cade volunteered, ever the suck up.
“Cool,” Gretchen said, and grabbed Hunter’s chips, wiggling on his lap. “I’ll help Hunter play.”
“What, are his hands sick, too?” Jonathan asked, a dry note of humor in his voice.
Gretchen wagged a playful finger at him, and Hunter only wrapped his arms around her waist, a pleased look on his ugly face as he wiped his nose with a Kleenex. He seemed to like Gretchen there.
Even Logan, the head of their society, didn’t seem displeased to see Gretchen at their table. Sure, she’d signed a non-disclosure agreement in which she’d promised not to divulge a single detail of their secret Brotherhood, but it was the principle of the thing, wasn’t it?
“We’ll skip the professional discussions this week,” Logan said, lighting a cigar.
Figured. He’d been looking forward to losing himself in some business talk. It seemed like everything was against him right now. He said nothing as the first cards were dealt, and chipped in his amount to match Cade’s bid.
“I’ll see your amount,” Gretchen said, pushing chips forward. “And raise you that gigantic stick up Griffin’s ass.”
Griffin threw down his cards. “Oh, come on. This is ridiculous.”
“Kids, kids,” Reese said. “Let’s settle down.”
“He started it,” Gretchen said sulkily. “It’s that snotty accent of his. Everything he says sounds ten times more jerkish.”
Griffin glared at the hateful woman. “If you don’t like it, feel free to leave. I don’t seem to recall anyone inviting you here in the first place.”
Hunter only tightened his grip around Gretchen’s waist and gave Griffin a small shake of his head, warning him not to pick a fight. Good God. A man fell in love and all of a sudden, he was letting his woman walk all over him. Griffin vowed that he’d never let that happen to himself.
Cade peered at Griff from over his cards. “You all right? You seem unusually moody tonight.”
Griffin rubbed at his face. “I’m having a hell of a time, thank you for asking.”
Logan grunted acknowledgment of this.
“What’s the problem?” Jonathan wanted to know. “Anything I can help with?”
“Not unless you have a spare assistant,” Griffin said. He put his cards down, unable to concentrate. “My assistant-slash-valet is ill and won’t be available to travel for at least another week, and I fly to Bellissime tomorrow night for the circus that will be cousin Alexandra’s wedding.”
Gretchen gasped. “Holy shit. Princess Alexandra of Bellissime is your cousin?” She fanned herself, looking excited. “That explains that douchey attitude! You’re royalty?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. He never tried to hold his title over anyone here in the States to make them feel inferior, but at this moment, he was sorely tempted. “I don’t see why it matters.”
“That wedding is a huge deal!” Gretchen exclaimed. “It’s kind of neat that you’re going.”
“Except that Griffin is probably almost as antisocial as Hunter there,” Jonathan acknowledged with a nod. He shot a glance at Griffin. “And it’s interfering with other projects.”
Damn. Griffin was going to be upset about missing that dig for weeks. He just knew it. He’d go check on things afterward, of course, but it wasn’t quite the same as getting that initial tour of the grounds and being there on site as things transpired.
“It doesn’t even matter if I wanted to go,” Griffin said. “Which I most emphatically do not wish to attend. But if I don’t have an assistant, I’ll be forced to rely on my mother’s staff.” His collar felt chokingly tight at the thought, and he tugged at it and his necktie. “So I need an assistant.”
All of the men groaned in sympathy.
“What? What is it?” Gretchen asked, curious.
“His mother is kind of . . .” Cade began, clearly trying to think of the best word.
“Unpleasant,” Hunter offered, finally speaking.
“That branch up Griffin’s ass? It’s an entire redwood for Her Royal Highness Sybilla-Louise,” said Jonathan.
Gretchen’s eyes widened. “Holy crap.”
“Thank you for that lovely reminder, gentlemen,” Griffin said in a clipped tone. “Ever so grateful. Really.” He swigged his cognac again. Manners be damned—he needed the burn of alcohol, and he needed it sooner rather than later.
“Well,” Gretchen said sweetly. “Hunter has an extra assistant at his office. I bet he would let you borrow her. He’s sick right now anyhow, and he’s not going in.”
Hunter broke off into a coughing fit. He raised a hand, and Gretchen pulled it against her waist, that saccharine smile never leaving her face.
Griffin gave her a narrow-eyed look. Why was she trying to be helpful all of a sudden? After the hissing they’d done to each other across the table? “He does?”
Gretchen nodded, holding on to Hunter’s arms while he coughed and hacked. The man did sound brutally sick. “She’s very sweet. Hardworking. I’m sure she’d travel on short notice if offered overtime.”
“I’m going to need someone who can run a very busy schedule for me while I’m in Bellissime. There are many high-profile functions I must attend.”
“I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Maylee’s very . . . task-oriented. And she takes a lot of notes.”
Griffin pondered this. He looked at Hunter. “You wouldn’t mind if I borrowed her for a few weeks?”
“God, no,” he said between coughs.
Gretchen elbowed him. “He’s sick and needs to be on bed rest right now,” she said. “So he shouldn’t be working anyhow. And if he needs help, he can count on me.”
Griffin eyed Gretchen’s disheveled appearance. “Quite.”
But her smile only grew broader. “Want me to make a call to her?”
He considered this. He didn’t entirely trust Gretchen . . . but Hunter wouldn’t tolerate inefficient employees. He’d seen how the man’s household was run. And to be honest, he was low on options. “I’ll check in with Kip again tonight, and I will let you know if I need her services.”
“Of course,” Gretchen said smoothly. “Just let me know. I can’t wait to hear.”
Gretchen was on pins and needles about the Maylee situation. She fidgeted and checked Hunter’s phone a dozen times every few minutes, just in case. The poker party had wrapped a bit early, since there was no business to be discussed with Gretchen there and Hunter’s hacking cough distracted all of them.
An hour after Hunter and Gretchen returned home, Griffin texted Hunter with a message.
It seems I need your assistant after all. Think she can meet me at the airport at 18:00 with her passport, as much formal business wear as she can carry, and be ready to work? I’ll pay her double what you normally pay.
Gretchen snatched the phone out of Hunter’s hand as she tucked him into bed, read the screen, and cackled merrily. “Oh, my God, this is going to be so good. I wish I could be there to see his face when you send him Maylee.”
Hunter grimaced between coughs. “He’s going to kill me when he gets home, Gretchen. You know she’s terrible with etiquette, and you know Griff is a stickler for it.”
“Maylee is worse than terrible with etiquette,” Gretchen agreed. “But friendly and oh so sweet. It’ll be the perfect situation, because she’ll be so awful at everything, and too nice for him to say an unkind word about the poor dear. Then, he’ll be stuck with her.”
“You’re lucky I love you,” he said. “Because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to save you from his wrath.”
She grinned wickedly. “So can I call her? Can I, can I? Pleeease?”
He sneezed and waved a hand at her. “Just bring me some more medicine on the way back.”
Gretchen cackled with sheer delight again.
Maylee Meriweather was watching an episode of Duck Dynasty on her small television, eating popcorn, and feeling rather homesick when her phone rang. It wasn’t unusual for family members to call at odd hours, just because that was how her family was. “Hello?”
“Maylee? It’s Gretchen Petty.”
She put aside her bowl of popcorn and licked her fingers to clean them. “Oh! Hi there, Ms. Gretchen. How are you?” Fear gnawed in her belly. If the boss’s girlfriend was calling her after nine on a weeknight, that . . . wasn’t good. Maybe she was calling to say that Mr. Hunter couldn’t put up with her any longer and was letting her go. She wouldn’t be surprised; Mr. Hunter was never quite happy with her, though she tried so very hard. She just sort of forgot things.
“Great. How are you?”
“I’m good!” She didn’t say right as a pig in mud because she’d said that to Ms. Gretchen once and her eyes had nearly bugged out of her pretty head. They didn’t say that sort of thing here in the big city, as she was learning. So the longer she worked in New York City, the harder she worked on improving her speech. She was now down to “mostly country” instead of “fresh off the turnip truck.”
“Well, Maylee, the reason I’m calling . . .”
Maylee squeezed her eyes shut, dreading the worst.
“. . . is that Hunter and I need a favor. Do you have a passport?”
Maylee frowned. “Well, that’s a mighty odd question, Ms. Gretchen, but yes, I do. My mama says it’s best to be prepared for anything, so I got a passport before I came here to the big city.” She was rather proud of that passport. Not many people in her hometown had one. Not many people in her hometown traveled out of state, much less out of the country.
“Oh, that’s lovely,” Gretchen said, and Maylee could have sworn she was stifling a laugh. Ms. Gretchen was such a happy person, always smiling and laughing. It made Maylee happy to see her with Mr. Hunter, who could use a good belly laugh or two.
“Do y’all need more paperwork on me? I gave copies of everything to the employment agency . . .” She let her words trail off. Did people need more ID when they were letting you go? She bit down on a fingernail, feeling miserable. She’d tried so hard, she really did. She never complained about the long hours or the fact that people who called in were rude to her. She just endured it. And she still wasn’t good enough for working for Mr. Hunter, she suspected. He wanted someone polished who would never ask a single question, and that just wasn’t Maylee. She was rather lacking in the polish department, sadly.
“No, no. I’m sorry. I’m scaring the crap out of you, aren’t I?”
“Well, I might need to change my britches after this call,” Maylee admitted with a small smile. “But it’s okay. I can handle it. What’s up?”
“I’m calling because Hunter and I need a favor. Hunter has a friend who is in need of an assistant as soon as possible because his is sick, and he’s about to go on an important trip.”
“Oh?” So, wait . . . she wasn’t getting fired? Thank you, Jesus.
“Yes. His name is Griffin Verdi. Have you heard of him?”
“Can’t say that I have, Ms. Gretchen. Sounds a bit like a Harry Potter character.” Maylee loved the Harry Potter books. She was pretty sure she’d be a Hufflepuff.
This time, Gretchen giggled out loud. “He’s not. He’s kind of a dick, actually. But, he’s offered to pay you double time if you go on a trip with him and act as his personal secretary. He needs someone to manage his appointments and such. He’s a bit absent-minded and Hunter tells me he’s useless without an assistant.”
Maylee had stopped listening after the magical words of “double time.” Maylee looked at her small, Goodwill-furnished, closet-sized apartment, and crossed her legs on the mattress she’d thrown on the floor that acted as her bed. A little more money would go a long way, though she’d never ask Mr. Hunter for a raise. She wasn’t a beggar, no matter what New Yorkers thought of country folk. “So he’s a jackass and needs his hand held while on vacation? I think I can manage that, Ms. Gretchen.”
“That’s it in a nutshell,” Gretchen said smugly. “I knew you were perfect for this job when I heard it. So can you go? He needs you to meet him at the airport tomorrow.” She gave Maylee some rattled-off details that Maylee quickly wrote on a nearby Post-it, then said, “I can send you an email with everything if you like.”
“That would be great, Ms. Gretchen. Just . . . are you sure you want me?”
“Oh, no doubt in my mind,” Gretchen said. “You were the first one I thought of when I heard he was looking.”
“Really?” Maylee’s brows furrowed. “Why?”
“Oh. Um, you’re young and you’re not tied down by family, so I figured you could leave at a moment’s notice. Am I right?”
“Okay, great. I’ll text Griffin and let him know. He’ll be so pleased. Just pack all of your normal business wear.”
She’d have to get a cab to the airport. Actually, no. Cabs were expensive. Maybe she could take the subway instead. That was cheaper. “Can I ask where we’re going, Ms. Gretchen? Is it England? Italy?” Oh, she’d always wanted to see Italy! Excitement began to spin in her mind. Double time and a vacation? It was like Christmas around here. Ms. Gretchen was so sweet for thinking of her.
“It’s a place called Bellissime. It’s a very small country on the border of Italy and France. Right next to Monaco. Have you heard of it?”
“Um.” Maylee thought for a moment, then snuck a piece of popcorn and tossed it in her mouth. Geography wasn’t a strong suit of hers. “Isn’t that the place they’re gonna have that royal wedding?” She didn’t read a lot of tabloids, but it was hard to miss the headlines. A pretty blonde princess in some European country was marrying Hollywood actor Luke Houston, who had a chiseled jaw, a dreamy smile, and was in a lot of really bad movies. “It’s so sweet.”
“Oh, that’s where you’re going,” Gretchen said. “Griffin’s been invited to the wedding.”
She choked on a piece of popcorn, wheezing. “Beg pardon?”
“Royal wedding,” Gretchen repeated. “Big shindig. Lots of stuck-up assholes getting their picture taken.”
Maylee coughed, the popcorn lodged in the back of her throat. “Oh. Oh mercy,” she wheezed. She knew there was a reason why she liked Ms. Gretchen. She was so down to earth. “And again, you’re sure you want me to go to this?”
“You’ll be fine,” Gretchen said, a coaxing note in her voice. “It’ll be fun. Think of the stories you’ll have to tell afterward! And don’t forget, double time. All you have to do is make sure Griffin gets to places on time and take his phone calls. It’ll be easy.”
And Ms. Gretchen had wanted her to do it? Maylee beamed at the thought. “You tell Mr. Griffin he’s got himself an assistant.”
“Perfect!” Gretchen sounded utterly delighted. “I’ll send you an email with all the deets. Thanks, Maylee. You’re the best!”
They hung up and Maylee immediately unfolded her legs, heading across her tiny apartment over to the rickety old desktop computer she had set up. She couldn’t really afford a laptop yet, and someone had sold her this great—if noisy—computer on a street corner. She clicked it on and waited for it to start up, then she snagged a local hotspot and went web-surfing to find out everything she could about Bellissime.
The Wikipedia page on Bellissime was fascinating.
One of the oldest constitutional monarchies in Europe, Bellissime is a small mountainous country bordered on the east by Italy, west by France, and north by Switzerland. Tucked into the Alps, the official language is French, but as the monarchy has had British connections since the Middle Ages, English is commonly spoken. Bellissime is known for three things: its monarchy, its chocolate, and the tiny size of the country. Only Monaco and the Vatican are smaller.
A tiny mountain country in the Alps with a princess who was having a royal wedding? And she got to go? And she’d be paid a bonus?
Maylee pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.
“Lordamercy,” Maylee breathed as the courtesy transport cart drove onto the tarmac toward the jet. She juggled her bags, clutching them in her lap.
“Almost there, Ms. Meriweather,” the driver told her.
“That’s rather a small plane, isn’t it?” It didn’t look very big. Or safe. She’d flown in an exceedingly large plane on the way to New York City, with three rows across and goodness knows how many up and down. This . . . was clearly not the same kind of plane.
“It’s a private jet, ma’am,” the driver said, an elderly man who seemed to be having a great time watching her reactions to everything in the airport. “Some are smaller than others. This is one of the larger ones.”
It was? She stared at it, gaping. “So there won’t be any other people on it?”
“No ma’am. Mr. Verdi won’t be flying coach.” She could have sworn he smiled to himself at the thought.
“Oh. Okay.” She felt incredibly out of her depth at the moment. Maylee clutched her luggage tighter. This suddenly felt a little overwhelming.
Double time, she repeated to herself. Double time. Gretchen had figured Maylee would be perfect for this job, and really, she was doing Mr. Griffin a favor by traveling at the last minute with him. She just needed to remember that.
He needed Maylee. Not the other way around. Lifting her head high, Maylee resolved that she was going to enjoy this trip. She’d never left the States before, and this would be the adventure of a lifetime.
The cart parked in front of the jet and a wheeled staircase had been set at the door. At the top, a flight attendant waited. The man took Maylee’s suitcase from her arms and frowned a bit at the bright red tartan of it, along with the trailing ribbons she had decorating the handle. He touched one of the ribbons. “Did you need to secure these, miss?”
“Oh, no,” she said cheerily. “That’s so it doesn’t get lost in the luggage pick-up.”
“There’s no luggage pick-up on a private jet,” he said, smiling at her. “Otherwise, it’s a smart idea.”
She beamed at him for the compliment. “I can carry the suitcase, honey. No need for you to go up all those stairs.”
“I don’t mind. It’s my job.”
“You’re so sweet,” she told him, and the man grinned at her. Mama had always told her you could catch more flies with honey than vinegar, so Maylee was always friendly to the staff. Heck, she was staff. These were her people. “I can’t thank you enough for the ride out here.”
“Just doing my job, ma’am,” he said again, and gestured for her to ascend the stairs ahead of him.
Maylee clutched her purse close, shifted her backpack onto her shoulder, and let him carry her suitcase. She was glad she’d worn low-heeled loafers with her skirted suit, because that staircase looked mighty steep. Didn’t most flights normally have a tunnel ramp thingie you went down to get onto the plane? She supposed this baby plane was too dinky for that sort of thing.
Nearby, another flight attendant smiled at her. She was wearing a black-jacketed suit that looked way fancier than anything Maylee owned. Her blonde hair was pulled into an elegant twist and she wore more makeup than Maylee. Still, she looked model beautiful. “Welcome. Mr. Verdi is inside. Can I take your things?”
“Oh, that would be lovely,” Maylee said, and shrugged off her backpack. “You are so kind to offer. And my goodness gracious, you are so pretty!” It wasn’t a lie—the woman was flat-out gorgeous.
She chuckled at Maylee’s effusive compliment and took the bag from her. “Thank you. Follow me, and I’ll show you where you can sit.”
The interior of the jet was nothing like the time that she’d flown coach. Then, she’d been at the back of the plane and the ride was so bumpy that she’d felt like she’d ridden a bull all the way to NYC. They’d hit turbulence and it had given her nightmares so badly that she’d gone to the doctor for a prescription of relaxers, which were in her purse at the moment, for the next time she flew. She’d also been a middle seat, and had spent the entire terrifying flight squished between two fat businessmen, who’d looked terribly displeased at the thought of someone sitting in the middle seat. As if she could help it!
It hadn’t been an experience she’d wanted to repeat. The trepidation of flying had been on her mind this morning as she’d packed her suitcase, but double time pretty much won the argument every time. She had her pills. She’d be fine.
The smiling flight attendant led her in. “The first flight will be eight hours to Heathrow. We’ll refuel and then fly straight on to Bellissime.”
“Eight hours? Lordamercy,” Maylee said. “That’s longer than my cousin Bobbie Jo’s first marriage lasted.”
The attendant giggled. “It is long, but the second flight is only about four hours. And this is an overnight, so you can sleep.”
“Oh, I’ll be too riled up to sleep,” Maylee told her. And then the attendant stepped aside and Maylee got her first really good look at the private jet. “Lordamercy.”
It was like something out of a movie.
Soft golden lighting filled the cabin, the ceiling striated in a decorative seashell pattern designed to make the interior seem much bigger than it actually was. There were no ridiculously crowded—and claustrophobia-making—overhead compartments here. Instead, more lights were built into the ceiling, and beautiful carpeting in a soft, pale patterned brown lined the floor of the cabin. The few seats inside the cabin were enormous, made of a buttery leather, and a pretty table jutted out from each wall, accompanied by a flat-screen TV on an arm that could be pulled out so the seated occupant could watch whatever they wanted. Maylee counted eight of these seats, and in the back, there was another door to what must have been a private room. Flowers in small vases adorned each of the tabletops in the main cabins.
This was far nicer than her apartment. Lordamercy.
“What do you think?” The flight attendant was smiling at her, clearly seeing Maylee’s awe.
“It’s so . . . swanky. This is where we’re flying?” My goodness, they were paying her to fly in this jet? And then take a trip to Europe? Gracious, she didn’t know how she’d gotten so lucky. She couldn’t stop smiling, either.
The attendant laughed. “It is. Mr. Verdi is in the back room and doesn’t wish to be disturbed at the moment.” She inclined her head at the closed door. “Let’s put down your things and I’ll show you where the bathroom is. Just pick a spot.”
Maylee walked through the spacious cabin, running a hand over the silky-smooth leather of each seat before selecting one in the back. She wasn’t quite sure where employees were supposed to sit, but she guessed it wasn’t in the front. The back was always where the roughest ride was on a plane, right? She was pretty sure the boss wouldn’t want to sit there, then. Maylee picked a seat and sat down, then clasped her hands in her lap.
“This isn’t like a normal flight,” the attendant said. “So anything you need, you just let me know.”
She patted her purse, now in the seat beside her. “I have my panic pills in here.”
The attendant laughed and gave her a sympathetic look. “Afraid to fly?”
“Afraid of the crashing part,” Maylee admitted. “I haven’t flown much and it makes my heart race around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
“Do you want a drink? I can make you a lovely cocktail.”
A cocktail? “That’d be very nice of you.”
She winked at Maylee. “How about a mojito?”
Maylee had never had one. How could she pass up a nice fancy drink? “That would be lovely.” She pulled out her purse. “Do you want to see my ID?”
The attendant giggled again. “Not necessary. This is a private flight. I’m sure you’re old enough.”
“I’m twenty-four,” Maylee admitted. She usually got carded, though. It was probably her silly curls (which made her look young) and her freckled snub nose (which didn’t help) and her round cheeks (which certainly didn’t help). Without makeup, she normally looked like a teenager.
“I’m Megan,” the attendant said, and bustled away, her hips swaying in that awful nice suited jacket. Maylee smoothed her own polyester dress. She’d gotten it at Sears on sale. It had buttons going up in a fake seam and the jacket was attached to the skirt so the entire thing zipped up the back. It fit a bit like a sack, but it had been on sale, and you couldn’t ask for more than that. She’d just safety-pinned it in the worst spots and called it a day. Of course, she’d had to take those out when they’d wanded her at security, so it was a little loose at the moment.
As she waited for her drink, Maylee ran her hands along the smooth leather of the seats and tinkered with the buttons she could reach. Some were for air vents, some for lighting, and one let her call the attendant (which she didn’t press). There was a control for the television, earphones tucked into a pocket on the side of her chair, and a fancy little pillow and matching blanket just for her, if she wanted them. It was impressive. Heck, it was nicer than some motel rooms she’d stayed in. The motel she’d stayed in while searching for an apartment had water damage on the ceiling and she’d had to share a bathroom with everyone else on the floor.
Megan returned a few minutes later with her drink. “Here you go.” It looked like a Sprite with some chewed-up green leafy crap in it. Okay. Not quite as glamorous as she’d imagined.
Maylee took the glass. “You’re so thoughtful. Thank you.” She sipped it and smiled at Megan. “Wonderful.” It was pretty good, actually. She kept drinking as she settled into her seat.
As the minutes passed, the cabin remained empty. Maylee tried to finish her drink quickly, so she could be done before they took off, but it seemed that they weren’t in any particular kind of hurry. They were just . . . sitting here, waiting on Mr. Verdi. Maylee fished a piece of ice out of her glass and chewed on it, sucking the last of mojito off the cube.
Megan eventually returned and snagged Maylee’s glass with a smile. Before Maylee could protest, she was pouring another. Well, she could drink another one of those. It was pretty tasty with all that mint. The plane began to taxi down the runway just as she started to drink her new one, and Maylee chugged it, trying to finish it before they took off. That was just polite, right?
By the time she’d sucked down that second mojito, she was feeling a little . . . tipsy. Nothing ridiculous, just a little floaty and loose. It was probably because she’d drank them so fast. The plane stopped again, and waited.
Maylee peered out the window. She couldn’t see anything except the night sky and the lights on the runway. Why weren’t they getting into the air?
The attendant floated past again, and as Maylee watched, Megan went to the door at the back of the plane and knocked. “Ready to leave whenever you are, Mr. Verdi.” She didn’t wait for an answer, just swung back around to Maylee and smiled. “Another drink?”
“Oh, no,” Maylee said. “I couldn’t possibly. Thank you, though.”
Megan took the glass from her. “Go ahead and buckle up. We’ll be leaving as soon as Mr. Verdi is finished with his meeting.”
Maylee fumbled with her belt, snapping it at her waist and then tightening it. Anxiety began to gnaw at the pit of her stomach. She’d be meeting rich Mr. Verdi, and they’d be flying—both things that made her very, very nervous. Combined with the drinks, she rather felt like she was going to throw up.
Time for her pills.
She fished the bottle out of her purse and peered at the label, uncertain of how many to take. One or two? There was a bright yellow sticker on the side that said DO NOT MIX WITH ALCOHOL but it was a mite too late for that, wasn’t it? She hurriedly popped one into her mouth, dry swallowing it.
Five minutes later, she felt nice.
So, so nice.
All floaty and wonderful.
In a pleasant haze, she watched as Megan buckled herself in at the far end of the cabin and they both waited for Mr. Verdi to appear. Maylee blinked slowly, and that was rather fun, so she blinked again, watching her eyelashes descend.
Wow. Who knew eyelashes were so interesting?
“We might be another minute,” Megan said to her. “Can I get you anything else?”
Maylee beamed at her and gave her a thumbs up. One hardly seemed to convey how good she was feeling, so she thrust her other one into the air, too. “I’m wonderful. So, so wonderful.”
And she wagged her thumbs at the woman.
The smile on the attendant’s face faltered a little in its sincerity. “Um. All right. Just let me know if you need anything.”
Maylee thought for a moment, not an easy feat given the alcohol and pills. Then, she said, “Knitting.”
“I’m . . . sorry? I don’t think I caught that.”
She flapped her hands—a bit like a chicken, really—and said, “These are bored.”
“Bored?” Megan blinked at her. Hard.
“Yes. And my knitting is all tied up in my luggage.” Maylee made a sad face. “It’s probably lonely.” She stared down at her hands. “I bet it misses them.”
“Your suitcase is actually just up here,” Megan said, that curious look still on her face. “Do you want to get it?”
“Oh, that would be just peachy.” She stood up—or tried to, anyhow. She was still buckled in, and it knocked her back to her chair. Maylee began to giggle wildly. “Oopsie daisy.”
“I can get it for you,” Megan said quickly.
“That would be peachy, too,” Maylee said with a languid smile. “It’s in a side pocket.” Gosh, they were nice on private airplanes. She liked everyone here so much.
A moment later, Megan handed her the knitting, and she made a happy sound in her throat. So perfect. Now she could knit all the way to Bellissime. Maybe she’d knit a hat for her new employer. Wouldn’t he just love that? “Everyone likes hats,” she mumbled aloud to herself, and began to knit.
“If you get a chance to bail out early,” Jonathan said to Griffin over the phone, “you should really come out to Spain. They’ve found some interesting pottery shards at one site and a few new areas they’d like to excavate, but there’s permits to be filed and funding to be acquired, so nothing can really move ahead without you.”
Damn it. He really wanted to be there. The timing could not be worse. “It’ll just have to wait a few weeks. I’m afraid there’s no way I can leave early, short of insulting my entire family and offending the crown.”
“I do not envy you,” Jonathan said. “Tell you what. I’ll upload my photos online later tonight and you can get a glimpse of what I’m seeing here. I think you’ll like it. The canal system is so incredibly impressive. I’m told that the swampy grounds make it hell to excavate, but I think it just makes it all the more promising.”
“And we’re sure it’s Atlantis and not just Tarshish?”
“I don’t know. The lead on the project, Doctor DeWitt, says he’s uncovered something significant, but since you’re the benefactor, he won’t reveal it without you here.”
Griffin felt a little stab of pleasure at that, even though he knew he shouldn’t. Jonathan was one of his best friends, and trustworthy, but this project was Griffin’s baby. “I see. Like I said, it’ll have to wait a few weeks.”
“Cadiz isn’t that far away from Bellissime, is it? Can’t you just hop a plane and take a same-day flight?”
“You’ve never seen a royal schedule around one of these functions, have you?” Griffin asked drily.
“I’ll be lucky if I have an hour to myself.”
“Fuck, that sounds miserable.”
It did. That was why Griffin preferred minimal fuss when he was on his own, and why he preferred being on his own as much as possible. It was why he ‘made do’ with one assistant versus his mother’s forty-six staff.
There was a soft knock at the door. “Ready to leave whenever you are, Mr. Verdi,” the attendant said.
Griffin ignored it and continued talking to Jonathan for a few minutes more. He was jealous as hell that his friend got to poke around in the marshes of Spain for the next few weeks while Griffin had to dress up in starchy suits, kiss babies, and have his blasted photo taken eight hundred times a day.
Reese should have been Viscount Montagne Verdi, not Griffin. Reese loved people. Griffin could barely tolerate them.
When he could put off the inevitable no longer, Griffin ended the call with Jonathan, put away his laptop, and left his private room. He nodded at the attendant at the far end of the plane and sat in his seat, rubbing his face. He was looking forward to this about as much as one would look forward to a tooth extraction, or perhaps a vasectomy. A colonoscopy? He pondered a list of horrific things that could possibly be less painful than a week-long royal wedding.
He buckled his seat belt, closed his eyes and leaned back, and the plane began to taxi forward. Griffin kept his eyes closed, relaxing, as the plane ascended into the air, the roar of the engines drowning out everything but his own thoughts. Eventually the sound of the engines leveled out, and Griffin became aware of a new noise.
He frowned, opening his eyes just in time to see the flight attendant lean over his chair. “Can I get you anything, Mr. Verdi?”
He shook his head. “I’m fine.”
She nodded and disappeared, and the clicking began again. He looked to his left. Nothing. Looked behind him.
What on earth . . .
There was a woman behind him. A blonde. And she was knitting.
That was . . . odd.
This had to be Hunter’s assistant. Gretchen had texted him last night and told him that she’d send her over to meet him at his plane. To be perfectly honest, he’d been so wrapped up in his own misery that he hadn’t even given it much thought. It was just taken care of.
But this? This made him pause.
This woman was a mess. Her hair was a messy pile of white-blonde corkscrew curls that haloed her head in a frizzy nimbus, barely brushing her slim shoulders. She was lightly tanned, a sprinkle of freckles on her nose and cheeks. Her face was round and looked impossibly young . . . except for the knitting. And she had on what had to be the most sincerely godawful ugly suit he’d ever seen. It hung off her small frame like a shapeless sack, and he was pretty sure that shiny fabric was polyester. Dear Lord.
He’d asked for competent. Experienced. Gretchen had assured him that Hunter’s assistant was all these things.
He’d bloody kill her when he got back.
“Just who are you?” Griffin barked out at the strange woman, furious. He was too polite to add the bloody hell that he wanted to that statement. This had to be a mistake.
She blinked slowly. Twice. As if it were difficult to do so. Long, white-blonde lashes skimmed her eyes and there was something peculiar about her gaze. Her eyes were extremely dark.
“Howdy,” she said in a husky Southern drawl that was so thick that it made him inwardly cringe. Small hands dropped the knitting into her lap and she stuck one out at him. “I’m Maylee Meriweather. That’s Maylee after both my Nana May and Pepaw Lee.”
He just stared. “Please tell me the words ‘Nana’ and ‘Pepaw’ did not just come out of your mouth.”
She tilted her head and blinked slowly again. Then she giggled, the sound musical and sweet and young. “You must be Mr. Gryffindor.”
“Griffin,” he gritted. Up in the front of the cabin, he heard the flight attendant smother a laugh, and he shot her an irritated look.
“I think I would be a Hufflepuff,” she said, her voice quite serious. “They seem to be the happiest ones. Quite homey, Hufflepuff.”
He stared at her a moment longer, and then looked over at the flight attendant. “Is she drunk?”
The attendant’s eyes widened. “I only gave her two drinks, sir.”
“Sounds like two too many,” he muttered. He turned back to the wild-haired blonde, who was blinking those owl-like eyes at him. “Are you drunk?”
“No sir,” she breathed. “I’m Maylee. That’s Maylee after my Nana May and Pepaw—”