Flying was not among Mary Jefferson’s favorite activities. Flying during the holiday season? Absolute torture. Yet she sat in the right window seat of the plane’s emergency exit row anyway, her eyes closed with her noise-canceling headphones piping in a playlist as she waited for the flight to finish boarding. She braced herself for her row neighbors, hoping they weren’t chatty, sick, or jerks. She at least knew they wouldn’t be children; the emergency exit row was the only childfree zone in the passengers’ section.
Speaking of children, her headphones weren’t powerful enough to cancel out a toddler’s piercing wails. She frowned but didn’t open her eyes, not needing to see an exasperated parent ushering the distressed child along the narrow aisle toward their seats. She tensed as the cries became louder. The seat next to her was still open; and while the child couldn’t sit next to her, that didn’t mean people couldn’t occupy multiple rows to accommodate their families. Nevertheless, Mary relaxed again when it continued beyond the row directly behind her. Just because her row was childfree didn’t mean the one behind her wasn’t.
Eventually, the bustle died down, the cabin’s energy seeming to still as passengers buckled in for takeoff. The seat next to her was still blessedly empty, but Mary wouldn’t relax and rejoice until the cabin door closed and they were pushing back from the gate. When they continued to sit there for a few minutes, Mary peeled one eye open to see what the holdup was. Checking her phone’s time briefly, she noted they were ten minutes behind schedule, which didn’t exactly bother her. The flight could compensate for that quickly enough, but holiday travel made everyone more sensitive to delays.
“Happy holidays, everyone, this is your captain speaking. There is a backup on the tarmac due to the volume of planes taking off at this hour and we are waiting for one more passenger. As soon as the backup clears and the passenger arrives, we’ll be on our way. Thank you for your patience.”
The female pilot’s voice was cool and steady, which made Mary feel better. Someone who could keep a level head amid all the holiday haze was someone Mary trusted to get her from Boston to Houston safely.
Before she closed her eyes, movement at the plane’s entry caught her attention. A tall, uniformed man appeared, his pilot’s cap sitting low on his head. She wasn’t able to get a good glance at his features because he immediately went into the cockpit. Assuming there was nothing more to see, Mary rested her head against her seat and closed her eyes again, wishing she were back in her apartment instead of a metal contraption designed to defy the laws of gravity.
Someone sat next to her. She sighed but didn’t open her eyes. So much for thinking she could have an exit row to herself during one of the busiest travel times of the year. At least the person smelled good, spice with a hint of musk. She would consider it masculine but she didn’t want to assume. The person next to her could identify as female, nonbinary, agender, or another gender expression entirely.
The muffled sound of an announcement crackled over the PA system and Mary pulled one of the headphone cups from her ears. She caught the tail end of it. The delay continued.
The voice was deep, resonant, and made her tingle in ways she didn’t appreciate. There was a slight Southern rounding of the vowels, indicating the speaker was certainly not from Boston. But there was something familiar about it, too, and a frisson of awareness slinked up her spine.
Unable to stop herself, Mary looked to the left. There he was, in all of his dark-haired, blue-eyed, patrician-nosed, full-mouthed, chiseled-jawed glory.
Her focus snapped to the seatback screen in front of her that flashed silent images of sports highlights. The knowing chuckle that sounded from her left had Mary closing her eyes again.
“Deon’s gonna get a kick outta this!”
Deon, Mary’s football star little brother who lived in Houston with his pregnant wife and small daughter. Deon, who’d asked her current row partner to be his best man at his wedding five years ago. Deon, who knew said best man and sister had bumped uglies on his wedding night and also knew she’d taken great, meticulous pains to avoid being alone with him since then.
Deon, who apparently had invited them both to spend the holidays at his place, because why else would Joseph Douglas be sitting next to her with bedeviling glee?
Mary wanted to hurl herself through the plane’s window. “How likely is your sitting next to me a coincidence?”
Joseph tsked. “Do all scientists make habits of asking questions they know the answers to?”
“Actually, yes. It’s called the scientific method?”
“If your hypothesis is: I asked your brother for your flight information and made my arrangements accordingly, then no experiment necessary because you’d be right.”
He chuckled and she shivered, remembering the sensation of the sound against her neck, the swell of her breasts, the rise of her ass, the bead of her clit. “Or just someone who’d like to travel with a friend. Do you know how many favors and flights I had to do to get these days off?”
“To see lil’ ole me?” Mary asked, skepticism stark in her tone.
“Well, not just you,” Joseph said, then inhaled sharply. “I mean—”
“No, it’s fine. Got it. And you’ve seen me, so you can cross me off your list.”
Mary jerked her gaze to her window and put on her headphones again, mortification swirling in her belly like a nor’easter. She had to remind herself that just because she was the protagonist in her own story didn’t mean she was in someone else’s. And given how many times she and Joseph had spoken to each other since then, which was only slightly more than the number of protons a carbon particle had, why should she think she ever crossed his mind, relived a night that was among the best and followed by a morning that was one of the worst?
She ignored him when he tapped her shoulder, didn’t take off her headphones to listen to the latest update. The next track on her playlist, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, filled her ears and she closed her eyes again, resting her forehead against the cool window. She would maintain her policy of not talking to Joseph beyond social niceties. He was her brother’s friend, after all, not hers—never mind what he said.
Because a “friend” wouldn’t make her feel special for an entire weekend, so special that she let down her guard long enough to take a trip to heaven, and then that “friend” wouldn’t joke about it with her brother and his friends as if she were his good deed of the year the next morning.
When we said, “Make sure you be nice to Mary,” we didn’t mean that nice!
What? What are y’all talking about?
Don’t act like you weren’t in Mary’s room last night. I saw you creepin’ out this morning!
Hoo! Look at him turning all red! Lookin’ like a stop sign!
I bet that’s not what Mary said last night! “Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t stooop!”
Y’all, shut up, for real.
We saw you escort her out the reception and we waited for you to come back down, but you never did.
That’s what that top-shelf liquor will do, make you feel so good any pussy will do!
Speaking of—how was it? Did you make it jiggle?
No, he didn’t; otherwise, the whole building woulda shook!
Not necessarily. She probably just lay there. Besides, if she’d gotten to ride, he woulda been crushed!
A wedding one day and a funeral the next—
And I woulda cussed y’all both out for messing with my honeymoon plans!
The laughter from that overheard conversation, particularly Joseph’s cackle, had chased Mary all the way back to her hotel room. She’d left the reception and flown standby back to Boston, not shedding a single tear until she’d crossed the threshold of her small one-bedroom apartment in Kendall Square. The only reason she was even going to her brother’s house was to see her niece; otherwise, she would’ve pled a complex bioassay and couldn’t be pulled away from the lab.
But alas, she had too much vacation time and here she was. On a flight with her one-night lover sitting next to her. Too bad she couldn’t leave now.
The plane was finally backing from the gate.