The plane was due in just after seven in the morning. Dave made sure he was there in plenty of time, even though the Englishman would need to go through passport control, collect his luggage, and then get through quarantine. All of which would take an hour, probably – but it would be just Dave’s luck if he turned up at eight to find that the earl’s son had been processed as a VIP or some such thing, and had been waiting on him ever since.
Dave found a place to lean on the waist-high barriers with the drivers and others carrying signs. His own read GORING. That was the guy’s name. Nicholas Goring. Which perhaps made his father Earl Goring, or was it the Earl of Goring … ? When Dave wasn’t chatting in an early morning haze to his current companions, he spent the time trying to remember whether he’d had any clue about whether Nicholas was the eldest son or not – and if he was, whether that meant Dave should address him as ‘my lord’ or as ‘sir’. He’d looked it up on Wikipedia, realised he’d need to email the butler for more information, and then promptly let it all slip his mind.
He was kicking himself, metaphorically at least. He was always more professional than this. Always. And all right, maybe titles didn’t matter very much – though he was sure they’d matter more to an Englishman than an Australian – but no one could afford to be this slapdash in the Outback. Why would Goring trust Dave with his life, if he couldn’t even get this detail right?
Dave sighed, and watched in a desultory way as the passengers from other flights straggled through. No one looked their best after a 24-hour flight. No one. This pair now, for instance – a father and a young daughter, Dave assumed – appeared beyond tired, irritable, dishevelled, unhappy. That all fell away, however, as they were greeted by an older couple. The man’s parents, the girl’s grandparents: they had to be. Faces brightened, postures lifted, hugs all round.
It would take a miracle to perform the same transformation on the next pair who came through the gates, though. A married couple, perhaps, whose marriage didn’t look like it would survive the rigours of an international flight. Dave and Denny had done that once, of course – headed off on the obligatory backpacking holiday in their late teens. They’d done all right together, despite having laughably little money and even less sense. But then, they’d always been friends first, and a best mate could see you through anything. They’d taken turns seeing each other through.
Dave tried not to sigh again, and then tried not to yawn, as he absently watched the next fellow come through. The luggage came first, on a trolley, and the guy came after it, almost tumbling as he negotiated the doors and got a foot caught against the trolley wheel. Everything teetered as he tried to break free, prevent the door from slamming closed, and head down along the barriers to his right, all at the same time. He almost succeeded in achieving all those things, and probably would have, too, if he hadn’t suddenly decided to head to his left instead. He went sprawling on the floor, long limbs everywhere, while the trolley trundled off by itself for a few feet and finally came to a lame kind of halt.
Dave felt for the guy, he really did. Just his luck if he was meeting his lover at the airport or something, and had managed to klutz out entirely. Everyone was either tactfully looking somewhere else, or smiling ruefully at the guy. There wasn’t anyone nearby to help him up, because none of them were dumb enough to go past the barrier; security didn’t seem to have noticed yet, and for now the klutz was the only arriving passenger.
And he was still lying there on the floor … Why on earth was he still down there on the cold hard floor? He hadn’t broken something, had he? Dave looked at him – properly – with a frown. Considered each of those gangly limbs, but they seemed to be whole. He wasn’t lying at an awkward angle or anything. But his head was tilted back, and he was grinning a bit stupidly … and he was looking right back at Dave!
Which would have been fine, except that once he realised Dave was looking back, the guy seemed to wink. Or was that blink? But upside down like that, his smile seemed to have a wicked kick to it – and really, if they were in any other situation at all, if this wasn’t early morning at an international airport, Dave might have thought the guy was checking him out …
He turned away with a bit of a grimace, kind of a sneer. Which wasn’t like him, not really, and he wasn’t prejudiced, he’d swear it, but honestly it was way too early for lascivious stares from awkward strangers of the wrong gender. It just was.
A moment later he regretted the rudeness, of course, and his heart thudded once, punishingly. He turned back to see if he’d given offence, and perhaps to offer an apologetic shrug. But security had finally arrived, and were helping the guy up to his feet, dusting him off, making sure he would remain upright for now, retrieving his bags. Listening to him chat, and apparently letting themselves be charmed into deciding him harmless.
Dave watched, vaguely glad that everything seemed to be in order. Until they were past the barriers, and the guards ushered the guy out towards the exits, and he declined to go. Instead he turned, and his searching gaze soon landed on Dave again. Dave stood up slowly, warily, as the man approached with the guards trailing behind with matching frowns.
“I believe you’re looking for me,” the guy said in a cultured English accent.
“What?” Dave replied stupidly.
A long pale hand indicated the sign Dave carried. “I’m Nicholas Goring.”
The corner of his mouth kicked slightly, though the man was no longer smiling. “Just sir will do.”