Ruby Keller crept past a row of ornate marble statues into the gardens beyond. Her heels clicked against stone pavers as she followed a path leading away from the Langdon family estate. Behind her, the wedding reception was in full swing, music and laughter drifting on the air, as rich as the scent of the rosebushes blooming on either side of the path.
She wasn’t running away from her best friend’s wedding. On the contrary, Elle and Theo’s wedding was by far the most beautiful and amazing event she’d ever attended, held at this beautiful estate just outside London, but there were drawbacks to being here without a date. Ruby was accustomed to flying solo at events. It usually didn’t faze her. But usually she had her best friends by her side. Now, Elle was married, and Megan was here with her boyfriend, Jake, and they were adorably, disgustingly in love.
For the last half hour, Ruby had fought off the advances of an obnoxiously drunk man named Ellis who couldn’t seem to take a hint, not even when she’d pointedly turned to her cell phone and begun scrolling through her social media while he droned on about stock portfolios and dividends. So, when he went to the bar for another drink, Ruby decided to make herself scarce.
She was officially peopled out for the night and hoping to find some peace and quiet here in the gardens. Just for a little while. Then, she’d be a good maid of honor and go back inside to join the party. But, honestly, events like this were exhausting for an introvert.
“Ruby? Are you out here?”
Ellis’s deep voice echoed through the garden. It was a shame he was such an ass because he had a sexy voice, and she’d always had a thing for British accents. He wasn’t hard to look at either. But he was obnoxious to the point it bordered on harassment. She’d already told him she wasn’t interested—several times—and yet, here he was. She stepped off the stone path, walking between two rows of rosebushes.
“I saw you come out here and thought you might like company,” he called.
You thought wrong, buddy.
She extended her middle finger in his general direction as she ducked behind a rosebush, bending awkwardly in her floor-length satin dress. There was a sharp tug at her hair, and she reared back with a gasp, right hand raised reflexively in case she needed to defend herself, but no one was there. She was alone, deep in the garden away from the lighted path, her hair snagged on a rosebush.
Well, this was embarrassing. She tipped her head forward, attempting to tug free, but to no avail. Her glasses slid off her nose and tumbled to the ground, out of reach. Ruby exhaled in frustration as she reached behind her head, pricking her finger on a thorn in the process.
“For crying out loud,” she muttered. Her fingers encountered more thorns…and more hair. Her meticulously constructed up-do was now engaged in a tug-of-war with the rosebush, and her hair seemed to be losing.
“You look like you could use a hand,” a man said from behind her.
She tensed, half-blind without her glasses and unable to turn around, stuck in a ridiculous crouch lest she rip her hair out by the roots. But this voice—while still deep, masculine, and British—was different. Softer. Kinder. Not Ellis. And she really could use a hand.
“You could say that,” she said.
“Hold still,” the man said, and a moment later, she felt a gentle tug at the back of her head and fingers poking through her hair. “Let me know if I’m hurting you. It’s tangled pretty badly back here.”
“It’s fine,” she said, wincing slightly. “Do what you need to do.”
“Almost got it,” he said.
Ruby rested her palms on her thighs, attempting to balance in her awkward position. Her rescuer had a nice voice, rich and soothing. He sounded young, and yeah, she was still digging the British accent.
“You’re free,” he announced.
“Thank you,” she breathed, straightening to her full height. One hand went automatically into her hair, which felt like a disheveled mess. The man in front of her was tall and slim, with dark hair and wearing a black tux, like nearly every other man in attendance tonight. That was about all she could tell without her glasses. “I really appreciate it.”
“Happy to help,” he said, extending a hand in her direction. “Flynn Bowen.”
She took it and shook, impressed by the strength of his grasp. “Ruby Keller.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Ruby.” He leaned forward, his voice dropping conspiratorially. “So, who are you hiding from out here?”
“Excuse me?” She crouched, feeling around for her glasses. Her fingers closed over them, and she slipped them onto her face, standing to face Flynn. And whoa. She blinked, attempting to school her expression, because he was hot…in an adorable sort of way. His dark hair was slightly longer than what seemed to be the acceptable “dress code” for the other men here tonight. An unruly lock had fallen over his forehead. His eyes were crinkled in a friendly smile, sparkling with humor.
“See, I was already out here…also hiding,” he said with a wink. “My entire family is in there. The Bowens are longtime friends of the Langdons. My parents, brother, sisters, and all their spouses are here tonight. I’m the youngest of five,” he explained. “And the only single one. My mother won’t stop trying to introduce me to every available woman in the ballroom, so I came out to wander the gardens. And then I saw you sneaking off into the bushes.”
“I guess I’m out here for similar reasons,” she told him as she attempted to smooth over what remained of her hairdo. “No family here, though, but I’m the only single one left in my group of friends. I’m surprised your mother didn’t already introduce us.”
“I expect she would have if she knew you,” Flynn said, his easy smile never faltering. “But alas, you’re American, so I think she might consider you a lost cause.”
“She doesn’t want you to date an American?” Ruby asked.
“Oh, nothing like that. It’s just, I imagine you’re only here for the wedding and will be flying home soon after. My mother isn’t exactly trying to find me a one-night stand.” His grin widened.
Ruby laughed. Flynn’s exuberance was infectious. “Well, she’d be right, I guess. I’m sticking around for a week or so to do some sightseeing, but then I’ll be flying back to Virginia.”
“Really?” Flynn gestured for her to follow him toward a bench on the main path. “Where are you planning to visit?”
“That’s the thing.” Her body buzzed with a mixture of excitement and nerves. “I haven’t made any plans. I’m just going to…see what happens.”
“How intriguing.” Flynn’s eyebrows rose. “A woman with a sense of adventure. I like that.”
“If you only knew.” She shook her head, feeling what remained of her bun sliding around loosely. “This is so unlike me. I’m an over-planner. I have a spreadsheet for…well, everything.”
“Define everything,” Flynn said, his gaze locked on hers, intense, but not in an alarming way, more like he was hanging on her every word.
“I have a spreadsheet to help me manage all my spreadsheets.”
Flynn laughed, resting a hand on her shoulder. “That is unusual, I’ll admit.”
She grinned. “I’m an unusual woman, what can I say?”
“I like it. Tell me more.” He sat on the bench, patting the empty spot beside him.
She sat, feeling a hundred times lighter than she had a few minutes ago. “Do you want the short version or the long version?”
“Ruby, there you are!” Ellis came around a bend in the path, beelining toward her. He stopped in front of the bench with a slight frown. “Who are you?”
“Flynn Bowen,” Flynn said. “And you are?”
“Ellis Mayberry,” he announced with an air of self-importance. “Ruby and I were just about to dance. Weren’t we, Ruby?”
“Actually, you asked, and I said I wasn’t in the mood,” she told him, letting her voice fall flat in annoyance.
“Well, I…” Ellis gaped, seemingly--finally—at a loss for words. “What happened to your hair?”
“I decided to try a new look,” she said, reaching up to touch the side of her head. “What do you think?”
Ellis stared at her, his mouth opening and closing in silent confusion.
“I think Ruby’s hair looks rather lovely this way,” Flynn said. “Don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” Ellis stammered.
“Well, nice meeting you,” Flynn said pointedly.
“Likewise, I’m sure,” Ellis muttered before turning and walking off in the direction of the estate.
“Is that wanker the reason you were hiding behind a rosebush when I found you?” Flynn asked, his tone a mixture of humor and annoyance.
“Yes. Does my hair look that terrible?”
“Not at all.” Flynn gave her a discerning look. “Although it does look a bit like you and I were going at it behind that rosebush.”
“Now who’s a wanker?” she teased, ridiculously charmed by his accent.
“Never,” he deadpanned.
“My hair’s a total mess. I can tell.” She patted the back of her head, coming out with a bobby pin…and a thorn. “I’m going to take it down.”
“I’ll help if you like,” he offered, reaching over to tug another pin out of her hair. And since there were about a million more where that came from, she agreed.
“So, to answer your question before we were so rudely interrupted, I’d like the long version.”
“What?” She set a bobby pin in the growing pile on the bench between them.
“You were about to tell me the story behind your adventure here in London and why you’ve always played it safe before.”
“Oh, that.” She glanced over at Flynn. “The long version, huh?”
“I think we have time for it while we pull out all these pins.” He held one up for emphasis.
“I have primary immunodeficiency,” she told him. “I couldn’t be around other kids much when I was growing up, because of my faulty immune system, and even so, I was sick a lot. My mom homeschooled me for most of my childhood.”
“That must have been very difficult for you.” Flynn set a pin on the pile and reached over to give her hand a squeeze.
“I received a bone marrow transplant from my sister when I was seventeen, and I’ve been mostly as good as new since, although I still have to be careful. But the point of the story is that I spent my childhood locked away safe and bored in my bedroom. I guess it made me cautious. I tend to overanalyze things to death before making a decision, and, you know…the spreadsheets.”
“Lots of spreadsheets,” Flynn repeated with a nod.
“I’m that person who takes her laptop with her everywhere she goes.”
“I see you left it behind tonight,” he commented with a smile.
“I left it at home.” She sucked in a deep breath and blew it out. “I’ve never traveled outside of the United States before, and I’m ready to have the adventure of a lifetime, all by myself, no laptop to hide behind.”
Flynn tugged another pin out of her hair, his gaze catching hers in the muted light of the garden. “That is one of the most fascinating and brave stories I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s not,” she protested. A section of her hair tumbled down her back as she removed another pin. “I’m just taking a vacation. Millions of people do it every day.”
“Not like this.” He pointed a finger at her. “You said it yourself. This is going to be the adventure of a lifetime.”
“Well, I hope it will be. Honestly, it’s pretty intimidating now that I’m here. I mean, I’ve been so caught up in wedding activities, I haven’t really had a chance to think about what I’ll do tomorrow when it’s all over.”
“Hence the adventure.”
“Yes. I’ve got a hotel booked in London for the next few nights, but beyond that…who knows?”
“Would you like a few suggestions?” he asked.
“I’d love some, actually.”
“I assume you know all the main tourist attractions, but do you enjoy theater? The West End is, in my opinion, superior even to Broadway. You can find anything you’re interested in, musical, comedy, opera.”
“Theater.” Ruby felt a flutter of joy in her chest. “I’ve never been to a Broadway show. In fact, the only theater I’ve ever seen were the plays Elle was in back in high school.”
“Elle who just married Theo?” Flynn’s eyebrow went up.
“The very one. She considered being an actress after high school, although that obviously didn’t work out. But yeah, I think I’d love to go to the theater.” Her hair tumbled loose over her shoulders, and while she usually didn’t like it, tonight it didn’t feel half bad, shielding her from the cool September breeze.
“The National Gallery has some amazing artwork, da Vinci, Rembrandt. And you absolutely must visit Hampstead Heath. It has the most amazing views of London. Then there’s Oxford Street if you enjoy shopping, and Camden Market has just about every cuisine you could imagine.”
“Wow,” she breathed, completely taken with every idea he’d just put in her head.
“You mentioned that you wanted to take this adventure on your own, but if you’re interested in a tour guide, I’d be happy to show you around London tomorrow.”
“Oh, I don’t know…” She liked Flynn a lot, but she’d planned to do this on her own. And honestly, they’d just met. She didn’t know a thing about him. It would be crazy to let him be her tour guide tomorrow. Then again, wasn’t the point of this trip go to with the flow, to do the unexpected, even if it was a little bit risky?
Flynn Bowen couldn’t remember ever feeling so enchanted by someone he’d just met. He tugged another pin out of Ruby’s hair, watching as it spilled in a dark waterfall down her back. And he found himself irrationally hoping she would take him up on his offer.
She stared at him from behind black-rimmed glasses, her pretty pink lips pursed in thought. “Not sure it’s wise to let a total stranger show me around London, although it would be adventurous.”
“You and I are strangers, but we have a mutual friend,” he told her. “Theo and I have known each other our whole lives. We attended the same primary and secondary school, although I was a few years behind him.”
“So, the Earl of Highcastle will vouch for your character. That’s what you’re telling me?” She gave him a grin that made her eyes crinkle at the corners.
“Essentially, yes,” he told her with a smile of his own.
“You don’t have anything else to do tomorrow?” she asked.
“Not tomorrow, as it’s Sunday, but I do have business in Wales on Monday.”
“What do you do for a living?”
He leaned back, staring into the fountain in front of them. “A better question might be, what don’t I do?”
“I…don’t know what that means.”
“It means I’ve tried a number of positions within the family business, but none seem to have been the right fit.” He watched the water as it splashed into the basin of the fountain, only to be sucked back up through the plumbing and begin its journey all over again. That was how he felt most of the time. One of these days, he would find the right position within the company, the one that would launch him right over the edge and out of this holding pattern.
In the meantime, he needed to dedicate himself one hundred percent to his upcoming assignment in Dubai. His parents had taken a chance on him, allowing him to oversee the construction of what would become one of Exeter Hotels’ largest locations, and he couldn’t let them down.
“I think that happens to a lot of us.” Ruby set the last pin on the bench between them and ran her fingers through her hair, smoothing out the bumps and waves. “In fact, Elle, Megan, and I had all been bouncing between jobs until we won that magazine contest last year.”
“You won a magazine contest?”
She nodded. “To manage Rosemont Castle. It’s how we met Theo.” She gestured toward the estate, where Theo was inside, dancing with his new bride.
“Does it look okay?” she asked, tugging at a strand of her hair.
“You look beautiful.” He studied her with a smile. “I didn’t get a good look at you before your run-in with the rosebush, but I think I might prefer it down.”
“Really? I never wear it down.”
“No? That’s a shame. You have lovely hair.”
“I can’t stand when it gets in my face.”
“May I?” He picked up a pin and gestured to her hair.
“You want to do my hair for me?” she asked, amusement and surprise mixing in her tone.
“I have three sisters.” He lifted the hair away from the left side of her face and secured it with several pins, then did the same on the other side.
“I told you I’m the youngest of five. There.” He sat back and surveyed his work. “Not bad, if I do say so myself.”
Ruby reached up to touch her new hairdo. “I think I like it. I might change my mind when I see myself in a mirror, though.”
He lifted his hands in front of him. “I’ll take no offense if you hate it. Shall we go find a mirror, then?”
“I suppose I’ve hidden out here in the gardens long enough.” She stood, smoothing her hands over the front of her dress. “It’s been nice chatting with you, though.”
“Do you really not want to dance, or did you just not want to dance with Ellis?” he asked, holding out his elbow.
She slipped her hand through it with a small smile. “So polite. I’m not much of a dancer, I’m afraid, but my objection was mainly to dancing with Ellis.”
“In that case, after you freshen up, would you care to dance?” He gave her his most charming smile.
“I’d love to.” Her eyes twinkled in the moonlight.
“Excellent.” They walked into the ballroom, arm-in-arm. The band was playing an upbeat tune at one end of the room, and the dance floor was packed. At the center, he could see the bride and groom. He nodded toward them. “They look like they’re having a good time.”
“They sure do.” Ruby’s face lit with a smile, and Flynn’s breath caught in his throat. “What?” she asked.
“I just got my first look at you in actual light, and I had no idea I’d been sitting outside with the prettiest woman at the party.” He nudged her shoulder playfully. Ruby scoffed at his compliment, but he wasn’t joking, not this time. She was lovely, with her dark hair cascading over her shoulders, pinned back to accent her heart-shaped face and those rich chocolate eyes shining behind her glasses. Ruby wore a floor-length pink dress—a bridesmaid’s dress—and it hugged her petite frame just right.
“I’m going to the ladies’ room. I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be waiting.” He turned toward the bar, only to see his mother waving him over.
“Flynn,” she called. “There you are.”
And he felt a bit like Ruby had in the garden when Ellis Mayberry caught up with them, because there was a woman standing beside his mother, a blonde in a knee-length black dress smiling shyly in his direction.
“Darling, this is Rebecca Creekmore,” his mother said. “Rebecca, this is my son, Flynn.”