Harry hated flying. He always travelled across continental Europe by train just to avoid flying. He looked around the waiting lounge in Rome's central rail station. It was busier than he expected. He'd never known a sleeper service this busy. The conductor called for holders of first-class ticket with priority boarding on the overnight service to Paris. Harry stood and walked over to him, dragging his luggage trolley in his wake, and handed over his ticket.
"Busy service tonight," he said in confident Italian.
"Sì, signore. The airport in Paris is closed. We have taken many last minute bookings."
"Then I'm glad I booked in advance. I'd hate sharing with a stranger."
"Sì, signore." The porter handed back the ticket and signalled someone to show Harry to his compartment and carry his bags.
The cabin was like every other first class sleeper cabin he'd travelled in. Two bunk beds folded into one wall. Against the opposite wall were two chairs with a cabinet between them that the mini-bar. Harry watched the porter haul his bags into the luggage rack, then handed him a ten-Euro note and closed the door. He sat in the chair closest to the window and stared out over the platform. It was still crowded. Most of the passengers would be sharing cabins with up to five others. Once more Harry was thankful for having booked his ticket weeks ago.
He'd been at the company's Rome office for three years. Under his stewardship, the office had seen significant growth. The bigwigs in London called him their "steady hand". When they offered him the position in Paris, they'd made it clear that, while he was free to turn the job down, he'd have to find work in another company if he did. He was good, but replaceable. The operation in Paris was bigger than in Rome, but he'd only be second in command, not the boss. Was it a step down? He couldn't make up his mind. At least his pay hadn't fallen—quite the opposite, in fact.
He looked at his watch. It was just after six. The train was due to leave at six-thirty, but Harry suspected they'd be late. He really should do some work—he had some reading to do before he took up his new position. He could probably get it all done before dinner, after which he'd turn in for the night. The train was due to arrive in Paris at nine the next morning and he'd be expected at the office by the afternoon. His laptop bag was on the luggage rack. He stood to retrieve it when there was a knock at the door.
"Yes?" Harry wasn't happy with an interruption before they'd even set off.
A senior conductor pushed the door open and entered the cabin. When he spoke in heavily accented English instead of Italian, Harry knew it couldn't be good news. "I'm a-sorry, signore."
"Sorry for what, exactly?"
"It's-a like this, signore. The people who sell-a the tickets, they did-a not realise that you-a specifically requested a cabin to your a-self and..."
"Don't even think it, let alone say it. I've paid good money for this cabin. Top whack! If you're planning to lump someone else in here, you can think again. Find him another cabin!"
"I'm a-sorry, signore. There is-a no other cabin. I shall-a see to it that you are-a compensated by our people in Paris."
Harry grunted. Money wasn't the issue. After all, the company was paying. It was the principle. He'd booked early to ensure a cabin to himself so that he could work. That would be impossible with a stranger in the cabin. He'd be writing to the train company as soon as he was behind his desk. He watched in dismay as the conductor stepped from the cabin and a young porter hauled his new travelling companion's luggage into the rack. As soon as his work was done, the porter ran from the room so fast that Harry was sure the boy must be terrified of his reaction. Harry shrugged and turned to face the window. He stared at the platform once more. It appeared to be clear apart from the well-wishers there to wave their friends goodbye.
"Oh, mon Dieu. Un homme. Ce n'est pas vrai." The voice was female. Soft and sensual, it had a rich, warm, chocolaty tone.
Harry turned to view his companion. She was every bit as beautiful as her voice had promised. She had a distinctly Parisian look—elegant and effortlessly chic despite her expression of extreme annoyance. Her nose was wrinkled and her eyes half-closed. She looked as if she'd just stepped in something nasty.
"Monsieur, you are Anglais, non? I 'eard ze conductor speaking anglais." She sounded like every stereotypical Frenchwoman Harry had ever heard. The accent was so strong it sounded fake—or at the very least, exaggerated.
He stepped forward and offered his hand. "Harry Whitehead. Pleasure."
She quickly shook his hand with undisguised disdain. "C'est dégueulasse, non? I am expecting to be sharing with une femme, pas un homme."
"I'm sure there has been a mistake," said Harry. "I'll call the conductor back."
"Don't bother." She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. Her whole demeanour softened. She sounded almost sad—as if the whole world's problems were encapsulated in her predicament. "'E said that this was ze only cabin with any place. It looks like we are going to be putting up with each other?"
She pulled her hair free of the clip that held it place, and loose blonde curls cascaded down over her left shoulder. She loosened them further with her fingers and shook her head. Harry stared. He'd never quite taken to Italian women—there was something about their manner and their awareness of their own beauty that put him off. But here was a woman as good-looking as any he'd encountered in Rome, and she was happy to let her guard down in front of a complete stranger. If she was indicative of the French, Harry suspected he'd be having a much happier time in Paris. She collapsed into the closest seat and eased off her shoes. "Ahhhh, c'est du bien. J'ai mal à mes pieds parce que les chaussures sont merde."
Harry sat back in the window seat. The train jerked into life and slowly pulled away from the platform. The Frenchwoman closed her eyes and rested her head on the back of the seat. Harry thought she might be falling asleep. Perhaps he could get some work done after all. Just as he was about to stand and retrieve his laptop, the woman opened her eyes and turned her head slightly to address him. "You said you were named 'Arry, non?"
"That's right. Harry Whitehead."
"Blanc tête," she said absently-mindedly. She giggled. "Well, 'Arry. We 'ave a long journey. We should get to know each other a little bit, non? I cannot believe I 'ave to take ze train. Ze airport workers are cons, non? C'est typique de cons."
"I'm sorry," said Harry. "What's typical?"
"Ze airport workers! They are striking, non? That is why we are 'aving to take ze train. They are saying that one of them is putting ze bags on ze wrong aeroplane, and when ze airport try to ... er ... bag 'im?" She looked at Harry for confirmation.
"You mean 'sack him'?"
"Oui. C'est ça. Sack 'im. They are trying to sack him, and all the people in 'is club are stopping work too."
"You know. 'Is club of workers."
"Oh. You mean his union?"
"Oui. Oui. C'est ça." She sighed once more. "'Arry, I would like a drink. Would you like one?"
"I may as well. I'll pop to the dining car and get it. What would you like ... Erm ... I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"Oh, mon Dieu. Je suis désolé. This is so rude of me. My name is Céline. Céline de Montagne."
"Pleased to meet you, Céline. Now, what can I get you?"
Harry fetched drinks and retook his seat by the window. Céline sipped her dry white wine, stretched out her legs and relaxed into the chair. Harry savoured his cold beer. The ice between them was broken and he felt surprisingly comfortable in the company of a woman he'd known for less than half an hour.
She rolled her head to the side to look at him. "So, 'Arry. Tell me about yourself."
"Tell you... ?"
"Oui. It is what, quinze heures à Paris? I cannot be sitting in silence for this many hours. So tell me about yourself."
"There's not much to tell really. I'm thirty-eight, never married—"
"Why not? You are good-looking, non? Are all Englishwomen blind?"
Harry was flattered that she though him good-looking. "Actually, I've travelled around a lot. The company I work for has offices across the globe, and I've worked in most of them. I've been in Rome for the past three years."
"This is a shame, non? Perhaps one day you will be meeting someone and choosing to stay in one place?"
"I think they'll have to be prepared to move with me."
"Then you may always be alone."
"Not alone. I've had my share of girlfriends." He leaned across the cabinet. "There's this American girl called Ruth. She was working for me in the Rome office. I swear..." He sucked in a breath through his teeth and shook his head.
"I shouldn't. It wouldn't be very discreet."
"Ah, oui, discrétion. But will I ever be meeting this American woman? Je ne sais pas, but I am thinking 'Non'. There is no need for discrétion. Tell me."
"I don't think so."
"Ah, tant pis. So, what is taking you to Paris?"
"I'm starting a new job."
"Ah, c'est bien. Moi aussi. I 'ave a new job. Paris is my 'ome. I've been away from her for far too long, and it is time I returned. A large company is offering me a good job. and I am saying 'Oui' straight away. We are having something in common, non?"
"I guess so."
An announcement interrupted them. Dinner was about to be served. Harry looked at his watch. It was seven-thirty. Where had the last hour gone?
He looked at Céline. "Join me for dinner? My treat."
"It is being my pleasure, 'Arry." She smiled—a wide smile that could have illuminated the Eiffel Tower.
When they were seated in the dining car, they ordered food and wine from the small menu. The wine was brought directly, and the food followed in short order.
"Good service," said Harry as he laid his napkin across his lap.
Céline huffed. "In my experience, if food is arriving quickly, then it is prepared before and zapped in the microwave. Good food is like good love. It is taking a long time to make."
Harry already had a mouthful of pasta. He swallowed and then said, "I don't know. This isn't bad. Sauce is nice, chicken's well cooked, pasta's not overdone. I've had worse."
Céline watched Harry shovel another forkful of food into his mouth and muttered, "Les anglais mangent comme des cochons."
She laid her own napkin on her lap and picked up her fork. Harry watched with mild amusement as she pushed some pieces of pasta around her plate before spearing one on the fork. She lifted it and opened her mouth just wide enough to get the food in. The pasta brushed her lips, leaving a trail of cheese sauce behind. She closed her lips around the fork and slipped it out, leaving the pasta behind. She chewed slowly and after she'd swallowed, she licked her lips clean with the tip of her tongue. Harry shivered.
She picked up another piece of pasta on her fork and held it in front of her. "'Arry, I think you have been spending too much time en Italie eating ze pasta and ze pizza. Your palate has suffered, non? You can no longer tell what is good food and what is not. En France, we are serving better food than this in our prisons and our schools, non?"
Harry shrugged. "Like I said, I've had worse."
Céline ate another delicate mouthful of food and then said, "I know what to do 'Arry. When we are both settled in Paris, I will take you to my preferred restaurant. Then you will know what is good food."
The next few moments passed quietly as they ate. Finally, Céline said, "So, 'Arry. Are you telling me about your American girl? Or am I making up my own story?"
Harry smiled and thought for a second. What harm could it do? Chances were he'd never see Céline again after they got to Paris, and Céline would certainly never meet his fiancée. "Her name is Ruth."
"Ruth is a nice name."
"We met about a month after I moved to Rome, so we've been together for nearly three years now."
"You are still together? Are you in love with her?"
"I think I am. I don't know if she still loves me, though. Last time I spoke to her, she was still adamant she didn't want to move to Paris. I don't even know if we are still engaged. She hasn't given me the ring back, so I guess we must be."
"You are getting married? That is wonderful. Félicitations."
"Like I said, I don't know. It's been nearly a week since I last spoke with her. I tried to call her before I got on the train, but she didn't answer her phone."
"This is bad. I think you should be trying harder to move her to Paris when we arrive. Paris is a wonderful place for a girl to live. Le shopping, la cuisine, l'ambience."
"You're right, of course. I should try harder. So what about you? Any special men in your life?"
"Only mon Papa. I am young and at liberty. C'est magnifique."
They continued to talk over the meal and by the time they returned to their cabin, it was almost half-past nine.
"Which one would you like?" Céline asked.
"Ze beds? Do you want to go on top or below?"
"It makes no difference to me. You decide which you want, and I'll take the other."
"Bon. I prefer to be below." She went over to the luggage rack and tried to remove one of her cases. It was stuck. As she struggled with it, Harry rushed over to help.
"Oh, merci. C'est gentil, monsieur." She put the case on the seat and opened it. Harry could see her underwear in the case. Most of it was black and looked skimpy at best. He quickly looked out of the window. It was dark outside. All he could see was Céline's reflection as she rooted through her case. Eventually she found what she was looking for. "Would you mind?" she asked, nodding to the case.
"Sure," said Harry. He put the case back in the luggage rack and she entered the tiny cubicle that passed for a bathroom to change for bed. While she was locked away, Harry retrieved his own pyjamas from his overnight bag.
Céline returned, fully clothed and looking annoyed. "C'est impossible. This bathroom is far too small to be undressing."
"I could wait outside, if you like?"
"C'est gentil, monsieur, but that would 'ardly be fair on you. And I cannot be offering to do the same as you are changing. Non, perhaps if you would mind to be facing the other way... ?"
"Sure. I promise not to peek."
Harry couldn't keep his promise. He closed his eyes at first, but temptation got the better of him and he spied on Céline through one eye. Her blouse came off first. Under it, she wore a white bra. Her reflection in the window was too indistinct for Harry to make out any detail. Next, she wiggled out of her skirt to reveal white French knickers. Harry held his breath as she removed her bra and her magnificent breasts came into view. She turned and picked up the slinky red nightgown she'd taken from her bag and pulled it over her head. It slipped down her body, clinging to her curves as it fell into place. Harry's final treat came when, still facing away from him, she bent over to remove her knickers. Her nightdress rode up to reveal her bottom—and what a bottom it was. Harry thought it one of the best he'd ever seen.
"D'accord," she said. "I am finished. You are opening your eyes now."
Harry turned to look at Céline. She twirled around, causing her nightdress to lift up and giving Harry a brief flash of the hair between her legs. Then she stood with her arms held out slightly from her body. "Do you like it? It is new. I am treating myself for my return 'ome."
"It's very nice."
"Very nice? Is that all? You English and your reserve. Is it not sexy?"
"Oh, yes. Very sexy. I just didn't think it was particularly appropriate to say so."
"Ah, bon. Alors. I shall be going back in the bathroom to, what is it your English women say? Powdering my nose? But of course, I mean Je fait pee-pee."
She slipped back into the washroom and Harry quickly changed into his blue and white striped pyjamas. When Céline re-emerged, Harry decided it best to go to the toilet himself before bed. The door to the bathroom opened against the door to the cabin. Harry was just about to enter the small cubicle when the train jerked violently. She fell against him. Her head hit his chest and pushed him against the door. The door handle hit him squarely in the back, and he yelped in pain. When the train was stable again, he helped her to her feet and stood upright himself. The pain in his back was unbearable. He rubbed it and swore.
"Oh, 'Arry. You 'ave 'urt yourself. Let me look. Lean against 'ere."
Harry put his hands on the upper bunk and rested his head on them. He felt Céline lift up his pyjama top. She gently rubbed the small of his back. "Ca fait mal?" she asked. "Where does it 'urt?"
"Down a little," said Harry. "Ow! Yeah, there."
"Oui, oui. Je vois. I am thinking you will be bruised tomorrow. Wait here, I have some crème. It may help." She went over to the luggage rack and rooted through one of her smaller bags. She returned and Harry shivered as she put some of the cold cream on his back. She rubbed it in and Harry groaned. She added more cream and rubbed that in too. The pain in his back eased to a dull ache.