In my gorgeous new dress and earrings borrowed from Abbey, I walked as elegantly as possible, down the aisle. I wore a pale blue set of underwear – apparently matching bras and knickers are the height of sophistication – and my mother’s old gold watch, for good luck. Sashaying now, I smiled at people to my left, and then my right. Ahead, Edward caught my eye and winked. Stomach tingling, I stopped by his side and stared at the lusciousness that was Lord Edward Croxley. *Sigh*. I grinned at the vicar. Today, Friday the first of February, was possibly one of the happiest of my life.
‘Move out the way, will yer?’ boomed a voice from behind. Talk about rude! I fought the urge to indicate with two fingers, in a “W” shape for “Whatever”, that I’d only be a couple of seconds. I slipped off my jacket and dropped sideways, into my seat, next to my guy. The loud man pushed past, towards the loo. Still standing, unsteadily, the vicar burped and looked out of the window. Truth be told, he was a plumber called Jim and in fancy dress for a stag weekend.
Despite all that something borrowed, something blue malarkey, this was no wedding, but a trip on an aeroplane. Squirming in my seat, I pulled down the short hem to my cherry red dress. Some of last year’s training that helped me pretend to be modest, aristocratic Abbey for two weeks had clearly stuck – thanks to my teacher, Lady Constance Woodfold (Lady C to me), and her crash course in how to act in a more refined way.
‘I can’t believe we’re only ten minutes from
!’ I said as the sign lit up for us
to fasten our seatbelts. Paris
Edward put away his travel guide and squeezed my hand. ‘What’s more exciting, Gemma – your first flight or the prospect of spending one month in the tremendous City of
I cocked my head, wanting to say neither – I was most looking forward to working in restaurant Chez Dubois for the whole of February and learning everything I could about French nosh. But that wasn’t a very romantic answer, considering he’d proposed only a short while ago, at Christmas – just moments after I’d decided to travel the world in order to learn how to become a chef.
You see, Edward had tipped thirty whereas I was still a couple of years off celebrating my twenty-fifth. Independent me, much as I loved him, just wasn’t sure whether to say “yes” and sign on the dotted marital line. So patient Edward was still waiting for my answer. I cleared my throat and fortunately, at that moment, the air stewardess came by, to check our belts. In fact she’d been mega attentive throughout our journey and suddenly blurted out:
‘You two were great on Million Dollar Mansion last year…’ Her cheeks tinged pink. ‘I’ve been longing to say that since we left Gatwick. It’s the best reality show ever and I’m so glad your side won.’
Edward’s eyes shone. ‘How kind. Yes, it was super to secure the financial future of my ancestral home.’
‘You were excellent, passing yourself off as your classy best friend, Abigail Croxley,’ she said to me and giggled. ‘Your antics were a real hoot.’
Even though I’d had the same conversation a thousand times since being on telly last September, I never got bored of chatting to the show’s fans. Not even when people exclaimed how “common” – whatever that meant – I looked, away from the camera, nor when women ogled Edward, who looked even hotter in real life.
It would be strange in
, where no one knew us. Perhaps Edward and me could finally grab some “quality
time” together. Jeez, just saying that made me sound about a hundred – I’d
spent too much time living in his family home, musty old Applebridge Hall! It
was the first time I’d been travelling without slathering myself in fake tan or
packing my boob-enhancing chicken fillets. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved my
short skirts and colourful nails but… Lady C’s training… All that stuff about
moderation… Somehow bits of it had etched themselves permanently onto my brain. Paris
‘Are you two on a romantic getaway?’ the stewardess continued, oblivious to the glares of the colleague in front of her, trying to pass with the drinks trolley.
I avoided Edward’s eye. Not that he’d made a fuss when I’d asked for more time to consider his proposal, but it was hard to stay strong. The soppy part of me melted at the sound of his very English voice – at the sight of his strong shoulders, that teasing mouth, those soulful eyes – and didn’t want to think rationally about my jet-setting career plans.
‘Um… Not really,’ I said, cheeks tingeing pink. ‘I’m here for a month, developing my cookery skills. One of the workmen renovating Applebridge Hall’s top floor heard about me longing to travel. He spoke to his daughter who works in
, in the catering business.’ France
‘It’s who you know, not what, don’t they say,’ said the air stewardess, nodding her head.
‘Too right! She passed on details of a bistro that needed reliable, temporary English-speaking staff to help out during February. Although there was some mix-up and we’ve ended up working at Chez Dubois, a different restaurant.’ I shrugged. ‘Anyway, a friend of hers lent us her flat as she’d just taken on a cruise ship job for a month and didn’t want it standing empty. Apparently she’d heard of
and cos we’re “famous” – her words,
not mine – trusted us not to trash her place.’ Million Dollar Mansion
‘I’d love to live in
for more than an overnight
stopover,’ said the stewardess, in a dreamy voice. Paris
‘The restaurants over there are expecting business to boom due to a series of spring events to commemorate the First World War,’ chipped in Edward and ran a hand through his honey curls. ‘I believe Chez Dubois is one of the oldest in the area. It was built in the seventeenth century, originally as a café where men might drink and listen to the wit of visiting actors. Over the centuries it became the haunt for many famous writers, so understandably Gemma and I – both keen readers – are thrilled to work there.’
‘Aw, and you’re keeping Gemma company?’ said the air stewardess and gave a flirtatious giggle.
Honestly! How did Edward manage to turn most women to putty within minutes of talking to them?
He smiled. ‘Gem doesn’t need me to accompany her – she’s capable of making new friends anywhere on this earth. No, the magazine I write a weekly column for is interested in several pieces on the First World War commemorative events in
. I thought a take on the French
perspective might also interest readers, so asked lovely Gemma if she’d mind me
tagging along.’ England
How chuffed Edward had been when Country Aspirations magazine offered him the column, having been impressed with the success of his daily blog during
. Since publishing his weekly pieces
on the twenty-first century world from an aristocrat’s point of view, their
sales figures had soared. The magazine’s stodgy readers particularly lapped up
articles on Applebridge Hall’s renovation, high society events and the fine
nosh we taught people to cook at the food academy we set up with the million
dollars prize. Million Dollar Mansion
The air stewardess wished us luck and moved on, probably disappointed that we hadn’t announced we were eloping or on some sort of honeymoon. As the plane tilted its nose and got ready to land, I leant past Edward to look out of the aeroplane. He’d offered me the window seat, as it was my first time in the air, but I’d said no. Each peek out of the window gave me an excuse to cuddle up to my yummy man. Meringues of cloud parted to reveal sunshine. For a second the plane shook – talk about the ultimate rollercoaster ride, and one that would end at the coolest ever destination!
My heart felt like it would explode with sparks of joy as I relaxed back into my seat and held Edward’s hand tight. I glanced sideways at him and couldn’t wait to kiss his lips, to feel his breath on my neck, under the starry Parisian sky… A smile crossed my lips. If Auntie Jan knew how Edward still made me feel, she’d call me “a right soppy sausage”.
‘Have you worked out exactly where our flat is?’ I said, as the plane finally ground to a halt and we stood up to get our hand luggage. ‘If not, I’ll Google the address on your laptop.’ I patted his rucksack.
‘Done,’ said Edward as we stepped out of the aeroplane and followed the other passengers towards the luggage carousel. Once there, he took out the travel guide and pointed to an underground station, in the north of the capital. ‘As we thought, the flat is near Chez Dubois, in
Montmartre – near the Sacre-Coeur.’
‘Ooh, close to that square full of artists that I’ve seen on the telly? Aren’t we the cultured ones?’
‘I believe it is excessively touristy nowadays, but yes, that’s the place.’ He leant forward and kissed me on the lips – an action which never failed to make my heart race, as if it only had a few beats left before giving out. ‘Oh, Gem, I can’t wait to show you my favourite Parisian haunts. When Mother brought me here, one school holiday, I thought it was the most wonderful place on earth. The view from the top of the
is smashing – truly panoramic. And
we visited the extraordinary Pompidou Centre and Père Lachaise, a magnificent
cemetery where some of the greatest writers of all time are buried, like Oscar
Wilde. The tombs are like nothing you’ve ever seen – even bigger than those on
your favourite supernatural programme…’ Eiffel Tower
I screwed up my forehead.
‘The one where high school students transform into werewolves or consume blood.’ He pulled a face.
‘Ah, the Vampire Diaries.’ AKA the greatest show on earth! And I wasn’t the only dedicated viewer at Applebridge Hall. Amazin’ cook, Kathleen, watched it too, under the guise of ironing in front of the telly. Proof that grey hairs and wrinkles don’t stop you appreciating hot men – well, bloodsuckers really, but still, what was a couple of sharp glinting teeth between friends?
Having said that, much as I liked watching lush vamps hang out amongst gravestones, I’d already selected more lively locations to visit during my stay here. For me, the French capital was all about wicked boutiques, awesome cafés and, of course, Disneyland Paris, dream destination to children of all ages – including forty-three year old Auntie Jan, who was Minnie Mouse’s number one fan.
Plus I could just imagine Edward and me sitting outside some fancy bar in the capital, sipping red wine, and eating slices of baguette with smelly cheese. We’d look all arty and refined, with a cluster of museum guides and shopping bags at my feet. All I’d need then was a beret and miniature poodle to make the fantasy complete. In the background, classy music would play – like that golden oldie about not regretting something or other... *Sigh*. I’d fallen in love with
‘Pardon!’ mumbled a lady in a fur coat, who squeezed past us to get her bags.
‘Huh?’ I shrugged at Edward. ‘But I didn’t say anything.’
‘No, that means excuse me,’ said Edward as he studied the carousel.
Oh. Clearly my GCSE French was rustier than I thought. Mind you, I hadn’t forgotten everything and when the woman came back again, carrying a smart suitcase, and repeated the polite word, I said. ‘Au naturel,’ pleased to have remembered the phrase for “of course”.
The woman gave me a strange look and hurried on. Edward chuckled.
‘You just said “naked” to her,’ he whispered.
Really? Nah, he had to be wrong, even though he’d spent the last few weeks revising his French. Certain things from school lessons never left me – like the time I did an essay about me and Auntie Jan attempting to make homemade jam. Right healthy it was, and I wrote that we’d used no préservatifs. You should have seen the teacher’s face. Well, how was I supposed to know that was the French word for condoms? Cue, a fleeting moment of fame at school, as everyone thought I’d muddled up the words on purpose.
As the luggage went around on the conveyor belt, a man in a black suit and sunglasses stood on the other side of the carousel and stared my way. His light brown hair was styled army short. He had tanned skin, a strong jawline and chiselled cheekbones. All of a sudden he turned away and disappeared into the crowds. Perhaps Parisians might recognise us after all.
A fashionable woman struggled to retrieve her huge suitcase and Edward lunged forward, easily lifted it off the conveyor belt and bowed his head as she giggled and muttered her thanks in French. Yes, I was officially going out with one sexy, appealing hunk! Whistling, arm linked with my man, I eventually left the airport.
We pulled our suitcases on wheels, both of us carrying rucksacks on our backs. Once outside I took a deep breath, expecting to smell garlic or see strings of onions around people’s necks. This was France, right? Plus my first time abroad… But, disappointingly, everything looked much the same as back home, including the grubby pavement and grey clouds.
How could this be? I wanted glamour! The Exotic! Sophistication! Even the birds were the same, I noticed, as a couple of chubby pigeons ambled past. You’d think they‘d look all slim and sexy, living over the Channel. Edward hailed a taxi and muttered something in the local lingo. Apparently he’d got top marks for his French A-level and once stayed with family friends in the South of France. As a girl I’d always been lucky to get a week in
– not that I’m complaining. It takes a lot to
beat a visit to the arcades, followed by a cone of chips and stick of rock. Margate
We got in the car and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the strange man with sunglasses get into a waiting black BMW. Wow. Its windows were tinted. He must have been important.
‘Anglais, uh?’ said the taxi driver, as our car pulled away.
‘Yes,’ said Edward.
‘Non…’ I cleared my throat. ‘We are, ‘ow you zay… workeeeeng.’ I caught Edward’s eye and giggled, realising that just adding an accent to my English didn’t make me a linguist.
‘Nous travaillons,’ I said, racking my brain for the right words.
‘Ah… but still… Exciting, non… in
‘Au naturel,’ I said, despite Edward thinking he knew what that meant. And, indeed, the car swerved, proving that the driver was impressed with my French.
‘Bit of a luxury this, isn’t it, a taxi?’ I said to Edward as the driver looked in his mirror to give me a weird look and turned up the radio.
‘Quite. After years of watching every penny, to save Applebridge Hall, my instinct would have been to take the underground.’
‘You mean Métro,’ I said airily. ‘Yes – but I’m glad we took the convenient option, instead of dragging our cases across the capital. It’s made our whole trip a lot easier.’
‘Our first trip together…’ Edward smiled fondly at me. ‘I wonder where we’ll go for our second? Imagine going on a cruise, like the girl whose flat we’re borrowing. Even though she’s working on the ship, it’s a chance second to none – a life on the waves…’ Edward stared dreamily out of the window.
It had been weird for him – the fallout from last year’s reality show. The world suddenly realising that his cousin Rupert – not him – was the rightful heir to Applebridge Hall. Once Rupert took over, after graduating later this year, Edward would be free of his aristocratic responsibilities, if he wanted, to carve out any career path.
I gripped his hand and gave it a squeeze, before gazing out of the window. Whoaa! This was more like it. Clearly we were entering the centre of the
. Just look at those cute cafés with
people drinking beer and coffee outside, under the early rays of spring sun.
And those shop windows had gilt-edged windows… Glamour at last! Plus an old man
just cycled past wearing a beret! Paris
Mind you, he’d have been better off wearing a sturdy helmet. My eyes widened as cars weaved randomly in between lanes, hooting and winding down their windows to swear. Perhaps I’d need to head for the Champs-Elysées to experience French elegance at its best. And sure enough, we drove down that huge avenue eventually – not that I took in much detail, after the psychotic way our car had hurtled around the Arc de Triomphe a few times, seconds before.
‘I suspect we’re being taken on the sightseeing route,’ said Edward and glanced at the taxi meter before pulling out his travel guide. I held onto the door, heart racing as if I’d just done the scariest ride at
. I must have been confused, cos I
was sure I saw that black BMW hurtling around with us, as well. Alton Towers
Not long after, however, the streets narrowed and, able to focus once again, I saw Parisian life up close. Away from the busy boulevards, people walked at a slower pace. They talked on their phones or, carrying a newspaper, stopped to chat with café owners. The most adorable balconies with plant pots fronted white-washed flats above shops, shutters either side of the windows. I sent Abbey a quick text to let her know how cute the city was.
‘Are you going to miss Applebridge Hall? And your dad? It’s ages since you’ve been away, what with the financial stresses,’ I said.
Edward chuckled. ‘Father and I could probably do with a break from each other after all this time. But seriously? I feel happier leaving him behind, now that he enjoys the companionship of Lady Constance.’
I nodded. Theirs was a mega sweet romance, fuelled by a mutual love of birdwatching. ‘Shame she won’t be with him for Valentine’s Day.’
‘At least she’s only in
for a few days.’ Switzerland
‘True.’ Dear old Lady C – well into her seventies and still giving advice on running finishing schools. Having owned one for years, she’d become something of an expert in the field, plus appearing on
had raised her profile. She’d been
mega chuffed to be invited to a girls’ college in Million Dollar Mansion for three nights. Zurich
‘Almost there, now,’ said Edward, as we pulled into a busy street which was cobbled, full of pedestrians and increasingly narrow. How adorable! I’d have to take loads of photos later and upload them to my Facebook page, with the status “Wish you were here.”
‘We can walk from here.’ He paid the driver and we got out.
Towing our luggage, we eventually came to a tiny square where I did finally breathe in garlic – along with a whiff of seafood wafting out from a bottle-green painted bistro on the left called “La Perle”. Next to that was a gift shop with racks of postcards outside. Opposite was a butcher’s with a queue coming out of the door and a tiny supermarket. A van pulled up near the gift shop to unload fresh produce for a grocer’s further along. Edward pointed upwards, to the right.
‘Voilá!’ he murmured.
Wow – it couldn’t get better than this. Our home for the next month was bang on top of a patisserie – that’s a cake shop, to you and me – called… Ah, I could translate those words – the sign said “The Golden Croissant”. Roll on breakfasts of fresh swirly Danish pastries… And down the end of the avenue, along from there I could just see a red canopy over small tables – a bar!
‘Come on!’ I said and hurried towards the flat. Pulling my suitcase, I charged towards the cake shop and headed up a staircase on its right, whilst Edward nipped inside the Golden Croissant to get the key. Five minutes later, we were inside the flat and surveying our new home in silence. Talk about fab.
The small, functional kitchen and lounge were open plan, with a welcoming fireplace in the middle, near an ivory sofa and chairs. Underneath the glass coffee table lay a turquoise patterned rug, over oak-laminated floor. On the ornate black balconies, outside the windows, sat potted plants. There was a dinky bathroom and the cutest bedroom, with rustic bedcovers, a bowl of potpourri and a wash basin and jug. A beech table with four chairs just about fitted into the far corner, on the window side….
‘Our Parisian abode really is quite charming,’ said Edward as he took out a notebook from his pocket, to jot down some notes.
‘Look at you, ever the writer,’ I said and winked.
He nodded. ‘It’s just a few random thoughts of our taxi drive and the sights so far. If I’m lucky I’ll be able to squeeze a few weeks’ columns out of this trip and not just report on the commemorative First World War events.’
I opened the windows, by the balcony, to air the flat. The divine aroma of crème fillings, sugar and spice wafted up from the cake shop. I could get used to that.
Edward smiled. ‘Why don’t you pop out and buy some basics, for tea, from that little supermarket? By the time you get back I should have the heating and kettle on. Or if you like, I’ll get the food in and you can set up the flat.’
‘No it’s fine…’ Me shopping – that sounded perfect! Although Edward had become something of a fan of this pastime, since meeting me… Primark was his particular favourite. He couldn’t get over the choice, as over the years he’d made do with the services of a local tailor and occasional trips to a small men’s clothes shop in Applebridge.
‘I won’t be long…’ A lump came to my throat, just for one second. Edward was so caring and reliable, staying behind to set up a cosy little home for us. Perhaps I was mad to not immediately accept his proposal of marriage. I stepped up on tiptoe, and kissed him firmly on his lips. Tenderly he responded, sending a trickle of tingles down my spine.
Once outside, I headed towards the supermarket and, as I glanced ahead, I let out a gasp. The man in a black suit stood by a nearby tree. Of average height, he nevertheless stood out. His whole physique shouted discipline – with his clear skin and subtle gym-bunny shape.
Quick as a flash, he turned away and I shook myself. No. Don’t be paranoid. He must have been a different bloke to the one on the plane. Dark suits and sunglasses were all the rage nowadays.
I gazed around at a poor lady with matted hair and a threadbare scarf. She sat on the pavement, asking for change. I slid my rucksack off my back and delved in for my purse, before handing her some coins. Then I entered the supermarket, in my head practising the pronunciation for the French equivalent of “how much, please?”
At the back of the shop, I swung around an aisle, looking for milk and… Whoa! ... came face to face with that man again. Suddenly he reached for a packet of biscuits. The hairs on the back of my neck jumped to attention. Instinct told me that he was pretending to look busy. But why? Could he really have followed little old me, all the way from the airport?
Shopping forgotten, I made for the door, nevertheless telling myself my suspicions were… Well, my first thought was “bonkers” but since staying with Edward these last months, my vocabulary now included phrases my new aristocratic friends used. Occasionally I’d say something was “quite terrible” or “nonsensical” or “awfully idiotic”. So yes, my suspicions were quite nonsensical.
Who did I think the man was? A real-life version of the Men in Black agents, about to zap aliens? If we’d been in
, he could have worked for one of
the countless TV companies who’d approached me during the last few months, to
do other reality shows. Yet we were in England … I swallowed. No one knew me. I was
letting my imagination work overtime. Paris
Chest nevertheless pounding, I led him away from the direction of the flat and instinctively quickened my pace. After five minutes, I gazed over my shoulder, as the sunlight began to fade. Really? I mean, really? Had he just dodged behind a parked car?
No doubt about it, then. He was stalking me. Mouth dry, I took a sharp left into an avenue and ran as fast as I could in my heels. Yet footsteps still sounded behind me. I cut into an even smaller avenue. Shit (sorry Lady C, manners out the window at this point)… I stared at a dead end. My hands felt sticky and in slow motion, I swivelled around.
The black BMW from earlier pulled up. The door opened. Inside was the mysterious man. He climbed out and walked stealthily towards me.
‘Gemma Goodwin?’ he said.
Was he English? If not, that was a great
accent. My fists curled. London
‘Who’s asking?’ I demanded, daring my voice to waver.
He stared at me for a second– waited until a teenager listening to music, on the other side, boogied past– and then pointed inside the car.
‘Get in please. I don’t mean you any harm but discretion is necessary.’
Feeling my lip tremble just a titch, I held his gaze. How dare he scare half to death? Who did this weirdo think he was?
‘Right away, if you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘It’s a matter of life or death.’
Adrenalin surged through my veins. Uh oh. My heart pounded faster than ever. Both were signs I was about to do something mad – although nigh on four months living with the even-tempered Croxleys had also calmed me down. Lately I reacted to challenging situations in a less knee-jerk fashion - unless I was faced with some bizarre, suited nutter trying to kidnap me. My first curled tighter.
‘Aarghh!’ I screamed, right in mystery man’s face, before legging it away as fast as I could. Well, everyone knew you had to take assailants by surprise. Plus I hoped my screech might attract some knight in shining armour. In fact anyone would do, just for moral support, like a pensioner wielding a stale baguette or sleek Parisian model armed with an ultra pointed stiletto heel.
However, the only person in sight was a man in a Frank Sinatra hat, shuffling by, with the help of a walking stick. Yet he was a superhero, because I reckon his presence alone stopped mystery man hauling me back, to lock into the car’s boot.
Without turning around, I ran away from the shops, as fast as possible in my unpractical heels. I headed into a cobbled road with high white-washed apartment blocks either side. None of the parked vehicles were tall enough to crouch behind. Plus the pavements were still empty which was probably just as well, as even if I stopped someone to explain my plight, I wouldn’t work out the French quick enough.
I scoured the road for a tight spot to hide, so that I could ring Edward or even better the police. Except that I didn’t know the French emergency services number… Urgh. Perhaps there was a French pop group named after it, like that boyband 911. Trouble was, the only French singer I’d heard of, thanks to Gran, was the old crooner, Sacha Distel.
With a gulp of chilly air, rucksack twerking my back, I eventually ended up in a bigger road called Rue des 3 Frères. Despite being on the run – despite my thighs practically igniting at the top, due to skin rubbing together – I found a second to congratulate myself on knowing that this translated as Street of 3 Brothers. If only that meant, literally, that a trio of hunks would promptly arrive to act as my bodyguards. Blisters puffed up on my heels as I gritted my teeth and continued my flight away from the buzz of
Montmartre, through the chilly February air.
With relief, I could no longer hear the thud of following feet… The fingers on
one hand crossed, I finally stopped and turned around.
My stomach twisted. In the distance glinted the bonnet of a black BMW. Mind you, that meant mystery man had taken the mega easy option and was now tracking me in his car– what a wimp. Well I’d show him. My eyes narrowed in the twilight. What I needed was the underground. Edward had shown me the Métro map. Hundreds of stops were dotted around the city. Just let my stalker try to drive his flash wheels down steps.
I turned off the main road and came to an adorable little square surrounded by picture-postcard-pretty shops. What a change it made not to see the same old brand names, like in
, but individually owned bakeries
and chemist stores. In the centre, under some towering, leafless trees, a group
of men packed up a game of French boules. What a pity I hadn’t time to take a
photo and send it to Dad. Years ago, he and Mum had enjoyed a two day honeymoon
here. I’d promised to email him pictures of England as it was now– and you didn’t get
more French than this. Paris
But there was no time for playing tourist and, with a shiver, I stopped a woman who confidently strode my way.
‘Métro?’ I said.
Talk about stylish – she followed the exact rules I’d read in a book on “How to dress like a Parisian”. Apparently French women stuck to a few classic pieces and colours, but incorporated a flamboyant detail. And sure enough, she wore black tailored trousers and a well-cut slate jacket, with the sparkliest flower brooch on its lapel.
‘Métro?’ I repeated. ‘S’il vous plait?’ (or silver plate, as we used to say at school).
After a quick smile, she garbled in French, jabbed her finger to the men playing boules and was off. I sighed, but just then a passing girl, with the bounciest black pigtails, stopped to do up her shoelace. On straightening back up, she gave me a gap-toothed grin.
‘Métro?’ I said hopefully and she drew a square in the air and then also pointed to the men playing. At which point her mother, several metres ahead on the phone, called her daughter who skedaddled off.
It seemed like everyone was in a rush to get home – and fair enough, the sun had almost set and it was Friday night. In fact, all I wanted was to curl up with Edward in our Parisian love nest. Biting my lip, I headed over to where the little girl had pointed and… bingo! I gazed at a square placard bearing a street map.
Okay, let’s see… On a big road, south, heading further away, was a Métro station called Abbesses. Ooh I liked the sound of that, like the English word “abyss”. Hopefully that meant it was nice and deep. Despite his appearance, chauffeured mystery man was clearly no fitness fanatic, so the idea of following me down flights of stairs might put him off.
I duly headed in a southerly direction and… Yay! There it was, on a main road. Aw, the outside of it looked mega pretty with “Métropolitan” written above it in a fancy font, beneath a little glass roof. Without hesitating, I ran down the vintage entrance and started my descent, ogling the awesome murals on the walls.
Around and around I ran, dodging people, forgetting I was in
and should stick to the right. In
fact, blimey! Talk about busy. And as for that musty smell…I screwed up my nose
at the aroma of overcooked cabbage and stinky socks. A boyfriend of mine once
smelt like that after playing football. Whereas I was still waiting for any
annoying habits of Edward’s to come to the fore… He still seemed pretty perfect
– especially since he’d chilled a bit, during recent months. I’d taught him
that pants didn’t need ironing and that if we were, um, otherwise engaged (that
is snogging!) it wasn’t bad manners to let a phone call go to voicemail. France
A clock caught my eye – it was almost and the beginning of the rush hour. I took out a carnet (booklet to you – ooh, my vocabulary was already widening) of ten Métro tickets that me and Edward had bought. I was just about to push one into the machine when someone tapped my shoulder.
‘Tiring are we?’ said a familiar, clipped male voice.
My mouth went dry and I turned around to face those sunglasses. He took them off. Wow. What warm maple-syrup eyes.
I shook myself. Yeah, just like a stalking lion’s. Dodging sideways, I shoved the Métro tickets into my jacket pocket and headed up the steps, blurting out “pardon,” as I pushed my way up. Thanks to last year’s “how to be a lady” training, I always remembered to be polite, however dire the situation.
By the time I reached the top, I’d managed to retrieve my phone from the rucksack. My legs ached, my chest burnt and I had no idea where to run next. In other words, there was no alternative but to ring Edward. Shrieking for help, I could have approached a train guard but, well, that wasn’t my style – especially after the last few months of weird things happening. I’d toughened up.
Don’t get me wrong, nausea hit the back of my throat when I thought who this guy could be or what he might want. However, since being on the telly, I’d been sent men’s underwear through the post, my phone had been hacked, a troll had stolen my identity on Facebook and a fan of Edward’s had stalked me in the swimming pool showers… Currently I had two restraining orders out on people who had grudges against the person they thought I was. It would take more than a smartly dressed dude, in a swanky car, to make me lose my cool.
Blowing out chilly air, I lifted a finger to press dial when a hand curled firmly around my arm and led me out onto the pavement. I stared the black BMW, parked to the side, with its sinister black-tinted windows.
‘There’s no need to ring Edward,’ said the man.
I turned around to meet stern maple-syrup eyes.
‘We’ve taken care of him.’ he continued.
Huh? My chin wobbled. How did he know my boyfriend’s name? What if my sexy, kind-hearted, loyal, dreamy Edward would – or had – come to some harm?
‘All will be explained,’ said the weirdo, his voice a titch softer. ‘Now, please. Trust me. You’ll be safe. Just get in the car.’
For Edward’s sake, I did what I was told.
‘You’re telling me that “taking care of” Edward meant texting him, to say I was going for a walk, to look around? Liar! You haven’t even got his number.’ My eyes narrowed, although it was hard to concentrate on mystery man’s face, due to the distraction of… *sigh*… a mega romantic view in front of me. We sat on the steps of the Sacre-Coeur. I’d been driven there, handed a bottle of water and a yummy bar of English chocolate – ridiculous, or what? One of mystery man’s colleagues – also in a black suit and smelling strongly of a pungent musky aftershave – sat behind us, on the next step up.
My abductor shrugged. ‘We know a lot of things.’
‘Like this?’ I ran a finger over the chocolate bar’s purple wrapper. ‘How did you know it was my favourite?’ Perhaps, after all, he wasn’t an axe murderer or dangerous criminal with a ransom plan… Although, eek! I hadn’t thought of that – now that the Croxley family had won a million dollars, perhaps he thought they’d pay up for my release.
‘Look, what’s your name?’ I said, trying to act all huffy, which was impossible as I gazed back down at the City of
. When we’d first arrived, I’d just
about been able to make out the details of roofs, chimneys and aerials. Now, however,everywhere
was liquorice black, as if the starry sky had fallen to earth, just like that children’s
story where Brer Rabbit thinks the moon has dropped into a pond. Lights
twinkled and towards the right stood the sparkly Light . Eiffel Tower
I turned around, and gazed up at the awesome Sacre-Coeur church, illuminated by an amber glow. A Native American band played nearby, with their drums, flutes and pipes. Chat, laughter and ciggie smoke filled the air. Necking wine out of a bottle, a tramp sat next to us and directly in front was a group of camera-clicking Japanese girls.
I unwrapped the chocolate. With his black suit, perhaps I’d been accosted by the Man from Milk Tray.
‘Hmm. Yumski…’ I said, after swallowing the first creamy mouthful.
‘Yumski – have you distant Russian ancestors?’ His brow furrowed.
‘I’m not answering any questions until you tell me your name.’
He stared at me for a moment. ‘Bloggs. The name is Joe Bloggs.’
‘I see, and…’ Huh? I put the rest of the bar on my lap. ‘Really? You expect me to fall for that?’
He raised one eyebrow, which looked kinda hot– but nowhere near as sexy as Lord Edward, of course.
‘Your help is needed,’ he continued. ‘As part of the ongoing 2014-2018 events to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, four weeks tomorrow, on the first Saturday in March, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are visiting Paris. They’ll attend a charity football match. It will star legends of the game from around the world.’
‘Yeah, I’ve heard – it’s supposed to represent the famous Christmas Eve truce in the trenches, isn’t it, when the two sides came together to play football?’ See, I did pay attention during my history classes at school… (okay, you’ve got me – I really knew because of Paul McCartney’s video to his famous Christmas song “Pipes of Peace”.)
‘Indeed. And…’ Joe cleared his throat. ‘I have reason to believe that the royal couple’s safety is compromised.’ He stared intently at me. ‘That’s where you come in.’
I snorted. ‘Huh? Who do you work for? The M5?’
His top lip twitched. ‘That’s a motorway. Try MI5 – the Security Service, who keep an eye on domestic affairs in
, but no, I’m not…’ Britain
‘Duh, of course you aren’t…’ I snorted. ‘That organisation only really exists in movies.’
‘I’m actually from MI6,’ he continued, ‘also known as the SIS – the Secret Intelligence Service who focus on foreign affairs.’
I almost spat out a mouthful of water. ‘You mean…’ I wiped my lips. ‘Like James Bond? You’re an international spy?’
‘If you like.’
A mega bubble of laughter rose within my chest. My eyes watered. It was no good, and like an over-microwaved stuffed tomato I suddenly burst. Tears trickled down my cheeks and a convoluted (one of Edward’s words) giggle escaped my lips.
‘For God’s sake!’ I said. ‘You’ve got a nerve – pretending to be from a supposed top-secret institution that would never pick up someone in broad daylight and talk of their secret plans. I’ve watched Austin Powers and Johnny English… You can’t fool me.’
Oh dear. Laughing fit again. Finally I recovered. ‘Sorry, mate, but in any case, I am the most unlikely potential female spy you could ever meet. I haven’t got a rude name, like Pussy Galore, and would look rubbish in her cat suit. Nor have I got awesome hair like Charlie’s Angels, and I don’t kick quite as high as that woman in The Avengers…’ I shook my head. ‘Whoever you are – TV company, newspaper – I’m not interested. Ring my agent if you must,’ (wicked isn’t it, I now “had people”, mainly to fob off nutters like this). ‘I could have you charged for kidnapping me…’ I stood up to leave but Joe pulled me back down.
A whiff of soap filled my nostrils. His nails were super-clean. His tie ruler-straight. Clearly he lived by rules and regulations and I had no doubt this meeting with me today had been well-planned.
Discreetly, he opened his jacket and black metal flashed under the Sacre-Coeur’s lights. Oh my God! He was also licensed to kill. What if he’d actually harmed Edward?
At that moment my phone bleeped and I took it out of my rucksack. My eyes tingled. Thank God. Mystery man had told the truth and texted Edward. It was him, saying to enjoy my tour of the area. He’d continue to unpack until I got back.
‘So, you’re armed…’ Annoyingly my voice sounded a titch impressed. ‘And I suppose he’s an agent as well?’
I turned around to the colleague, who had cold grey eyes and an expressionless mouth. He fiddled with gold cufflinks that looked out-of-place on the straightforward suit. There was something about him that was decidedly creepy. He had greased-back hair like some Fifties barber, and a smarmy smile.
‘That’s John. John Smith,’ said Joe Bloggs (I must be in some parallel universe where everyone’s name sounded stupid).
I palm-slapped my forehead. ‘Of course he’d be called that. Silly me.’
‘No need for sarcasm,’ said John,giving a smarmy grin as he joined us on the lower step.
‘Assuming I believe you are both spies – which I don’t – why do you need my help, exactly?’ I asked.
‘One of our agents is mad on reality shows and…’
I raised an eyebrow.
John was the sarcastic one, now. ‘Yes, Gemma, agent or no agent, we are still normal people with common interests, like everyone else.’
‘My colleague told me about you on Million Dollar Mansion,and mentioned she’d read you were coming to
for a month,’ continued Joe. Paris
It still surprised me when newspapers reported stuff about me and Edward, months on from the end of the show.
‘I watched the series online.’ Joe sat more upright. ‘I was impressed, and hoped you’d be my eyes and ears at Chez Dubois.’
‘Your eyes and ears? So – pretending for one second that I believe this spy crap – is this official MI6 business, or not?’
His cheeks reddened. ‘No.’
‘And what exactly would this mission be, at some restaurant?’ But it was no good – uttering those words produced another bubble of laughter and I giggled, expecting to suddenly be accosted by Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig.
Joe Bloggs waited for me to control myself before leaning closer. ‘Something’s going down on the internet, about a “MiddleWin Mort” at the charity football game. “MiddleWin” could be a combination of the names Middleton and
and “Mort”, in French, means death. Windsor–
I gasped. ‘You think someone is going to assassinate the royal couple?’
Joe shrugged. ‘There is no evidence whatsoever to support that… It was just a few comments, spotted in a couple of French forums in recent weeks, discussing the upcoming match. People got chatting about emails they’d received… Chez Dubois was mentioned as well as some cryptic dance terms.’ Joe shrugged. ‘I investigated but before I could take a screenshot, the comments were deleted along with the profiles of the people who’d made them. I’m wondering if the mastermind works at Chez Dubois.’
Blimey. Potentially, this was serious stuff. ‘It’s all a bit vague.’
Joe nodded. ‘Discreetly, MI6 agreed to check out Pierre Dubois who owns the restaurant. His records are clean. In fact, he does a lot of charity work locally. Seems like a decent bloke. Then there’s Cindy Cooper, she has joint French/American nationality and started working there as the sous chef almost one year ago. The head chef is called Jean-Claude Brun and was cautioned for shoplifting as a teenager, but that’s all. Then there’s Hugo Petit, the headwaiter, who’s been there years and has never received so much as a caution. The agency did basic background checks on the rest of the staff who’ve been there longer than six months. They were all clean too. Plus we’ve hacked the restaurant’s laptop and checked all the staff’s email accounts we could find. Nothing to report – just messages to suppliers and customers. Nothing about a MiddleWin Mort… So MI6 closed the file and won’t deploy any agent – not even a junior one – into Chez Dubois.’
‘You must be dedicated to pursue this investigation on your own,’ I said.
‘Or mad,’ muttered John and rolled his eyes. ‘If it were up to me, this thing would be dead and buried.’
Joe pursed his lips. ‘Protecting our country… It’s a commitment every day of the year; a vocation for some of us, I guess.’
‘But if you’re doing your official work and then this on the side… Don’t you get any free time?’
‘I bloody make sure I do,’ said John.
Joe shrugged. ‘It’s not like I’m married, with someone else to think of, dinners to prepare, outings to arrange… My time is my own.’
‘Sounds like you talk from experience and have been hitched in the past.’ I smiled.
For a second his maple-syrup eyes darkened. ‘I don’t discuss personal details.’
Ooh, I sensed a bit of emotional baggage.
‘Jet-setting Joe and I don’t have the time to follow up every lead,’ said John, his voice over-friendly. He stretched out his legs. ‘There are lots of rumours to follow up and hopefully rule out during the coming months. The commemorative events grow in number during the summer and we are here to eliminate all potential terrorist or criminal threats. At present, we’re focusing on the security of the world leaders visiting
the day after the football match,
for a peace conference.’ Paris
My stomach tingled with excitement, now that I was reassured these two men honestly meant me no harm. Joe Bloggs, international spy, was actually asking for a favour. But why get little old me involved?
‘What good will I be?’ I shrugged.
‘Last year you carried yourself off perfectly as Abbey, fooling the public and the Croxleys,’ said Joe. ‘Gemma, you are loyal, determined and take initiative. Whatever the consequences, once your mind is made up, you see a mission through… And today has confirmed that you’ve got guts. I believe you are one tough woman.’
‘That’s what comes from growing up with two brothers who think hiding spiders in your knickers drawer is funny…’ I cleared my throat, still not quite believing what was happening.
‘But what makes you really special,’ continued Joe, ‘is that I can tell you’re a royalist. Kate Middleton is one of your heroes. Your heart will be in the job and that’s the most important thing of all.’
John muttered something snidey. But I got what Joe said. Guilty as charged. Like Abbey, I totally crushed on KMid, plus loved funny William and cute little George… Auntie Jan was royal mad. I’d been brought up drinking out of Prince Charles and Diana mugs. There’s no way I’d stand by and let them come to harm.
‘All in all, what more could I ask for in an undercover assistant?’ Joe half-smiled. ‘The dealmaker was that you’d be in
, just at the time I needed you.’ Paris
I stared at him for a moment and then my jaw dropped. ‘That mix-up over our jobs – you somehow changed them, right at the last minute so that I’d be working at Chez Dubois…’
Joe nodded. ‘I pretended to be a catering recruitment agency headhunter and persuaded a kitchenhand to leave Chez Dubois – not difficult, as he didn’t get on with chef Jean-Claude. I sent him to the restaurant you were supposed to be working at, as well as writing them a letter of apology from you, saying for personal reasons you could no longer accept their job. Then I emailed your details to
, still in my fake role as a
recruitment agent…’ A muscle in his cheek flinched. ‘Of course, I’ve mostly
observed you on the television. I don’t know you well. It’s a risk, for me,
getting a civilian secretly involved. And it’s a risk for you – whilst it’s
unlikely this is a real terrorist threat, I won’t rest until every avenue has
been thoroughly explored, and that could be dangerous.’ Pierre
‘Good old strait-laced Joe becoming a rogue agent, going behind his bosses’ backs… who’d have thought?’ said John, in a smarmy voice and shook his head.
‘I’m trusting your absolute discretion,’ said Joe, staring me bolt in the face. ‘Relying on you not to let me down. Counting on your judgement. And most importantly, I need you to understand that things could get unpleasant.’
‘Why aren’t MI6 backing you, about carrying on the investigation, if I’m free and willing to help? Even if they think the risk is minimal, what have they got to lose?’
‘Sometimes, agents’ hunches are wrong and lead to trouble for the organisation, girlie,’ said John. ‘To be honest, I’m not convinced about this threat either, but seeing as I’m deployed here with Joe and in a position to help him…’ He shrugged. ‘Joe will owe me a favour. And if he’s wrong and the investigation goes pear-shaped, it’ll be him taking the rap. Tell her about the 2012 Olympic fiasco, Joe.’
‘An investigation was started into some coded emails with the subject title BlowUpOlympia,’ said Joe. ‘The agent who’d stumbled across them discovered a group of around fifty suspicious people who regularly met up, with their laptops. Some belonged to gun clubs. Others followed fighting sports, such as the martial arts. My colleague became convinced they were plotting to set off bombs in the Olympic stadium.’
‘It turned out they were simply war game fanatics and
was the name of a town in their favourite
game. Everything was coded because they knew of another group on the internet,
determined to defend this virtual town. It’s was an interactive game where you
worked in teams.’ Olympia
‘Did MI6 find out in time?’ I said.
Joe shook his head. ‘No, and agents manhandled several members of the group who turned up at the Olympic venues – they were simply genuine sports fans. Embarrassingly, one of them was related to a tabloid newspaper’s editor. MI6 had to call in a lot of favours to keep that story out of the press. We were overstretched in 2012, trying to deflect potential terrorist attacks. C was furious and swore she’d never let anything like that happen again.’
‘Our Chief. She keeps an extra close eye on every investigation now.’
‘Oh. I thought she’d be called M – you know, like in James Bond.’
John rolled his eyes. ‘No – she’s named after the very first Chief of MI6, Mansfield Cumming, who used to sign himself as C.’
I nodded and stared from one agent to another.
‘So? Are you in?’ asked Joe and shifted uncomfortably. ‘I know it’s a big ask. On paper there’s no evidence, the risks are minimal… But I’d be lying if I guaranteed that you were going to be one hundred percent safe, one hundred percent of the time.’
Of course I was in! If the safety of the royal family was potentially under threat, I had no choice. My chest glowed warm. Imagine, someone like Joe cherry-picking me to protect the royals. And what a guy – putting his reputation on the line, out of a sense of duty… What a contrast he was to that creepy John.
‘I don’t know,’ I said airily, not wanting to look keen. Well, there were conditions, of course! ‘For starters, I um, would need a cool codename.’
‘Yeah? Erm… What about Margherita?’ Joe gave a half-smile.
‘Margherita!’ I spluttered. ‘After the name of a pizza?’
‘Exactly.’ He shrugged those broad shoulders. ‘Didn’t you used to work in an Italian restaurant?’
‘Okay, what about…Cullen?’ he continued. ‘Isn’t Twilight one of your favourite films?’
Jeez, how did he know that? At this rate, he’d be able to tell me the size of my bra.
‘How would you know?’ I asked.
‘Read my file on you.’
John smirked. ‘Official mission or not, Joe is always thorough.’
Wow, clearly. I had a file? Then, I was mega important. ‘I want a letter,’ I said, admittedly like a petulant toddler. ‘Like this C or Judi Dench, playing M in the James Bond films.’
John sneered. ‘Only the uppermost echelons of the organisation are given that honour.’
‘Whatever you want,’ said Joe, in a measured voice. ‘Seeing as MI6 aren’t involved – how about “Agent G”?’
Yay! I clapped my hands, now that did have… What was that word Edward used? Gravitas… ‘And of course, I’ll need gadgets,’ I said, enjoying calling the shots – well, it was payback, for Joe having scared me earlier. Amazingly he nodded.
‘In fact, you must come with me tonight, in preparation for working at Chez Dubois on Monday,’ said Joe. ‘This weekend will be spent at MI6’s secret bunker. I’ll teach you basic self-defence and arm you with the necessary tools. I’ll make out you’re a suspect being taken in for interrogation. That way our time there will be undisturbed.’
Secret bunker? I took a swig of water to calm me down, otherwise I might spontaneously combust! Living in
for a month was exciting enough,
without all these spy shenanigans. Also, visiting their French headquarters
would confirm Joe’s identity. Except, I’d so looked forward to settling into
the flat with Edward and spending the next two days getting to visit the
awesome landmarks and cafés, with a snog or two between croissants and espresso
‘I don’t think that’s possible, you see…’
‘This part of the deal is non-negotiable,’ said Joe, in his clipped tone. ‘An intensive weekend in self-defence is a must. I’d be failing you if I didn’t teach you to the basics of looking after yourself.’
Joe’s bottom lip twitched as he fiddled with his cuffs. ‘It’s not too late to pull out, Gemma. I’d understand if you want to walk away.’
‘Okay, okay, I agree to this intensive training weekend – but can’t I tell Edward the truth? He wouldn’t breathe a word to anyone.’
Joe shook his head. ‘No – for his sake, the less he knows the better. Don’t tell anyone, including friends or family back home.’
Shame. This would be the first big secret I’d ever kept from best mate Abbey. I scratched my head. Was this really happening? Agents? Death threats? Secret bunkers? It seemed bonkers, yet there was something in the eyes of this sincere Joe bloke that made me take him seriously.
‘At least let me return to the flat each night, to sleep. He’ll get suspicious if I’m suddenly away all weekend… I could say–’
‘Perhaps…’ said Joe. ‘Okay. That’s acceptable…’ He thought for a few seconds. ‘John will go back with you tonight, just to introduce himself to Edward. He’ll pretend to be a caterer you got talking to, hosting two big wedding events this weekend, who offered to teach you invaluable cookery skills in return for your help Saturday and Sunday as he needs more cheap pairs of hands… You say it’s too good an opportunity to turn down.’
‘You think of everything, don’t you?’ I said.
Joe shrugged as if that was nothing out of the ordinary. Then with John, he headed off to make some private phone calls. Dear Edward, he wouldn’t complain. Sometimes he was almost too faultless… Well, apart from when he tried to get me interested in opera and contemporary paintings. That was one of the things that surprised me about Edward – stuffy and traditional as he was, he loved modern art. Many an argument we’d had over the value of paintings which consisted of just a few dots or lines. Me, I couldn’t wait to visit Monet’s waterlily paintings, here in
and also…Ow! These highfalutin
thoughts came to a swift halt when the tramp next to me, with a vice-like grip,
grabbed my arm. Paris
‘Loose talk costs lives,’ he hissed, ‘as your countrymen said during ze war. Let me introduce myself. Many ‘ave ‘eard of me in ze criminal underworld. I am ze notorious “Man with ze Magic Baguette”…’
He let go and reached towards his pocket. My adrenalin pumped. Sh… Sugar! This must have been a terrorist tracking us. Perhaps baguette was slang for a pistol.
Losing my new, mature self-control for one second, and after a deep breath, I chucked my water in his face. Good diversion. Now, mustn’t panic. I – G – was an important government agent now.
In my head, I repeated this mantra as a shocked Monsieur Magic Baguette roared. He grabbed my ankle as I stood to get up, whilst the Japanese tourists below turned around to take photos.