A decent breakfast was what she needed, and the tiny, one-room street cafe offered the best in town, the owner a French expatriate from Bordeaux. That had been something she had learned quite early on after her assignment to this new military organisation. So new they did not even have their own letterhead, instead she currently was using either that of the IAC or the studio serving as cover operation.
Ducking through the victorian door, setting an old-fashioned bell jingling above her head, she was relieved to find her favourite place empty. Against the far wall, a seat by the latticed window, giving her full view of the market stalls on the other side of the sidewalk. She enjoyed watching the trading and goings-on, the many so very diverse customers these stalls had, one of them selling fish and fowl, the other vegetables, and deeper into the corridors between the stalls, flowers and earthenware.
"Here you are," the owner said and placed her usual cup of espresso in front of her, along with a glass of water and the breakfast menu. The coffee was black, scaldingly hot and endowed with the kick of a horse, just right to warm her up. It had not been her idea of waiting until almost the last day. The commander she now worked for was the most driven person she had ever met, and she had been assigned to a few extremely demanding officers in the past.
There had been no furlough for any of them, until full function of the new headquarters had been established. She had been one of the last to be transferred, but going by what some of her colleagues had told her, the man had all but whipped them into form since early summer, single-minded, relentless, not sparing himself in any way either.
There had been times when she had almost felt cowed by his attitude and demands, and she had hit her mattress many evenings dead tired and close to tears. It only just had eased up, they had been issued proper eight hour schedules at last. Not that he heeded those in any way. She had to give it to him, grudgingly or not, that any boss willing to do double shifts earned himself some respect. That did not change the fact that he intimidated her, cold and harsh as he was, with that goading sarcastic voice and eyes so icy blue and penetrating that a mere glance often felt like a slap and had her jump to in a manner she had thought long past her.
She decided on a proper French breakfast, with a large bowl of café au lait, real croissants de beurre, a crisp ficelle, an assortment of jams, honey and air-dried French salami, a few hot merguez. Something to remind her of her last holidays in the Langue d'Oc, where it had been hot and sunny, where people had quick and lively tempers, friendly brown eyes, dark hair and tanned skin. People with a ready laugh on their lips, people full of joie de vivre. She ordered, signalling the owner her wish with her hand showing four digits above her head, sparing him the walk through the rapidly filling cafe.
The bitter cold was driving more people inside, the window panes steamy, the buzz of voices creating their own ambience of privacy. She cleared one of the lead-paned glass rectangles to check on the fishmonger and his daughters. Earlier she had watched the younger one catching imprudent customers under a garland of mistletoe hung directly above where people had to queue up to pay. To her great amusement the young woman was quite choosy, picking only the handsome and most intriguing of the males approaching the stall for a salmon, lobster or goose.
When the time came to pay, she pointed at the garland above and before the unwary victim had grasped what was happening, she took hold of him and he was soundly smacked. She had stood directly beside the fishmonger's this morning just to watch two men being thus tricked into parting with a kiss, faces quite delighted. Conceded, the girl was rather beautiful, in an impish way with her red Irish hair and freckles dusting her nose, and obviously into it with great enthusiasm. However, at the moment only a couple of older women waited for their purchases to be wrapped.
The church bell tolled the quarter hour when her cafe au lait arrived, two warm croissants to the side smelling deliciously of fresh country butter.
"The ficelle and salami will be ready in a moment, Mademoiselle," the shopowner said. "Do you want the merguez right with it?"
"Yes, please, but you don't need to rush," she answered, dipping the fragrant pastry into the huge bowl, causing it to all but melt on her tongue, firing her with tastes of sun and warmth and well-being.
She had her nose deep into the bowl, the coffee smelling of double-roasted Arabica and frothy unskimmed milk, her hands warming up as she cradled it. Simple pleasures she thought, and cast another glance at the fishmonger's daughter. She nearly tipped the pot over with shock, trying to keep hold of it as it was slipping through her unfeeling fingers. There, in the line in front of the counter stood her commanding officer, ramrod straight as was his habit. She blinked. He wore a heavy, long coat in a nondescript dark colour, looking as formal as if he just had finished a night shift. The large basket filled with vegetables he was carrying did not change that impression one bit. He was second in queue and the red-head was slowly angling towards him, clearly wishing to be the one to serve him.
She set down the coffee, leaned closer to the pane, and wiped the glass again, wanting a clear view. The girl was showing him several different, rather large fish she did not recognize from that far. What she saw was how he was shaking his head, not satisfied with what they were offering him. Fascinated she observed him start gesticulating, signalling the size of the specimen he wanted, then how he continued to let his hands talk freely in a manner she had never seen him do in the office. He even gave the girl a thankful, lopsided smile, when she delved into the large styrofoam containers for him, hunting just for that one fish he had described.
"I'll be damned," she murmured to no one in particular, disregarding the curious look she was awarded by the elderly lady a table down the row.
The young woman surfaced from behind the counter, a huge, ugly fish in her hands, and heaved it onto the cutting board with some difficulty. At the sight the commander stepped forward with alacrity, nodding and signing her to wrap it up with a clipped, circular movement of his hand. It must be sea-devil she thought, no other fish had such a monstrous head, and watched the blonde man rummage in his wallet for the right amount of money. He was not aware that the girl had rounded the counter, placing the bag with his purchase diligently beside his basket, all the while keeping an eye on the bent head, its owner well occupied.
When he handed her a wad of bills, the girl took and folded them into the large purse riding on her hip, tied to her waist, then pulled out the change and handed it to him with an open, sweet smile on her face. Just as he was ranging the change back into his wallet, the young woman stepped close into him, taking the slender man completely by surprise.
With utter delight she watched the girl plant a gentle kiss on his mouth, both her hands cupping and stroking his face, making it a good one, softly breaching his lips. His whole body spoke of shock and astonishment, then she saw him - for a split second - close his eyes and lean into that Yuletide treat, one hand coming up as far as the young woman's elbow in a forlorn response to her caress.
"I'll be damned," she whispered again. The bell tolled half past.
He rocked back on his heels then, blue eyes ablaze, jaw dropped open, while the red-haired imp in front of him pointed upwards. She could not help but laugh under her breath seeing him try to collect his wits and reserve, eyes sliding up at the mistletoe. The girl helped him gather his basket and bags, tilting her head at him with a sassy grin. Looking quite bewildered he started off walking, directly towards the cafe, a dazed expression on his face which slowly turned into the most beautiful smile Ms. Ealand had ever seen.
He entered the cafe, hunting for a place, his gaze brushing over the crowd. She did not know what made her respond, was it duty, was it the fact, that a moment ago he had looked human for the first time since she started working for him. Whatever it was, she lifted her hand and waved.
"Mr. Straker!" she called out to him. "Please, do come over here."
His eyes fastened on her, and he walked towards her, determined, albeit clearly puzzled.
"Good morning, Ms. Ealand," he greeted her. "A pleasure to meet you."
With a thankful, acknowledging nod he sat down opposite her, stowing his basket and bags under the table. She watched his eyes take in the cleared pane of glass and knew he knew she had seen what had happened. However, when she looked up, there was not the sardonic, cold grin on his face, that she had somehow expected. Instead the expression was almost wistful, and certainly not making fun of her.
"Fish for Christmas Dinner," he explained. "Lotte with lemon, Alec and his latest conquest invited themselves."
There was a wealth of information in those short sentences, and she felt hard put to digest that in time to be able to respond.
"Sir?" she asked hesitantly. "May I suggest a French breakfast? It is delicious here."
When he nodded she sent the owner another signalled order, offered one of her croissants, and observed elegant hands take it, dip it directly into jam à là Française and eat with singleminded hunger, seemingly still occupied with what happened just before.
Feeling hard pressed to gloss over the awkwardness of the moment, she found herself fumbling for something to say.
"I hope your wife is well?" she asked, having heard he was married, and then remembering Col. Freeman telling Ayshea about a baby boy. "All presents bought? For the baby too?"
He choked violently on the croissant he was eating, looking at her with an expression she was unable to place. Concerned, she pushed the untouched glass of water towards him and watched him fight for breath.
"No wife," he said at last, his tone roughened and curt. "Divorce went through two months ago. I may not visit John on Christmas, she will celebrate with her parents and fiancé. No presents."
She blanched, suddenly everything fell into place, including his shopping, the mention of Alec Freeman and his girlfriend, the enormous bitterness she had sensed right from the start, even his reaction to the kiss a moment ago.
"I'm - I'm sorry," she said. "You must think I am rubbing it in. I didn't know. I'm really sorry, that is awful, please believe me, I understand."
She had not wanted to admit to that, but his quick glance, bright blue eyes for once retiring and mild, the full lips curling as if to say something, then pressed together, it all told her that he had grasped what she had said. He had understood that alright.
"Never mind," he answered, giving the waiter a brief smile when his cafe au lait arrived, together with more steaming croissants. "It's okay. These things happen."
He was drinking deeply from his bowl, eyes downcast, giving her time to recover her usual poise in what a short while ago she would have called an uncharacteristic show of sensitivity. Now she was not so sure anymore about her judgements of him. And quite clearly it was not okay, the pain speaking out so raw from that comment about his boy, she wondered how he had been able to function at all these past weeks. Yet, just as obvious was his wish not to accost others with his own problems, or have them talked about. Else, she was sure, she would have heard about this somewhere along the grapevine.
"So you are cooking this humongous fish for Mr. Freeman?" she asked, buttering her ficelle, then stacking salami and merguez between the two halves.
He nodded, dipping his croissants and eating them directly above the bowl in a manner she knew could only have been picked up in France. So he had been there as well on occasion, no wonder he had headed for this small bistro.
"How are you going to spend Christmas?" Straker asked, in a tone almost non-committal, but now she was able to place that caution.
"Baking, the telly, leg of bird, sir, " she answered, noticing the church clock announcing a quarter to nine, but not the swift glance he gave her.
"Would you like some of that fish instead?" he asked, his eyes suddenly looking straight at her, disconcertingly pale, even though his gaze was friendly now, and he was meaning it.
He had picked the proper moment as well, she was chewing on a bite of the baguette, quite unable to say anything. Instead she fluttered her hands at him and rolled her eyes, inclining her head.
"I take it that is a 'yes'?" he laughed, another first.
"Yes, sir," she said finally, having swallowed. "That's a yes."
"Alec and his friend will be around at 3 p.m.," he explained. "But you must promise to stop calling me 'sir' outside of HQ, okay?" He quirked a small grin at her. "Else I'll feel as if I never leave the premises."
She watched him eat with gusto, making hot dogs out of his merguez, looking at least a decade younger, almost boyish in his concentration. Yes, she thought. Simple pleasures worked for everyone.
The tower clock tolled nine.
Outside the snow had set in again. Big fat flakes falling lazily to the ground, tangling in the hair of those unwary enough to leave without a cap or hat, and covering everything with another layer of pristine white.