The smoke from the engine drifted up the platform, the hiss of the steam engine momentarily drowning out the clatter and cacophony of noise from the other passengers and porters, dragging luggage and trolleys between the station and the carriages.
Poised on the threshold between the ticket office and the platform, Roberta glanced down at her ticket and then across at the train a small line creasing between her eyes.
She turned to see a young man holding the handles of the trolley holding her own cases.
“Shall I take these across for you?”
She nodded and stepped forward. “Thank you,” she smiled and gestured with the ticket. “I’m not sure whereabout I’m supposed to go.”
“Ah, let me have a look at your ticket,” he said warmly. “It can be confusing when you first travel on her.” He nodded over at the Orient Express, sat quietly steaming to herself. Leaning over but keeping a respectable distance, he looked at the ticket when she held out to him. “You’re down in the second sleeper carriage,” he said. “If you’ll follow me,” he wheeled the trolley out onto the platform, “we’ll get you sorted in no time.”
“Thank you,” she said, “you’re very kind.”
Stepping onto the train she gazed at the interior, taking in the furnishings as she passed, which were both luxurious and very fine. Moving down the narrow corridor she followed the kind porter who had already taken her cases ahead. Her compartment was down on the left hand side, number seventeen.
“Merci,” she said softly, holding out a tip.
With a smile and a polite incline of his head he backed out and left. “Have a good journey, Miss.”
She walked inside and closed the door behind her. She stood there for a moment before letting out a quiet breath and moved over to sit on one of the two small beds that were either side of the small compartment.
She’d made it.
She glanced over at the other bed to see belongings had already been neatly placed. Although she now had the money to afford the luxury of travelling on a train such as this, she didn’t want to waste money on something unnecessary as a single compartment. It might be awkward sharing in such a small space but it wasn’t as though she hadn’t had the practise of sharing or disguising herself in close quarters.
Smoothing her hand down her dress she adjusted the scarf and the collar of her jacket and picking up her purse decided to go and enjoy a coffee before dinner.
Pierre found his gaze caught and then held.
His whole body went still, dark eyes unable to look away from the vision that had caught his attention and absolutely refused to let go. Someone pushed past where he was stood almost blocking the doorway and he jumped, startled, eyes momentarily dropping from the vision before him, before he found them almost immediately drawn back again. He murmured an apology but was waved off by Andre, one of the waiters who hurried on, carrying a stack of plates on a tray.
She was tall, with dark hair which fell down past her shoulders. Her dress was a gentle cream colour, covered by a fitted jacket and finished with a chiffon scarf, draped around her neck. She had walked into the car, a somewhat slight nervous air to her and after a quick glance had moved to take a seat on the far side of the carriage at one of the small two-seater tables. Rico, behind the bar had met her eyes and welcomed her with a smile and a nod, before indicating to Adam that he had another table to attend.
Pierre raised a hand to nervously rub over his mouth, eyes glancing to the other train staff to see if his distraction had been spotted but luckily there were enough passengers to keep the attention of everyone who was currently working. Everyone apart from himself it would seem. His attention was on a passenger he thought to himself, just not one that he was currently serving.
Clearing his throat and unconsciously straightening his posture, he ran a quick hand over his overcoat, which he still had on from seeing the last of their travellers on board, tugging the sleeves down into place. Raising his hands, he adjusted his cap and with a quick intake of breath, stepped forward into the car.
As he walked down the carriage past the tables, he met and greeted each of the passengers sat there with smile and a quick welcome. After working on the Orient Express for a number of years he was fluent in a number of languages and could get past in quite a few more for greetings and basic communication. He tried to ignore the lady sat at her table, delicately sipping her coffee and gazing out of the train window, but the nearer he got, the faster his pulse seemed to get.
Moving on from the last table with a warm smile he stepped up to her table and raised his gaze to meet hers. He had to stifle a gasp. It was as though he could feel the spark of electricity moving between them and he had to consciously stop himself from outwardly reacting.
Roberta had been aware of the man at the end of the carriage since almost the moment he had appeared. She had seen him stood at the opposite end when she had entered the car, her gaze instinctively taking in her surroundings.
Tall with dark eyes that she had fought not to get caught in, he wore a staff uniform and by his hat and jacket she guessed he might be quite senior. When he starting walking down the carriage speaking with the other passengers, she knew she was correct.
She ordered her coffee, smiling at the waiter when he brought it over and sat enjoying her drink until she sensed someone standing next to her table. Looking up she met what she could only describe as the most intense, molten dark eyes she had ever seen. Instinctively she opened her mouth and drew in a soft breath before schooling her features into a smile.
“Welcome to the Orient Express,” he said in French.
“Thank you,” she replied automatically in Italian.
“My name is Pierre,” he continued in Italian, returning her startled smile at hearing him reply in her own language. “I hope you have a pleasant journey with us tonight. I am your conductor until we reach London, so please don’t hesitate to come to me if there is anything we can do to make your travel with us the best it can be.”
“My thanks,” she said softly, finding it hard to maintain eye contact and not forget how to speak. She could feel the warm blush rise up her cheeks and hoped it wasn’t too noticeable now that the carriage was only illuminated by the evening lamps. “You are very kind.”
His smile widened. There was a slight hesitation before he very quickly bit his bottom lip and then asked, “How far are you travelling with us?”
She blinked and swallowed, gaze lowering before meeting his eyes again. “Just to Paris,” she said, then, for some reason she couldn’t explain added, “I’m moving there.”
His eyebrows rose, face brightening. “That’s wonderful. Paris is a beautiful place to live.”
“Do you know it?” she asked, turning her body to face him more.
Pierre nodded. “I’ve lived there for the last five years. It is a remarkable city. Beautiful in its history, architecture and art.”
She gazed at his face, loosing herself in its openness and warmth. His attention was solely on her and her alone and it was almost too much. Dropping her gaze, she found herself nervously rubbing the handle of her coffee cup.
“I will leave you to enjoy your drink,” he said softly. “Again, welcome to the Orient Express.”
He backed away from the table, bowing his head.
She glanced up quickly. “Thank you, again,” she said quickly. “I…” she paused and closing her eyes briefly concentrated on the words in her head, before speaking the next in French. “I look forward to seeing you on the train and to maybe hearing more about Paris?”
His face visibly showed his delight. Speaking slightly slower than he might ordinarily but not to the degree where it was patronising, he replied in French, “I would love to tell you more about Paris.”
Her parting smile made his blood sing and put a bounce in his step that Robert, one of the bus boys noticed as they passed each other in the corridor.
“What has got to you?” he asked with an amused frown, one hand gripping the box of supplies he was taking to the kitchen.
Pierre let out a startled laugh, taking his cap off and running a hand through his hair, messing it up and setting free his unruly curls. “Just met an angel,” he replied.
Robert’s eyebrows rose and he chuckled. “Okay,” he replied.
Pierre shook his head and smoothing his hair with one hand, replaced his cap. “I’m going to check in with Erik and,” he checked his pocket watch, “then I think we’re about ten minutes from departure.”
Robert nodded and carried onto towards the restaurant, chuckling to himself.
Roberta had booked for a late dinner. Since they departed Venice fairly late in the evening, most passengers opted to eat at their hotels before boarding the train but Roberta had waited, wanting to get the full experience of eating on board. It was like nothing she had before and although she still had some nervousness about spending more money on a single meal than she would have in rent for a week previously, life was short. The last two years had more than proven that. She now had enough money that she would never have to worry again. Not unless she was stupid and she most definitely was not. Was not planning on being at any point in the future either. But she could treat herself to such luxuries as this every now and again.
And she felt she deserved it.
The conductor had been a surprise. But a pleasant one. She was looking forward to bumping into him again though she wondered how likely that would be. The journey to Paris was only a day and he would be working nearly all the time she was on board she surmised. But she had at least eighteen hours to watch from afar and dream. Tall with dark eyes that just looked right into her soul. Dark curly hair peeking out from that hat, that just screamed for her fingers to brush through and that smile…she closed her eyes to recall its perfection.
She sat at the same table for her dinner as she had for coffee earlier. Had debated going back to change but had decided her outfit was fine and that she was comfortable where she was. It was late and would be even later when she returned to her compartment but she wanted to enjoy every second of her time on the Orient Express.
The start of her new life.
Pierre moved back up the train. Her shift had officially finished and he was free to have a late dinner before turning in for the night. Erik was covering night duty until 6am when he would return and allow Erik to take his own rest.
Most of the time he just took his meal from the kitchen straight back to the small cabin he shared with Erik but tonight he felt drawn to return to the restaurant car. He knew the reason why, even if he didn’t want to admit it even to himself. Though even if he did, he knew that it was very likely that the lady had returned to her compartment for the night. Most of the new intake from Venice tended to retire due to the lateness of the hour.
Staff were not allowed to eat in the restaurant, certainly not the lower ranked staff, but both he and Erik as conductors had some dispensation to eat there when it was quiet; late at night or early in the morning when there were few passengers around. The car was open pretty much around the clock to serve those who travelled at odd times.
He’d changed his conductor’s jacket for a more general one, removed his hat and brushed his hair so that it lay respectably. Or at least as much as he could convince it to. He was due another visit to the barbers he mused as he dipped his comb into the hair gel he used.
Stepping through the door into the restaurant, though his gaze immediately fell onto the table where she had been sat and he felt a shiver of both relief and anticipation run through him when he saw the familiar length of dark hair. His step faltered for only a moment before he moved over to the small bar in the corner and quickly ordered his usual, chatting casually with Antonio. Leaning up against the wood frame, he casually looked over.
She had been caught looking.
Roberta turned away quickly, breath catching in her throat. Swallowing she glanced up, found the reflection in the dark windows and saw that his gaze was still on her. She saw the moment he realised that she was watching him via the mirrored reflection. Ducking his head, he turned his attention back around to the man behind the bar.
She lowered her gaze again, tongue coming out to wet her bottom lip nervously. It had been a long while since she had felt so taken apart by the attention of a man, the proper attention of a man that she’d almost forgotten how it felt.
When she caught movement out of the side of her eye she looked up and found herself gazing into hopeful dark eyes.
“I hope you don’t think me too forward. Please feel free to say no,” he paused, smiling somewhat nervously, “but would you mind if I joined you?”
The smile that lit her face removed any doubts or nerves he had, about her willingness to accept his company at least and he moved to take the seat opposite.
“Thank you,” he said. “I…” he hesitated again, “I didn’t want to come across as presumptuous but I saw you here still, alone and I’m…I’m on my break now. We take shifts,” he chuckled nervously, ducking his head again. “I enjoyed our talk earlier and if you liked, I thought I could tell you more about Paris?”
“I would love to hear more about Paris.” Roberta leaned forward, adjusting her posture and turning towards Pierre. “I have never been.”
Pierre looked surprised. “You’ve never visited?”
“No,” Roberta shook her head with a gentle laugh.
“And you’re moving there?” Pierre said, his shock apparent.
Roberta ducked her head, embarrassment flooding her then. She reached for her after dinner coffee and let out another small breathy laugh. “I’m making a fresh start,” she began, her fingers toying with the saucer of her cup, “Paris seemed like a good place for that. I have some friends who have lived there and spoke highly of it. Somewhere you could both find yourself and lose yourself.” She lifted her gaze and found those dark eyes again.
His head was nodding almost immediately she began talking about Paris in that way and he smiled again, taking out any wrongly perceived scorn at her choice. “I think that is a wonderful choice and your friends are correct,” he said. “I too was starting afresh when I moved there,” he took in a breath, eyes dropping to the table for a moment as memories overtook, “and Paris is indeed somewhere you can both disappear and discover, both yourself and,” he hesitated, looking for the right word, “your world.” He chuckled. “If that makes any sense.”
“It does, “she nodded, eyes bright. “It does.”
Pierre’s dinner was brought over and he thanked Andre who smiled and gave him a knowing look. Pierre ignored him. He knew the gossip would be through the train’s staff within the hour but he loved his fellow team and there would be none on board who would wish him ill. In fact, he guessed that there would be a few cheers that he was actually showing interest in companionship. It had been too long, he knew.
They spent the next hour talking softly whilst Pierre ate and whilst Roberta enjoyed a dessert – Pierre had suggested one when she asked for a recommendation and had spent the following twenty minutes being captivated by her enjoyment of it. She saved the last bit for him after he’d finished his dinner and although he felt the red hot blush creep up his cheeks he picked up a spare fork and took the proffered piece of cheesecake. Their eyes met over the wine glasses in the middle of the table and both felt the frisson of electricity that shot between them.
Pierre dropped his gaze first, feeling slightly out of breath. “Thank you,” he croaked, laying the fork gently on the plate in front of him.
She nodded silently, not trusting her voice. Conversation had flowed very easily between them over their meal and she felt completely at ease in his company. He’d taken great delight in telling her about Paris, all the good places to visit and the interesting. The best places to go for excellent coffee and pastries, for exquisite French food and for entertainment in the arts and history. The parts of the city to avoid as well, the darker, more dangerous areas. All cities had them she knew. She had spent a good deal of her time working in one back in Florence. However pleasant a side of the city the tourists saw, there was always a side that they never did. Unless they looked for it of course, it wasn’t as though she’d never seen tourists come looking for her services.
As much as she had enjoyed the evening, she knew there was a time when they would both have to part company. She hadn’t checked her watch but she knew that time had passed at its normal rate even if it had felt slow by comparison whilst in Pierre’s company.
As if reading her thoughts, Pierre moved his cuff back and checked the watch on his wrist. “Oh,” he exclaimed, surprise evident in his voice and expression, “I have kept you too late.” He raised mortified eyes to hers. “Please forgive me for being so rude.”
Roberta shook her head quickly. “No, please, Pierre. I have enjoyed every second of your company. I thank you for sitting with me and telling me all about Paris, it had been wonderful to learn so much and...” she paused. “I have very much loved listening to your voice and your passion for where you live. It has made me less nervous about my move.”
He grinned. “For that I am very pleased,” he said. “Moving can be hard and stressful, let alone moving to another country.” He gazed at her. “It is a very brave and admirable thing that you do.”
Roberta took in a breath and ran her fingers over the napkin on the table in front of her. She glanced up with a shaky smile. “I’m not sure about admirable,” she said softly. “But I was in the right place for a new start.”
Pierre’s eyebrows drew in slightly and she could see the query in his expression. She sucked her bottom lip in gently for a moment, before deciding. “I’ve lived in Italy all my life,” she said, “in the same city all my life. I’ve survived as best I can, doing what I must.” She took in a short breath, unable to bring herself to meet his gaze. “But I was lucky to find myself in a position recently where I had the opportunity to leave that behind. I inherited from a distant relative I didn’t even know existed,” she pulled a face of amused astonishment. “It was a complete surprise. I…” she paused then, her own face pulling into a frown. “I had thought I had been forgotten.”
“How could anyone forget you?” Pierre’s voice was barely more than a whisper. She raised her eyes to meet his and could see nothing but honest consternation in his expression.
She smiled. “It has always felt that I have been remembered too much for the wrong thing and not remembered at all for anything else.” She bit her lip then, worried that she had said too much. She did not want this beautiful man to know of her sordid past. However much she was not ashamed of what she had done to survive, it was not a part of herself that she wanted to shout from the rooftops.
“I can not see how that could be,” he said, “I have only spoken with you for a few hours, yet I am captivated by your warmth, your intelligence, your beauty and your kindness. How could anyone wish or be able to remember you for anything else is beyond my understanding.”
Roberta gazed him, watching his face and mannerisms closely and could not help but read everything about him as genuine and honest. The warmth and sincerity that emanated from him drew her like a moth to a flame. She felt herself bloom a little more under his gaze, her back become a little straighter. “I decided that with this gift, that I should use it to start afresh. A new city, a new country, far away from that which had sought to,” she paused, searching for the right word, “devour me,” she raised her hand to mirror the action, “crush me. This will be a new home. To find myself. Who I am. Who I really am, not just how other people see me, or the side even that I let people see. Because that is what we do, is it not? We decide on how people should see us, or do see us and then we conform to that. We find ourselves constricted by our own cocoon. Which starts off as safe and something which is ours, but by the end is nothing more than a prison.”
She took in a shaky breath and shot him a bright, overly so, smile.
“So, I am starting afresh in Paris. Away from my memories and those who remember me. To become the Roberta that I am, not the one that people believe me to be.”
Pierre reached across the table then, sliding his hand closer at a speed which meant if she wanted to pull back, she could, but she left her hand where it was and felt the warmth of his fingers lay gently on top on hers, softly curling around hers.
“I can already see her emerging, even if I did not know the former version.”
Roberta smiled again, this time more steadily.
“But don’t forget to give that former Roberta some credit for getting you to where you are,” Pierre said, gently. “She was obviously a strong woman, with a fire beneath her and a will to resist becoming a victim of other’s malintent. From a cocoon comes growth and something even brighter but that cocoon enabled that growth to take shape and become the wonderous life that now takes shape.”
Roberta stared at him. Her fingers flexed and she felt their hands slowly intertwine together on top of the linen table cloth. She drew in a shaky breath before smiling at him and seeing that expression returned two-fold.
“I have kept you too late,” he said, voice low and slightly rough. “Please allow me the honour of escorting you back to your cabin.”
She nodded and moved to collect her purse from where she had placed it next to the window. When she turned back to face the inside of the carriage in preparation of standing up, she was met with an outstretched hand. Looking up she held out hers and allowed Pierre to help support her to her feet. Something she was glad of, for the sway of the train, however subtle, took some getting used to, particularly after being sat for a time.
Pierre waited until she had moved towards the door which let out towards the sleeper cars, before following her out into the narrow corridor.
It didn’t take more than a minute or so to reach her compartment. When she was stood outside the wooden door, Roberta paused, one hand resting against it before turning and smiling at Pierre who had stopped behind her.
“This is me,” she said with a soft laugh. “Thank you for ensuring I returned safely.”
Pierre grinned widely. “It was my pleasure,” he said softly. “I…” he hesitated, eyes lowering as he swallowed nervously. He cleared his throat quickly before glancing up. “I very much enjoyed your company tonight and…”
Roberta smiled encouragingly.
“Would…” He chuckled at himself, ducking his head before taking a breath and reaching out for her hand. Raising it up he pressed a gentle kiss to her knuckles, his eyes watching her from beneath dark lashes.
Her mouth dropped open slightly at the gesture, a silent intake of breath before she pressed her lips together.
“Would you do me the honour of spending more time with me tomorrow?” he said, quickly, as though he were nervous of her answer.
Roberta gazed at him, her hand still clutched tenderly in his. “I would love to,” she whispered, watching the joy spread over his face, feeling the echo of it touch hers.
“I am working for a lot of it,” he said, a regretful look crossing his face, “but I would like to spend my breaks with you, if you would allow?”
“I would enjoy that very much,” Roberta confirmed with a small nod.
Pierre dipped his head again for another soft kiss to her hand before dropped it carefully and stepping back.
“Goodnight,” he said, “Sleep well and enjoy your rest. I shall be counting down the hours until we meet again tomorrow.”
“Goodnight,” she whispered back, “and thank you again.”
Pierre took another step back and dipped his head. Roberta glanced down to find the handle before turning it and opening the door behind her. With one last smile she took a step through the doorway and closed it behind her.
Pierre took in a shaky breath and leant back against the wall behind him. Closing his eyes, he reached up and touched where his lips had met her hands. With a smile he turned to his right and slowly made his way to where his own bunk was waiting, a smile lighting his face the whole way there.
Roberta shut the door quietly in deference to the person she could make out already in bed and asleep in the small bunk opposite hers. She allowed herself to lean back against it for a long moment, her hand rising of its own volition to press the back of it against her mouth. It was impossible she knew but she somehow could still feel the soft warmth of his lips against the skin of her knuckles.
She inhaled shakily before pushing away from the door and quietly making her way to where her she could change into her night clothes.
At breakfast the next day Roberta stepped into the restaurant car with a lightness in her step that she was unused to feeling. She greeted the waiter warmly and stepped over to what she now considered her table, despite only having sat there once. Settling in she looked out of the window to take in the passing scenery which the darkness of the previous night had hidden from view.
It was beautiful and she couldn’t help but gaze in awe at the mountains and the green rolling fields that they were passing through. The blue skies and white clouds that framed them made her heart sing a little bit more.
Finally, she felt as if her life was taking the right turn and it was such a feeling of euphoria that there was this tiny nugget of fear still lodged in her throat that something, somewhere would derail it and she would be right back where she started Or worse. It was a constant fear that she had been nursing since the day she had received the telegram informing her of her distant great aunt’s estate. She hadn’t believed it at first, had read it over about a thousand times before she could even start to believe that it was true. Then another week before it had really sunk in. It had seemed like a dream. Still did if she were honest. She kept half expecting to wake up. To wake up back in that dark claustrophobic room, with her old worn blankets and second hand clothes, waiting for the evening to roll around again.
She closed her eyes firmly and then opened them again, gazing around at the scene around her and letting out a long slow breath. She smiled at the waiter when he brought over her coffee, inhaling the welcoming scent.
She looked up to see Pierre’s warm smile.
“Good morning,” she greeted.
“It’s a beautiful one is it not?”
Roberta glanced out of the window and nodded. “It certainly is,” she agreed. “You see this on every journey?”
Pierre nodded, his own dark eyes gazing out to the beauty they were passing. “It never gets tiring,” he said with a small smile. “Each time is like the first.”
She basked in the warmth that radiated off him, knew that her gaze was bordering on adoring but she couldn’t seem to manage to stop.
“I’m on duty until lunch,” he said with soft regret in his voice, “but I would like to meet with you for lunch if you would permit me?”
Her heart jumped into her throat. “I would enjoy that very much,” she replied, smile widening. “What time shall we meet?”
“I get an hour at one o’clock,” he said glancing up the train, “which actually coincides with our stop in Lausanne. We stop there for just over an hour and it’s my turn to have the opportunity to disembark for the stop. We...” he glanced down, then up with a hopeful expression, “I thought we could have a coffee in the tearooms there.”
“That sounds lovely,” she said.
“Great!” He grinned, eyes lighting up. “I’ll meet you at your compartment at one o’clock?”
She nodded and then watched as he walked away, seeing the lightness to his step and smiling to herself. That same lightness was in her own chest and it was an addictive feeling.
At five minutes to one, Roberta was sat in her compartment, on the small stool by the vanity. The lady sharing with her had already left with a smile and a wave, intending to head to the station shops to buy presents for the family she was visiting in London. The train gradually pulled to a stop at a minute to one o’clock and she felt the gentle sway as the forward motion of the carriage ceased.
She ran her hands over her skirt and jacket nervously, one hand lifting up to smooth her hair which she had brushed over and over, trying to get it perfect. She leaned over and checked her make up in the small mirror, running the tip of one finger over the edge of her bottom lip and then under her eyes to check her mascara. It was all in place as she knew it was but she couldn’t help but feel nervous. Despite having sat with Pierre last night for nearly two hours, today’s lunch felt more like an actual date bringing with it all the insecurities that came with that.
When the soft knock came, she startled slightly then rolled her eyes at herself. Opening the door, she saw that Pierre has swapped his normal work attire for a suit jacket and couldn’t help but run her eyes up and down the picture that he made.
“Hello,” he said softly. “Are you ready”
She smiled and nodded, moving to grab her purse. After locking the door behind her she turned to see Pierre stood, holding his arm out for her to take. She slid her arm through his and allowed him to escort her off the train.
It didn’t take long to walk to the tearooms. They were just off to the side of the station near the end of the row of shops that her travelling companion had made to visit. She followed Pierre through the doorway and waited whilst he spoke quickly with the waitress behind the counter. The young lady smiled and gestured to the side towards where the tables were. Pierre nodded and turning, took her hand again and led them over to a table at the far end of the tearooms, in a nice cosy corner next to the small fire. He held her hand until she had sat down in the chair before removing is own hat and settling down opposite.
“What would you like?” he asked, “I can thoroughly recommend their pastries.”
“A regular stop for you then?” she asked with a smirk.
“I may have stopped here once or twice before,” he grinned, widening into a deprecating smile when the waitress came over and asked in a friendly voice, “Your usual coffee and cake, Pierre?”
He ducked his head, a blush creeping up his face. He glanced up at the waitress, a young lady with startling red hair. “Thank you, Andrea. Could we have a moment for my companion to decide?”
Andrea looked over with a warm smile. “Of course,” she handed over the menu. “Pierre here has a sweet tooth for the Tiramisu and cheesecake but we also have black forest gateaux and an apple cinnamon tart among the selection on offer today. Take your time, Miss and don’t let him bully you into anything just because he had a long arm and a stabby fork.”
Roberta grinned and nodded. “Thank you, for the menu and the warning.”
Pierre laughed and looked up to find her staring at him, her expression warm and amused. He wet his lips and turned to Andrea to nod his thanks, a rather rueful look on his face. “Traitor,” he said warmly.
Andrea walked away chuckling.
In the end Roberta decided on a forest fruits cheesecake and a black tea whilst Pierre went with his favourite Tiramisu. The following forty minutes went past in a blur of easy, flowing conversation, with both laughter and serious discussion, casual flirting and awkward smiles. By the time Roberta had spotted Pierre glancing at his watch, she felt that both the time had gone in a blur and that they had been there a lifetime. She sighed softly when Pierre waved over for the bill.
Walking slowly back down towards the platform together, her arm hooked through his elbow, their conversation had lulled into a comfortable silence. When they reached the entrance to where the Orient Express lay, quiet and sleeping for now, they drifted to a stop. Stood by a railing to the side, Roberta glanced up to see Pierre staring off towards the train, a pensive look on his face. He had his hand resting on top of hers where it in turn lay against his forearm.
She squeezed his arm gently and shot him a smile when he looked down at her.
“Sorry,” he smiled. “I’m just thinking that once we get back on the train, a few more hours and then you leave us.”
He looked down at her, brown eyes suddenly sad and full of something that Roberta couldn’t place, until he lifted his other hand and brought the hand up from where it rested on his arm to place his mouth against it a soft, warm kiss. She felt her mouth fall open slightly and then suddenly those lips were on her own.
She inhaled in shock, her free hand reaching out, fingers clutching his sleeve. For a moment she froze in shock, before relaxing into the warmth of that gentle mouth pressed against hers. He pulled back slightly, an apology already forming but she quickly raised her hand to his cheek and meeting those dark eyes pulled him back down into a gentle, chaste exploration of each other lips.
When they parted again, he rested his forehead against hers and sighed. A thumb caressed her cheek gently and she closed her eyes against the wave of emotion that rose up inside her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I just…” he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I was overwhelmed and I…”
She leaned up and pressed a quick kiss to his mouth. “I feel the same,” she whispered. “I don’t know why, it’s crazy, but,” she paused and ran her hand down the side of his face until it rested against his chest. “I feel a connection with you.”
She gazed up at him with wide eyes.
He let out a short sigh. “I’m pleased I’m not the only one,” he grinned, “I was starting to think I was going mad!”
Roberta let out a snort. “Definitely not!” she laughed. She quietened. “When I first saw you stood in that doorway,” she bit her lip, voice soft and with an almost questioning air. “I didn’t know what had happened. Just that it was…”
“Good…” Pierre finished and she nodded.
There was a loud whistle that sounded from the far end of the platform and Roberta jumped, her head turning automatically towards the sound. Pierre took her hand.
“That’s the ten-minute warning,” he said.
She looked back at him before swallowing and taking a step back, putting some distance between them. Pierre looked at her a small crease appearing between his eyes.
She moistened her lips and shot a quick look up at him before dropping her gaze away and down.
“What’s wrong,” he asked gently.
She took in a quick breath. “There… there are two things you should know…” She glanced up with a small hesitant smile which almost immediately faded with her nerves. “About me. I’m not…” A determined expression settling on her face. “I’m not ashamed of either of them,” she said firmly. “One,” she took in a quick breath, “one I would change if I had the chance, but,” she looked up, “I did what I needed to survive.” She dropped her gaze again then, hands nervously twisting in the straps of her purse.
Pierre watched her as she struggled to find the words. He raised his hand up and stroked a finger over her cheek before dropping down to where her scarf was wound around her neck. “Is this one of them?” Gently, he slid his thumb underneath the fabric to run the pad feather light across her Adams apple.
She gasped softly.
Pierre smiled softly, eyes drifting over her face before returning to her shocked eyes. He withdrew his hand returning it to her hand. “I don’t…” he shook his head, searching for the right words. “I fell for you; however that package comes.”
Roberta stood and stared at him, her eyes wide.
His voice dropped low and soft. “I have loved people with both male and female bodies, it doesn’t…I have fallen for the woman stood in front of me. What you have or don’t have underneath your clothes doesn’t matter to me.” He gazed into her eyes, willing her to see the truth behind his words.
Roberta could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. She hadn’t known what to expect from Pierre. He came across as one of the most gentle, kind and amazing men she had met but, in her experience, you could never be completely sure what would happen when someone found out that you were not what they had assumed you were. It was normally, not simply an awkward conversation but often also a dangerous one. Which meant even with someone like Pierre, who had proven to be nothing but a gentleman in all sense of the word, she was treading ground carefully.
She wasn’t sure if she had processed his words correctly, her mind was having trouble trying to keep up and she had a feeling she was just staring at him, her mouth slightly open and her expression befuddled.
Pierre stepped forward, closing the gap between them again and took her hand in his, squeezing it gently. She took in a deep breath.
“I need to tell you about before…”
He shook his head. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want to. I don’t need to know….”
She was shaking her own head almost immediately. “No,” she said, quickly. “I need to tell you.” She took a deeper breath, gazing sliding away before taking another breath and swallowing. “I need you to know everything, if we…go any further.”
She looked up to see Pierre nod gently, a worried but encouraging look on his face.
“I left home at a young age and with no other way to support myself I fell into a way of life that is not very respectable. A profession that…is known as the oldest. I’m not proud of what I did and if I had been able to survive without it, I would have but I couldn’t and I made the choice between life and pride and I chose life.”
Her head had been bowed throughout her short speech and she couldn’t now bring herself look up nor meet his gaze, to see what his reaction was.
After a long moment that felt immeasurable, she felt his warm hand take hers. She slowly looked up and was astonished to see a tear running down his cheek. His dark eyes were shiny with tears that remained unshed and she watched his adams apple bob as he swallowed.
His voice when he spoke was barely a whisper. “I am sorry that you had to go through that. That you were forced into a position where selling your body was the only way you could survive. It makes me both sad and angry that you had to experience that. I have no right to that anger or that sadness, I did not know you then or the troubles you faced, but my heart feels it all the same.”
Roberta felt a sob rise up in her throat and it was so sudden and so heartfelt she couldn’t prevent its escape. Pierre reached out, arms strong but supportive and she all but fell forward into his hold. One hand came up to hold the back of her head as he held her close, his other arm wrapping around her arm and back. She pressed her face into the side of his neck where his collar was, smelling both the aroma of starch and laundry detergent and Pierre’s own unique scent. Breathing it in she couldn’t understand how that scent could be so calming and familiar after only knowing the man for less than twenty-four hours.
When another whistle rang out down the platform, they both startled slightly and pulled away.
“That’s the five-minute whistle,” he said absently, hands wrapping themselves back around hers.
“We should get back on board,” Roberta said with a shaky smile. “You need to report back for duty.”
“Will you meet me later?” Pierre asked quietly.
She nodded. “I will. I’ll be in the restaurant car for another coffee later on.” She took a breath. “One last one before Paris.”
As promised, Roberta was sat at her table in the restaurant car when Pierre walked past on his regular route through. He met her eyes with a smile before stopping over at the gentleman behind the bar first before starting to make his way down the carriage, meeting and greeting the new and previous passengers in his normal manner. By the time he had made his way to her table Roberta was practically vibrating. She bit her lip as he stopped next to her, eyes looking up to see the warm smile he gave her, completely different to the smile that he graced the other passengers.
“Hello,” he said softly.
“Hello,” she replied, voice similarly soft.
“Are you enjoying your drink?” he asked, glancing at the coffee in front of her.
“I am,” she nodded. “I shall miss these once I reach Paris.”
“Don’t forget the coffee houses I mentioned,” Pierre said raising his eyebrows. “I would like to know your opinion on their quality in comparison to Italian ones.”
“I shall try each one and make notes,” she smiled. “Just for you.”
Pierre ducked his head. Then in a quieter voice, “Are you ready to disembark at Paris?”
Roberta took in a silent breath and nodded.
“Allow me to do the honour of escorting you from the train?” he asked.
She nodded, then with a grin, “Won’t that be showing favouritism?”
Pierre grinned. “I asked one of the others to cover with me. I explained I would be helping an angel leave the train.”
Roberta blushed, her smile wide.
Pierre glanced up the train and with smile and a gentle hand placed on her forearm, turned and continued his route down the train.
When the train slowly came to a halt at Paris, Roberta glanced around her cabin and let out a small but nervous sigh. She threw her travel companion a smile as they both stood up, reaching out for their belongings.
They exchanged polite goodbyes and Roberta waited until she had exited, her baggage collected by a porter, then picked up her purse and walked towards the door.
Out in the corridor she saw Pierre stood to the side. As she looked over to him, he tipped his hat to her with a small smile. “Ready to go?”
She nodded, not trusting her voice.
“Make your way to the platform and I’ll make sure Erik has your luggage on a trolley,” he said, reaching out to touch her forearm.
Outside next to the train, Roberta waited whilst Pierre directed the porter to wheel her luggage to the station. When he descending from the train, she accepted his arm and together they walked slowly towards the arrivals lounge.
Standing outside the door, Pierre glanced back towards the train before returning his gaze to her eyes.
“I would like to see you again,” he said. “When I return to Paris. Would you allow me to call on you?”
Roberta nodded. “I would love to see you again.” She dropped her gaze and swallowed. “But I won’t hold you to it though.” She shushed him when he made to speak. “I know what you said and that will stay in my heart forever. But in the time between now and when you return to Paris, you may think and sometimes those thoughts take us in a different directions that we first believe them to be heading.” She met his gaze. “I’m…I’m not…” she shook her head gently, “it would be a difficult life. Even when things are going well, there is danger.” She smiled sadly up at him. “I desire you greatly but I would not hold you to a decision when we have spent less than twenty-four hours in each other’s company.”
Pierre waited until he was sure she had said what she wanted to, before raising her hand and once again laying a kiss to its back. “I desire you greatly too,” he said softly. “More than I think I have anyone else. You captivated me from the moment my eyes fell on you and that has not changed.” He took both her hands in his. “Your heart is so big. And it’s beautiful.” His smile shone across his face. “I will take the time we are apart, as you wish.” He rubbed his fingers over her knuckles. “To think about you. About us. I am fairly certain my heart will not change its mind but my heart will give yours whatever it wants, so that you know that we both speak the truth.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, placing a hand over her heart. “We are both very grateful.”
Pierre leaned down and brushed the lightest kiss against her lips.
“I don’t know the address of where I am staying yet,” she said when he drew back. “I need to look for somewhere to rent.”
“Will you be staying in a hotel while you look?” he asked.
“Yes, I have one booked but I do not recall the name.” She moved to open her purse but just then a shout came up from the train and Pierre turned at the sound of his name.
He frowned, a frustrated look crossing his face. He let out a reluctant breath. “I have to go.”
Thinking quickly Roberta pursed her lips and then, “Find me at the Café Rose,” she said quickly, thinking back to one of the cafes they’d discussed. It was the one that had captured her imagination the most. “I’ll be there every other day at two o’clock. If you want to find me, I’ll wait there.”
Pierre looked at her and then nodded. He leaned down for one last kiss, desperation in his action before pulling away. “I will find you there,” he promised. Another shout rang out and he raised his hand in response. Backing away he smiled at her. “I will find you,” he repeated and then he turned and was gone.