The taxi pulled up at Brussels Midi and Rose stepped out into a small puddle of water. She smiled at her own misfortune, which was common. The whole square had one puddle, and it just so happened that this was where she would put her stiletto. Somehow, despite her best efforts, complete elegance always eluded her but she accepted her flaws, as they were a reminder of her many blessings and as far as flaws go, the odd puddle was nothing to complain about.
Rose walked calmly through the station as the TGV to Paris was due to depart in over an hour but a number of people were running past her, peaking her curiosity so she joined the sprint to platform twelve to find that an earlier train was due to depart in five minutes. This would mean arriving in Paris an hour earlier. An hour earlier in the city of love for an extra E60 for the fare change - Rose needed to make an instant decision as the French conductor impatiently clicked his tongue awaiting her verdict.
Quick decisions were Rose's forte however. Her job as a banking executive required this every day. Adrenalin and stress were her constant companions in the male-dominated workplace but a sharp mind, exceptional peripheral vision and an unrivaled gut instinct meant that she excelled at the requirements for her work.
Rose handed over her credit card, boarded the train and found the last remaining available seat in second class. The engines accelerated the TGV to over 300kph within a few minutes and she closed her eyes for a few seconds as a sense of contentment overwhelmed her.
It had been an extravagant decision perhaps, but she was anxious to arrive in Paris, and it had been a hard week involving twelve hours of conferencing every day, and catching up with email and business for five hours at night. Rose was operating on less than three hours sleep, it was getting late and she was anxious to get to her bed at the Paris Intercontinental.
The few seconds of shut-eye morphed magically into an hour and she awoke with a fright when the train conductor announced their arrival at Gare Nord. She waited for a taxi but realised that the thunderstorm engulfing Paris was causing traffic to be at a standstill. Another split second decision: RER and the pink line metro would be faster; not as pleasant because a seventeen kilogram suitcase, stillettos and stairs are not a good combination but countless business trips had put her through worse so Rose heaved up her bag and disappeared underground the city of love.
Fifteen minutes later, she surfaced in front of one of her favourite landmarks in the world - Opera Garnier. She beamed as she stared at its guided glory and the statues of the musical maestros which had captured her heart as a young girl. She remembered fondly her first visit here - fifteen years ago with her sister to see Swan Lake. She was still a student then - the ticket had cost nearly a month's allowance but they had diligently saved and not even the fact that a Parisian artist who was drawing their portrait on the banks of the Seine making them run late for the start of the performance could ruin the experience.
Rose didn't stand there long because a gust of wind blew her designer umbrella (a gift from a colleague at the bank) inside out, breaking one of the hinges. The rain started to pour down causing her mascara to run and her blow dried hair to frizz. Yet again she failed her elegance test she thought as she strode into her favourite hotel to be greater by the iconic white orchids and that magnificent glass atrium.
She checked in and sent her luggage to her room but whilst her rational self knew she should probably take a few moment to freshen up, her gut drew her to have a drink in the lounge bar. Expensive perfume hung in the air, Jimmy Choos clicked everywhere around her and the tinkle of the piano heightened her sense of excitement. She was exhausted, rained on and had running mascara and frizzy hair but nothing could rain on the parade that was before her. She was in Paris and a grin spread across her face as she sipped her mojito and glanced around at the other guests in the bar.
Slightly behind her to her left, a gentleman with kind eyes and an authoritative presence engaged her. "Is that a mojito?" was his opening line, and with it her world started to move slowly, much like it does in the few moments before a car accident. It is commonly understood that the perception of time moving slower, is in fact a surge of adrenalin to the brain that allows cognitive processing at a faster than normal rate, making the passage of time seem slower.
Her neurons fired: was that a French accent? No, it was slightly Spanish. How did he know to speak to me in English? Has he been watching me for long and noticed that I spoke English to the waiter? I wonder how old he is? Over fifty for sure - probably closer to sixty. That makes him double my age. This will be interesting. He's ordered canapés. Salmon, my favourite. He obviously enjoys life. And wine. But only a half bottle. He's not planning in staying here long. Oh dear. You better respond, he asked you a question and he's going to think you an idiot if you don't say something quickly ...
"It is," was all she could muster, her thoughts so consumed by analyzing him.
"May I join you?"
Again the neurons fired: you don't look your best Rose, this isn't the time to be picking up men. But it's his choice - he asked you, so just allow him if that's what he would like. And his voice is so smooth and he has such kind eyes. Dont be flattered Rose, you're in Europe, gentlemen will usually not allow a lady to sit alone. This doesn't mean anything more than he would like some company and that he is being polite. Quick Rose, say something, the man is waiting for your response.
"Of course." Again, only two words could be accommodated in the high thought traffic of her sleep deprived brain.
Antonio needed no second invitation and beckoned the waiter to transfer his refreshments to Rose's table. At the same time he instructed the waiter to bill her drinks to his room. It had been some time since a gentleman had bought her a drink but it was like riding a bicycle - an initial wobble was to be expected but to smile and say thank you, is something a lady never forgets how to do.
They exchanged names, reasons for being in Paris. His was a board meeting and when he disclosed that he was a Certified Public Accountant, Rose instinctively felt the fourth finger of her left hand where she had rebelliously and deliberately removed the two carat diamond for which she had unwittingly exchanged her freedom, her passion and her happiness.
Her husband was in the same profession, and a senior partner at one of the big four firms and it suddenly became important that she eliminate the possibility that the dashing gentleman in front of her was a member of the same firm. Her mind moved quickly, weaving what were very direct and important questions into what needed to appear to be a casual conversation. This required some effort, for fatigue still somewhat overwhelmed her although as the executive responsible for strategy at large bank, understanding people and intense negotiations were her day job.
Her trump card was that people always underestimated her and never expected that they were being interrogated, often imparting critical information unaware that it was part of a carefully constructed inquisition. This was partly her skill, but partly also her genuine interest in other people that allowed her to quickly gain trust insight into the lives, emotions and thought patterns of others.
It was nevertheless tricky to establish his position and his company, for these questions were the cliched enquiries of women seeking out wealthy men. For some reason, pride perhaps, Rose abhorred the practice of beautiful women the world over who sought out the credit cards, gifts and mercurial affection of vulnerable men. She had on occasion been mistaken for such a woman and few knew that this was her Achilles heel - such insinuation would inevitably switch her rational brain into an emotional one, rendering her useless at strategy, negotiation and objectivity. She was fiercely independent in matters related to her professional competence and financial security. Yet ironically, her husband still held her like a vice and Rose's key unanswered question was why she continued to allow him to do so.
But the drawl of Antonio's Argentinian accent had drawn her out of this despair and his attentiveness comforted her. Only one one occasion did she reach herself to top up her water glass, and he apologized that he had neglected to do so himself. This tiny gesture endeared him to her and she relaxed into the care of someone who was proving to be a real gentleman. She had missed that.
By the time Antonio had hinted that they should share dinner together during the weekend, she had firmly established - partly through deduction and partly through unequivocal fact - that despite sharing the same profession, Antonio and her husband did not work together and that their meeting in professional circumstances would be unlikely. She had nevertheless taken care to keep the conversation entirely professional and therefore did not hesitate in handing over her business card. He read her title and she chuckled inwardly knowing that she had yet again been underestimated - she had never established what his initial perceptions were, but it was obvious that he didn't expect to be taking to the General Manager.
The lack of sleep was now catching up with her and she was finding it tiresome to keep up with the conversation intelligently. Antonio was an accomplished and experienced businessman with much life experience. Had he been a lesser man, Rose may have stayed longer and allowed another drink to slow her mind even more, but he didn't deserve that so she excused herself and was impressed by the calm manner in which he let her go. A younger, less experienced man would have demanded more but it takes many years for a fisherman to learn that to allow the line to slack a little after the first bite is the best way to reel a fish in.
She entered her room alone and beamed when she stepped out onto the small balcony with its view of the Eiffel tower in the distance. Workers in the office block across the road had already left for the day and she smiled at the memory of her previous stay in this hotel, in a room of the same orientation.
Everything was to her liking: the bed linen was crisp, the decor classic but not overbearing, the robes were soft and had been gently perfumed and a small gift of Clarins skin care products had been delivered on her personal assistant's instruction. Rose took a moment to send a thank you SMS to Susan for she never forgot that at least half of her success could be attributed to the highly efficient, dedicated but deeply caring woman who managed her office back at home.
Rose indulged in a bubble bath and reflected in the week that had passed: the meetings, the conference, the progress on her current projects, the interactions she'd had and the networking. The practice of reflection was a deeply ingrained discipline she had practiced with her mother since being a little girl as she sought to achieve balance between being driven and committed; being humane and compassionate; being accurate and analytical; and being visionary and idealistic. There were he four lenses of her reflection and she assessed the week that had passed in the comfort of warm water and a cloud of bubbles. But her mind kept drifting back to Antonio, his request to see her again and the decisions she would need to make in this regard.
She dressed for dinner in white silk trousers, a beaded navy blouse and casual heels. She applied just a light touch of make-up, some mascara and lip-gloss for she was now hungry and didn't care for further delay. A quick spritz of Jo Malone was her favored perfume for business travel - fresh, understated and not overly feminine. She entered the lounge where she had earlier met Antonio and selected a quite corner where she would not be disturbed. Rose ordered her favourite meal, a steak tartar, without looking at the menu and played with her iPhone while she ate.
It was really a pleasure to meet you and have such a great conversation.
Should you not have any appointment I would like to invite you for dinner tomorrow night.
If you agree, please let me know and I will book at 8PM
We can meet 7:30 at the bar for a drink. Please confirm.
Below you will find my contact details. My cell phone is : Have a good night
She read the message a few times and studied the tonality and composition. It was professional yet casual, flattering yet not flirty and suggestive but not forward. Perfect. She grinned and read it again, this time just for her own pleasure. What she liked most was the phrase 'should you not have any appointment'. It delighted her that this gentleman assumed that she may be otherwise engaged and that it was his obligation to request, and not assume the pleasure of her company. It was this detail her husband consistently ignored and which irked her terribly for the number of times that she was summoned to work functions at his company with little advance warning or regard for her own interests and personal engagements was something she found both arrogant and hurtful.
Throwing caution to the wind she responded, accepting his kind invitation and confirming their 8pm appointment. As her iPhone buzzed confirming that he message had been sent, she felt the simultaneous buzz of nerves, excitement and anticipation knowing that a date was a foregone conclusion. She ordered another glass of wine because her over-active mind threatened to keep her out of sleep again and she consciously subdued it with alcohol before retiring to a peaceful and happy sleep.
The sun streamed through her window at 9am, Rose had slept over 8 hours which was unusual but on this occasion needed and enjoyed. She stretched out in the bed and allowed herself a little giggle recalling the events of the previous evening and looking forward to the upcoming evening already. As was her habit, she reached for her iPad to update herself on current affairs but in addition to reading South African and European news, she googled Argentinian current affairs. An article about safety deposit boxes being in short supply in the wake of Argentinian demand for a safe place to store foreign currency piqued her interest and she followed the story's thread until she had a thorough understanding of he economic context for this bizarre behavior.
At around 10am she eventually motivated herself to stand up and she immediately dressed in her running kit. Laziness was her one vice and with the euphoria of an upcoming engagement with a gentleman, the intellectual stimulation of understanding the Argentine economy, it was likely that she would stay in bed all day and not exercise at all. But she craved the endorphins from the increased heart rate and so Rose laced up her trainers and headed out down the streets of the 6th arresondment flanked by Hausmann architecture towards the Turilles gardens - the recommendation of the concierge who had equipped her with a lanyard showing the 5km running route on a credit-card sized map, the contact details of the hotel on the reverse. They think of everything at this hotel, she mused - it was small things which displayed deep insight that impressed her.
Rose's preference for window shopping and visiting tourist attractions was that they were doubled up with her early morning runs. Typically, cities were quieter early in the morning and she never really cared for the sport that was shopping but it was a good distraction from the burn that she was starting to feel in her legs.
She did two laps of the Tuileries gardens which were magnificent in the summer - understated elegance so typically French and in contrast to the manicured Royal Parks of London. Blue iris were in blossom and the tress were full of lush leaves. In the distance on the other bank of the Seine, the twin clocks of musee d'Orsay beamed at her. In Rose's many trips to Paris she had never had opportunity to visit, so she jogged over and decided to indulge her passion in Impressionism.
Her previous visit to a museum had been a year earlier, to the Del Prado in Madrid. She had done this alone too, and thinking of Spain and then Spanish-speaking people she was reminded of the Argentinian gentleman she had met the previous evening and with whom she would be sharing dinner. She flushed with excitement and wondered how his day of meetings was progressing.
It warmed her heart to think of him and as she strolled through the 5th floor of Musee d'Orsay. She decided to buy him a present, since Rose would very much like to have had him with her at the museum and had empathy for the fact that he was locked in boardrooms while she was enjoying such a wonderful morning. She also visited the 1st floor and spent some time pondering The Origin of the Universe, a highly erotic picture of a woman and she allowed herself to wonder a little about where the evening would lead. She visited the Van Gogh rooms too, and was brought to tears seeing Starry, Starry Night it its original oils. Rose had a print of that picture in her bedroom when she was at University, and had always loved it but being so close to the brushwork and genius of the colour was an experience of a lifetime.
Before leaving the museum, she passed by the gift shop in order to buy something for Antonio. Buying gifts for people she loved was one of Rose's favorite activities but this was an unusual experience because she had left the hotel with only E50 in her pocket and no credit card. The museum entrance had cost E22, so she had to select the gift carefully because her budget was limited. This process took nearly an hour because everything she wanted to buy for Antonio, she did not have money for and the cheaper-priced goods were not personal enough to demonstrate that they had been selected especially for him.
She then decided that she would buy a book of the museum paintings but ensured that she chose the Spanish version so that he would understand it had been personalized. She reflected on how easy it was for her to make people feel special by spending a lot of money - but to do so on E28 was more difficult. She settled on a book that cost only E10 because she wanted to still have some change in her pocket for security.
She jogged back to the hotel, a huge smile on her face because not only were the endorphins from the run starting to take effect, but she was looking forward to the evening now that she had a special gift for Antonio. She stopped at a paper store to buy gift wrap but once again her budget would not permit another E20 purchase, she would have to go to Galleries La Fayette later for the gift wrap.
After showering at the hotel, she pulled on a pair of jeans, made an appointment at the spa for 4pm and then wandered across the road to find some lunch. She had not yet eaten breakfast and the run had made her hungry so she ordered salmon and a large salad from a particularly obnoxious Parisian waiter.
When she reached into her handbag to pay the bill, she realised that she had locked her purse away in the hotel safe and that she had no way of paying the bill. Yet again that day she did not have enough money and she sat for a few moments wondering what to do. She had Antonio's number saved in her phone but she did not want to disturb him while he was working with such a trivial matter. More importantly, she did not want him to think her rude by asking him to pay for her lunch when he had already invited her to dinner. So she quickly decided to negotiate with the waiter.
She left her E1000 handbag, iPhone and passport on the restaurant table and ran back to the hotel to fetch her purse. Adrenalin was pumping - what would happen if her passport and iPhone were stollen, so she ran through the lobby hoping that Antonio would not see her in this ridiculous, frazzled state.
She was yet again failing in all attempts to be elegant which seemed to be a somewhat ironic recurring theme in the worlds most elegant city.
Were Antonio to have seen her he may have been tempted to withdraw his invitation.
But she made it back to the restaurant and paid the waiter, retrieving her previous possessions which had been left as security and made her way down to Galleres la fayette in search of something to wear for dinner. She knew it would be unwise to wear a new dress on a first date - a lady always knows to wear something she knows is comfortable and which will not cause her further discomfort in an unpredictable situation such as a first date. But Rose was feeling excited and wanted to impress her new Argentine friend so she went anyway.
Caution and risk management are however two characteristics of a banker that no amount of excitement can eradicate, so Rose resorted to her better judgement and left the department store only with a new perfume. Ellie Saab had caught her attention for it was feminine and a good contrast to the business perfume she had selected for the conference in Brussles. She hoped Antonio would like it and she again started to dream about the evening which lay ahead.
Her dreaming was however cut short by an alarm signaling the start of her spa appointment. How was it possible that she had spent two hours floating in a fantasy world through the silk, cashmere and sparkle of Paris' most famous fashion store. Yet again that day, adrenalin pumped and she ran down the street, skidding into the spa just on time.
Undressing into a fluffy white robe she now started to prepare her mind for the evening ahead. Everything about the experience was sensual, she loved being in the nude, having her shoulders massaged, tension eased away and the aroma of the oils relaxing her mind. She entered the meditative state so familiar and delighted in the fact that this time, she would not be attempting to solve business problems but rather one of a more personal nature. It was in this state that her conscious mind surrendered to the subconscious and the neurons of her brain were free to make connections otherwise impossible when controlled by the controlling, conscious mind.
After the massage, she left a generous tip for the therapist and strolled upstairs to her room to take a bubble bath, wash and style her hair and put make-up on for the evening. She selected a short black cocktail dress, tight enough to show her curves but conservative enough to be worn to a business event, should there have been a misunderstanding about Antonio's intentions.
She covered her shoulders with a thin long-sleeved top and then put on her black stilettos, treating her feet to a quick massage. She put on her coat, buttoned it and then looked in the mirror. She was happy with what she saw - it wasn't overly fussy, it could do both business and a date as a banker, hedging her bets was something Rose preferred. It would be her eyes and her smile which would need to convey the emotion that night and she was proud of her decision not to resort to the practice of women to bare breasts and bottoms to catch the attention of a man.
She checked the time and was pleased that she would arrive as expected at 8pm. Keeping Antonio waiting was unnecessary, he had been so kind and polite in his email invitation. Further, if this was to turn out to be a business meeting tardiness would unlikely be appreciated.
He rose to greet her when she entered the room and she was grateful that she had managed to descend the few stairs looking him in the eye and smiling without tripping and tumbling like a fool into his arms. Worn-in stilettos had been a good choice. He made no comment about how she looked, which intrigued her and she wondered if perhaps he was a little nervous. At Rose's request, he ordered her a mojito, and observing her habit from the previous evening, he ordered a bottle of still water.
Their conversation was effortless and she enjoyed hearing the events of his day but also being allowed the opportunity to share hers. Time passed quickly and just before they left for dinner, she presented him with the silly gift she had bought at Musee d'Orsay. She had resorted to wrapping it in the bag from the perfume she had purchased since time ran away with her earlier in the day and she hadn't make time to procure any decent wrapping paper. It embarrassed him somewhat to receive the gift and he quickly put it back in its bag without noticing that the book was in Spanish, a detail she later pointed out to him when he was more relaxed. His mind was focused now in getting them to dinner so she let it go, even though she had intended the romantic gesture to have more of an effect.
Strolling to the restaurant, she wondered why he didn't take her arm. Surely he had realised she would have been comfortable with this? But then she heeded the advice of her mother: not to help men along too much as men will always get what they want, it sometimes just takes them time to find the courage and that a wise woman doesn't make it too easy for him. So she walked alone but enjoyed his presence and his company immensely. He was smart, interesting and Rose felt comfortable in his presence because he had perfect manners and took great care of her.
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