Swept on a wave of elegant nostalgia, travelling on a train from another era, would Jo succumb to his charm?
The Orient Express stood with a sense of expectation as the engine tested its strength for the journey to Paris.
The rise and fall of the engine vibrated out along its clean lines as it stood along the inner edge of the platform at Santa Lucia station, Venice.
Josephine Blue stood inhaling the faint smell of old engine oil as she conjured up visions of Agatha Christie’s little Belgian detective Hercule Poirot shuffling past, his spats crisp white against his black patent leather shoes.
The sound of the loudspeakers announcing the arrival of trains brought Jo back to the present, reminding her that she was there to write a travel article on the Orient Express.
Suitcases were being unloaded from trolleys. Passengers with a heightened sense of adventure were shown to their cabins.
As she placed her foot on the step and pulled herself up into the train’s corridor Jo hoped there were no murderers, wealthy tycoons or detectives on board!
Her cabin was small and compact. Behind two ornate double doors stood a corner sink with soft white towels and toiletries. To the side was a firmly padded double dark blue banquette seat complete with headrests. On a small wooden table sat two fluted crystal champagne glasses.
Decorative art deco marquetry patterns embedded into the glossy mahogany panels covered the entire interior walls.
The art nouveau restaurant with elegant furnishings, delicate fabrics and Lalique crystal panels didn’t disappoint either. Crystal glasses sat next to sterling silver cutlery that glistened against the crisp white tablecloths.
Jo sat back and felt the gentle rhythm of the train wind its way through the countryside.
She watched the landscape change as the train sped past impressive churches and stone castles, finally weaving its way along the grassy contours of the Adige river into Bolzano and away from Venice.
As she ate her lunch, she noticed an attractive man sitting at an adjacent table.
It pleased her to know she was not the only one dining alone. In a way it made her feel less self-conscious.
But then this was something she was accustomed to… dining alone came with the job as a travel writer.
He smiled across at her and nodded. He’d noticed her arrival earlier in the day and had wondered why a beautiful woman was travelling alone.
This intrigued him and he watched her for some time before he spoke.
“It is fantastic food, isn’t it?” he said, pointing his knife towards his beautifully decorated porcelain plate.
“Mmm, it certainly is,” she replied.
“I’m Max King by the way,” he said his voice soft and cultured.
“And I’m Josephine Blue, Jo for short,” she replied.
“Pleased to meet you, Jo Blue.”
She continued to eat her lunch, but a sudden shyness had taken over her body.
Instinctively she tried to hide behind a section of hair that had fallen over the side of her face.
Towards the end of the service, Max asked her if she would like to join him for coffee in the Bar Car.
As they settled into their comfortable seats, she studied him carefully.
He appeared to be a little older than she was, with dark hair greying at the temples.
His eyes were the colour of far-off tropical oceans and yet they had a warmth to them.
Jo explained with animated enthusiasm that she wrote a column called Blue Horizons for a travel magazine.
“So, you are well travelled then,” he said with interest.
“What do you do for a living?”
“I am a what you might call a modern-day explorer, guiding scientists through extremely difficult environments to where they have to be. I lead treks in Ecuador and the Arctic. Sometimes I have slept in tents on the side of mountains and walked in the footprints of polar bears.”
She listened intently, as he described hidden jungles and unexplored lands.
Listening to his accounts of all his adventures made her own travelling experiences appear tame in comparison.
While he was clinging to the sides of mountains in a tent, she was probably curled up under a 13 tog duck down duvet in an expensive hotel.
“It’s a lonely life though,” he added, “always being away from home it makes relationships difficult.”
This was something Jo knew about all too well.
She was still single, in her late forties and she had spent all her life looking for a superman like Clark Kent to come along and scoop her up in his strong arms. But she was never in one place long enough for this to happen.
“I loved the film Murder on the Orient Express and I was in Venice visiting a friend before going on to stay with my sister in Paris, so I thought, why not travel in style? Don’t worry, I won’t come and murder you in the night,” he joked.
After lunch she retired to her cabin, eager to start her article. She opened up her laptop and began to describe the lavish interior of the train.
Onboard the Orient Express, she began, you will experience a journey of a lifetime in the most sumptuous of surroundings.
She could not fault the facilities or the service and her fellow travellers… well, he was first class.
Her article written, she set about dressing for dinner.
Max had suggested they dine together that night, reasoning that it was silly they should both sit there on their own.
She pulled out her favourite little black dress – the one she took everywhere with her – and made her way to the Bar Car for an aperitif before they dined.
He looked handsome in his black jacket and tie and she noticed as she gazed into his ocean blue eyes that they lit up as she approached him.
In the corner, soft jazz music was being played on a shiny black baby grand piano.
“Who would have thought it?” he said. “A piano on a train.”
“A must for every traveller,” she joked back.
He ordered them a bottle of champagne and directed her to a small, sumptuous sofa, the soft upholstery pushing their bodies intimately towards each other. She briefly caught the earthy aroma of his aftershave which smelt of sandalwood and rain-drenched woods.
“We have a lot in common – travelling, murder mysteries, being single… I take it you’re not married,” he said looking down at her ringless hand as he filled her glass with bubbling champagne.
“No,” she replied, as she dropped her gaze to the floor, feeling embarrassed at being single at her age. “It comes with the job. I’m never in one place long enough for a relationship.”
“It’s the same for me,” he said, “Everyone thinks it’s a glamorous and exciting job – and don’t get me wrong, it is all that – but it does have its downside.
“I’m away for six months at a time, so you can’t expect a loved one to be happy on their own for that long.
“Then when you finally come back, you feel like an intruder in your own home. That’s probably why my marriage failed.
“But,” he added, “I can’t imagine doing anything else. I suppose I want it all.”
“I know what you mean. My friends think I have a glamorous job, flying all around the world staying in beautiful places.
“They get to see each other every day, and when I come back, I feel out of the loop. I can’t see any man waiting around at home while I travel around the world.”
“We have so much in common, but we also share the same problems. There comes a time when being with someone becomes more important than the job we do – especially as we get older.”
“Yes, never being in the same place long enough to form a deep connection,” she said, and sighed as she spoke.
“That’s why it’s so important when you do meet someone that you grasp that time together while you can.”
He held her gaze steadily.
“But doesn’t that just end up being meaningless, without emotion?” she asked.
She’d had this conversation many times before.
“Life is short,” he replied as he stretched across and gently pulled her hands into his. “I know we’ve only just met, and that we’ll arrive in Paris in the morning… but, to put it frankly, I’m not ready to say goodbye to you just yet.”
She looked deep into his rugged face; it was kind and honest.
How could she refuse? She was a grown woman who had taken chances in her life before.
He tightened his grip as he waited for her reply, all the time silently willing her to say yes.
“I know this lovely restaurant in Paris where we can meet for dinner. It’s located on the first level of the Eiffel Tower. The cuisine is wonderful and the view is magnificent.”
She sat silently. She didn’t know why she was hesitating.
What was the harm in spending one more night in Paris, the city of love, with a perfect stranger – and a handsome one at that?
She was due to stop over in Paris anyway before returning to London. Although part of her felt excited at the prospect of spending another night with him, another part felt that they had no future together because of their lifestyles.
Her head became a little fuzzy as she tried to take in what he was proposing. Here she was, sitting on the Orient Express in her best dress in the company of a handsome man.
She felt as if she had slipped into some 1920s romantic time capsule, where women had just started to defy traditional expectations.
She didn’t know what to do.
In the background, the soft mellow sound of the piano playing Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness Of You drifted out as the hubbub of passengers’ voices faded.
“Yes,” she finally said. “I’d love to have one more night with you in Paris.”
After dinner, he walked her to her cabin and placed a soft kiss on her lips.
She closed the door of her cabin behind her and leaned against it. The banquette seat had been changed into a bed with crisp white sheets, chocolates, and a cashmere throw. She felt as if she was in an elegant cocoon ready to be rocked to sleep.
As the train headed for Paris, the sound of the wheels clunking along rhythmically lulled her to sleep, and as she drifted off, she thought that sometimes life can be truly magical.
Next morning, she awoke feeling refreshed and excited as she watched the greenery of the French countryside replaced with grey architecture as the train approached Gare de l’Est station in Paris.
Chatter from the platform drifted in through the open window and the screeching of the brakes heralded the train’s arrival.
Max tapped gently on her door.
“Are you ready?” he asked her.
“Yes, I’m ready,” she replied.
She was ready for one more night with Max – and even if they never met again. at least she would have one special night in the city of love to remember.
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