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Thursday, May 21, 2020

I'm on the main stage at the ChocRubyFestival today!

Hello Readers

Today, it's my turn to be on the main stage of the #ChocRubyFestival, an online event for Choc Lit and Ruby authors to connect with readers.

I'm talking about my favourite among my Choc Lit and Ruby novels, which is Magic Sometimes Happens. There's a chance to win a paperback of the book, too.

It's the story of two unlikely lovers. Patrick Riley is a married American scientist and father of two small children whose personal life is in turmoil. Rosie Denham is a single British PR consultant who is trying to forgive herself for messing up her life in just about every possible way.

When I'm writing fiction I always like to give my characters their own backstories, and here is one I wrote for Rosie. It's set while she was working in Paris, a year or two before she met Patrick. She had fun time there, particularly on one sunny summer day! How did she end up at the top of the Eiffel Tower?

You can find out in this story.

One Last Dance

It was early morning.
Soon enough, the summer sun would glare and stifle, turning all the buildings blinding white and making everybody tired and cross before the day had even started. But right now Paris was pale grey, enchanted and washed by cool, pure light – an ethereal city, just made for ghosts and lovers.
‘Look where you’re going, can’t you?’ Rosie Denham cried, alarmed.
But he wasn’t looking and, as she and the man collided, as his very large and very expensive-looking suitcase shot out of his hand and hit a bollard, she stared down in horror at the cigarette ash that had landed on her new white linen dress and scorched a big grey burn mark in a very prominent place.
‘It’s the first time I’ve worn this dress!’ she added furiously.
‘Then may I suggest that it’s the last?’ The dropper of the ash, a thirty-something Frenchman, smiled a sardonic but disarming smile. ‘You’re a very attractive woman, mademoiselle, but creased linen isn’t a great look on anyone. Why don’t you donate that horror to the nearest bakery? It would make a perfect sack for flour.’
‘Do you always act like this is public?’ demanded Rosie, still incensed.
Or rather, even more incensed.
‘I beg your pardon?’ said the Frenchman, still smiling crookedly. ‘Whatever can you mean?’
‘I mean by knocking people flying, ruining their clothes, and then insulting them?’
‘Only when they’re gorgeous and you’re absolutely ravishing.’ The Frenchman handed Rosie two of the bags of files and samples that she’d dropped. ‘What are you doing for dinner this evening?’
‘I – I’m meeting somebody,’ she lied. ‘We’re going dancing.’
‘What a pity,’ said the man. ‘You and I – we could have had some fun.’
‘I shall make sure I have some fun, and what’s more my boyfriend doesn’t smoke. So my clothing shouldn’t meet with any accidents.’
She scooped up all the other bags she’d dropped and hurried on, feeling slightly smug that she had managed to put someone down in idiomatic French.
But that white linen dress had cost a bomb, so mostly she was livid.
She strode on down the Boulevard de Magenta, still cross – but paradoxically somehow almost flattered by the man’s attention, by the way he’d told her she was ravissante
What? She shook herself. What was she thinking, letting herself be flattered by a man who’d burnt a hole in her best dress, was she a fifties throwback, a simpering Stepford spinster?

‘What’s the matter, Rosie?’ asked her colleague Juliet as Rosie dumped her carrier bags, then slumped into her office chair and started scrolling through her emails. ‘Why do you look as if you’ve lost a hundred Euro note and found a centime? You’ve – hey, look at your dress! What have you done?’
‘Some halfwit running to the Gare du Nord flicked fag ash over me. I hope he missed his train.’
‘What was he like?’
‘What do you mean, what was he like?’
‘Old, young, gorgeous, hideous, hot, wouldn’t-touch-him-with-a-disinfected-bargepole-minging?’
‘Thirtyish, not bad looking, I suppose – but terminally arrogant, presumptuous and stupid. He was clearly running to catch a train but asked what I was doing for dinner this evening’
‘Do you have anything else to wear today?’
‘Yes, of course, don’t worry. I always keep a perfect capsule wardrobe in the stationery cupboard.’
‘Do you really?’
‘No, of course I don’t. I’ll have to see my clients dressed in this.’
‘They’re going to think you’re Joan of Arc, stepped out of the bonfire for a moment, on her break.’

The Paris office of the PR company for which Juliet and Rosie worked was doing really well, finding excellent new clients every day, and soon Rosie found that she was calming down. The burn mark on her dress was not so bad and, if she looked at it a certain way, perhaps in time she would convince herself all those grey dots were actually a pattern?
She collected up the papers she would need to see a client.
Then her mobile rang. She didn’t recognise the number. But perhaps she ought to take the call? It might be a new client.
‘We must discuss where we could meet for dinner,’ said the Frenchman.
‘How did you get my number?’
‘You dropped a business card as you rushed off.’
‘It’s like I said: I’m meeting someone.’
‘Yes, of course: it’s me.’
‘It won’t be you.’
‘I think it should be, mademoiselle. When you dropped your business card you dropped your debit card and your three credit cards as well.’
Rosie glanced in her handbag which was sitting on her desk. The zippered section where she kept her cards was gaping open, empty.
‘Did you have somewhere in particular in mind for dinner?’ she asked the Frenchman.
‘The Jules Verne,’ he replied. ‘I’ve made a reservation – half past eight. Dress code casual, but no shorts or trainers, and definitely not burnt.’
‘The Jules Verne?’ said Rosie. ‘You mean the restaurant at the Eiffel Tower? That’s rather chavvy-tourist, isn’t it?’
‘You’re a chavvy-tourist, aren’t you?’ said the man. ‘You’re British, anyway. I guess you’d qualify.’
‘I thought you had to book up the Jules Verne weeks or months ahead?’
‘I have connections. So – I’ll see you later.’

‘You have to go to the Jules Verne,’ said Juliet.
‘Yes, I want my cards back.’
‘You want to see him, too.’
‘I want my cards back, end of story.’
‘Why are you blushing, then?’

At six o’clock, Rosie dashed back home to her apartment and changed into a new black dress that wouldn’t show the marks if her companion happened to flick ash again.
‘Good evening,’ said the Frenchman.
‘Good evening,’ Rosie said, and checked his hands – no rings.
‘I see you’ve made an effort,’ he continued.
‘What exactly is your problem?’ she demanded crossly.
‘It’s you who has the problem, isn’t it? Or who is confused? You didn’t want to meet me here for dinner. But suddenly here you are in the Jules Verne.’
‘I want my cards back.’
‘Yes, of course.’ The Frenchman smiled and handed her the cards. ‘So now, mademoiselle, I’m sure you’ll need to dash – isn’t that what you British say?’
‘Now I’m here, I might as well have dinner.’ Rosie couldn’t believe she’d just said that, couldn’t quite believe that, actually, she didn’t want to leave. ‘May I know your name?’
‘It’s Jacques-Marie de Bruton.’
‘Oh?’ She looked at him suspiciously. ‘Bruton doesn’t sound very French to me. It’s a town in Somerset.’
‘Why do you suppose I must be French? Ah, here comes the maître d’ – our table must be ready.’
The first course was delicious. So was the second course. The wines were excellent, too. As the waiter brought dessert, she realised she must be slightly drunk. But only slightly, she decided – not enough to make her vulnerable.
‘This is some small recompense for ruining your dress.’ Jacques handed her a thick, white envelope containing a five hundred Euro note.
It had to be a fake.
Or it was genuine, and he must be a criminal, because only criminals used five hundred Euro notes. She’d read about it in a magazine.
Whatever, he could keep it.
She gave it back to him.
‘I can afford to buy another dress,’ she said.
Dessert was great, the service fine, the view magnificent. Jacques behaved impeccably, did nothing she could have laughed about with Juliet tomorrow. There was no silly hand-kissing, no flirty-comedy-Frenchman stuff at all.
Perhaps he was from Somerset?
Anyway, he met her gaze, and listened with attention, and asked occasional but intelligent questions as she talked about herself, her PR work, her friends, her life in Paris.
A man who listened while she talked about herself! She could hardly credit it – weren’t most men interested solely in themselves?
‘What do you do?’ she asked him.
‘I’m in business,’ he replied.
‘What kind of business?’
‘As is the case with everyone in business, I supply demand.’ Jacques smiled his disarming smile. ‘I export a carefully-chosen range of small but rather valuable things.’
‘What kinds of things?’
‘It varies, mademoiselle. It depends on what my clients want or need. So every day is different. But let’s hear more of you. Do you enjoy adventures? Do you respond to challenges? Do you like to travel?’
‘Yes, I suppose I do.’
‘So if you could go anywhere in the whole world, which country would you choose?’
‘I’ve always wanted to see the Iguazu Falls in South America. So I’d like to go to Argentina. Or are they in Brazil?’
‘I believe Brazil. Yes, I would like to see them, too – so that’s where I shall take you.’
‘When, tomorrow?’ Rosie asked him, laughing.
‘Why wait until tomorrow, mademoiselle? Why don’t we go tonight?’

As the evening darkened into velvet night, a million lights came on all over Paris and made the view even more magical.
This whole thing is mad, thought Rosie, and I must be mad as well, to be sitting here in the Jules Verne with this peculiar man.
He’s obviously a criminal, a people-trafficker, a member of a drugs cartel who’s on his holidays. He’ll slip something in my coffee and I’ll wake up bound and gagged in the hold of someone’s private plane.
I wonder what it would be like to kiss him?
He’s very attractive, after all. He’s calm and self-contained – mysterious. But I believe he could be passionate. I think he could be dangerous…
What are you – an idiot?
She decided she’d skip coffee and get out while she could.
She stumbled to her feet. The room spun wildly. Perhaps he’d drugged the wine? ‘Th-thank you for a very pleasant evening,’ she began, desperately looking for the maître d’ or for a passing waiter she could ask to call a cab.
‘It’s not over yet,’ said Jacques. ‘We’re going to South America, don’t forget.’
‘We are not going to South America!’
‘You seem very sure of that.’
‘Of course I’m sure!’
‘But you will change your mind and, in the meantime, I wish to show you something.’
‘What kind of something?’
‘It’s a very famous sight of Paris.’
‘It’s not the Moulin Rouge?’
‘Of course it’s not the Moulin Rouge.’

The boat was tied up at the quay. A small but pretty town boat of the kind that she had seen in Venice, it had an outboard motor and fat, red leather seats.
She thought: you know you’ve had far too much wine. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing this. You’d be in a cab on your way home.
Hey, but listen, said her other self. This is a challenge, an adventure, isn’t it? You know you love adventures. The water won’t be really cold in June. So, if he tries anything, you can just jump overboard and swim.

He stopped the boat outside the Louvre Museum.
‘I think it’s closed,’ she said.
‘It’s never closed to me.’ He helped her get out of the boat and climb on to the jetty. ‘They whisper that I pass through walls, that I’m a shape-shifter, a necromancer, that I can make myself invisible. The truth is rather more prosaic. I am the king of codes, the lord of padlocks.’
Rosie knew she must be dreaming now. She’d wake up in a moment and find herself tucked up in her own bed, in her bijou apartment seven floors up under the sloping roof that leaked whenever it rained.
He led her through the dim-lit galleries where works of art lay slumbering.
It seemed to Rosie the subjects of the portraits and the statues were themselves asleep, dozing heavy-lidded until the morning came.
‘It’s fairyland,’ she whispered.
‘You approve?’
‘I do.’ She looked at him and frowned. ‘But surely we can’t be alone? There must be security men around, or even guard dogs?
‘There are no guard dogs in the Louvre. As for the security men – they’re likely to be drowsing in their office, failing to watch the screens. Mademoiselle, as I recall, you like to dance?’
‘Yes, but not that bopping, shuffling stuff most people do. The waltz, the tango, foxtrot – they’re my thing. I’m a big fan of Strictly.’
‘What is Strictly?’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, and yes, I like to dance.’
As Jacques took her in his arms, Rosie became aware of shadows looming, circling them.
But she ignored the shadows.
This was all a dream, so shadows couldn’t hurt them, could they?
Jacques led her through a waltz, not showily but expertly, humming something that she didn’t recognise, but it was sweet, melodious.
Then kissed her slowly, perfectly.
Rosie kissed him back. She found she wanted to be kissed for all eternity and she never wanted to stop dancing.
The shadows grew, came closer.
They resolved themselves into four men in leather jackets, jeans and trainers.
They could not be anything but cops.
They stood there silent, watching.
‘Just keep dancing,’ murmured Jacques, and kissed her cheek.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I have not yet decided.’
‘You mean you’ve got a gun, a knife?’
‘Mademoiselle, you watch too many movies.’
‘What was in that suitcase you were carrying this morning?’
‘The most exquisite Leonardo, the glory of this place – did you not see the headlines all over social media today?’
‘You stole the Mona Lisa?’ Rosie pulled back and stared at him, astonished. ‘Why are you here again, then? Do you have it rolled up in your trouser pocket? Do you want to put it back?’
‘These things would not be possible, ma chère. The work is painted on a wooden panel. I do not intend to put it back. My client would be most upset. No, I was thinking we could take another little something to Brazil.’
‘Jacques, it’s been a lovely evening. I’ve enjoyed myself. But I’m not going with you to Brazil.’
‘But you must. You said you love a challenge, an adventure – ’
‘That’s enough, de Bruton.’
The four policemen formed a circle round them.
‘It’s over,’ said Policeman One.
‘I know,’ said Jacques.
‘Why you here, de Bruton?’ demanded Policeman Two.
‘Why aren’t you in Morocco, the Ukraine, the Congo?’ asked Policeman Three.
‘There must be a thousand places where the most notorious art thief in the whole of France could hide? Where it would be impossible to find you?’
‘Yes indeed, a hundred thousand places.’
‘So why – ’
‘This morning, I lost something very precious. How could I leave Paris, let alone leave France, without it?’ Jacques de Bruton shrugged a Gallic shrug and raised his hands, revealing that he wasn’t armed.
‘You mean you hung around to pinch more stuff,’ said Policeman Four. ‘You might have got away with it if you had been here an hour earlier.’
‘But you see we had a tip-off from this lady’s friend.’
‘She told us mademoiselle was having dinner with somebody suspicious.’
‘Someone with a suitcase who’d been racing to the Gare du Nord.’
‘So we put two and two together.’
‘Well, of course you did,’ said Jacques.
‘You’re a fool, de Bruton. You could have been in Moscow, Madrid or Monte Carlo hours ago.’

‘Yes, perhaps you’re right. But how could I resist the opportunity to see my private kingdom one last time? To share it with the lady who today made me look like an amateur? Who made off with my heart?’

UK residents can win a signed paperback of Magic Sometimes Happens by leaving me a direct message on my Facebook or Twitter pages -  https://www.facebook.com/margaret.james.5268 or https://twitter.com/majanovelist - or by posting a comment here. 

I'll choose a winner at random, message the winner, and send you the book to add to your summer reading pile. Good luck!