Jacob huffed out a breath as he reached the kerb, shooting a dirty look at the motorist who’d caused him to leap for the relative safety of the pavement. Christ, he’d heard talk of Parisian drivers, but until he’d experienced the place for himself, he’d thought the claims were exaggerated. Apparently not.
Running a hand through his hair, he tried to regain some modicum of composure. It was not the best start to his day—all he’d done was catch the Metro to the Eiffel Tower so far, and he’d barely caught sight of the iconic monument before an insane motorist had almost run him down.
Checking his pockets to make sure nothing was amiss, he retrieved his pre-booked ticket for one of the hop-on, hop-off bus tours of the city while he was there. Horribly touristy, he knew, but given he’d never visited the French capital before, he felt it was excusable. Hell, he’d even booked a plane ticket with a nice twenty-four-hour layover so he could sneak in some sightseeing. It was going to be non-stop work when he got to Abu Dhabi, so he felt he was entitled to a little chill-out time before he got there.
He was the boss, anyway, so nobody could tell him what to do, where to go, or when. If he wanted to head for a brief jolly in Paris before a bunch of intense meetings with his Arabic clients, then he damn well would. What was the point in working his arse off constantly if he couldn’t reap the benefits? His fortieth birthday was approaching and the realisation had made him think. Almost forty and he hadn’t seen nearly enough of the world. Especially if you discounted hotels and conference rooms. Once, he’d flown to Rome, had a meeting in a hotel near the airport, then turned around and boarded a flight home. It had been worth it financially, but only months later, it hit Jacob what a colossally wasted opportunity it had been. Yes, the client had insisted on a face-to-face meeting, rather than a Skype chat, and yes, he’d needed to get back home to continue with yet more work, but it could have waited a day or two. Even a couple of days in the Italian capital would have been better than nothing.
What was the point in having plenty of money if one couldn’t enjoy it, after all?
With a decisive nod, Jacob checked his ticket for the location of the bus stop. He’d just headed for the Eiffel Tower in the first instance because he’d figured it would be the easiest thing in Paris to find. He’d been right in assuming that; the mighty iron structure pierced the sky, impressive and strangely beautiful. It was next on his list, after the bus tour, which he felt would help him get his bearings. He only had twenty four hours—there was no time to waste getting lost.
He quickly located the bus stop he’d been looking for, helped by the vehicle that had just arrived, emblazoned with the tour company logo. There was already a group waiting, and he hurried over to join the back of the queue. After a couple of minutes, it was his turn to have his ticket checked, then he was ushered onto the bus.
It seemed the majority of people who’d alighted in front of him had snagged seats on the bottom deck. It was far from full but somehow already felt crowded, so Jacob headed up the stairs, the child in him making a bee-line for the back seat.
He’d taken a couple of long strides when he saw someone already sitting there. A blonde, maybe a decade younger than him, and gorgeous. Their gazes met and they exchanged a polite smile before breaking eye contact.
Jacob was caught in a bout of indecision. If he continued on his route and sat next to her on the back seat—however much space there was—she might think he was a bit creepy, considering the rest of the top deck was completely empty. But if he didn’t, would she be offended that he’d deliberately avoided her?
Groaning inwardly, he forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. He was probably over thinking things, as usual. The woman probably wouldn’t care either way. So he continued with his original plan, sitting down on the backseat, but leaving a fair amount of space between him and the blonde. He definitely couldn’t be accused of invading her personal space.
He was just tearing open the sealed plastic bag that held the headphones needed to listen to the tour commentary when her voice startled him.
“I don’t bite, you know.”
He turned to the blonde, eyebrows raised.
Her pale face coloured a little, and she continued, “I just mean you don’t have to sit all the way over there.” A small smile quirked the corners of her lips, and Jacob couldn’t help but smile back. She was even more gorgeous close up, with her expressive blue eyes and full bottom lip.
“Just respecting your personal space, that’s all. I really wanted to sit at the back, though. Takes me back to my childhood.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Subconsciously, that’s probably why I’m here, too.” Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she met Jacob’s eyes, then glanced away.
There was a short silence, which he felt compelled to fill. He stated the obvious. “So, you’re English.”
Now the blonde raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, Aylesbury born and bred. You?”
“Manchester,” he replied. Then, sticking his hand out, he added, “I’m Jacob, by the way.”
Pushing her small hand into his, she said, “Annabelle. So, what brings you to Paris?”
They shook, then released. “Business. Well, sort of. I’m flying to Abu Dhabi tomorrow for a meeting, but I managed to wangle twenty four hours here. I’ve never explored Paris, which at my age is a crime. What about you?”
“Culinary school. Cordon Bleu. So I’m here for a while. Already have been here a while, actually, and realised, like you, I hadn’t explored yet. Hence the tour bus.” She gestured around, and it was then Jacob realised the bus had pulled off, beginning its tourist route through the city.
“Wow, impressive. Culinary school, I mean.” Somewhat reluctantly, he continued, “Well, guess we should listen to the tour, eh? Otherwise we still won’t know anything about Paris.”
Nodding, Annabelle smiled, then put on her headphones and fiddled with the console which played the tour commentary. Jacob did the same, plugging in his headphones, making sure it was set to English, and was immediately thrust into a dialogue about the Eiffel Tower, still in sight.
Jacob and Annabelle continued the tour in silence, exchanging friendly glances every now and again, but mainly concentrating on the recording and the landmarks it pointed out.
Given the nature of the tour, they were joined on the top deck of the bus by other tourists, filtering on and off periodically. No one sat on the back seat with them, though. Jacob was glad; the scenery passing by the windows was breathtaking, but Annabelle was total eye candy, too. And presumably, since she was at one of Paris’ top culinary schools, bright. He wondered about asking her if she wanted to go and get a drink when the tour finished—it looked as though she was staying on board for a while, too.
By the time the bus had completed the two hour, fifteen minute circuit, passing Paris’ most famous spots, including the Louvre, the Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, Jacob had made his mind up. He was only in the city for twenty four hours—less now—so if she said no, he’d just get on with his trip and would never see her again, anyway. But if she said yes, then perhaps after a drink, he’d have company for his day of exploration. It wasn’t exactly a win-win situation, but even the worst case scenario wasn’t that bad. So he’d give it a go.
As the two of them exited, Jacob took a breath and posed his question. “Hey, Annabelle?”
“Yeah?” she said, turning to him with a smile.
“Do you have plans now?”
“Nothing set in stone. I was planning to carry on exploring the city. Make the most of my day off. Why?”
“I just wondered if you wanted to go and get a drink? Maybe some lunch?”
Glancing at her watch, she then returned her gaze to his with a smile. “A drink and lunch sounds good.”
“That’s great. Can you recommend anywhere?”
“Hmm, not really. I’ve been eating either at home or at the school since I’ve been here. But I reckon we should head away from the tower a bit. Anything close by is going to be overpriced and probably crap, because the tourists are a captive audience.”
Jacob nodded, impressed. He’d been right about her being smart. “Makes sense. But then I suppose everything is crap to a woman that’s training at the Cordon Bleu.”
Annabelle shrugged. “Not really. Paris is a pretty foodie place—most places at least make some effort. And to be honest, it’s nice to have something plain and simple every now and again. I’m getting fed up with snails and frogs’ legs.”
Jacob balked. “Ugh, seriously?” The words had already tumbled from his mouth before he caught sight of Annabelle’s ear-to-ear grin. He raised his eyebrows. “Humph, well, let’s go, shall we? Lead the way, Little Miss French Cuisine.”
She stuck her tongue out, then headed away from the Eiffel Tower, off the main streets and deeper into the heart of Paris with Jacob walking alongside. Before long, they came across a restaurant that looked homely, family run and, most importantly, had a delicious-sounding menu.